Nothing Left to Worry About
Tuesday, July 31
I am alive. For now, that’s all I need.
I awake refreshed to the sound of water. I inhale the smell of dew on sand, and my heart is put at ease. The sun is hitting our tarp, preparing to dry the tiny drops of moisture that have settled over night. I watch them roll from our shelter’s peak, and collect upon the bottom seam. Soon the moisture will evaporate, and return to the clouds that drenched us yesterday.
I wonder if it’s possible to be hit by the same exact molecules of water, two days in a row.
It’s a nice day. But it’s early still. About 5 am from the feel of it. My mind feels wiped clean, like a canvas or an etch a sketch, shaken by the storm.
This morning there is a sobriety, an intimacy with my place within the world. I am days away from the trailhead, miles away from society, flights away from home, nowhere near technology, news, or distraction. I am only man. I am insignificant. I am just a speck, hidden in a valley within the woods.
I stand above the fire pit I clung to late last night. I breath the cool damp air, pulling life into my blood, as the sun directs its life to the green foliage along the trail to the right.
Ahead, and to my left, the trail rises from our creek side camp, still shaded from the sun. Today is a new day. I feel exhausted and excited.
Rachel brushes her teeth as I stand above our fire pit, packing gear, sorting the subtle thoughts and sounds of morning trickling into my brain. A sensation to my left. A motion. It’s dark and moves, left to right down the trail. It takes a second to register, as my eyes attempt to find the focal point.
“Bear!” I exclaim to Rachel.
“Where?” she says, toothbrush hanging from her mouth, eyes suddenly wide open. I point to the right where the trail rises from our site, and cuts into the brush.
A large black bear stands on his back legs, pointing his nose to the sky. I see steam from his muzzle as he breathes in our scent. He then returns to his feet and continues down the trail.
I don’t think he expected to find us here. He looked as surprised and as we did. I imagine he was happily wondering down his trail, turned a corner then realized what was before him. Startled, he hustled on down the trail, just a fellow traveler, in this wonderfully remote place in the world.
Onward to the JMT
Today, in a few hours, we will see plenty of people as we merge with the John Muir trail. We will likely see more than we have yet seen. Given the past 24 hours, the thought is somewhat comforting. However, there’s also a sense of mourning. So far we’ve had adventures, and scares. But, we are okay. We have survived and now at ease. My mind has begun to quiet, finding comfort in our isolation. What will happen when we see more people? Will this calm remain?
Currently, we are only a few miles from Devil’s Washbowl. I have been dying to see this bowl since we started, picturing Satan eating cheerios. From there, it’s about 4 miles to the JMT junction.
Snail shells on our backs, we ascend from our sandy home along the river. We have snacks in our pockets and we nibble as our feet take us upward. The Middle Fork Kings River is our companion, rising with us, cascading over rocks, cutting into granite, its stunning beauty ever emerging, as the altitude provides more vantage.
Then to our left, spires tower over. We stop and let our fingers trace the map. They halt and hover over the Great Cliffs. That must be what they are – 10,198 ft at the summit.
From here on out, this highland is our home. We will remain for many days, near 10,000 ft. Today, after we join the JMT we will wind our way closer to Mather Pass, at ~12,100 ft.
But first, we decide to have a snack and snap a selfie.
Approaching Devil’s Washbowl
This trail is not steep. But it’s not level either. But I forget about my legs as my eyes enjoy the view.
Examining the canyon, I cannot help thinking about a knife or a chisel, and the imprecision of each stroke it would take to create this place. Carving granite can’t be easy. Here it’s been done with water. It flows and cuts and carves, only guided by momentum. There’s no intention to create beauty, yet there’s nothing more beautiful. All just random, and unfathomable.
I’m not a man of God. But, I’m open to spirituality, and perspectives of belief. But in this moment I question the notion of creation. The beauty of nature is often cited as proof of a higher power, a creator of it all. This notion to me feels arrogant. In order to confirm beauty, it’s as if we must explain it, and control it.
