September 9, 2014
Distance: 15 miles
Traveled: Big Pete Meadow to Upper Palisade Lake
“Now the sun breaks forth and fragrant steam arises. The birds are out singing on the edges of the groves. The west is flaming in gold and purple, ready for the ceremony of the sunset, and back I go to camp with my notes and pictures, the best of them printed in my mind as dreams. A fruitful day, without measured beginning or ending. A terrestrial eternity. A gift of good God. ”
– John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra
Still dark out, I hear the sounds of Slippers packing up, and heading out. This morning marked the end of Slippers’ journey on the John Muir Trail. When Slippers first set out on the trail he had planned on doing 20-mile days, but after meeting Friz and I he decided he’d rather hike shorter days and stick with us. So, today he was hiking out over Bishop Pass so he could still catch his flight home.
His headlamp flashed around outside my tent, and I let him know I was awake. He was packed up and ready to go. Still half-asleep, we said goodbye. He asked if I had decided if I was going to stay on the trail – I said yes (honestly, not knowing yet if this was true). He was happy to hear that. We wished each other good luck, I told him how great it was to meet him out there and hike with him, and wished him well on his journey back to civilization. He said if I found Friz, to tell him goodbye.
IF I found Friz.
I listened to his footsteps drift away faintly down the trail until I was surrounded with nothing but dark and silent wilderness.
And with that I was solo again.
I fell back to sleep.
Shortly after sunrise I woke in my dew covered tent to beautiful clear blue skies, and the sounds of a morning choir of birds excited for the new day. Despite however stormy a day is, the clouds will always pass. True of so many things in life.
I remembered I was alone.
Where was Friz? Was he okay? Did something happen to him in the storm? Did he decide to continue on alone? In this morning moment I truly realized how much I had grown to enjoy his company. I missed him. I was a bit worried about him – yet, I also knew he could hold his own and was more than likely fine. I was trying to get myself somewhat excited to be a solo hiker again, reminding myself of the reasons I have always enjoyed (and often preferred) hiking alone.
Emerging from my tent I found 2 deer grazing in my campsite. They stuck around as I made breakfast. While I filtered my water from a nearby stream, I found one sniffing my pack and investigating my trekking poles. Having their company lifted my spirits a bit. The last time I had woken to deer in my camp was the last night I camped solo 8 days ago.
I hate having to pack wet gear (largely because of the extra weight from the water), but without time to let it dry, I had no choice. I shoved my sopping wet tent in it’s stuff sack, filled up my water bottles, and hoisted on my still heavy pack with my 5 days of food – it was time to move. I still remained totally unsure as to what to do, but I knew I needed to start walking south regardless. The prospect of leaving the trail felt both too easy, and too hard to do. Staying felt right, but would be undoubtedly difficult. I had a huge climb every day for the remaining days of the trail, and I really had no way of knowing if my lungs would be up for it. But here I was, on a trail I might never get to see again, and I had come so far already…what was another 5 days?
I walked south, mind swirling, wanting to make the right decision and waiting for some sort of sign as to what the right thing to do was. I would hike the 2 miles to the Bishop Pass Trail junction and make my decision there.
Shortly down the trail, I found two curious twin fawns on the trail in front of me.
The sky was incredibly blue and clear, everything was drenched in dew, the air was crisp and clean, and it felt undoubtedly like a new day.
The trail switchbacked down further into the canyon, and I flew along it, zig-zagging my way south. My mind bounced between Bishop, Whitney Portal, and Friz. On this short stretch of trail, my entire experience during the past 140 miles soaked in. All of it. Largely I realized how lucky I was to have met such amazing people in the middle of nowhere. In the cities I have lived, where people swarm everywhere, it can be incredibly difficult to find humans I even care to share a cup of coffee with. Yet, here, in the depths of these wild mountains, I had met friends that I found myself spending 24 hours a day with for over a week and I was not nearly tired of them. It’s a rare thing to stumble upon a complete stranger, spend 8 days on end walking with them, talking with them, camping with them, eating with them – and not want to strangle them at any point. So, I felt pretty lucky that I had somehow found that.
