I now will encourage everyone to go north, as quickly as possible

I haven’t posted any journal entries here in a long time. Maybe I should get back to it, but first, a random post on a hot topic that’s near and dear to me and second only to my fervent support and belief in Teva’s . . . but I think it’s about time I stop debating and just let you all figure it out . . . meanwhile, my North to South, rant. 

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Where do I begin . . . Since 1996 I’ve had the pleasure of being on and completing the John Muir Trail, thirteen times––all of them north to south.

I’ve also spent a lot of time whenever the question is asked, as to which way is the best, and while I have my own personal reasons––I think I’ll stop bothering everyone with my way of seeing it and just let you get on with it and let you hike your hike.

 Next year I want to see everyone going north, because, to quote a fellow hiker “It’s no harder one direction than the other, same path, ergo, same up and down”

I sorta disagree, but hey . . .

 Simple. Easy. Unless you take into account a few details of the trail and other details.

 Why go north to south . . . and who really cares (you might, once you try it) ?

The first answer is that it’s a lot easier, starting at the relatively low elevation of Yosemite (around 4,000 feet) Valley, than it is to start at Whitney Portal (roughly 8,000 feet) .

Imagine flying cross-country, or from around the world, or maybe just up from Los Angeles––you’re tired, jet-lagged, and maybe not in the absolute best shape you wanted to be in for this hike, but here you are ––you bought all your gear, you got your two weeks of vacation and you’re gonna go for it, starting at Whitney.

Now, if you’re in great shape and you’ve been training and you’re bent on setting a personal record, sure, you can probably get up and over Whitney and all the rest of the big, glorious passes and do just fine, but if you’re not, well . . .  

There are a lot of people who get it in their head that they’re going to do the JMT, and for whatever reason, they decide they’ll knock out the big stuff, first––and I’ve met a few of them, giving up, going out, after just a few days of being bogged down and beaten by altitude and exertion.

Again, great idea if you’re in shape, you know you’re good with altitude and lastly, you have the time built in, for failure.

I’ve met a lot of people going north to south, who started low and slow, who still got up and out of the valley or maybe a little farther, only to realize they just were not cut out for the altitude, or just not in shape, period.

All that planning, dreaming, researching and money and they only got as far as the store in Tuolumne, or  for others––they got all the way into the high passes, only to find that they had to bail out.

Having done it enough times now, I have my short-cuts, but I wouldn’t think of starting in Tuolumne, just because, I feel, that if you can’t get up and out of the valley, maybe you shouldn’t be on the trail at all.

There’s also the minor detail of re-supplying, or if you start at Whitney, not being able to re-supply (without spending time and money) at all, for the first 7-10 days.

Yes, you could start at Whitney and have someone meet you at Charlotte Lake/Kearsage, or one of the other up-coming junctions––but unless your timing is perfect and your wallet, fat––you might be in trouble.

I don’t follow all the rules regarding packers or even just your sister and her boyfriend, bringing a re-supply in for you, but in general, it’s got to be a pretty well-timed endeavor.

The packers aren’t going to sit around, waiting, if you’re a day late and the rules are pretty stern as far as them not being able to just leave your drop in a bear box, or . . . with a ranger . . . ain’t gonna happen.

And then your friends, bringing your food in––what’s the guarantee there––either from them or you.

Sure, they might be able to sit around for an entire day or more, but then there’s you and your two weeks of paid vacation and getting over Whitney kicked your ass and the south side of Forester made your partner come to a sudden realization that he/she has a tremendous fear of heights and . . . you’ve lost half a day or more, already.

Of course you can always carry that 7-10 days of food up and over Whitney and all the way to Muir Trail Ranch––this is just one more snag in the south to north scenario.

So as much as I want the place all to myself, do yourself a favor and start in Yosemite––and in the valley, rather than Tuolumne––start low and slow and by the time you get to the big stuff, you’ll be good.

My second answer to the big question of which way is best, is much more personal, but bears a little bit of your time, I think.

Again, I’ve never done the JMT south to north, mostly for the same reason that everyone chooses to do it this way or that––it’s all about convenience.

I live in San Francisco, and getting into Yosemite Valley, by public transit, takes roughly seven hours, but even if I lived elsewhere and had to fly in, with the option of starting in the south, I’d still go for the valley.

For one, and back to the obvious––it’s a much easier start, but all things being even––I’d still rather end my trip on top of Whitney, than walking down into Yosemite Valley.

Think about it––for many of us, the John Muir Trail is one of those big items on everyone’s “bucket list”and you might only get to do it once––or maybe once is enough, so why not end it in a grand manner.

