Sep 8, 2014

JMT day 5: Descent

I must have fallen asleep. At least now there's a gloomy twilight. I pull on my pants and step out into a cold, featureless mist. Aside from the peaceful gurgle from the creek. there is only muffled silence. I wish there was something to take my mind off of breathing. I sigh deeply as if that would stop the the panting; it's doesn't. My options keep spinning in my mind like some sardonic loop that always ends the same. Coffee might help, but I'm not up for it. I crawl back into the UL-1. Laying down feels lousy, so I sit up and wrap my bag around my shoulders.

It's the sounds outside that wake me. I crawl from the tent. The morning is still cold. Low dark clouds pass overhead.

Duane is boiling water. "I'm heating an extra cup, want some?" I nod and fetch my canister. My hands are numb: I can't get my knife behind the locking tab or spin the lid. "Want me to get it?" he says. I step aside. He opens it effortlessly.

I get the cup off my cookset and dump in a coffee packet. He fills it. The effort leaves me winded and unsteady. We sit and sip a while. "How you feeling?" he asks.

The words slip out. "Not great." Soon as I say them, I know there's no taking them back. Feelings of failure and shame bubble up. I take a few slurps. It is hot and soothing.

"Have you been thinking about it?" he asks.

"Nothing else," I reply.


"I've got to get down. If I go over the pass, the closest place is Shadow Lake. That's 13 miles. If I turn back, I could be down in an hour. Maybe I could just stay in the canyon and try again tomorrow. Or maybe I could try the pass and see how I feel."

Duane shakes his head. "I'm not letting you do that." He waits from me to comment. I vacillate between relief and resentment. I say nothing. "Remember our deal?" he continues. "We said if one of us gets in trouble, we both have to agree."

I remember. That's what we said.

"But you have to go on," I say. "You have to keep going."

"Are you sure?" he says. "I think I better walk you to Tuolumne."

"I'm sure. The coffee helps." I say reassuringly. But it really doesn't.

There's not much else to say. We just sit for a while. Maybe because some moments take time to absorb because they don't seem quite real. Then I remember. "You'll probably want this," I say and hand him the spork.

"Are you sure?" he asks.

"I don't need it. And take want you want from my canister. It'll be less to carry."

While he is picking through my canister I get our permit from my pack. "You'll also need this."

"This is weird," he says.

We break camp. It takes me a while. I can't keep straight what to do next. I have to stop to catch my breath. Duane offers to help, but doesn't rush me. Then there's nothing left to do but move on. He shoulders his pack. We shake hands. I can see he is anxious. Not just for me. There some jitters. He'll be spending a lot of time alone.

"Sorry I let you down."

"Be safe," he says.

I watch as he disappears up the trail heading for Donahue Pass.

The descent down the cobble stones steps is scary. My balance is messed up. My feet won't go where I want. The pack makes it worse. I steady each step with both poles. I almost fall down some cobblestone steps. I drop to my butt and I start sliding down a step at a time. I am breathing hard. My heart pounds. A millennial couple passes. They are concerned. I assure them I'm fine. They hike on. I keep at it. Slowly.

Then the air smells of rain. I breath it in. This time my breath sticks. My breathing evens out. My heart beats easier. I take to my feet. It feels steady. I descend slowly then pick up my pace. I cover a few more switchbacks. I feel better with every step and then realize, I am fine — as if nothing was ever really wrong.

Just ahead a couple is coming up the trail. It is Randi and Sheri. The sight of them lifts my spirits.

"You're going the wrong way," says Randy cheerfully.

"I got sick." I say.

They trade glances. "Get some rest. Try tomorrow" says Sherry encouragingly.

"It's the altitude. I can't do it."

It takes a second for the situation to sink in. "That sucks!" exclaims Randy.

"What about two-pad?" asks Sherry.

I tell them he is doing the hike. He's going to Whitney. "He'll zero at Reds. Maybe you'll see him."

It is a somber parting. We promise to email.

I walk on. Dark clouds race in overhead. The wind picks up. Heavy drops start to fall all around kicking up puffs of dust. I pick up my pace. The rain quickens to a downpour. I run under a tree and slip on my rain shell. A thunder clap shakes my every part. The boom echos down the canyon. The rain turns sideways on fierce gusts. Curtains of marble-size hail sweeps across the canyon. The hailstones bounce a foot off the ground. I watch in wonder and try to absorb this change in my circumstance. I am no longer hiking the JMT.

The worst of the storm passes leaving a light rain. I move on. My shell keeps me dry. The sun breaks through. There's a double rainbow framing Amelia Earheart Peak. All around the leaves and branches glisten. A flock of Bushtits flutter from bush to bush pacing my progress. I'll be in Tuolumne soon.

I arrive in the early afternoon. I call home. Luckily LilaLee answers. "Why are you calling? What's wrong?"

"I got sick. I'm coming home. I'll be there in a couple days."

"Stay there," she says. "I'll come get you tomorrow."

I hang up with a feeling of deep sadness. How did I ever get so lucky?

I find an isolated campsite in the back of the Backpacker's camp away from everyone. I set up, nibble some trailmix and nap away the day. Occasionally I check my watch to estimate Duane's progress.

As the shade deepens in the late afternoon I feel hungry. I walk to the Grill an order a burger. A double, but no fries. I sit with other hikers. Their energy is palpable. I'm surrounded by simultaneous conversations about hiking adventures. I can't track any of them.

Before heading back to the camp, I decide to walk over to the amphitheater to see if there's a campfire talk. Ranger Jean is there with all her big wall climbing gear. She recognizes me.

"I remember you. I remember what you said." she says. "Would you help with my demonstration?" She wants me to hold a belaying device while she yanks on a rope. I agree and then help her carry some wood for the camp fire.

"Aren't you hiking the JMT?" she asks.

