Day 11 9/14/13
Somewhere on the trail miles and miles behind us, some hikers had already begun their day. They, like us, would make the pilgrimage to Muir Trail Ranch to get their food and prepare for the final 10 day push to the summit of Whitney.
MTR is the last spot near the trail that you can resupply before the end. For this reason, It becomes a buzzing hub of activity; hikers picking up buckets of food sent from all across the globe, rummaging through their old meals, casting out any items they haven't used or are too heavy. As resupplies go, MTR has an amazing system down. I have no idea how it works, but it is a well oiled machine. You register on their site, pay their flat storage fee of $55 or so dollars, and you get a few bar codes. One to put on your 5 gallon bucket (no other size containers. Barcode displayed on lid and on side. Lid taped on securely.) The other bar code they give you is to keep on your person. You give this to them when you collect your package.
A week or so before we loaded the car for California, we sat in Lindsey's house and went through our meals, snacks, powders, candy, medicines, and treats. It was in those moments that things went from abstract book learnin' to staging, preparing, and planning for later interception. Things got real on that day.
Across the country and world, a few other people were doing the exact same thing at the exact same time. As the fates would have it, on this day, we'd meet the group of travelers that'd converge at the same place at the same time after weeks of heavy planning, years of dreaming, miles of muscling over mountains.
Lindsey and I woke up and packed camp fairly early. MTR opened at 8am. We slept 100 yards away. We figured we'd get a jump on the day and be the first ones there.
In the morning, Lindsey was in pain still. The night before she had this really weird puffy, fluid like thing going on around her Achilles tendon. The night had not brought great improvement. I was pissed off. Not at her, but that the writing was on the wall. There's no way we can hike the final 10 days to Mount Whitney. Between the two of us, we've got 2.5 good legs, and this final 10 day section is the hardest of the trail. Lindsey is sad and in pain. I'm angry and in pain.
It's a beautiful, warm day. Way to rub it in, day.
So we were going home. There was the long lingering question of if we'd be able to finish at Whitney, given the mounting pain. We now had the answer- No.
Lindsey was pretty silent, obviously upset and disappointed. After my initial general anger subsided, I was upset and disappointed too. That's the way things go. There is no sense in causing permanent damage or getting yourself more seriously injured. We had to do what we had to do. We'd plan on leaving over Bishop Pass and in 2 or so days we'd be in a hot California basin dotted with tiny towns. We'd go home.
We the first ones at MTR at 8AM. I followed behind Lindsey as we went through the latching gate. When I passed through, my right sleeve, covered with my Down Sweater, caught the sharp edge of a sawed off galvanized bolt. An audible rip. Down clusters flying away.
Way to rub it in, gate.
The lush green grass at MTR is a change of scenery from most of the rest of the JMT, but it's not out of place like it is in central Texas or Arizona. It was soft, springy, thick, and super green. One of the ladies from the ranch showed us to the food storage building and she grabbed our bright yellow McCoy's bucket that we'd slapped a Lowes lid on. My two favorite hardware stores.
MTR is a city of buckets. There are hundreds of them everywhere. They make the legs of benches, they are trashcans, and those not being used create a huge pyramid stacked upside down near the food shed.
In addition to buckets, MTR is home to some horses, some ponies, and a few awesome dogs. There is a corral littered with saddles, leather things, and equines. Two or three structures are on the land where we were. These look like permanent, year-round domiciles. The rest of the structures that comprise MTR are platform tents or something similar.
We gathered our bucket, wrote our name on the log that was a hundred or so pages long (I'm guessing that's from the 2013 season) and we set up on one of 3 tables MTR had built for sorting food.
Behind us- about 10 buckets sat in a row on a long bench. On the lids of the buckets- the contents written in sharpie on a silver strip of worn duck tape-"Meals, Store bought." "Meals, home packed." "Spices." "Toiletries." "snacks." "Peanut butters, jelly." Every single one of these buckets full of food, gadgets, spices, pills, and almost anything you can think of. We would have been able to subsist on free food instead of mailing ourselves the huge bucket since it was so late in the season.
Opening that bright yellow bucket was like Christmas. I had forgotten what I'd packed myself but I knew we'd saved the best stuff for this final stretch. I pried open the lid after ripping off the packing tape and let the conglomerate food smell soak in to my olfactory system. I picked through the contents and took only the best; only what I wanted. This way I didn’t have to pack the bear can full for our 2-3 day hike out and I'd get to eat all the delicious treats I wanted and none of the crap I didn’t want.
The simple and easy process of shoving contents in to a bear can took us two and a half hours. I was going slowly. Neither one of us cared. We'd hit a pretty solid low point. Maybe not rock bottom, but not too far above it. Some other hikers trickled in as we wasted time.
