Roan Mountain, Tennessee was one of my tramily’s favorite places on the AT. I wrote the following entry while in my tent during our first night in town. The next morning, we met Birgit, a local who befriended us and graciously welcomed us into her home. We felt so lucky, and so at home. I’ll eventually write an essay about Birgit. But for now, here is my first-night Roan Mountain entry.
3 May: The Station at 19E and Roan Mountain, TN
Yet again the trail has shown me that often the best things that happen are ones I have failed to plan or foresee. We weren’t planning to go to Roan Mountain; I didn’t even know Roan Mountain was a town until a couple of days ago. But I made it to Overmountain Shelter yesterday and heard Krazy Glue and Camel and Lone Wolf talking about some festival at the Station at 19E this weekend and then, suddenly, the gears were put in motion to come to town.
My mood oscillated wildly today. Knowing myself, I know that this is because I did not sleep well last night. I was tired from a long and mentally exhausting day and I didn’t get enough rest in that converted barn, between the dog barking and the uncomfortable floor and my apparent inability to sleep in any shelter with half a z-lite. So I was acutely aware of the instability of my emotions this morning. At first I was peaceful, drinking my smooth morning coffee and looking down towards the gorgeous valley. Then I was sleepy and lazy, wanting to stay and sip for a while. Then I was irritated when I had to get going, and irritated that Krazy Glue was already miles ahead, and irritated that I’m still so slow despite all these hikes I’ve done, and irritated that I was irritated because it’s hiking and hiking doesn’t fucking matter. Then I walked over the top of a bald and just stopped, and thought for the millionth time about all of the Native people who used to live here and tend for the land and actually understand the earth from something other than a colonial, conquest-based perspective, and I thought, wow, we need that perspective now more than ever and what a shame it was to have killed them ravaged their land pushed them off, I hate my white ancestors and the colonialism that still lives within me. I wish I could do something substantial, why do people suck, but I’m so lucky. So lucky. I did nothing to deserve the opportunity to be on this mountain, looking at these highlands, cruising up this hill, bathing in this sunlight. Breathe.
Beauty washed over me, I was grateful, I was in awe, then I was going down down down and annoyed again, annoyed at the rocks and my slowness and my weak ankles and my inability to stay satiated and my selfishness. Took a snack break, drank water, I was me again. Rounded a final curve and the trail became mercifully smooth and easy and well cared-for. Close to a road, I thought, so close. The creek was flowing down with gravity, following me to 19E and there I was, on the road, refreshed, revived, ready to face my friends.
Odie picked me up in the Hiker Yearbook bus. I admit I was a little put off by him at first. I was thinking, we aren’t royalty for hiking this trail, and Benton Mackaye was no hero because paths and people were here so long before the AT was anything other than an idea. But now I see that Odie is kind and giving and would go out of his way not just for another hiker but for another human being. I like him. I’m grateful for him.
At lunch, eating with Camel and Krazy Glue and Lone Wolf, I feel my hunger becoming satiated and my desire to know these people around me increasing. Lone Wolf tells us about the rough time he’s had on this trail, dealing with family and relationship issues while trying to walk towards Maine. Something about him, about the way he talks and the way he tells his story, makes me lean in. Most men on this trail rub me the wrong way and make me want to avoid them like the plague. Lone Wolf is different. I want him to find what he’s looking for. I want him to be at peace.
Station 19E is a blessing. Roan Mountain is a blessing. Cold beer, Game of Thrones in the back room, charging our devices, gardens and parks and rivers. Everyone is friendly and kind, and it strikes me how this is the first place we’ve been to that is meant for and run for hikers but also for the community. And later, camping in the town park, we meet local volunteer One Mile and are welcomed and told that there’s free food in the kitchen. Free food, hospitality, welcomed with no questions and open arms. Would that everyone everywhere in this country could welcome anyone regardless of their background, their language, their skin color. What a privilege, what a relief, to feel welcome when we need rest.
I feel normal and free and in the right place. I feel like I would trust any person in this place with my life. I feel my desire for control and plans and perfection slipping away. The world needs to be different, yes, but sit and sip for a while. Look at this little place the Trail has given you. Thank you. Thank you.
I’m continuing with my reflections from early on in the trail. Here are a few selected highlights from North Carolina and Tennessee.
April 23, just before Hot Springs, NC, evening
Walking down the hill to camp, I couldn’t stop breathing in. That air, that green smell of oxygen, made me instinctually inhale. It smelled like summer, like bike riding in Loveland on my birthday, riding by the abandoned factory and traipsing down to the river to rest our legs and wash our feet. It smelled like the nature center and Monica digging clay from the creek and walking on rocks. It smelled sweet and scary, like the joy of adolescent ignorance mingled with the vague understanding that one day soon, things would change.
As I was walking down the hill, I put on the Tuck Everlasting theme song and remembered how that movie was always inextricably linked with summer in my mind. I think of the massive tree in that movie and the sleepy sense of time. It made so much sense to set that story in summer, where the afternoons seem to stretch on forever and impossible things seem to be as likely as any other event. A caterpillar could magically appear in an inland field of lighthouses in cape cod, for example. A family could drink from an enchanted spring and live forever. A swing could stop midair. A hammock could cradle a million fantasies and, just maybe, they would come true.
