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Traversing The Range Of Light: 24 Days On The John Muir Trail
Editor's note: For many, a great national park experience is to vanish into the backcountry for days on end. For Easterners, the Appalachain National Scenic Trail might serve that purpose. In the West, the 215-mile-long John Muir Trail is a favorite pick of many. Austin Pick and his wife traveled that glorious footpath from Yosemite south to Sequoia during the summer of 2012, and returned home with the following story, and more than a few great memories.
High among the pinnacles of Mt. Whitney’s sheer western face, we hiked upward with measured breath and watched from our shifting, precarious vantage as the sun’s first light peeled back the long gown of night, revealing the contours of so many miles we’d recently walked, cragged mountain faces and clear sky aglow in lakes like mirrors, far below.
Already it was hard to believe that we were just down there, with the angle and edge of those rocky shores so close underfoot, rising in the dark at Guitar Lake to break camp with breakfast bars in our mouths as the shuffling step and cycloptic headlamp light of other hikers passed by silently along the trail. If our endurance held, this was to be our last day in the wilderness, yet after some two-hundred miles, our thoughts that morning inclined more to the formidable climb still ahead than to the promise of civilization and its comforts awaiting us on the other side.
The summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States, marks the official end of the John Muir Trail, presenting one last challenge in a journey that had begun for us more than three weeks previously in the now-distant Yosemite Valley. With the expansive vista of past miles cast in bright relief below, we dropped our packs at the Mt. Whitney Trail junction, already at a dizzying 13,450 feet, and began the final ascent, walking with a lightness that reflected the surety of each step when taken one after the other, something we’d grown to appreciate more and more with every passing day.
It's become one of my goals to visit all 59 of our national parks within my lifetime, to experience, in at least some small measure, what have rightfully been recognized as some of the most remarkable landscapes on the planet. For someone like me, then, the John Muir Trail is a sort of Holy Grail, offering an unbroken backcountry route through not one but three of our most revered Parks.
Connected by the Ansel Adams and John Muir wilderness areas, Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks together preserve an enormous swath of roadless wilderness in California’s Sierra Nevada. Like other protected areas, these three parks offer a variety of ways to experience the natural world, accommodating many diverse pursuits. With several million visitors each year, however, the Yosemite Valley—like other park entrances across the country—is still essentially a populated place, where riding the crowded shuttle buses can resemble an inner-city commute.
After exploring the valley for a few days, embarking on the trail readily affirmed for us that the essential character of our national parks is more often to be found in the backcountry, where an encounter with the cathedral of the wild is direct and unmediated.
Backpacker Magazine has called the JMT “America’s most beautiful trail,” and while such a claim may be debated, there’s no doubting the majestic scale and grandeur of the Sierra Nevada, which the naturalist John Muir eloquently referred to as “the range of light.”
Settling for the evening along the banks of Evolution Creek or Lower Palisade Lake, we were witness to ephemeral alpenglow displays of a blushing depth and subtly that photographs can only approximate. Such views were hard won, amplifying our appreciation and almost constant sense of gratitude.
Through-hiking the John Muir Trail is a logically challenging proposition, requiring detailed advance planning. My wife Shauna—my courageous, enduring wife—and I spent six months plotting our itinerary and preparing the resupply packages that sustained us on the trail. Each resupply, packed in five-gallon paint buckets and mailed ahead to the backcountry ranches that offer pick-up service for hikers, had to be meticulously stocked with provisions for our estimated days between these far-flung locations.
To further complicate matters, we had to ensure in advance that each section’s rations would fit—often with a great deal of finesse—into our cumbersome bear canisters.
The most remote stretch of the JMT, from Muir Trail Ranch to Onion Valley, requires rations for at least 80 miles of tough hiking, so every calorie counts.
As it happened, just two weeks before the start of our hike, my fully loaded pack was stolen from the back of our car during the cross-country drive to California.
Fortunately our resupply packages and permits weren’t taken as well, but with a dauntingly narrow window to replace all that carefully-assembled gear, it was only with the help of our amenable insurance provider and the generosity of Shauna’s co-workers in Chicago that we were able to complete our preparations and, finally, to start walking.
This theme of struggle, of patient and persistent effort, underscored the metaphoric quality of our weeks along the trail.
In accord with the precipitous landscape of the Sierra Nevada, the JMT repeatedly plunges into deep canyons and scales over high passes (seven of them over 11,000 feet), making for some of the hardest hiking I’ve ever done.
Traversing this difficult terrain under the weight of my pack, surrounded by expanses of ineffably vast wilderness, I felt at times incapable of continuing and at others wholly mythic, as if I were fluidly and indomitably enacting an ancient, essential rite, literalizing life’s journey in every footfall, every crested ridge and deftly crossed river.
There is a notion, perhaps almost universal, that life’s true riches must be earned, that fulfillment and actualization must be achieved through exertion and perseverance. This felt nowhere more true than out on the trail, when an arduous hours-long ascent up a sheer incline of bare talus would deliver us to a vista that instantly induced unreserved awe, the panorama of calmly abiding mountains stretching to the horizon in every visible direction.