"No. Not any more. I was almost to Donahue Pass. I couldn't take the altitude. I had to come down just."

She puts a very reassuring hand on my forearm. "I'm so very sorry."

The reassuring touch releases the loss that I've carried all day. Permanent loss. The kind that comes later in life. The kind that can't be explained, but only felt.

"But you'll figure it out," she says. "I know you will."

While I wish it wasn't so, I know she is wrong. What does it matter? There's comfort in simply letting her be right.

Sep 7, 2014

Approaching midnight

I startle wake up with the dream image of Lilalee refusing to believe I wasn't coming back. I realize I am panting and my heart is thumping so hard I feel it in my back. Red flashes with white tails race across the pitch blackness and vanish in milliseconds.

Try as I might, I can't catch my breath. Then I remember: it's the same symptoms. It's Desolation Lake and East Lake all over again. How can it be? I'm acclimatized.

I grope for my watch. The hands are still glowing. 11:15. That's it?! Just 11:15.

There is light patter on the tent. I reach up into the mesh pocket for glasses and headlamp. I unzip the rain fly for air. The night is completely dark. There's a light rain. It feels very cold. I might as well pee. I slip on my coat and flip flops to head for the bushes. I am wobbly. I don't go far and scurry back to the tent.

Impatiently, I scrounge around for the ditty bag with the Diamox. There three half pills left. I take them all. I turn off the light and wait. And wait. And wait.

My heart beats are audible. I try to breathe normal, but end up gasping. Every moment is forever. I roll from side to side for relief. I still can't catch a good breath. I check my watch. 11:35.

There's no mistaking, I am not right. I have to get lower.

I turn on the headlamp and pull out the map. We're camped at 9,650. Tomorrow we climb Donahue Pass; that is another 1,800 feet up. Tomorrow night we plan to camp at Garnet Lake. That's just too high. What if I made it to Shadow Lake? I could get below 9,000 feet, but that means walking a over thirteen miles without getting a foot lower. How can I make that it if I can't even catch my breath when laying down?

There's the other option. I could go back down Lyell Canyon. In an hour I could be at a lower elevation. Maybe I could just camp at Lyell Forks tomorrow and try the ascent the day after. I wonder how I'll be in the morning. I can't decide now.

It's 11:55. I turn off the light and hyperventilate to no avail. The sad truth now seems inescapable. It's going to be a long night.

Day 4: Lyell Forks

When eating freezer-bag oatmeal, I strongly recommend the spork method over the two-twig method. It's still just oatmeal, but the advantages over the two-twig are manifold. For starters, it doesn't taste like twig. More significant is the personal pride that comes meeting other hikers in an oatmeal-free shirt — which can be quite significant if you have yet to acquire a trail name.

I'm jumpy with anticipation. I gobble down breakfast. The morning is bright and blue. The Stellar Jays are swooping above, eager for us to leave. It's our last full day in the park. Tomorrow we will be hiking in the Ansel Adams Wilderness.

We decide to pick up the JMT where it intersects the Tioga highway and avoid getting lost again in the campground. On the way out we check all the sites for Sherry and Randy. Apparently they camped somewhere back by Cathedral Lakes. Hopefully we'll see them again when we zero at Reds.

We pick up the trail near the pack station on a shadeless, trampled meadow. The track has been ground to a slippery sand and blended with horse droppings. It's very popular with the local horse flies.

After a sweaty slog, we get to a stand of cool piney woods. The trees echo with the chatter of hidden voices from the breakfast serving at Tuolumne Lodge. Further on, the trail merges with the path from the Lodge. We fall in with a half-dozen groups of day hikers. Their attire is as colorful as the REI catalog. I can smell their deodorant and shampoo. We march in the crowd over the twin bridges at the Lyell Fork. The day hikers stop mid bridge in clots to take photos of the depleted creek. Just up stream, a pair of pretty moms watch their kids climb on rust-stained boulders and a dad shows two boys how to push a nightcrawler on a hook. One pinches his face in disgust.

By the time we cross the Rafferty Creek bridge, we are no longer in a crowd. Bushtits are fluttering along with us. The woods open up on desiccated meadows. We catch an occasional glimpse of Lyell creek. And then the trail bends south. And the canyon opens up before us.

We pick up our pace. My legs feel strong. I carry a full resupply, enough for the next three days, but I hardly notice my pack except for the feeling of independence it gives me. Food, shelter, bedding, protection against the cold and insects, water purification, light for darkness, clean underwear and a plenty of extras that would surly earn the scorn of John Muir not to mention the light weight backpacking crowd.

We break for lunch under a tree near a wide and shallow bend in the the creek. Every 10 minutes or so a group passes. I can tell by their packs that most are JMTers. We will likely see many down the trail.

After lunch, Duane takes a snooze. I walk over to the creek to filter a liter. The water is translucent and ripples gently around algae covered rocks. Ten feet away, a fish the size of a dinner roll nibbles at a rock just out of reach. He seems to stare at me. He must know I would sooner eat quinoa or kale than fish.

Our hour of leisure is over too soon. We hoist our packs. I'm a bit bonked after eating. The day has turned hot. I lapse into a mindless march. I don't know what I'm thinking except of the patch of dirt 3 feet in front of me. Duane pulls out a few hundred yards ahead. I feel no need to hurry.

Just before we come to the Evelyn Creek junction, a Nobo hiker heads towards us at a quick clip. He stops Duane. They are talking. I hurry to join. It's a park ranger. He is not friendly. "Let me see your permit," he says. I am prepared. I drop my pack and pull the permit from the top pocket of my Mariposa. The ranger examines it and hands it back. "Very good," he says and returns the permit. We watch him hike away.

"Friendly sort," I say sarcastically.

Duane nods. "He was in a hurry. There's a fire near Half-Dome. They are rescuing people with helicopters."

