John Muir Trail-Donahue Pass to Lyell Canyon

6.22.16 (JMT) Wed.
We wake with a strong determination to get on the trail asap. I’ve already spied a lone hiker heading for the summit. I test out the snow around me and find it’s hard and crunchy. This is what we want. But the morning is bright and warmer than we expected at this altitude. The snow will get slushy fast. We eat our bar and our cold coffee and we’re on the trail by 7 am sharp. We head on up, up, up. We pass a group of 3 young men that remind me of boy scouts that made camp a little farther up for us. They are just starting to pack up. They ask us if we were bothered by the Marmots, and we said not really. Apparently, they came to their camp because they had better food.

The mountain is covered in snow and we’re not sure if we’re on the trail. There are several sets of tracks. We do our best. We look up and know that we have to bear to the right. The snow is holding us well, though still unstable in places, especially near big rocks, making it kind of scary to step on and off of. There are places we can see where the snow has given way as swift moving water cuts underneath the snow we’re walking on. Some holes seem bottomless, especially near the rocks. I’m reminded of a story Milkman told us where a girl stepped and her leg went through the snow wedging her foot deep down and as the weight of her pack propelled her forward her ankle broke. This is the risk.

We move on at a steady pace. I try to follow in Chris’s footsteps, but he gets far ahead of me as we climb. I find my own path and catch my breath every 50 to 100 steps. It is beautiful beyond words. We see some hikers way up ahead which gives us a visual of where the trail is. We hope they are on the trail. For the most part, we see no one else and are on this vast mountainside covered in snow and granite. We’re above tree line and we continue to climb up. The sun is intense and hot. I enjoy the coolness of the snow as we climb. A young couple comes from behind and I let these fast hikers pass. They mention that they are very experienced backpackers. In other words, I shouldn’t feel bad for being slow. I don’t. We quickly lose site of them. My legs feel like jelly. I’m stopping now every 30-50 steps to take a few extra breaths. And all of a sudden, we reach the summit. We’re here. We summit the dreaded and highly anticipated Donahue Pass. The experienced hikers are taking a break and assure us this is the summit and congratulate us. I’m doubtful. Yesterday we were told by the eager woman that when you think you’ve summited, you haven’t and there’s more to go. But this is it. Now I’m grateful. I wasn’t sure my legs would hold up much more. I see the sign letting us know we’re entering Yosemite. We chat with the experienced hikers. Chris asks the woman about her head gear and she gives us a demonstration of how it works and only paid $6.00 buying it on Amazon. Just another day chatting with the locals, here on Donahue Pass. Surreal. It’s about 8:30 am. It took us one and a half hours to travel 1.5 miles. I’m feeling joyful and proud. The rest is downhill from here. The experienced hikers go ahead of us.

We take a few minutes to look back from where we came, enjoying our last views of the Mount Ritter range and Ansel Adams Wilderness. Ahead we savor the view of Yosemite Valley, so lush and green, and so far down. As we continue on our journey, the trail is unclear. We decide to follow the experienced hikers because they are experienced, so they say. We start a long steep descent through the unstable snow. I see the couple ahead, the man is far ahead of the woman. I see her fall and struggle to get up. Chris is ahead of me. I yell for him to stop so I can take his picture. He appears to be standing on the horizon. He is anxious to keep moving before the snow gets to slushy and does not want to stop but I get the shot. It’s also at this moment I decide to divorce him. How dare he ruin my moment of joy. Our emotions lie close to the surface. We continue to follow the couple but lose site of them and simply follow their tracks. We come to the edge where it appears we can go no further. Is this what a previous hiker met when he said you will “cliff out”? To our left is a ridge of rocks. We see some hikers coming the other way that used this ridge to hike up to Donahue. We turn left and backtrack along this ridge of rock. It’s on a cliff and is clearly not the trail. We scramble over some huge boulders, and it is here I feel some anxiety due to the feeling of exposure and fear of falling. I do not look down and keep my eye on the safe place ahead. We eventually find the trail and make it down this rock face via some switch backs. We then lose the trail again due to the snow and cross a long snow bank. The snow is more unstable. Chris tells me to step where he steps. I do. I go through the snow up to my hip. I am not hurt, but I struggle to free myself. I clamor up onto a boulder and make a leap to where I hope the snow will hold me. It does. Chris and I take a moment for each other and I’m in love again and no longer want a divorce.

We see there’s a big wide stream that needs to be crossed. We see a potential place to cross, but it requires another long trek through unstable snow. We know it will get us to the other side, but we still are not sure where the trail is. I look to my left and see the large mountain where we just came from covered in snow. I think I see tracks way up there. Geez, I’m hoping we don’t have to go up. We come to a place that has granite slabs that cross the water. We make our way across, but are faced with a big climb. Chris goes ahead to survey the landscape and see if he can find the trail. After awhile, I follow. I think I see the trail to our right. I yell to Chris and he backtracks to me and we cross another unstable snow bank. We eventually see the trail and where it gets covered in snow. It’s confusing. We also see the ‘Boy Scouts’. They found a different place to cross the stream that involved getting wet, but was closer to the actual trail. We eventually find the trail after scrambling up some rocks and snow, and begin our descent along the side of a steep mountain covered in wildflowers. I feel some anxiety due to the exposure of this high place, but it’s manageable and I’ve hiked on much worse. We come to a waterfall that needs to be crossed and I notice an increase in my anxiety, but manage across without incident. We continue down a series of switchbacks and I realize how steep this climb is for hikers going up. We’ve been told that traveling north is the more difficult route, and there were times on this hike I’ve harbored much anger towards Chris for choosing it, though he denies it. Though now I have my doubts. It’s challenging either direction with lots of ups and downs. When we finally reach the bottom of this beautiful mountainside, we have a wide stream crossing, at it’s apparent that our feet will get wet.

