Monday, January 9, 2017

Day -1: The John Muir Trail

August 1: Amanda and I, after a three hour delay of our flight, flew from Seattle to Phoenix, then from Phoenix to Fresno. I've never had much of anything nice to say about Fresno. I've been through the town several times and never enjoyed it, but their airport was small and included an adorable fake sequoia grove and I absolutely loved it. "Finally!" I told Amanda. "There's something nice I can say about Fresno!" =)

Amanda checks out the (fake) giant sequoia grove at the Fresno airport.
But we didn't stick around for long, picking up a lime green rental car and immediately leaving town towards Yosemite National Park.

For Amanda, Yosemite was a destination. Despite her well-traveled lifestyle, this would be her first visit ever. She'd wanted to go for years. It was never high on my places to visit. For one thing, I'd been there before. The views truly are world-class, but the crowds! Oh, the crowds.... If I never stepped foot in Yosemite again, I'd be okay with that. Tourists as far as the eye can see. It's all but impossible to get campsites. Bumper-to-bumper traffic. That's not my idea of a wilderness experience. I told Amanda as such, but she'd seen the photos and wanted to go anyhow, so for her, it was a destination.

For me, it would be the beginning of a new hike: the John Muir Trail. About 210 miles from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States. I'd done much of it before while thru-hiking the PCT which overlaps about 160 miles of the JMT, and although the trail is beautiful, it was a terrible experience. Seemingly endless miles of postholing through snow, crossing cold, deep, fast-moving rivers that could wash a person downstream--and perhaps thrash them, throw them over a waterfall, or drown them. Even at the time, in the worst situations, I always wanted to return someday and hike the trail without the snow or spring snow-melt. I never had a set time frame for this, but added it to my bucket list of trails to do someday....

And someday had arrived. The seed for the day was planted while hiking with Karolina in Scotland on the West Highland Way. For those of you who don't remember Karolina, she's from Poland, living in the Netherlands, and I met her while hiking the Camino de Santiago in 2012. A couple of years later, she mentioned in an email that she was planning to thru-hike the West Highland Way--a trail I'd wanted to do for years--and kind of invited myself along. It would be nice to hike a trail with a hiking buddy rather than by my usual self.

We set up a tent to reserve our spot at the campground, but we'd take it down later in the evening and cowboy camp to help a speedy exit in the morning.

She'd heard stories of my PCT adventures and was a bit envious of them, but she didn't have the time or resources to do an entire thru-hike of the PCT itself. Then we passed a sign marking where the John Muir Trail crossed the West Highland Way. Yes, you read that correctly. The John Muir Trail intersects the West Highland Way.

It's not the same John Muir Trail, of course. John Muir was an immigrant from Scotland and the Scottish created their own trail in his honor, and it reminded me that the John Muir Trail in the states overlapped what was arguably only of the most scenic sections of the entire PCT.

"You know," I told Karolina, "if you don't have the time or inclination to do the whole PCT, you could always do the John Muir Trail instead."

And I told her a bit about the trail, running from Yosemite to Mount Whitney, which could be done in less than a month and hits some of the best scenery of the entire PCT. I didn't realize at the time that my casual comment would sink in so deeply with her, but a couple of years later, she emailed me that she was ready to do the John Muir Trail. The JMT was calling her.

And if she was going to do the John Muir Trail, I sure as heck wanted to join her. It would be a lot more fun than hiking the trail by myself! So we exchanged a few emails on the subject and eventually settled on early August 2016.

Amanda checks out a real giant sequoia tree!

For Karolina, this required a large degree of advanced planning. She needed to take several weeks off of work, and she needed a visa to get into the United States. There were hoops she had to jump through for that--from getting her first credit card (apparently, processing a visa required a credit card in her name) to making an appointment at a US embassy for an interview that was a couple of hours away from where she lived. She had to swear that she didn't work as a prostitute, fund terrorists, and other undesirable characteristics that the US didn't want to allow within its border. (Which, of course, begs the question--has anyone ever answered such questions in the affirmative? Because criminals would likely lie about such activities.) She used me as a reference, because she also needed an American who would vouch for her.