We were just there. Not two days ago. I look up. There's not a trace of smoke. Just a few fast moving puffy clouds.

"Do you think we looked suspicious?"

"Nah," replies Duane. "He wasn't looking to catch anyone. He was looking not to. If we don't look legal, who does?"

I look back. The ranger is just a dot down the canyon. He must be a man of principle. I worry at the power of principle. They can make a good person do evil or an evil person do good. Still, it is worse to be unprincipled and be a slave to slightest whiff on an idea. How can a soul be certain?

Approaching the south end of Lyell Canyon

We gain a couple hundred feet as we approach the south end of the canyon. The meadows are golden brown and rimmed with dark green pines. Snowy peaks are just ahead. We start our only climb of the day; an 800 foot ascent up a set of switchbacks paved with high cobblestone steps. My breath is short; I tire quickly. Before pressing on, I look back on the creek as it winds through the last meadow and regret I had not done more training.

Lyell Fork winds through Lyell Canyon

We cross the Lyell Creek Bridge and drop our packs in a well-establish spot. I think we may be too close to the creek, but I'm too tired to care. Duane sets up his tarp. I decide to go to the creek, for water and a wipe down.

I squat on the bank and start filtering. My foot slips. The boot fills with water. It is shockingly cold. I find a flat rock and sit to steady myself. I filter a liter. Then another. Then I drop a bottle cap in the creek. It is gone in a flash. Thankfully I have an extra. I fill my 2-liter Platypus and carelessly knock it over. I start over again.

Back at our site I pull my tent from the stuff sacks. I can't get the poles or stakes right. It takes me four tries and half an hour. I feel woozy. I wonder if it is yesterday's french fries.

I decide to walk around a bit. I head back down the trail to get a view of the canyon. Smoke from the fire has drifted in from the west. I'm glad we up here. Camping in the canyon won't be pleasant.

Smoke from the Meadow fire drifts into Lyell Canyon

I return to the campground and climb up to check some the sites on the opposite shore. I meet a father and son who are planning to spend a few days fishing in McClure lake. The dad plans to summit Mt. Lyell. I leave feeling defeated by their plans.

The day is fading quickly. Clouds are moving in. The light is yellow. The creek turns the color of orange sherbet. Maybe eating with improve things.

Lyell Fork  about 2 miles below the Donahue Pass.

Duane has dumped all his gear on his ground cloth. "You won't believe this," he says.


"I've lost my spork!"

I can see he expecting me to laugh, but there is no laugh in me. I just reply, "I don't have an extra. We can share."

"Are you OK?" he asks.

"I just need something to eat."

I grab my bear canister and my cookset and sit on the smooth log that stretches between our tents. I squeeze the canister between my knees and exhaust myself trying to open it.

"Want me to do that?" he offers.

"I'm all thumbs," I explain.

He sits next to me and has the lid off in seconds. I hand him the spork. I dig around in the canister for dinner options: 'Ham-bits, Cabbage and Potatoes,' Chicken Noodle' or 'Beef Stew.' None of it seems appetizing. I decide on stew. The first bite triggers a gag reflex.

Duane is watching me carefully.

"I can't eat this," I say. "Is it OK to bury it?"

"You really should carry it out," says Duane.

I know he is right, but the thought of putting the watery slush in my bear canister with my other food is reviling. My best option seems to be to choke it down. I do.

The light fades and a chill presses in. Overhead the clouds thicken. I feel very cold. It's not yet dark, but I decide to crawl in my bag early and get warm. I must feel better tomorrow. Our day starts with a 1,500 foot ascent over the Pass.

Campsite: Lyell Forks: 9,670
Elevation: +1,663, -693
Today: 9 mi
Total trip: 38.4

Sep 6, 2014

Day 3: Tuolumne backpacker's camp

It's nearly six. I never sleep this late. I'm a little sore, but rested. Best of all I don't feel any effects from the altitude.

I slip on the clammy clothes and climb out. The morning is brisk and bright. There are tranquil reflections in the lake. Time has shifted. The work-a-day obligations forgotten. The day of the week extraneous.

Sunrise Lake at Sunrise

Duane is stirring over in his tarp tent. Time to boil breakfast, stuff the ditty bags, compress the sleeping bag, deflate the NeoAir and restuff the Mariposa. But there's no hurry. No big climbs today. Just an easy 11 JMT miles over a well traveled part of Yosemite to Tuolumne Meadows. Tonight I eat at the Grill. I can almost taste the burgers and fries.

Our day begins with a modest ascent over the northern shoulder of Sunset Mountain. The tread is decomposed granite. It is like trudging up hill through beach sand. I rapidly work up the day's first sweat.

We descend eastward down a set of trenched switch backs and land in the Sunrise Backpacker's Camp. A dozen hikers are breaking camp. Sunrise has deluxe accommodations: a tap that delivers potable water and a statuesque pit toilette sitting atop a pinth of local rock. I pull in for a pit stop. In the days ahead, we will only be able to imagine such luxury.

We scamper down onto Long Meadow where we rejoin the JMT. The dought has reduced the meadow to bare sand and parched grasses. Just ahead, the Sunrise High Sierra Camp sits atop a ganite ledge 20 feet above the Meadow. Cozy clouds of blue smoke rise from the wood stoves in the tent cabins. The smells of sizzling bacon and maple syrup waft from the dinning room. I am salivating. What must the bears think? How strong the temptation must be. Imagine if they were protected by the second amendment. What extremes might they use?

Parched Long Meadow
We pass below a couple of Starbucks-sipping, grey beards who are perched on boulder with their legs are dangling like a pair of teenagers.

"Never seen it like this," says one.

"Another dry winter and the park will be a tenderbox," says the other.

On the bright side, the weather is great.

