September 13, 2014
Distance: 22 miles
Traveled: Tyndall Frog Ponds to Whitney Portal
“Here ends my forever memorable first High Sierra excursion. I have crossed the Range of Light, surely the brightest and best of all the Lord has built; and rejoicing in its glory, I gladly, gratefully, hopefully pray I may see it again.”
– John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra
The day after tomorrow, we’ll be done. The day after tomorrow…so close, so soon.
I must have woken around 2:00am. It’s my best guess. I woke and my mind started racing. I lingered right on the edge of sleep for too long – my mind running full-speed in the nonsensical way it does when sleep is close, but still too far to fall back into.
Miles and thoughts raced through my head at a scattered lightning speed – how many miles to here or there or there, only one more night in this tent , go to sleep, how many miles away was my car, how many miles away was the veggie burger at the Mt. Whitney Portal, the day after tomorrow I’ll be in Lone Pine, go to sleep, how many miles to somewhere, anywhere, my blowdryer, go to sleep, how many miles…what time is it?
I rummaged my phone out of my pocket to check the time.
*Tip: rechargeable batteries, especially phone batteries, tend to drain when they get very cold. Because of this, I slept with my phone in the pocket of my fleece jacket every night to keep it warm. On really cold nights, such as this one, I’d keep all my spare batteries warm in my pocket.
I turned it on long enough to check the time – it was 2:50am.
Go back to sleep, Erica.
My mind kept running – running further south with every minute. How long? How far? How long?
How far…can I walk in a day?
The thought hit me over the head and I was instantly wide-awake. I reached for my headlamp and my Harrison maps – I needed to double-check the mileage. I needed to see if I was being rational. I needed to see if it was possible to perhaps finish this today.
I sat up in my sleeping bag and lay out the maps in front of me, double-checking in my Erik the Black trail atlas, adding distances in my head. 24 miles. Not only 24 miles, but we would also be hiking up up Mt. Whitney (14,505’) – the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. It would be a tough, long day, but if we packed up now, we could be done by 5:00 this evening. I could be sleeping in a bed tonight. I could be eating a veggie burger for dinner. We can finish today.
I turned off my light and lay back down, and let the idea sink in, and made sure that this was something I really wanted to do. Did I really want to finish a day early? I should bask in all my time out here. I should be present. I should be. But being present was out the window, as out the window and as off-the-table as going back to sleep was. I wasn’t going back to sleep. And I sure as hell was not going to be able to be present. I needed Friz to be on board…
I yelled through my tent walls in his general direction, “FRIZ!”
I didn’t expect him to wake so easily, and was surprised by his instant, “WHAT?”
“Let’s finish this today. Right now. It’s 24 miles and we can be done by 5:00.”
I was surprised it was that easy, and that from a sound sleep he thoroughly comprehended my proposal. I thought for sure it would require a longer-discussion.
“Yeah. I’m just shocked you’re the one proposing this.”
“I’m shocked, too.” He should have been the one with this crazy idea.
And with that we snapped immediately into action packing up. An orchestra ensued of headlamp beams whirling around in the darkness, the sound of nylon fabrics rubbing together, zippers zipping and unzipping, occasional outbursts of “I can’t believe we’re doing this” – all echoing into the quiet night. While deflating my Thermarest, pulling up my tent stakes, cramming my sleeping bag into its stuff sack – it hit me that this was the last time I’d go through this routine on this adventure, and it felt so odd. 6 hours ago, I had gone to sleep thinking I still had one more night to feel nostalgic. Nope.
We were packed, and though I wasn’t hungry, I knew I needed some sort of fuel in my stomach. I quickly devoured a ProBar to get at least a few calories and carbohydrates into my system.
The night air was frigid, and we both had on all of our layers. I took some puffs from both of my inhalers hoping to keep the oxygen flowing smoothly in the cold, dry, air – as any sort of exercise in super cold air tends to aggravate asthma.
It was 3:30am. Backpacks were on, trekking poles in hand, headlamps lighting the way… we were off. The excitement was palpable. If all went well, I’d be eating a veggie burger (or likely even two) before sunset.