We cross and take a break at a beautiful mountain tarn surrounded by meadows and plenty of boulders to rest on. I’m guessing this is a popular camping site for those heading south and wanting to tackle the ascent to Donahue in the morning. We take off our shoes so they will dry in the sun and are greeted by many hopeful Marmots. As I sit relaxing, I hear a noise behind me where my pack and hiking sticks are resting, and I see a cute little fellow gnawing on the handle strap of my stick. We shoo him away, but not before he gnawed almost all the way through the thick nylon strap. Go figure…no wonder these cuties are considered pests. After a very relaxing break, we continue our descent. It’s only Wednesday and we have until Saturday before our permit expires, and before there’s no public transportation to get back to Ruby, our truck. We’ve got plenty of time. As we descend, the snow gets less and less. It’s steep and rocky, much of it uneven steps. We hike through pine and get gorgeous glimpses of the valley. We eventually make our way to the valley floor and are greeted with wide open meadows and the meandering Tuolumne River. We again find a gorgeous campsite and have beautiful views of whence we came and of Kuna Creek cascading down the east canyon. We are serenaded by her music. As the setting sun dips below the mountain behind us, her shadow is cast upon the meadow providing a cooling relief to the intense sun, and we watch it come alive as deer come out to graze on sweet meadow greens. We think we only have about 8 more easy miles before our journey’s end.

John Muir Trail – Thousand Island to Southern Base of Donahue Pass

6.21.16 (Tues) JMT
We wake at 6:30 am to a bright clear sky. We take 3 hours to break camp. Very hard to leave such a beautiful site. We hike out and back up the same trail we descended last night. Up, up, up. I’m short of breath. I stop every 50-100 paces and breathe. We’re high. We are heading to Island Pass. As we climb we are serenaded by frogs. Their sound is riveting and echoes through the mountains. Oh my! What a great way to start the morning with such beautiful music. I can’t help but feel they are doing it just for our entertainment.

Along the way, we meet an asian looking guy with long hair and a shirt that says Semper Fi. Of course, Chris chats with him. He served in the USMC for 9 years, and did several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. His back was severely injured when his truck was hit by an IED, and he was not permitted to reenlist due to his physical health from his injury. And here he is doing this hike. He says he’s doing it for wounded vets through the Semper Fi foundation. He’s regaining his strength and keeps his core strong. Chris can relate. The guy looks fit, and says he plans to do the Marine corps marathon in D.C. for same cause. Inspiring young man. After hiking for 1.8 miles we come to Island Pass (10,205 feet). A young couple doing the PCT is taking a break at the pass, eating potato chips. How do you pack chips on a trip like this without them getting crushed into little crumbs? She says welcome to Island Pass. Of course it’s covered in snow, and beautiful. It’s kind of hard to tell it’s a pass. We talk with the couple for awhile, though I mainly listen. Chris is much more social and chatty than I. She’s French Canadian, and had quit her job so she could do the PCT. I can relate. He’s from France. They’ve enjoyed their journey and meet lots of people on the way. We asked if they’ve met Milkman, they hadn’t. We go on and leave them to their break. Our goal is to get close to Donahue Pass so we can summit it in the early morning.

Shortly after summiting Island Pass, Milkman passes us. We asked him if he met the couple at the pass, he did, but did not exchange names. Later, that same couple passes us, and we let them know they had met Milkman. We hike through lots of snow, and several water crossings, some with footbridges that are uneven log crossings. I manage to get across all of them without falling into the drink, though I’ve not managed to be any less awkward. There’s one crossing, before the junction to Marie Lake, where I simply do not have the confidence to cross the water on the single log footbridge. Again, Chris crosses with his usual finesse. I instead decide to wade through the icy water, so off came the boots, and on come the Teva’s. I wade across without incident, though Chris worries I’m going to fall, shouting out to me to use my sticks. He also manages to get some pictures of me with my shoes swinging around my neck. What a site I am. Ha! The water is icy cold, but so refreshing. Blood sucking mosquitos and biting black ants are everywhere, and I take up lots of time getting my shoes back on and securing my Teva’s back to my pack. Chris gets mad at me for slowing us down, but is actually really frustrated at how hard it is to secure my Teva’s and I think is worried about if I can do the rest of this hike. We snap at each other, but quickly get over it. We move on and up.

We come to a small lake and a beautiful plateau that seems the ideal place to set up camp, but we don’t think we’re yet close enough to the pass, so we plod on. I take a minute to savor the beauty of this place. My senses are overwhelmed, but I still try to absorb all that I can. We meet more PCTers along the way. Chris chats with this one man who tells him about the very difficult water crossings at the base about 2 miles before Donahue. He recommends that we go off trail, stay to our left, and cross snow banks instead of the water. We come to the water crossing, it was fast and high. A young couple is preparing to cross. We keep going per that man’s advice. The snow is unstable and difficult to cross. I go through up to my thigh. It’s doable and we make it across. It’s 3:30 and we think this is a good time to stop and a great place to camp. The couple crossing the stream still has not arrived. Chris made the right call. A group descends from Donahue and a woman in the group is eager to tell us about trail conditions. By this time the other couple has arrived and plan to summit Donahue today even though the eager woman almost begs her not to. She reports they summited this morning, and ate lunch and watched the snow get more and more unstable. It took them 4 hours to get over the pass. Extremely difficult. The other couple does not heed their warning and goes on.

We set up camp and made the decision to break camp by 7am so we could do Donahue early while the snow was hard. We watch as others come to this juncture and struggle with the water crossings. We watch one couple take over 45 minutes to try to navigate how to get across. The man had no problem, the woman could not do it. We’re not sure where they went, and they are too far away for us to be helpful. I wonder how many couples split up after doing a hike like this. We enjoy the beauty of a lone duck on the stream that is flooding the actual trail. Chris takes lots of pictures of Duck. I talk to the Marmots as they surround our camp and keep them away from our packs.

Tomorrow’s a big day! I’m prepared to climb through lots of snow. I’m prepared to get to a point that will look like the summit, but it will go even higher. Will I be able to deal with the altitude? I have some worry thoughts, but I’m at peace. Chris is a tad worried about his sore knees, but also seems content. We enjoy our evening. Again, we have the most spectacular views, surrounded by mountains, and snow, and water, and alpine forests. I look at the snow covered cliff near us, and wonder if we’re in avalanche territory. Chris says not to worry. He’s more worried about flooding with the snow melt, and it is why we moved our campsite to higher ground. We sleep with the the Marmots close by, a perfectly clear sky and another bright moon. Tomorrow, just a bar for breakfast and cold coffee that we prep tonight. I sleep well enough.

