This Fire Burns
Day 8. 9/11/13
With the Vermillion cliffs behind our heads, we slept in Quail Meadows on one of the sparse patches of earth that was not solid granite. Some soil had managed to fill a depression in the otherwise bubbly, solid granite outcropping. In truth, this was one of my more favorite camping areas. Complete Solitude, a nice view of the cliffs, fair to good chance of seeing a bear, creek nearby, shelter in the form of trees. It was a beautiful area.
Each night at every campsite we slept, we would go place our bear cans down wind and put a rock on the top of them. The rock on the lid was not a deterrent or an immovable object for a bear, but an audible alarm. If something knocked over the bear can and we heard the rocks fall, then it had to be something big. By this point on the trail, I was kind of sad we'd not heard anything. The morning of Day 8 brought no new surprises. No mighty bruin had smelled peanut butter and decided to juggle the canister. In my head it would be slightly comical, whimsical, funny. In practice, maybe my peeing in a circle around our food cache that was placed 50-100 yards from our tent was overkill. Better safe than sorry…
As a quick aside, I've amassed a fair amount of knowledge regarding bears over the past years. Nothing scholarly or ground breaking, but identification, behavioral traits, attack cases, some biology here and there. And being the smart man that I am, here's how I break down the hazards of traveling in bear country:
Grizzly bear country- Mace. Taking/relying on a gun to take down a charging grizzly bear is a sign of absolute ignorance, fear, and general backwoodsery. I'd take 2 cans of bear mace and keep the safety off. If grizzly gets to me still, play dead, cover the neck, so and so.
Black bear country- Let's brawl. If a black bear is coming hot, it's time to fight. Playing dead won't do anything for me. So my black bear prevention system is a meaty stick and then fists. I went over this scenario with Lindsey and I try to refresh her every time we go into black bear country. I think that, when the time comes, she is not going to execute. Therefore, I reiterate it a lot-
If faced with a black bear and it chooses to advance towards us at a high rate of speed and slobber, Lindsey is to grab a camera and video immediately. I will wait for the bear, probably roaring back at it and slobbering as much as I can. Moments before it is within swiping range, I will lunge at it and put it in a sleeper hold. I will proceed to neutralize the threat by rendering bear unconscious. Lindsey will save the video. I'll shake the passed out bear's hand for being a worthy adversary. If its cubs are around I will pet one. Then I'll hike on, tell my tale to the media and become the most famous outdoors man ever.
Delusions of grandeur. I has it.
Having said that, in 100% seriousness- I bet I could take a black bear.
Day 8 would not be the day I'd find out. Spoiler alert- none of these days forthcoming would be the day, either. I'm certain my day will come…
We went through the normal routine of packing up and breaking camp. The beauty of day 8 was that it was a civilization day like the day we made it to Red's Meadow. We were, on day 8, to come in contact with the trappings of the outer world. Groceries, beer, fruit, vegetables. Hamburgers. At least that's what the plan was. Having been broken by what happened at Red's Meadow, my expectations were low.
Lindsey's guidebook told tales of Vermillion Valley Resort and its free cabin for JMT hikers and a free beer for each hiker. It sounded like a food and drink oasis. Oh, there were showers too. Glorious showers.
None of our maps showed the full side trail to VVR, but 95% of it was marked on our JMT map pack. About .5 miles further from where we camped, there is a boat landing where a shuttle boat from Vermillion will pick up hikers and take them to the resort. There was conjecture before we left about if the boat was operating due to low water levels. We'd not heard any news until passing a green sign posted on a tree. It read something along the lines of:
"Due to low lake levels the shuttle cannot run. Proceed on the trail 6 miles to VVR. We will offer a land shuttle to Bear Valley and Bear Creek Trail heads."
VVR is an interesting case of expectations; I'd never been, I'd heard about it, I knew what I'd read. I had an image in my head of what I expected it to be. Before I ever saw it, it was a green pasture with canvas tent cabins spread throughout it. There was a little bar inside, a fire place, a mix of vacationers, hikers, and staff members. It was never really more than that. I didn’t imagine the minutia of it all. It just seemed like an above average resort. I imagined the Lake Thomas Edison to be deep blue, clear, and massive given the scale of the map. I expected the shuttle boat to be a large pontoon number with a shade canopy.
We'd stopped to filter some water from the creek we'd been walking next to for the past 1.5 miles. It's a beautiful stream with good flowage. I remember thinking to myself how awesome it would be to see the creek during July or August when it was running hard and fast with snow melt . On the opposite bank, faintly stained in to the rock was a water line from a time when it carried vast amounts more.
I looked to the west to see where the creek went, and I saw a desert. A sandy, flat plain.
Lake Thomas A. Edison.
I could see why the water taxi was not running. So we walked. The map decreed a mere 4.8 miles to Vermillion Trailhead. I assumed this trailhead was dead center of the picturesque encampment of VVR.
