John Muir Trail - Week 3, Part 2 (Days 17-18)
(Read about Days 15-16 HERE!)
Day 17 - Thursday September 5, 2019
Even after two weeks on trail and hiking day after day I still wasn't getting a full night's sleep. I'd wake up at least twice to go pee or to just lay there, waiting for sleep to come. I hate this about backpacking. Even sleeping with earplugs and taking melatonin doesn't seem to help much. I was up early with everyone else, made my coffee and ate my breakfast bar while tearing down camp. This morning I was also glad I had a habit of digging a cat hole the night before so that I can quickly go #2 after having my coffee.
We set off early and once we started moving my stiff body felt a little better. Putting on my heavy pack first thing that morning was a struggle. I was weighed down from my resupply of food the previous day at Muir Trail Ranch. Today's trail would be mostly downhill with one major creek crossing before it starts to climb up Bear Ridge. The goal was Vermilion Valley Resort (VVR) where we'd be taking a zero day. My last zero day was 9 days ago. Words cannot describe how ready I was to not be hiking!
We knew the creek crossing was going to be a ford but we hoped there would be enough rocks or some logs to get us across with dry boots. The water was still too high to ensure that and I didn't want to try to balance on wet, slippery rocks while carrying such a heavy pack so even though I didn't want to hike in soggy boots all day, I decided to just hike across the creek, fully soaking my boots. I squelched in them for about a mile or so until they started to dry out a bit.
It didn't really matter much because once we started to hike up the switchbacks leading up Bear Ridge it started to rain. It was a gentle, misty rain with cooler temperatures than what we'd previously had on trail. I call this Pacific Northwest weather and I loved it, it's my favorite. I welcomed the cooler temps and misty rain at first but then it started to rain harder and the climb got steeper and I wished the clouds would move on already. Three days of rain after almost a week and a half of perfect weather, I knew I shouldn't complain but I was cold and wet and tired.
It was a slow trudge of a climb up 1,000ft over what felt like a pass but wasn't technically a pass but should have been called a pass. We made it to the top of Bear Ridge a lot earlier than we thought, it wasn't even 11am yet. We'd already done 5 miles this morning? Let's keep the momentum going, we thought.
There is a ferry boat that picks up hikers at the far east end of Lake Edison and shuttles them across the lake to VVR. We figured if we hiked fast enough we could make it there for the 4:45pm ferry pick up but we were way ahead of schedule. We could hike the 5 miles down to where the ferry would pick us up and wait for a few hours until the ferry came to get us or we could just hike the rest of the way to VVR, about 7ish miles from the top of Bear Ridge. We decided we wanted to get there earlier in the day, even if it mean hiking more miles so off we went down the Bear Creek Trail to VVR.
The hike down Bear Ridge Trail should have been easy but after hiking for nine days in a row and going over seven passes my entire body was ready for a break. My lats in my back hurt from carrying my pack, my legs felt like jelly, my blisters were throbbing coming downhill in my still wet boots. Again, I didn't want to stop for a break because I was running on pure adrenaline. Meghan tried to convince me to stop for just a second to eat something but I refused. I tried to eat some trail mix while hiking and lost my footing and slid down the trail, hyperextending my knee. Meghan again asked me if we should stop for a snack and I finally obliged. I slowed my pace down too because I didn't want to hurt myself.
We finally made it off the trail and were at the trailhead parking lot next to the lake. We were almost there! We hoped some nice person would give us a lift to VVR but no luck. We instead walked across the dam and then walked the long road into VVR. When I checked the mileage on my Guthooks app when wondering how much further we had to go, of course it read 1.3 miles. It's always 1.3 miles.
Meghan and I were struggling so we hung back while everyone else hiked on, faster than us. Lee was determined to get a bed in one of the canvas tents. I was just looking forward to a hot shower. Zoe had a reservation in the cabins but it was for two nights from now, she was off her anticipated hiking schedule. She was hoping they'd honor her reservation but for tonight. Unfortunately they didn't. She decided she'd be fine in the thru hiker campground.
We finally walked into VVR and slowly staggered down the hill to where we saw our friends sitting outside with beers. I threw my pack to the ground and took a seat. I had no energy, not even enough energy to get a beer or a snack from the store inside. Lee came out with news that he'd reserved the last four beds in the last canvas tent available. "We're sleeping on a bed tonight! My treat!" I couldn't believe my luck. Not that my sleeping pad and sleeping bag aren't comfortable but to sleep in a real bed?! This place was magical.
