Day 11 9/14/13 cont.
Tens of thousands of years ago (possibly further back in time than that) man (or possibly dinosaurs) found ways to manipulate regular objects in to tools. From the bones of creatures came javelins, spears, handles. From the limbs and trunks of trees came clubs and structures. From rocks came adzes, axes, knives.
Today knives come in thousands of flavors. They've come a long way from the chert and bone collaborations our ancestors used. In every way though, knives are doing today what they were meant to do back then- kill, cut, and/or set free. Though the Gerber mini-paraframe we carried is made to higher standards than those our ancestors had, and though I will unfortunately never get the chance to pierce thick dinosaur hide in the heat of an all out reptilian brawl, it was always on standby ready to kill if called upon. On this day, it performed its cutting task like a champion. It made fast work of the thick textile shoe. Subsequently, we were set free.
Not more than one hundred feet beyond the gate of Muir Trail Ranch, Lindsey was feeling vastly better, free from the high top part of the shoe that ensnared her hours before. With free range of motion, and no parcel of shoe pressuring the achilles tendon, her foot could live freely.
I gave quick thought to doing the same thing to my shoes right then, but I couldn’t bring myself to chop up my $220 boots that I'd been saving specifically for this trek. I pressed on.
The trail immediately beyond MTR is mostly flat, wooded, and visually beautiful albeit a bit uninspiring after everything we'd seen. The clouds from the previous few moons lingered over us today as well. They weren't as threatening as they were comforting.
The Piute Trail splits off from the JMT 3.3 miles past MTR. This was our discussed and decided escape route that we'd talked about the night before and settled on earlier in the morning. We traipsed the 7900 foot contour line just north of the San Joaquin River's South Fork in an Easterly direction and followed the John Muir Trail to its eventual intersection with the Piute Trail that would take us out over Piute Pass and back to safety, comfort, hamburgers, and society.
We hiked at a comfortable pace, not grueling but not slow enough to allow for heads held up high and relaxed breathing. The trail comes to cross a mighty bridge that spans the roaring Piute Creek. In the spring and in times of high snow melt, I can only imagine what it would look, sound, and feel like. We stop to filter some water and take a quick break. I set my heavy pack on the ground and sit on a little rock and contemplate while drinking 32 ounces of water that I'd added a Nuun tab to.
50 feet behind us on the John Muir Trail, the turn off to the North bound Piute trail beckons. In front of us....I can't tell where the John Muir Trail leads but as I look around and try to guess our direction of travel, I figure we're heading into a pretty amazing valley between two monstrous mountain ranges. I slither down to the water and fill it with fresh water so I can stick the Steripen in my bottle of water and wait the 90 seconds for it to kill the bad stuff. Then I grab Lindsey's purple Nalgene bottle and then hike down the steep bank made up of Volkswagen sized boulders.
My water filtering policy is this: filter from where the water moves fastest. Seems fresher, cleaner, tastier in my head. Is it true? World may never know. I put myself in a prone position on a boulder that juts out into the quickly moving, cold water. This position allows me to safely stretch and reach out into a fast flowing channel of the mighty river, but I'm still pretty far extended.
Anyone who knows the simple truths of Chris Oswalt knows that I have no fears, but of all the things in the world, I've got a nice healthy respect for fast moving water. There is not a way in hell or creation that I am going to fall in to this torrent. So I lay belly down on this big rock, I'm secure. The good, rapidly flowing water can only be reached at maximum right arm extension. I hold the empty bottle by its dainty black cap and dunk the 32-ounce cavity into the raging river. The bottle fills instantaneously and due to some laws, bylaws, rules, or regulations of physics, bottle decides that it is taking its mass downstream. The bottle decides to disassociate itself from the black plastic cap that i'm holding. So I'm left with a cap in my right hand and a bottle- One of the two bottles we have on this trip- that's starting to white water raft itself down to the Pacific Ocean.
With my left hand that's been faithfully by my side this whole time (and my whole life, for that matter) I make one last ditch effort to grab the bottle that has begun to rocket downstream. I stab my arm in the water and hope that I grab a part of the bottle. I close my hand around something round and retrieve my arm from the water. In my grasp- a purple nalgene bottle full of fresh, cold river water. I put the lid back on and climb up the embankment and act as if nothing ever happened. I didn't think Lindsey needed to know I almost lost her water bottle
Piute Creek marks the boundary between National Forest and National Park.
We're not going out over Piute Pass. We're going to move on.
We're going down the JMT and we're in King's Canyon National Park. We've made it into new territory and it's a huge morale boost.
It's a much needed one, because every now and then I get this weird feeling that my achilles tendon is squeaking like a poorly fitted joint on a rocking chair. Weird things happen in your brain when you realize that inside of you, parts of your body are audibly and palpably creaking. I stopped to adjust my footwear and then started hiking.
Couple of steps in and then I felt an I.V. of fire being injected in to my foot. It was the worst pain I'd felt on the trip, and the worst pain I'd ever felt in my foot. I have no idea what it was or how it happened or anything other than I could not move my foot. So I stopped again on the side of the trail and for the first time, I taped my foot up hoping it would help.
What a cruel swing of emotions it was--anticipating with joy the huge food cache at MTR, being at an all time low deciding we have to hike out, last ditch hail-mary slice of the knife and we're back in business, and then I'm down to 1 wheel. All in the span of 24 hours. After resting and taping and letting a few other hikers go by, I get up and we hobble on. The tape feels 1000% better, but I've seen better days. All the while I've been carrying my hiking stick that I found in Bear Creek with me. It's mostly been a passenger, but as we proceed up the river basin, I rely on it as much as I have since the day I found it.
