The first ranger I met just after the entrance gate matter-of-factly encouraged me to leave the park entirely and find places to the south west in the Mammoth Lakes region. But never having hiked in any of these areas, it felt safer for me to stay within the park.
The second ranger, the one I was working with for alternate places to go, was a weather-worn petite and sturdy woman who seemed irritated to have to deal with a novice hiker. She pointed to a potential loop through Vogelsang and Cathedral Peak, a portion of the JMT that was part of the original plan. We were all at the hopeful stage that the fire would be contained or the winds would shift in a few days and I would ascend through astounding clear views back to a clear-skied Tuolomne Meadows.
"Is your preference uphill or down?" she inquired. Considering my pack weighed in at forty pounds and I trained for a 3,000 foot elevation gain in in the first few days, I opted for uphill. That much weight pounding down on my legs as I traversed steep slopes downhill didn't sound wise. So with this loop, the first day's hike would be about 6 miles and a 1,500 foot elevation gain. That seemed reasonable and doable. I set up the proper maps on my phone and headed to the backpacker's camp.
I spent the rest of the day and evening orienting to the 8,500 foot elevation and attending to last minute preparations--did I have enough food? What about propane? I had read blogs, checked with hiking stories, measured all my meals, supplements, and first aid supplies carefully at home looking for every way possible to reduce the weight of my pack, yet feel secure enough to survive the seven days in the wilderness.
The next morning, with air clear and temps cool, I hoisted my pack and set off around 10:00 A.M. The trail from the campground was easy, meeting up with parts of the Tuolomne River and giving me ample time to fiddle with equipment, catch my breath and take in the new beauty.
I'm glad I didn't cancel the trip, I thought. The warnings from friends about the smoke were for not. I teared up as I saw the signs for the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails. I did it. I set an intention, planned, and was now living it--even with the modified itinerary, I was walking on the John Muir Trail.
The first couple miles gave way to the steepest part of the trail and my pace slowed dramatically. I saw very few people on the trail and was glad I was alone, so as to not feel the added pressure to keep up with anyone. It's the main reason I choose to travel alone.
I teared up as I saw the signs for Pacific Crest and John Muir Trails.
I'm home. The mountains. They are my home.
The familiar sound of distant thunder reminded me of the years I lived in South Lake Tahoe. Afternoon sky darkening, the air taking on moisture. It was comforting. I'm home again. The mountains. They are my home.
The sprinkles came as rumbling sounded off in the distance. Still unconcerned, I mentally searched through my backpack: I brought rain pants and jacket, a cover for my backpack and in the worse case scenario, I could use my tent footprint for a tarp with the little bit of twine I packed. "It's all good."
What did the book say about sheltering in place during a thunder storm? Under trees? Out in the open? I remembered one diagram showing a hiker crouched on tiptoes. Hmmm...
That was close!
Startled, I quickly scrambled to the nearest set of trees. A cluster of mixed-sized conifers tucked around huge granite boulders offered comfort as big drops fell. I speedily secured the footprint amongst the trees and was surprised how well it worked. I did remember the book cautioning about the potential dangers of getting and staying wet.
Figuring the showers would pass quickly, I took the opportunity for a break and sat on the ground, breaking out a snack and my re-hydration drink. As I organized rain gear, nonchalantly checked the map and reassured myself I had plenty of time to get to my first camp spot, even with this delay, the rhythmical clappity clap of hoofs on granite became distinguishable from the thunder and rain.
A tall horse and rider appeared from the trail up ahead. Not able to see a face under the large brimmed hat, I yelled out, "Hi!" It was the first person I'd seen since the mules. The rider turned the horse my way and came in closer.
"What's your thoughts about this storm?" I yelled. "Should I be concerned? Does this look like a safe place? How long do you think it will last?" I guess I was more nervous than I thought.
He looked around as the horse kept pushing him to move on. "Well," he said over the noise of the now steady showers, "You don't want to be the tallest tree."
"Oh. Are you a ranger?"
"Yes, and I'm sorry about my horse--he's new. He should be standing still," he offered as he wiggled the horse back and forth with his reigns.
After a bit more conversation and wriggling by his horse, he shouted, "I should be gettin' on. You should be okay for the next mile or so, but the big valley is still ahead. Stay off big slabs of granite and don't be the tallest tree!"
"Thank you! Thank you!" I yelled as the horse and rider took back to the trail.
Within ten minutes, the rain stopped and while the rolling thunder still echoed through the canyons, I readied myself to move on. I traded out my hiking boots for Teva hiking sandals to give the fatigue in my feet a break, put on my rain jacket and proceeded on the course ground granite trail feeling pretty confident that was the worst of it.
(To be continued....)
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