We immediately started uphill toward Bighorn Plateau. Evolution Basin and Bighorn Plateau were the two areas on this trip that I was most looking forward to seeing – and somehow I had not managed to see much of either of them. We had marched through the eerie landscape of Evolution Basin by the light of the full moon last week, and tonight (or this morning, technically) I would be crossing Bighorn Plateau by the light of headlamps and stars. I tried to remind myself that I was experiencing these places in a way that many hikers never do – so with that, I feel lucky.
Emerging onto the 11,422’ plateau, the deep sky opened up in all directions. The view was incredible – the vivid fog of the milky way and our celestial neighborhood, the multitude of tiny suns, satellites, and planets. I kept looking up and gushing over the endless amount of stars. From what I had heard, in the daylight, the 360-degree views from the plateau are astounding. In the darkness I could see nothing other than what lay within the boundaries of our headlamps. Ice crystals clung to the ground and the grass, and the frozen tundra all around us sparkled like iridescent glitter in our lights – it was magical. A glittering, starry world, that surrounded us above and below. Friz was leading the way and suddenly he stopped. At the far reach of our headlamps a pack of coyotes ran in and out of the light – seeming almost like ghosts, glowing eyes occasionally meeting our stare. For a few cold minutes we watched them dancing by starlight around the icy plateau. Only a mile into our trek, and I had already stumbled into one of my favorite hiking moments ever.
We walked and walked through the darkness with few words. Early dawn light finally crept in as we crossed Wallace Creek. I removed some layers and we returned our unneeded headlamps to our packs. When we reached Sandy Meadow, the rising sunlight was hitting the mountains to the west. From here it was uphill until the top of Whitney in 9 more miles…and 4000’ more feet of elevation gain.
I was starting to feel tired and exhausted – the poor nights sleep catching up to me. As I have mentioned before, I would learn later that when I didn’t get enough sleep my breathing and asthma were horrible. Today would put me this to the true test. I was dragging myself uphill…dragging. Downhills and flats I was flying, but the second I reached an incline I would slow to a glacial pace. The best I could do was move slow enough that I didn’t need to stop and catch my breath every few minutes…and that was frustratingly slow. I was feeling very disheartened. My lungs and body were exhausted, but my mind wanted to run.
I stopped near Crabtree Meadows to take off my final warm layers of clothes, and to take a few puffs of my inhaler again (hoping it would help), and eat a snack. I wasn’t feeling great at all. I was tired, very tired.
A funny twist of fate happened just as we started back up the trail. From behind us came two hikers, and I was surprised to see it was the couple that I had met in line at the permit office in Yosemite 16 days earlier (that had managed to snag the last permit out of Happy Isles that I had been hoping for). I had seen them briefly, on my second day when I passed them on my way to Lower Cathedral Lake, but had not seen them since. I thought it was so funny that we happened to cross paths at the starting gate, not see each other for 200 miles, and then bump into each other again near the finish line! Turned out that town was calling them as well, and they were doing the same exact thing we were – cramming it all in, and finishing a day early.
We leap-frogged each other down the trail. I mentioned to them that my car was waiting for me at Whitney Portal, and I told them that if we happened to finish at the same time I’d be happy to give them a ride into Lone Pine. They were thrilled about the idea of not having to hitch a ride. I did have to give them the disclaimer though, that with how slow I was moving uphill, they would probably long beat us to the Portal. They insisted they were pretty slow uphill as well, and internally I had to laught a bit…feeling sure, and admittedly with much defeat, that no one after 15 days on the trail was moving near to as slow as I was. No one (which I know isn’t true, but I felt that way at the time).
Soon we crossed into the Whitney Zone, and the views of Whitney opened up. It truly is a huge and beautiful mountain.
Timberline Lake, was such a little gem. Perhaps it was because the morning light was golden and just right, or the fact that the lake was glassy and the fish were jumping everywhere, or maybe it was that Mt Whitney was perfectly mirrored in the still water – whatever it was, this little lake ended up being one of my favorite lakes of the trail.
Friz was far ahead by now, and I tried to suck it up and relax in my slowness and take my time. My breathing was still total shit, despite puffing on my albuterol inhaler like a cigarette (not literally of course, but I had taken way more puffs than usual that day). One foot in front of the other was all I could bring myself to focus on as I marched up toward Guitar Lake.
