I am an 18 year-old homeschooler and college go-er in Reno, NV who likes to backpack and hike. I did the Tahoe Rim Trail in 2015, the John Muir Trail in 2016, and I am currently prepping for a 2017 solo thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail.
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The Pacific Crest Trail is an abstract concept. Just like the number 100,000 or a weight of 12 pounds; 2650 miles is equally as inconceivable. But the PCT has never just been the length of a footpath between Mexico and Canada. Neither is it solely the places it brings you, the ridges it climbs and the valleys it mosies along. Maybe it's the people, the experience of living outside, the hardship, the joy. Whatever it is, the Pacific Crest Trail is something too large and multi-dimensional to grasp fully in my mind.
I've had some awesome conversations with some of my fellow thru-hikers already and I haven't even started hiking. I can only speak for myself, but my emotions are a roulette of 40% panic and disillusionment, What the heck am I doing? What about all the snow? Am I prepared enough? What do I do with my life if I get injured and have to leave?, 50% determination and resolve that this is what I'm going to do and what I want to do so I'm doing it despite the disillusionment, and 10% is excitement and happiness that this is what I'm going to do. I'm not too concerned about the first 40% because this is what I feel for a backpacking trip of any length, even if it's just for overnight. What is going to be interesting to see is if this feeling comes back every time I go into towns to resupply, rest, eat.
T-minus 60 days.
60 days until hiking north. Until waking up in the middle of the night while cowboy camping to see the stars through the slit in my sleeping bag, nose cold, our galaxy spilled across the sky like milk. Heat that makes me wish desperately for a clear stream of snowmelt to dip myself in to wash away my dirt and sweat, and cold that leaves me dreaming of the blanketing heat of the desert floor. Days where my head is in a fog and it becomes difficult to move my legs.
Loneliness. Boredom. Running down a pass during a summer thunderstorm with my new trail friends. The absolute freedom of being able to pee wherever I want (seriously, I miss this a lot). Hunger that makes food taste better than it ever will again in my whole life. Staying up late to play card games sitting in a circle in the dirt, with people I've just met and might never see again. Seeing Sagebrush along the side of the trail and it reminding me of home so that I want to dance and hug it and sing "Home Means Nevada." Actually singing and dancing and singing it out until my heart is full.
Getting to hug a stranger's dog because I'll miss my dogs at home. Calling my mom and crying because I don't think I can do this any longer. Doing it longer anyway, because I was just having a bad day. Breathing through my head net, my skin crawling as I frantically run from a swarm of mosquitos. Praying to run into someone who wasn't too stubbornly idealistic to bring DEET.
Seeing the sun rise and set every day, and its slow revolution across the sky being all that is necessary to tell the time. Losing track of what day it is, whether it's Tuesday or Friday, because really it doesn't matter. Seeing Meiss Cabin and knowing that I'm on my home turf and will see my family soon. Walking north from Tahoe and for the first time not walking towards home but away from it. But at the same time, knowing that the trail is now also my home.
Maybe, if I'm lucky, I'll see a clear-cut strip of trees in the distance, the Canada border, and know that my journey is almost done.
I spend 30 minutes reeling in the Walmart near my work, wandering in erratic circles trying to find a card and wrapping paper for a retirement party at work. I've rarely gone into one, a Walmart, and I don't know where anything is. The cashier when I go to check out looks panicked and and overwhelmed. It's a Friday.
As I'm walking out the doors, I pass a woman who stops and looks at the mountains behind me. "Look how beautiful the view is!" she says to her husband. "How the light is coming down," she says, encompassing the mountains in the gesture of her hands.
I look back and see she's right. Frigid clouds hang in a slow-motion dance with the crest of the Sierra. The sun, behind them, makes the clouds glow. Streetlights, roads, and warehouses cut the flanks of the hills into a jumble of mountain slivers, but yes, she's absolutely right, it's still beautiful in a weird, disconnected way.
I admire her for seeing a view in a Walmart parking lot. I can't wait to be out there.
Here is the state of my preparations: between working, several hours of math homework each day, and a new puppy, not much. I read blogs, talk to other thru-hikers about resupply strategy and gear, and dream. I go into REI on the way home from work to look at stuff sacks, micro-spikes and ice axes. I lift an ice ax in my palm and appreciate the heft of it, the way the metal curves in my hand. But even REI doesn't hold my attention, and I wander through aimlessly, because even this is consumerism. I don't need any of this stuff.