Yes, again, it’s all relative and subjective––one man’s grand is another man’s grunt.

If just doing the trail is enough for you––if just getting from one end to the other is all good, then, by all means, go south to north and finish up by walking down into Yosemite Valley, with all of civilization, milling about, looking for the next bit of fast food or a bus to take them around in circles . . . and . . .

Yeah, I don’t like the valley––take away all the people and everything they bring to it and I’d love it, but I still wouldn’t find it a fitting way, given the option, of ending such an adventure there or on top of Whitney . . .

Think about it this way––very few lofty goals (like walking over 211 miles in a few weeks) are reached by starting at the top and working your way to the bottom––unless you’re sponsored by Red Bull and jump out of a balloon or whatever at a 130,000 feet.

Everything in our way of thinking involves, getting to the top, being on top, #1. . .

 . . . and there’s nothing like  (well, in my small world, anyway) being on the JMT and getting into the high passes, Muir, Glen . . . climbing up and over them, each one higher, each one closer to the goal . . .

 Maybe I should just adopt a different way of thinking about it––be more Zen––more about just being there, experiencing it and be less worried about the ending up in the heavenly skies, above it all, glorious in my achievement (but I still have to get to the Portal) and thrilled that I can see it all––looking north from the top of Whitney and remembering every foot step, every pass, every moment.

For me, the summit of Whitney and the subsequent descent to the portal and eventually––the hot tub at the Dow Villa, down in Lone Pine––it’s all about a slow re-entry into earth’s atmosphere.

Go the other way and end up walking down into the valley, blinded by the glare from all the clean white- socked civilians, buses, cars, lost children, fast food and more fast food and . . . you can barely look up to take it all in, before getting run over by some guy (ha, it happened to me once before I started) on a bicycle.

And before I forget, or more importantly, start giving away all the great secret spots where the magic of “just being” occurs, there really isn’t any place in Yosemite––at least not on the JMT––that compares with being able to spend some time, saying goodbye to it all, like on the Bighorn Plateau.

 Whitney is one thing, for sure––it’s grand and full of celebration, back-slaps and smiles and for so many, the culmination of a dream, no matter from which side you came, but the summit, the moment, is always the same––it’s all about being there, doing it and like any other goal, mountain-wise, all that work, for a few minutes of glory and then, it’s all about getting off the top, finishing.

Once everyone gets up top of Forester, they can all feel the pull of Whitney, of finishing––and so many set their minds and legs on getting to Guitar Lake by the end of the day––not a bad place to be.

I used to do the same thing––hustle as much as I could and get as close to Whitney in as big a hurry as everyone and I ran across the Bighorn Plateau, noting it, but barely noticing it, and always thinking, one day I’ll actually stop here.

There’s just no place like the Bighorn Plateau*––desolate, barren, great views––and most people blitz right across it.  ( and feel free to keep going if you see me out there)

I finally stopped, slowed down, figured out that this was/is that place to take it all in, visually and more importantly, emotionally––the Bighorn is kind of where my JMT adventure has ended these last five or six times.

Even if I get there early in the day, I just stop, walk way out onto the sandy shore of the little “no name” lake and just sit, think, process, take it all in.

And again, there ain’t nothing like it on the last fifteen or so miles if you’re headed into the valley . . . . . try having any deep thoughts, sitting on the trail with all the Half Dome folks, charging by.

Anyway, it’s all subjective, all about what you are in it for and for me, it’s all about . . . well, I still don’t know, which is why I keep doing it, north to south.

 

*Luckily I am one of the few that thinks it so grand . . . and remember, stay off the grass!  

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12 August, 1999 . . . landing at the VVR . . .

Vermilion Valley Resort

Butch & Peggy––owners

Jessica & Maryann––daughters

Kevin “Special K” Speed . . . cook

Tiny––the singing chef

Dave Mau––cook, photograher, restauranteur . . . 

Sarah––the waitress

Tina––the teary waitress

James––the boat driver and Rose, his girl. 

Stoney and Lester––the man, the myth, the legend. 

My pages are almost dry––my boots are still holding water and here I am at the resort, hungry as hell. 

I’ve been washing a lot of dishes which seems to be  the only way to keep sane, out here. 

I’d work from six a.m. to closing if I could––anything to pass the time––not that I am really bored––I just like the place, the people––all the people on the page. 

I keep looking at the lake and the mountains beyond. 

So many peaks up there. I doubt if I’ll ever get close to them, but there they are, like so many waves, frozen in time. 

