Let the rain sting my neck
9.10.13. Day 7
One calendar week since we'd laid first foot on the John Muir Trail. That is how long we'd been out on this endeavor now. In one week, we'd almost quit, had stays in two hotels, seen 0 bears, made a handful of friends, and most recently we'd met some British fools.
In one week, I'd felt both stronger than Zeus and tremendous amounts of debilitating pain. I'd missed home. I had missed being on the trail more. I'd been cold, I'd been hot. I carried with me the scent of a feral human. It's a smell that's identical to a homeless man sans any strong tinge of urine. I'd bathed in frigid waters, I'd showered in glorious hot water.
The literal ups and downs of the trail paralleled the emotional ups and downs. I suppose that's what makes hiking what it is. That's what makes an epic trip like this truly epic: the highs and lows. It didn’t feel like it had been a week at all. It felt like we had been out there a day, day and a half.
When I drifted off to sleep around 9 or 10 last night, the Brits were clanging away and probably laughing heartily as they drank ale and regaled one another with Mr. Bean impersonations or whatever the hell they do.
I'd like to say I went to bed with the sun and woke up with it. That is half true. When the sun set, it got markedly colder so much so that it was bed time. Patagonia Down Sweater, base layer, and beanie be damned. I was disappointed that I'd not taken any good night photographs at this point. I hadnt even broken out my intervelometer. I was saving it all for the end since I couldn’t charge my camera batteries with the solar charger, but the honest truth is I was partly too tired, mostly too cold. So I went to sleep when the sun did, at least.
More correctly, I'd go to bed with 48 degrees and awake with it. The times of the night that were colder…no thanks. I'd stay in my sleeping bag.
48 degrees came around on the morning of September 10th and I unzipped the mesh door on my left just enough to unzip the vestibule and expose my eyes to my surroundings. I checked the rainfly to see if it was saturated in condensation.
I tied back my vestibule of the Mica 2, opened my mesh door all the way and then climbed clumsily out of the tent so that my nice warm body could be reintroduced to the cold, biting air of the Sierra in September. In the distance to my right, a cluster of tents in a haphazard circle lay silent. The troglodytes inside probably passed out in their underwear like a swine that got ahold of a wine cask. I imagined them all passed out in their individual tents, slobbering with labored breathing.
The Ghost man was all packed up and just starting to hit the trail.
On this day, I happened to be up and out by 8:45 or 9:00; the waning moments of fish jumping to eat little bugs, birds singing their songs, and the foraging of other wildlife. I was able to catch the tail end of nature's morning show.
I stood outside on the rocky soil in my bare feet and took in the perfectly calm water, the bright white mountains, the stillness of the air, the silence. In the distance was the stiff rustle of nylon and the muted bass of footfall as ghost man walked away. Then complete silence. Motionless, still air and silence.
Then the coolest thing I saw on the trip.
The silence as broken by something behind me and to my left. It sounded like a really loud heart beating at about 80 beats per minute. I kept my feet planted forward and turned my head up and to the left just in time to see a Bald Eagle flying only a handful of feet above my elevation. In the silence of the morning and the clear air, all I could hear was the sound of mass amounts of air being moved by the bird's huge wings. It flew on and was gone in a matter of seconds. Replaced in its absence was immediate silence, followed a little while later by grunts, groans, and the struggles of creatures trying to grasp the idea of language in a camp site across the lake from us.
I wasn’t even sure that I saw it but as we were packing up our camp, I overheard the British talking about it. "babble babble babble bald eagle mate. Tea, crumpet, god save the queen, jolly good. Fish-n-chips." This gave me enough affirmation to know that I did not hallucinate.
We finished packing our camp. The direct rays of light from the sun still not hitting us, we set off in the direction the ghost man went. We left the Brits behind as they clamored in a circle beating their chests and scratching their heads. Good riddance.
