Where There’s Smoke…

July 29th

Mileage: 17 (155.2)

I wake to the sound of rain-flies being shaken out.  The swooshing swooshing snapping sound is coming from 3 or 4 different places, so it must be time to pack up and move on.  When I crawl out of my tent I look to the sky before doing anything else.  I see some blue, but I also see clouds.  I don’t know what the weather will bring today.

After laying some of my things on a big granite slab in an attempt to dry them I go get my bear canister.  I pick it up and its heavy.  “Every bite of food I take is a little less weight on my back, so eat up.”  That’s what one part of my head is telling me.  The other says, “Ration that.  You’ll start wanting more and more food as the days go by.  Don’t eat too much.”  I open the canister.

And there’s water inside.

It’s a disaster.  All my trail-mix is soaked through and an inch of chocolate water sits on the bottom.  The M&Ms have turned a strange pastel color with their thin candy shells diluted by the rain water.  How could I have let this happen?  What was I thinking last night?  I must have opened the bear canister to make dinner and absentmindedly forgotten to close the lid.  Then a second thought occurs to me; all my food (except my trail mix) is dehydrated.  I do some quick math: water = re-hydration, re-hydration = expansion + spoilage.  If those meals are wet, I lose almost all my food.  I toss every ziplock baggie onto the ground, getting it out the the chocolate soup.  I grab my backpackers towel, which somehow is still dry, and begin wiping everything down and checking every portion for water.

Not a single bag has water inside and I breathe a sigh of relief.  I pour the water out of the canister and dry the inside.  I repack all the food, leaving the wet bag of trail mix outside my pack for now.

“Either of you want some wet trail mix?”  I ask Karley and Jeremy while I stuff my mouth with what I assume will soon be unedible cashews, almonds and chocolate.

Karley laughs, “You make it sound so good.”

I tell them about my situation and Jeremy says the nuts and M&Ms will be fine.  “Maybe just a tad bit unpalatable, but otherwise, it shouldn’t be a problem at all.”  He has the voice of a professional, the kind of voice you hear talking over movie promos, and whatever he says comes with a heavy dose of authority.  How could a voice like that ever say anything wrong?

This is good news, because 1 cup of trail mix accounts for a large portion of my daily caloric intake and I could use some assurances right about now.

I begin hiking.

Soon the sun is out and I’m dragging.  My pack weight is at an apex, and my body is having difficulty adjusting.  I stop at the roaring San Joaquin River and get some water.  I pour instant coffee into my cup, add cold water, and drink it down in one gulp.  “Maybe caffeine will help me,” I think.  Clouds begin building again.  I’m walking toward Evolution Meadow, which I’ve been anticipating for days.  Not only is my love for meadows reaching a frenzied state, but everyone I talk to whose been there says, “Just wait until Evolution Valley.”  Clearly, its a hiker favorite.  I switchback up to the Valley and look out over Goddard Canyon and say goodbye to the San Joaquin River

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leaving Goddard Canyon

I ford Evolution Creek, which nearly covers my calves at its deepest.  Trail reports from just a few weeks ago had this crossing as being nearly dry.  So much water has fallen.  More clouds pile in and I stop and eat hummus for lunch while swatting away mosquitoes.  I want so badly to have clear skies for Evolution and Colby Meadows, but that is not my reality.  Accept it and move on.  Evolution Valley is a glorious stretch of land that is almost completely flat, an unheard-of luxury on this trail.  I spend much of the afternoon crossing paths with Phil and Carol, both of whom are camping at Evolution Lake tonight.  Jeremy and Karley plan on being there too, so it seems everyone will be spending the night together again.  I arrive at Evolution Meadow and stop to sit.

2014-08-17 13.14.13
Evolution Meadow. Still beautiful despite the low clouds.

By late afternoon I’m at the end of Evolution Valley and ready to being the switchbacks up to the lake.  The Hermit (the name of a mountain) has been steadily approaching all afternoon, and it signals the transition back to normal JMT terrain.  My legs should be fresh from a half day yesterday and an easy afternoon walk today, but the weight of my pack is grinding away at my neck, back, knees, and ankles.  I stop near The Hermit to eat the rest of my daily allotment of soggy almonds and cashews.

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The Hermit

As I’m ascending toward Evolution Lake I’m treated to some wonderful views of the valley I walked through.  With each switchback I climb a little higher and a little more valley is revealed.  After 20 minutes, I notice a haze in the distance and I think, “the rain is starting, better get to the lake.”  A minute later I look out again and the valley is covered in haze and I realize: this is not rain.  This is smoke.  Suddenly, the odor hits me.  It smells like something burning.

20140729_155250
The Hermit, which was clear as can be just 30 minutes prior

The Hermit is just a hazy outline in the sky with all of its contours covered up by smoke.  I am unsettled by the sudden-ness of this new development.  I have no idea what to do.  I can deal with bears and with lightning storms, but not with fire.  I think about the stories I hear on the news of people and firefighters being overcome by the rapidity of a spreading forest fire and I wonder where the flames are.  I pass Phil and Carol and if its not fear I see in their eyes and hear in their voices, its at least a vague sense of worry.

“What should we do?”  I say.

“I don’t know,” says Phil.

I’m looking around, left and right, just waiting for instruction and being met by trees shrugging in the wind.

“We don’t know either,” they appear to say.

I’ve hiked fast before, but never as fast as I did then.  “OK,” I say.  “Nothing left to do but keep hiking.  Maybe I’ll hike all the way to Muir Pass where there are no trees, no vegetation.  Where is the fire?  And how is a fire still burning after all the rain that’s fallen in the past couple days?”  I just keep on power-hiking and come to Evolution Lake.  Then, I hear someone calling my name.

“Tom!”  It says.  I look around.  “Tom!”  I see Aaron and Monique off the trail, talking to a couple of guys.  Aaron is smiling and asks me what my plan is.

“I don’t know.  I don’t know what to do.  I’m just hiking until I can’t hike any more I guess.  I don’t know where its safe.”

“Oh, we’re safe here,” he says, “not enough fuel this high up for a fire to burn.”  He tells me his brother is a firefighter.  For some reason, hearing this gives me a little peace and some confidence that I’m in a safe place.  We decide to camp together, and soon Phil and Carol show up and decide to camp with us.  I feel safe in a group, and look out over the lake and all the little tents pitched here and there.  I can see Karley and Jeremy who’ve found a nice spot a little higher up.  We are in one of the most beautiful places on the trail–Evolution Lake–but the smoke obscures everything.

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The smoke

The mountains I saw earlier today are gone and soon thunder rolls up from the south.

“What is going on?”  I think.  Storms in one direction, fire in the other, and here I am in the middle with my little one man tent tossed up in defiance against the coming night.  The smoke is strong and infects my lungs.

The scene becomes surreal and slightly hell-ish  A red glow illuminates the smoke to the west and a pale red glimmers in reflection on the lake.  A rumble echoes off the walls of unseen mountains.  I sit on a large boulder and look out over everything.  I think, “If I only knew what was going on…” as if knowledge could save me.  Then my mind turns to sleep and the thought, “how does one sleep in the shadow of a forest fire…?”  I still can’t answer that questions but I can tell you that somehow, I did.

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2 thoughts on “Where There’s Smoke…

  1. At the recommendation of my uncle, Marvin Fowler, I have read all your entries. 1-I wish there were more, 2-I want to make such a trip, 3-You have a real gift for words and I hope you will use this gift in the future, 4-I’m proud to call you a relative! Enjoyed!

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