Cresting the saddle atop grueling Mather Pass, for instance, we were welcomed by a breaktaking sweep south across the moonscape of the Upper Basin all the way to Pinchot Pass, the cold, thin air and seemingly endless splendor swiftly reviving us after the difficult climb.
As a hiker there is sometimes nothing more beautiful than the lone windblown tree or burst of high alpine flowers thriving in those desolate, exposed reaches where we humans dare to visit, but not to linger for long. Even there we discover a surprising vitality that opens us beyond our ordinary confines, revealing something of life’s full measure.
Despite this sense of rewarding struggle, our time in the wilderness was not without at least occasional annoyance and consternation. We were showered with snow and hail, deprived of fresh foods, and often hampered by persistent blisters; we smelled funny.
Nor was our walk merely one of contemplative solitude—the JMT is a popular hike, and we were rarely without the company of several trail friends whom we would meet and re-meet along the trail, frequently sharing lunch breaks and even campsites.
Among the Sierra’s high mountains, one continually passes through hidden, paradisiacal places that seem lost to time. Coming upon fellow hikers admiring the limpid jewels of the Rae Lakes, or standing awe-struck atop the austere Bighorn Plateau, often felt like discovering secrets with fellow initiates in a mystery tradition, assured of mutual understanding through our shared smiles.
Even so, our life in the wild was often defined by profound quiet and meditative grace, as the cadence of movement and thought came to resemble the continually shifting patterns revealed around us, the drift of scrolling cloudwork or tumble of rockfall, the slow dance of sunlight along canyon walls.
As the days settled into a regular rhythm, the simplicity of our routine granted us a renewed spaciousness for appreciating the present.
For nearly a month we only ever moved as fast as our feet could carry us, and the expectations of our normally fast-paced and information-saturated lives gradually fell away. We walked for hours at a time in silence, absorbed in the elemental reality of the landscape, steeped more and more completely in the unfolding symphony of the natural world. We drank from glacial rivers and bathed in frigid alpine lakes, while above us the moon progressed each night through a complete cycle, mirroring our own sense of growing fullness.
Our defenses slipped away like so much snowmelt. The boundaries blurred.
Our days along the trail were also periodically marked by exhaustion, hunger and the bawdy bathroom humor inevitable in the backcountry, where everything is, well, out in the open.
We made too many Game of Thrones references and fantasized, at great length, about cheeseburgers. Through it all the wilderness remained a masterful teacher, offering a continual revelation of impermanence, the reality of constant change, and the complex, sonorous grandeur of our living planet, so much wider than the mind and yet somehow also so simple, self-evident and abiding.
A journey through the wilderness challenges our fixed notions of things. Though neatly demarcated on our maps, it becomes evident that mountains have no exact beginning or end, but emerge from the complex contours of other forms. The trail itself is often nothing more than a thin strip where others have walked, and will inevitably shift to accommodate rockslides and fires, floods and fallen trees.
The tidy concepts and categories that we lay over the land seem increasingly inadequate in light of the ephemeral solidity we experience, and this gradual recognition actually changes the way we think, the way we see. I may call it the Buddha’s body while you call it God’s Country, but the ineffable totality of the wilderness nevertheless quite wonderfully eludes our conceptual grasp.
For me being out in the wild is ultimately an education in humility, rendering us at once insignificant and inextricably connected. Our role as astonished and delighted witnesses is acknowledged in many of the place names themselves, echoing the impressions of those who’ve come before us: Cathedral Peak, Evolution Basin, Sapphire Lake; The Hermit, The Citadel, The Black Giant.
In the backcountry it becomes clear that our national parks safeguard a sacred terrain, and our limitations are revealed to be ones of awareness and appreciation, rather than simply the endurance required to walk.
The funny thing about the John Muir Trail is that although it officially ‘ends’ atop Mt. Whitney, you still have to get down. It’s another ten miles of tough hiking from the summit to the car park at Whitney Portal, then an 11-mile drive to the nearest town, and for us a thousand more to our home in Colorado.
In this way it felt to Shauna and I like our journey never had an exact end, but merely changed character and continued to unfold, the ancient metaphor of the path made a little more clear by our insightful trials and triumphs along the trail.
Before the long descent, however, the morning sun shone full on our faces as we stood at last atop Mt. Whitney, shedding layers and basking in the simple miracle of our arrival there. We felt a surprising lightness after all those miles, and amidst the celebration and snapping of photos, we managed to find a few more quiet moments to marvel at the breathtaking expanse of an extraordinary landscape that John Muir once described as “so gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light but wholly composed of it.”
Together there, hand in hand atop that high peak, we stood suffused with the mountains’ clear light and found a few more moments to appreciate how fortunate we are to call this great continent home—how blessed we are to have access to preserved places that allow us to walk the breadth of this land, and to know more fully, in our bones and blood, what it means to be alive.