The rest of the day unfolded like most others. Wake up. Pack up camp while waiting for Lindsey. Wait for Lindsey to pack up her stuff. Put on the packs. Wait on Lindsey to adjust hers. Start walking. I'd turn around and scan where we'd camped/stopped/taken a break to make sure I didn’t leave anything important. Then we'd walk in the cool mornings with all of our layers. I'd stop and strip a layer off. So would Lindsey. I'd wait for her. We'd proceed.
I gave her a hard time about all the waiting I did. Sometimes it was justified, most times I was making light of it. However, I was usually waiting on her to pack up camp, or be ready to go after a rest stop. We fine tuned things to the point where we'd stop for a break and when it was time to go, she would be buckling straps on her hip belt before I'd even get up and start packing my stuff and putting my shoes on. It worked out well because I don't really have variable speeds. I'm either on or off. I did find myself on rare days where my "on" was slothly slow. But otherwise I'm full speed ahead or dead stopped.
On this day the big feature was Silver Pass. At a mighty 10,895 feet, it seemed like a fair challenge. We headed out on the trail almost directly south into Tully Hole. Much like Thousand Island Lake, Tully Hole was a spot I'd heard much about. I expected great things from it and in ripe anticipation I made a song that I annoyingly sang on the trail probably too often. The lyrics went as follows:
Sung to the tune of Jai Ho. Specifically the part where the dude in the background says in an auto-tuned voice "Jai Ho"
This was a logical tune in my head, because years ago when this song was brought to fame thanks to Slumdog Millionaire, I always heard the dude in the background saying "Tally ho" instead of "Jai ho"
Which, in retrospect, made little sense. But it's something that sticks with you.
So logically and simply, I plugged "tully" in for "tally" and "hole" in for "ho."
7 quarter rests.
My song made my day go by quicker, anyway. Not sure that could be said for my hiking partner since out of nowhere I'd randomly shout "Tully hole!" to that tune.
Tully Hole snuck up on the map. I didn’t know we were near it, I didn’t know we'd go through it, and I didn’t know how much of a drop in elevation it was.
We started this day from our camp at Lake Virginia, 10,338 feet. Over the next 2 miles we'd drop into Tully Hole at 9,520 feet. This was a steep switch backing section of relentless downhill into the Fish Creek drainage. It was a beautiful area, and Riley (whom we'd met on the very first days we were in Tuolumne) said there was some bear activity in this region.
Without trekking poles and having knees made of whatever the strongest material known to man is, I jaunted down in to Tully Hole. We stopped, watered ourselves, and then descended even more to the trail junction at 9,080 feet. From that point, we had the unique privilege to crawl our way out of this valley and over Silver Pass, 2.7 miles away and 1500 feet up.
Though we were over and done with Tully Hole. I'd still sing my pointed lyrics every so often.
This 2.7 mile section after trail junction started in a magical forest; Not dense and overgrown with gross under brush, but mature and lush. You could see through the trees and get a sense of how vast the forest was. I made a note on my map by circling this area and writing "like." The trail goes by a creek for this lower elevation part. The flowing creek water is the output of Squaw and Warrior lakes a couple of miles in front of us, right below Silver Pass. About one mile in, we stopped at this creek to rest, eat, and so I could soak my feet in cold water.
While we're stopped we get passed by the two foreigners who were going to Duck Lake we'd seen earlier yesterday. We stopped and chatted for a bit. I figured their accent was German so in my notes, I called them the Germans. Simon and Jonas. Simon and Jonas talked about how they enjoyed Duck Lake and we shared the usual info. Where you from, where you going, where'd you start, etc. They were on their way and we sat on a dry rock in the middle of the creek. I'd walk down in to a 2 foot deep pool to soak my feet and enjoy the feeling of the sandy bottom and 50 degree water.
After the Germans (who were really Swiss) had departed us, we followed suit not long after. I was thankful we'd not seen the Brits. Maybe they stopped to buy Corgis or ran out of knickers or something.
