Beautifully Brutal: Some Reflections on the John Muir Trail

Here I am again: sitting at my desk, writing at my computer. It feels weird to be out of the wild, off of the JMT, enjoying the fruits of civilization, facing the turn of the seasons again. I’ll spare you the “time goes so fast, I can’t believe the trail is already over, etc etc” sentiments, though I certainly have them, because there’s not a thing either of us can do about the relentless march of the clock except for treasure the present and reflect on the past. Allow me to do some reflecting for a moment.

For the past week and a half I have oscillated between astonishment at the hike, gratitude for having been granted the opportunity to explore the Sierras, and regret that I am not still on the John Muir Trail. I cannot overstate how much I want to be back on the trail. I yearn for it. I close my eyes and I see LeConte Canyon, its towering walls reflecting the waning daylight. I look to the hills and I am descending from Palisade Lakes to Deer Meadow. My thoughts wander and there I am again, back at Mt. Whitney, on the 14,500-foot pinnacle separating the brown expanse of desert from the jagged staccato peaks and glacier-carved valleys of the Sierra Nevada – the Range of Light. I am camping by Bubbs Creek near East Vidette. I am sharing a campfire with Timmy and three friends we met on the trail. I am ascending Pinchot Pass with an ice axe and crampons. I am climbing Half Dome. I am glissading down the snow on the north side of Forester Pass. I am crossing Evolution Meadow.  I am watching a bear scratch at a log from 100 yards away. I am looking up at Cathedral Peak, imagining how John Muir would have felt looking at it for the first time. I am telling the sun goodnight as it sets over Tuolumne Meadows.

In some odd, understated way I feel like a switch has been flipped somewhere within my neurons and muscle fibers, and now forward motion and the beautiful, masochistic satisfaction of covering the distance on foot and minimizing what I carry to the point of absolute necessity is stitched permanently into my soul. My motivation is aimed in a direct line towards the next time that I can hike for days, take a long walk from one point to the other. I feel like a world has been opened. It is solved by walking. The way is made by walking. As far as I am concerned, walking is the simplest, purest, most worthy activity. The trails are there. They are waiting for me. And I will find them.

On the trail you don’t get any filters. There is no noise. There is no distraction. You have to be okay with yourself, with sitting in silence and facing yourself head-on. It leaves the door wide open to brutal honesty. You see life as it really is. You are engaged daily in pain, in struggle, in simple actions, in the way life must have been before modern conveniences. Stripped of these layers, all that is left is the trail, and God, and you. I wish more people could experience that kind of simplicity. It takes away so much of our hurtful, superfluous, vain concerns. On the trail I don’t care whether someone I meet is from the United States, or Israel, or England. I don’t care if they’re conservative or liberal. It doesn’t ever come up in conversation, because it doesn’t matter: We are all out there together, experiencing the same beauty, the same pain, the same joy, the same struggle. This is true of life in general, of course, but it’s hard to see when there is so much noise. On the trail all is harmony, even in the chaos of nature. On the trail I can imagine a world free of hate, and full of simple peace. What I hope and pray is that I can translate that peace into my life, to live with the same joy and peace that the trail showed me – not keep it to myself, but spread it outward.

A few people have asked me to describe the John Muir Trail in a few words. What I have come up with so far is that it is beautiful and brutal, and beautifully brutal. For obvious reasons, the JMT is beautiful: The pristine alpine lakes framed by towering, glacier-speckled mountains; the mountain passes leading to new worlds of trees and streams; the meadows filled with deer and marmots – it’s no secret that the trail is visually stunning. But it’s brutal. There were miles of snow, thousands of feet of elevation gain and loss, really rough hills, rocky terrain and mud pits. It’s physically, mentally, and emotionally grueling. Just when you think you’re almost to camp, another drastic uphill mile that wasn’t even on the map presents itself. Switchbacks go on forever. The downhills are almost worse than the uphills, with all the wear-and-tear on the knees. But it was always, always worth it. My lowest, most desperate point on the trail was the north side of Mather Pass. It was hot, and the sun reflected off of the three miles of snow relentlessly, making for a rather frustrating combination. My crampons kept getting stuck in rocks, we unsuccessfully tried to avoid a thinning snow bridge, and a fast, hip-deep, freezing cold creek came out of nowhere right before we made camp, which was above 10,000 feet so we couldn’t even have a fire. But the next day, we cruised 8 miles to LeConte Canyon and were rewarded with the most incredible view of a meadow where the Middle Fork Kings River stops its violent flow and meanders softly, slowly, through the grass, while soaring mountains on either side keep watch. There was not a single part of the JMT that I would refer to as “easy.” But one hundred percent of that trail was worth it.

I think that I will be processing this trip for a while. No matter what trails I hike in the future, I have a feeling that this one will always be special: my first real thru-hike, my first real wilderness experience, the one that flipped the switch. The Sierras have wedged themselves into my heart, and I hold them there gratefully.

That’s all I’ve got for now! I hope this gives you, in the broadest sense, a feeling of what the John Muir Trail was like for me. In the coming weeks, I will add more pictures, as well as follow-up posts about our itinerary and a few more reflections about the JMT. Thanks for following along. 🙂

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