So we hiked up the rocky ridges of the artificial lake. Artificial. The map cuts off the end of Lake Thomas Edison, but I'd gathered by now that at the western most end, there was a dam. The terrain and alien landscape of an empty lake throws up some key hints, too. We'd seen small pools that were dried up, but nothing like this lake. 20, 30, 40 feet deep when it's full and there was not a drop.
Another green sign from the VVR staff comes up. "please do not hike in the lake bed. "
We see footprints down there and it sure as hell looks easier. But we stick to the trail. This pays off eventually as the dried lake gives way to some random pools and muddy spots. We switchback up and down small ridges as we lose overall elevation. We're around 7800 feet now, and the temperature reflects that. The day is warm and even slightly humid with a thin, translucent blanket of white wispy clouds building in the sky.
It feels like ages. I'm tired. We're hungry because we calculated being to VVR by lunch time and eating there. I'm pissed off the water disappeared and took away my water taxi. After what had to be 5 miles or more, I saw a structure in the distance. An arching wooden bridge. Behind it, I saw VVR. Thick, natural wooden cabins, a little lodge, tall pines, grassy knolls. I saw it all.
The only thing that was really there, as we got closer, was the bridge. I wanted to be there so badly that I made the whole place pop up out of nowhere, and my brain believed me. Maybe I caught a glimpse of a barren tree or something. There were no other structures. Just the bridge. Nothing on the other side of the bridge.
We were tired, hot, and ready to be at Vermillion. The absolute worst thing on any hike is thinking you should be somewhere at a certain time and being nowhere close. The feeling of going 6 miles but in reality only going 4 is a killer. It's a morale destroyer, energy sucker, spirit stifling thing. It makes you go slower, and then the miles take even longer.
A green sign on a tree.
"Horses, take a right to the stables. Hikers, continue left another 3/4ths of a mile."
Sigh. Another almost 1 mile. After we've walked what seemed like 8. I get angry.
And angry hiking is fast hiking.
What feels like a mile and a half passes.
"Trail head 1/4 mile ahead. Take a left and walk on the road to VVR"
But we do make it to the trail head. There's cars, bear boxes, and other signs of development but no resort. We have to follow the signs and walk another half mile or so down a dirt forest road.
A building comes in to view but who knows what it is. As we get closer, I can read the sign.
"Vermillion Valley Resort."
I start taking my pack off while I'm hiking. Hip belt first. Sternum strap next. The 35 pounds in it are resting 100% on my shoulders. As we step on to the property the straps come off and the bag does a firm but slightly controlled flop to the ground. I lean it on a stump.
Free tent cabin. Free beer. Hot food. And the Brits.
Eh. Take the good with the not so good. They were eating amazing looking hamburgers, and we decided we would too. We'd gotten there with minutes to spare for their lunch time serving hours, but they didn’t close their kitchen. (looking at you, Red's) We order and grab a beer from the convenience store style fridges.
VVR is a weird place. The main building is half store, half restaurant. The whole thing is not very big. The indoor seating area can hold maybe 30. The outdoor seating area about that many as well. They've got the standard hiker needs in their store- first aid, food, batteries, misc. crap like stickers, bandanas, crappy knives. In about every way- it's a gas station for hikers. The fuel is food they cook, and it is good and priced pretty well. The stuff in the store is all the things a hiker could need.
Like Red's meadow, VVR has a hiker barrel full of things that people have gotten tired of on their treks. As they pass through, they pick up some new tasty things from the store or from a resupply they sent to VVR and the discard their unwanted food in the hiker barrel. Hiker barrel items are free. And in September, Hiker barrels are full.
Our burgers and fries came out and we ate them. They were delicious. It was everything it should have been; thin crispy strings of fries, a meaty, cheesy, vegetably hamburger. Tons of ketchup. It was delicious.
Having settled our lunch, we had to figure out how VVR worked. We didn’t pay or swipe a card for the burger. We just grabbed beer from the fridge. And I was looking for my free tent cabin.
The man whom I assume is the owner comes in and we start a tab. Everything works on tab system. You want a room? Put it on the tab. Beer? Put it on the tab. Ordering lunch, dinner, or breakfast from the kitchen? Tab. Want a bag of fritos? Grab it. Let the person know. They put it on your tab.
We ask about the free hiker tent cabin. Turns out they did away with it because it was a horrible mess. It was sad news to us. But they did have a regular tent cabin (hikers all had to share the free one) that we would rent at 70 something per night. Tokens for the shower were a tiny bit more. Laundry soap was a tiny bit more.
It'd seem the survival of a Sierra Resort such as VVR is dependent on the nickel and dime philosophy. By no means was it a bad place, but it was far from what I'd expected. The tent cabin was a canvas tent on a wooden platform with 4 steel twin bed frames, each with an orphanage quality mattress. The kind with a stripe pattern and springs that click when you sit on them. It was the most comfortable bed I'd ever seen in that moment.
On the floor was a rug that had to have been the alter of a ritual yeti sacrifice. The original pattern of the rug had succumbed to an immeasurable amount of white fur. The fur then covered socks, clothing, and anything that came in contact with the floor. RIP Snow beast. We hardly knew ye.