Training hikes happen when I have a few hours of free time and good weather to disappear into the BLM land behind our house, up into the desert and the mountains. I leave our coult-de-sac with a loaded pack and take a left, then another left up towards the elementary school, following a strip of sagebrush along a ditch. Right before the school, I leave the sidewalk and cross the ditch, re-emerge on the other side of the dip, and I'm on public land.
I follow the ATV path as it curves around the school, and then follow another one up into the desert. If it's the weekend, I can hear the distant popping of guns up near the base of the hills. It's a form of recreation that I don't fully understand. I know that this desert is riddled with dry stream beds and ATV tracks and old couches and rotting plywood, but all I can see from any point as I march to the hills is a broad, smooth sweep of Artemisia, Big Sagebrush, punctuated by juniper. I've seen some people openly call it brown and ugly, but I think it's beautiful and definitely not brown. It alternates grey, pale mint, and dusty sage: purple, straw-yellow, rose, milk-coffee and at sunset, gold. Above everything is the huge pale blue of the sky.
The desert floor tilts steadily upwards to the mountains. Before I know it I'm at the point where the mountains rise, abrupt, from the relative flatness. I look back and see the turquoise roof of the elementary school, far away and below and small. I climb up the hills, my hills, feeling my calves burn. On this trip, snow softens the hillside. Spanish Springs, the elementary school, my house, grow smaller and the view of Reno and Sparks rises above the hills behind like the moon. Fresh storm clouds stream over the darkened Sierra, obscuring Mt. Rose in white.
When I'm out here alone, I feel calm. I know that I will never understand why I'm hiking the PCT until I take the first step out of the car at the Mexican border. All of the stress about getting there, and my incredulity about leaving behind a nice mattress and real food and AC and my family, will fall away. All I know is that I want to do this, I need to do this, and I just need to have the faith to start.
Yesterday the first round of PCT long-distance hiking permits were released on the PCTA website at 10:30 PST. I got a start date of April 22nd!!!
When I hiked the JMT last year, there were all kinds of articles on how to navigate the confusing NPS permit for the JMT. We ended up having to fax a permit in every day for two weeks straight until we got our permit in the lottery. Permit denial messages littered my email inbox. The difficult permit system was a bonding experience for everyone on the trail.
For the PCT, there was almost nothing online about what it would look like once it opened. Given my experience with the JMT, I was a little bit nervous as I set up my situation room (the kitchen counter) with my laptop to get ready.
When 10:30 hit, I refreshed the page, and the PCTA website crashed. It stayed crashed for an hour. Imagine: 2,000+ people sitting there refreshing their page at a single moment. Then refreshing, refreshing... I knew that everyone else was probably locked out too, but I couldn't help but panic a little and think that it was working fine for everyone else and they were getting all of the permits.
Once you finally get in, the permit process is very easy and simple. It asks you to answer a few questions (are you starting Sobo or Nobo from near the Mexican border) then it gives you a calendar full of dates, showing how many permits are left. You pick a date and it reserves it for you for 5 minutes while you finish the application. It asks you whether you're summiting Whitney (if you say yes it's 21$), and asks you to donate 35$ to the PCTA for a membership. Both are optional, but I think it's as good a time as any to get your PCTA membership and you might as well give yourself the option to hike Whitney.
I took a quick training hike today after getting home from work. It's been raining all day, but I figured what better time to test out my cold-weather hiking layers?
Better yet, I found out that my hiking umbrella had just arrived! My hiking shorts were in the wash, so I wore some jeans (i know that's generally a bad idea, but). So, I took off through the neighborhood in my backpacking shirt, rain jacket, fleece gloves, hat, and Houdini wind pants. And my snazzy hiking umbrella. I don't know how I looked but I'm sure it was great.
The (high) desert is only a 5-10 minute walk from our house. I stayed out 2-3 hours and got back when it was getting dark; it was very muddy and wet and kind of cold but I stayed warm and dry, although I'm glad I didn't have to set up camp in the rain. My daypack was drenched, but luckily water bottles don't mind getting wet. I will have to try that again sometime with my hiking shorts and a full pack!
