September 6, 2014
Distance: 10 miles
Traveled: Marie Lake to Muir Trail Ranch
“This evening, as usual, the glow of our camp-fire is working enchantment on everything within reach of its rays. Lying beneath the firs, it is glorious to see them dipping their spires in the starry sky, the sky like one vast lily meadow in bloom! How can I close my eyes on so precious a night?”
– John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra
The night had been relentlessly windy and cold, but by dawn the world outside was serene again. Honestly, the whole morning was a blur. I don’t think we could’ve gotten out of camp any quicker than we did. Muir Trail Ranch was beckoning us like presents under the tree on Christmas morning.
Friz was out first. He wanted to get to Muir Trail Ranch as early as possible to try and get a cabin if any were available. Slippers and I weren’t far behind.
The top of Selden pass was barely a mile up the trail. The view looking back toward Marie Lake was incredible. I was so grateful that we stayed a night there and got to spend a bit of time on her shore. Looking back over my shoulder at her before heading down the pass was one of the moments when I knew I would have to come back to this trail again in the future – and whenever that happens, I will definitely by spending more time with Marie.
The walk down from the top of Selden Pass was shaded and cool. The rising sun still had a ways to go before it shone on that slope. We flew past Heart Lake, and the Sallie Keyes Lakes weren’t far beyond. We were soaring down the trail.
The water at Lower Sallie Keyes Lake was the deepest and most beautiful emerald green, and we could see trout swimming everywhere in the sultry clear water. The morning sun was now hitting us, so we stopped to shed some layers and have a quick snack. It’s tough have to walk by so many incredibly places, and not have time to spend at all of them. Around every corner on the John Muir Trail trail there is something so beautiful that a walk to see that one thing alone would leave you fulfilled and in awe. The Sierras have spoiled me. This was another lake along the trail I would have liked to be able to spend more time with…but we didn’t hesitate there for long, because our resupply buckets were still beckoning us.
Slippers and I continued to walk as quickly as our legs would take us down the trail, passing through meadows and cool forests. When we reached the crossing at Senger Creek, I had to stop for water. I really, really, didn’t want to stop – but I was completely out of water, and the next would be at Muir Trail Ranch in 4 exposed miles. I encouraged Slippers to continue ahead without me and I’d meet up with him down the trail. I filtered water, hustled off too pee, and as I reached to put my pack on, I stopped. That morning I was so enveloped in miles, and time, and my resupply bucket awaiting me at Muir Trail Ranch, that I was not at all absorbing the beautiful morning around me. I was not present. So, I forced myself to stop. The forest was alive, birds were flying between trees and singing morning songs, Senger Creek babbled softly next to me, I soaked in the sweet smell of dew and pine needles. I was glad I made myself return to the moment here. It didn’t matter if I was putting my “10 before 10” in jeopardy (which I wasn’t going to make anyway). I stole a few minutes from my own day. As I finally put on my pack and gathered my trekking poles, 3 deer emerged from the forest right in front of me. They were the first I had seen since Yosemite, and it made my moment all the more worthwhile. Wisdom I learned along Senger Creek: take some time to stop, and breathe, and listen.
Not far ahead, a view into the valley opened up and the switchbacks winding down began. I was on the edge of the section of the Sierras I was the giddiest about – I was standing on the doorstep of Kings Canyon. Somewhere below me in the valley was Muir Trail Ranch, but somewhere on the horizon beyond that was the gateway into Evolution Valley, which was the part of the trail that has been beckoning me for years. From here foreword was a 100 mile walk I have been waiting and waiting for.
The switchbacks down to the valley floor were steep and never-ending. This was yet another downhill that I was glad I wasn’t walking up. I caught up with Slippers near the bottom and we continued on together, so excited that it was barely 10:30 and our day of walking was almost over. We ran into two guys heading up the hill. The guy in the half-unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt with his chest hair bulging out out said to me as he passed “Hey, your ankles on fire!”. If my 18-year-old self could have possibly known how many creepy-douchey men would end up saying that to me regarding the flame tattoo on my ankle, I definitely would have never gotten it (to be fair, it is a shitty tattoo, but my 18-year-old-self didn’t know that either). You’d think at this point in my life I’d have a good smart-ass comeback – but alas, all I could bring myself to do is roll my eyes and flash them a contemptuous look of “really?”.
