Friday, July 22, 2016

JMT Tuolumne to Reds: Day 1

Tuolumne Meadows into Lyell Canyon
Miles: 7.0
Elevation Gain: 240 feet
Deer: 7, including 2 bucks
Bears: 0
Bad Decisions About Hitchhiking: 1

I woke up in Tuolumne's backpacker's campground to my alarm at 8am on July 17, on a mission to reach the Lodge by 9am so I could have breakfast. Real breakfast. With fruit and coffee. Not oatmeal. I bring oatmeal as my breakfast when I backpack but I hate it. I bring it because I can't come up with a better idea. (The Grill also serves breakfast, but I wanted the nice little fruit cup at the Lodge before going out on the trail and eating no fresh fruit for weeks.)

I got dressed, left my gear and my tent, and hurried to the shuttle. I reached Tioga Rd to watch a shuttle leaving and I chased it for a moment, as if that would somehow make it stop. A man nearby who was washing a white car called to me, "You want a ride? I can take you."

Great. It was just a mile walk to the Lodge, but I walk slowly, and I wanted food. I thanked him and walked to the passenger side of his car.

As I opened the door, music blasted out, with a man singing about Jesus. Great.

"Johnny Cash," the man explained, as he turned it down. Phew.

Then he began moving items off the passenger seat of his car, exposing a handgun. Shit. "Sorry," he apologized, as he moved it. Well, it was just a mile to the Lodge. I guess if he had really wanted to shoot me that wouldn't have mattered, since he could have driven right past the Lodge to wherever, and in retrospect it was dumb to get in the car, but I did.

As it turned out, he just wanted to talk about his sad life. He had married, and divorced. He was lonely. But he was glad to be in Yosemite. He came there for two weeks every summer. He loved it. The best two weeks of every year. He'd probably hiked 5000 miles in the park, he said. I just let him talk, and thanked him for the ride when he let me out at the Lodge.

Breakfast was OK. In the context of the food I'd be eating for the next 2 weeks, it was spectacular. But the coffee was lousy, and the syrup they served with their pancakes was fake. I got the pancakes anyway, but put butter and brown sugar on them instead of the fake syrup, plus the fruit cup I'd been craving. For the record, pancakes with butter and brown sugar tastes good.

I had until about 1:15pm to get ready to start the trail. That was when my friends were arriving. I met them on the trail last year, and we had to skip this portion of the trail because of weather. I hadn't seen them since, and was looking forward to hiking with them again.

My friends were coming in on a YARTS bus, assuming they didn't miss the bus, and the bus arrived around 1:15pm to the store. Then they had to catch a shuttle to the Lodge, although I hoped they'd either walk or hitchhike if the shuttle did not come quickly, and I feared they would do neither. They aren't the sort of people who hitchhike, and they wouldn't know yet that the shuttle drivers had basically tossed out the schedule they were supposed to be following. Since I had no cell reception, I couldn't tell them that either.

I decided to walk back to camp on the JMT, to do that section of the trail in the daytime and enjoy it. I had my camera with me - I'd left hundreds of dollars of gear unguarded in the backpacker's camp, but I never left my camera anywhere. I couldn't imagine anyone wanting my smelly gear, but I could imagine someone wanting my camera.

Along the trail, I saw Belding's ground squirrels scurrying around, tons of blue dragonflies, purple asters, white daisies, a purple penstemon that I first saw in the meadows of Yosemite's high country but can't remember the name of, and even some larkspur. This section of trail also offers great views of Unicorn Peak, Cathedral Peak, and Lembert Dome.


Belding's Ground Squirrel
Belding's Ground Squirrel

PCT Sign
This section of JMT is also part of the PCT






As I walked into the campground, I saw a hiker leaving and I asked if he was on the PCT. He stopped cold and said, "Do I know you?"

I looked at him. A petite man with a Go-Lite pack... Oh shit. I almost said "San Bernardino Peak" but I probed my memory further. First his last name came to me. Then his first. "Adam?" I said. Then I reminded him where we met. He recalled my name too.

I asked about his PCT hike, which I'm sure was going well - first because I was running into him at mile 942, and second because he is perhaps the most incredible backpacker I have ever met in person. He told me he'd done a 38 mile day recently. I don't doubt it.

I didn't bring up what was really on my mind. That I met him on a backpacking trip through a Meetup group in which several people were very unfriendly to me for an entire weekend, and then I was kicked out of the group because some of the people did not like my "strong personality." Some of the people in the group had liked me just fine. One even asked me out afterwards. Out of the entire group, there were only two people I did not like. One guy because he talked nonstop about subjects that bored me, and a woman who clearly disliked me from the moment I introduced myself without giving me a chance.

I liked Adam. I liked him a lot. But the experience was painful, and I wasn't sure if he was one of the people who had complained about me, and who had kicked me out of the group.

The irony is that last year, on my first day of hiking the JMT, as I hiked up the Mist Trail, I ran into three other people from this group coming down the trail. They all pretended to be friendly. It was the leader of the group who had kicked me out, the woman who disliked me from the start, and another guy who I thought seemed cool but who never wanted to talk to me, so perhaps he disliked me too. It was like getting punched in the gut, trying to walk up this trail feeling happy and confident that I'd make friends, and running into those three. And now, on day one of this year's trip, I ran into a fourth.

Adam went on his way, and I went to my tent and packed. Then I went to the store and waited for the shuttle. The only available seat was next to Adam and a girl he was sitting with, who he introduced by her trail name, Sunshine. We chatted a bit about the trail, and then the shuttle came. It was free last year, and now it costs money. The mile ride to the Lodge cost a buck. I handed it over.