I also love my umbrella and have named it Baron after the character in The Cat Returns.
After one decides to attempt a thruhike, the logical progression of one's thoughts turns towards planning. You ask questions like: What will my resupply strategy look like? How do I get down to Campo? What do I still need for gear? How do I get a permit and what should my starting date be? What is my plan for when I stop hiking? How am I funding my hike?
And you know what puzzles me the most? Solving these questions does not seem to be that more difficult than last summer for the John Muir Trail. Is that scary? Reassuring? I don't know. This simplicity is one advantage of doing a hike like this now, young, while I don't have to worry about bills and am not tied down to a career or a mortgage.
I am both gluten free (which I'd like to change but can't) and piscetarian (which I don't want to change but can), complicating resupply a bit. I am still planning on resupplying the main bulk of what I eat as I go, but with "care packages" from home to supplement with things I probably won't find on trail. Gluten free crackers, bread, tortillas, licorice, rice noodles, mac n cheese, cookies, dehydrated veggies, instant refried beans, instant curry lentil soup, etc. But, largely I think I'll be fine, even if I have to employ the "Basically I Eat Potato Chips" strategy outlined in Carrot Quinn's blog. I know that on the JMT I wanted to give up just doing one resupply package, so I'm not doing that to myself. I'll probably just plan for specific packages at Kennedy Meadows and MTR/VVR, and figure out the rest of the trail after Reno/Tahoe as I go.
I am getting Amtrak tickets down to San Diego, where there are trail angels who shuttle hikers to the trail. I've taken the California Zephyr before (which goes along the Transcontinental Railroad line) from SF to Reno and it's nice, and also a whole lot cheaper than plane tickets. And I probably will freak out the Amish with my hiking clothes.
The only things I still need for gear are my Halfmile maps, an ice axe and microspikes, shoes, and a few other small things like something to write in, a compass, a food bag, and my mom wants to get me a Spot or Delorme. I promised if she got one for me I would take it. I also am taking an REI beginning mountaineering course to learn how to use my ice axe. With all of the snow we're getting, I'm aiming for a late April/early May starting date. The permits should be easy peasy after the nightmare that JMT permits are. I also need to renew my passport and apply for entry to Canada.
My plan for after I stop hiking? Who knows. I don't know how far I will make it, if I will get an injury in the first 500 miles or in the last 600. If i will go fast or slow. At this point I am abandoning my UNR plans until next spring.
Everything is in limbo. I will see what happens...
I had an epiphany two days before the new year. I am going to hike the Pacific Crest Trail this year. This is the summer.
This is how it fits together: I had just started a part-time job as a clerical assistant at my Dad's work. So now I can make some money for my hike. I wouldn't let myself hike and not help pay for it, even though I know my parents would. It just in a sense wouldn't be my own hike, not in the same way. The Pacfic Crest Trail is in some sense for me about gaining independence, and it would feel false if I was entirely dependent on someone else. I was already judged by people on the John Muir Trail for not having a job, for being young, for having light gear - even though I work hard at my college classes and at home, paid for a fair portion of my gear myself, and was the driving force behind my hikes.
I am taking two classes this spring at the community college, both of which end early (one is compressed into a half-semester, and the other is self-paced, at least so I've heard). They are both courses necessary for me getting into college. If that's confusing because I just said I'm in community college, it's because I also homeschool and it is confusing. So, I am faced with the opportunity of being able to start earlier, and not late in the season due to the semester ending May 12th. When else do I see myself being on this schedule while in college? Non.
The other thing that was holding me back was me transfering from community college to a university this fall. You know what? There will never be a perfect time for a thru-hike. If I end up finishing off early, I can still take classes at either TMCC or UNR, the local colleges. Plus, I've already been doing community college classes for 3 years. Time for a break before another long stretch for completing my major.
So, why am I hiking the PCT in general? Other than having always wanted to do it, other than growing up backpacking on the PCT around Tahoe, here is a list of reasons:
A final note: I will brandish my long-handled titanium spoon at anyone who tries to talk to me about Wild, Cheryl Strayed, or Reese Witherspoon. Just kidding.
