The last time Lindsey ate was at about 2 or 3 on top of Donahue Pass. 17 or 18 hours later, and she finally took some bites of a clif bar.
Night 2 brought me back to a familiar feeling that I kind of like in a weird way- After I stopped moving, long after we were done hiking, I was laying in the tent. My bought was producing enormous amounts of heat which was great because it was cold. And though I wasn’t breathing hard, my heart was beating at a good rate. This happened after I'd climbed Khatadin. Odd but cool feeling.
So Lindsey's status is questionable. I'm feeling pretty good. The sun slowly bakes the monochromatic granite and shines its light on the trees and creeks.
Even before going on the trip, I was able to absorb a few names of places that kept popping up over and over. Muir Hut. Mather Pass. Thousand Island Lake. These places were fables; legends like cibola, shangri la, Sambhala. I'd heard of them, seen speculation. I never thought I'd see the day where I went there to see if they existed and moreover, to discover them for myself.
Today was a day when one of the monumental sights would cross our path. Thousand Island Lake was miles away. About 2.8 miles from our camp to be exact. It is a place I've looked at in Google earth countless times, looked up photos, read reports from trips. To me, it's a corner stone of the JMT; A feature so bright and rare in its beauty that it manages to slightly disassociate itself and ascend above the hundreds of other brilliantly gorgeous landmarks along the trail.
Thankfully the morsels of processed "energy bar" make Lindsey feel better and she's not going to evacuate stomach contents on to my equipment or me. Which really might not have been a big deal in the scheme of things; We'd not had showers in some days. We'd been hiking pretty hard and fairly long days. We were turning in to feral humans, complete with 100% authentic scent.
We continue the descent we started yesterday. From our campsite we keep dropping down following the most beautiful alpine creeks; outlets from Davis and Rodgers' lakes. As the sun rises and filters through the pine trees we meet Heather. We'd stopped for a quick rest and Heather came rolling fast behind us. We chatted for a bit per usual. She was out there doing the hike solo. A girl of maybe 28 or so. She too had trekking poles and I was feeling kind of out of place by this point. After our chat, she went on ahead and we never saw her again.
An hour or so later after winding along a ridge and over Island Pass, a 10205ft summit at the end of a fairly gentle climb, we caught our first glimpse of the lake.
In these parts, Banner Park dominates the landscape. Along with Mt. Ritter, these two mountains make up a huge conglomerate of scene dominating rock. Their glaciated slopes tower high above anything else and they can be seen for miles before and after Thousand Island and Garnet lake.
Thousand Island Lake comes in to full view as we come to a decent ridge that over looks the entire lake with the massive mountains standing behind it. We'd planned to stop and enjoy this spot. Swim/rinse off. Laundry. Rest. We did most of those things.
The wind was stirring pretty well. Steady 15-20 mph. We found a nice bank of the lake and rested. We tended to the ever present foot ailments, blisters, general pain. I broke out the solar panel to charge our steri-pen and other various electronics. And then I laid down. I rested. I soaked in the scenery. I watched Lindsey try to bathe in the freezing water. The general idea is that you're out there in the wilderness miles away from anything. If you want to get naked and bathe, you can. Lindsey halfway tried this. Hesitating because who knows if anyone is around and if anyone can see you. And then there's the fact that the water was probably 50 degrees, and then the 20mph wind. She gave it her best.
Some other hikers, of course, walked by our off-trail refuge we'd found right as she was in the middle of trying to awkwardly reap the benefits of fresh water on unfresh flesh. I'm not sure they saw anything, and if they did I'm sure they didn’t care. But the sight was entertaining. There's Lindsey standing in mid-thigh deep water about 20 feet out from the shore. Having tried to walk out there and strike up the courage to submerge myself, I knew the feeling of every neuron in your brain saying "the hell you will…" and yet at the same time, all you want to do is be clean. You don't want to feel and taste the sweat on you anymore. And so you're stuck doing this half lowering yourself in, quick bursts of almost just jumping in, and then quickly rising up saying "it's not worth it." And then repeat. Think of a dog that's been put in to those little doggy hiking boots, but the dog suddenly forgets how to walk with them on and is just flailing around. That's how this was. I stuck a towel in the water and gave myself a hobo shower. Good enough.
And I went back and laid in the sun.
Between our late morning start and our extended two hour break at Thousand Island Lake, we had a lot of hiking to get done if we were to stay on track. After Thousand Island Lake we quickly came up on Garnet lake, another huge lake lightly peppered with small granite islands. Two things happened at this lake that I remember
- I saw a big ass fish. A huge trout. I could have caught it with my hands if I wanted, but I asked myself "what would Michael the merciful do?"