Lindsey went to go buy some tape for her ankle since we'd used most of our two rolls. I sat on a stump and played with the dogs of MTR. One young, way too exuberent black border collie looking thing and another, more geriatric and shorter creature. The cool one, this mellow, old, mostly black dog was Sally. Think Basset Hound without a slobbering affliction and super huge ears. She was tubular shaped. If you went to the grocery store, bought a 40lb tube of ground beef, painted it black, stuck four 5" legs on it and named it Sally- You'd be really weird. You'd also have a good idea of what Sally looks like. As the other border collie would fetch anything that looked like a stick and bother me to throw things, Sally figured out I'd just pet her if she laid down. I spent a lot of my time playing with dogs.
Two guys walk in to MTR. 40,50 years old. Their packs were massive.
A guy hiking solo strolled in. Cuben fiber pack, super lightweight gear, two full sized DSLRs straped to his shoulder straps.
Two guys who'd camped near us the night before showed up a little while after we did.
A few other folks, none of them familiar.
I sat on a stump and had stripped off my jacket (that I'd fixed with Duck tape) by this point. I was in my REI base layer and shorts. It felt nice outside. The sun was burning white in the clear blue sky. I'd pet Sally. Other dog would bring a stick. I'd throw it.
To my right, through the gate, I see another lone person sauntering in with a jolly gait.
She walked in at a slow steady pace, the same pace she'd hiked with when we saw her before, and she set her red Osprey Ariel pack on the table next to me with a huff.
This was Jo. We'd met her first around Ruby lake when we were hiking to Red's Meadow. Jo is my favorite person I met on the trip. I alluded to why earlier, but running in to her at MTR solidified it.
Lindsey and I had almost quit once, and were hiking out now. We'd taken a 0 day once, and had some slowish days. We'd also made up for lost ground with some heavy mileage days. Lindsey and I had been tired, frantic, rested, rejuvenated, hurt, fixed, elated, broken, excited, disappointed, lost, found, infuriated, overwhelmed, and overjoyed.
I don't know the story of Jo's trail encounters, her emotional roller coaster, her moments of great fear or triumph. But I know that Jo walked in to MTR like a steady, unstoppable hiking machine.
She didn’t seem tired, hurt, fatigued. She was not contemplating stopping at all. She set up on the table next to us and we chatted a bit here and there. I didn't catch where she was from, I don't know what inspired her to do her hike. I knew that she budgeted 8 miles per day. No more, no less. And god damn if she didn’t get it done every single day.
She had a jovial, sunny, disposition. She reminded me a lot of my mom.
One of the biggest barriers to getting outdoors and enjoying recreational pursuits in our finest parks, wild lands, and trails is psychological- it is all about looking the part. If you don't fit in to any of the niches, then you get these judging, scrutinizing looks. I've been there. Now days I don't really give a damn since I've some decent experience, know-how, and working credentials. It wasn’t always that way.
First hiking trip I ever went on I had high top timberland boots, socks that went half way up my leg, a leather hat, and I looked like I was going on Safari. My aim was to look like Indiana Jones. I felt I'd fit in this way. I've learned better, now. Or I've learned not to care.
These days, if you use popular, name brand gear on a technical trail or a thru-hike then you're ignorant. Hyperflyweight super ultra sil pack is obviously the only pack you should take. Trekking poles are necessary. Carbon fiber of course. You're using a jet boil/MSR/stove? What are you doing? You should be making one out of tin cans and burning animal feces. This is a serious hike…you need to train, be in shape, and have all the right gear, clothing, shoes.
Hiking enthusiasts are like car enthusiasts. For the car guys, Oil is religion. For hikers, the gear is religion. There are strong feelings about it and people trying to convert the masses on the daily.
The good majority of hikers will say, "Hike your own hike." Different folks will have different levels of sincerity behind that phrase, but that is largely the attitude and mindset that is prevalent.
The vocal minority are loud, though. Like it or not, that supremacy and ridiculous trail judgment exists. Above all the gear, the clothing…the first thing that these types will do: it's a quick one shot glance and an internal thought- "do you look like you belong here?"
This is not a wide sweeping condemnation of all hikers, because it's not everyone with this mindset, but it isn't pure conjecture, either. Not many folks started "backpacking" with a 36 liter pack, king sized air mattress, canned food, and body weight of 320 pounds. I did. So I've experienced this. I've studied the traditional emotional, physical, psychological barriers to getting outdoors for different genders and races. If you're fat, too old, too young, too black, too woman, your gear isn't new or made of this material- you're not accepted. It's high school all over again. Instead of trapper keepers and clothes it's trekking poles…and clothes.
For all the silent judgment, disparaging looks, high and mighty "I would do it this way…" attitudes that are palpable in certain circles, Jo hiked through that giant wall at a slow, steady, unyielding pace and it all crumbled behind her and then it burst in to flames.