John Muir Trail – Shadow Lake to Thousand Island Lake

6.20.16 (Mon) JMT
We take a long time to pack up camp and head out at 10am, reluctantly leaving our gorgeous views of Banner and Ritter and Shadow Lake. I think we were more leisurely since we proved to ourselves the first day that we could do lots of hard mileage, and we had plenty of time. We take time to wash up and sit in quiet contemplation as we absorb our surroundings. I feel much better than expected, even with a fitful sleep. My medication regime of Mobic in the morning and Tylenol in the evening seems to keep my plantar fasciitis in check. But, within minutes of starting our hike for the day, I’m in excruciating pain, and within 45 minutes I have to stop. My pack is killing my shoulders, especially my right where I have a separated shoulder from a previous bike injury and have a big bump as a result. The pressure from my strap is tortuous. My upper back feels like it is being pulled apart. Chris helps me do a pack adjustment and places my buff under my strap as some padding for my shoulder, which gives me some sweet relief, allowing me to continue with the uphill climb. I must have screwed up the adjustments on my pack in my limbo move from yesterday. Up, up, up, stopping every 50-100 paces taking in some extra breaths, allowing my heart to slow, and being mindful of the beauty around me. I so want these sights, and sounds, and sensations, and smells to be with me forever, as I know it is unlikely I will ever be here again. I feel a constant tension between stopping and savoring the moment and a compulsion to keep moving. It’s hard to imagine, but the majesty of this place just intensifies. Our goal for today is to get somewhere near Thousand Island Lake. This is the land of mountain lakes where the water is crystal clear, icy cold, and the feeder streams run fast with all of the snow melt at this time of year. The constant sound of babbling water as we hike is calming and refreshing.

Our journey takes us up a long rocky climb and the land of Marmots. Beautiful mountain views all around us, with Shadow in the distance, and tributaries laced through the valley floor. This place also brings back distant memories for Chris as he shows me the rock where the Marmot was perched and he regretfully used it for target practice. As we summit this rock felled mountain, we pause and take in the views all around us and see where we’ve been and where we’re heading.

After 2.5 miles from our start this morning, we reach Garnet lake (9,678 feet) the first of the three gem lakes. It is huge and has many tiny islands with gorgeous views of Banner and Ritter Peaks. We take a break and meet Milkman, a PCTer, taking a detour and heading north on the JMT. He’s a tall, lanky, bearded young man from N.C. with all of the southern charm you can imagine. He’s an avid hiker and has done the AT, and is now doing the PCT with some detours along the way. He takes time to enjoy his journey. It’s the summer solstice and he needs to get naked as is his tradition, which involved hiking naked on the AT during the last Equinox. He agrees that Garnet is a great place to get naked and take a dip. He charms both Chris and I. He talks of his mom and clearly loves and respects her. He also clearly loves this lifestyle, taking his time to enjoy the trails. Milkman continues on with his journey. We linger for just a bit longer as we chat with an older couple, probably younger than us, heading south. They did Donahue Pass. The woman tells me it was hard, and cold, and now she’s hot and should change her clothing. She says her husband lost his sunglasses and hat, so he borrowed hers, which she had extra. I carry nothing extra. I’m amazed. Chris tells me later that the husband said he fell through the snow, and it took him 15 minutes to get out. He thinks it’s because he was a big heavy guy. I’m not so sure it matters. We part ways and continue north and they south. We walk the beautiful path around Garnet’s shore. In just a few minutes, we see Milkman again, and sure enough, he’s buck naked, his long lean body glistening in the sun, as he jumps into Garnet’s glacier water. Ohh, how I wish I could be such a free spirit.

As we continue onward and upward, we meet Ruby. Beautiful Ruby Lake, enticing us with all of her charm. She’s small and surrounded by sheer granite walls and glacier ice that meets the water. We soak up her beauty while I soak my feet in her icy cold water. My heel thanks me. A gull entertains us as we watch her swoon, and dip, and dive, and fly circles around Ruby up above her granite walls. I wonder if Gull has any kind of awareness of the majesty of her flight or of this place. I’d like to think she does. We debate of whether to stay here and set up camp or go on. While on break, a couple of young women (they’re all young to me) come from the north and give us a status report on trail conditions. Unstable snow banks up ahead. She post holed up to her thigh. She was not big. Hmmm. The sun is melting the snow fast, causing it to be slushy and unstable, and creating lots of water crossings with rapid water flow. Conditions around Thousand Island Lake pretty bad. I’m getting the picture, but also getting that people are making it through unscathed with stories to tell of their challenges and adventure. We decide to go on.

We have a nice reprieve from climbing as we hike down some snow covered switchbacks towards Emerald. We actually lose the trail for a bit. I notice that much of the snow is red tinged and I’m curious why. We look up and see a hiker way up on a snow banked cliff above us. She also lost the trail, and got really off course. Her sighting of us helps her get her bearings. We continue our descent towards Emerald.We cross several snow fields on her steep banks and we hit her unstable snow. I have my first wonderful experience of going through the snow, slipping, falling and starting my slide towards her shore. My heavy pack throws me off balance and I slip and fall a couple of more times before I finally get my footing and make my way to Chris. He’s not happy. He’s worried. I’m ok, and kind of find myself laughing at myself. I’m disappointed that he seems mad at me. I am breathing harder. Not sure if from exertion, or nervousness. It gives me a taste of what we can expect at Donahue Pass, but I don’t linger there. We meet some young hikers taking a break and batting rocks into the lake. Kind of loud and obnoxious but after chatting with them, found then to be very nice. From the East. I realize I had lost my buff, probably when I fell. We told them if they found it, it was theirs. My colorful buff would match their purple and yellow socks. They had just learned about Buffs and liked them a lot. We keep going and get close to Emerald’s shore line and it’s pretty boggy. We trudge on to Thousand Island Lake and leave the gems behind.

