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