Most of what I know about Jo is inferred; my knowledge is all things I've pieced together and ascertained. Some of it conjecture, some of it based on unfounded assumptions that should mostly hold true, but might certainly be wrong. Here's what I know about Jo-
Hiking South Bound in September
Meticulously planned her trip
Here's what I'm guessing-
Jo has a family. She's got one or two kids, I'd guess boys. They're college aged or older. Her husband is deceased, divorced, or was unable to do the hike.
Jo was retired (maybe recently) from a teaching or similar semi-sedentary office job.
Jo had a dog or a cat.
Jo was a jovial 5 foot 5 inch, unyielding, no damn giving, unstoppable force of a human being, silently exuding an aura of unimposing determination, will power, inspiration, familiarity, and understanding.
The cast of characters at MTR went through their resupply. We all chatted, peaked at provisions, and rummaged the free barrels like vultures when another hiker would dump something in.
Lindsey was examining her feet. I was still on my stump entertaining the dogs. The black and white border collie type creature with tons of energy still wanted to find every stick in the woods and bring it to me
A MTR employee let a pony, or foal, or mini-horse, or regular baby horse out of the corral. It grazed on the dense green grass field that lay in front of us. The inferno sun was burning higher in the cloudless blue sky.
Nearby, another hiker who must have had a dog back at home had found the MTR dogs. The 2, and occasionally 3 dogs would run around, mouths open, tongues hanging out, smiling. They would play, bark, and allow all of the hikers to treat them as their own pets for a little bit.
Jo was about done packing up her things and was telling us how hard it was for her in this last stretch to pack enough food since she could only go 8 miles a day. She had her canister crammed full and with a tinge of indifference and an overtone of disgust asked if anyone liked salami.
I took a minute to process the question.
-Do you like salami, self? Hell yes you do. Is she taking a survey or trying to get to know you? I don't know. This may be an offer for free meat. You like meat. You need meat. You ate all of the salami you packed when you were at Red's Meadow. I wonder if those jerks who got married are divorced yet. Mmm. Hamburgers. Focus. You may get a reprieve. Act fast. The guy with the cameras is eye balling it!-
"I DO!" was my verbal jam of my foot in the door. Hah. Beat everyone else. It turns out she was offering the salami for free or best offer, and we were the lucky winners. It was a Trader Joe's creation with some kind of wine mixed in. A delicious looking, greasy, meaty, proteiny and fat filled delicacy that would fuel me up and away from this place. Over bishop pass. Out to the car. Back home.
Some 2 hours after ripping my jacket on the entrance, I was now doing the final packing of my backpack. Put my clothes and gear back inside. Put in my 60% full bear can that I'd filled with only the things I wanted to take. I left the other things from our 5 gallon bucket resupply for others to enjoy.
Lindsey was packing her backpack in-between laments of her left behind low hiking shoes. If only we'd brought our low shoes instead of the high boots, we would almost certainly be better off.
Earlier in the trip when the pain was less debilitating, I'd joked that we could always cut the tops off her shoes. Her Kayland Zephyr boots I had found on Geartrade.com a couple of years ago. They were $20 or less. Awesome boot for that price. I'd followed suit after she got hers and ordered mine at the full retail price, some $200 dollars more. We'd gotten them because backpacker magazine had raved about them.
The thought popped in my head again as we were nearing departure from MTR and departure from the JMT…Why the hell not?
Why not chop the tops off these pieces of garbage and see what happens? At worst, Lindsey is a little more comfortable and in less pain as we exit the JMT over Bishop pass.
I grabbed the Gerber Mini-Paraframe knife we'd purchased at the Tucson REI and I started chopping. The knife was surprisingly sharp and made easy work of the leather, foam, eVent, nylon, and stitching.
I taped the exposed internals of the boot with athletic tape to keep them from being too destroyed too quickly.
In 5 minutes, Lindsey had her low top hiking shoes she had been wanting.
There's a scale hanging on the food storage shed at MTR. The two guys with huge packs were taking off and had made a quick stop to weigh their gear. I tuned in because I was interested to hear what other people were carrying weight wise. He relayed his weigh in to his friend, and the number seemed to cut through the low clatter of voices, breezes, bucket lids flapping, dogs running.
Hmm. I would not want to do it that way, but amazing that they were doing the trail with that weight. They were staying ahead of us, as well. More power to them.
We stopped by the scale on our way out. Lindsey and I, between the two of us, carried less than that one man did in his one pack. About 35 pounds each. Jo, Cuben Fiber Camera Man, and a few other folks delved through buckets, packed resupplies, played with dogs. Lindsey and I left through the gate that tore my jacket and we hit the trail towards home. By the end of the day, we'd be off the John Muir Trail and on to the side trail that takes us over Bishop pass and out of the wild.
To be continued…