I craned my neck up the trail to glimpse Silver Pass above me. It had been a tough climb, but we had almost reached our goal. I paused to turn around and take in the view. On the horizon, I could see Banner peak, the mountain we camped beneath 5 days prior. Now, it was dozens of miles away. I knew we had hiked a long way, but it was unreal to see the distance with my own eyes. Awe-inspiring moments such as this were common on the John Muir Trail.
I grew up with a lot of exposure to the outdoors. My older siblings were not in love with the idea of camping, so my mother viewed me, her youngest, as her last opportunity to have a backpacking buddy. As a result, I was taken on a lot of hikes growing up. Lucky for my mom, I grew into the role. As I continued going into nature, I found more and more reasons to love and appreciate those wild places. I began volunteering to hike with my mom rather than being dragged along. I looked forward to exploring new places that had not been consumed by civilization. And then, this year, my mother asked me if I would like to join her for a two week backpacking trip through the Sierra Nevada mountain range on the John Muir Trail, the longest trip either of us had ever done. I of course answered in the affirmative! The Sierra Nevadas contain some of the most gorgeous untouched wilderness in the state of California, and I could hardly wait to set out.
The hiking party consisted of my mother, my friend Cara, and myself. Our journey would take us 140 miles over the course of 14 days. The most backpacking I had ever done before this was two or three night trips, so I knew this would be a huge undertaking, but I had no idea exactly what to expect. When I told people about my plans, many people did not share my enthusiasm about long-distance backpacking. I was asked questions like:
“Why would you spend your vacation walking all day with a heavy pack on your back with none of the comforts of modern life?”
“Do you have any idea how bad you’ll smell after? You smell bad enough as it is.”
“Why would you engage in a recreational activity that requires you to hold on to your used toilet paper for days at a time?”
Of course I had my responses to why the pros of the journey would outweigh the cons. I was going to hike the John Muir Trail to see the sights, to learn something about myself, to say that I did it. However, there were so many other reasons to hike the trail that I could not see until I actually completed the journey for myself. My vacation spent hiking the JMT proved to be one of the most fulfilling experiences I have ever had.
A two-week backcountry trek is certainly not as relaxing as a Hawaiian beach getaway, but part of the reward of the journey was that I had to challenge myself to meet the goals I had set for myself. On the JMT, I had to earn every mile I travelled and work for every view. From the moment we began planning the hike, we began setting concrete goals for ourselves. On a hike this long, we had to organize re-supply pickups along the trail so that we would not have to carry 14-days worth of food at once. This means that we had to make it to our re-supply point by a certain date or we would run out of food. What better incentive to keep moving than the threat of starvation?
There were points on the trail where I wanted to give up. For me, the hardest part of the journey was not the physical exhaustion but the mental strain. During the climb out of Yosemite Valley on day one, my pack felt heavy and my legs felt weak. I had the nagging thought that I wouldn’t be able to do this for two weeks. However, as I continued, I grew stronger physically and mentally. I remember one afternoon after lunch we were faced with a particularly steep and intimidating set of setbacks out of Shadow Lake. We began climbing, and continued climbing for about an hour. Halfway up the incline, I noticed “My breathing is fine, my legs feel great. This is a lot easier than day one”. That feeling alone made all the previous miles worth it.
We also found ways to entertain ourselves in order to beat the mental strain of walking all day. Singing became commonplace on the trail. One day we sang music from Grease, another day I wrote a song about the creek I was hiking along. Another day, we wrote a song about the importance of electrolytes, which turned into a six-verse sea shanty. We made rituals and traditions. In the mornings before we started the day’s hike, we performed the Touching of the Poles (a ritual involving trekking poles), and after we had hiked 100 miles, we earned our ‘trail names’.
In addition to physical strength and mental fortitude, the trail handed out free lessons along the way. No matter how prepared we thought we were, the trail presented us with unexpected situations. My team and I had to adapt to the hand we were dealt if we hoped to move forward with our trek. On day 2, we left our packs near a trail junction while we hiked up Half Dome. When we returned to our packs two hours later we found that a bear had gone through our belongings, severely damaging my mom’s pack and destroying some supplies in the process. The first thought that ran through our minds was that this could be a trip-ender. With only two functional packs in our group of three, it would not be feasible to move forward. Fortunately, our repair kit was equipped with enough tape to restore the integrity of the shredded pack for the time being. What could have been a serious delay in our trek turned into a great story my mom loved to tell to everyone on the trail who would listen. This unfortunate bear experience shaped my mentality for the rest of the trip. I realized the importance of rational thinking combined with a positive attitude. It would have been all too easy to give up, but I was with a team that wanted to press forward and was sharp enough to make that happen.