The trail was dusty, and the smell of horse manure was strong. We missed the cut-off trail (the one that everyone says is easy to miss) but still, before we knew it, the gate to the ranch was in front of us! As of 10:45am that day (pretty close to “10 before 10”!) I had been walking for 9 days, and over 100 miles – this short day on the trail was a well-deserved treat.
For it’s location in the middle of the wilderness, the Muir Trail Ranch is an impressive operation, and it’s a vital resupply point for thru-hikers on the JMT and PCT. It’s about 11 miles from the nearest road, so getting supplies to and from the ranch requires quite an effort. All supplies for the ranch travel by boat across Florence Lake, and then are put on pack mules to be hauled the rest of the way to the ranch. Hikers can mail themselves supplies and food in 5 gallon buckets, and (for a fee) the ranch will pick them up at the nearest post office and haul them all the way back to the ranch to be picked up when the hiker arrives. Muir Trail Ranch, surprisingly, has electricity, but has no telephone (or cell service). They also have a satellite internet connection to one computer that guests and hikers can pay to access (which Friz would be taking advantage of). Paying guests stay in simple cabins – some with running water, some without. There are common toilets, and outdoor showers, which are only for paying guests – hikers are not allowed to use these facilities. Don’t even bother asking or trying to bribe them – they won’t budge! (and I totally understand why.). There’s laundry (we’ll get to that awesomeness later), a lounge with games and books, and a loveable resident cat. All meals are included for paying guests, and are all cooked from scratch in their kitchen- served family-style either in the dining room or around a campfire outside. Unarguably, my favorite perk of being a guest at the ranch was going to be their private hot springs, which my legs and back could barely wait to get into.
Walking into the ranch, we quickly found Jeff lounging in the resupply area. The first thing he announced when we walked over to him: “No cabins available. Some big group was coming in for the night, so they’re all booked up”.
I now began to refer to Slippers and Friz as lowly peasants, as I (the elite guest) would now be granted the privileges of flushing toilets, laundry, electricity, and giant cooked meal – and they would be banished for the night to the other side of the San Joaquin river with the rest of the peons. (*insert maniacal laugh*)
There were about 10 other hikers there, none of which I had seen on the trail during the previous days. Everyone was sorting their supplies, stuffing their bear canisters, chatting, shoving snacks into their mouths, and scavenging through the hiker barrels – where extra and unwanted stuff from hiker resupplies is dumped, and all of it is free for the taking.
I picked up my bucket, and sorted through the various supplies and food I mailed myself. Amongst the homemade dehydrated meals, bars, trail mix, and protein and recovery drinks I had mailed myself – there was also a clean shirt, clean socks, new first aid stuff, fully charged batteries for my camera and GoPro, plug adapters to charge my inReach and iPhone, and all of the toiletries I would need to take a shower and clean 100 miles of grime off myself. I would mail a box back to myself with my dirty shirt, drained batteries, and other miscellaneous stuff I had been lugging around in my pack that I no longer needed. I then attempted to shovel as much of my extra food into my mouth as I could stomach, and the rest I left behind in the hiker barrels.
After some careful cramming, stuffing, squishing, jamming, and sweet-talking, my BV-500 bear canister was now stuffed with 8 days of food, the most I had ever had to carry at one time. My 2700 calories of food per day weighed on average about 1.3 pounds. Multiply that by 8 days, and what you end up with is no longer a lightweight backpack.
There was a power strip charging station by the resupply area and I plugged in my phone and inReach. I was bummed that I still didn’t have the means to charge my iPod, due to the bad charging cable I bought in Mammoth and had been lugging around ever since. I thought there was a chance that a hiker around me might have an iPod cable I could borrow, so I started asking around. Sure enough, a girl that was sorting her stuff at the other end of the tent had one. She insisted I could have it – but then I learned that she also was going to be staying at the ranch for the night – so it worked out perfectly that I could charge my iPod and easily get it back to her before taking off the next morning. Her name was Calley, and she would end up being one of my favorite friends from the trail.
While I was getting my pack in order, Friz went to the store (calling it a store is generous) to pay to use their computer to change his flight. After battling with the painfully slow internet connection, he emerged in good spirits because his flight was officially changed and he could now finish a day later without any worries.
