John Muir Trail hikers rave about its extraordinary scenery, but perhaps for once we should rave about its extraordinary hikers. Among this year’s class are U.S. Army Sgt. Justin Bond and indigenous leader Jolie Varela.
Bond, who served in Iraq and lost his left leg during the 2004 Battle of Fallujah, led a veterans group on the trail in August. The hike was just one of many ventures Bond has made to support fellow veterans since he founded the nonprofit group Our Heroes’ Dreams (www.ourheroesdreams.org) in Hanford about six years ago.
Supported by pack horses, the group of ten which included Bond’s son Jared hiked from Lake Edison (about 35 miles east of Oakhurst) and over ultra-scenic Selden Pass, 10,800 feet high. Overcoming conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, the veterans-turned-backpackers had never seen anything like it, Bond said.
“Going from the desert in Iraq and seeing the evil that is there to hanging out on top of Selden Pass that you just climbed, it’s just amazing,” said Bond, who used crutches and his prosthetic leg on the trail. “All of a sudden, your problems seem so insignificant, they just fade away.”
The veterans originally planned to hike the entire 220-mile Muir, though injuries and trail mishaps forced an early departure. But then Bond, his father Sidney and other veterans teamed up to climb 14,505-foot Mount Whitney at the trail’s southern end.
Reaching the highest point in the lower 48 states challenges even the fittest climbers. A recent rockslide over the trail didn’t help, but the veterans took encouragement from their fellow hikers.
“Three female police officers were carrying an American flag and covering 22 miles in one day. That gave me inspiration to keep going,” Bond said. “So many people said would never have made it if I wasn’t doing it. Because I was missing a leg, they said they had to do it. When I got up on the summit, they were all in a line and clapping for me. It was just a very moving and inspirational thing.”
The 16-mile round-trip from Lone Pine Lake took 27 hours. “An absolute killer,” Bond said. “But we made it. We flew our banner up there, and now more vets are saying, ‘If you can do it, I can do it.’”
Varela inspired others and shared the route she calls Nuumu Poyo (“The People’s Road”) in her own way. Descended from Eastern Sierra Paiutes and Tule River Yokuts, Varela founded the nonprofit group Indigenous Women Hike (www.indigenouswomenhike.com). She led a group of mostly Paiute (they also call themselves Nuumu) women on a trek through their high-altitude ancestral lands in August.
They aspired to “honor our relatives who came before us, unite in sisterhood, realign with traditional and sacred spaces and bring awareness to indigenous issues,” Varela said.
On their journey, they also educated countless other hikers about the mountains’ history. “Lots of people believe that John Muir came and created these trails when actually he followed trails that were already there,” Varela explained. “All along it are grinding stones, obsidian and evidence that people have been on it for thousands of years.”
New to backpacking, the women found the trail “really beautiful, amazing and hard,” Varela said.
Varela and one companion hiked about 190 miles. Fire and smoke in Yosemite forced others in their group to leave the trail and rejoin them further south. Their adventure culminated on the summit of Tomangayah, which most people know as Mount Whitney; the indigenous women happily informed their fellow hikers about the mountain’s original name. From its top, they could see their home of Payahüünadü, or Owens Valley, an inspiring sight after up to 22 days of difficult hiking.
“That was a really awesome moment, to be on top of Tomangayah with all those wonderful people, looking down on where we come from and seeing how close we were to being home,” Varela said.
Both hiking leaders offered profound thanks for the community support their groups received, and both intend to continue their outdoor-sharing efforts. Bond plans to further develop a “Recovery in the Wild” program to help more veterans heal. Varela hopes to return to the trail next year and plans to create a “gear library” to affordably equip Native Americans and others who wish to discover nature through backpacking.
“Indian people aren’t on the land as much as we should be. She misses us,” Varela said. “It’s time to get our community out and nourish the connections that we have to the land to make us healthier.”
All who hike long distances on the John Muir Trail and other mountainous paths have reason for joy and pride. But for those who labor to share the outdoors with others, the famed naturalist Muir himself would tip his wide-brimmed hat.