She also needed some new gear such as a bear canister and a warm sleeping bag. Her old bag was a cheaper one that wouldn't keep her warm in freezing temperatures, and in the High Sierra, freezing temperatures at night were common. Bear canisters, apparently, can be a challenge to find in Europe where you aren't likely to see many bear wandering about. And a quality sleeping bag is much more expensive than those found in the United States. I kept my eyes open for deals online and coupons and purchased both for her before her arrival with the agreement that she'd pay me back with euros brought from Europe. Immediately after this hike was finished, I was planning to fly to Portugal and hike the Portuguese Way and would need the euros. It worked out well for both of us. She didn't have to convert euros to dollars to buy the gear, and I didn't have to convert dollars to euros to fund my trip in Europe afterwards. I joked that we were setting up a black market currency exchange between the two of us. "How many dollars do you need?" I'd ask. "How many euros are you looking to get your hands on?" she'd reply.

So anyhow, we were planning to thru-hike the John Muir Trail which was the only reason I was willing to go to Yosemite when there were a hundred other places I'd rather go. It wasn't my destination, but rather a starting point.

You might remember Karolina from my previous adventures. The JMT would be our third hiking adventure together. (West Highland Way and GR 20 being the other two. I don't really count the Camino de Santiago where we met since we didn't plan that one ahead of time and didn't hike the majority of it together.) This photo was from our 2015 hike on the GR 20 in Corsica.
Karolina wasn't due to arrive for a few more days, but Amanda had always wanted to see Yosemite so we decided to drive out a few days early and do some off-trail sight-seeing before Karolina's arrival.

We arrived near the border of Yosemite National Park late in the day without any reservations. We knew finding a campsite inside the park would be a fool's errand, so we didn't even try. Instead, we drove out to the Nelder Grove Campsite a short ways out of the park. It was a first-come, first-serve location on a dirt road that apparently not many people knew about or used. It was free as well. Perfect!

We found an unoccupied spot and set up camp, then still had enough time to do a short hike around the Chimney Tree Trail and Bull Buck Trail around the campsite.

The ground was littered with pine cones of all sizes, including the massive sugar pine cone. These are the largest pine cones I'm familiar with and we picked out a nice specimen for Karolina later. When I hiked the GR 20 with her the previous year, she was awed by the enormous size of what I considered a very average, normal-sized pine cone. I wanted her to see what my idea of a "large" pine cone really meant. =)

Giant sequoias are among some of my favorite trees anywhere!

We got about an hour of hiking in before the sun set and darkness started to descend, ending our adventures for the day. We planned to ditch the camp early--long before sunrise--in the hopes of grabbing ourselves a campsite inside Yosemite the next day, and took down the tent we set up and cowboy camped instead. Make it quicker to get out in the morning.

Late in the night, at around midnight, Amanda got up to use the bathroom. It normally isn't a noteworthy comment, but this time she accidentally clicked a button on the rental car's key fob and set off the car alarm. HONK! HONK! HONK! The headlights of the car flashed on, and I sat up startled. Amanda was crouched over our groundsheet, knees bent and arms out, looking around frantically, the headlights lighting her up like a Christmas tree. She looked like one of those convicts in a movie, escaping a prison and the prison light just swung around to light her up. She struggled to pull out the car key and pressed a bunch of buttons in an attempt to get the alarm to turn off. After a few brief but intense seconds, she succeeded.

Without a doubt, everyone else camped nearby was wide awake, probably thinking a bear was breaking into one of the cars in the lot. I started laughing--an uncontrollable giggle seizing me. The visual image of Amanda lit up by the headlights, the honking of the car horn, waking up the entire campground, and the look of sheer horror on her face while trying to get the madness to end. Amanda didn't think it was so funny at the time, but I couldn't stop laughing the rest of the night. Every time I thought about it for the next couple of weeks, I'd laugh. What a great start to this adventure! =)

The Chimney Tree is a giant sequoia hollowed out by fire. It's still alive (based on all the leaves I could see at the top), which is rather remarkable considering how much of the interior burned out. Here, I stepped into the tree and looked out.


Karolina said...

Yeah! Finally JMT adventures!
Can't wait to read your posts. 😊
How funny you're numbering the days starting with -1. 😊

Ryan said...

I started with -1 just so all of the numbered days were consistent later on. I've done a Day 0 multiple times, but this is the first time I stooped so low as to use negative numbers! =)

I didn't see any posts on YOUR blog last Sunday, though. Very sad. *nodding*

Karolina said...

Yeah, I had to skip last Sunday because of other stuff I needed to focus on. I've had some hard times lately... The blog will resume next Sunday, though, so cheer up! 😊