We hiked up the trail as the dense forest gave way to smaller, squattier trees. I'd still chime in every so often-
Like something out of Star Wars, the chattering of voices behind us in the distance. Soon, the sound of heavy boots trampling the earth. Shortly after, the sound of the imperial march. Immediately after, heavy breathing.
The Brits were here.
I'd gotten a visual on them about 200 yards behind us. We kept up the pace and did our best to stay ahead of them.
Stay away from them, we did. They stopped to take a break and we pressed on away from trees and up into the craggy, rocky heights that stood between us and Silver Pass. In fact, we had reached the lakes that fed the creek where we rested earlier. Squaw Lake lies just feet east of the JMT so we stop near its shores. We filter water, I eat pepperoni for a good little bit. I take off my high top boots, merino wool socks, and I rest.
And then the gig is up.
A handful of minutes later just like clockwork, plodding up the trail we'd just been on like a 14 legged swine came the Brits. They'd caught up to us. And they decided to share our lunch spot. They rested near us but not near enough for conversation between us. Both factions could hear everything everyone had to say, but we shared no words. Their cotton shirts drenched in sweat, some of them decided to take them off all together and sit in just their tiny soccer or rugby shorts that had an embroidered crest of some menial significance on it. I'd tell you they made oinking sounds and rolled in the dirt. That would be an embellishment. I am certain that they ate, and talked. Shortly after their arrival, we saw fit to depart. From Squaw Lake, it was a little over a mile to the top of the pass. Winds were picking up and clouds were rolling in. It looked like rain. A choice: Go above tree line into the storm or hang with the Brits.
Above tree line we went. Into the storm, away from the madness.
When we'd get a good vantage point, we could see on the other side of the pass glimpses of rain clearly falling. This was the first time of the trip we had a visual on precipitation. There were cracks of distant rumbling thunder every now and then, but nothing imposing. We pressed on the final miles up the rocky and barren mountainside. We'd talked about a plan if lightening did come our way, and I'd pin pointed a pretty nice little shelter in a stand of trees back down at a lower elevation. In reality, the Brits had probably inhabited it and were drawing cave paintings and hitting rocks trying to make fire. We made it to the top of the pass without incident, and we had a better view of the moisture in the distance.
The night before, when we were looking at the map for potential spots to camp today, I marked an area between 10.5 and 12 miles. That's a good number to hike in a day, and the area looked promising on paper and in the guide book as far as potential camp sites go.
We descended the other side of Silver Pass and walked by Silver Pass Lake (new favorite place. So long Lake Virginia) before dropping down into our target camping zone.
Somewhere around this part of the trail, Lindsey and I disagreed on something. I don't remember what, nor is it smart to try to rehash it. But for a good few miles we argued.
It ended up working out well, because towards the end of the day when you're tired, a nice disagreement and arguing and yelling in nature has a way of making you walk faster and making the miles go by faster. The day had turned grey as we fought more. We descended steep switchbacks as fat, cold rain drops stung the back of my neck. I didn’t stop to get my jacket out. The clouds didn’t have it in them to pour on me. I knew that. Or at least I thought that. I get more audacious when I'm mad.
In fact, the clouds didn't have more rain for me. Grayness. Thunder. We marched on well past the 12 mile mark. We decided we would try to camp at the Quail Meadows Junction, some 2 more miles away. The trail was a steady decline by now. After topping out at 10,895 feet on top of Silver Pass, we sank down to 8,960 by the time our dispute was at full throat. By the time we got to our destination at Quail Meadows, we'd be at 7,720.
It was a really erratic, up and down day.
Under gray ceiling skies, echos of thunder, and occasional rain drops we walked briskly down the final miles of flat trail. We weren't saying a whole lot by this point, just hiking. Breathing. The fight had kind of blown over. Whatever ill feelings remained, they disappeared when the sound of a clumsy, uncoordinated, mouth-breathing machine became audible. I checked my 6 oclock.
