John Muir Trail - Week 3, Part 1 (Days 15-16)
(Read about Days 13-14 HERE!)
Day 15 - Tuesday September 3, 2019
After a hard time going up and over Muir Pass the day before, we were hopeful that today would be a much easier. The trail was mostly downhill through Evolution Valley. Today was going to be about making the miles. We were so close to our resupply/zero day we just had to push through, especially these "easier" days when we didn't have a pass to go over. However as I'd already learned, there are no "easy" days on the John Muir Trail.
We hadn't planned on getting an early start but when I got out of my tent to make coffee before 7am Zoe was already packed up ready to go. She'd been having a hard time with these long hiking days. Her body was needing a break hiking into the afternoon so she thought if she could get going earlier she could get to camp at a decent time and allow herself more time to rest. It made sense, I was hoping for that too but I was still so much slower than I thought I would be and getting up and moving before 6am was just not happening for me.
We waved her off and soon Meghan, Lee and myself were packed up ready to go as well. Our friends Brittany and Jeremy were early risers, they were packed and gone by 4am! This was their second year hiking the entire trail. Last year they hiked northbound and made it all the way passed Tuolumne Meadows when a forest fire halted their finish. Rather than just go back and hike the section they missed they wanted to hike the entire trail again. They were so badass.
The scenery through Evolution Valley was beautiful. The sky was clear and an incredible color of blue. Even though it was downhill and considerably easier, I felt like I wasn't progressing as fast as I wanted to. I'd hike for a couple hours then check my Guthooks and see we'd only gone a few miles when I was expecting more. The only thing getting us through was the thought of getting to Vermilion Valley Resort (VVR) for a zero day, a day where we would do nothing but rest.
My original plan was to take a zero day at Muir Trail Ranch (MTR), where I had a resupply bucket of food waiting for me. Lee, Meghan, Zoe, Brian and Diane all had resupplies and zero days planned at VVR. After talking to other hikers VVR was THE place to stop for a zero day. There was a restaurant, beers, showers, laundry, a place to charge your phone, and if you were lucky enough, a real bed to sleep in.
Before I left for my trip, when I was planning out my miles each day it didn't make sense for me to go to VVR. I had my resupplies spaced out every 7 days. If I was going to have a resupply at VVR that would be carrying 9 days worth of food from Independence to VVR and then only carrying 3 days worth of food from VVR to Reds Meadow, the next resupply on my agenda. MTR made more sense for a spaced out resupply but there weren't very many amenities for hikers. And since everyone else was resupplying at VVR I decided I'd stop there too even if I didn't have food box waiting for me and even if it meant taking up more time on trail and not finishing on time. All of the other amenities and staying with my trail family were reason enough to make the extra stop.
We continued our hike down Evolution Valley, had a quick stop at McClure Meadow where I originally intended to camp but of course fell behind on my schedule. It was gorgeous and I promised myself I'd come back. It was already noon so I knew it would be another long day. We had our heads down hiking, trying to put down miles when we realized we missed the alternative crossing for Evolution Creek. When the water runs high, as it had this year, there is a safer alternative creek crossing but here we were at the original, wider crossing. Thankfully the water levels were low otherwise we would have been in trouble. Just a few weeks earlier the water levels would have been above our knees which could easily sweep us away.
The creek was deep enough to fully soak through my boots and I didn't want to be hiking in wet boots all day. I took the extra time to take off my boots and take a quick pee before crossing but in my hunt for a secluded spot to squat I stepped on an underground yellow jackets nest and got stung on my hand with my pants down. I was in pain but glad they didn't target another part of my exposed body! I pulled up my pants, slung my boots over my neck and started to make my way across the creek, a 25 ft wide crossing, the widest crossing we'd had so far. I figured it wouldn't be that bad, the rocks were small and smooth and the water was only up to my lower calf. I took my first step in and realized how painful the little rocks felt on my poor aching feet. The cold, cold water helped to numb them but somehow this also heightened the pain of the little rocks moving under the weight of my pack. What I thought would be a quick crossing turned in to me slowly, carefully taking each step while balancing on my trekking poles, one of which was still acting up even though I "fixed" it in Independence.