Finally nearing Guitar Lake, I became unpleasantly distracted. The overuse of the Whitney Zone started to become apparent. The landscape was beautiful, but this was where I first noticed the overused campsites and the smell of pee wafting from around them. Surrounding the lake, rock windbreaks had been constructed around barren campsites, and I found them totally distracting to the landscape. I had heard that Whitney was overused, and it would turn out that this was nothing –much worse was yet to come.
It was only 9:30am as I rounded down to Guitar Lake. Friz was sitting near the shore with the couple we ran into earlier, and they were all setting up for lunch. I made my way to them, and plopped myself down in exhaustion and relief. I couldn’t believe we were already here, sitting in the shadow of Mt. Whitney, with the end of the trail quite-literally in sight.
Unfortunately, I felt like shit. By far, the worst I had felt on the trail thus far. I wasn’t particularly hungry. My stomach was in knots, but I made myself eat. When I started talking I realized I was also losing my voice – it was hoarse and faint. I didn’t know if I was getting sick, or if the losing of my voice was a side-effect of my inhalers, but my voice sounded about as tired and rough as I felt.
I had read a while ago in Brendan Brazier’s book “Thrive”, that our bodies have a remarkable way of boosting our immune system when we’re under pressure and stress, and as soon as relief from the stress is in sight, your body will ‘allow’ you to get sick.
“Have you ever noticed that when you work to meet a deadline—as the pressure mounts and stress rises—sickness is least likely to strike? Then, once you’ve met the deadline, you get sick. Or perhaps a day or two after a long, taxing race, illness sets in. The body is capable of rising to the occasion in a stressful environment; indeed, the more stress, the better the performance—short term. But when the project is finished and the stress is alleviated, the body lets itself get sick. We are equipped with a mechanism that is quite effective at warding off infection until we rest. It assumes that our immune system will be better able to deal with sickness when we are resting and relaxed than if we are in the midst of a pressing time, and it’s right.”
– Brendan Brazier, Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life
I couldn’t help but wonder if that was what was going on here. Perhaps my body had been warding off some sickness while I was on the trail – but now that the end was in sight, it was allowing itself to finally give in. I knew it could also be possible that I was suffering from altitude sickness. Even with 2 weeks at elevation, altitude sickness can still strike at any time. Yet still, the most likely cause was the obvious one: I was plain ol’ tired.
The high-morning sun shone down on us as we sat on the shore of the lake. I tried to stay positive and pleasant and cover up exactly how horrible I was feeling in front of these new friends. I kept my words few to save my tired voice. I hydrated. I ate some dried ginger to calm the knots in my stomach. I leaned against my pack for a little bit and closed my eyes in the sun wishing the horrible way I was feeling to disappear. Though I had no appetite I forced myself to eat some of the rice and beans I had planned for lunch. I knew my body needed some carbs and calories if I was going to make it up that mountain.
With the anticipation building up over summiting Whitney, lunch didn’t last long. The couple took off first, and we watched them disappear toward the switchbacks.
At some point, Friz and I looked at each other, “Well?”
We must be going. I was as ready as I could be (which wasn’t saying much). And so we went.
Friz walked on ahead, and I fell behind pretty quick. Whereas earlier, my mind was strong and excited despite my tired body – my mental state was now quite spent as well. The entirety of me was running out of gas.
Putting this story on pause for a minute – I have to admit that I hate this part. I hate writing this, and I hate reliving it in my mind, and I hate that I felt so horrible on a section of trail that in the grand-scheme of things was not that difficult. It was only 3 miles. It was only 2,000 ft of elevation gain. It should not have felt so arduous. I want revenge on these switchbacks. I want a do-over. I want to run up those damn things laughing the whole way and shouting “HA! HA!” from Trail Crest and flipping off the 3 miles of switchbacks that had caused me such misery. I feel so much frustration for my experience here, and how entirely weak I felt.
And that’s just it. That sums it all up. I felt so weak. My mind felt weak, my lungs felt weak, my legs felt weak…
The march up the backside of that mountain is both a blur, and what felt like the longest 3 miles of my life. I allowed myself to stop and catch my breath every so often, but really I wanted to just keep going. I wanted to get it over with. I slowed to a pace of probably 1 mile and hour, and all I could focus on was my feet….left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. One foot in front of the other. I felt miserable, so miserable that the word seems like almost an understatement. I just felt like I wasn’t getting any oxygen. I fought the tears of frustration that welled up in my eyes.