- We filtered water from the lake and it tasted like fish. This was the only spot on the whole trail that the water didn’t taste amazing.
Between the two big lakes was a tiny lake named Ruby lake. This was one of my favorites. Such clear and deep water. It would be amazing to scuba dive these lakes. There's probably nothing in most of them, but there's got to me some artifacts and human history out there. I guarantee that as we're hiking it now for fun, 10,000 years ago it was hiked for the same reason, but largely for necessity. The depths of the lakes have much to show. I'm sure of this.
Near Ruby lake we had our first encounter with a woman solo hiking the JMT. The kind of woman that you see and you mentally ask yourself "what is she doing out here?" We didn’t introduce ourselves by name, just exchanged pleasantries. She had an Osprey Ariel pack on, was in her 40s or so, and was well rounded in shape. After a quick chat, we zoom past her. Over the course of the trail, we'd see her some more and learn a bit more about her.
My immediate thoughts after our initial meeting went to The Grand Canyon. 2007. The first real hike I'd ever done in my life. And I was not in the shape or condition to be doing it. I was 280-300lbs about. Didn’t have any experience. And on the 5 mile trip down in to the canyon from the North Rim, an old ass man with one leg (no shit. He had one leg.) goes flying past us. I mean, literally he was hopping, but he did so at a blistering pace. I thought "damn." We get down to our destination in the canyon. It sucks. We start going back up. Hardest thing I've done in my life given the shape I was in. And home boy with one leg…well apparently he left after we did because his one legged self goes tearing ass up the canyon as well. And there are no flat spots. It is relentless uphill climbing. So back then I thought to myself "wow…if this one legged old man can be out here, there's no excuse why anyone else can't."
And as a much better conditioned, much healthier 215lb self passed this woman on the JMT in 2013, I thought to myself "wow. If she's out here doing this thing, there's no excuse why anyone else can't."
There's a lot of varying reasons for hiking the JMT. Here's a couple of categories I've broken hikers down in to-
- The conqueror. Wants records, times, accolades. Lighter, faster, quicker.
- The nostalgic. Did all or part of it. Back out there to relive the prior trips and make more memories.
- The transcendentalist. Think they're cut of John Muir Cloth. Want to experience nature and the majesty.
- The spirit quest. You find yourself when you've got nothing by your brain and a backpack.
- The challenger. We do this not because it is easy but because it is hard.
Might be 1000 different reasons why someone fits in to a couple of those categories. That's the beauty of the trail. Everyone is out there for a reason, and everyone finds what they are seeking. For me, I'd say I'm the latter 3 with a tiny tinge of #1 mixed in. I was in it to lose weight. To do something hard. To discover more about myself.
This woman we met…I wonder what her story was. I wonder why this solo, middle aged, portly woman would pack up whatever life she was living and say "I'm going to hike the hardest trail in America."
By and large I could put the people we met in to these 5 categories. Greg was the nostalgic. Heather was a challenger and conqueror. Some dudes we met in the parking lot of Tuolumne were nostalgic/spirit.
I could not decipher this woman.
We hiked on for what seemed like ages down a steep creek section. The sun started to get low and the trees and valleys sheltered our descent from direct sunlight. On the map I made a note of this little valley we walked through. Beautiful forest. Perfect bear habitat. I named it Bear valley. We didn’t see any bears here, but there had to be some out there.
By this part of the day, each step hurt. Feet here in pain. Not blisters, soreness, or anything like that. Just bone-level pain. The bones in my foot hurt. My calcaneus hurt. The ball of my foot hurt. The bones that made up my feet hurt with every bone-jarring step of downhill. 2.5 miles after Garnet Lake, and after what felt like 5 miles, we made it to the trail junction with Shadow Creek. Here we camped.
With day 3 in the books, we put on our Patagonia Down Jackets, filtered water from the nearby creek, ate a snickers and couscous, and we settled in to our tent. And I slept. And I slept well. And I slept hoping that in the morning my feet would not ache with every single step. I hoped my body wouldn't be sore. I hoped I wouldn't start to fall apart after 3 days of hard hiking. Lindsey felt much better than she did in the morning. The sun had gone down behind the canyon walls that surrounded us. Night came. Inside of the tent, I marked the map from today's travels. I looked at tomorrow's map.
And I wrote my notes.