We descend to Thousand Island Lake (9833 feet) and I’m amazed how big and flat it is, dotted with lots of tiny islands. It sits at the base of Banner Peak in the Ritter Range. It is where the San Joaquin River begins and feeds the San Joaquin Valley. There’s limited camping on this lake as is the case with all of the lakes and it is where the PCT and JMT again join, so we anticipate that for the rest of our journey we will meet many more PCTers. We again run into Milkman and assure him he’s back on the PCT. In my mind, I think we’ve reached our destination and we’re looking for a place to camp. But Chris has a different thought in mind and after talking with a couple of hikers about a campsite above the lake, we start hiking up, up, up. I barely have it in me to walk one more step, and after awhile of looking and not finding a suitable place, we turn around and go back down. I’m getting crankier by the minute. We run into a girl sitting on a rock who tells us of some campsites ahead. We plod on, and find a beautiful spot on a peninsula to camp for the night. My mood improves. We again have gorgeous views of Banner and Ritter Peaks, though Ritter is a it more obscured. We watch fish jump, deer wade from the mainland to a little island right in front of us. Weather perfect. Private. Protected with boulders. Moon bright. Talk about a room with a view. We did about 6 miles today, it feels like 100. Good night.

John Muir Trail – Devil’s Postpile to Shadow Lake

6.19.16 (Sun) JMT
Cold this morning. Slept pretty good, up with the morning sun. Weather clear. Breakfast today and for the next several days consists of Muesli, premixed with protein powder, and a cup of instant black coffee. We mix each with water before consuming. I also add some raisins and nuts to the cereal mix. It hits the spot, and I must say keeps me regular if you know what I mean. I was concerned about how I would adjust to going to the bathroom in the woods, but amazingly, I never felt so good. I think it has something to do with the Muesli and squatting position that just makes everything work perfectly. Start hiking at 7:23 am and hike for about 11 miles today, and most of it is up, up, up, with over a 2000 ft gain in elevation from about 7500 ft to about 9500 ft, and then a steep descent back down to Shadow lake at about 8700 ft. It turns out, we add more distance to our hike by starting at Red’s Meadow. But we head off in the right direction and find the not so well marked junction where the PCT and JMT splits near Devil’s Postpile, where we could have camped and saved ourselves about a mile.

Grueling. Hardest hike I ever did. My foot is killing me in the first 200 steps, but thankfully, I’m distracted by the pain in my hips. Each step feels like my femur is jamming into my hip socket. Ow! But I soon forget about it because I’m sure my shoulder is a bloody pulp from my pack strap. Is this supposed to be fun? And each breath is labored. I mean, my heart is pounding, and I to stop every 50-100 steps just to take some extra deep breaths and give my heart a chance to slow down. Soon I use this system as a way to pace myself as we climb, which is slow, slower, and probably slowest hiker on the trail. But it gives me the intervals I want and need to take a mindful moment and look around me. The beauty surrounding me with every step, is in itself breathtaking. Views of mountains, lakes, pristine forests, wildflowers, and streams are our constant companions. We drink in the cool refreshing air, while savoring the warmth of the sun. Chris, ahead of me, plods on, often putting distance between us, but he never begrudges me the time I need.

Our goal is to get somewhere near Shadow Lake. We hike past Devils Postpile (7430 feet) but do not linger at this amazing geological site and national monument where the rocks are formed as giant vertical posts as if built by some ancient civilization. I’m so grateful it wasn’t blasted into oblivion for mining. We’re anxious to get on the trail, as we ‘only’ have until Saturday to get to our destination and catch the YART back to dear Ruby. Silly us. We do not take the detour to view Minaret Falls, but hike through Johnston Meadow and pass Johnston Lake (8120 feet) about 1.3 mile from the PCT/JMT split. We navigate our way through some water crossings in this neck of the woods, one of which requires me to balance myself across a couple of uneven logs over a raging stream. I hope Chris gets some comic relief as he watches my awkward mobility across these logs, almost frigid with fear of losing my balance, of course all of which increases my risk for doing exactly that. Whatever his judgments of me at these times, he pretty much keeps in check. I in turn watch him in awe as he gracefully and effortlessly dances his way across. He’s 69 years old! Amazing.

We have our first views of the Minarets, obviously named by their lofty, slender shape looking like the turrets of a mosque. This area used to be known as the Minaret Wilderness, but was later renamed Ansel Adams Wilderness. We continue on and up, taking a short break about every hour, and drinking plenty of water. I’m glad I’m wearing my $2.50 button down cotton shirt purchased at the thrift store and thrown in my pack at the last minute. As my shirt dampens with my sweat, the breeze gives me a welcome cooling relief. The bra was ditched almost immediately, and got buried at the bottom of my pack never to be seen again. Freedom, can we say it again ladies….freedom!!! From here, we have 7.4 miles to go to reach our goal of Shadow Lake. To get there, we plod up and up past some small mountain lakes and take a short break on the shore of the small, shallow lake called Gladys at 9,580ft. We see it’s a popular camping spot, though no one is here but us as we enjoy our break. We trudge on and have a small respite from climbing as we make our way to the beautiful Rosalie Lake on our left at 9,350 ft. where we enjoy a much longer break. We debate if we should stop now or keep going. A through hiker comes by and we ask her about campsites ahead and how far to Shadow Lake. She assures us it is not far, just a little more climbing, and then the downhill to Shadow, and shortly beyond there is a great camping spot at the junction to Ediza Lake. Because Chris said he wanted to get close to Shadow Lake, I feel compelled for us to continue, and so we do.