Once at the Lodge, I had two hours to wait. I waited inside at first, and then went outside to sit at the shuttle stop. A shuttle came and went, but my friends couldn't have been on that one. It would have left the store minutes before they arrived. I would have to wait another half an hour. I continued to sit on a rock and watch a Stellar's Jay hop around near the dumpster looking for food.

Half an hour later, another shuttle came and went. My friends did not get off. They weren't coming. I wouldn't be able to find out what happened until later. It was nearly 2pm, and I wanted to go 9.6 miles on the trail if I could. Odds were that I already couldn't. It was too late. Either way, it was time to go.

I walked back to the front desk and left a note for my friends that I had waited and then started up the trail. They hiked faster than me. If they showed up late, they would catch up to me. I hoped they would. I considered hitting the trail and then decided to make one last trip to the last flush toilet I would see for days.

As I sat down on the toilet, a wave of dread came over me. "I don't want to do this hike," I thought. I don't want to carry my pack. I don't want to go over Donohue Pass, or Muir Pass, or Mather Pass, or any of the other passes. I did want to stop at VVR and drink their beer and eat their food and sit around their campfire, but I didn't want to do what I had to do to get there.

But, I was here in Yosemite, with an itinerary, a full pack, and enough dehydrated food to get to Red's Meadow, with resupplies already paid for and ready for me along the way. I had to do it whether I wanted to or not. Maybe if I just started walking, this feeling would go away, and I'd enjoy it at some point.

I washed my hands, dried them on my shirt, and walked back to the front desk, where I'd left my pack. I thought I saw irises, and began to ask an employee if the purple flowers 30 yards away were irises. I never heard his reply though, because my friends practically pounced on me with a hug. They arrived! We were going together! At least for the first few days we were going together. They were going to Agnew Meadows via Shadow Lake, and I planned to take the JMT to Reds. We would have three days together before they split from me and then left the trail altogether while I continued.

We hadn't seen each other for a year, and everyone talked at once. "Guess what! We hitchhiked here!" told me. "You're KIDDING!" I said. "I thought there was no chance you'd do that." It kind of felt like the moment at the end of The Sound of Music where the nuns reveal that they removed parts of the Nazis cars to let the Von Trapps get away. I was thrilled that they did it - but shocked because it was so out of their character.

The YARTS bus they took was late because of a long line at the park entrance, and they missed the shuttle by seconds. So the hustled a ride from some tourists with a car. When they reached the Lodge they didn't see me. They saw my stuff, but I had a new pack so they didn't recognize it. Then they saw my camera, and they knew I was there.

Joyfully, we set off in Lyell Canyon. The last time we'd done this hike it was in the pouring rain and it was miserable. Now it was sunny and perfect. I didn't stop to take pictures, because we were in a hurry to get where we were going, given our late start. We saw 7 deer, including a few bucks with antlers. We also ran into a ranger who checked our permits and bear cans. She didn't seem very convinced that we knew what we were doing and we were following all regulations, despite our assurances that we'd done the trail before and knew the ropes. While we stood there with her, pulling out permits and bear cans, the mosquitoes began biting me.

The bugs weren't awful - yet - but they were certainly present. If we stood still in the shade, I'd get eaten. As long as we kept going or stayed in the sun, I was OK. My friends seem less delicious than I am, so they had less trouble. They might have put on repellent too. I didn't, yet, even though I brought it. I brought Picaridin instead of DEET because DEET ruins gear. I really, really, really did not want to spray myself though, and get Picaridin all over my gear and into the pristine environment of the High Sierras. I also brought a full mosquito net suit to keep the bugs off and I hoped to rely on that alone. For now, though, I could just keep moving, smack the bugs that landed on me, and take my breaks in the sun.

We passed the rock slide four miles from Tuolumne that marks the start of where you are allowed to camp. Then we passed the junction to Vogelsang. The trail was mostly flat but at least two of us were pretty tired already. Maybe 9.6 miles of hiking all the way to Lyell Forks Bridge wasn't going to happen. We started looking for a good campsite and decided to stop when we found something good.

We found a great spot almost immediately, maybe half a mile past the Vogelsang junction. We'd hiked about 5.9 miles from the Lodge (7.0 from Backpackers Camp) to an elevation of 8910 feet, with only 240 feet of elevation gain from the Lodge. The location was just east of the trail toward the river, in a shaded area under pines, with easy access to water and a fire ring. If you are using Elizabeth Wenk's book, she calls this campsite CAMP_02.05.

"Think a fire would help with the bugs?" I asked. The mosquitoes were already all over me. My friends thought that it would. They set to work pitching their tents, and I got straight to work on a campfire. Once it seemed like it was going, I started pitching my own tent. Then the fire went out. I got it re-established, then went back to pitching my tent. Before long, we all had our tents pitched, our gear inside, our mosquito net suits on, and a roaring campfire.

I chose to eat black bean and corn chowder for dinner that night. I'd save my "treat" meal, wild mushroom risotto, for the next day, when we hiked over Donohue Pass. But the altitude or the hiking or the anxiety or all three had affected my appetite, and I could only eat about half of my food. Grateful for the fire, I burned the rest, preventing it from causing a problem with bears, and also saving myself the trouble of packing it out as trash.

Well after dark, which was a late bedtime for us while backpacking, we put out the fire and went to bed. Tomorrow would be a long, hard day.

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