Some bald, no most bald . . . and yet for the dreamer, for the person willing to walk and climb and risk, there’s always the top or the near top, like Donahue––not the top-top––that would have been foolish, but the near top, just high enough to claim it for myself for a moment. 

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I still remember that first night (officially my second time at the VVR) getting on the boat and James, the driver giving me a cigarette––the cold ride across the lake and then meeting Butch and Peggy. 

First thing they did was give me a trailer and told me to get cleaned up––DRY––and then come in for dinner. 

The food has always been great at the VVR, but this night was especially great as I felt as though I’d been rescued from the wild weather.  Butch also gave me a bottle of Jack Daniel’s as a sort of welcome gift––then there was the nightly gathering of everyone out at the fire pit––the tall-tales and the sad, drunk ones too––all great. 

The fire ring is still there at the VVR, but without Butch presiding and the colorful characters he seemed to attract, well . . . there’s a little something missing in my heart––but I keep coming back each year to try and find it. 

Mostly, these days, I get off the boat and head straight for the A-frame to find Lester and a few shots, a few stories, a few memories. 

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Tuesday August 10th, 1999

6:45 a.m. Sunshine on a distant peak . . . well, there was a few minutes ago. This has been another one of those nights, here at Squaw Lake, wondering if we’d wake up, alive!

Yesterday, Matt and I ended up at Virginia Lake, sitting under some trees with John and Dave, while the sky thundered and dropped hail on us.

We waited about two hours for it to clear, but finally, in a dry spell, Matt and I moved out.

I think it was the smart thing to do, as we had a good window of time and made it all the way here by about 7 p.m.

Coming up on the lake (Squaw) we could see back towards Virginia Lakes––not the lake, but the mountains and they were shrouded, covered, gobbled, by clouds.

There’s a possibility that those two never left Virginia Lake.

We dragged ourselves up here to find a few moments of heaven––the zen of the lake––watching the far-off clouds, the horizon of misted peaks . . . lovely.

Matt’s attempts to hang the bear bags failed, but first he ended up climbing up a tree, just to rescue a snag.

Once the rope was set, we waited until dark and went back to hang the bags––his little system failed and the line snapped, sending his heavy bag of food from “20 feet or so” to smash down at my feet––it was dark and I had no idea which way to turn, run.

The entire evening just got better and better, sky-wise and by the time we each crawled into our tents, the stars were able to be seen.

BUT . . . sometime later the wind picked up and of course we spent the night in the rain and thunder. I just slept through it––almost an old pro at not worrying about the consequences and now here we are––another wet morning.

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Twice, I’ve almost got nailed by a bear bag coming down in the dark––the THUD of the rope rock. Did I mention that I still have no idea who Matt and crew are . . . I have their long-ago contact info, but it doesn’t work . . . just wish I could put a name to the face, or the other way around.

This was the last night I think I spent in the company of Matt. Actually, we must have hung out at the VVR for at least a night . . . we got up the next morning, up there at or near Silver Pass and the weather still sucked––we both got wet and stayed wet, all day, but by the time I got to the boat dock, I was feeling pretty good.

Got there and the rain didn’t follow us––just stayed up there, dancing across the peaks and there was a giant fire blazing at the Lake’s edge and then the boat ride into Vermilion and all its charms.

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August 9th, monday . . . day 9

Almost moving too fast. I came out here to be slow, to reflect, to write small and take up pages with my deep reflections. 

Matt and I followed, led, and waited around for John & Dave, all day yesterday, as we walked up the high side of the Cascade Valley. 

Today, we will go just to the base of Silver Pass. 

We left Duck lake trail junction there at 10:30 and we are now at Purple Lake. 12 p.m., which seems to be an entirely different place than it was during my first trip. 

Obviously, the mad man, “Skot” is not around, but also the weather is much nicer. 

It was overcast and spooky––full of bugs, when we came through, but today it just seems to be full of horses and saddle-bag tourists . . . my pack feels lighter and the sun just feels too good to write anything more. 

1:40 p.m. Virginia Lake. 

5:15 p.m. Down into Tully Hole at the bridge and heading up to Squaw Lake. SMELLS! flowers, dirt . . . sounds . . . hail on the water, birds . . . 

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August 8th . . . moving out . . .

8 a.m. and loading up to move out. 

3:40 p.m.  Some creek ? . . . Matt and I are feeling the pain, but Nate has just moved on, eager to make purple lake by this evening. No doubt we will also, but at a much more relaxed rate. I think Matt is feeling the pain in his tendons or somewhere? 