It’s not summer yet, so I don’t know why I was thinking about these things. All of the green, I think. The flowers and the oxygen filled my lungs with the kind of hope and stillness I remember from summer.
I’ve been a little frustrated with my lack of “deep thoughts” or “original ideas” on this trail. I want to write something dramatic and meaningful but I feel stuck. I’m tired of my own style, with its excessive commas and artistic sentence fragments. I know the only remedy is writing, of course, that’s rule number one, but it’s frustrating. It feels big to be doing this, but so many thousands of other people have done this same thing. Looking at the stars last night on Max Patch I felt so small. Pleasantly so; I don’t need to be large or dramatic or original. It doesn’t matter anyway, and there’s a comfort in that. I’ll just write and walk and see what happens.
I’ll just write and walk and see what happens.
The sunrise greets me with warmth and with the breaking of every morning I feel more and more at home. My talk with KG and Patches last night made me feel even closer to them, and I’m amazed and grateful to be surrounded by such good people. Here we are tonight, in this weird little campsite, about to share tents. We’re heading to Hot Springs tomorrow and I’m excited for another little adventure along the way. Every day, new glories. Every day, new places, new lessons. I like life on the trail.
25 April, Lover’s Leap, just north of Hot Springs, NC. Morning.
I remember the boats. The sultry synthetic shape of them. White, pencil-thin fiberglass shimmering in the late May sunshine. I remember the smell, the green, the murmuring storm clouds far in the background. In my memory, East Fork Lake sits patiently in its verdant basin while the teams of strong young people slice its waters in synchronized strokes. Their shoulders are tanned and burned and tanned again, stringy muscles gliding and leaping with every stroke. Their uniforms are blue, green, white; blue water, green trees, white clouds. The day slides on. Pull, pull, pull. Morning to afternoon to sunset. Crickets emerge, blueberry cobbler is eaten on the deck. Pull, pull, pull.
It’s almost summer, but not yet, the last regatta before the end of the season. This is possibility; it would henceforth symbolize the feeling of being on the brink of something waiting to begin. This is the day I think of when I smell green leaves and listen to roaring river water and feel the late spring rain. More things have happened since then: new states, new friends, new late-spring memories of rock climbing and sitting on the quad and hammocking and traveling to England and planning summer study abroad. Still, each verdant late-spring day pulls me back to this moment on East Fork. Water, sky, clouds, rain.
When I stand and look out on a valley, or see rain clouds and hear a train, or smell oxygen and the tipping breath of summer, I tend to think of all the possibilities. All the could-bes. I could do this, I could go there. I thought about it at East Fork: life seemed waiting to begin. It seemed hinged and poised on the water. I wondered what was around the corner and hoped for majesty and adventure. It all seemed about to happen. Not quite possible, not quite happening, but about to happen. Trees make me feel this way. Trails and rainstorms and impending summer make me feel hushed and expectant.
But here, in the drizzle, looking down to the French Broad and heading up into the mountains again, it hits me: this is not a could-be moment; this is it. I’m here, I’m alive. What I’m smelling isn’t the oxygen and chlorophyll of what could be and what is out there; I am breathing in what already is.
26 April, campsite past Spring Mountain Shelter
In my tent, in the rainstorm, two miles north of Spring Mountain Shelter. I wake up from a peaceful and nearly-perfect sleep. I have found that the most restful nights on the Appalachian Trail often follow some of the worst nights. Sleeping on the French Broad was delightful for its sound, but I kept sliding down the hill and finding myself in a pile at the end of my tent. The One didn’t quite fit in the spots, and I find little punctures in my polycryo from the thorny pokey plants there in the sand. Well, I think, at least my almost-ultralight kit includes gear tape. I patched it up last night and here, at this little campsite in the woods, I have just awoken from a deep sleep. It was the kind of in-tent sleep I’d been waiting for on this trail. Usually I get a passable amount of hours in, a satisfactorily restful night to tide me over until I set up my tent again. But last night, I slept.
I have found that the most restful nights on the Appalachian Trail often follow some of the worst nights.
I hear no birds this morning, which always feels like a loss. I love the chickadees and wrens and woodpeckers. But the rain is tap-tap-tapping on my single-wall tent. FIrst slow, then fast, then slow again–the weather can never quite make up its mind in the Appalachians. I have to admit that I love that about them.
I’m happy that we’re not hitting another town for a while. I love visiting towns but hitting them to often makes me feel off-kilter and out of rhythm. Even though we still did 8 miles on Hot Springs day, it felt like a distraction from the trail. I also think I might like to start hitting some more off-the-beaten-track places. It’s nice fo be in a bubble when you like everyone, but it’s stressful to be too close to the epicenter of norovirus and sometimes I feel like I get pulled in a direction that is not my own.