The trail narrowed dramatically as the switchbacks wound up the mountain. A trip or slip would mean trouble. I wanted to take a break, but there was nowhere to stop or sit. I stopped a few times in the middle of the trail to catch my breath, but it was never long enough. I’d stand there catching my breath and I’d start to look around and start to feel a little acrophobic looking down to the switchbacks below so I felt better just slogging along.
During this entire uphill walk, I was repeating three things to myself, “This is not easy”, “This is hard”, and “Eventually I will reach the top and this will be in the past”. It’s always true. Eventually you will reach the top. Eventually. And standing on the top of anything was always incredible. In the end, it makes the entire uphill struggle worthwhile. And the best reward? From there it’s all downhill.
At some point I decided that I was feeling way to shitty to hike to the summit, and I would just continue over at Trail Crest. I tried not to be disappointed in myself, because Trail Crest was the “official” end of the JMT. The summit wasn’t going anywhere, and I knew I could always come back – but still, it wasn’t the way I hoped this hike would have to end…
Throughout the climb, Friz kept waiting for me to catch up, and as I would get close he would continue on ahead. I’d watch him turn the corner of the switchback and hike above me. He knew I was exhausted, and I was grateful that he kept stopping to wait. He didn’t have to – he could have just kept on going.
Finally I hit a wall.
My legs were getting a little shaky, and feeling weak. I kept looking at the nearly 2,000 foot drop next to the trail and feeling nervous. Don’t fall. Don’t fall. I felt so weak. I caught up with Friz who had been waiting again, and as he turned to keep going ahead, I yelled for him with my tired rusty voice. I asked him if he wouldn’t mind just hanging back and walking with me. I remember feeling like I couldn’t even lift my gaze from the trail while I asked him for fear of falling. I stared at my feet through blurry, teary eyes.
“I feel like my legs are going to give out. Can you stick with me in case I fall?”
He stopped and turned back and walked with me, right in front of me, at my slow pace. There was nothing else said. There didn’t need to be.
The gratitude I felt in that moment is tough to explain. Perhaps to him (or the reader) it seems like a small gesture. But the appreciation I felt for him putting up with my dysfunctional lungs and me, and caring enough to stick with me during what was honestly one of the most challenging moments I have ever experienced is something that can’t be measured. Because though my words here likely don’t do the struggle I was feeling justice – I felt like total crap. I felt weak. I felt more horrible than I had ever remembered feeling in those hours. I’ve thanked him a ton for this since we left the trail, and he always blows it off as “that’s what friends do”. But seriously, Friz, if you are reading this – thank you again.
Sometimes just knowing someone is right there with you is all you need.
I have no idea how long we walked together up that mountain, but it felt like an eternity. And, because I was looking at nothing other than my shoes, I was totally caught off-guard when I heard the noise of people talking in front of us, and looked up to see we had reached the 13,460’ trail junction near Trail Crest.
I took my last steps up to the junction, and in total relief, I instantly started crying.
I gave Friz a huge hug.
Holy shit. We made it. The hard part is over.
Our packs immediately came off and were thrown on the pile of packs that had been left there while people finished the hike to the summit. We looked around. We took some photos.
The relief was immeasurable, and I immediately felt so much better.
Friz was still planning on hiking the last 2 miles to the summit. After taking a long enough break to feel fairly recovered, I suggested that maybe I should just suck it up and hike to the summit. The “no” that came from Friz’s mouth could not have been more immediate. He knew that was a horrible idea, and I begrudgingly agreed. He said he’d be quick, he just wanted to get up there and snap a photo and he’d rush back down. I told him I’d meet him at my car at the portal.
He grabbed his bottle of water and took off for the summit and I watched him turn into a tiny ant, weaving in and out of the multitude of other hiker-ants heading up the Mt Whitney Highway.
When he disappeared, I had my moment to really take it all in. It was a weird feeling being (almost) done. To have planned and thought about something for years and to finally do it. To have tried once and failed, and to have tried again and finally succeeded. I looked north and thought about everything and nothing all at once.
I sent my husband a text with my inReach to let him know we had finished a day early. I also sent notes to Anita and Calley letting them know as well. They would both be summiting in the next couple days. And, of course, I sent Slippers a bittersweet text letting him know we had finished. We wished he had been there with us.