Day 3, July 12th: Garnet Lake to Red's Meadow Resort. 14 miles. (Note: these entries are from my trip last summer. I am writing them after-the-fact)
I wake up to the sound of my mom moving around camp. I closed the vestibule near my tent entrance last night because we're camped next to other people, and now condensation is frozen to the inside walls. It's melting and covering my sleeping bag with droplets where the warm bag has brushed against the drooping silnylon. I do my best to brush it off with my handkerchief and wiggle outside. My bear can is frozen shut and I hurt the cold tips of my fingers against the frost when trying to open it. It takes a while for my mom and I to pack up. We eat our cold breakfast and go down to the lake to dip our dirty water bags into the frigid, lapping water. It had been slapping against the rocks along the shore all night, sounding like voices or the filling up of water bottles.
I've been feeling really good hiking-wise, but because of that also mildly impatient with having to compromise on where we stop each day. I want to go further, always a little further. even though I know that we're going at the right pace. Most of this probably stems from the fact that I dislike the camping part of backpacking and would minimize it as much as possible. I don't like sitting around camp, and having to unpack and repack my possessions each day, and doing all of the little camp chores that seem to take up so much time.
I express this to my mom, and I can immediately tell that I've upset her. Even though she's doing well on this hike, it's still harder for her than me, and I feel horrible and awkward. She goes to filter another bag of water by the lake and doesn't talk to me.
When we start hiking the tension has mostly dissipated. We cross the outlet of the lake on a high footbridge, the water streaming in glittering, sinewy rivulets across the granite. I talk to a group of JMTers who are also from Reno and then pass them, following the trail up tight switchbacks up the side of the ridge bordering the lake.
My mom hikes fast in the mornings, and so it's the time when we hike the closest together, up the ridge still in shadow, the sun not yet high enough to reach us here. We crest a small saddle between granite ledges and down a small gully.
I stop to go off trail to pee while my mom goes ahead. When I come back to my pack the guy and his friend I met near Donahue come down the trail. They say hello and hike on. We end up leapfrogging them the rest of the day.
After a quick elevation rise near Shadow Lake, the rest of the day looks like it's all downhill. There's a worrying dark patch of compressed switchback squiggles on the map that corresponds with the Shadow Lake elevation change, however. Shadow Lake itself is shallow and silty around the shore, with the skeletons of pine trunks toppled into the water. I pause before turning into the first switchback.
The trees are dense here, and before too long the lake shore is receding between tree trunks far below me. My mom follows a half switchback behind me, and I wave whenever I pass her going the opposite way. At first I stop to catch my breath, but soon decide to try and get this ridge out of the way. My mom falls one, two, four zigzags below me. "How'd you get so far ahead?!" she calls, and I send a shrug. "I'm getting to the top without stopping. It must be close," I shout back. I can't see the lake anymore- nothing but trees and an endless brown slope of pine duff stretching up and down.
It must be close, I think. But it's not. I trundle up, using my legs to lever my body forwards, upwards. After what seems like forever I finally reach the top to find the guys we've been leapfrogging with sitting there. "That was a ridiculously long climb," I say. We start talking. Their names are Tanka and Bebak and they're originally from Nepal, but they've been working in Germany as doctors. No wonder their accents seemed so familiar; my grandparents hiked extensively in Nepal and have always had Nepali friends visiting them in the States.
They hike on and my mom and I follow, into an equally interminable downhill. It's hot, sandy and dusty, through an area that looks like it might have been burnt except that the trees are still whole, scattered intact like behemoth toothpicks across the forest floor. No shade. I fall behind and am out of water, and start tracking my mom's footprints in the dusty trail. The bottom of my feet ache. I catch up to my mom and we shuffle down the dusty and steep trail.
Where the JMT rejoins the PCT a PCTer with a smiling plush flower wrapped around his shouder strap, the kind you win at fairs, passes us. The first PCTer of the day; it's been odd to not have the steady stream of Nobo'rs passing us, beards, small packs, ear buds, and trail runners all blending their impressions into one in my mind.
We reach the boundary for Devil's Postpile National Monument, and cross a bridge over a river. We're both out of water, but with only 2 miles to go until Red's Meadow and the cafe there, we decide not to stop. Immediately we enter into a maze of paths, none of them marked for either the JMT or PCT. We stop a ranger and ask how to get to Red's on the JMT, and she cheerily points us forward, telling us to make a side trip to a waterfall. We pass under Devil's Postpile, which is an interesting geometric rock formation, but definitely NOT where we're supposed to be, as it's a side trip we had decided to pass on. Clean tourist people in hiking boots and t-shirts stare at us as we pass through. After climbing up a ridiculously steep hill we finally decide to turn around and go back to the bridge. I try to stay positive but we're both tired and irritated.
