Gazing over the granite peaks as the sun kisses the tops of the mountains, the grass still wet with dew and the deer lap water from a mountain brook. My boots pound away the miles, I know better men before me have tread in these very foot steps.
That's what we want to think when we start our journey on a thru hike. The John Muir Trail isn’t particularly long but it does cross the extreme terrain of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, making its way from Yosemite Valley to the top of Mt. Whitney at 211 miles long plus re-supplies points and day excursions. Total elevation gain and loss is around 84,000 feet of climbing. A thru hike has much nostalgia attached to it. A rugged and wild country, untouched, where man can be man. Don't get me wrong, it was a fantastic trip and I'm so glad I did it but it wasn't as wild as I thought it would be. I imagined finding the depths of my soul at the edge of a high elevation lake with Muir Pass in the distance. But that's not quite what I found.
Our journey started back in March as I started to talk to a friend about hiking the Trail. I got a guide book and a map, looked at my gear closet to determine what I would need to buy, got our passes and then in August, off we went. Now, my goal was to lighten my load as much as possible while still carrying a small professional camera kit. You can look online and read reviews for days on gear choices and options for cuben fiber or silnylon or whatever made up words they have come up with to explain why gear is so expensive so I won’t talk about gear in this. As many options as there are for gear, you’ll see them all on the trail; some people just winging it and showing up with grandpa’s Jansport pack from the 70’s, others all kitted out with the industry's lightest and highest quality equipment.
Getting the Pass to leave Yosemite Valley was difficult but not impossible. When I called in late May with plans to leave near the end of August I got the last two trail passes for the month. I was so relieved as I didn’t have another chunk of time off. Living in Los Angeles, or anywhere else in California really, you can hop on a series of busses and one of those busses will drop you off right in front of the Yosemite Visitors Center for about $70-$90, a fantastic price considering it would cost you more than that for gas. And when I arrived to get my Pass, I met three separate individuals who got time off work, packed their bags, walked up to the counter and asked for a pass to hike the JMT. They all got it that day. One of them was from Sweden. He didn’t have one item of food and did all of his shopping at the stores in the valley. All of the planning and excel sheets I had labored over worrying about calorie intake was, yes, important but not crucial to enjoy one of America’s most amazing trails and iconic thru hikes.
Once finally arriving in Yosemite Valley, packed and ready to go, that’s where the journey really starts. That’s where planning and snack choices prove their worth and you actually set foot upon an amazing trail. The John Muir Trail has an "official" route but there are so many day trips and sidetracks that come off from it that you could literally hike forever out there. We went from Little Yosemite Valley onto Vogelsang High Sierra camp, back to the Trail, into Red Meadows in Mammoth for burgers and cell service, to Muir Ranch, making our way to the top of Mt. Whitney and finally exiting into Lone Pine.
But the daily routine of hiking and gazing across beautiful landscapes, or how many miles I did doesn’t matter. There are people who hike the trail in record times of a little over 43 hours all the way to the guy I met who was planning on doing it in 28 days. I learned that its not the photographs you take either. Being a photographer, I was all ready to obtain once-in-a-lifetime images that would be mainstays in my portfolio for years to come. But that didn’t necessarily happen either.
I learned that the most interesting thing about the John Muir Trail are the humans who hike it. My friend Ian who flew out to California from Florida, who quit his job and joined me, all planned over a text message conversation. Amy, a girl we met on day 3 who just wanted a camp buddy for the night and ended up being with us for 14 days. A Yosemite legend, Gary the Boot Ferry, dropped words of wisdom on us and then wandered back into the woods. You start to name people that you see often on the trail. There was “Stacked”, who later became “Eeyore” because he was just a bummer kinda guy (got some awesome power bars from him and a bunch of tuna packets, thanks Eeyore’s wife). There was “Bobcat”, an older gentleman who has hiked all over the world mostly solo and just takes pictures of the people he meets to show his wife who stays at home. Some British blokes who take a trip together once a year. They've hiked the Andes, all over England and the Scottish Highlands, and now the JMT. There was a group of older women who were much slower than we were because every corner they rounded you would hear, “Oh my gosh” or “Janet, you gotta get a picture of this”. And “Tit’s McGee”; she drank water like it was the most pleasurable thing you could do on earth and couldn’t keep her clothes on if near a stream or hot springs. Then there were two pediatricians who have never done anything like the trail. They completed it in 10 days only because that’s all they could take off from their family medical practice, but all the while hauled down the trail like professional athletes. Then, at the very end we met a woman in her late 70’s who has hiked Mt. Whitney around 36 times in her life. I was done with it after one.
These were the kind of memories I will take back with me. There were some pretty epic moments in between. Like when we reached the top of the Vogelsang pass all soaking wet from the passing rain storm. The guys there hooked us up with a hot meal, a PBR, and a bed for the night where we could dry our clothes next to the fire. And the mule trains that seem to come out of the woods like it was an old west movie. Our longest day on the trail was both so upsetting because it just would not end and fulfilling when our inner animal was fed by a life-changing burger in Red Meadows. That Christmas morning feeling as we dug through bins of unwanted food at Muir Trail Ranch (I will never eat another pop-tart again). And the exhilaration of jumping into icy Rae Lake during a long lunch to break the monotony of just getting our miles in. Not only are these mountains beautiful to behold, but they hold stories that at the time may feel mundane but will be with you for a lifetime.
Answering questions from friends about the trail, I was asked, “Would you do it again”. And when I first got home, my answer was probably not. That I had hiked it and done it and I was ok with that. Yet we met people who have done the trail literally a dozen times. Looking back after few months, my answer now is, maybe. And I only say that because there are a million new places on this planet that I hope to see in my lifetime. But the trail will always be with me and will continue to be with me until I decide to visit again. Its not the speed you hike it, the number of images you bring back with you, or the number of times that you have completed it. Its the memories you make, the stories you tell, and the people you meet.
To view more of the images from this journey, here in a link to them on my website: JMT
…if you want more information about gear I chose, my really awesome excel sheet, or specific things I found to be helpful or not, here is a LINK to a more in depth nerdy tale.