This was supposed to be a relatively easy day and everything was taking so much longer than I thought it would. Once I finally made it to the other side it was a whole other process to dry off my feet, get as much sand off as I could, put on my sock, lace up my boot properly... Meanwhile another set of hikers came through in train runners and just bounded right through the water and continued on their way. I felt frustrated and in that moment resented my trusty boots.
We hiked on, only now our clear sky was filling with dark storm clouds again, thunder booming up ahead of us. We made it down to the junction of Godard Canyon, across the manmade footbridge before it really started to rain and the wind picked up. We were suddenly aware of every snag on the trail knowing that at any point a strong gust could bring down a tall dead tree and crush one of us.
Normally by now we would have caught up to Zoe or seen someone else from our group but it was just the three of us. Zoe had mentioned trying to get to Paiute Creek, there was plenty of camping there and that's where Brittany and Jason were also planning to camp. That was also our target but knew there was a possibility we'd have to stop sooner. If we made it to Paiute Creek that would mean we'd have hiked 13 miles, our longest day yet. We were determined to do it but now with the rain, I was unsure.
The rain and thunder kept on and I took almost no pictures this entire stretch. We spread out like an accordion and went miles without talking. We'd turn around every now and then to make sure each other were still keeping up as a group as the clouds and fog descended on us. The trail was hugging the loud creek and unless we were right next to each other it was hard to hear what the other person was saying. We were tired and cold and wet but we kept on. A couple miles from our targeted campsite we almost called it quits. I kept checking my Guthooks since I was the only one with the app so I knew the exact amount of miles left. Any time Lee or Meghan would ask "how much further" I'd fib and round down. 2.9 miles was 2.5. "We're getting closer, just a couple more miles."
Soon it was just 1.3 miles from Paiute Creek but Meghan was done. The last few days every time I'd check Guthooks to see how long we had until our campsite it was always 1.3 miles. Always, without fail. I somehow convinced her that we were really close and she kept on. I was tired, a double digits day after hiking every day for over a week was giving me jelly legs. Where were those hiker legs everybody always talked about?
We were almost at Paiute Creek and started to see hikers camped out below the trail which was of course now climbing up because anytime the trail was going downhill there was always a portion that had to go uphill. Always, without fail. I was ready to give up on finding Zoe and just finding a spot but at the last campsite right by the creek I recognized a green tent through the trees. It was Zoe! And Brittany and Jason! It was still raining a bit so our friends helped us get our tents set up before everything got wet.
The campsite was great, lots of room for plenty of tents, relatively close to the water but far enough from the trail. I started my normal camp chores, filtering water, taking a wash in the creek, taking off my dirty/smelly hiking clothes (now with a week's worth of dirt and sweat on them) and putting on my warm sleeping clothes, tending to my blisters - my poor pinky toes were taking a beating. There was a secluded spot near the creek where you could wash off with some privacy. I was still very modest when it came to washing off, I'd keep my clothes on for as long as I could and then only strip down to my underwear. Another hiker further down the creek was full stark naked bathing with a washcloth standing in the creek. I wished I had her confidence to just bath naked in a creek, in the middle of the wilderness. Maybe someday.
The clouds finally moved on and we had a beautiful clear night. We enjoyed chatting with the other folks camped near us. A couple of girls were hiking south and had run into Reid at Muir Trail Ranch earlier that day. We hadn't seen Reid since camping at Little Pete Meadow, before Muir Pass, and figured we wouldn't see him again since he had to hike more miles each day to stay on his schedule. We wondered where Brian and Diane were. We talked about how big our leg muscles had gotten. We got gains, and I'm not talking about elevation! I hadn't been doing the best job of stretching and I was starting to feel it. But after an exhausting day of hiking it's hard to have energy to stretch even if you know you need it, even if you know you're such a mess. Knowing that VVR was coming up and I could have a beer and a nice hot shower there, I knew I would feel better.