We find the PCT where it inconspicuously turns right up a slope. My mom is miserable in the heat and wants to continue without stopping for water. "No," I say, "go down to the river and let's filter some water."
We filter a liter each and then go. The trail is littered with horse manure and churned up until it resembles beach sand. It's just as difficult to walk on and the sand starts sifting into the mesh of my shoes until it collects just beneath the arch of my foot. We reach a road, and I'm not sure if that is the way up to Red's or if it's further up the trail. My mom sits down and starts crying. We agree for her to wait there while I check out the road. I pass some people with a screeching toddler, see the sign for Red's Meadow Resort, and call for my mom to follow.
It's early in the afternoon, the hottest part of the day, and I stumble around, sweaty and disorientated, to find somewhere safe to leave my pack. When it's off I feel light and airy, adding to my dream-state. My mom has disappeared, and when I find her in the store, she's just bargained with the cashier to get one of the A-frame cottages for half the price. I get a chocolate ice-cream bar that's dipped in chocolate, then peanut butter and then chocolate again, and eat it as I follow my mom to our cabin.
I take my shower second, rubbing my legs in attempt to get the layer of dirt off, but it still clings in little dots to my pores. We go over to the cafe and get burgers, chips and potato salad. Then top it off with more ice cream. Tanka and Bebak come in and sit with us, beers in hand, and we talk.
More talking, sitting around in a tired daze, and then sleep.
Day 2, July 11th: Just before Lyell Fork to Garnet Lake. 11 miles (Note: these entries are from my trip last summer. I am writing them after-the-fact)
We wake up early and head out, but not early by PCTer standards as attested to by their steady passing, trekking poles clicking against rocks. The trail is forested, and joins the Tuolumne again as we pass through patches of Red Heather with its bright pink flowers and bristly, pine-needle-esque stalks poking up from the pine duff. We cross the river on a wood footbridge and begin rising out of the trees. The trail winds around small ridges of granite and alpine green, crossing more water, until we come out into what might be Maclure Creek. The creek is wide here, creating a tarn further up into the meadow. People are waiting to ford the river, fiddling with water shoes. After agonizing over the chore of taking my gaiters and shoes off, I step into the water. At first it is just cold, but as I stride in to my calves it begins to numb. I hobble over the loose rocks on the bottom, their smooth surfaces painful on my cold feet, and clamber up onto the soft trail.
I walk barefoot for a while to let my feet dry, when suddenly the mosquitos hit me. Why weren't they on the other side of the river? I find my headnet and struggle to put my toe socks on damp feet. Fortunately, the trail climbs quickly out of the narrow meadow, water rivulets sliding across the rough granite steps. Within five minutes I can put my headnet away. That wasn't so bad, I tell myself.
I'm fast on the uphill and get ahead of my mom. I hike near another guy who is waiting for his hiking partner to catch up. He's not American, but I can't place his accent from the couple of short exchanges we have. It sounds very familiar.
We have to cross a small snowfield as we climb up to Donahue Pass. The snow is still hard so it's slippery, and I have to screw my eyes shut against the light bouncing off of it. I probably should have brought sunglasses, even though I don't like them. I reach the top of Donahue and look back the way we came. Lyell Canyon is a small, bright strip of green between the rows of mountains. My mom comes and we pause to look at the clear pools of water that sit by the side of the trail. We say hello to the female ranger who is checking permits and head down the other side with a bunch of other hikers.
The mosquitos come. They come slowly so you think you can manage it, until suddenly you can't.
The response of the other hikers is to hike faster, and they quickly disappear down the trail until it is just me and my mom. While I'm fast on the uphill, I'm pretty slow on the downhill, where I'm careful to not slip or pound my feet or knees. For a while I try to outhike the mosquitos, try to move fast enough that they can't land, but they still buzz around my head in a cloud and get into my headnet. I hit my trekking poles against my ankles, swat at my legs and wrists. My headnet is hot and is making it hard to breath. Finally I stop and find my windpants, tugging them on over my shoes. Now the only thing that isn't covered are my hands, and even though I have to go slow not to overheat, it suddenly becomes almost bearable. I still want to melt into a puddle, but not nearly as fervently.