Me––just my feet hurt. No, my ego also hurts––turns out I didn’t make sure to check that there was film in the camera. All those shots I took––that feels just awful, but as the guys have said, I’ve got them in my heart––I can see them. I know I was there and there are more peaks to climb. 

I wrote so many letters yesterday––it’s too bad I couldn’t just “zerox” one and be done with it––the telling of my story of our night from hell––but I am too burnt out now to put it all down in the journal––but what more is there to say––there was rain, wind, thunder, lightning and hail. 

It scared the hell out of me, but I was also fairly calm about it––or resolved to staying put and dealing with the consequences––or not having to deal with anything at all. 

Looks like I might be doing a little work at Vermilion!!! It could be fun and relatively profitable. 

4:45 and Matt is still sitting back there. Time to put a good dose of bug juice on. 

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I don’t have any idea at this point, who Matt or the other guy is/are? I think that Matt, at least was camped down on the tarn, through much of the weather and neither of us ever got out to notice the other. 

But obviously we hooked up and made it into Red’s, where I got the crazy idea to call ahead to the VVR and see if they needed help . . . and not one word about either the stretch between Donahue and Reds––I think I was just trying to keep up with the crew––happy to feel the energy and companionship of others after such an experience as my last few days. 

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August 6 & 7th . . . Saw heaven . . .

6:30 a.m. . . . I slept, but not much. instead I was up all night––first the wind, then the rain, then the thunder and lightning––which was just right here and now I wake up to find snow all around me. 

Intense night, bad dreams . . . okay, getting up to get water, put on rain fly and get back in here. 

I’m hoping that I am not the one excuse that the lightning needs, to come back.

SPOOKY !!!

but aaaaahhhh . . . the drama. I might as well keep writing so that my last words strike the page before the lightning strikes me. I’m sort of afraid to go outside, although I see hints of blue sky off to the east.

“Saw heaven

Experienced hell

moving on”

me ––

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I’ve experienced a few wild nights in the Sierra, but nothing has ever come close to that very long day and night. I was pretty much in the tent for 24 hours and while the day light hours were full of cracks and booms, nothing beat out that big night––I just thought, Well, this is it, I either go to sleep and wake up, or I don’t. 

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so scared and confined as though I was in a room with my two worst friends, Mr. Lightning and Mr. Thunder . . . 

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August 5th . . . day five . . .

Sitting here around seven p.m. last night, we looked doomed to rain and wind and then, at last light, after I’d closed myself into the tent, the birds sang and the sun beat away the clouds on the mountain tops––all the thunder and grey monsters, dripping with rain, moved north. 

I went to sleep with the wind, pushing my “suburban tent” around. 

It did rain, but only a little and just enough to make me worry if the tent’s fly was really going to keep me dry––it did and you’d never even know there was any rain at all. 

I do a lot of that out here––worry about bears, marmots, rain and now that I might need an emergency appendectomy, or that I might just die from lack of attention. 

I can’t really feel any pain, but that part of my body––my gut––gets really tight when I sneeze or cough in a crouched position, or like I’m doing crunches––actually, I think I am due for a major mountain movement––a super cleansing of the bowels. 

. . . Amazing day. Didn’t quite know what I was going to do this morning, but luckily I stayed right here. 

There was a Japanese family camped right next to me––very nice.

They left around 10 a.m., and then I went up here behind me (up towards Lyell and McClure) assuming that there would be a lake hidden out of view, just past the lip at the bottom of the cirque

. . . but there was nothing more than another small, clear, beautiful body of life-less, blue water!

I could see water coming down from other levels, other places, so I just kept going up, over lush green grasses and petite flowers and drifts of melting snow, all red, for some reason (red algae, I would later find out)  . . . and right now, 6:40 p.m. I’ve got the tent loaded with rocks and the outside tethered with rope and . . . 

I got so high I decided to try for one of the ridges and I made it up there! Amazing view, but even more amazing that I made the climb. 

It wasn’t incredibly hard––just climbing up granite faces, boulder-hopping––but to get up there, up so far away and out of the picture––that was wonderful––this was the first time that I could say that I was here––in the middle of nowhere, alive and doing something so heavenly and alright, so darn macho! 

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Going up towards the peaks there was so surreal, so remote. I always recommend that is up there, do it with someone, as one mistake–––something as simple as a sprain even, where you couldn’t walk, and you might be dead before they found you––but I think I left a note on my tent. 

And the weather just played with me this first night . . . After a happy day exploring up there, the night’s adventure was yet to come. 

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