The amount of people coming through the junction was almost as shocking as finishing. The day hikers especially – everyone so clean, in their colorful spandex and shampooed hair. I hadn’t been in a crowd of people in over 2 weeks, and I had barely seen anyone in the past 5 days. It was weird to be near the summit of the tallest mountain in the contiguous US, but feel like I was also back in the weeds of civilization.
I ate some snacks and talked to a few people. I was watching a very savvy marmot open the zippers on peoples left-behind packs, crawl in and rummage around, and emerge with all sorts of treats. I then became the marmot police (because everyone else that saw him kept just thinking he was cute, rather than recognizing that it was a problem). I started turning packs over, putting rocks on zippers, and trying to get food from him (but he always got away).
While doing this another John Muir Trail thru-hiker came down from the summit and took a relieved seat in the shade nearby. I hadn’t seen him on the trail, and started talking to him. He was nice enough – but then he started spouting off about how “easy” the trail was and “it wasn’t hard at all” and how not-tired he was.
After the struggle I had just suffered through, his smugness made me want to punch him. Our conversation didn’t really go on much further after that.
Then, two other JMT hikers that I also had not seen before, appeared coming up the trail. I love how that works on the trail – how you can be hiking right on someone’s heels for 16 days and over 200 miles and never see each other.
These guys were great. While they waited for their Dad to make it up the switchbacks we exchanged stories, and it turned out that they had run into Chops! Upon realizing we had both known the enigma that was Chops – we exchanged some surprised shouts of “You met Chops!” back and forth.
We had said goodbye to Chops at the Muir Hut 5 days ago, and had assumed he had probably fizzled into the abyss of the mountain ether. Turns out these guys had run into Chops somewhere near Rae Lakes and one of the guys proceeded to tell me the most quintessential story about how he raced Chops up Glen Pass. Of course. That’s so Chops. Racing up passes, swan-diving into alpine lakes, lassoing unicorns…so Chops. I was glad to hear he had been spotted further down the trail. I was sure that by now he was already in town somewhere enjoying the comforts of civilization.
I knew I needed to get going, and it felt weird to put my pack back on and put the northern horizon behind me. I felt like a new person compared to the person that had been wearing this pack only 30 minutes before. I felt totally fine. I felt like a million bucks. The exhaustion from earlier was out the window, and had been replaced with adrenalin and excitement. More relief washed over me.
I said goodbye to the guys I had been talking to and started toward Trail Crest and down Whitney with a bit of nostalgia kicking in. I couldn’t wait to get to my car, but it was tough to part with that view of the northern horizon and where I had come from. I had become so used to amazing vistas, beautiful lakes, rivers, and meadows, that it felt weird to know that this was goodbye. That tomorrow I wouldn’t be hiking up a pass or a mountain, I wouldn’t have to count miles, I wouldn’t have to plan where I’d get water from. It’s an odd feeling to know that you have just done something that you will not only always remember, but something that will probably cause a shift in the rest of your life. I had just walked through what would always be one of my fondest memories.
And down I went.
The 8.3 miles to the Whitney Portal are somewhat comical to me in retrospect. I was moving as fast as my feet and trekking poles would take me, I was racing my own shadow, I was shoving old ladies and children out of the way and off the mountain (not really, but I can’t make any promises that I wouldn’t have if one happened to get in my way). I was checked out and done. My car was waiting, and nothing would stop me.
There’s over 5,000 feet of elevation loss from Trail Crest at 13,670’ to Whitney Portal at 8,330’ – and 99 switchbacks. It’s pretty incredible to look down at Lone Pine and the Owens Valley, nearly 10,000 feet below, the White Mountains to the east, and far in the distance, the mountains of Death Valley.
Unfortunately, these 8.3 miles of trail in the John Muir Wilderness were the most disgusting, overused, miles of trail I have ever hiked on. Totally disgusting. Usually I stop to pick up all trash I see on the trail, but there was so much I gave up. Wag bags everywhere, trashed and abused campsites, toilet paper, the smell of pee…it was depressing to say the least. When I was standing at the Trail Crest junction I was feeling like someday I would surely come back and summit – but, after seeing how grossly overpopulated and abused the whole trail was up the east face of Whitney, I didn’t much care to ever come back again. I felt so sad for what should be pristine, beautiful, wilderness. I now understood why the JMT forums suggested that you not get water from any of the lakes coming down Whitney. Disgusting.