Everything is packed up now and I’m just writing before I leave. It’s always hard to get out of the tent when the rain is coming down. Tap, tap, big taps of water falling on my little house in the woods. Time to emerge, get uncomfortable, an keep moving.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m going to be sharing some more in-depth updates from the Appalachian Trail, with revisions from my original writing. Here are just a few thoughts from my first week on trail.
25 March, Day 2: Hawk Mountain Shelter
I’m lying here in a three-sided wooden structure, between two strangers who, I realize, I would somehow trust with my life. Out here, you have to make bonds fast. You’re forced to cut through the bullshit and get to the core more quickly. We all have a common goal and we’re all equally as nuts for willingly going out for a five month walk. There’s an unspoken and necessary trust here. on my right: this wiry, strong, middle-aged woman who is meeting her family in a couple days. On my left: Bo (BBQ) the recent graduate who made the awesome custom deck of AT cards. I’ve talked with them for a matter of hours yet here I am, lying on a wooden platform in the middle of nowhere in Georgia, perfectly trusting in the human beings lying in this box. I have to be: the rain and hail poured from the sky today and it seemed much drier and safer to stay in the shelter. Convenience and comfort trump doubt and distrust. Sure, avoid people who make you uncomfortable. But as long as you have good feelings, the beginnings of community can arise.
28 March, Day 5: Lance Creek, 07:11
Woke up to the trill of a bird up on the hill. Consulted Audubon and I think it’s a Carolina Wren. Pattern of three ascending notes, repeated three times. Another bird across the valley seemed to be talking but the song was a little different. Now I’m hearing the four notes of the Carolina chickadee. It feels so cool to know what I’m hearing, if I’m right about it. Now I want to know Native names. What did the people who originally occupy these lands call the chickadee, the Wren, Lance Creek? There is so much knowledge here that I will never be able to fully tap into, but it feels wonderful to start to identify songs.
30 March, Day 7: Rocky Mountain Campsite, 19:42
The sun is setting but everyone is in their tents. I’m here in the silence, a thing surprisingly not common on the AT, listening to the rustle of wind and watching the sun slide behind the clouds and mountains. There’s no light like the forest at sunset. It glows, every leaf and rock and white blaze. I’m aggrieved for the loss of Native knowledge and stewardship of these lands. I am also grateful for the chance to be a visitor here. Thank you, Native peoples who tended these lands long before I arrived. Thank you, chickadees and wrens and bluebirds. Thank you, trees and wind and rain and sun. Thank you, Appalachian Trail.
A couple of weeks ago, my friend Janna and I went on a weekend trip to Page, Arizona, about 2 hours north of our beloved mountain town of Flagstaff. While the city itself is underwhelming, the two main attractions of the area – Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend – are some of the most photographed, most famous, and (rightly) most visited places in the United States. If you’re considering making a trip to Antelope Canyon, you’re probably weighing the cost of the tours, the logistics of getting there, and accommodation options. Here, I’d like to share my experience with this trip to help you make the most of your visit to this distinctly not wild, but beautiful, surreal, and totally worth-the-trip place.
Note: If you’d like to see just the photos from the trip, check out my gallery page.
Page is remote – it sits at the northeastern corner of Arizona, mere miles from Utah. Like everything in the southwest, it seems to be far from everything else. But luckily, if you’re already in Flagstaff, it’s an easy 2-hour hop, skip, and a jump away, making it a perfect weekend destination.
Janna and I left Flagstaff around 5 PM on a Friday. The trip was simple, following 89A north of town and into the Navajo Nation, rounding corners with views of scraggly, otherworldly rocks and climbing up a steep hill that yielded impressive views of the Vermillion Cliffs and the far eastern edge of the Grand Canyon. We listened to a lot of K-Pop on the way, as we are wont to do, so it felt like a mere few minutes to get to Page.
As we covered the last few miles and rolled into Page, we noticed plentiful accommodation – both affordable and mid-range hotels, it looked like. But we, being the outdoorsy and broke grad students that we are, were headed for a free BLM campsite just north of town, on the 89A near Lake Powell. Reading the descriptions online, we were a little concerned about the quality of the road, since I have an adventurous but tiny and low-clearance Grand Am. But we found the gravel to be perfectly drive-able for the first quarter-mile, which was the minimum distance campers had to keep from the road.
The camping was everything car camping should be: free, quiet, located close to our destination, and easy to find. While we were eating dinner and reading, we got a few glimpses of jackrabbits bouncing through the brush, and in the morning we got to see the funky rock formations surrounding the area and a beautiful sunrise. There is absolutely nothing like waking up while camping in the southwest: the mornings smell crisp, clear, and full of potential. After gathering up our stuff and packing up the tent, we headed towards town, in search of breakfast, coffee, and bathrooms. We had a tour reservation at 11:30 and a few hours to spare, so we decided to go to Horseshoe Bend first before the tourists arrived.
Located just south of Page off the 89A, Horseshoe Bend is an impressively deep incised meander of the Colorado River. It’s a frequently photographed spot at a location conveniently close to Antelope Canyon.
