My book about my journey on the John Muir Trail, Highs and Lows on the John Muir Trail, is now available on Amazon. Currently it’s available in Kindle format, but early next year I’ll have print and audio versions available. If you want to check out a sample here’s the first chapter. Scroll down to view a slide show.
Chapter 1: Fire and Lightning
I had trouble focusing as I snapped a photo of my husband standing at the marker pointing to the John Muir Trail (JMT). Steve was clad in full rain gear, grinning stoically through the drizzle. I tried to banish my foreboding thoughts to a place far away from here. The endless meadow of lush grass fringed by the sweet-smelling pine trees, the excited chatter of the fluffy-tailed gray chickarees tucking their stores away for the winter, the quiet pitter-patter of drizzle through the smoky haze—we were here on the trail, starting the longest hike of our lives. Maybe it was just the excitement of finally shouldering the packs we had labored over for so long—sorting, evaluating and debating the relative merits of each and every item contained within. No, I couldn’t ignore the lightning storm at the fringes of my mind. I was getting a migraine. Like a disco ball in my head, the flashing lights of the aura slowly filled my field of vision.
Steve and I had talked extensively about a migraine strategy, but I never thought we’d have to implement it. I’d never had one in the backcountry, much less in the first ten minutes of a hike. Our pre-arranged plan was to stop, put up the tent and call it a day. But we’d only just started. To set up camp so early in our journey—in the paved parking lot of the Yosemite National Park Wilderness Center in Tuolumne Meadows, no less—seemed impractical. Besides, our permit required that we camp a minimum of four miles from the trailhead. I decided to wait and see how bad it was before sounding the alarm. Steve was striding eagerly ahead anyway. I just couldn’t bear to quash his Day One/Minute One enthusiasm. Besides, as my sluggish brain recollected, Elizabeth Wenk’s “John Muir Trail” guidebook had described the terrain here as the easiest and flattest of any day on our three-week trek.
I looked back toward the car, still visible in the parking lot. I considered how easy it would be to bail out. All my trepidation about the rigors of the hike came rushing toward me, drenching me with anxiety. I wondered if I had enough mojo to see this through. Did I have the stamina to make it up the passes? Would exhaustion halt me in my tracks? What if lightning struck me to the ground? What if I was overcome with altitude sickness and had to be plucked off the mountain? Would I dissolve into a mass of blubbering protoplasm, whining that I couldn’t go on? Now that the migraine had settled in with all the charm of an unwanted guest, would I even make it through the first day? All I had to do was call out to Steve, tell him what was going on, climb back in the car and be whisked back to safety. I wallowed in that thought for a moment. The pull of civilization was almost too much to resist. Tears threatened to prick my eyes.
But no, I had put too much into this trip. The hours I’d spent navigating the archaic permit system, generating a collection of planning spreadsheets, training on countless steep trails and playing cheerleader to Steve’s intractable ambivalence were not going to be wasted. The migraine would pass and I’d be fine tomorrow. If we gave up our permit, we were not likely to get another one. The trip would be over before it started. The path was clear. I blinked back the tears, turned away from comfort and stepped forward into the void of the unknown, inhaling the moist and slightly smoky air.
I soon caught up to Steve, who was checking the map at the first junction of two trails. I surreptitiously rummaged through my kit for my migraine medication. Was it in the red ditty bag or the gray one? And in which pocket was it in? I was sure that after days of rummaging through my packs, I would eventually know exactly where every little item was. But in the moment, the exact location of those pills escaped me. I had moved things around so much, it was a free-for-all in my pack. I finally found the medication and slipped it under my tongue, hoping it would work quickly. The aura that gives me kaleidoscope eyes was mild so far, but I had no way of knowing how severe the headache would become. I just had to wait and see.