The break was refreshing, though I’m still totally exhausted. We start a very steep 700 ft. descent down beautifully maintained switchbacks with soft earth under our tired feet, and friendly to our knees. Down, down, down to Shadow Lake. The views of the lake, and granite cliffs are spectacular, and Chris is exuberant as he is flooded with childhood memories of this place on earth. He shows me exactly where he took his first dip into a mountain lake at the age of 11, remembering vividly the feeling of being hit by a sledgehammer as he plunged into the icy cold water, jumping out as fast as he went in. I can visualize him as a little boy doing just that as he shares this precious memory. He hasn’t changed much. He shows me the cliff where he and his brother got stuck and had to be rescued. He remembers with fondness, the YMCA leaders, Bob and Dave, that exposed him to this backcountry and for whom he is forever grateful for giving him such love for the High Sierras. He remembers seeing a hiker way back then with a real backpack and his determination to someday have the right gear. And now here he is sharing this paradise with me.

We continue our hike down, which took us about 45 minutes and meet a family sitting on a huge rock overlooking Shadow Lake (8,737 feet). There’s a 12 yr. old boy, his mom and dad, and his grandfather, wearing a pink bandana under his hat to keep the sun off of his neck. They had come the other way, which means this old man, looking kind of out of shape, has summited the highly anticipated Donahue Pass. They give us an update on the trail conditions, and I ask her about exposure and she says, oh yes, lots of exposure, and then I clarify my question and ask, “so if I start slipping, am I going to keep going and fall off a cliff?” She assures me this is not the case, and I feel much better, though she quickly adds there are some scary spots but that I’d be fine. How does she know I’ll be fine. What kind of spots? How scary? I don’t ask or want her to elaborate, and instead just allow myself to feel the peace with knowing that I wasn’t going to die sliding off a cliff at Donahue. We continue on, I feeling sorry for the family, especially the old man, as they were determined to hike up those beautiful switchbacks that we had just descended. The lady in this group has a very good map of the JMT from National Geographic, and tells us that we have about 0.7 mile to go before we reach our destination. We climb up, and by this time of day, feels like the hardest mile yet. We reach a huge tree blocking the trail. Chris goes over, I’m too exhausted, so I crawl under. My pack barely fits and gets scraped and pummeled as I make my way through. Should have climbed over and I notice lots of judgment thoughts about my poor judgment and clumsy efforts to overcome this barrier, but manage to get through and try to shrug off my self contempt. We finally make it to our camping spot at the junction to Ediza Lake and it could not have been more beautiful. The mosquitos think so too, and it becomes a mad race to beat back these little buggers and not let them into our tent. So thankful for Deet and mosquito netting. We are close to a waterfall, and have gorgeous views of Shadow Lake to our east and Banner and Ritter peaks to the west. Chris, my hero, and like the ever ready bunny rabbit, keeps going. He sets up the tent, fills and filters the water, sets up the stove and boils the water so we can rehydrate and cook our dehydrated meal. I can barely move, and he tells me to relax, but it’s with much guilt and shame, so I too try to keep going and be as helpful as possible. Our skies are perfectly clear and the mountains and waterfalls to our east are lit up by the setting sun, and the evening air quickly cools, causing us to dawn our jackets and fleece.

We go to bed early, but not before Chris secures the bear canister and the garbage we’re packing out away from our campsite. The chores seem to never end and I’m so thankful for Chris. Unlike the first night of restful sleep, I find I’m too exhausted and have a fitful sleep. But during the night, I’m rewarded with a gorgeous sky and a bright full moon, and find myself gulping in the cool night air. We wake again to another perfect weather day, and watch Banner and Ritter light up with the morning sun.

John Muir Trail-Red’s Meadow Campground

6.18.16 (Sat) JMT
Chris and I leave early this morning from Darwin for the 100 + miles to Mammoth Lakes where we park Ruby, our 2000 Mazda truck. Finding a parking place in this adventure town is no easy task, as the place is teaming with bikers, hikers, skiers, snow boarders, kayakers, and all kinds of adventure seekers in this gorgeous but touristy town of Mammoth Lakes. We walk away from Ruby knowing we will be living only from the contents of our packs for the next 7 days. After getting our permit at the busy visitor center, and attempting to get an update on trail conditions from the desk clerk without much success, except to say the stream crossing will require people to hold hands when crossing, we stand in a long line to catch the shuttle to the nearest campground for the John Muir Trail head. We think we’re to camp at Devils Postpile, but are instructed to camp at the Red’s Meadow campground. While waiting in line, feeling already weighed down by our backpacks, we talk with a lovely mother/daughter team from San Diego that are vacationing here in Mammoth Lakes enjoying some adventure, having already kayaked this morning. Chris’s pack weighs about 35 lbs, and mine is about 25. The weather is bright and sunny, but rather cool prompting me to wear my light down jacket, and there is still enough snow for some of the slopes to be open. We are lucky to have escaped the high heat of the desert projected to hit in the 100s.

After finally boarding the shuttle, which cost $7/person, and shirking off our packs…relief… we take our seats in the front row. During the ride, folks continue to embark, and Chris gives up his seat, he himself being a senior citizen, for an elderly WW II vet, only to have it grabbed by a woman that looks younger than me. Humph! On this small part of the journey, Chris talks with Pacific Crest Trail hikers, other wise known as PCTers, a Czech, a Danish guy, and a Spaniard. Just a sampling of the kinds of folks doing these epic journeys. The shuttle drops us at Red’s Meadow Campground where we meet the host Susan. Susan is from Lancaster, but has been camping here for many years. Interesting lady. Very heavy and drives around in a golf cart greeting campers and collecting fees. We get the spot for half price, $11, because Chris has a senior pass. As he always says, it’s one thing great about growing old. Susan immediately spots our required bear canister stuffed with our food for the week, and informs us of how a bear put it’s claw right through one of these things. She goes on to say there’s a big 400 pound beautiful golden bear hanging around camp leaving huge scat. In hind site, I’m not sure this is the most welcoming thing to tell new campers, many who say their number one fear of this area is the Bears. We’re not nervous, but we are sure to use the bear canister at the campsite per her instruction. Campsite is beautiful surrounded by beautiful pine and cackling bluejays, and has bathrooms and water. We also meet our first through JMT hiker heading south. A pretty young woman from Aspen, hiking with 2 college girlfriends before starting law school. She gives us a pretty good description of trail conditions. Muddy, and lots of snow, especially around Donahue Pass. Her advice? Do Donahue early in the morning and stay to the left. Water crossings ok, though there is one she had a hard time with due to only having a log to walk across. Oh, oh! We set up camp for the night and eat our first dehydrated meal, lasagna. It’s actually very good. Chris fires up his little Soto propane stove, boils water within a couple of minutes, adds it to the dehydrated food, and voila, after letting it sit for a bit, we have ourselves a meal.

