“The mountains are calling, and I must go.” – John Muir
It has been almost a full year since I first stepped onto one of the world’s most beautiful trails to begin a 20 day journey that would have me traversing the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Even as I sit down to write this it all still seems surreal, the idea that for three weeks I trekked across 211 miles of some of the most inspiring and gorgeous mountain ranges in America. This is, quite honestly, the first time I have ever attempted to write about the experience, and I still find myself mulling over my journal from the hike and wondering why that is? Why has it taken so long to sit down and document the full experience of living on the trail, the challenges that we faced, the beauty that we saw, this experience of a lifetime?
I think part of the reason is that it’s just too much to put into words. How can you explain to someone why you felt crazy enough, or were actually willing to take three weeks out of your life to just walk for miles, day after day, in the sweltering heat lugging around 45 pounds of gear. Sleeping at night freezing and balled up in your sleeping bag with a thin layer of ice adorning the roof of your tent, shivering and waiting anxiously for first light in the hope of a little bit of warmth? A number of times on the trail through hikers would greet each other with a playful, “Ah, so you were one of the ones dumb enough to leave the comfort of your bed for three weeks of this,” and each time you just had to laugh and agree that yes, I chose this constant nagging hunger, the feeling that you were never full, these blisters, these cold nights, these esoteric pains that the hiking community knows all too well. Yes, I chose to take on all of these things, and for what? There was no prize at the end, no one awarded you with a plaque for what you endured. The most you could hope for at the end of your long journey was acknowledgement from other hikers as you made your way off the trail that what you did was amazing, and a cold beer waiting for you at Whitney Portal.
So, why did we do it?
The John Muir Trail is a 211 mile long trail that cuts through the Sierra Nevada Mountain range of California. Named after the famous naturalist and first president of The Sierra Club, John Muir, the trail begins in Yosemite Valley and finishes at the highest point in the Continental U.S., Mt. Whitney. 160 miles of the trail runs through the Pacific Crest Trail, and passes through alpine mountains and valleys along its entirety. Throughout the entire trail, elevation gains that amount to just over 45,000 feet, and transverses over 10 mountain passes. Nicknamed “America’s Most Famous Trail,” the trail sees over 1,500 climbers each year.
The journey to the start of the John Muir Trail began 5 years ago in Moshi, Tanzania, at the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro, with a can of Cheddar Cheese Pringle’s, good music, and an airport pickup. Throughout 2012, I spent 6 months living and working for a non-profit organization in Tanzania called Make a Difference. The aim of the organization was to sponsor 22 orphaned youth in the Kilimanjaro Region by providing them with the opportunity for a quality education. While there, I helped with the marketing of the organization, as well as volunteer coordinating, which one of the duties included picking up volunteers at the airport once they had arrived. The first week of July 2012, a group was set to arrive to embark on a fundraising climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro, and the funds that were raised would go towards the children’s education. Of course, I would be partaking in the climb, and one of the first climbers to arrive was a petite, bubbly, and enthusiastic and all around wonderful girl named Jess.
Jess and I met when I picked her up from the Kilimanjaro Airport in the summer of 2012, and the first thing I offered her was a container of Cheddar Cheese Pringle’s. From that moment on, after bonding over our experience of climbing Kilimanjaro together (a post for later), listening to music late at night in the guest house in Moshi, Jess and I became fast friends that would see fit to bring us together every two years to embark on a different adventure. In 2014 we met up again for a fundraising climb for Make A Difference, except this time we met on a different continent and hiked the Inca Trail towards Machu Picchu in Peru (another post for later). Two years later in the summer of 2016 we found ourselves standing in the Jess’s living room in Los Angeles, California, sifting through our gear late into the night, hoping we had packed everything we would need for the three weeks ahead of us on the John Muir Trail.
In February of 2016, Jess and I chatted about the prospect of hiking the John Muir Trail, and applying yet again for the permits that seemed to elude us in years past. According to the John Muir website, tens of thousands of applicants apply each year to hike the trail, and only a small number actually receive permits. We had heard statistics of around 99% of applicants never receive permits, but again, we decided that it was worth a shot, and didn’t hold too much hope that we would actually get them. I had already planned a two-week vacation in Southeast Asia for that April, using up all except a weeks worth of my time off from work since I didn’t really expect us to receive permits this year. Low and behold though, in April, just a week prior to me leaving for my Asia trip, I received the email confirming our start date. Immediately I called Jess, who through her cheers and “Oh my gods” and “Are you being serious?” yells began crying at the news. I couldn’t help but laugh at the fact that we had actually received permits, and kept repeating to myself that there was no way, absolutely no way that this was really happening. We both paused after the initial excitement and reality had settled in and almost at the same time said, “Shit, so this is really happening? We have to plan this now.”
And, so we began planning. For 6 months we planned. We spoke over Skype, through email, text messages, and over the phone about every aspect of the hike. From the food we would bring, gear we would need, campsites, mileage per day, emergency scenarios, transportation to and from the trail, everything that you could possibly imagine we planned it out over the next 6 months. We read through blog posts to give us an idea of what lay ahead, bought books on the trail, and even watched a movie on Netflix called, Mile, Mile and a Half, to just give ourselves an idea about what we had just gotten ourselves into. Even through all of this planning and preparation and continuously throughout the months leading up to the climb I still asked myself, “Why am I doing this?”