We visited Horseshoe in the morning, hoping to avoid large hordes of tourists and to get an opportunity to photograph the feature before the sun became overly bright. We planned it right with the tourists – when we got there, around 7:30, there were only a few other people present, but as we were walking back to the car, large groups on tour busses had begun arriving. But the sun at that time of day was a little challenging – there was a deep shadow in the canyon, making it difficult to adjust the settings on our cameras to capture both the shadowy and bright parts of the bend. But this also gave the view an interesting effect. If I ever go back, I’d like to try to be at Horseshoe at either sunset or sunrise to get some different light. I guarantee that any time of day, though, is very impressive for viewing this place.
One thing that Janna and I really enjoyed about being at Horseshoe Bend was sitting on the edge of the cliff and watching people down on the river. It’s fun to see boats come down one side of the bend, make the curve, and keep on going, and it was also cool to see the tiny little ant people down on the banks. It really gives you a scale of the depth of the canyon, and of how precarious the edge of the cliff really is.
Speaking of edges, at the current moment there are no railings or guardrails to keep overly zealous tourists from tumbling over. For some reason, I find this weirdly refreshing – in my experience there aren’t many places left in the States where large groups of tourists can get intimately close to an edge, relying only on their common sense to keep them safe. But we did notice as we were walking up to the vista that a rail was being constructed in parts of the area. I was glad to be there before it was constructed.
Lower Antelope Canyon
After our pleasantly long visit to Horseshoe Bend, Janna and I went back to town for breakfast and reading, since our tour was not until 11:30 (meaning we had to be there by 11). Though it was only April, it was already in the high 80s, so we were glad for a few hours in the air-conditioned sanctum of the McDonald’s. The time passed quickly, though, and we were on our way to Ken’s Tours at Lower Antelope Canyon.
A word about tours and visiting Antelope: The canyon is on Navajo land, so in order to go in, visitors must book tours with one of the guide companies ahead of time. The day that Janna and I booked our tour, it was a Friday in early April, and at the time of booking most of the tour spaces were open. However, three days later a friend of ours tried to book for the same day as us, and everything was filled up. We later learned that April is one of the most popular months, and obviously weekends are busier.
Upon arriving at the tour company, we picked up and paid for our tickets (the online system just reserves the space; visitors must pay in cash on the day of the tour), waited for our tour to gather outside, and then we were walked down the surprisingly intricate system of stairs and ladders to the start of the Lower canyon.
Descending into the famed orange canyon was like Alice falling down the rabbit hole – you can see the pictures and imagine the formations all you want, but there is nothing like seeing the textures, the undulating walls, and the surreal landscape of the ceilings and cracks that comprise the canyon.
When I told a few of my friends that I was going to Antelope Canyon this year, a lot of them told me that it wasn’t worth it because it was crowded, rushed, and overly touristy. It’s true that there are a lot of people – if you’re looking for a quiet, solitary wilderness experience, this is not that. Not by a long stretch. At the beginning of the tour especially, there are a lot of people crammed into one space. But the guides do a good job of spreading out the groups of people and taking their time walking through the canyon.
In the photo above, you can see the extent of the crowd in the first “room” of the canyon. It seemed like the guides used this room like a holding space or waiting area. We were kept here for a few minutes, then led up another set of ladders and stairs to begin the rest of the tour. After that point, the crowd thinned out, it became quieter, and we were able to view the features of the canyon in smooth, slow detail.
One of the reasons I was really excited about this trip was that I had recently bought a new camera – a Sony Alpha a6000 mirrorless DSLR – for my upcoming trip to Europe and other assorted adventures. So far, the camera has done really well in moderate to low light in up-close and mid-distance landscape settings, so I was excited to try it out in the canyon. Likewise, Janna brought her Canon Rebel DSLR to capture the famous formation. We both had really positive experiences with photography in Lower Antelope: the tour never felt rushed, the guide showed us a few good places for taking the best photos, and there were numerous opportunities for testing out a variety of angles.
After the waiting room, I began to really enjoy the tour. We walked slowly through narrow slots, looking up periodically to see a bird’s nest, an interesting formation, a hole in the rock, or a snaking crack offering a view of the blue sky above. In the canyon, looking at the wavelike walls, it’s easy to imagine how the soft Navajo sandstone was formed by rushing, cutting water. The very shape of the canyon screams water: the rock alternates between sharp points and smooth edges, with calcium deposits scattered throughout the walls. It’s the southwest at its most ethereal, most impressive best: geology in simultaneously slow and immediate motion.
It’s hard for me to justify or understand anyone’s claims that it’s not “worth it” to go to Antelope Canyon. Yes, it was touristy, but so is the Grand Canyon, and despite going there eight times and being increasingly frustrated with crowds every time, I would never say that it’s not “worth it” to see it. Of course I wish that Antelope Canyon had been quieter or more “wild.” But it was 100% worth it. Despite it being a prime photography destination, and despite all of the beautiful photos I got to take, nothing compares to being there, feeling the warm orange light and purple shadows creep across the walls. I was very happy that we had made the trip.