So far, so good. Let’s hope my foot and Chris’s back and knee hold up for the duration of this journey. Me starting out with a severe plantar fasciitis and Chris with a suspected torn meniscus along with a history of major spinal surgeries causes a bit of trepidation regarding our capabilities to embark on this 40 mile climb, I mean hike. Besides my foot, some of my greatest worries as we do this journey include: becoming paralyzed with fear due to exposure and height; fear of stream crossings; fear of altitude sickness. Chris also worries of whether or not I can do this hike. Hmmm. Once we’re out there in the backcountry, we’ve got to do it. I can so easily talk myself out of doing this hike. Sweet dreams.

Star Counting in Palo Duro

I lay on my back with my head resting on the tailgate of Ruby, our 2000 Mazda truck and I’m mesmerized by the darkening sky. I count the stars as they pop out one by one until there are too many and I am too sleepy. I sleep fitfully in the back of our truck and wake a few times throughout the star filled night to take in the views of this gorgeous red rock canyon, and surprisingly, I wake up refreshed.

Sleeping in the back of our pick up truck while camping in Palo Duro Canyon State Park in Texas turns out to be the perfect way to do some awesome star gazing. Texas has some big sky, along with everything else. While camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Chris and I met a couple on a journey with a new found commitment to live life to the fullest after he was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. His attitude was we all have to live with the hand we’re dealt. He told us about  Palo Duro and said it was worth the trip.

On our way to Palo Duro we drive through what appears to be lots of nothing, we debate back and forth of whether we want to take the 40 minute detour to see Palo Duro. Let me tell you, we had our doubts. The land is flat and barren without a tree in site, and lots of cows with no where to escape the brutal sun. I feel really sorry for the cows and notice my face scrunching up in a look of pity. Don’t get the wrong impression, I’m not against eating meat, but I’m a firm believer that we need to treat all life as humanely as possible. So if we’re going to eat cows, let’s at least give them a good life before we slaughter them, and when we do kill them, let’s do it as humanely as possible. It’s not always the quantity of life that matters, but the quality. But I digress. Actually, these Texas cows probably had it better than other cows living in cramped quarters, and then slaughtered for fuel.They at least had plenty of room to roam and they probably did not care one bit about the sun.

So driving through this vast barren land in the north western panhandle of Texas, we are delighted to “discover” the beautiful red rock canyon known as Palo Duro. We enjoy lots of awesome hikes and camp here for 3 nights, and pretty much have the campground to ourselves. Sunny warm days and cold clear nights. Because the wind is so fierce, fires are prohibited, and we decide to sleep in the back of our truck rather than pitch a tent. Using the tailgate as our head rest, I find no greater way to fall asleep than to be warm and snug in my sleeping bag, having cool night air caress my face, gazing at the night sky as it fills with stars, and listening to the quiet of the canyon. Now this is how to say goodnight.

Smoky Mountain River Music

I go to the river’s edge to meditate….ahhh, anticipation. I sit. I take a few cleansing breaths. I listen. I hear some idiot playing his base. How dare he disturb the tranquility of this place, of my space. Can’t ever get away from inconsiderate fools. My annoyance is palpable. I automatically turn to face the culprit. I see no one. How do you even get a boom box to this neck of the woods? I turn back to the river. I start again. I restate my intent to sit in quiet contemplation and just notice what ever comes up. I notice the tension in my face. My squinted eyes and my lips pressed together. I notice my judgmental thoughts of the culprit and I find myself judging myself for being so judgmental. I notice my assumption that it’s a he. I gently scold myself. I notice a small shake of my head. I sit up straighter. I reach the crown of my head to the sky above and notice the ground under my behind. I adopt a posture of acceptance of what is. I close my eyes. Relax my face. Practice half smile. I turn my palms up as they rest on my knees. I breathe. I open my heart and listen. Just listen. And I hear the steady beat of the base. It reaches deep within me. I realize it’s the river itself playing her music. I laugh out loud. I laugh at myself. At my foolishness. I feel sheepish and delighted at the same time. I bring my attention to the river music. I notice her rhythm and beat. I notice her melody and harmony. I notice her high and low notes singing in concert. I notice joy well up in my heart. I feel expansive. I feel enormously grateful.

“For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” Isaiah 55:12

 

Heading into the Fog

With each step, our next step is revealed. We have no idea where this path will lead us, or what we’ll see when we reach the top. We know we’re climbing. We feel the heaviness in our legs and the need to breathe deeper and faster. We feel the acceleration of our hearts. Shrouded in fog, we feel the cool mist on our faces and we gulp in the moist air as our bodies warm from the exertion. The going it tough. The trail is uneven and has many twists and turns. We scramble over boulders and watch our footing on slick wet rocks covered with moss. We stay close so as to not lose each other. Step by step, we mindfully hike Kaylor Knob trail in McGaheysville, VA. our first day hike and we’re socked in.

We’ve left the comforts of our home and after driving only 6 hours, we make it to Masanutten resort  and we’re already tired. We groan as we carry our ‘stuff’ up the flight of stairs to our 2 bedroom suite that will be ours for the next week. I feel we still have too much stuff.  We got this place cheap because it’s off season. We’re not here for the resort amenities, wer’e here to do lots of hikes and for some much needed rest and relaxation after a whirlwind of frenzied activity getting ready for our gap year year. I look forward to showing Chris  Shenandoah National Park, he’s never been here. Chris was at first a bit resistant to staying in such a nice place, as he loves the challenge of roughing it. I do too, but not quite as much as Chris, so we have to find the balance.

