In the beginning, this was an idea. The whole thing just an idea backed by desire and no knowledge, only a few skills. As we rolled out of Vegas and through the strike and slip geography of western Nevada, eastern California, the dust and dirt and heat and wind and vegetation made it clear this was no longer an idea.
On some twisty road that drops down to 395 from Nevada, I caught my first glimpse of the Sierras. And that's when it was real for me.
As we turned left on 120 to go in towards Yosemite, we left behind the hot valley air and ascended thousands of feet to glacial valleys, waterfalls, granite domes, springs, pristine waters, forest fires. Weather in the high country was typically nice. A little chance of storms. Potential for smoke (there was none while we were there) comfortable in the day (74, 75) and cool at night. We slept in the 30s and we did so comfortably.
We rolled in to the campground night 1 expecting it to be full, and it kind of was. About every site was reserved, but of the 300ish camp sites, maybe 40 were occupied. The fires had prevented people from fulfilling their reservation or scared them away. It was an eerie, awesome feeling. Having been to Yosemite and Tuolumne in the busy summer season, seeing it vacant and desolate was an awesome sight. It's how parks should be. Occupied by those who want to be there, who don't fear nature and box themselves in with hard-sided trailers or fumble with tent poles they've never used.
Night one we tested our stove and found out we'd need to build a wind screen. We purchased some foil to do the job. I was skeptical of its longevity but, more on that later.
Lindsey slept on a Big Agnes air core sleeping pad that went flat. Apparently, she had prior knowledge of it having a leak and was hoping to fix it before we took off. We could not find the leak, and so day 2 we purchased a sleeping pad. Thermarest Scout.
The nice thing about Tuolumne is that there's a little store, restaurant, and another outfitting/climbing store. You can get the things you need in a pinch. Day one was cloudy with a tiny bit of rain. Day two was similar with the sun breaking through here and there. We spent day 2 exploring, planning, organizing. And trying to get a permit.
A portion of permits for the JMT are reservable a year in advance. I don't have that kind of commitment or foresight. The other portion are available first come, first serve 24 hours before departure date. Usually a line forms at 5, 6am and the office can release the next day's permits at 11am. They give out their allotment of permits for the day and that’s that.
We traveled over to the wilderness center expecting at least a few in line. The whole high country is deserted but still, a handful of people have to be getting permits. We were there shortly after they opened and there was no one in line. There was one other couple inside. Foreign travelers who were vehemently assuring the harshly skeptical park ranger that they could indeed fit all of their food in one bear canister. As the travelers smile and nod in broken English, another ranger comes and helps us. We tell her where we're going, how long we plan on being out. We go over the "rules" and then we're on our way. It couldn't have been easier.
At this point was when I came up with the brilliant idea that people should have a hiking resume and have to present their qualifications before going and doing something lengthy, difficult, or challenging. I've been self educated on bear behavior, identification. I've been teaching outdoor skills to people for a few years. I am a leave no trace instructor. I'm a graduate of the National Outdoor Leadership School Wilderness Medicine Institute. I was prepared for this trip. I knew the regulations, we had the proper gear. The people next to us…not so much. Jansport backpack, a single bear canister that would hold 2 people's food and smellable items for 5 days. Who knows? Maybe they're still out there….
It was the 3rd when we got our permit. We would leave on the 4th for the trail. We spent the rest of September 3rd becoming Junior Rangers, watching fire programs, and watching the Rim Fire burn up the setting sun. On the 4th, we'd pack up from the campground, pack our packs and be off on the real adventure.
That night, as Lindsey watched the ranger program, I scavenged wood and made a fire. Having no method other than a lighter, and no wood other than previously used charred bits people had left, I needed an accelerant or method to get everything kick started. The angels of camping bestowed upon me a serendipitous discovery. In our bear locker for our campsite, someone had left some primus power fuel.
I figured this was just like Coleman white gas…kerosene with a fancy label. Kerosene isn't super volatile or explosive. I think of it as lighter fluid.
And that's how I used it. (truth be told, if it was explosive and volatile I'd have still used it as lighter fluid.)
I open the cap and pour out this mystery green liquid. No idea how long it's been in there, no idea if it's good, no idea if it will burn when not pressurized in a stove. I dump it over my fire in a fair quantity.
Hell, it was free and 3/4ths full. I poured a healthy amount on to my pile of charred sticks. I let it sit for 5-10 minutes, and then I'm ready to bbq. I've done this a billion times. I know how it works.
So I get my lighter, not thinking much of being in close proximity to the mystery green substance.
I remember actually scoffing at "power fuel" Wtf kind of name is that…You can't get more power from fuel by making it green and sticking a label on it.
At this point in time, there was a fork in the road. I could have been smart, humble, and used a match. I had some somewhere. Light match, throw it in, it's the safe bet.
Safe is boring. And on the eve of a big trip, fortune favors the bold. So I strike the lighter a good few feet away. I slowly bring the flame to the center mass of the sticks.
Somewhere between 18-12 inches from the sticks, a healthy explosion. Bright lights, large fireball. A large "WOOOSH" sound. The smell of burnt hair. The sight of melted hair on my hands and arms. The satisfaction of a warm fire. I went on to make delicious boiled water as planned.
You win that round, Power fuel. I left it back in the bear canister for the next visitor to play with.
NOTES FROM THE TRAIL-
These are transcribed from my journal. I didn’t shout at myself when I typed these, but I'm writing them here in all caps.
MORNING 2 IN TUOLUMNE. (9/4/13)
37 AT NIGHT
SITTING BY HOBO FIRE I LIT WITH LEFTOVER "POWER FUEL."
ALMOST BLEW MYSELF UP.
COLDER THAN ANTICIPATED.
LEAVE ON TRAIL TODAY.
WILL POSSIBLY BUY EXTRA LINER OR PANTS.
MET COOL FOLKS. RILEY IN CAMP. BACKPACKING S TO N.
MICHAEL THE MERCIFUL @ POST OFFICE
PLACE IS EMPTY FROM FEAR OF FIRE AND SHOULDER SEASON
CAN'T WAIT TO SEE THE VALLEY AT THE END.
Some final notes about the notes- Riley was a cool guy camped near us who had started at Kearsarge Pass, a pass I'd never heard of, and had made it to his terminus in Tuolumne. Cool guy. We enjoyed hanging out and sitting around my power-fuel fire and chatting.
Michael the merciful, as his desk top name indicator shows, is a merciful man who runs the Tuolumne post office. Guy is awesome. One of the people you meet for 3 minutes and you have a better day because of it. Helpful, sarcastic, sincere. The best of all worlds. I heard him greet someone on the phone with "Thank you for calling Tuolumne post office, where dreams come true…"
Keep in mind this man's office is a 5x5 cloth cube inside a canvas tent. He helped us fill out our post cards by looking up Zip codes and then said something along the lines of "drop her in old blue. I'll be changing her diaper soon." Translation: Place your parcel in the government sanctioned blue mailbox in front of my station. I will be leaving my post to collect the mail soon so that your message can be delivered promptly.
Michael said it better.
The cold temps had me worried so I was going to buy a sleeping bag liner. But no one had one. I settled on having a plan to use my emergency blanket as another liner/layer should I need. And pants…fuck pants. It was a moment of weakness when I even thought about it.
photos from 9/3-9/4