Each hiker is given a free beer upon arrival at VVR and there's a store packed with snacks and gear and all kinds of stuff a tired, dirty thru hiker might need. We'd just missed lunch at the restaurant but dinner would be served soon. Our friends Brittany and Jeremy had made it here the day before and this was their full zero day. They were feasting on burgers and fries they'd ordered before lunch closed and I couldn't stop my mouth from watering. I took out my Fritos to munch on and someone brought me a Hazy IPA. I checked the time, it was only 2:15pm! We were going to have a day and half of rest here! I was so grateful we pushed to get here early. We hiked 12 miles today! Even though I added two more days of hiking to my itinerary to get here, I desperately needed this zero day with friends.
Once I got my energy back I wandered into the store and bought two tokens for the shower, 7 minutes per token. I was determined to use the full 7 minutes of my shower even if it just meant me standing in the hot water, I thought I might even use my tokens back to back, who knows! I didn't have to hike for a day and a half! Anything was possible! I felt like a new person after that shower. Nine days, the longest I'd ever gone without showering. I was quite proud of my filth.
We then got queued up for laundry. I washed literally every piece of clothing except for my rain stuff, which meant I went commando in my rain pants and rain jacket for a couple hours while everything else took a spin in the washer and drier, another hiker trash level completed. Few things in life feel as good as feeling clean and wearing clean clothes after 9 days in the backcountry. Thankfully everyone got showers and laundry done before the 4:45pm ferry brought another 40 more hikers to VVR. I was so glad we'd made it as early as we did!
We'd already seen some other friends from the first week on trail. Lee ran into his friend Jason who he and Meghan climbed Forester Pass with and who I met hiking down to Tyndall Creek. I also camped with him by Bubbs Creek where I first met Lee and Meghan. Jason happened to now be with my early friend Phil who I hiked with over Forester Pass! They were headed out on the afternoon ferry as Lee and the rest of us were getting into VVR. The trail is hard in that way, you make friends and you may never see them again. But every once in a while you get reunited and it feels magical. We then wondered where Brian and Diane were. Lee was certain they'd show up sometime. "I bet they come over on the ferry today, I know we'll see them here."
They started taking dinner orders at 5pm and we were gathered around a table ready to place our orders. We sat outside in the covered patio area where a TV was showing the Bears/Packers game. I realized I hadn't watched TV since leaving Tucson! I ordered a crispy chicken sandwich with spinach mashed potatoes and ate every last bite. We were all ravenous, hiker hunger taking over. Our new friends Kieran (an Aussie who lives in Sydney, same as Zoe) and Amber (a PCT hiker) joined us.
After dinner we gathered around the bon fire with other hikers and weekend campers, exchanging stories and resting our feet. There were a couple German PCT hikers who had to flip flop this year due to the heavy snow earlier in the year. They were finishing their hike with this last bit of the Sierras. VVR is also a destination for day hikers, campers, people out fishing or hunting. It was fun to hear other peoples experience. I learned not very many people are thru hiking with a trail family and I felt extra grateful for my crew. I'm really having a blast with them. Lee, Meghan, Reid, Zoe, Brittany and Jeremy, they've all made this experience that much more enjoyable. Plus I don't think I'd be this far along without them and their support.
We stayed up well past hikers midnight then crashed in our glorious canvas tent. Sleeping in a real bed, in clean clothes with a full stomach, what a world!
Day 18 - Friday September 6, 2019
I had the best sleep. I woke up refreshed but still a little stiff. The good news was we didn't have to hike today! (Have I mentioned before how excited I was to not have to hike?) We had heard that breakfast gets crowded quickly so we made our way down to the restaurant by 7am. We feasted on the best, most filling breakfast with coffee and syrup warmed by the fire. My whole trail family, minus Brian and Diane, plus Brittany and Jason, all at one table. I felt so lucky.
I was soaking in every moment. VVR was a truly special place. "A thru hiker's paradise," I had heard it called. I couldn't believe I almost didn't stop here! The one thought that kept coming to mind during this blissful day at VVR was "I'm so excited I don't have to hike today!"
After breakfast we said goodbye to Brittany and Jeremy, they were catching the morning ferry to continue their hike. We wished them well as they set off with their packs and breakfast burritos to go. We all made a note to make sure we got an extra breakfast burrito for the road tomorrow.