The lower I went, the warmer it became and I had to stop about halfway down to change into my short sleeve shirt, and eat a quick snack. I took off my shoes for a few minutes to let me feet breath, and noticed that in impeccable timing, my 6th-toe blister had popped! I was grateful that in the 8 days since I had inherited it, it had never given me any trouble. Even my extra appendages were calling it quits. The end must be near.
Then I got a wiff of FRENCH FRIES. Holy crap. I couldn’t see the Portal, but the smell from the grill was wafting my way. What a weird feeling to smell food again. My sense of smell felt magnified 100 times. I flew down a few more switchbacks and then caught some glimpses of the parking lot below! Cars!
I stopped and turned on my phone to see if I had service, and for the first time in 10 days I was able to call my husband. He answered. He showered me with congratulations. I cried. It was so good to hear his voice. We talked for a few minutes, but I kept it short and I said I’d call him later when I got to town. I needed to get to my car.
Hanging up the phone, everything suddenly felt so strange. Other long distance hikers will understand this, but it’s really tough to explain to others. I realized I had no idea what to say. People were going to ask “How was it?” – and I had no idea how to answer. I asked myself: How was it? I didn’t know. I didn’t even know where to start. So many things started to feel foreign.
Pushing these thoughts to the side, I dashed down the last switchbacks. There it was, the parking lot, the bathrooms….my car!
I’m sure I was grinning from ear to ear. A ranger happened to be giving a talk to some visitors near the trailhead, and as I walked by they all stared. The ranger said, “Oh, there’s a hiker now! So, did you go up this morning?”
“No, I started 16 days ago in Yosemite”, I said with a smile (and not breaking my stride).
He then shouted congratulations to me on finishing the John Muir Trail, and as I continued walking I heard him explaining to the visitors what the trail was. I smiled to myself, and at that moment it hit me:
I just walked 224 miles from Yosemite to my car. Quite a walk to get back to a parking spot. And what a walk it was.
I dropped my pack, I opened my car trunk, I took off my hiking shoes and put on my camp shoes. I chugged some water. I took it all in. I waited for Friz.
About 30 minutes later, while talking to some curious Portal visitors I spotted over their shoulders, zipping down the last switchback, the familiar stride of my buddy, Friz.
I was so happy to see him. 13 days ago I was hiking solo in the wilderness and had never even met Friz, and now standing there, I couldn’t have imagined finishing the trail without him. The best gift the Sierras had given me was surprisingly not the beautiful lakes and rivers and stars and views, it was the friendship. I had no idea I’d leave the trail with so many amazing new friends.
I thanked him. He said “For what? You’re the one that did it.” But I told him I couldn’t have done it without him, and though he probably doesn’t see it, it’s true. If I hadn’t found him that morning in Le Conte Canyon after we had lost each other, I probably wouldn’t have kept going. Sure, I walked it just like he did – but it was way better with his company.
We made our way over to the Whitney Portal store for a well-deserved meal. I devoured the veggie burger and french fries of my dreams that day.
With no sign of the couple we were hanging out with that morning, we decided it was time to get down to Lone Pine and get a hotel. We managed to snag the last two rooms at the Dow Villa, and I took the most amazing shower that night. I blow-dried my hair (like I had been obsessively dreaming of), and I put on a fresh set of clothes – to be clean was fabulous beyond words.
We wandered out onto the Lone Pine sidewalks to find some dinner and drinks, and eventually found our way to the backroom bar at Seasons. Over a glass of wine I told Friz, who had done other long-distance hikes on the Colorado Trail and Appalachian Trail, how weird I was feeling about talking to people now that I had finished the trail. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know if there was anything I could say that would really make them understand what the past 16 days had been like. It was a totally unexpected revelation to leave the trail with. Two weeks ago I imagined I would have hours of stories to tell my parents or husband or friends – and instead, I felt like I had no idea how to talk to anyone.