Columbia Finger. Tresidder Peak in distance

Long Meadow seems to stretch on endlessly. We are no longer alone. There's a group a few hundred yards up ahead, a group a few hundred yards behind and another group a few hundred yards behind them. It's like a migration without the Conestogas. No doubt all JMTers.

Eventually we approach the north end of the Long Meadow and the ascent to Cathedral Pass. Columbia Finger comes into view. Then Echo Peaks.

Echo Peaks

I hear a soft clucking. Not 5 feet off the trail, a pair of Blue Grouse are pecking for beetles among the rocks. We stop. One give us an irritated look and then just keep pecking. One by one, other hikers stop and admire. If these Blue Grouse were wit smarter, would put out a busker's hat and collect trail mix.

Blue Grouse
As we push up to Cathedral Pass, the traffic increases. Within a matter of minutes, three solos blast past. Their ears are stuffed with ear buds; their heads down. I cannot fathom their purpose. They could be listening to the wind or the rattle of the leaves or try to gaze on the immense exposed granite as a sign of earth's time and space. I want to take away their ear buds. I want to tell them there's more to life than miles per day.

Duane meets Kiwi
Up ahead Duane is stopped by four lady hikers from Cleveland. They are old friends and new to the Sierras. It's an exuberant group on their first leg of a High Sierra Camp Loop. They want to know the name of Echo and Tresidder peaks. They want to know where than can go swimming. They plan a side trip to Cloud's Rest on the way to May Lake.

"Ya'll seem so energized," I say.

"We've got a secret. Dried kiwis," says one of the ladies. "Have one." She gives each of us a dried kiwi. "All natural," she says.

I take a couple bites. It's slightly sour, but within minutes I'm ready to jump out of my shoes. The rest of the trip over Catheral Pass was so easy, I wanted to do it again.

View from Cathedral Pass.  Cathedral Peak in foreground. Mount Conness in distance

We decide to take a lunch at Upper Cathedral lake. We cross a meadow to the shore over one of the many trampled footpaths that crisscross the fragile terrain. We find a nice soft spot in the dirt by the lake. I indulge in the usual menu of Justin almond butter extruded on a tortilla, trail mix and beef jerky. It all seems tasteless. Lunch is sort; we both feel the pull of Tuolumne.

Upper Cathedral Lake

The switchbacks that descend from the Pass are dusty and beat to hell. We pass a group of hikers every of every few minutes. Families with infants, little kids, teenagers and grand parents. Octogenarians going slow. Young couples in difficult conversations. Brown skinned. Black skinned. Women wearing hijabs, Asians in groups of 20. We pass one solo on crutches. People stop us. They want to know if are hiking the JMT. It is annoying. I will never again pester PCT hiker in the San Gabriels.

Tuolumne Meadows
We reach Tuolumne in the mid afternoon. We skip the loop around the Meadow and work our way up the feeder trail to the campground. Since I have stayed here many times, I take point for the first time. We enter the campground from the west, and I promptly have us marching over the same stretch of road past the horse camp to the group camp. Duane masterfully conceals his impatience and redeems the situation with his iPhone. In less time than it takes to boil water with an alcohol stove at this elevation, we've claim a primo spot along the back perimeter of the backpackers camp.

We dump our packs and walk over to the Lambert Dome bear vaults to claim our first resupply bucket. To my immense satisfaction. It's just as I left it. Back at camp we wash clothes in Duane's Bearikade then hang them out as decoration to dry on the surrounding branches. Duane decides to take a nap. I walk over to the store and purchase a new spork. Everything is falling in place.

The day cools. The shadows lengthen. We walk over to the Grill for dinner. There's a line of smelly hikers. I eagerly order a double burger, fries and Diet Coke. We carry our food out to the picnic tables by the gas station. We take the last available seats at one one end of a table. At the other end, a very tanned fellow with a scruffy beard wearing a faded-red T with the sleeves cut off is perched on an adjoining table. He has the undivided of attention of a half-dozen hikers. He speaks with sweeping gestures and points with a long neck beer for emphasis.

"Sure it was supposed to snow, but we do snow. Besides hiking that col is easier on snow than humping the talus. Anyway how bad can it snow? It's May, right?!"

Several nod in understanding.

"We got a late start. We don't reach Ediza Lake till mid afternoon. We had crossed the Snow Bowl and were up on Owen's Chute when, just like that, it was a total frickin' whiteout. We couldn't see 2 feet. No way we can make it back down. We were going to spend the night right there on Owen's Chute. We set the tent on some icy ground and crawled in our bags. Then the motherfucking wind came up. It was unbelievably 'frickin' cold. I've never been so cold. I thought for sure we were going to freeze to death. Man, it was a blast."

Most take his story as good cheer. I have an instant dislike. It unsettles me. I can't connect the pieces. Why do they do it? Is life so empty that you must cheat death to really live? I don't like the reminder. I want wave it away, but what about the climbers; thru hikers or endurance athletes who live by the same standards. Is this guy warped or fuller person? I am not sure.

After dinner, I hike atop Lambert Dome to watch the sun disappear in the west and think about hiking my hike because that's the one I can.

Campsite: Toulumne Backpacker's Camp: 8,640 feet
Elevation: +1,420, -2,050
Today: 11.5 mi
Total trip: 29.4

Sep 5, 2014

Day 2: Sunrise Lakes

I lost my spork. I've turned my pack inside out. It's nowhere. I recall what Ranger Jeanne said at the campfire talk about big wall climbing: "If you drop it; you don't need it."

I scrape off a couple of twigs for chopsticks and ladle up my oatmeal. The process requires patience. About half of the oatmeal ends up on my clothes. Duane offers his spork. In the spirit of rugged independence, I decline.

"You inspire me," says Duane.

"How so?"

"I feel a trail name coming on."

"Should I be worried?"