I concur with Chris that living a tad out of our comfort zone is in some way good for us. Things like; no air conditioning in the heat of summer, thermostats set low in the bitter cold of winter, basic cable, walking instead of driving…that kind of thing. I’m not sure why we do this. Do we think it makes us tougher, better somehow? Or maybe it’s just because we’re cheap and don’t want to pay the extra it cost for heating and cooling. So far it has worked for us, though we’ve often faced the derision of others, or at least we think others are judging us…at least I do. Hmmm, why do I care so much what others think? We’re not masochists by any means. We buy the best we can afford of any product we purchase, whether it be a good mattress, a tent, a sleeping bag, or an appliance, and good shoes are a must. We eat well. We enjoy good sound quality and love a good movie. We enjoy being warm and snuggling into our blankets as we cuddle on the couch on a cold winter evening and watch an episode or 3 of Breaking Bad. We love going out to a nice dinner, and especially enjoy restaurants that are BYOB, and enjoy a shared bottle of wine. Our tastes are simple, and yes, rather inexpensive. We’re not wealthy. We both worked as nurses in unique roles working with individuals and families that had behavioral health issues and homelessness. Not a very high paying profession, though very meaningful work. We learned much from the individuals we served over the years, and from the systems we worked in. I cannot tell you how many times I was intrigued by the resiliency of the folks we served, many of them finding contentment with their meager living situation. Chris and I will be living very much like many of those we served over the years. We plan to live mostly out of our truck, sleep in tents, and camp along the way, eventually making it to our one room cabin in the ‘Back of Beyond’. But, here’s the big difference…. we’re doing this because we want to, not because we have to. It’s our choice. At anytime we can return to the comforts of our home. When you have no choice but to live outdoors or in shelters, it’s a very different animal.

And I think that this is what this blog is about  ….our journey of increased awareness of the things that bind us, and living the life we choose to live and not being tossed to and fro by all the ways we feel we should be or wish we would be. We’re already learning how freeing it is to live simply and frugally. My hope is that as we practice living mindfully, we learn healthy detachment from that which holds us back so that our love for self and others flourishes because it is our choice and not because we’re trying to get rid of some demon or appease another person. Material stuff and financial debt are kind of easy to see and let go of. This other deeper psychological stuff is harder and scarier to see. This is for me what it means to grow. Some of the things we’ve already learned is how easy it is to be bound by stuff. Sometimes our bondage to stuff forces us into working long hours in jobs that bind us even further and prevent us from other meaningful pursuits.

My bondage to stuff got me into great debt. I don’t want to go there again. Whew! Had no cash flow at all. I’m happy to say I’ve been debt free for 5 years. FREE! Chris and I both worked hard to get out of debt and it’s not easy, though we were only able to do this after we no longer had dependent children. It’s been the most freeing thing in my life. It is what enabled me to save enough money for this journey. It is why I could take the risk to quit my job. I have no debt. I had good cash flow while working and I socked a good portion of each paycheck into my savings so I’d have enough to live on for at least a year. This is doable when there’s no debt and no children to support. I am so well aware that taking care of children is more expensive than what many people earn. It is where so much of my debt came from, providing for my kids cost more than I earned. How much of this was in my head (keeping up with the Jones’s mentality or not being able to say no) or was based on reality because raising kids is expensive, I cannot say. I do know that I never felt my stuff was good enough causing me to have a sense of shame. Talk about baggage. Buying stuff to make me feel better about myself was a downward cycle. My  belief that I needed nicer stuff to be acceptable needed to be challenged and it’s only in practicing mindfulness, that I became aware I even had this kind of belief system. This is not always easy. I often want to spend money I don’t really have on a new kitchen, or a new couch, when what I have is perfectly ok. I still worry about the judgement and derision of others, but with mindful awareness, I’m not as prone to let these belief systems and painful feelings dictate my behavior. I’m not suggesting that having nice things or new stuff is bad. What matters is an awareness of what motivates and drives our behavior and then making a conscious choice to do what is wise for us in this moment.

I’ve found by stopping and taking a moment to reflect on what is motivating me to make a purchase, to count the cost both literally and figuratively, has helped me to make more conscientious purchases and to stay debt free. Simple but not easy, and I don’t always get it right. I still buy way too much on impulse when that money could have been better spent, or saved, or given to charity. Simple but not easy.

I’m reminded of a bible scripture ‘we shall know the truth and the truth shall set us free’. Facing the truth of who we are is scary stuff. It’s unknown territory. Our emotions and our behaviors serve us well if we simply stop and reflect to ask ourselves what they are teaching us. Yes, taking a journey into the unknown is scary. It’s scary to give up financial security of a well paying job and not having any idea if I can get another job. It’s scary going on the road and not having everything mapped out about where we will stay or how we will live. We barely put any time or thought into our itinerary as we were so overwhelmed with getting rid of and organizing our stuff. We’d like to be at our place in the ‘Back of Beyond’ by the end of April so Chris can help his brother with the water project for the town. As we walk into the fog, it is a walk of faith. I can only see the step in front of me, I take it, trusting that my next step will be illuminated. Step by step, moment by moment. Until next time-enjoy the NOW. – Diane

What About Our Stuff

Chris and I give ourselves two weeks to get our house organized and prepared to be vacated for about 4 months prior to our tenants moving in. What were we thinking! As previously mentioned in  Quittin’ Day  I allowed my job to leave me little time for anything else in my life, and what little time is left is devoted to my ailing mother and my precious grandsons. Chris gets some meager leftovers. Not a great way to start a marriage. My mother’s story will be featured in another post, but let me tell you, it’s what lifetime movies are made of. I’m convinced that the stress of my mother’s situation further escalates my keen awareness of the need for better work/life balance and I feel a sense of shame for not managing this better.

But I digress. Chris and I have several discussions about what to do with our house as we travel and finally land on renting it out as a furnished house. As luck would have it, we find the perfect tenants, my daughter and her husband. They make the decision to relocate to Pittsburgh. Their only condition is that they want us to clear out our stuff. Yikes!

