Day 18: 25 miles
The morning brings the usual dark cold wait for the sun to rise. A gentle climb becomes a steeper one and we reach the first of the evolution lakes before Muir pass. It's almost time for my coffee break but the sun has not yet touched the ground, so it's too cold to stop. This becomes the game I play every morning, surrounded by towering peaks that delay my warmth. I walk with Groucho for a bit until we find the perfect spot, immaculately warm and bright, on a group of boulders next to the lake outlet. Harpo and Twinless join us and we spend quite a while kickin' it, unable to believe our spectacular surroundings.
Finally, we leave and climb away, seeing the bright blue lakes grow smaller, rocks settled in the middle like grey orbs. No more than two miles later we find Huck napping next to another of these high Sierra lakes. From here we have but two miles to Muir pass - we can see the hut on top as a tiny spec in a land of silver granite. As I climb towards it I am entranced by the rhythm of my footsteps which seem to have a life of their own now - crashing on the rocks and carrying me relentlessly up. All that exists is my steps and my breath. Everything else is rock.
The stone hut smells like pica pee when I walk in, but it is a sturdy and impressive monument honoring Mr. John Muir himself. I have a snack of peanut butter and crackers before heading down to the new kingdom of rocks and lakes just past the crest.
After a while I start to miss the trees and am happy when I see some in the distance. The path gradually becomes more dirt than rock, and then a rock-dirt combination as the descent grows steep. Huck waves at me from a switchback far below, but I don't see him again until camp this evening.
In the depth of the valley I walk on pine needles approaching a bridge. A figure moves towards me across the bridge and I prepare to pass a human on the trail. Soon I realize it is a large bear. He stops and looks at me, ears rounded and pointing upwards, curious eyes. I take a few steps backwards, then a few more. He ambles off the trail into the woods.
The day ends with a gentle climb. The smoky evening paints the peaks in front of me pink and behind me a misty silver against a backdrop of yellow aspen. Coyotes howl just across the river.
Day 19: 24 miles
We gather in the dark coldness, as we do every morning, packs packed and headlamps illuminated, waiting for the last person to be ready. It feels as though we're off to an expedition, something really important. My friends are dark figures in the dawn and we proceed to the trail to silently start our day. Just another day in the thru-hiker life.
When the lights come on we are snaking up a rocky cliff out of the valley on a stone stairwell supported only by rocky retaining walls. Huck, Harpo and I walk together, talking of all the animals who call this valley their home. How they have no need to leave, really, it's such a wonderful place. After a while, the Luna bar I ate hours ago wears off and my stomach growls angrily. I talk with Harpo and Groucho about taking a break, but there's no sunny spot. So we keep walking, walking and walking. We pass some sunny spots but the boys ahead breeze right past. Finally I'm too hungry and sit myself right down, regardless of the fact that the sun isn't shinning on my spot. Harpo stops too and we make coffee, eat oatmeal really fast. It's a cold break, but afterwards I feel awesome.
I look to my right and see a stretching rock field reflecting white in the sun, gradually sloping upward out of the basin. I imagine the rock as snow for a second and am reminded of Washington last year. Then I look left and see the high alpine meadow and green patches of life and am reminded of Switzerland. Then I think of what's to come on the next Sierra passes and am reminded of last year. For the rest of the way up time doesn't exist. I live in the past, future and present all at once and fall into a high elevation trance. Feeling the love and the pain of everything. When I reach the top of Mather pass I take a few minutes to remember where and when I am. My friends sit to the side eating snacks. It's lovely up here - quiet and expansive with peaks pointy and strong.
We switchback down to the lakes and creeks below and seamlessly enter the forest. I spend most of the way down telling stories to Harpo and before I know it we are at the base of Pinchot pass. I eat some cold-hydrated ramen for lunch, just to see what it's like. It's okay, I guess. Harpo and Groucho eat it all the time and somehow I'm always jealous. Probably, I'm just always hungry.
The second climb today is hot and once we leave the trees, rays of sun find my skin like magnets that don't let go. I'm jealous of the others under their silver umbrellas, five degrees cooler. We stop at a lake to take selfies with the selfie-stick that Twinless found on the trail before Muir Trail Ranch. This ends in ridiculous laughter. We proceed away from the lakes into the land of rock, crest the top of Pinchot and sit to admire the vastness.
