Thunder At 10,000 Feet

June 27th

Mileage: 15.2 (130.7)

My current state of hygiene: every time I stop I am quickly surrounded by a swarm of flies.  That’s not a metaphor and its not hyperbole; that’s the reality of the situation.  I’m not sure if its an indication of my odor, which I don’t even notice, or the proliferation of flying pests on this section of trail.  Either way, its not a great place to be in.

As I eat my breakfast of cashews and almonds and sip my coffee I browse over the map of today’s hike.  About three miles from my current location the trail-line on the map begins to squiggle violently, which means one thing: switchbacks.  By eyeballing it, the squiggle-line appears to go on for a couple miles.  In all my days I have never seen a squiggle with so much fervor.  “What is the map-maker trying to tell me,” I think.  “Turn around?” I pack quietly and leave.

I’m hiking along at my usual morning pace and stopping every half mile or so and just sitting.  For some reason I feel like time doesn’t exist in the morning, like the day will never end and I have all of eternity to get to my next campsite.  A man in orange comes bounding down the trail and I step aside to let him pass.  His name is Brian and we talk.  I can tell he’s hiked the JMT before, so I ask him about the squiggles I saw on my map earlier this morning.

“Bear Ridge?  Oh yeah.  It’s a death-march.”  He says.

“Oh.  That’s good.”  I say.

“Yeah, some people count the switchbacks while they hike to pass the time.”

“I don’t think I’ll be doing that.”

We part and he tells me he’ll wait for me at the base of the climb.  There’s a good stream crossing there and he wants to hydrate and soak his feet for a while, so I tell him I’ll see him soon.

Thirty minutes later and we’re both sipping water and I’m trying to get mentally pumped up.  I ask him about mistakes he’s made on the trail before and he tells me about the heavy pack he used to carry and I look over my shoulder at the 30+ pound beast resting against a rock nearby.  Then he tells me about something I’m calling The Justifications.  The Justifications are the harmless little things we tell ourselves.  The Justifications aren’t lies.  An example of A Justification is: The Trail will always be there.  Meaning, if I don’t finish the trail this year I can always come back later.  A Justification is a little seed, A Justification is the little pin-point hole that formed on my water filter bag a week ago (since duct-taped up, I forgot to mention).  Of the myriad enemies of the backpacker, The Justifications might be the most dangerous.

Off goes Brian, and I wonder if I’ll see him again.  He is a strong hiker.  On par with The Ambling Alp.  I begin the switchbacks up to Bear Ridge.  The sky clouds up and grows darker and I begin to worry about lightning.  “Don’t be a lightning rod!” I can hear the advice ringing in my head.  I begin to chant, “don’t be a lightning rod” and soon it becomes my mantra while I hike up and up and up.  Somehow it fuels me to get to the top without taking a break after what, an hour and a half of switchbacking?  It felt like forever.  I coast on top of Bear Ridge and add ‘level ground’ to the list of things I’m thankful for.  2100 feet in 2 miles!  Soon, I’m descending and I wonder what was so great about Bear Ridge that I spent all that energy getting to the top just to go back down, and I think about the AT and its famous PUDS (pointless up and downs).

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Descending from Bear Ridge. Also the last place I had cell phone service on the trail

By the time I reach the bottom and the awesomely wild Bear Creek I’m ready for some lunch.  I sit down by the stream and eat.  Rain follows, and then, from the forest, The Ambling Alp!  Eric and I sit and talk for a hour while we wait out the weather and he tells me about his new job, his upcoming move.  I infer that for him, the JMT signals transition.

After a couple minutes back on the trail, I lose sight of him.

The rest of the afternoon is spent pushing my way through hordes of mosquitoes thick enough to part like the Red Sea.  The air is muggy from the storm and menacing clouds still hang overhead, which makes me uneasy.  For hours I don’t see anyone.  Meanwhile, the trail goes higher and the landscape grows rougher.  This is the land of over 10,000 feet.  Deformed trees grow in clusters and rock dominates.  Cliffs and mountains and boulders and pebbles are scattered as far as I can see.  Then, around a corner: redemption!  A meadow!  I encourage everyone to appreciate your meadow, thank a meadow the next time you see one.  They deserve it.

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Where would I be if not for meadows. This one has a beautiful name: Rosemarie.

Rosemarie Meadow plays St. Peter to what comes next, which is nothing less than paradise on earth: Marie Lake.  Marie Lake is my favorite spot on the John Muir Trail so far.  Actually, Marie Lake might be my new favorite spot on earth.  It’s unreal.  Yet here I am and I find its early evening and make camp with a great view over the water, the peninsulas, the islands, the intimate water-channels.

But soon, Eden is lost.  The clouds that have been hanging around for most of the day break loose and thunder rolls.  The clouds are moving in from the west.  Lightning cuts the sky just to the northwest, over the Seven Gables.

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Marie Lake. Paradise lost!

I’m a midwesterner.  I know nothing about lightning storms in the mountains, so I wasn’t comfortable.  More and more people kept showing up and making camp. This many hikers can’t be wrong, right?  I must be safe.  I ask a man nearby who arrived recently.

“Oh no!  It’s perfectly safe,” he says.  “These mountains will act as magnets for any lightning in the area.  These campgrounds are all well-thought-out and anytime you come to one you know its a safe place to be.  They wouldn’t make one that wasn’t.”  He introduces himself as Jeremy.  A woman joins us shortly and tells me her name is Karley.  Jeremy and Karley didn’t know each other prior to hiking the JMT, but they kept running into each other and decided to team up.  We talk for a while before everyone grows too hungry to resist the siren song of food and we retreat to our little pots and stoves and dehydrated food.

The rain clears and the sun begins to set.  Marie Lake shines in all its glory.  Everyone stops what they are doing and watches the scene before darkness snuffs it out.

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Marie Lake

After the hardships of the day I feel like this moment is a little dove, fluttering in the wind.  I think of one of my favorite poems, which is by Emily Dickinson:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
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