One thing I do wish, though, is that the tour had been more informative. Our tour guide was friendly (and he spoke Korean, randomly enough, which came in handy with the one Korean family on our tour, and which really excited Janna!), but he didn’t give us very much information about the canyon. I wanted to know more about the geology, for example, or the meaning of the canyon to the Navajo people, or the statistics on visitation. I’d wager that this lack of information has to do with the fact that most people who come to the canyon seem to just want to take pictures – despite the lack of extensive tour guide-ish information, he did offer to take photos for us at multiple points during the walk. Or perhaps the canyon just doesn’t lend itself well to people shutting up and listening to a tour guide talk. Still, I think that a bit more information about the place would have enhanced the experience.
The End of the Tour and Heading Home
At the end of the tour, we climbed up another set of stairs and emerged on ground level, just behind the building where we began. It was crazy to look back at the slot that we’d just emerged from – from the top, it looks like nothing more than an unassuming crack in the ground, rather than the magical wonderland of color and light that we had just seen. The earth holds such wonders, I caught myself thinking. Around every corner, within every crack, in every walk, there is something amazing to see.
Our trip home was just as simple and quick as the drive to Page. Since it was earlier in the day, we got a clearer view of the Vermillion Cliffs and the edge of the Grand Canyon, and we made it back to Flagstaff by late afternoon, with plenty of time to spare for grading, homework, and essays.
Overall, I would strongly recommend visiting Horseshoe Bend and Lower Antelope Canyon. We didn’t see the Upper Canyon so I can’t vouch for that experience, but I found Lower to be a worthwhile destination. While it’s not wilderness, and while the tour is lacking some informative elements, the canyon was beautiful, breathtaking, and inspiring. I don’t know if I would travel across the country just to see it, but combined with Horseshoe Bend, Utah National Parks, the Grand Canyon, and Flagstaff, Antelope is definitely a worthy addition to any southwest travel list.
Short post because I’m writing on a phone! More detailed updates to come, but for now here’s a quick briefing…
17 days of hiking has led us to Red’s Meadow Resort and a much needed zero day in the town of Mammoth Lakes! We are about 60 miles from the end of the road for this venture, Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite Valley. And I’m having a really hard time putting into words what the John Muir Trail has been like.
We have crossed snowy mountain passes and countless freezing cold streams. We have summited Mt. Whitney and stood speechless and awed in soaring valleys looking up at unimaginably beautiful mountains and cliff faces. We’ve traversed zones scarred and shaped by wildfires decades past, stumbled upon many a deer grazing in many a perfect, picturesque meadow. We have eaten more than a few freeze-dried meals, Snickers, and bags of instant oatmeal, fended off hundreds of mosquitoes and flies, and gone up and down more switchbacks than I believed possible before this trip. It has been wild, it has been freeing, it has been peaceful, it has been hilarious, it has been humbling, and it has been hard.
Two and a half weeks in and I can understand perfectly what drives Triple Crown-caliber hikers to pound out thousands and thousands of miles: among other things, the beauty, the curiosity, and the pure majesty of the distance. I love the mountains. I love being part of the mountains, no matter how brutal and snowy and insanely difficult they are. I feel at once like a stranger and as if I were at home. It is magic. It is freedom. It is, as John Muir called it, a good practical sort of immortality.
Here are a few photos from the first two and a half weeks. About a week more and we’ll be in Yosemite! More pictures, thoughts, and stories to come. Thanks for following along! -S
It’s here. It’s finally here. After months of planning, training, packing, gear purchasing, paring down, and stuffing more food than is reasonable into a bear can, the time has arrived. Tomorrow morning we’ll depart LA for the Eastern Sierra Interagency Center in Lone Pine, where we will pick up the permit that we reserved for our trailhead back in January. I would say that I can’t believe it’s already time, but it honestly feels like I’ve been thinking about this trail for a zillion and a half years. For months now I’ve been poring over maps, writing notes about river crossings, debating the merits of fleece versus down (spoilers: I’m bringing both), triple-checking my solar charger and external battery and InReach messenger settings, and going back and forth about whether or not I need my ice axe (I think I’m bringing it just in case). I am tired of planning, tired of talking about it, and tired of waiting. I’m ready. My boots are sitting by the door, my pack is loaded up, and I am 10000% ready to go.
I’m an optimistic person, but I’m also a cautious person, so I don’t want to oversimplify or understate the dangers that this year presents – a record snowfall in many parts of the Sierra leading to swollen stream crossings and miles of snow well into July is nothing to take lightly. However, recent NOBO reports on the JMT Hikers 2017 Facebook group indicate much faster melt and much more dry land in the southern half than the northern, which is great news for us. One report even said that the entire area between Cottonwood and Crabtree is completely snow-free (this still sounds too good to be true to me, so I’m taking that observation lightly). Another indicated that the infamous snow chute on Forester Pass is nearly melted out. These are incredibly good signs. Both Timmy and I are feeling strong and ready to go beyond our planned itinerary for the first day (instead of 5 miles we want to hike about 12), and we’re both so jazzed to get out there and see what the incredible, infinite, majestic High Sierra has to show us, teach us, give us. Of course we want to make it to Yosemite, but even if we only make it as far as Kearsarge, or Taboose, or Bishop, we will still have been out there, and that, after all, is really the point of this whole thing.