Even with my limited vision, an effect of the aura, I could see that Lyell Canyon was dramatic in its own way. The long, grassy valley was walled in by smooth granite domes, and bisected by the gentle Tuolumne River. Scattered trees had secured improbable footholds between the overlapping slabs of rock rising from the water. The acrid odor from the inferno of the El Portal Fire, which had been burning for days, tickled my nose, and the ghostly gray clouds of billowing smoke obscured the far peaks. However, the near views were still pleasing. The wide, level trail was like a walk in the park. I had a feeling that would change when we got further into the backcountry where the terrain and views would be more dramatic.
“Can you believe this?” Steve said, gesturing toward the leaden skies. “We haven’t had precipitation in a good six months in the worst drought year in history and it has to rain today?” I mumbled something about the showers being good for putting out the fire, but he said, “This little spritz isn’t going to do anything to put out that conflagration, so it’s just annoying.” He had a point. It was 2014, the third year of a multi-year drought and the inferno, which was started by lightning, was burning through 4,689 acres of the parched forest. It was going to take more than light drizzle to quench this blaze.
When I get a migraine I don’t always have the best judgment, so I waited until lunch to tell Steve about it. As I arranged our tortillas, string cheese and a gloppy concoction of corn soup on a bright blue bandana I said, “Um, I have a confession. I had a migraine this morning when we started.” I handed him a cup of soup, feeling a bit chagrined that I hadn’t told him right away.
“Why didn’t you tell me when it first happened?” he asked.
“I didn’t want to ruin your first day,” I replied. It sounded lame, even to me.
“I thought we had a plan,” he said.
“We did, but how would we have implemented it at the trailhead?” I said
At a loss for an answer, he looked at me with concern and said, “What do you want to do?”
“It’s been okay since it’s so flat. Let’s keep going. The aura is gone and the headache isn’t too bad right now. I promise I’ll let you know if I start feeling sick.” I was referring to the fatigue, malaise and generally yucky feeling I get after the acute migraine passes. He looked at me doubtfully, knowing there was a fifty-fifty chance that I would keep him informed. “I know I don’t want to climb at all, so if the trail starts going up, let’s stop,” I said casually as if I had this all figured out.
“Okay. We just have a few more easy miles until we get to where I planned to stop. It’s only eight miles total and we’ve already gone at least five. At our average of two miles an hour, that should take less than two hours.” Neither of us was happy about how the first day was starting out, but there wasn’t much we could do about it.
We were beginning this iconic hike, named for the famed rambler, John Muir, at the Lyell Canyon Trailhead near Tuolumne Meadows at 8,600 feet (2,621 m). We chose to commence here instead of at the official start at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley because it was easier to get a coveted permit. Also, that stretch of trail held no appeal since we live in California, regularly visit Yosemite National Park and have climbed Half Dome and other trails around the valley. This was a wilderness experience. Starting off with the intense hordes of tourists in the valley wasn’t compatible with our vision. A side benefit was that we didn’t have to pull huge elevation gain on the first day and, according to the map, it would be possible to position ourselves fairly close to Donohue Pass for a morning assault. Little did we know when we had sketched out the trip months ago that this rare flat section would benefit me so greatly.
Our plan was to hike for twenty-three days, covering 165 miles SOBO (southbound) over Kearsarge Pass to Onion Valley. This would take us through a patchwork of jurisdictions, including the Yosemite National Park, Ansel Adams Wilderness, Inyo National Forest, Devil’s Postpile National Monument, Sierra National Forest, John Muir Wilderness, King’s Canyon National Park and Sequoia National Park. Thankfully only one permit was required. We would also skip the last section, including Mt. Whitney, which we had hiked previously as part of the High Sierra Trail. We had a lot of backpacking experience, but this was our longest trek to date and the planning had consumed us for months. I knew the trail could throw all kinds of things at us. And yet, I had still envisioned the initial flat section to be a cinch, with blue skies, clear Sierra air, perhaps even a slight breeze kissing my cheeks. I’d pictured myself feeling strong and full of energy with fresh legs. The vision had not involved rain gear, pack covers, gray, smoky skies or my head exploding from the inside. I guess I needed to learn from the get-go that I was not in control.