It's gorgeous on this side of the pass, bright green tussocks and clumps of small, twisted pine, with pools of mosquito-incubating water riddling it all like Orthanc after the Ents. I feel bad that I've missed it with the mosquitos, but oh well.
The trail descends from the mosquito swamplands and suddenly there is a breeze. I take my headnet off and pause to breath and wait for my mom to catch up. A PCTer comes up and I lament to her about the mosquitos. "What mosquitos?" she asks. "The mosquitos aren't bad at all."
"They're pretty bad," I say, lamely, and she hikes on.
The trail immediately becomes arid and the soil sandy as it descends to what the map euphemistically calls "Island Pass," and I imagine that the PCTer learned the truth of my words. We meet an awesome PCTer named Smiles when we are filtering water, who hiked the JMT solo when she was my age. We talk about hiking the PCT solo and young and she says go for it. She is definitely my favorite thru-hiker we have met, very positive and friendly.
We pause at Thousand Island Lakes, which is very pretty but hardly the golden child of the JMT like people claim (at least that's what I think). The sun is getting low as we pass Ruby Lake, with dark cliffs plunging into the clear water, desolate scree piles hugging the base. We only stop for a moment, but Ruby Lake is one of the most understated and dramatic lakes that I will see on the trip.
We set up camp at Garnet Lake, with the classic view of Banner and Ritter Peaks reflecting off of the surface. It's 14 miles to Red's Meadow from here, all downhill, and we plan on eating real food for dinner tomorrow. My hands got a little burned, and like everyone else I've noticed that I'm getting tanner on my right side faster than on my left, since we're walking south.
Day 1, July 10th: Tuolumne Meadows to just before Lyell Fork. 10.9 miles (Note: these entries are from my trip last summer. I am writing them after-the-fact)
I wake up around 7 or 8 to the sound of my mom taking down her tent. I pull my sleeping clothes off and dress- awkward in such a low tent- and poke my head outside. Mom's tent is opposite me, our entrances facing each other, and she bustles around it, folding the tent poles. "Good Morning," I murmur to her, my face still warm from sleeping. The people that set their tent up next to me last night are a ways off to the right. It's quiet compared to last night, with only a few sleepy people awake and boiling water for coffee or oatmeal. The smell of dead campfires is heavy in the nippy air. I wriggle out, shove my feet in my shoes. I pull my foam pad out with everything on it and start to pack up; we have to be at the permit office by 10:30 or we lose our permit.
I'm slow, but finally everything is in my backpack in more or less the right place. We stop to go to the bathroom one last time and go to meet Vicki and Barb at the Tuolumne Grill. I'm not hyper excited (it's too cold for that) but my mood is reflective. We're finally on our way, after months of planning, and I know all we have to do now is walk and make camp for a few weeks. The parking lot is empty, very different from how it was yesterday, and it's 15 minutes until the grill opens. I set my pack next to a rock by the main park road and stand on top of the rock, trying to get warmth from the sun. I brandish my trekking poles at passing cars. Here I come!
Cars start pulling in, right on cue, and we stand in front of the Grill doors to start a line. Vicki and Barb have to catch the YARTS bus down to Yosemite Valley, and after breakfast and a final phone charge the bus comes. We say goodbye and then start our walk to the permit office. We're already on the JMT, and we see a lot of backpackers. We cross over the Tuolumne river for the first time, which we'll follow all day. Lembert Dome dominates the view as we walk, a scalene triangle of dark-streaked Sierra granite. Mom's backpack, parrot-green, bobs up and down as she walks, her Platypus hose swaying loose in the air. It's all so beautiful. This national parks thing being gorgeous is no practical joke, I think as we walk. On the right is a golden meadow and on the left is Tioga Pass Road. The sun shines bright over everything.
We get to the permit station. People are camped outside in a line with folding chairs and warm clothes, their breath puffing up in clouds. They're waiting for walk-up permits, probably for the John Muir Trail, and I feel guilty as we walk past them and squeeze inside. The ranger, a woman, gives us the talk and issues us a permit and wag bags for Whitney. We have to carry them the whole way. We pause at the picnic table to apply sunscreen and remove the extra TP and hand wipes from the wag bags.