Another gift given to me by the trail was inspiration. One of the greatest things about being in the wilderness is the freedom from distraction. In my everyday life, my mind is constantly engaged whether it be working at a computer, listening to music, driving, etc. On the JMT where I am free from such distraction, I think with clarity. My mind is able to go to places it normally does not. I made up intricate stories; I began composing tunes and poems in my head as I walked. With this clarity came a profound gratitude that people a hundred years ago fought to protect this beautiful swath of wilderness and allowed me to experience it. The mental clarity I felt did not only occur on the trail, however. I took back home with me a motivation to create. I wanted to see the ideas I had on the trail set in motion. The beauty I experienced on the trail inspired me to create art long after I returned home.
A trek on the John Muir Trail also creates some strong interpersonal bonds. Despite being one of the most secluded places I have ever been, the Sierra backcountry is a great place to meet people. We met people from all over the world who had come to California just to hike the JMT. It was common to stop and converse with other hikers who were headed the opposite way. We would hear their trail stories, and they would listen to ours (the bear attack story was most popular). They would warn us about a tough river crossing ahead, and we would let them in on the location of a hidden campsite a few miles down the trail. It didn’t matter who we were talking to though, most conversations ended with “You’ve got some great views ahead of you. Happy Trails!”.
What surprised me most about trail culture is how many repeat encounters we had with people on the trail. One man whom we met, Abhi (trail name: The Unstoppable Indian), was on vacation from New Jersey to hike the whole JMT solo. We met him the first morning of our trip in backpackers’ camp in Yosemite Valley, and we wished him well on his journey. It turned out, however, that we were still running into him on the trail days later, which always made me smile. Sometimes we would go two or three days without seeing him, and then we would have a mini-reunion and catch up on what had happened since our last meeting.
“Did you finally ditch the guide books you were carrying? Those things probably weighed a ton”
“I’ve seen plenty of pack mules, but did you see those pack llamas above Edison Lake two days ago?”
“Who was that cute girl you were hiking with last time we saw you? I think she liked you.”
And after a brief chat, we would part ways with Abhi and hope we would cross paths with him again.
When we were out on the trail for such a long time, my team and I spent virtually every waking hour with each other, and as a result we got to know each other very well. We started to pick up on each other’s strengths and limitations, which allowed us to become a more efficient team. My mom noticed that we were slow to get moving in the morning, so she would bring us coffee in bed most mornings (minus the bed). Cara saw that I was taking a long time to filter water, so she would assist me. My mom got nervous on river crossings, so I would take her pack across to allow her to have better balance on the log bridges. We all helped each other out, because our goal was not for an individual to complete the trek. The goal was for the group to make the 140 miles together.
Because of the shared goal that exists within a group of JMT hikers, a group becomes a team throughout the journey. In order to be efficient backpackers, everyone must work cooperatively and act in the interest of the group. If someone was running low on food, we rationed our supplies so that everyone would have enough to eat. If someone was slowing down significantly, a faster person in the group would volunteer to take some weight from their pack. Two days from the end of the trip, Cara ran out of toilet paper. I’m sure she appreciated the extra supply I gave her. By the time we had finished the trek, the team had become a family in and of itself. For days after the trip, I felt odd not setting out every day with my team. I missed them.
Even though this trip was a serious undertaking and a significant challenge, I feel it was the best possible way I could have spent a two-week vacation. I also feel that people reading this would feel the same but might not know it yet. When I began the JMT, I had some ideas of what I thought I might gain from the trip. However, when I finished the 14-day journey, the list of gifts the trail had given me was longer and altogether different than what I had originally anticipated. I became stronger, as did my relationships with those I travelled with. I was inspired by some of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen, and I carry that inspiration with me. I got to experience a part of the world that few people get to see, and I relish the fact that there are thousands of similarly beautiful square miles that remain completely untouched by humans. With the overwhelming combination of emotions that struck me at the end of my journey, I gave my thanks to those who allowed me to have such a profound experience, those who fought to keep these beautiful places wild.