The whooshing sound of the wind whipping through the tops of the pine trees was interrupted by a large crack of thunder. Brilliant flashes of lightning illuminated the tent. Lying down, I counted the seconds between the burst of light and sound as they got closer and closer. Flash. Craaaaack. Flash. I fidgeted with my glasses, camera, phone, ear buds…anything to try to take my mind off of my impending death by lightning here in a narrow valley surrounded by high walls of granite on the John Muir Trail.
What makes a thru-hiker tick? Why subject oneself to fear, discomfort and danger when it would be so much easier to stay home where it’s safe? Once limited to a hardy few, recent years have seen an explosion of interest in long distance hikes such as the John Muir Trail, or the even longer Pacific Crest Trail. Fueled in part by books and films such as “Wild” and “A Walk in the Woods,” more and more people are looking to the backcountry to get away from it all.
The reasons for exchanging creature comforts for carrying all of your belongings on your back and walking for weeks or months are varied. Some are looking for solitude while others seek dramatic scenery. Still others are running away from something or seeking to understand themselves better. Many describe the peace they find in the simplicity of trail life, stripping away the conventions of society and the burden of being constantly connected. My interest in hiking the iconic John Muir Trail, named for the intrepid rambler and founder of the Sierra Club, began slowly.
The 211-mile trail, which starts in Yosemite Valley and ends at the top of Mt. Whitney, spans ten high passes in the High Sierra ranging from 10,000 to 13,000 feet and snakes through some of the most dramatic scenery of any hike in the United States, short or long. Granite peaks soar above thick pine forests and in early summer, wildflowers blanket the meadows. Crystal clear, frigid waters rage in swollen rivers during spring snow melt, mellowing to burbling streams later in as summer wanes.
I was introduced to backpacking, not as a child in Scouts, but as a mature adult of 45 years. Weekend trips around Tahoe led to week-long trips. A chance visit with a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker on one of those treks piqued my interest in long trails.
The thought of spending six months on the trail repelled and fascinated me at the same time but when I learned that the John Muir Trail could be completed in mere weeks, I thought maybe, just maybe, I could do it. It seemed audacious to think that I could walk for weeks and sleep in a tent for that long, but I liked the idea of the physical and psychological challenge. Though the planning and training were daunting, the real secret of long-distance hiking is mental fortitude. I wanted to test myself against the rigors of the High Sierra.
After months of training hikes, fighting through the archaic but effective permitting process at Yosemite National Park, organizing, packing and mailing resupply boxes to remote backcountry camps and investing in lighter gear, my husband Steve and I stepped onto the trail with fully loaded packs weighing only 25 pounds. I was as ready as I could be but still had lingering doubts. Was this a crazy idea?
I kept going, one foot in front of the other, for more than three weeks. We went through smoky skies from raging fires, steady rain, lightning that nipped at our heels and endured the fatiguing effects of high altitude.
On the other hand, lush, green meadows, the many faces of multi-hued granite in the changing light and pristine high alpine lakes welcomed us at every turn. We climbed ever higher, each hard-earned gain immediately followed by a huge descent over the other side as we passed through vast, boulder-strewn bowls, each separated by another high pass. The dramatic scenery unfolded as we moved south, coniferous forests giving way to lofty spires of granite reaching for the heavens.
I expected to find such stunning scenery and was not disappointed. What was surprising, however, was that when I thought of the trail months later, what I remembered most were the people I met. The ties that bind a trail community together in any given year are tenuous at best. They are held together by brief encounters, a few exchanged words and longer visits on the tops of passes or at resupply points.
And yet, I remember every conversation vividly. Every photograph brings me right back to that moment on the trail. The Doctors still laugh with us at the memory of Steve falling into a mud pot at Blaney Hot Springs, where we soaked our sore muscles for hours at the half-way point. Sipping whiskey one afternoon with the Texans while delving into water rights issues in drought-stricken states showed us how much we had in common. The Teens, the pair of 16-year-old friends doing the trail by themselves, provided a lesson in maturity, self-sufficiency and poise that many adults could learn from. Grandma, an 81-year-old diminutive Japanese-American woman hiking the entire trail solo, gave new meaning to retirement possibilities. And we’ll never forget two-year-old Sage, singing to her parents from her baby carrier as they climbed Glen Pass.
I lived through the lightning scare and many other obstacles, gaining confidence and strength with every step. What I learned on the trail is that hiking long distances takes mental grit and perseverance more than any physical skill. The ability to focus on small sections at a time and not get overwhelmed with the enormity of the undertaking was key. As long as there was forward progress, no matter how slow it was on the hard days, the miles melted away. Breathtaking scenery around every hard-earned corner was one reward; making lasting friendships was another. But the best feeling of all was the sense of accomplishment.
Inga Aksamit authored “Highs and Lows on the John Muir Trail” as well as “The Hungry Spork: A Long Distance Hiker’s Guide to Meal Planning.” Her writing can be found at ingasadventures.com.