Finally we get out of there, passing a couple that just got their permit and were laying their resupply out in the parking lot. "See you out there, maybe!" we say. The trail goes along the road a bit more, and then heads off into a dry granite-and-meadow-strewn forest. Tons of PCTers pass us, not wanting to chat, eager for real food. The trail isn't that impressive: dry, littered with toilet paper, and full of grumpy weekenders with heavy boots and even heavier packs. It reaches the Tuolumne River again and we cross a series of foot bridges. The water runs between banks of granite, quick and smooth and incredibly hued: green and blue and golden-brown. We pass a ranger who's out leading a wildflower identifying trip, and say hi. Our maps are still buried in the middle of our packs when we come to our first unmarked junction.
We start heading down what we think is the right trail, but we double back to look at the posted map near the junction with a couple of other JMTers. The ranger comes by and my mom asks, "That way is the right trail, right? We're on the JMT."
He sighs, and walks over to the map. "If you're on the JMT, you have to follow this trail. You go down Lyell Canyon for a day or two and eventually you go over Donahue Pass, right here, see?" I stare at my mom in disbelief. We know where we are going!
"Yah, we know. We just want to know if that's the right trail." My mom points the way we were going.
The ranger keeps on talking. "You have maps, right? Maybe if you're already lost you shouldn't be hiking the JMT." My mom and I move away in disgust. The ranger freaks out. "No! That's the wrong trail. It's that way." He points to the one we were just going down a few minutes before.
"We know," she says to him, and says to the guys who were looking at the map with us, "You know what mansplaining is, right?" The guys had been just as "lost" as we were. We start walking down the trail, and I'm angry for the next hour or so as we walk. The terrain is flat, more of the same dry meadows and small pine patches. I would be tempted to call it ugly, but I know it's my state of mind and nothing else.
As we reach Lyell Canyon proper, the tense feeling in my stomach fades. The trail follows the edge of a pale-green meadow full of purple daisies, the Tuolumne River a bright twisting stripe of turquoise winding through it. Rows of mountains march away on either side, chaotic, behemoth tumbles of granite with bases swallowed by green. There are dozens of little ground squirrels and their babies running around, and marmots. They seem too cute for their evil reputation. And Lyell Canyon is too beautiful and kind for me to believe its reputation for trouble bears. Amelia Earhart Peak is somewhere on the right, and I take a selfie with a mountain that I think is it, but later find out isn't. We share a namesake, and so I feel like the mountain and I share a kinship.
We come upon Audrey, a woman that we met last night at the backpacker's campground, and stop to talk and admire an especially bright-blue bend of the river. She says that she's from Chicago, and that she's been struggling already. We've only come maybe three miles so far, and she started a few hours earlier than us. Her pack is huge, taller than her waist when she puts it on the ground. She says its shoulder straps have been cutting into her shoulder. I ask about the rusted-steel garden trowel hanging from the outside, with a wooden handle. "My husband cut the handle in half for me to save weight," she says. We give her encouragement and reassure her it's okay to take it slow the first few days, and then head off. We leapfrog her for a bit when we take lunch, and the last I see of her is her resting down by the river under a patch of pine. I hope she makes it at least to Red's Meadow.
We spend the rest of the day walking through flat Lyell Canyon. There's a nice breeze, and no mosquitos. It really is a perfect, idyllic day of hiking, and although we contemplate the river we really smell too nice to justify getting in. We reach the end of the canyon as the sun is getting low and bright above the mountains, and begin an ascent. "Maybe we can get over Donahue tonight," I say, thinking that this was the beginning of the pass. Tons of PCTers are coming down, and when we ask they shrug and tell us it's ten minutes to the top. There's a Korean couple that just bursts into laughter when we try to communicate to them in English, and a British guy who hikes in a formal tie. We reach a spot with a nice camp spot, and decide to stop for dinner and maybe go on after. We have Good-to-Go Pad Thai, which is fine but even finer when you're hungry, and we pass the foil bag back and forth to avoid dishes. Mom makes the executive decision to stay here for the night, so we set up our tents and then walk to a granite overhang to watch the alpenglow slide up the mountains. We listen to the birds sing and write in our journals. Finally it gets too cold and I snuggle in my warm sleeping bag for the night.
It was a good day.
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