A couple miles down the trail, lost in my thoughts and endless debate, I rounded a corner into a stand of trees by the river. I know that tent…. I know that blue puffy jacket…
There was Friz – beanie on, hands shoved in the pocket of his jacket, standing in the middle of his camp next to the river as if he had been expecting me all along.
The instant and overwhelming relief of finding him almost brought me to tears. Not only was there relief in finding my friend, but also in that there was no longer a decision to be made. Without a second thought, I would march on to Mt. Whitney with Friz by my side. It was all good.
What had happened? When? How? The flurry of questions and stormy stories flew. It turned out that when the storm had picked up, likely around the time that Slippers and I set up our tents to hunker down, Friz had taken shelter under a rocky outcrop. He had asked hikers and the trail crew if they had seen us – none had. He hiked down to what he thought was Big Pete meadow and set up camp, not realizing he had hiked too far. Up the trail at our camp, I had been asking hikers if they had seen Friz, and if they ran into him to tell him we were okay. Turns out a couple of those hikers did find him and passed on the news that we were okay and had set up camp – so he was content knowing we were safe. Of course, the news never made it back our direction. But, it didn’t matter anymore.
I told him that I had spent the morning trying to psych myself up to hike solo again – and he had been doing the same. I was beyond happy to have my friend back.
When he had finished packing up we started our march into the beautiful day, and toward the dreaded climb up the Golden Staircase.
The morning walk was chilly, damp, and easy. I was in excellent spirits, feeling strong and positive, and so happy I had not decided to turn off the trail.
We stopped for a long lunch by the Kings River, taking advantage of the sun to pull our wet tents from our packs and lay them out to dry. We ate, and I pulled all the food from my bear canister to take inventory of what I had for the rest of the hike. I happily pawned several of my healthy, vegan, bars off on Friz who was running low on snacks. Departing from his usual diet of Cheez-its and Snickers bars, he was skeptical that my nutrient-filled snacks would be any good, but I assured him they were delicious.
I rinsed off in the river, feeling like I needed the equivalent of taking a shower to wash off the bad day before. I closed my eyes in the sun for a bit. I inspected and tended to my faithful 6th toe blister – somehow it had still not yet popped.
After a good, long, hour or two, we packed up our dry tents and got back on the trail.
The day was hot and the sun was glaring – exactly what I heard you do not want when climbing the Golden Staircase. We wound through Deer Meadow and entered an avalanche area where the small aspens on the hills around were starting to turn their fall colors. The end of summer was so close.
Finally we were at the footsteps of the impressive Golden Staircase. I popped in my headphones to listen to my Game of Thrones audiobook to allow me to zone-out on the steep 1500 ft. climb.
About halfway up the Golden Staircase we ran into Calley, also trudging her way up the steep, exposed, switchbacks. She was happy to see that we had been reunited. Running into her proved to be an excellent distraction, as we were eager for the new company and we talked our way up the climb. We learned that Calley had also hiked the Appalachian Trail, and I spent most of the climb listening to her and Friz exchange AT stories. Admittedly, the AT has never much been on my radar. Yet, hearing them tell their awesome stories I found myself intrigued…intrigued enough to perhaps give the AT consideration in the future. Calley had been given the trail name of Pied Piper while on the AT. I found myself still essentially trail-name-less. (False Hope still somewhat lingered, but it didn’t quite hold sticking quality).
The slow trudge continued, and eventually we found ourselves at the top of the climb up the Staircase (though, still with much more climbing to do). The jagged and impressive 14,000’ Palisades loomed on our left, and Palisade Creek tumbled down the mountain on our right.
We rewarded our sweaty climb, by stopping for a breather and a snack while admiring the surrounding landscape. Friz proudly pulled out one of the Pure Bars I had given him, prepared to give me a full review of his experiment with this new nutrition-filled, organic, gluten-free, vegan, non-Cheez-it-snack. The consensus was “it was good!” He also admitted that the “birdseed gruel” I had given him for breakfast the other day (a.k.a Teechia, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and freeze dried blueberries) didn’t taste that bad. “Not that bad” was a start. I was proud of him.
We threw our packs back on for the final stretch of the day, and hiked up into Palisade Basin.