He suggests three names: "Two-twig," "Bear-bait" and "Sporkless." I try to conceive of meeting Two-twig, Bear-bait and Sporkless. I see an image. They would be to wear underwear on their heads. I decline graciously.

"Trust me," he replies, "you may not get a say in the matter."

Just as I'm cinching up my pack, Randy enters our camp. "Teeth all brushed? Hair combed? Lunch packed?"

Last night we agreed to hike out with Randy and Sherry — at least for a mile or two. But, we won't be camping together tonight. They plan to stop along Sunrise Creek someplace after Forsyth junction — probably a dry camp. Duane and I will camp at Sunrise Lakes.

We leave as a group with Duane in the lead. It's his natural state. I expect he'll walk point the entire hike.

We cross the creek with dry feet and walk the first mile up a gentle grade over open and rolling terrain. The sky is Sierra blue. The views are open. There's a soothing breeze and the day is warming. I chatter with Randy about music, math, mountains and things that, for no apparent reason, are miraculous.

It's not long before Duane and I pull well ahead of Randy and Sherry. We stop to peel off a couple of layers and wait for them to catch up. After a few apologies for their slower pace, they encourage us to hike on ahead. We all promise to meet up at the Tuolumne Meadows Backpackers camp.

The morning shadows are still long when we begin our descent to the Panorama Trail junction where we will, at last, be on the John Muir Trail. No sooner than we step foot on the actual JMT than Half Dome and its massive granodiorite neighbors open to our view. I stop and imagine them as towering bubbles of magma, floating up in the crust, secretly crystallizing into magnificent temples kilometers below before casting off the overlying terrane and claiming their rightful place among the grandest things of a later eon. A little further on, we hear the roar of Nevada Falls and pose for Butch Cassidy photo op by the bridge.

Descent to Panorama Trail Junction

Half Dome approaching from the South.
Mount Hoffman in the distance.

Our Butch Cassidy moment at Nevada Falls

From the bridge, it's but a mile to Little Yosemite Valley. Despite the lush sounding name, Little Yosemite is 4 acre dirt patch. In the center stands a Mayan-like ten-foot stone pyramid with steps leading up to pit toilette where hikers ascend to make sacrificial offerings. I contribute to the cause and head over to the river to filter some water. As I filter, a beautiful brunette with a lovely figure walks past me in a bikini. She smiles, and, to my astonishment, wades chest deep into the 50 degree water like it was a sauna. Unthinkingly I filter an extra liter so as to stick around a few minutes longer. I decide not to mention the woman in the bikini to Duane. After all, we are both happily married and ogling is one of those short-lived pleasures that is best not shared.

We leave Little Yosemite knowing we're facing 10 miles and a 3,500 foot gain in the warm part of the day. It's our first work out of the hike. Much greater challenges lie ahead. Except for a brief lunch break by a muddy remnant of Sunrise Creek, we walk without stopping. The land is dry. The trees seemed strained. Another year of drought would be devastating.

The day has gone hot and windless. We climb switch back after switch back. We stop for air and climb again. At last we reach the junction. A couple is resting there, feet up, shoes off, on a love-seat shaped boulder. He's a nice-looking, square-jawed cheery fellow pushing sixty. She is a freckly blond in a broad brimmed hat — probably 20 years his junior. The square-jawed fellow points at me. "Weren't you at White Wolf a couple nights ago? We sat together at dinner. You're the astronaut. Right?"

Duane takes note and gives me a pat on the should. "I guess the secret is out."

"And, I had a wonderful chat with your wife," says the blond. "She helps foster kids, right?'

I remember them. He quizzed me about my work back a Space Systems. They live in Marin. He is a venture capitalist. She's a masseuse. She has climbed Kilimanjaro and hiked in Nepal. He goes to the gym. They seemed an utterly improbable and happy as high-school sweethearts on their honeymoon. She says they are on a day hike from Tenaya Lake to Clouds Rest. That's a 15 mile hike. It's getting late in the day. They have a sturdy uphill climb ahead. He's looks bonked. They don't seem to have much water or food. I doubt they have a flashlight. And yet, they don't appear to have a care in the world. I suppose it's possible they could be aliens.

We hump it up the last incline to Forsyth Pass. We drop our packs, grab a snack and head over to the precipice for the view of Half Dome and the Valley below. The Valley is full of smoke. There must be a fire somewhere.

"We're doing it," I say.

"We sure as hell are," replies Duane.

We hang around long enough to stiffen up before walking the last mile to East Sunrise Lake. We find a campsite on the west shore with a view of the opposing ridge. We set up our camp. I take a plunge in the frigid water and cook dinner. Duane takes out his book.

Sunset Lake campsite
I climb a ridge behind our camp and stumble across a pheasant. The smoke from the distant fire sucks the blue out of the fading afternoon light which paints the mountains orange. I head back to camp. Crack my book, but can't concentrate on the text, so I strain at the zenith to catch a first glimpse of Vega and think about the days ahead.

Campsite: Sunrise Lake, 9,465
Elevation: +5220, -2158
Today: 14.6 mi.
Total trip: 17.9

Sep 4, 2014

Day 1: Illilouette Creek

We pull up to the Curry Village Pavilion. Duane is standing there just like he said he would. Despite the plan, the sight of him is incongruous — like bumping into someone from work at the Louvre. Judging by his wave, he's damn glad to see us. I would be if I'd been on buses and trains for 2 days.

We throw his pack in the hatch next to my gear and head over to Yosemite Village for our wilderness permit. We merge into the traffic crossing the Sentinel Bridge. The Merced is low. A harbinger of dry stretches ahead.

We fall in line behind three cars waiting to enter the parking lot. A half-dozen others are already prowling the gravel for a space. I curse, not quite under my breathe. "Be patient," says Lilalee which of course produces a spike of impatience. It's short lived. I get lucky. A family of four step out front of us and we stalk them like predators to their car. Despite it's up and downs, sometimes life is good.