Despite the fact that I had grown up going on camping trips with my dad and brothers, weekend trips to the Smokey Mountains and day hikes in the Appalachians, had climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and hiked the Inca Trail, a part of me still never quite felt like I was someone who could truthfully consider myself, “a hiker.” I know, it sounds strange to say despite the hiking resume I had put together over the years, but the reality was that I still felt sheepish when people asked if I considered myself a hiker, as if I was lying to them or fooling them in some way. On Kilimanjaro and the Inca Trail we had porters set our tents up each night, carry our gear, and prepare our meals. Up to that point I never really felt like I had truly roughed it, carried my own weight, and prepared all of my own meals and set out for days and weeks on end into the wilderness. The John Muir Trail represented a chance to truly show my merit and really make me feel confident in telling people that I knew how to camp and was an experienced hiker. This hike would not only test our stamina and ability to hike miles on end each day at elevations above 10,000 feet, but also our mental stamina for dealing with the long grueling days and isolation from the rest of the world, eating the same meals day in and day out, and packing up our gear and throwing it on our backs in order to make the miles each day.
Throughout all of planning Jess and I would constantly have long discussions about what we thought it would be like on the trail. Who would we meet? What would we see? Would we get tired of each other? What types of aches and pains do hikers experience that we don’t know about? Are we even prepared enough to do this? It was obvious we were both nervous, and honestly, who wouldn’t have been? This was a long and challenging hike, and the statistics that we had read stated that 1/3 people who start the trail never finish it. But, we were committed. We were in this thing and we were going to make it happen, regardless.
So, on a sunny day on August 25, 2016, Jess and I found ourselves hitch hiking to the Yosemite Valley from Tuolumne Meadows, holding up a sign that simply read, “Hikers to Yosemite Valley” with a smiley face drawn on the side (courtesy of Jess). Low and behold we received a ride quickly after we initially stuck out our thumbs, and coincidentally enough, it was from an Atlanta native who also happened to live a few streets down from where I lived. That night we camped in the campground close to the start of the trail, anxiously sipping beers talking about what lay ahead.
The following morning we set out on what would become one of the most memorable, epic, life changing, and indescribable hikes that I have ever been on. Our first steps onto trail were with uneasy legs and nervous excitement, with fresh packs pressed against our backs and riding atop our hips, we had exactly 211 miles ahead of us, which was proudly displayed on a rust covered board etched in white paint. Whitney Portal – 211 miles.
Over the next three weeks we would experience the aches and pains of the trail, the hiker’s hunger that we had heard so much about where you never feel full and constantly craving calories. The trail became our home during those three weeks, where we memorized maps and elevation gains, distances between camps, hours by the amount of sunlight left in the sky, and calculated how fast we could walk in an hour, depending on if it was uphill or downhill. We met some of the most amazing people on the trail, bonded by the stupidity of escaping the comfort of our homes for the roughness of the trail. The amount of times we went around a bend and had to stop with our hands against our hips, drawing in hoarse breaths blowing against cool breezes and just marvel at what was in front of us is incalculable. We had endless discussions about the positives of going uphill or downhill, played trail games to pass the time, and walked in silence alone in our thoughts, soaking in the nature that was around. It was more than we could have ever imagined, and as I sit here now writing just a brief summary of the experience of the trail it still brings back the goosebumps associated with fond memories of adventure.
I’d like to write about each section of the trail and describe the day’s events and what all goes into through hiking the John Muir Trail. So, please stay tuned for more posts as I attempt to put into words as best I can the remarkable three-week journey we embarked on. I’m also going to end each post with passages from the journal I kept while hiking. I think it will be interesting to revisit the thoughts and feeling as we made our way up and over the Sierra Nevada Mountains on America’s Greatest Trail.
Why are you doing this?
Because I’ve always considered myself a hiker. I’ve done weekend and overnight hikes before, climbed Kilimanjaro and Machu Picchu, but those were a different type of hiking. Kili we were catered to and our gear carried, just as it was with Machu Picchu. The weekend hikes are nothing to brag about.
I wanted a real challenge. A personal accomplishment that I knew would allow me to be honest with myself about being a true hiker.
And the scenery is beautiful, absolutely unreal to the point that I feel spoiled now.
August 26, 2016 DAY 0
We made it! I can’t believe after 6 months of planning and thinking about the hike it’s finally here! I’m sitting in Yosemite National Park right now with Jess in her tent and our new Australian friend Philla that we met at registration with granite walls 2,000 feet on either side of us.
I arrived last night at 9:00pm California time and Jess picked me up with In & Out Burger. We dropped Tili (Jess’s dog) off at her brother’s and by the time we made it to her place and finished packing it was around 1:00am. We woke up at 3:30am and drove to Whitney Portal where Jess’s park ranger friend picked us up and drove us to Tuolumne Meadows. We hitched a ride from a guy from Atlanta named Tyler who was out here rock climbing with friends. Nice guy. Jess and I got our permits, ate some food, and now here we are with Philla drinking beer.
I’m excited. Nervous at the weight of my pack and if I’ll be able to handle the hike and outdoors this long, but I know it will be an amazing accomplishment to do this and a great challenge. I won’t let myself down. I also can’t wait for the 2nd week when you’re in the zone. The first week will suck. Also, my goal is to say “At first light” as many times a possible. Love Point Break.
Weather is great! 80 degrees, dry, sunny. Philla also said she knows American’s get a bad rap, but she said she has experienced nothing but the nicest people while here. I thought that was really nice.