Shower facility was newly built and nice. Hot water lasted about 5 minutes. Soap and shampoo dispensers were mounted on the wall and produced a liquid form upon depressing the corresponding button.
The laundry facility was a small side room with a busted washer, a working washer, and a dryer. The clothes loved it.
After indulging in lunch we hung out in the restaurant area looking at maps, books, relaxing, hanging out. Inside, we met two folks we'd never seen before- Kevin and Allison. They had been maybe a mile or two right in front of us the whole time. They were the couple that Greg alluded to on day 2. Their story was much like ours and they were awesome. We talked about the sights we'd shared on the trail we'd sauntered down for the past days.
After chatting with Kevin and Allison we ran across two other people we had seen on the trail; Two guys from out of the country. Simon and Jonas had arrived as well.
The whole crew was there; the Brits, the dynamic german/sweed/swiss duo (they were really Swiss). Peppered with some other travelers, hikers, and seasonal visitors, VVR was a bustling hub of hiker life.
We relaxed for the rest of the day and walked the 40 yards back to the main building for dinner. Kitchen staff was one extremely tall man who was the chef and an untold 2,3,4 other helpers. The food was awesome. It took us a long time to get our dinner because a huge group ordered before us. It was a worthwhile wait. After eating, we went outside where there was a decent bonfire. We sat around it and talked to the people who were enjoying its warmth on this 40 degree night.
A group of 4 older guys sat around telling stories of their previous travels. They'd driven up from some other part of California. The Swiss duo joined us as all 6 of us sat In plastic lawn chairs around an elevated fire pit. The flames roared hot and crackled with sparks every so often from the dried pine wood.
The older guys told of a trip they'd had in the Sierras some time ago. I'm unable to put it as eloquently as the original phrasing, but essentially one of the gentlemen had a revelation. He was hiking up a pass, sucking as much oxygen as his lungs could get , bent over in a heap from the incessant beating that a day of climbing a mountain will do. And he took the short fall to the side of the trail as he sat for a break. He said that as he saw his life flash before his eyes, and as he thought he was about to meet his maker, the epiphany came to him. His heavy pack, boots, water, and gear all sitting weightily beside him on this trail side he realized, and he shouted to us with exuberantly joy around the camp fire as he realized in that moment on the trail- "I CAN PAY SOMEONE TO CARRY ALL THIS!!"
these Gentlemen did things smartly. They had horses to carry all of their gear. They had horses to carry their asses. Their trip was off north to the Graveyard Lakes.
20 feet away around the table was the majority of the people staying at VVR. The massive group of Brits, Kevin+Allison and some others. They were drinking and playing card games.
We sat around our fire and talked to the Swiss about their lifestyle across the world, what they thought of America, why they'd chosen to hike the JMT, and other snippets of life.
Random bursts of yelling and laughter would roar every so often behind us.
The fire would explode like a small firework.
"POP" and a crackle of sparks would shoot everywhere.
The older guys were the first to head off from the fire. We chatted with Simon and Jonas for a bit and decided we should get to bed as well; we still had to pack and leave in the morning and resume the trip.
Out of my green plastic lawn chair and into the cooling California night we hiked to Tent Cabin 5 and called it a night.
In the half day we'd been at VVR, I was dumbstruck by it. It wasn’t what I'd expected, but it was uniquely kind of cool once you get past the culture shock aspect of it. Certainly that's a universally true statement of anything. Above all else, though, VVR is a pit stop in many ways. Not that the trail is a race, but everyone gets spread out and goes at their own pace. All the while, folks are never really more than a few miles apart. When a rallying point/cheeseburger opportunity arises, you can bet that most people will make the short side trip and replenish their body and souls.
Even hiking with someone and meeting others, it can get lonely on the trail. Not dust-and-tumbleweeds-blowing-in-the-whistling-wind-lonely, but I-really-want-to-share-this-with-people-who-understand-it lonely.
It's different for everyone. You've got people out there looking for different variations of adventure, redemption, salvation. You've got people in different camps as far as what gear to take and how heavy it should be. There is an amazing amount of diversity amongst the small group of people who choose to take part of their life on Earth and spend it hiking into the nothing. Into the great, wild, nothingness and everythingness of nature.
Thousands hiked before us, Thousands will hike after us. I'll hike it again. These stops like VVR, Red's Meadow, Muir Trail Ranch are punctuation marks on the journey. They're a stop, a pause, a question, an jubilation.
VVR was an slightly eccentric, eclectic area of tent cabins, run down RV trailers, smelly backpackers, long time patrons, young seasonal workers. All people who love the outdoors and spent themselves in a worthy cause.
Inside the canvas tent, the moon and starlight showed through seams and gaps. Lindsey and I pushed two twin beds together and zipped our bags together. Good in theory. In practice, her mattress must have been sourced from a more luxurious prison than where mine came from; it was about 2 inches taller. We managed.
I closed my eyes.
The faint sound of laughter and yelling would grace the light evening air.
I smiled with a bit of regret. I wish I would have learned to play the Brits' game.