We march through the unfiltered sunlight and swirling dust to the Village promenade. We pass hundreds of vacationers. Skipping kids. Harried parents. Older couples in matching outfits holding hands. Women in REI zip-legged pants and cape caps. Men in Hawaiian shirts and straw hats wearing long-lensed cameras that protruding from their stomachs. Aside from the occasional hiker clicking their sticks up the asphalt, most seem weary. Could be the altitude. Could be the building heat. Maybe they are exhausted by all the fun. I doubt it.

We part ways at the Wilderness center. Lilalee heads over to the Ansel Adams Gallery to browse the gimchees. Duane and I push through the glass doors. We expect a line, but nothing like this. It wraps counter-clockwise clear around the giant relief map that is big as a king-sized bed. No one seems to notice the instructive displays on geologic history or the vertiginous photos of rock climbers. A taxidermied bear stands upright over a seated couple on their smart phones. A solo Asian man takes no notice of the mountain lion stalking a few feet away from his neck. A pine marten stares suspiciously at the crowd with lifeless marble eyes. I can make out Spanish, German, French, Italian and at least two East Asian languages. There must be 30 groups ahead of us in this line. There are just two rangers.

It's a full ten minutes before the line advances. I hear the rangers patiently answer questions.

"Where can I swim in a waterfall?"

"How do I catch a bus up to Half Dome?"

"Do I need a gun for the bears?"

At this rate, we will be here six hours. I'm starting to feel homicidal. I slide to the floor in despair. Duane starts chitchatting with the attractive young couple just ahead of us. They are from Boston. He grew up here. Bagged a dozen peaks. Hiked the JMT. She is from Philly and never backpacked. This trip is his idea.

"Can I ask a question?" says the young woman to Duane. "We're going to Half Dome. Are the bears dangerous?"

"Not really," replies Duane. "But, don't get between them and food."

"What about snakes?" she asks.

Duane shakes his head. "Nope. Just watch your step,"

"I already told you," says her boy friend.

I hope they are not engaged.

A third ranger appears behind the counter. He's a dapper fellow in his thirties. Clean shaven. Starched, sharply-creased shirt and pants. I can't tell, but I bet his shoes are polished. A management candidate if there ever was one.

He calls out to the crowd. "Anyone have a permit reservation?" I hold up ours. He waves us over.

"Morning gents," he says. "Mono Meadow to Whitney Portal. Very good." He types our number into his terminal and a printer extrudes our permit. He uncaps a yellow highlighter, flips the permit to the regulations side, and highlights as he recites: "Camp at least 100 feet from a water source or a trail." We nod. "Store you smelly items in a bear canister. Bury your poop at least 6 inches deep and be at least 100 feet from water and campsites when you do it." We nod. "Pack out all toilette paper, do not bury or burn it. Wash at least 100 feet from water. Do not put soap in the lakes or the creeks. Got it?" We nod. "Any questions?"

I'm tempted to ask if he irons his own shirts or sends to a laundry. I resist.

"Very good," he says and hands me the permit. "Keep it with you at all times. Also you'll need this." He reaches under the counter and pulls out a 'Bear Incident Report Form' and a WAG bag. "Let us know if you have bear trouble and carry your poop out of the Whitney zone. Have a good hike."

I start to salute, but Duane, suspecting the worst, elbows me along. Once outside I examine both sides of the WAG bag. "Includes waste bag with pre-loaded powder gelling and deodorizing element, includes outer zip-closed disposal bag..." I check Duane's reaction. "Are you taking this? I think I'll just hold it after Crabtree Meadow."

"Sounds like a plan," he says. "There's a deluxe set up at the Portal."

We are disposing the bags in the nearest bear-proof trash bins when Lilalee approaches. She holds a large shopping bag filled with tissue. She gives me a hung and a peck and says, "I just bought the most beautiful ceramic bowl. I can't wait for you to see it."

"How much did it cost?"

"You don't want to know," she answers with a smile. "Let's got eat." She turns and sashays toward the car. Duane gives me a knowing look. I shrug. We follow.

Photo by Lilalee
I pull into the parking lot at the Mono Meadow trail head. I hand Lilalee the keys. "I guess this is it."

"You know I wish you weren't doing this," she says, "but I'm glad you are."

We pop the hatch. I stretch. Duane rearranges some gear. We shoulder our packs on, grab our sticks and stand for a portrait. Lilalee gives a Duane a hug. I get a sweet kiss and warm embrace. "Take care of him," she says.

"Don't worry," says Duane.

"Drive careful," I say.

We watch her drive away. It's an odd feeling. We've basically been left in the middle of nowhere.

Our first day out is hardly more than a stroll. Not even 4 miles to our campsite on Illilouette Creek. If you start at Mono Meadow, and plan to go over Donahue Pass, there's not much choice. The next option is well past Little Yosemite Valley up along Sunset creek near the junction to Clouds Rest. That route is a smidge over 12 miles with a 2K elevation gain with only 5 hours of daylight to find a dry camp. Might be a piece of cake for a PCTer, but no for the likes of us. We opted for the easy start down to Illilouette Creek.

We follow the trail down through open woods on a path that circumvents Mono Meadow. The drought has taken it's toll here. The meadow is tawny and flowerless. We climb an easy ridge over to a dry tributary of the Illilouete. A hiker is strolling down the opposite slope. He is shirtless with a hairless muscular chest and bulging arms. His beard is full. His bushy hair is tied up in a red bandana. He glistens with sun screen and sings in full voice to an unrecognizable tune from his ear buds. We meet in the dry creek bed.

"What a great day for a hike," he says. "I just came down from Merced Pass Lake. Did the loop to Buck Camp. So cool. It's like I've been living in my own movie. Where you guys going?"