I then think, if God were the creator, she must have been a physicist, a mad woman creating beauty out of chaos, sprinkling in new laws of physics, then stepping back to see what would happen, and tinkering with each one. It’s really the only option.
The intentions of a stream, are only bound by physics. Bound by physics, molecules of water melt and bind together, traveling from the mountains to the ocean. In this chaos they create beauty, carving stone throughout centuries to get them just imperfect. The formula is perfect.
Lost in thought, I look up.
Devil’s Washbowl is before me, a massive swirling pool of alpine glacier melt. Cold air rushes up from this hole in the earth, chilling my arms and my legs. I never want to leave.
We revel in the beauty. Yet, we must keep on moving. We were supposed to be here last night. Although, glancing around, it’s a good thing that we weren’t. I have no idea where we’d have camped.
As we cut further back into the canyon, more granite reveals itself. We climb up over boulders, and gaze at trailside monoliths. We are on an adventure, filled with scenery more grand than a movie could ever replicate.
We must be getting close to the junction. The sun is getting warm, and we’ve been on this trail for hours, and going up. We have not seen anywhere else just yet. Just friendly whistling marmots, and sweet sunning lizards that dart off on approach.
Eventually, the granite rubble fades, and the trail begins to disappear. All we see are bushes, and a faint worn line where hikers feet presumably belong. Is this our trail? It’s the only trail. Forward, we carry on, and our heads disappear into the thick Sierra brush. At this point, this trail does not surprise us. This is our life now. We take what it has to offer.
Around noon we emerge, the junction is close ahead. We see foreign colors, pronounced from the forest shades. JMT hikers we can see them close ahead. But, first we have a stream.
Palisade Creek Crossing
Between us and the JMT is Palisade Creek. It’s raging.
Alpine blue water, rushes from our right, then flows into the Middle Fork at our left. There’s no bridge. Just large imperfectly placed boulders, with unideal spacing in-between. If you lose your footing here, you could get swept into the Middle Fork… a thought I don’t indulge for long.
At our crossing point, the creek is split in two. It forks, and a small island of brush and stone sits right in the middle. So, rather than one large crossing, we have two smaller crossings. We skip from rock to rock, trying to find a place to easily cross. From stone, to stone, then a log, we find our way to the island. We hop around up the stream, and down the stream again. From here there’s no ideal place to cross. The rocks are slick, and too far apart. The water is swift and deep pools form behind boulders.
There’s one place that looks better than the rest. We can hop on two boulders to cross about a third of the stream. Then our feet will need to get wet. It appears swift, but it’s the shallowest point.
I look at Rachel and we agree, this is the best route across. I will go first, and wait for her, never an arm or poles length apart. In her face I can see her concern align with confidence, for the next few steps ahead.
I bounce off the first two boulders then teeter on my toes. I carefully extend my trekking pole into the stream to find a secure location and then I shift my weight. I slowly ease my first foot into the water, and secure it against a stone, pinned in place by the force of water. With my other trekking pole, I reach across a deepened section, and pin it securely in some pebbles. I step across the deep section, water now at my knees, rapids questioning my muscles, as they twitch to hold position. Two small steps and I’m back in the shallow.
“Not too bad” I think to myself. I turn to Rachel and share what I have learned from my crossing. She nods her head and follows, carefully establishing footing, focus on her face as she plops her poles into the pebbles. She’s made it and the worry melts quickly from her face, as her feet splash through the shallow, and squish onto the shore.
At the JMT Junction
We made it in time for lunch, and we find the JMT junction, with hiker’s pausing in the shade. Others pass on by. We setup a spot in the shade, and begin to make our lunch. Clothes and gear explode from our packs, and sun themselves on logs. We’re comforted and relieved, to all be here together, in the sun, on the JMT, with lunch at hand.
We take our time – approximately one hour. We’re tempted to stay where we are. Reluctant, yet motivated, we stuff our sunbathed clothes, now warm into our bags. We must go up. We’re always going up. Up, up, up. Miles to go. Passes to climb. Adventure is on its way.