The psych is high right now, and I’m so excited that I’m not sure if I’ll be able to sleep tonight and tomorrow, but I am also experiencing a feeling that is hard to place or to describe. It’s something deep, a profoundly moving sense of gratitude, solemnity, and grace as we approach our trailhead. It’s almost identical to the feeling I had the night before I started the Camino de Santiago two summers ago, when in the evening I watched the setting sun cover the town of St. Jean and the rolling Pyrenees in soft pink light, feeling the turning of the earth and knowing, in my heart, that I was absolutely where I was meant to be. Although I do not doubt the constant and gentle workings of the Divine in everyday life, there are really only a handful of times in my life that I can point to and say with certainty that goes beyond emotion, “God was there.” That night was one of them, and this moment before our departure feels like one as well. It’s hard for me to explain why the mountains pull me so strongly, or why I feel like a magnet drawn inextricably to the Sierras, or why, even though it’s grueling, smelly, sticky, and stupidly hard, the simple act of doing nothing but walking for days on end speaks peace into my soul. But all of this is true on a primal level. In reading his words, I feel a kindred connection with old bearded John Muir, the gentle, observant wanderer in the mountains. I feel so blessed to have the health, the ability, and the opportunity to walk in his footsteps in the rugged California landscape he loved so much.
I’m going to try to sleep, but my expectations aren’t so high for that. 🙂 I’ll also try to add updates while I’m on the trail, but it’s more likely that I’ll write afterwards, so hold tight.
In closing, let me leave you with a few words by John Muir himself:
“Wander a whole summer if you can. Thousands of God’s wild blessings will search you and soak you as if you were a sponge, and the big days will go by uncounted. If you are business-tangled, and so burdened by duty that only weeks can be got out of the heavy-laden year … give a month at least to this precious reserve. Time will not be taken from the sum of your life. Instead of shortening, it will definitely lengthen it and make you truly immortal.”
Life is nothing without curiosity and wandering. Here’s to our wild places, our mountains, and those who explore them.
PS: If you’re interested in having a look at our route and planned itinerary, here’s a link to a map I put together: https://caltopo.com/m/78MU
Above: My gear for the JMT in 2017, including the “maybe item” Petzl Glacier ice axe – 350g (will wait until the day before to decide based on trail reports). My Osprey Ariel 65 is off to the side at top right. My Kelty Cosmic Down 20-degree sleeping bag will go in a dry compression sack and then in a waterproof trash compactor bag. Melanzana fleece and Patagonia Down Sweater will both be in my kit because I get really cold.
Heavy(ish) pack = ultralight dreams
Backpacking seems like it should be simple, right? You just pack your bag, find your trailhead, and start walking!
Backpackers, especially JMT hikers, have to consider so many things that day hikers and causal walkers never have to deal with. Above tree line? Congratulations, you get to go to the bathroom in a wag bag and carry your own poo for 90 miles! Record snow year? Hooray, even the simplest “creeks” can become raging death-traps if you don’t time your crossings right or look for alternate fords! Going 10 days in between resupplies? Right on, here’s 14 pounds of food and a bag of tortillas to last you until Muir Trail Ranch! Etc. etc. etc.
I’m definitely not complaining, because I am just bouncing around in my seat waiting to get out into those beautiful mountains. But it’s been a little stressful trying to balance weight and anticipated need, especially since I’ve never tried a hike like this before, and it just so happens that this is one of the hardest trails, and one of the highest snow years on record. The result of my multiple months of repackaging, paring down, and realistic assessment is a base weight of about 22 pounds, a bear canister with around 12-14 pounds of freeze-dried meals, granola bars, and instant coffee, and the fluctuating capacity for anywhere between 1-5 pounds of water. The food weight will start to go down very quickly, and I may not end up bringing my ice axe (it’s a day-before decision for me). So overall, my pack will be around the 30-35-lb region.
I’ve been training hard, and consistently, at between 7,000 and 12,300-foot elevation with 30-40 pounds for the last couple of months, and I feel prepared to deal with the immense weight for the first couple of days before it gets closer to a more comfortable 30. But I’m already starting to see through the cracks in my kit. Most ultralight (or at least decently-light) long-distance hikers will laugh and shake their heads at you if you carry anything over 20 pounds for a thru-hike. I understand this reasoning. Lighter weight means bigger, more enjoyable daily mileages. You’re thinking less about what’s on your back and more about the nature around you.
For me, there are a few issues with the ultralight camp, though, chiefly among them being the very practical reason of cost – as a general rule, the lighter the weight, the higher the price tag. But besides this, I really feel like one’s personal journey in backpacking is just that – personal. I can’t expect to just do my first thru-hike and have my system down pat. It will take many miles and years before I have consolidated and become comfortable with that balance between weight and necessity. On this hike I will probably learn that much of my preparation was in vain, or that I didn’t use certain items as frequently as I thought I would. Or, equally likely, I will learn that I missed something on the trail that I elected not to bring. Either way, I’m learning to be okay with this uncertainty, and to embrace the journey. I might get made fun of by PCTers with 20-liter packs on this summer’s trail, but maybe in a few years I’ll be a 2,000-miler with a base weight of 9. That’s the dream. And it’s in the future. For now, my 65-liter setup will be just fine.