"We're camping at Illilouette Creek," I answer.

"Cool. I saw some chicks there. Gotta go. How much further?"

"Not far, just up to the trail head," I say encouragingly.

"OK. Great! Thanks guys." he says obliviously. He plugs his buds back in and we watch him whistle off to the west.

"That wasn't necessary," says Duane.

I knew that was true the moment the words slipped out of my mouth.

We arrive at the Creek in less than two hours. It's a gorgeous spot. A long sandy beach straddles a gently rippling translucent creek. There's another tent a few hundred feet away. A man is wading in the creek. A woman sits on a cozy looking log. She waves. We wave back.

We drop our packs and stake out a camp at the opposite end of the beach. I pitch my tent, roll out my gear and filter the evening's water. The creek is inviting. I slip on my camp shoes dig out my camp towel. I tell Duane I'm going to take a dip. I scramble over several bus-sized boulders to a private spot with blue-green water and pebbly bottom. I undress and wade in up to my ankles. It is freezing fucking cold. I jump forward. The cold is a body blow. The bottom is deeper than it looks. I rub rapidly at the sweaty parts, then scramble across the rocky bottom and crawl out in desperate haste onto the toasty slab of sun-warmed granite.

I lounge until a breeze kicks up. I dress and climb a large boulder to survey the peaks and the cooling afternoon. To my astonishment a naked woman with a beautiful figure walks out of the trees and dives into the creek. She stands, plunges and swims around. It's been a long time since I've seen a naked 25-year old. The sight of her brings back a flood of lost memories from the time before Lilalee. Passionate liaisons, painful partings, fond regrets. They play out like an old movie in my minds eye. The young woman sees me standing there. She shoots the finger and dashes out of the creek and into the trees. I add another small regret and unintended consequence to that reel of memory.

I find Duane perched on a large boulder with the two campers from the far end of the beach. Their names are Randy and Sherry. They are also hiking the JMT. They don't have trail names.

Randy retired early on his high-tech earnings. Sherry is a hospitality executive. Randy recounts a witty misadventure on a Costa Rican zip line. Sherry corrects errors of fact and embellishment. They are lively and fun. I lay back, listen and watch the afternoon sky fade to orange and pink.

"Enough about us," says Randy. "Not that I'm all that interested, but what about you?"

Duane introduces us. "We're buddies from work," he says. "Space Systems Labs."

"We had common cause trying to survive a mendacious manager," I add.

"Know them well," says Randy.

"Wait," says Sherry to Duane. "I know you. I read your facebook postings. You have great gear advice. I learned a lot."

"Really?" says Duane.

"I'm sure," says Sherry.

"Wow! Must be fate," says Randy. "Maybe I should start believing in fate."

"One thing I didn't understand," adds Sherry. "You were really careful about every ounce. How come you carry two pads?"

"Easy," says Duane. "One's to sleep on; the other provides rigidly to my pack."

Randy sits up. "By golly. I think we have our first trail name.... Two Pad."

"That's fabulous." I say with resounding endorsement.

"I love it," adds Sherry.

"It's not sticking," says Duane.

We all smile because we all know it will.

It's only the first day. Hard to believe, I'm finally on the JMT. The adventure is just begun.

Campsite: Illilouette Creek, 6373
Elevation: +500, -1,330
Today miles: 3.3
Total trip miles: 3.3

Sep 3, 2014

The last day

The last of the go-getters packed off a half-hour ago. Lilalee is still in our cabin. I'm on the veranda of the White Wolf Lodge warming up my hands with a steaming coffee. A Stellar Jay is prancing about on the banister, checking me out, hoping for a crumb. The air is tranquil. The sky still laced with pink. I close my eyes, take in some mountain air and absorb the moment.

I wasn't so serene when we arrived in Mammoth. We spent two days acclimatizing. Maybe I wasn't used to the altitude. Maybe it was pre-hike nerves. Maybe it was the tourist prices, culinary pretensions and obsequious desk clerks. They rile me up. But, this was Lilalee's first stay in Mammoth and she wasn't letting my neurosis spoil her vacation. She was determined to enjoy the town. She forbid me to disparage any bourgeois pleasure or indulge in 'reverse snobbery.' I followed her into a hundreds of galleries and shops. She bought a new blouse and a vintage dress. I bought a 4-gram, key-chain thermometer. We took the scenic gondola ride up Mammoth Mountain for fifty bucks. We drank wine and nibbled tapenade at the Westin. Later, we had a very expensive Italian dinner. She wore her new blouse and looked very pretty. We held hands and sat close. All the while, the hike was never far from my thoughts. I wonder if they were for her. I know how she feels about it. We didn't talk about it. Why break the spell?

A paunchy, thick-armed fellow about my age with a steaming plate of eggs, bacon and pancakes takes a seat at the next table. He does not bother to pull out the chair. In one graceful move, he swings his leg over the chair back, lifts a forkful of egg from the descending plate and lands both his butt and his plate at the same, perfectly timed, instant. The young woman who served my coffee follows him with a syrup dispenser, a cup and a carafe of coffee. "Anything else Gus?"

Gus waits for the pour and says, "I'm good." He stirs in two sugars and slurps with an murmur of satisfaction. Despite the sub-40-degree chill, he seems comfy in a short-sleeve polyester shirt and dungarees.

"You must be a regular," I say meaning to be polite, but not intending to start a conversation.

"You could say that," he replies. "I drive up here from Stockton every other day. Weekends and holidays; rain or shine." He shovels in a few heaping forkfuls and then continues. "It's three hours, give or take. We have a contract with Delaware North. I deliver most of the food for here and Tuolumne. Sundries too."

"Got to be an early start."

"Early to bed; early to rise."

"You must miss the night life."