The trail, etched into the smooth granite mountainside, wound tight along the eastern shore of Lower Palisade Lake. The water was deep greenish-blue, the vegetation was sparse, and the surrounding peaks were jagged and ominous. The landscape was such a strong contrast to where we had come from that morning. It was beautiful. Friz announced upon getting our first good view over the lake, “I’m not impressed” (sarcastically, obviously). To which Calley and I agreed that the view was unarguably offensive. In some ridiculous truth though, a couple weeks in the Sierras can set a new standard for beauty – don’t expect to leave these mountains and not have the bar-raised for what might have previously been classified as “breathtaking” scenery.
The trail steadily began to rise above Lower Palisade Lake and then high above Upper Palisade Lake, where we were supposed to camp that night (including Calley, whom we joked we were recruiting as our new Slippers-replacement).I had assumed when I planned on camping at this spot that the camping would be within reach of Upper Palisade Lake, but the trail was much higher above the lake than I expected. We found a spot big enough for our 3 tents tucked next to the trail, right at treeline near 10,800’.
After setting up our tents, changing into warmer clothes, soaking feet, and filtering water, we moved over to the ‘kitchen’ area for dinner. We were all in super good spirits, and my thoughts of quitting seemed like the distant past.
While sitting over our stoves, Calley and I started talking about her vegetarian diet and my vegan diet. She was sharing her plans for her evening feast (we would learn tonight that Calley might be the most impressive backcountry chef either of us had ever encountered – also the most generous – an amazing combination). After going over her impressive spread of food, she asked me what I liked to eat on the trail…..Friz answered for me before I had the chance to utter a word: “birdseed.”
We laughed. I told her I was wheat-free, and vegan, and cooked and dehydrated all of my own food for the trail. I told her what my usual breakfast was – Teechia cereal with extra flaxseed, chia seed, and freeze-dried blueberries. All the while, with Friz commenting in the background “Birdseed…birdseed….birdseed”. I told her some of my favorite snacks, lunches, and dinners (veggie chili, chana masala, “burrito bowls”, unstuffed peppers)….with Friz continuing to chime in “birdseed….birdseed…birdseed” as I went through my list.
Then Friz announced, “That’s it! You’re Birdseed!”
We started cracking up. He was right. There was no doubt that I was Birdseed. After nearly 160 miles and 12 days, Frizzle had finally blessed me with my destined trail name.
*Sidenote – I plan to include recipes and more about eating vegan on the trail at some point. In the meantime, check out a guest post I did for Trail to Summit featuring my favorite backpacking recipe Three Bean Quinoa Chili.
The Pied Piper, Frizzle, and Birdseed continued on with their dinners as the sunset. Laughing, talking, being grateful for the day, being in the moment, and admiring the impressive peaks that surrounded us. Calley cooked a ridiculously amazing meal, and offered leftovers to Friz and I (which we ravenously enjoyed).
The temperature dropped fast as the evening marched on, and as the sun set, so did we. We crawled in our familiar tent homes for the night and said goodnight.
I stayed up writing for a bit, and went out for a final pee. Heading outside I found a sliver of slowly spreading light from the rising moon shining on the peaks to the west of us. The moon was still hidden, but I could tell by the moonlight creeping over the eastern mountains, that we were going to be treated to a night of magical light similar to our night hike through Evolution Basin.
I woke up Friz and Calley, and they emerged in their bundles of clothing. The three of us stood together on a rock waiting for the moon to appear, watching the light creep further down the sides of the mountains into the granite basin below. We shivered, hands in pockets all the while. When the nearly full moon made her appearance, we took in our surroundings now bathed in her blue light. It was bright enough to make strong shadows, and the silent surrounding landscape seemed otherworldly.
It was damn cold, and I was losing feeling in my frigid fingers. We said goodnight again, and went back to our tents.
That night I became truly appreciative of the people I had met along this dirt path. I started alone, with no expectations, and thought I might end up walking for 2 weeks without even a conversation. I could have very well been sleeping in this spot alone with only the company of my thoughts. Instead, I would be leaving the Sierras richer – having met many genuine, generous, and inspiring people. I fell asleep full of gratitude.
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