Circulating amongst the hikers was the report that there was a 30% chance of thunderstorms in the forecast for the next 2 days. Admittedly, we had been spoiled with perfect dry late summer weather for the past 9 days, and I had become relaxed in the ease of not having to take precipitation into account. Friz was being optimistic insisting, “It’s only 30%”, and I explained to him that in the Sierras, “30% chance” means that there is 100% chance of thunderstorms, but you might get lucky enough to avoid one passing directly over your head. I was a bit nervous. The day after tomorrow we would be heading into the southern section where we needed to get over a mountain pass each day (and on one day 2 passes) to stay on schedule. A thunderstorm could leave us stuck, unable to get over a pass (though, to be clear, we’d actually be able to get over a pass in storm, but that’s disregarding the required stupidity). The experience I had gained from my time living and hiking in the Sierras, is that Sierra thunderstorms, much like the infamous blood-thirsty Sierra mosquitos, don’t fuck around. They mean business. And, I gave them the nervous respect they deserved. I was glad we at least had an up to date a weather report though, so we wouldn’t be taken by surprise. I had rigged my DeLorme inReach to be able to text a service that would reply via text with a weather report for your exact location – tricky thing is that’s only good for where you are at the exact moment – not the 40 miles away you’ll be in a few days.
After we had been lounging in the shade the resupply tents for a couple hours, one of the ranch employees came and rounded up the guests (to which there were only 3 of us) to give us a tour of the ranch and show us to our cabins.
Before I left, I agreed to meet Friz and Slippers at 8:00am the next morning to hit the trail. I then said goodbye to the pesky commoners, as they were banished across the river for the night, and left for the tour of my awaiting luxuries.
We were first showed to the kitchen (which always had cold lemonade), the dining room, and introduced to the cooks, who promptly presented us with a plate of fresh cookies. We were shown to the lounge and dining area, where we were to leave our labeled bear canisters…due to bears, we were not allowed to have food in our cabins. We were introduced to the resident cat, shown the bathroom, and the outdoor showers. The private hot springs pool was in use when we walked by, so we didn’t get to check it out, but I made note of the location so I could eagerly run back there as soon as it was free again. We were also led to the laundry area, which featured a working Maytag washing machine from the 1950’s, a rinse basin with a clothes wringer, and clotheslines to hang everything to dry in the sun.
We then were shown our cabins – mine was the less expensive “tent cabin” – which was nicer than I expected. It had a cute front porch that overlooked a beautiful shaded meadow, two twin size beds (pillows, real pillows, not clothes and a backpack shoved under my head), and electric outlets for charging. It was heavenly. Calley, who lent me the iPod charging cable, ended up being my neighbor for the night.
While walking back to the resupply area to get my pack, I formulated my plan of attack to optimize my time:
- Plug in stuff to charge.
- Eat snack.
- Change into clean clothes
- Eat snack.
- Snack again.
- Hot Springs
- Eat another snack.
- You can never have too many snacks
- Take a nap until the dinner bell rings.
- Maybe grab a snack for the walk to dinner.
Sounded to me like the perfect afternoon and evening.
I changed into the cleanest set of clothes I could put together, and hustled over to do my laundry. Getting my laundry done early was important so that my clothes would be dry before nightfall so I could wear them again the next morning. After my clothes were hung out to dry, I took a decadent outdoor shower. I then went back to my cabin to dump out the contents of my pack and take inventory of what I could possibly mail back home to save some ounces. I found quite a few things I could send back – a dirty pair of socks, a bunch of extra bars (those things are expensive! I didn’t want to dump them into the hiker barrels), the plugs to charge my stuff (as I had mailed them to myself here specifically for the purpose of charging stuff while I was staying here and they were not needed for the rest of the hike), and the extra batteries I from my resupply that I would not need.
The store where I would get the box to mail my stuff back was on the way to the hot springs, so I stopped in on my way. While I was in there waiting for the guy to get me a box, a couple walked in with their little girl. I didn’t pay them much mind initially. But after waiting for a bit I turned around and totally recognized them immediately as Ric and Jen from Mile…Mile & A Half, a documentary about a JMT thru-hike in 2011.
I had been following the project closely before it was released, and had even gone to the premier in LA – and it was so odd (and cool) to see their familiar faces while I was on the trail! Totally unexpected. I introduced myself, they were incredibly nice and surprised to hear that I had actually been at the premier of the film. I then learned that the big group that Friz had been told was coming in for the night and had taken up the cabins was actually the entire Mile..Mile & A Half crew. They had been invited back to the ranch after staying there during their original hike. It seemed like such a funny coincidence.