I start to walk down before everyone else, but Huck is close behind. He's dancing down the trail, hopping from rock to rock like a leprechaun. I let him pass me, he gives a cordial smile and a head nod, and continues to jam down the trail with his headphones in. I do the same, spending hours lost in meditation and music, thinking about fear and love. Harpo says everything is rooted in either fear or love. I think of all the ways this may be true. I'm so focused on this that I hardly even notice the steep downhill stone steps that should be hurting my knees.
When the sun is about to set, I catch up to a JMT hiker - a firefighter we just met yesterday. I ask him if he's seen Huck, which he says he hasn't. This baffles me, as I've been counting on the fact that Huck is ahead, seeing his footsteps in the dirt all afternoon. Then I remember that there's someone else with his same shoes in front of us, and deduce that he must have made a pit stop in the woods a while ago. In realizing I am the first in line, I become a little unsure of things. I'm responsible for finding a camp spot. I never like being first, worrying about those behind me. If something went wrong I would never know! I walk with the JMT firefighter for a mile before finding a spot to set up camp, 1/2 mile before the very bottom of the climb. It'll be warmer here.
I'm relieved to see three headlamps bobbing in the distance, start to make dinner as my friends progress towards me. I feel unprecedentedly awesome today. Twenty-four miles, two 12,000 foot passes, and the only thing that hurts are my feet. I could walk forever.
We all cowboy camp under the stars.
Day 20: 18 miles
The morning is a blur of dirt and stones as we start the ascent up Glen pass. Stone steps. Stone switchbacks. Walking next to a creek, crossing a creek. I remember a series of lakes here and am eager to get to them. I look to the mountains beside me, graced by sunlight, feeling the jealousy of a younger sibling. If they get to be shined on by the sun, why can't I? I'm hungry again, first in line, and desperate to find a place to sit and eat. But it's too cold! Every. Morning! I walk and walk and walk, frustrated and irritable, which just makes me walk faster. My food collection is running low, so I'm trying not to eat to much for fear of running out. I nibble on part of a sesame cracker every few minutes, thinking mean things when I see backpackers camped right behind a sign that states "restoration site - no camping". The audacity!
And then I see it! The sun is hitting the earth in splotches all around me. I immediately find the best splotch and park myself on a flat rock beside the trail. Groucho and Huck show up just minutes later. Turbo Charged to the Sun, they say. Bug, the Sunshine Seeker. Harpo comes soon after, Twinless is already up ahead climbing the pass. I eat some granola and we all calculate how much food we have left to get us through the day. I've got one bar, some peanut butter and crackers for lunch. After that I'm just working with dried seaweed.
We pass a few more lakes on the way up Glen pass. These ones are different, though. The lakes we've seen before were all crystal blue and rocky. These lakes are a deep green, surrounded by trees and supporting life. We see fish swimming about and a coalition of ducks floating on top. The climbing gets more intense as we leave the land of lakes and enter the land of rocks. Stone steps, sliding rocks. I feel sluggish today.
At the top I sit to eat crackers and peanut butter, but all my friends want to keep going. It's a town day, we've got to get there! Huck picks up my pack and poles and walks down the steep, uneven path wearing two packs. I have no choice but to follow right behind, scooping peanut butter onto my crackers while I descend. It's not far to the bottom where we meet the junction that will take us to Onion Valley over Kearsage Pass. During our break I sit in the sun. Apparently I look a little sad and hungry, so my friends offer me ramen. I accept this gift, thinking I probably don't need it on account of the peanut butter and crackers I just ate. But later it turns out that I really did need it to get through the rest of the day without being painfully hungry. I do a quick headstand before we're on our way.
I climb the pass feeling extra oxygenated and super grateful for my friends. The trail sweeps the side of a slope for a while, mountains tower and echo across the valley. Pointed and standing independently from each other. Whispering to the sky beyond the horizon. When we get to the parking lot we sit and wait for a ride, asking everyone at the campground and being refused repeatedly. Groucho scrounges the trash cans and bear boxes for extra food and comes back smiling with his hands full several times, handing out snacks like Santa Clause. Finally Twinless works her magic, calls the hostel and talks the guy into driving all the way up here to pick us up. He arrives a while later, well into the evening, with cold beers in the back of his luxury SUV.
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