The mostly flat trail keeps following the San Joaquin River upstream and then makes a sharp left. It's here after the sharp turn that we have the privilege of doing some greatly missed (sarcasm) steep climbing. A series of switchbacks placed in the terrain leads us up to Evolution Creek and its amazing meadows, waterfalls, boulders, pinnacles, and scenery. One of the guys from MTR that we'd met, David the Cuben Fiber Camera Man, was hiking at the same pace as us. We all stopped and chatted at the base of the switchbacks and then Lindsey and I went up.
From the start of the switchbacks up to the Evolution basin, creek, and meadow system, the trail is pretty much a 3.5 mile straight shot to McClure Meadow where there's a ranger station. Before getting to the idyllic meadows, there are some notoriously challenging obstacles. Namely Evolution Creek, itself. There is an un-aided (no bridge, no stepping-stones, no nothing) crossing of the river about 1 mile in to this segment.
We press on up the switchbacks at a slow, steady, pace marked by heavy breathing. We walk on hard granite ledges next to roaring white water falls, stunning meandering creeks weaving through pines, and towering peaks.
The welcoming clouds from the earlier parts of the day morphed in to welcoming dark grey masses that produced rain. Golden rays of light shot sideways over the landscape; the dark dense clouds blocking out the direct overhead lighting. The Sierra Nevada was cast in a glow of gold, like someone shining a giant incandescent bulb on Evolution Meadow.
As we came around a bend, the trail descended into a 30 foot wide river and disappeared. On the other side of the shore, the well traveled path was perfectly clear. This was our river crossing.
The dark clouds dropped light rain on us as we figured out what we wanted to do. Posted nearby was a sign that said something about walking up stream if the river was too high. It was not high, by any means. Maybe 3-4 inches above ankle height. It was slick, however, and there were slight overtones of irony in that this was the one and only spot Lindsey probably needed high top boots. I let her cross first. I stood down stream to video her. 5% of my logic was to catch her should she accidently try to emulate her Nalgene bottle's antics earlier in the day.
After a good while, she made it halfway across having only dropped a sock in the river. Her method was to go directly across sans socks and shoes with the aid of both her trekking poles.
Lindsey was about halfway across when my staff and I decided that was enough of a head start. The rain was coming down a bit harder, so I went 20 feet up river and found a shallow, rocky park that was 5 or 6 inches deep in most spots. With socks, boots, and everything else on, I lifted my stick up and started tight roping across the stream on the most promising looking cobbles. I was able to make it across without getting any water in my boots. Lindsey was still about 10 feet away from shore.
A mother deer and its fawn grazed on this new side of territory I had found myself on. The rain was coming down and sprinkling the surface of the creek with tiny explosions. When Lindsey made it to land, we took shelter under the trees as she put on new socks. Cuben Fiber Camera Man comes up behind us and goes terminator style through the water. I don't think he took his boots off. He just walked straight through, giving exactly 0 damns. We all chatted on the other side again before we took the lead.
The forest was covered in a nice coating of fresh rain. A beautiful sight, but the light dirt on the trail was now partially mud. Only the top fraction of the trail surface was mud, though, and it came easily unattached from the dry substrate below it. What this resulted in was a lot of mud being kicked up and flung in to boots, shoes, and socks. It also made it hard to find seating areas because all of the good boulders were covered with moisture. We found a mostly dry boulder and stopped for a Snickers. Cuben Fiber man comes up to us and we chat for a second.
On this day, it seemed like we were the only 3 out here. Not another soul did we see. The forest was silent. The river rolled on. Dust floated on the air as the sun cast a spotlight on it flittering through the gentle breeze. The whole Evolution area was devoid of human sounds and creations, seemingly more than any other place. It's like the rain washed everything away, sent the humans into hiding and brought out the best nature had to offer. Deer grazed, birds bolted between trees, and the timeless rivers and streams wore away at the rocks that constrained them all under the golden rays of the sun. There was magic in the Evolution Meadows.
Through the damp and still forest we marched, meandering along the trail. We came upon McClure Meadow after some time. We were tired and hungry after a decently long day. The most pressing matter on this Saturday was not our ankles, food, campsite, it was this: did Texas A&M beat Alabama again? We had no way of knowing. As we passed the McClure Meadow Ranger Station, I figured it was worth asking.
I went up and knocked on the door. And older, kind gentleman opened his screen door and welcomed me. He was tall, average built, and understandably looked like he loved his life. Afterall, he was living in a cabin in the middle of the Sierra Nevada. No power, no cars, nothing. Wildness.
He had no idea who won the game and announced himself more of a soccer fan. He did point me towards his favorite camp sites after I asked for suggestions though. The good news- They were about 100 yards away. We'd made it one more day.
My ankle didn’t blow up, but it still creaked. Lindsey was doing better. The rain had drifted away from us and Mount Mendel and Mount Darwin had a clear view of us as they glowed bright orange in the waning light.
Cuben Fiber Camera Man walks in to the camping area not long after Lindsey and I. We invite him in and on this day, we're the only souls that inhabit this amazing place. 3 of us surrounded by peaks, creatures, grass, rivers, freedom, wilderness. We chat about why we're out here doing this, what we've experienced, where we came from, what we do back home. He eats a dehydrated Backpacker's pantry meal as Lindsey and I pour olive oil in some sundried tomato couscous.
Before going to bed, I turn my headlamp on its brightest setting and shoot the beam out into the vast meadow in front of us. Some green eyes peer up and stare at me 100 yards away.
No idea what animal it was. I'd hoped it was a bear at the time. I knew it was probably a deer. I went to sleep content, without fear, and happy.
Today wasn’t the day we'd leave the trail, and that was all that mattered in the moment.
Notes from the Trail
(Sunday morning, 9.15)