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.

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.

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