I’ve been training like crazy for the JMT. This is mainly because I see this trail as having so many inherent hazards this year (e.g., snow on high passes, swollen creek crossings, mosquitoes by the bushel, to name a few), and I do not want my fitness (or lack thereof) to be added into this grab-bag of danger. Also, Timmy has legs that are about a half a mile long, and I am a much happier camper (and I’m sure he is too) when I can keep up. So alas, I have been doing a variety of hikes with a variety of weight throughout the spring and summer in order to feel prepared and ready to carry 35-40 pounds over some of the highest elevations in the lower 48.
Some of the more hilarious training experiences involved nightly walks with my mom when I was home in Kentucky for a few weeks, wherein I would carry my 65-liter pack, full of textbooks, craft supplies, cans of sand, cans of tomatoes, and the entire Harry Potter book series for weight, while she would push our two Pomeranians in their stroller (yes, they have a stroller). It was a sight to behold.
Some of the more epic training hikes included my trek to the summit of Mt. Katahdin in Maine via the Hunt Trail, which comprises the last five miles of the Appalachian Trail, as well as the Penobscot Mountain Trail in Acadia National Park (by the way, Maine is rad. Go there). More recently, I hiked to the summit of Humphreys Peak, the tallest mountain in Arizona at 12,633, and only a slim 20 miles from my house in Flagstaff, in addition to a few other rad hikes around Northern Arizona like the Kachina Trail, the Abineau Canyon Trail (possibly my all-time favorite in the area), and the Little Elden Spring/Little Bear trail in the Dry Lake Hills. For each of the less difficult hikes I’ve tried to at least approximate the amount of weight I’ll be carrying on the JMT, while the more gnarly ones like Katahdin and Humphreys got a bit of the weight shaved off for time-saving purposes.
Although I haven’t even stepped onto the JMT yet, I can confidently say that this has already been one of the most incredible summers yet! Cheers to my mom and all my hiking buddies who have shared these beautiful trails with me so far this year.
9 days until liftoff!!
The famous sign on the summit of Mt. Katahdin, northern terminus of the AT
The approach to the Tablelands on Mt. Katahdin
View of Jordan Pond from Penobscot Mountain, Acadia National Park, Maine
Acadia National Park, Maine
On the summit of Humphreys Peak, the highest point in Arizona
Agassiz (R) and Fremont (L) peaks from the top of Humphreys Peak, AZ
View of Mt. Katahdin from the New England Outdoor Center, Millinocket, ME
Fremont and Agassiz Peak from the summit of Humphreys Peak, AZ
Views from the summit of Mt. Katahdin, Maine
The characteristic white blaze of the AT on the way to Mt. Katahdin, Maine
I’ve never been able to stick with blogs before. Whether they are too specific to sustain my interest, or too broad to share pertinent thoughts, I haven’t had much success in the past.
But alas. I am trying again.
Because this year, I am attempting to hike the John Muir Trail northbound, in July, in the highest recorded snow year since 2011. It will be amazing, terrifying, exhausting, frustrating, mesmerizing, and belligerently beautiful. And I would be remiss to not share my experience, my strategies, my successes and my failures, and my thoughts with someone else out there.
If I were going alone, I’d be shaking in my boots just thinking about the snowmelt, the passes, and the “it’s a waist-deep wade at low flow” water crossings I’ll be facing. But as it is, I’ll be joined by my patient, level-headed, infinitely calm boyfriend, who happens to be a Wilderness First Responder (WFR), hopefully soon to be a wEMT. This fact makes the whole thing a notch less deathly-seeming. But even with the best preparation, gear, and emergency medical knowledge, it’s not an easy trail: The lowest elevation outside of Yosemite is a few hundred feet below 10,000. The highest point on the trail is Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 at 14,500 ft, followed a swift two days later by the ominous Forester Pass, at 13,200. I’m carrying crampons and an ice axe. I packed most of my gear in dry bags so that my down bag doesn’t get wet, and therefore not keep me warm at the likely sub-freezing night temperatures. This trail is intentionally hard, and intentionally incredible. Many hikers call it the most beautiful mountain scenery in America. It is relentless in both its difficulty and its awe-inspiring grandeur.
So here I am, writing for you, dear reader, in the hopes that I can convey the majesty, the excitement, the terror, and the incredible beauty of California’s High Sierra and my 230-mile trek through it.
Here’s my plan for this site:
First, I’ll be posting some thoughts on training, reasons for hiking, trails I’ve walked so far this summer, and mental and spiritual preparation for the trip, among other things.
Then, hopefully, after the trip I’ll be able to share the actual experiences, the conditions, and insights gained from my time on the trail.
Finally, after the trip, I hope to make this a more general space for my hiking (and specifically thru-hiking and long-distance hiking) experiences (other planned treks include the Camino del Norte and the Camino Primitivo in Spain, and *hopefully* an Appalachian Trail thru-hike before too many more years go by!). I hope to share reflections, life lessons, gear and equipment ideas, and general thoughts on the outdoors and life.