He well understood, as he had experienced the same thing when he had finished his other long walks. He told me you just have to tell people what they want to hear. You tell them, “It was awesome!” or “It was beautiful!” or “It was so incredible!” because at the end of the day, that’s really all they really want to hear anyway. They won’t understand, and there’s nothing you can say to make them get it. They just want to hear you had a good time and you’re safe and continue on with their day.
I imagined the long pauses…“So, how was it?”…“It was awesome and so beautiful!”….and then the empty and overwhelming 16 days and 224 miles of silence. It was all so much more than it seemed at the time.
Long after hikers-midnight (which is often somewhere around 8:30), we turned in. We agreed to do breakfast in the morning, and I warned him I might try to sleep in – he said he probably wouldn’t be able to sleep in so I should just knock when I work up.
I slept that night in a bed with a pillow, and all night long I kept waking up not knowing where I was. Half-awake in the middle of the night I realized I was thirsty and tried to remember how much water I had… and realized I had a faucet in my room that gave me all the water I wanted. I got to pee in a toilet, and use toilet paper, and flush – all of which felt like nearly unnecessary luxuries.
I was up, unfortunately, before sunrise – my body still programmed from the trail. I lay in bed and reached for my laptop and turned it on. I was shocked at how foreign it felt on my eyes to stare at the huge glowing screen when it turned on. I had the weird thought as I squinted at it “to think I get paid to stare at this thing 8 hours a day?” I wasn’t even sure if I remembered how to code or do my job. The whole experience was so comical – it’s amazing how quickly our body and mind adapts to the essential needs for its survival, and how quickly it lets all of the unnecessary things go.
I shut my computer down, realizing I couldn’t even think of what I wanted to use it for anyway, and got dressed. Friz was wide awake when I knocked on his door at 6:00am, and we wandered out to the empty morning streets to find breakfast, and ate enough food to feed 6 people.
We wandered town for a bit to find him a clean shirt, and then I had to succumb to the fact that I had to check out of the hotel and drive back to my family and friends in Santa Barbara. I would drive back home to Colorado the following weekend.
It was weird leaving Lone Pine. 24 hours before I wanted to be nowhere else but back in town, and now I found myself staring up at Mt Whitney and the Sierras just wanting to get back on the trail. I missed the dirt under my feet, and counting miles. I didn’t feel like I was actually ready to be done walking…but I was.
As the Yosemite ranger told me the year before as I walked off the trail, “the trail will always be here next year.” And it was.
I’ll surely come looking for it again.
This long story was the only way I knew to answer the question, “How was it?”. I had to get the story and words “on paper” for fear that someday I might forget – and for the few people who are truly interested in the extremely long and excessively wordy (yet, honest) answer.
For those that don’t like to read, and just want to know “How was it?”:
It was awesome; all I had to do was walk.
Thanks for reading.
That was long but awesome! You kept it real, and I could almost imagine walking in your shoes that last day. Now, I want to go back and start your journey from the beginning. Thank you so much for taking the time to write your story, and then share it.
Thank you Juli! I really appreciate you taking the time to read this 🙂
I loved this trail journal! I start at Happy Isles SOBO on September 20th and reading this was very helpful and is getting me SO excited. It’s my first solo thru hike. I hope to take the time to write as well as you did.
Thank you! Good luck on your hike! You should catch some beautiful fall colors along the way….enjoy!
I just finished reading your last day. I’m going to go back and read the rest. I completed the JMT in 2011 and had many of the same thoughts as you did. The last day was the toughest for me as well. I was 50 at the time. All I can remember that morning was how cold it was. It didn’t matter what I did, I was just cold. I wanted to stop as well, but somehow made it up.
Thank you for taking the time to write your story and sharing it. Hope you get the opportunity to go back and summit Whitney!
Thank you Jon for checking it out! I’ve heard it can get frigid up there even in the height of summer – we were so lucky to have good weather at least!
Thanks so much for sharing your story! It brought back so many memories of the majesty and camaraderie of the JMT.
Thank you Aaron!
Excellent post, I enjoyed every word. 🙂
Thank you so much for reading, Teri!
I just finished reading the last of your entries. Since finding your blog, I’ve looked forward with great anticipation to the next installment. This has definitely been one of the best JMT “reports” I’ve ever read. So awesome! Congratulations on finishing the trail, and thank you so much for sharing your experience.