The Brits were back. And they were steamrolling.
We had to unite against a common enemy.
What next ensued was a battle. A low speed hiking battle. We pushed our pace so that they could not pass us. It was close to the end of the day. We were near camp sites. We had to be. No way was I camping next to these morons again. With our 30, 35 pound backpacks we walked fast. Faster than we had all day. Every now and then around a slight bend or turn I'd check on our competition.
They were closing.
Like a freight train with fewer brains, they marched heavily, head down. Not talking much by now either, they just pounded the ground with their heavy feet.
I glanced over my shoulder.
This race raged on for 5 or 10 minutes.
I glanced over my shoulder after we crossed a creek. I knew we were close to the camp sites at the trail junction, but they were right behind us.
We pulled over.
Sons of bitches won. They passed us while we stopped and let them go. Once they were gone, we restarted our pace. Much slower now. Dejected. Losers. Let down ourselves. Let down our country.
About 30 or 45 minutes later, maybe even less than that, we'd come to the trail junction where there were ample camp sites. The Brits were setting up their gear on the other side of the creek. We could have stayed in that area, separated from them by a river and a metal and wood bridge. But prideful, I chose to carry on down a side trail that would eventually lead us to tomorrows destination: Vermillion Valley Resort, a side spot we wanted to check out and relax at for a day.
We veered off the hot spot of camping where the Brits and many others were. They all stayed right around the junction of the VVR trail and the JMT. We headed 3/4th of a mile down the VVR trail at the behest of the guide book. It suggested there were good camp sites a short ways down the trail.
We proceeded down a side trail. I have never seen more prime bear habitat in my life. Trees down and decomposing, torn apart by the 3 inch claws of Ursus Americanus. Rich soil, tall grasses, a creek nearby. The evening closed in on us and as we entered this thicket the quickly fading light that reached us earlier faded a dimmer black as the heavy foliage aloft blocked out the light. We were walking on the trail surrounded by deep, dense trees. So thick we couldn’t see but a sliver blueish black sky above. It was dark and dim and uncomfortable on the trail at this time of day.
I picked up a thick hearty log about as big as my entire arm and wielded it should I receive my long anticipated bear fight. Sadly, or gladly depending on who you ask, I didn’t need it. We hiked on the soft, moist, muddy trail for a ways. I dropped the log as we came upon a clearing in the dense forest. Quail Meadows.
We set up the tent in this camp area. Not a single soul besides us occupied the area. We ate and then slept under the Vermillion cliffs.
Earlier in the morning I'd seen the most awesome thing on the trail in the Bald Eagle. In the evening, I saw the strangest thing I would see for the whole trip. I'll never have an explanation or understand why, but coming opposite our direction of travel trotted a lone man in a top hat with no shoes. He passed our camp and walked into the dusk. We never saw him again.
I partly thought that barefoot Abraham Lincoln was going to kill me this night, but I sang myself to sleep.
Notes from the Trail
9/10 -> AM
BALD EAGLE FLEW SOUTH OVER LAKE
IN QUAIL MEADOWS.
SAW WEIRD DUDE IN TOP HAT W/ NO SHOES WALK BY
BACKPACKER'S PANTRY CHANA MASALA OK.
VERMILLION TOMORROW FOR 0 DAY & RELAX/REPAIR SELF.
SCENERY OK TODAY.
SILVER PASS WAS NICE.
SMALL SHOWERS LATE EVE (4-7PM)
VIRGINIA LAKE MY FAV.
SILVER PASS LAKE 1B
40 DEGREES THIS AM. 75 DURING DAY.
ANKLE HURT BUT NO MEDS.
PASSED BRITISH GROUP. DON'T LIKE THEM.
MADE TWO GERMAN FRIENDS & OLDER MAN, SEAN (Ghost man)