Less than a mile from the JMT junction, we notice it’s happening again. Behind us, over the peaks, the clouds begin to darken, moving in our direction. This is to be expected. We move on until the sprinkles gently tap our backs, reminding us of yesterday – “remember us” they say.
As the sky begins to darken, we notice an open area to our left above the trail. We eye some trees to hang our tarps, eager to avoid a repeat of yesterday. Sure enough the rain begins as we anchor down our tarps, then hunker into a bed of pine needles.
Under the tarp we notice an inconveniently placed boulder, right where it’d be nice to lay. In a hurry to get the shelter up, we overlooked this stone’s discomfort. Well, we won’t be here long, we think. This storm doesn’t seem so bad. We laugh at the rain drops, poking our heads out in unison “is that all there is?”. On cue, the wind begins to blow, snapping our tarp just like a snare drum. The temperature abruptly drops, the clouds crack out in thunder, hail, and then again… we huddle under our tarps, in our coats for over an hour.
This time we were more prepared, not worried for our lives. We were almost downright comfortable, if it weren’t for this giant boulder digging into my hip.
I notice a tear in my tarp. Of course, that’s just perfect. I decide to worry when it becomes a problem. For now, it’s not compromising our warmth. The tarp continues to keep us dry. I’ll just need to prevent the tear from getting worse as we move on.
Eventually the rain slows to a sprinkle, and the wind carries the clouds away, leaving the calm and a question – should we carry on?
I crawl out from the tarp, and stand along the trail to see the skyline. Not too bad. The trail is now a stream. But the weather appears to have passed. Some hikers approach, in full on rainproof pants, boots, and gear splashing up the stream. I stand there in shorts, socks and sandals awaiting as they near.
They stop and we all exchange g’days. They’ve been on the JMT, and had this weather every day. With their gear it doesn’t stop them. They’re dripping wet. A satellite phone is attached to the older man’s shoulder. I wonder if we should have came more prepared.
He says he’s been tracking the weather. But it’s summarized by what we already know. It was wet yesterday. It is wet again today. It might be wet tomorrow.
The man’s younger partner, looks more hustled than the talker. I think he’s eager to continue on, slightly annoyed by the pace of his friend, understandably ready to make camp. We all exchange names, and good lucks, then they continue up the trail, boots heading up stream… splish, splash.
It’s time to move for us as well. We may still make Palisades Lake, with the sun and energy that’s left. We quickly pack our gear and hustle down the trail. New stream crossings present themselves, that were never on the map. We cross raging streams via trees, and happily skip past other parties, eager to see the lakes.
At the base of the climb, the forest opens up, to a meadow on the hillside to our left, with tents spread throughout. To the right tiny campsites are punched into the trees, that border along Palisade Creek. We’ve reached a massive encampment of JMT hikers. There are easily 20 hikers, likely many more. They all soaked and tired.
We stop to chat with a couple camping along the trail, the man in his boxer shorts. I assume they’re the only dry clothes he has left. After a long day, and nasty weather these groups of JMT hikers have stacked up here before the climb to Palisades Lake. They’ll likely arise early, and start the climb in the morning. But the area is uncomfortable to us. It’s damp and crowded with people, shaded by the mountains. It’s already cool here, and up above there’s sunlight.
Rachel and I agree to move forward, allowing our legs to dictate our camp. We hike past the campers, waving hello to the previous group we’d seen in rain gear, now perched inside the forest, with a fire to dry their skin.
The grade of the trail elevates, and with it our heart rates follow. We quickly rise about 800 feet, eager to use the sunlight which is gently on our backs. Along the trail there is a flat spot, anchored by two stumps. It overlooks into the valley below, where we can see smoke rising from our fellow hikers. It’s the perfect place to call home for now.
We toss our bags down and make a deal. Rachel will prepare dinner, and I will setup camp. We pull our gear from our bags, and hustle our hands to widdle ourselves some comfort here in the hills. Dinner arrives in unison with the completion of our camp.
Here we are with dinner, dry and warm together. As we eat we enjoy a view, looking over where we came, listening to the creek cascading over granite. Behind us the mountain rises, but tonight we rest and sleep, enjoying how far we’ve come.