Thank you so much, Richard! I truly appreciate that you took the time to read it – thanks for the kind words!
Wow! I have been glued to your blog for a week! My friends and I met on Kilimanjaro a few years ago and made a promise to meet again and climb Whitney, which we did last year. On that trip, we then promised to return to do the entire JMT. Well, we are going to do it 2016. Your blog has been so inspirational to me and also a wealth of info. I totally understand ALL of the feelings you expressed about being on the trail, being in the moment and also the feelings of longing as you left Lone Pine. I felt all of those after Whitney so I cannot imagine how I will feel after weeks on the JMT. Also, isn’t it funny how incredibly close you become to trail buddies? Love it!
Anyway, thanks for a great read! I’ve enjoyed it and felt like I’ve already done the JMT in spirit just by reading this. You seem like such a great person. Happy trails and best of luck on your future adventures, Birdseed! 🙂
Wow! Thank you Rhonda! You will surely fall in love with the JMT….I’m so excited for you! Kilimanjaro is actually on my bucket list. No set dates – but I have it at the top of my international list! Thank you again so much for taking the time to read my posts.
Erica, I really enjoyed the tale of your experience. I happen to work with Anita who forwarded me the link to your blog. I enjoyed it immensely. Thank you for taking the time to put this all together.
Thank you Mike!
What a delightful read. JMT is now on my bucket list. Thanks for the great story and spectacular pics.
Thank you so much, Craig!
This was excellent! I love your realness, honesty, and journey. My husband and I are from Alberta Canada and we have researching and reading and watching so many stories and videos of the jmt. We’ve done thru hiking often, one bucket list hike done more than once was the West Coast Trail. If you are ever out to west Canada you should consider. It is another unique hiking experience and rated also one of the best hikes in the world!
I can’t get enough of hearing the good, the bad, and the ugly but really what comes through is the amazing beauty and humbling experience people have. We hope to make the long drive there summer 2017 and follow the footprints of so many hikers. I know it won’t be easy, but reading John muir quotes are an inspiration and poetic brilliance that is brutally honest…you gotta be in that headspace to achieve your experience. Can’t wait to be a part of all of you that not everyone understands. Good luck in all your future hiking adventures…..you rock!
Thank you so much Corrine! Long distance thru-hiking I have found really is all about the good, bad and the ugly – and if anyone claims only the good….they’re lying! Ha!
Good luck with your hike in 2017 – it’ll be the trip of a lifetime! Bring along John Muir’s “My First Summer in the Sierra” (even if you’ve already read it) – as it’s nearly intoxicating to read his words out there.
I’ve had my eye on the West Coast Trail….maybe I’ll have to take the plunge next year! GO GET THAT TRAIL NAME! 🙂
This has been by far my favorite JMT trip report! Thank you so much for taking the time and effort to write it. I decided to stop waiting on life and have my JMT setup for this year in early Sept like you did. It was very relatable as I also have 16 days scheduled for mine and while I’ll be headed NOBO, your description of campsites was extremely helpful as I looked over my plan (granted I know plans easily change once out on the trail). I also appreciated that you wrote about you struggle with asthma. I have different health issues but I am glad to hear that the JMT can be completed by people who aren’t Olympic Athletes. Thanks again!
Thanks so much Stu! I wish you all the best on your Sept hike – NOBO will be tough initially, but it’s the way it was actually designed to be hiked – so there’s something to be said for having that experience. It will be an incredible year to be on the trail after such a spectacular winter up there. Enjoy it for me!
I came across your story during my obsessive search for information as I prepare for a JMT thru hike this summer (pretty much the exact dates as yours). Thanks for sharing your experiences and the fantastic photography…it has helped fill a need until I can start my own hike. And you have convinced me to take the umbrella I was considering leaving behind!!
Thanks for reading it Bill! I appreciate the kind words!
The best write up of the hike I have read, I have read a lot. Thank You for sharing. I know a little what you went thru. Several years ago I did the ascent to Whitney and the last 2 miles were very, very slow.
I plan on doing the JMT 2021, SOBO or NOBO which ever I can get. I plan on the same time of year. I am 73 so I hope I can get a permit for next year. This will be my first thru hike. Thanks for the words and pictures. Richard
Thank you so much Richard! I hope you ended up getting a permit and were able to complete the hike!