I headed back outside on my hot springs mission after chatting with Ric and Jen for a bit, and ran into Durand and Jason, who were also a part of the film. I introduced myself to them – both great guys as well. I was looking forward to dinner and getting a chance to talk more with all of them. Trying to focus again on my hot springs prize I continued on, only to run into Chops! The last I had seen Chops was two days before at Squaw Lake before heading up Silver Pass. We caught up a bit, and I told him that Slippers and Friz were staying at Blayney Meadows that night. I also somehow ended up showing him my crazy “6th toe blister”, hoping he might have some blister care wisdom from his time on the PCT. His advice was to leave it alone. Before my foot returned to my shoe he said that I may have just won a prize for the best blister on the trail. I’m still waiting for my trophy.
We said goodbye for the night, and just as I was again resuming my hot springs mission (which at this point I was starting to question if it was ever going to happen) – I ran into Anita who had just arrived to the nearly vacant resupply area. She, too, was headed across the river for the night with the guys.
FINALLY TO THE HOT SPRINGS.
Thankfully the hot springs was open, and I closed the gate behind me and entered my own personal paradise for about an hour. I soaked and stretched and floated and relaxed and started to wish I could have spent a zero-day there. A full day to nap, and soak, and eat. As all tension and soreness melted away I began to dread putting on my pack tomorrow filled to the brim with 8 days of food. The water became too hot so I left my legs in and lay back naked in the sun. It felt amazing, and of course (still), I had no idea what day of the week it was.
Fully warm and relaxed I got dressed and headed to the clotheslines to gather my laundry, and then headed back to my cabin for the most holy of activities: a nap. When I got back the sun was getting low, and the world was golden.
Calley popped by to grab her charging cable, and after that I nestled deep under the covers for a well-earned slumber. I could hear across the river the sounds of loud laughter, screams, and generally what sounded like an amazing party the guys were having at their camp….but, despite the fun I was missing out on, I wouldn’t have traded that nap for the world.
When I woke it was getting dark out. Knowing the dinner bell would be ringing soon, I put on all of my warm clothes and headed toward the kitchen. It was a perfect, calm, night, and the cooks decided they would serve dinner outside at tables next to a big campfire.
All of the guests started trickling in. Calley, and more from the Muir Project crew arrived. We all sat around big wooden tables while the cooks brought out an amazing spread of fresh food. I had given them a heads-up before arriving that I was vegan, and Calley was vegetarian – and they brought out for each of us an enormous bowl of grilled and roasted veggies. I also helped myself to corn on the cob and about 3 helpings of green salad (after 9 days of rehydrated meals, I was craving crunchy, juicy, plant-foods more than I can even explain). I was incredibly full, and so so happy. While we were eating the pack mules and horses arrived, and passed by us, being led up to wherever they go for the night. Durand happily announced that the whiskey had arrived.
After we all ate, everyone began to move around the fire. I grabbed a cup of coffee and a seat and talked with everyone. Before it got too dark, I had someone get a photo of me with the whole Mile…Mile & A Half crew to document the awesome coincidence.
The guitars and the whiskey then came out, and the dark set in, and we spent the next couple hours by the light of the fire, talking, listening to music, and laughing with coffee cups and whiskey nestled in our hands.
Unfortunately, it was getting late (way past ‘hikers midnight’), and though 80% of me wanted to stay around the campfire with everyone, I knew I had to get to sleep. I hoped to squeeze in one more hot springs soak in the morning before leaving, and a good breakfast, so I would have to get up early.
I said goodnight to everyone. In case we missed each other in the morning, they all wished me good luck on the rest of the hike. I felt like it was a great omen to have them all there to send me luck and bid me farewell.
With the light of my headlamp I made my way back to my cabin. On the way a pair of eyes met my light and stopped me dead in my tracks. Another set of eyes appeared. It was two deer. I quietly told them to have a goodnight, and then went and crawled into my bed, nested my head in the pillow, and had the best night sleep I had had in a while.
What an unexpectedly awesome day.
Ric from The Muir Project put together this cool video of their time at the ranch. Chops, Friz and Slippers make a brief cameo during the scene of the guy jumping into the lake from the rock (which must have been the ruckus I was hearing while I was closing my eyes for a nap)