Friday, August 3, 2018
Today we will emerge in the parking lot. Not any time soon. But, eventually we will wind our way through the trees, down thousands of feet of elevation, past the JMT-Rae Lakes junction, below granite cliffs, past a ranger station and to our car. Although our emergence from the wilderness will only be temporary, there’s melancholy in the morning air.
The river alongside our camp massages our ear drums awake. I find the air is cool and damp. It’s not just due to the presence of water rushing by, but there’s a foggy layer hanging. I pull over my head the green prima loft coat that my brother made me years ago. There’s a hole in the armpit, where the white prima loft is visible through the green thin outer layer. It warms me, and prods me from my slumber spot.
Today is calm and quiet. Our minds feel less alarmed. It’s been over 36 hours since we last hunkered under a tarp in a thunderstorm. Our minds can wonder elsewhere. Although, for me, that’s not always a good thing.
For a full summary and map, check out our guide to The Big SEKI Loop.
After a quick cup of coffee, and gathering of our camp, we plop along the trail. My wife and I we traverse the woods. Soon we emerge in a sunken valley. It’s cool and dim still in these depths. This morning we are looking for a cabin. We expect to see it soon. So our eyes scan across the landscape.
We’re looking for the cabin of Randy Morgenson, the backwoods ranger, whose story is told in the book, The Last Season. How after 28 years as a backwoods ranger, could someone simply disappear? The backwoods hold their mysteries.
The trail bends, dips down by a creek, and splits toward Taboose Pass Trail. Dew drops perch on blades of grass, then splotch our packs as we cast them to the ground. We dig out nuts and dried mango to quiet our stomach’s discontent. We examine the map and ponder, “it should be just above us, behind that group of trees” Rachel says.
We wonder closer to the trees, then shift to peer around them. There it is.
It’s odd, humbling, and surreal. To be in the presence of those before us. To know the stories. To be moved by their life’s intentions. It’s inspiring and somehow eerie all at once. We continue on our trail, searching for some sun.
A short distance down the trail, we end up at lake Marjorie, beautiful blue lake surrounded by brown and arid soil, whispers of green from pine trees. The sunshine is warm. We stop to refill our bellies.
Today, a breakfast favorite. But, as it turns out, a small pocket rocket stove and a titanium cylinder are not the ideal tools for cooking Huevos Rancheros. The directions on the package call for using a skillet. Who the fuck carries a skillet backpacking?
The eggs stick to the bottom as I scrub my spork to free them. Eventually we call this hodgepodge of soft and crispy eggs good enough, and wash it down with tea. Green tea for me. English breakfast for the lady.
As the air continues to warm, I ferociously scrub at our pot, determined to get it clean before it gets packed away. Victory is declared as a rinse and pour the remaining egg dust onto the soil. Forward again we move.
We set our sites toward Pinchot Pass.
Today was the first day we had full blue skies without a cloud in site. No anxieties about thunderstorms. No fear for survival. So instead my mind chose to focus on other anxieties.
Is everything okay at home? How is my family doing? Is everyone okay? Am I ever going to make something of my self? Maybe I’m a selfish person? Or, maybe I’m a loser, destined to be a bum my entire life. What if I’m just like my father? Will Rachel continue to love me? I’m a boring guy. What do I have to offer? What will happen when she realizes I’m not that special?
These thoughts typically bubble to my mind within the first few days on the trail, as my mind fills the silence with chatter. It aches to fill the void with worry. Then, eventually, after several days of walking, my mind gets tired of worrying. Maybe my mind didn’t have a chance this time to exhaust itself with meta worries, given the real life worries of thunderstorms and hypothermia, and wildlife.
I hope my mind quits doing this. I wish I had more confidence and strength.
I’d like to be like a Sierra cedar in the mountains. Exposed and barren to the elements. Yet strong, resilient, reliable.
Like every day that’s come before, we climb. Then we turn around to admire, the view of where we came.
The mountain and lakes ascend in layers. Like a giant’s staircase to the heavens.
Rachel stops upon the staircase, and rests her legs, sitting atop a stone. She’s beautiful and exhausted, her trusty cap shielding her eyes, from the eternal blue fire burning above us.
Eventually we summit Pinchot Pass at 12,050 ft, and begin our descent. We will descend until we exit the trail this evening. Although we love the trail, the harsh downhill wears upon our legs, and the luxuries of the outside world tantalize our minds.
We fantasize about things we will never eat. Hot dogs and gyros… greek fries with cheese scattered atop. Our intentions are sincere, yet these desires seldom remain off the trail.
As we descend, the sun upon our backs, we start to cross paths with small parties, dripping in sweat as they climb upward in the heat. I do not envy that climb. At least we have chili fries, and gyros awaiting us somewhere. They dangle in my mind at the end of the trail.
The JMT Junction Bridge
After hours and miles we arrive at the JMT Junction bridge. We will continue to the right on the Woods Creek trail to return to our car for our food cache. But we must enjoy the bridge, and explore what’s on the other side.
Rachel leaps up on the bridge. It’s a grandiose landmark of human engineering, we haven’t seen in days. I imagine mules walking across… the bridge swaying with their weight.
On the other side of the bridge is a large group, and horse camp. There must be at least 5-6 large bear bins. The camp is empty. We turn around, and scuttle across the bridge, dawn our packs, and continue to the Woods Creek trail.
About 20 minutes down the trail we cross paths with a party of three guys. They appear cleaner than anyone we’ve seen in days. They’re here for the weekend. Getting a Friday afternoon start. They say it was hard to get a permit and that the ranger station was filled with college aged kids taking advantage of their last weekend, before returning back to school. We chat with them for a few minutes, then go our separate ways.
We wind along the trail, in awe of Granite slabs and spires overhead. Talk of gyros and Chicago style sandwiches continues. And then we come across a young group of what seems like 20 disheveled looking college aged kids. They look worn out. As we move past, they ask “Hey, are there any bear bins between here and the group camp?” They obviously want to be done with their day of hiking. “No, we say”, unfortunately there is not. They look disappointed.
Further down the trail as the sky begins to slightly dim we come across a river crossing. It’s the South Fork of the Kings River. We must be nearing Paradise Valley. We see a spread of campers scattered within the trees on the other side of the river. We are not far from the trailhead now, but it’s probably 5-7 miles still. And, we’ve already probably done 15 miles so far.
Although the area is crowded with campers, this would be a good place to stop. It’s still light and there are plenty of places to pitch our tarp. We decide that’s what we shall do. We will rest here for the night and then hike out in the morning. We remove our shoes and walk through the icy cold water. It comforts and cleans are sore and aching feet. The numbing sensation is welcome as I watch the water ripple around my shins.
We wipe our feet dry, and return them to their dust wagons. Then we wander under the trees to find place to pitch our tarps. The forest is busy with weekenders on their first night of the Rae Lakes Loop trail. Hammocks hang from trees, and fires crackle then echo. The smell of smoke is faint in the air.
We find a comfy pine needle bed, and stand up our tarps, as the darkness folds around us. Rachel cooks a simple dinner, then we wash it down with hot chocolate. Tired and craving comfort, we crawl into our bags. We fall asleep listening to Trevor Noah, a book on phone we brought. It’s nice to hear a story.