We hiked 13 miles - our longest day yet!
Day 16 - Wednesday September 4, 2019
Resupply day! We were up before the sun and moving by 7am. The plan was for me to get to Muir Trail Ranch as early as possible while everyone else continued on. I would catch up to them eventually, we'd plan to camp at Marie Lakes about 10 miles away. We parted ways at the trail junction to MTR and I immediately felt exposed. This was my first time hiking by myself since Independence and it felt weird to be out here alone. Funny how this was what I had originally wanted and now hiking without my trail family felt so sad.
My pack felt incredibly lighter after eating a week's worth of my food. I wasn't looking forward to loading it back up with more food weight. And I still had plenty of food leftover, including an almost full jar of peanut butter that I just wasn't in the mood for. I knew I would have to make some food decisions because I couldn't keep carrying all this food I wasn't eating.
As I got closer to MTR I saw bear tracks on the trail. I stopped suddenly wondering how fresh the tracks were. I only saw the tracks because someone else had circled them with their trekking poles. Luckily I hadn't seen any bears while on trail but I'd heard stories about a girl who had her pack dragged from camp by a bear in Le Conte Canyon. I quickened my pace.
When I got to MTR I found the resupply shed and gave the woman in charge of everything my name. She'd only been on the job for three weeks but said she was loving it so far and most people are friendly. I took my heavy bucket I'd mailed to myself weeks before and found a place on the table to organize what I knew I'd want and what I didn't want. There were plenty of other hikers there getting their resupplies or just going through the buckets of discarded food and supplies. I left behind some food and searched the buckets for some food trail magic which I finally found in a couple packets of Pop Tarts! The trail provides!
That's when I saw Reid! He'd taken an unplanned zero day there. The Blayney Hot Springs drew him in, he said, along with the bottle of Jack Daniels he had mailed to himself in his resupply. He was headed out and I told him he'd probably catch up to the rest of the group and how we had planned on camping at Marie Lake. I sorted the rest of my food, weighed my pack (47lbs!?!) and started the uphill hike out of MTR back to the JMT. I tried to be as fast as I could but I still spent about an hour during my resupply. Why did everything take me longer than I had planned?!
The trail out was so, so steep with hardly any switchbacks. I felt like I was hiking straight up. This 0.6 miles was taking me forever! I wasn't even back on the JMT yet and here I was having to stop and catch my breath every 10 steps. Once I finally joined the main trail my pace didn't get any faster and now I had even more switchbacks to hike up. Combine that with my 47lb pack I was frustrated that I was back to my slow and steady pace. In a bad moment of frustration I took a break and ate one of my Pop Tarts. I reminded myself how far I'd already come and I was still doing it even if it was just a little slower. I told myself I'd start saying I was strong and steady, because I was.
Honestly I think hiking by myself was also playing into this. I didn't have anyone to help me keep a pace and I didn't realize how much that had helped me this past week. I was also frustrated because so many people the day before had told me "oh this next stretch is relatively easy. There's a few switchbacks after MTR but then it just like boop, boop, boop, and you're up and over Selden Pass. Suuuuper easy."
Yeah, there are no easy passes. Every single one is hard. Climbing 3,000ft with a full pack is not easy! And I wasn't even up to Selden Pass yet, that was still waiting for me 5 miles down the trail. I was just trying to get up these dang switchback before getting to Senger Creek. I tried all kinds of mantras. I repeated phrases like, "Step and step, just keep hiking, step and step, just keep hiking" Anything that I could repeat to myself. Once I'd finish a switchback I'd stop and look down at the stretch of trail I'd just completed and say to myself "one switchback down, one more to go" and so on. I finally finished the switchbacks and took a break with another solo female hiker at Senger Creek. It was already noon and I still hadn't made it past Sallie Keyes Lakes OR up and over Selden Pass. Man, today was going to suck. And now it was starting to rain.
