I pulled into the familiar bustling village at Tuolomne Meadows. Here, tourists and backpackers of all levels converge to take advantage of the camping, park information, day hikes, store, grill and post office. It's a popular resupply spot for hikers on the John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. I grabbed a fifty-fifty softie ice cream cone and chatted with some hikers at the picnic tables under the tall conifers outside the grill. The day was spectacular--crisp and clear--but a young woman cautioned of the upcoming cold spell due that night that was to last for three days. As I headed out, I verified the expected temperatures with the weather report posted on the message board--lows in the mid to low twenties. Hmmm, last year I was there in July and hadn't really thought about the potential difference in the season.
After I picked up my back country permit, I took a leisurely walk around the flat meadows. I witnessed a large hawk on the ground near the creek bed tearing at the flesh of a small critter. I'm always conflicted when I see a feast --I'm sad for the critter but happy for those that get the meal. It's always a good reminder of the interconnectedness of everything.
I perused the store for any last minute items I could have forgotten or not known were even in existence, as is my wont, and headed up to the backpacker's campground. I loved this campground, as right next to it was the amphitheater where nightly ranger led programs around a big fire pit came to life. I was thoroughly impressed with last year's programs--I didn't recall being as fascinated when I was young, and certainly hadn't noticed that the rangers were deep ecologists. Had they changed or had I? Or both?
I'm appreciative of the fact that backpackers can camp the night before their wilderness permit starts so we can get a fresh start on our journey. It's also a great opportunity to make sure we have all the equipment we need and to test whether it's in good working order. Being in the back country is not the best time to discover that your stove or water purifier isn't working properly.
I pitched my tent and stashed unneeded supplies and equipment in the car. At least I thought they were unneeded for the night. I hadn't prepared for super cold weather--my gear was rated for three seasons--so I rifled through the car and found a bulky pair of wool gloves/mittens and grabbed my jammies I used at the Airbnb the night before. They were way too heavy to take with me on the hike--my pack was weighing in at about 36 pounds--but I'd at least have extra warmth and comfort for the first night.
After the engaging and entertaining campfire program that included poetry and song, I tucked myself in for the night. Clothed only in my base layers with a scarf around my neck, I climbed into my 30+ year old down sleeping bag. The bag was rated to 30 degrees, so I felt pretty confident I would stay warm through the night. Rarely do I have to 'mummy it up.' In fact I mostly use it as a blanket and sometimes in the wee hours of the morning I'll need to zip it up.
I hadn't even finished my nightly routine and I was prepared to get up and boil some water to use as a hot water bottle, tucking it into the sleeping bag. It was cold!
This was soooo not going to work! How did I miss this part in my planning? Last year I was hiking during July and this year it was September. In the Sierras that's a big difference! What was I NOT thinking?!
I miserably tossed and turned most of the night breathing in cold air through the small opening of the sleeping bag and exhaling it inside it. By the break of dawn, determining it was too cold for me to hike to the car for supplies needed for breakfast and return, I quickly tore down camp, sloppily packing everything into my backpack, and scrambled hurriedly to the car. There, I could at least start the car and run the heater until my fingers thawed enough to complete the rest of my morning routine. It was cold!
I got dressed in the car, ate a meal bar instead of the planned warm oatmeal breakfast and drove to the store where, because the tourist season was ending, the dwindling inventory left most of the shelves bare. I searched for anything--hats, gloves, pull overs, you name it--that was lightweight, warm and fit. I found a fleece beanie that fit, one of only two left. The pullovers were either too small to fit or too big to fit under my rain jacket, and the single pair of lightweight insulated gloves left hanging were too small. What was I going to do?
I asked the overly-underwhelmed young man at the cash register that was more interested in slowly swaying to the beat of the Bob Marley song playing in the background than to help me if the visitor center had any clothing or supplies. Using the least possible amount of energy, he shook his head no.
I scanned the shelves behind him and saw some packages of instant hand and feet warmers. I never used these before and wasn't sure I wanted to, not knowing how well they work and what damage they would do to the environment if they used some toxic chemical concoction to create heat. I'm not usually willing to damage the environment for my comfort, but in this case, it could be my survival. Driving to the nearest town or the valley was not a real option at this point, as it would delay my start time and not give me enough time to hike the minimum five miles in needed to camp for the first night. And I couldn't stay in the backpackers campground another night.
"So, how much are those?"
Given they were only a few dollars each, I checked the ingredients (basically inert), the expected duration (about eight hours), and bought three of them (enough to last through the cold spell) and was on my way to the trailhead.
JoAnn Saccato, MA is a mindfulness teacher, author, life coach, educator, and consultant in Northern California. She is author of Companioning the Sacred Journey and Mindful and Intentional Living: A Path to Peace, Clarity and Freedom