The idea that we could hike a long trail had snuck up on Steve and me. For years, we had been content with weekend or week-long backpacking trips in California, Alaska and Canada. While we hiked our little hikes, we devoured mountaineering books, living vicariously on windswept, perilous Seven Summit mountain tops we would likely never visit. When we exhausted those, we moved on to hiking narratives, repeating the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) more times than any human could possibly replicate on two feet, never tiring of the endless recitations of the identical milestones along the 2,663-mile journey because each author brought a new perspective. We both rejected the idea of spending six months on the trail; however, the idea of a longish but not unfathomable trail became more appealing. Gradually the JMT, regarded as the most challenging as well as the most stunning part of the PCT, started to seem within reach. It still felt slightly audacious, though. Could we weekend warriors really hike that far? After testing our mettle on the seventy-two-mile High Sierra Trail, we decided we were ready for the challenge.
Now we were here and it was hard to believe that the landmarks we had read about so often were on the maps before us—never mind that I wouldn’t be able to read them until the aura passed.
A few hours later, as the path steepened into carved steps, the migraine progressed to its last stage and I started feeling downright ill. My muscles were heavy and I was achy all over, sensations I was more than familiar with. I never knew whether to attribute these symptoms to the migraine itself, the medication that was supposed to abort the migraine or the medication that counteracts the nausea caused by the migraine drug. Whatever the cause, it was time to stop. The map had indicated campsites before any elevation gain. Why were we ascending?
“Are we supposed to be going up?” I asked, catching up to Steve on a switchback.
“I didn’t think so.” he said. “Let’s fire up the GPS so we can tell exactly where we are.” But this wasn’t any kind of help. We could see the steep, rugged section of switchbacks without the aid of technology. “The book says there should have been some campsites back there,” he said. I hadn’t seen any but I didn’t know what we were looking for. Were they hidden some distance off the trail or would there be an obvious campground? A big ugly “KOA Campground” sign would have been welcome at that point. However, backtracking, like the migraine plan, wasn’t part of our Day One mindset. So we pressed on.
About half an hour later we found some flat tent sites in a heavily forested area near the Lyell Fork Bridge. After we set up camp Steve got a pencil, reconciled our spreadsheet against the JMT Atlas and realized that we had overshot our goal quite a bit.
“We hiked 10.7 miles today instead of the eight miles that we planned,” he said proudly, “That’ll really set us up nicely for the pass tomorrow.”
“That would have been relatively easy if it hadn’t been for my migraine,” I said. If I can do that while not being at my best, maybe this trail won’t be as hard as I anticipated and it won’t kick my butt, I thought. I fantasized about us knocking out miles effortlessly, sprinting over high passes with nary a wheeze from altitude, taking side trips to nearby lakes and being fresh enough to record the day’s events in my tiny notebook. I forgot for a moment that the elevation profile of the rest of the trail looked like an exaggerated Richter scale of monumental proportions, with over 45,000 feet of elevation gain and 35,000 feet of loss between all the passes. The great thing about make-believe is how soothing it is to the psyche after a tough day.
We studied the maps in the JMT Atlas, data sheet and phone app, but it was clear that they weren’t quite the same and we weren’t sure how to reconcile the mileage differences. Scrutinizing the almost level elevation profile of the section we had just hiked, I noticed an ever-so-slight up-tick at the end, and learned that minuscule changes on that horizontal line translated to big fluctuations underfoot. We also realized that we had likely missed the subtle signs that campsites were nearby, perhaps a faint use-trail branching off from the main track, or a slightly flattened spot in the dirt where tents had perched. I appreciated that our adjustment period was akin to moving into a new house where everything feels a bit off until you know exactly where your coffee cup is, what those sounds are on Friday morning when the garbage truck rumbles by, and where the paper gets delivered. We had everything we needed, but putting our hands on those things and interpreting environmental cues weren’t yet second nature. We were in the process of finding our groove.