We have 2 weeks from  Quittin’ Day to when we hit the road for our first leg of the journey. We booked a place in Massanutten resort near  Shenandoah National Park. We figure we’d need some cushy relaxation after our whirlwind of getting the hell out of dodge. So, what do we do with all of our stuff that’s packed into our 1200 sq foot house. I’ve already learned that it’s much easier accumulating stuff, than getting rid of it. After my divorce several years ago I had to sell my house and downsize. I had garage sales, I donated stuff, and still I had too much stuff. Getting rid of the ‘poisons’ in my house was the most difficult. You know, things like bug sprays, and weed killers, and paint. TVs were a big nuisance too, as well as old computers and printers. I’ve since changed my buying practices and no longer buy harmful and difficult to dispose of products in large quantities, buying only what I need for the project at hand. So, prior to me moving into Chris’s house I had significantly rid myself of stuff, but Chris had not. He’s been in this house for a quarter of a century, and has lots of stuff, and is rather attached to it. And it’s not all his. Some belongs to his daughter, and some to his ex-wife. Oh my. Our wonderful old Pittsburgh house has few closets that are small, made for back in the day when folks did not have so much stuff. What will we do with the stuff packed in our closets and cupboards? We have 2 weeks! Nothing like a deadline to get movin’ and we do.

We designate certain areas of the house to store stuff we want to keep: A small bedroom, a large cabinet in the dining room and most of the basement, and our single car garage. We manage to completely empty out all of our closets, cabinets, dressers, and cupboards. Our tenants will now be able to enjoy our furnished house and all of its amenities, including the infamous Pittsburgh toilet in the basement with built in privacy because it’s surrounded with stuff.

The rest of our stuff gets sorted into things we’re taking with us, things we sell on Craig’s list, recyclables, donations, and garbage. Chris really gets into it. We’re amazed at how much stuff we’re able to get rid of. It’s freeing to let go. Sometimes detaching from stuff is hard, but we learn later the grief of losing stuff is nothing compared to the joy of the freedom it brings. Probably the hardest thing is the concern of throwing away things of value. But we quickly realize that a thing has no monetary value unless someone wants to buy it, otherwise, it’s just taking up valuable space. This purging of our stuff feels magnificent and is highly recommended.

Just a few more things we feel we have to do before we hit the road. We partially prep our cars for long term storage. We top off our tank and insert stabilizer. We place my 2004 Subaru Outback into the single detached garage, and pack in the canoe and kayaks (not going on the trip with us). We purchase a cover for Chris’s 2004 Toyota Matrix, a standard shift, and park it in front of garage. We clean the yard. I realize I’ll miss the bloom of the daffodils that I planted in the fall. We don’t get any kind of lawn service…thank goodness for good neighbors. We forward our mail to our PO Box in California, where we have a tiny house in a tiny town out in the middle of nowhere, that we affectionately call the ‘Back of Beyond’.  Since I no longer have employer sponsored health insurance, I purchase obama care insurance. We give our neighbor and kids a key to our house, along with our contact information. We clean, clean, and clean again. The house never looked so good. Very little time for repairs, but most of the clutter is gone, and the house is as ready as it can get for our tenants to move in July. But the biggest take away for me is the excitement I feel at learning to live more simply and with more moment to moment awareness. It reminds me of the quote by Mahatma Ghandi to “live simply so others may simply live”.

We are so excited to finally feel ready to hit the road. ‘Til next time – Diane

Quittin’ Day

Today is quittin’ day, 2nd month of this leap year. My last day of work. On my drive home I notice a sort of release in my entire being, a letting go.No real thoughts attached, just a sense of relief. Chains being broken. Energy being restored. By the time I get home, I feel elated, excited, expansive, energized. It’s contagious, and Chris begins to catch what I have. We find ourselves giggling, talking fast, creative juices flowing, ideas pouring out of what things we want to do and learn. Wow! It’s not that I didn’t love my job, it’s that my job left no room in my being for anything else. My job clearly bound me, and I struggled every day with how to let it go. Let it go! Simple but not easy.

There’s much written about work/life balance. But work is life, a big part of life, and life is full of work, whether paid or unpaid. Work is not the enemy, but sometimes a job can be. Sometimes, a job can be so demanding, it interferes with our other important work such as the work of caring for our children, the work of tending to our families, the work of nurturing our friendships, the work of nourishing our souls. It’s all work. Work is a beautiful thing. So I think when we talk about work/life balance, what we’re really saying is job/life balance. A 40 hour per week job is about a quarter of our life, but depending on the job, it may be much, much more. For some, this is okay. Their job is their life and their sole focus. For many others, they have other important work to tend to. How much time do we spend beyond the 40 hours we get paid for: ruminating about “job related” stuff, reading emails, travel time to and from the job, and the list goes on and on. As I’ve been practicing being mindful of my thoughts, I have noticed they are almost totally consumed with job related things from the first thing in the morning until I go to bed at night. See here for article about thoughts  by Wes Nisker that I read while doing my MBSR course. My colleagues frequently talked about waking up at the 3 A.M. bewitching hour, obsessed with worry thoughts about their job. Sometimes a job can consume us so much, we have nothing left for our other important work.

So, it seems that part of this job/life balance is practicing mindfulness and being aware of each precious moment, and stop wasting so many precious moments lost in thought or conversation beyond the 40 hours we are paid for, and instead use those moments to be fully engaged in our other imporant work. Again, sounds so simple, but not easy. Sometimes a job, even one that we love and gives us meaningful work, may run so much interference with the rest of our life’s work, that the only way we can really let go, is by simply leaving, by actually giving ourselves the physical space we need to reduce the chatter and run away thought train. This is the choice I’ve made, but I’ve been fortunate enough to minimize my financial risk by saving and planning for this next chapter in my life, I just may have departed sooner than previously planned. My letting go actually involved ending my job. I believe we are created to work. It brings us much fulfillment and meaning in our lives. Me writing this blog is work (though unpaid) and I love doing it. As I write this, Chris is doing research on purchasing a Come-A-Long to help his building project. He is “working”. As Chris and I start this next leg of our journey, I will be curious to see how our work evolves now that I am not confined to a job…but then, there’s always the issue of money.

Until next time ~ Diane