"In Stockton? Unless your big on bowling tournaments, there's not much to miss. Anyway, I've done my share of socializing." He laughs to himself. "Too much of my share. Now, I'd just assume keep my own hours and my own house. No need to argue with anyone. No need to compromise. Keeps it simple."

As he continues to eat, I want to ask if he's lonely, but think better of it and say nothing. We sit in silence. I lean back and stare up the road. He wipes up the last of of the maple syrup with his finger. and takes his plate inside. He returns with the coffee pot. "Want a refill? We aim to please here in Yosemite. Hope your a good tipper. Where you from?"

I explain that I'm retired, that I'm here with my wife and that we're from Los Angeles.

"I used to live in LA. Grew up in Lakeood. Used to be a CPA. Used to be married," he says. "After the wife got custody, I got a commercial license and have been driving ever since. I've driven this route for fifteen years. Know it like the back of my hand."

"Is it nice being up here all the time? Ever get in a little hiking?"

"Me? Hike? I'd rather go to church. At least you get someplace to sit. Besides," he says, "I'd rather watch football or play some golf when it's not too hot. No knock on you hikers, but some of your people off their noodle. Talk to the search and rescue people if you want to hear some stupid shit. And what with these college kids living like hobos. Always on the move. Broke. Eating out dumpsters. It's nuts.
But hell, I'm not judging. It gives me a job. I guess we all do what we gotta do." He emphasizes that point with a two-hand slap of the table and rises to his feet. "Have a good one mister."

I don't think you can fully appreciate the rumble of the diesel, the stench of the exhause, the backup safety beeping, or the rising pitch of the gears until you hear it in the stillness of the wilderness. It overwhelms the rest. But only briefly. It is the caviling of stellar jays and chatter of crows, the smoke from a campfire and the sun sparkling through the trees that endure. This is just another day.

I pull the cabin door. It squeals like a cat picking a fight. "Go away," she says and pulls the pillow over her head. "It's cold. I'm on vacation. Go for a walk."

I stroll up the road to the highway. It's an easy mile up a zero grade through the woods and past two meadows. The day is cloudless. My breath still condenses. A fog hangs on the meadow. There are still traces of paintbrush, penstemon and monkeyflower. I hear the wik-wik a red-shafted flicker. Then some drumming. I walk in. Stealthy. I see the shadow on a pitted truck. It creeps around. A hummingbird dives with a loud screech not twenty feet ahead. I hear a branch snap. A hundred feet beyond, a bear wanders out of the trees. I freeze. It pauses and sniffs at the air. My heart pounds. Its nose is black and moist. Its fur is dark brown and glistens. It's probably four-feet high at the hind quarter. It does not seem to notice me; or it doesn't care. But then it takes a few step in my direction and starts digging by a fallen log. I back away to the road to watch, wishing I'd had my camera.

Lilalee waves me over to the veranda. She's shares a table with a blue-eyed, freckled red-head, maybe fifty, with a pony tail pulled through a baseball cap. Her shorts, shirt and boots are REI. Their breakfast dishes have been pushed aside. I extend a handshake and introduce myself. "Tanya," she says. Her grip is very firm.

"I just saw a bear. In the meadow. Not a hundred feet away."

"That's pretty close," says Tanya with a nod and discerning frown.

"He's fearless," says Lilalee to Tanya and turns to me. "I told her you leave for the JMT tomorrow."

"I'm always a bit jittery before a big hike," says Tanya.

I shrug, but the suggestion releases a pulse of anxiety.

"Next year she's hiking the PCT with her daughter," says Lilalee.

"Intrepid," I say. "No doubt the old man can't keep up."

"No doubt," replies Tanya with a shrug. "He died in February."

There's an awkward silence. Lilalee shakes her head to assure me that I'm no master of tact. I apologize.

"It's fine," says Tanya. "The bastard basically drank himself to death. On the bright side, he left us with a cozy fortune and we were in love once."

"I adore this woman," says Lilalee putting a hand on Tanya's arm.

"Lilalee is not so lucky," I quip. "I don't drink much and I'm not leaving her a fortune." Neither woman appreciates the wit, and I immediately doubt there was any. "Do you hike much?" I ask moving on to a better topic.

Tanya nods. "I grew up hiking. My Dad was a geologist. My daughter has been hiking since she was three. She did the AT last year. You'll probably meet her. She's been hiking up Tuolumne Canyon with her brand-new boy friend. They'll be here tonight."

"You're meeting him for the first time?" I ask.

"You're being nosy," says Lilalee.

Tanya is undeterred. "First time OK. She picked this one up in law school. Tonight it's pajamas and separate bunks." With a sardonic smile she adds, "I brought him a pair just in case. Want to see?"

We laugh. I'm remember meeting LilaLee's parents. It was surreal. We had dinner. It was as if we had just been seated at a table inches away from another couple and no one wanted to be overhead except in very bland conversation. According to Lilalee it went well, but I never really knew what they thought of me, except perhaps that I was odd but not evil. I suspect that if Tanya's daughter is pretty as her mother, she'll have many suitors. This new boy friend won't have it so easy. He will need his 'A' game to survive. I'm not finding fault. There's no shortage of disappointment, divorce and death down the road. If I were Tanya, I'd be sure that someone kicked the tires plenty hard. Better to make the trip with a good car.

"We're going to Lukens Lake," says Lilalee to Tanya. "Want to join us?" She doesn't ask me, because she knows I won't mind. I never have and never would. You might think that we should be spending some special 'together' time before tomorrow. We won't see each other for a while. But somehow it seems better not to make a special 'to-do' of it. Tomorrow does seem a bit overwhelming.

I check my watch. In twenty-four hours we meet Duane at the Curry Village Pavilion. In twenty-seven hours we step off the Mono Meadow Trailhead. I'm glad for the day hike. Tomorrow will come one way or another.

En route to Lukens Lake