I ran cross country all four years of high school. In the summer, as soon as the conference rules allowed us to practice, we met five times a week at 7 in the morning for runs that ranged from short-distance speed training to long, grueling, sweaty Kentucky 12-milers. When I started I could barely jog two miles, and by the end of my first season I could make it through ten in a reasonable time. I was never fast, no matter how hard I tried, and I’m sure I had a really dumb-looking gait, but I loved it. I loved the hazy pinkish light of those humid early mornings, the cool fog descending on the lakes, feeling the miles dissolve beneath my feet, experiencing my body grow stronger, slimmer, and more able to endure the distance. But if you had asked me during any of those runs – particularly the longest, hottest, most solitary ones – if I ever wanted to run again, I probably would have screamed a ragged “HELL NO” in your face before painfully slugging back to campus in what could only in the most liberal definitions be considered a “jog.” But later, once the run was over, having gulped down a liter of water and a Clif Bar, I would instantly look back on that run with fondness and earnest joy, remembering only the strength and the pretty morning light, the raw feeling of glory in possessing the ability to go so far on pure strength and determination – and I would be fully ready to do the whole thing over again, and again, and again.
This, friends, is what the outdoors community likes to call “type 2 fun.” It’s grueling, endless, and painful while you’re doing it, but when you look back all you can remember is the glory. Much like running cross country, hiking presents this kind of experience to its adherents. There are gnarly ascents and descents. Dangerous wind speeds. Snow-covered miles of trail. Pure, unabashed distance. Big creek crossings. Altitude. Finding a decent campsite. Physical ailments. The challenges are numerous and the task seems gargantuan, but it is in these situations where some of the best stories are made and some of the most valuable lessons are learned, and where people can really develop connections with themselves and the people around them.
The word “fun,” much like the word “happy,” is too shallow to describe the reasons why people hike (or climb, or ski, or run, or do anything they love). It doesn’t encompass the complicated emotions of watching the sunrise or making it to the summit. It doesn’t do justice to the satisfaction of knowing I was there, I did that. It doesn’t reach the pure, indescribable state of being really out there, beneath the mountains and the trees and the sky, vulnerable and humbled in the face of the Divine. It isn’t big enough or good enough for the wilderness. There are no words good enough for our wild places. I think even John Muir himself would agree with that.
Reason #2: Wilderness
We live in a world of connectedness, closeness, and ease. Everything is at our fingertips, transportation is miraculously fast, and communication is mercifully convenient even across distance, and thank God for that. I’m not going to go all Edward Abbey and say that I’m not grateful for civilization and modern achievements – any good hiker worth her salt appreciates a shower and a tall cold one on a zero day, let’s be real. And I love being able to call or message my family and friends who are thousands of miles away from me. There’s a miraculous comfort in our connectedness.
But I must confess that despite its benefits, society terrifies me, and frustrates me. Terrifies, because it’s so easy to fall into comfort and fail to question, to act like this world is disposable and that all its resources are free for the taking. And frustrates, because I think people would live a lot differently if more of them could see what’s out there, what this planet has to offer, and what horrific things we are doing to our environment and, consequently, ourselves. We are so focused on humanity, as if we were so great, but this world could surely survive millennia beyond our extinction. Wilderness, more than anything else, reminds me of our deeper responsibility and our deeper connection – not the instant, moment-by-moment connection we are used to in the 21st century, but the older, ancient, purer connection we have to this planet and to all of its inhabitants.
Wilderness is in our very blood. And this sacred wilderness, the Sierras so beloved by the quiet, saintlike conservationist for whom the trail is named, has been calling me for quite some time. The AT certainly possesses its own unique beauty, and the mountains of Arizona are a joy to experience, but the rugged High Sierra presents so vast, so humbling, and so regal a landscape that it is impossible to deny the opportunity to experience it.
I make no promises about how far I will get, how well I will do, or what the conditions will be like. We very may well have to bail at Kearsarge like a lot of PCT hikers are doing now, or we may make it to Yosemite. Who knows. Whatever the outcome, I will have been in the presence of some of the most incredible mountains on the planet, and for that I will be truly grateful.
Reason #3: Being Better
While some may call hiking an inherently selfish endeavor, I disagree. Of course I hike for myself – because there are so many parts of this incredible world that you just cannot see from the side of the road, and I want to see as much of this blessed planet as I can. But it’s also for others. Hiking, much like running and climbing, gives me the headspace and the meditative time to become less impatient, less stressed, less frustrated. It allows me the space to observe life from a distance and reflect on my behavior and my direction. Because of this, it makes me better – a better teacher, a better daughter, a better girlfriend, a better friend. It’s hard to keep the lessons of the wild to yourself, and the trail makes me want to turn outward, and be more aware of the world and the people around me. I’m very far from perfect, and the trail makes me even more aware of that. But it also makes clear what needs to change.
So there you have it. Three (of many) reasons why I am hiking the John Muir Trail. Now it’s time to stop procrastinating and get back on that training grind…