Earlier, we had passed a NOBO (northbound) hiker, as close to finishing his trek as we were to starting ours. He cautioned us about going over Donohue Pass so late in the day. After we emphatically reassured him that was never part of our plan, I asked, “How was it?”—“it” being our very first pass, and his last.
He had looked at me before answering, seeming to assess the best way to respond. He cocked his head to one side and with a glint in his eye, said, “There’s a lot worse.” Fair enough. I knew Donohue was low compared to the passes we’d encounter later on, but being the first it was looming large in my imagination. We were at such opposing sides of “trail hardness” that it wasn’t even reasonable to have a shared context. I didn’t pursue it, though I had many more unanswerable questions.
I pondered this exchange repeatedly as I sat by the river, waving my SteriPEN, a UV device that purifies water, through the water in my bottle. The flashing red lights were confusing me. First there had been lights in my head, now I had to sort through lights on the device. I couldn’t remember what the flashing meant, but usually red meant bad and green was good. Since I had spent hours scanning owner’s manuals into my Evernote app for all of our devices, I made my way back to the tent to look it up on my phone.
“Steve, you won’t believe this. The SteriPEN is out of juice,” I said.
“How could that be?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe the two shake-down trips in Tahoe used them up?” I said.
“But it’s supposed to be good for something like fifty liters. We couldn’t have gone through that much,” he said. I tried to focus my brain on some simple calculations. Let’s see, I carry two liters in my hydration bladder plus one in my Nalgene bottle…on I went, tallying all of our water breaks until I came up with roughly thirty-three liters for a weekend trip. At two trips, that was a whopping sixty-six liters. I announced my findings. We looked at each other in disbelief. “Now I can see how we’re out of power,” he said, not even bothering to challenge my numbers the way he usually would, he being the numbers guy. He rummaged around for the miniature multi-tool to take the SteriPEN apart.
He took the end cap off. “Shit,” he said. Uh oh, I thought.
“What?” I asked.
“It takes two batteries,” he said.
“So?” I asked.
“We only brought one extra battery for this leg,” he said, looking slightly stricken. I groaned.
We discovered our first mistake. After reading at least a thousand times on the forums that we should bring a bucket of batteries for the SteriPEN, as well as supposedly checking and double checking every item, we had somehow missed the mark. Brief dithering ensued until we determined that we had at least three alternate methods of purifying water, including a small supply of iodine drops to be used in an emergency (I guess the emergency was here), boiling water on the stove (though that consumed more fuel) and a tiny bottle of bleach that I had brought for laundry. This episode left me completely wrung out, taking the last bit of reserves I had in me. I collapsed in the tent while Steve did all the camp chores.
“I feel bad that the start of our big hike was dominated by my migraine,” I said over a dinner of soupy turkey tetrazzini. It was hard to feel so dragged out and wrecked on our first “easy” day, because it disconnected our shared experience. While I was hiding my problems from Steve in the morning, then just wanting to get through the afternoon and finally just wanting to sleep it off, he was full of energy and happily enjoying the initial foray.
“It’s okay, there’s nothing you could do to change it,” he said in his usual implacable way. It drove me nuts how he could be so calm in the face of adversity, especially when I was excited about something. “It’ll be a better day tomorrow after a good night’s sleep. We have lots more days to enjoy the trail.” I appreciated all the little things he took care of while setting up camp that night, but I knew that I had to pull my weight on a trip this long, resolving to keep the whining to a minimum.
The first day had been rough so far. We’d experienced rain, smoke, a migraine, missed calculations and spent batteries. But it was nothing we couldn’t recover from. We turned in at hiker bedtime, 7:30 p.m., as shadows gathered in the dim forest. The rain started a percussive serenade against the tent walls, lulling us to sleep. I hoped that the second day would be a little smoother.
See slide show below.
- John Muir Trail: Permits, Planning and Prep
- Meal Planning for the John Muir Trail
- Ralph Burgess breaks SoBo John Muir Trail record
- Preventing altitude sickness on the John Muir Trail
- Top 10 Maps, Apps and Guides for the John Muir Trail
Published by Pacific Adventures Press.