I was in a bad place mentally. I kept refreshing Guthooks to see how much further I needed to hike and every time it would show I'd only progressed a quarter of a mile, maybe half a mile. I knew I needed to stop looking at it and just hike but I felt so weighted down by my pack. I grew more and more frustrated. I unceremoniously crossed the half way point of the John Muir Trail and just kept putting one foot in front of the other until I reached Sallie Keyes Lakes. I had another 1.3 miles to go before Selden Pass and of course now the storm clouds were rolling in.
"Strong and steady, strong and steady" I kept this mantra as it was serving me best. I made it to Heart Lake. It was raining off and off and I was afraid I'd get stuck on the wrong side of Selden Pass. I passed a group of hikers who had just come up and over the pass and they were wondering if I should push on since it looked like the clouds were just getting darker. They said they hadn't heard thunder yet but that didn't mean it was coming. I knew they meant well but they just made me more discouraged, and their degrading comment about me being a solo female hiker didn't help either.
Luckily the sun broke through and I made it over the pass at 3:30pm, so much later than I thought. The view looking down over Marie Lakes was stunning! Not much further, thankfully. My friends were supposed to be camped not too far down the pass but when I got down there I didn't see any tents or any other hikers. Hmm, that's weird. I hiked on further and saw some people camped up to the left of the trail. "Are you Stephanie?" they called out, "your friends told us to tell you that they decided to hike a little further down to Bear Creek!"
My heart sunk. Bear Creek? That was another two miles! I didn't want to hike another two miles, I wanted to be done with this horrible, endless day of hiking. At the next little water crossing I put down my unbelievably heavy pack and filtered some water. A mother/daughter hiking duo were also there getting water. "Are you Stephanie?" they asked, again giving me the message that my friends were camped at Bear Creek. My disappointment subsided as I realized how loved I felt in that moment. My friends knew that we needed to push more miles today even if it sucked but they were still going to make sure our trail family was taken care of. "Yes," I responded, "another group of hikers told me they were pushing on. I just don't want to hike any more." The mother spoke up, "I hear ya, but you're not that far from the campsite, plus it's all downhill" I half believed her but thanked her for the words of encouragement. I ate some more peanut M&Ms, put on my pack and started hiking down the moderate switchbacks to Bear Creek.
I passed some struggling hikers going up those switchbacks and in that moment was glad that it was actually all downhill. I then said hello and chatted with another solo female hiker. We both encouraged each other that we'd come this far already and we could continue, even if it sucked. I wanted to talk to her for longer or even continue hiking with her because I sensed she and I had a lot in common. It was another beautiful, vulnerable moment with a stranger on trail and it filled my heart knowing that we can do hard things. I felt a surge of adrenaline and happiness after talking with her and felt a renewed sense of gratitude to be out here. So many emotions today!
I continued on, passing through Rosemarie Meadow and soon found my trail family camped next to Bear Creek. It was so great to see them! And Reid had now reunited with us! 12.5 miles, another long day but I'd made it! I threw off my pack and grabbed my bags of kettle chips and Fritos, rewards from my resupply. "I got you guys some presents!" Everyone was desperate for salty chips. Meghan's chips in their resupply box tasted like baby wipes so had the worst cravings of all of us. I sat there getting fuel back in my body when everyone else wanted to jump in to help me. "Steph, where do you want your tent? We can help set it up for you. Do you need me to filter your water? Here just use some of my water for your dinner, you don't have to do that right now." Another wave of gratitude, I love that I found this trail family and that we're looking out for each other!
After I ate some ramen I took a much needed bath in the creek. There was a perfect flat rock right by the water, I felt like it was made for me. The water was cool but not freezing, there was a slight breeze and the sun was shining through the trees and the birds were chirping and I felt like I was living a perfect moment and I didn't want it to end.
Our trail family reunion was cut short due to the mosquitoes aka mozzies that found us once the sun dipped down behind the mountains. We had to seek shelter in our respective tents. I found a great spot for my tent on top of a rock thankfully far from the mozzie that were terrorizing everyone else. We'd put down some serious miles the past few days. It was all worth it because tomorrow we would make it to VVR and to our much needed zero day!
(Read about Days 17-18 HERE!)