I took a to-go cup of coffee and wandered down to the lake to see more of the area. I'd heard there was AT&T coverage at VVR but so far didn't have any luck. I eventually called home to talk to my parents on the landline they had at the store and paid $2 a minute to do so.
We lounged around, relaxing and organizing hiker boxes full of food, laying down on a real bed because we could. Lee made friends with the owner Jim (of course his name was Jim, we'd had some good luck with owners named Jim) and heard they needed help in the kitchen. There was a free dinner in it for whoever wanted to help wash dishes but none of us were about to spend this zero day in a kitchen, even if there was free food involved. My new motto during my time at VVR was "charge it up!" $2/min to call home? Charge it up! $5.00 for an ice cream bar? Charge it up! When was the next time I would be here? I wanted to fully experience this and even if I knew I'd spend more money than I intended, I intended to have the full experience. It also didn't help that they don't charge your card for every purchase, they write out every item on your tab and then charge you before you leave so that they only have to use the credit card machine once instead of paying the fee every time. It was easy to "charge it up" when you didn't know how much the total was going to be.
After a night in the Hogan's Heroes style canvas tent none of us were thrilled at the prospect of sleeping in our dirty tents on the ground in the hiker camping area so Lee asked if it was available again. The canvas tent we were in was already reserved but the hostel tent had five beds available in it so he booked it again. "Charge it up!"
A solo hiker in his 60s, John, was camped out there and we sort of took over the place, poor guy. He was fun though, he had a dry way of speaking and I think we were a little overwhelming for him, especially since he had the whole tent to himself the night before. We told him he was part of our family now whether he liked it or not, haha. Somehow our nicknames became the "Hostile Group" since we were in the Hostel Tent. We didn't think we were being rowdy, there were other hikers who stayed up late and left the bonfire a mess. We were the ones who got up early and cleaned up the empty beer bottles!
After we moved into our new home for the night it was soon time for lunch. I was still pretty full from breakfast but hey I wasn't going to turn down lunch! "Charge it up!"
We were headed towards the restaurant when who do we see but two long lost hikers! It was Brian and Diane! Or as Zoe affectionately called them in her Aussie slang style, Bri and Di! We rushed over and all exchanged hugs. They looked exhausted. They'd been hiking a few miles behind us this entire time! We learned that at almost every campsite they were just 3 miles behind us. They'd camped close to Brittany and Jeremy the night we were at Little Pete Meadow. When we got over Muir Pass, they were right behind us and camped at Wanda Lake while we were at Sapphire Lake, less than a mile away!
They'd also had some misadventures that if they hadn't of had them they would have caught up to us through Evolution Valley. Brian and Diane were playing leap frog with each other but at one point Brian went off trail to use the facilities and Diane passed him. When he came back he was waiting for her while she had hiked on. Then he was worried something happened to her so he hiked back the other way looking for her. They did this back and forth looking for each other for a good five miles. They eventually found each other after asking other hikers if they'd seen the other's spouse. And because of that they'd fallen almost a full day behind us. They were hauling ass to get to VVR for their resupply and to hopefully catch up with us! The trail provides!
We heard more stories from them while they scarfed down lunch. We then told them the news of the hostel with a free bed for them. They were going to take it even if it meant sharing a twin bed. Oh, it was so great for all of us to be reunited! We hadn't all been together since coming up Kearsarge Pass, over a week ago!
We hung out all afternoon while they caught up on chores like showers, laundry and organizing food. We talked about our strategy for the rest of the trip. I knew now that I wouldn't make it to Happy Isles on time and I knew I didn't want to bust my butt to rush through this last week. Most of us were coming to that realization. We kept saying "we'll just see how it goes" but I was losing hope that I'd finish this trail the way I intended. But was that okay? Maybe I was meant to hike and finish it with my trail family?
Dinner time and we packed into a single table. We had several rounds of beer and enjoyed each other's company. We still couldn't believe how close we all had been, just a few miles away!
We enjoyed another evening around the bonfire, this time making more dog friends. We were all missing our puppies back home and it was nice to get some doggie therapy. VVR was checking all the boxes, now I was getting to love on some dogs too! This place was truly heaven!
I didn't want to get back on trail the next day. I wanted another zero day. I wanted to spend more time here. Brian and Diane were only going to get half a zero day because they were determined to continue on with the rest of the trail family the next day. Was I ready to go back on trail? Did I really want to? What if I ended it here and took the shuttle ride to Fresno?
(Read about Days 19-20 HERE!)