This continues our adventures along the John Muir Trail. For the previous two stories leading up to this, check out We Were the Last Two People on Earth and Smoke Above Tuolumne Meadows and I Think I Can Talk With Animals. Enjoy! Thanks for reading and sharing with a friend.
Thalia took watch near 2:00AM. The storm broke and the clouds cleared and I unzipped my rain fly and watched the stars unfurl as I listened to Thalia roam around the mountain ridge. I fell asleep and woke at dawn with only a few hours of rest. I felt hungover or sick. Any sore throat or ache in my body has me worried that I might come down with that flu. Thalia greeted my face with a cup of coffee and what I imagined was her version of a smile.
“After you slept and the snow stopped he stumbled his way down the ridge and found the trail. I followed him a ways, a mile or so, until he lost the path and moved east through a rocky basin. The trail has an inch or two of snow on it but the lower we dropped the slushier it got and I came back with muddy boots. Warm enough already that the snow should melt when we reach the foot of Island pass.”
“He” was the guy we’d seen last night take a knife in his belly and then get up a few hours later. I didn’t know what to make of this. When I took watch I could hear his feet crunch across the snow drift and though I couldn’t see him I could hear that he was directionless. I didn’t want him to come up our way. That wasn’t something I wasn’t ready to deal with yet.
Thalia didn’t say much during the hike. I never asked her about her odd comment about speaking with animals. She spent half her time nibbling granola bars and scouring the maps she had found from the trio’s camp. During a break I’d catch her feeding the ground squirrels crumbs and whispering to them as though they were babies. I thought of my dad and how it had been a week since I had seen him. I thought of my friends back home and how it’d been a week since I had heard from any of them.
When we climbed over a small pass I could spot the big hump back of Mammoth Mountain in the far distance and the spiny Minarets near off to the right of the trail. Thalia said she could get cell service when she was within view of Mammoth but since yesterday she hadn’t been able to. My last time here was years ago with my family and my ex, long before I had a fancy cell phone or even the recognition that I could use one in the mountains. I hadn’t dated anyone since and hadn’t traveled with my family or connected to anyone or much of anything at all. This trip was the first time I had put myself out there in a long while.
Nothing came up on my cell phone and I returned to airplane mode. The charge has held up a week now, though I’ve only used it to snap pictures and record audio when I’ve had a chance. My portable battery has enough juice to charge the phone three more times (in theory); my solar charger (again, in theory) should charge the battery or my phone under a full day of sunlight, which we haven’t had yet. Given the circumstances, with limited use I should have a charged phone for three more weeks – about as long I planned to be up here. If the solar charger works as directed, I should have energy indefinitely. (Hopefully it won’t come to that.)
Thalia isn’t prepared for a simple hike, but a life out here. She’s got a portable radio that can generate power from disposable batteries, or a single rechargeable battery. The radio has a handcrank and a solar panel to charge the battery. During each break she would take out the radio and see if she could find a station but we only heard static and the occasional mumbled voices, though nothing discernible. Along with the Tom Harris maps of the Sierra, she has a full map of each state west of the Mississippi. She had a seven inch hunting knife that today she tied to end of her walking stick – a six foot wooden rod she picked up from a hardware store. She doesn’t use toilet paper but stones or soft pieces of wood. I carry my kindle which has about 100 books on it. She carries paperback copies of Moby Dick, Dracula, a field guide for the night sky, The Road, and a small copy of the King James bible. It’s possible her books weigh more than my entire pack.
The isolation hit me when we reached Thousand Island Lake. The static voices muttered to us through the radio and the big minarets felt like personified silent warriors just sort of waiting to wake up. We spotted a camp on the far end of the lake and I tried to wave to them but didn’t get a response. The lake is big enough that they might not have seen me, but it’s possible still that they didn’t want to be seen. The north side of the lake is designated for camping, but these people were on the south side, very near to where Thalia said she had first spotted the haggard guy we observed at Donahue Pass. If last night’s events hadn’t occurred, if my gut wasn’t concerned about every step of the trail, if I didn’t feel this odd sense of dread that I was now so close to civilization, I would have assumed these hikers were making a summit attempt up Banner Peak. Instead, I was happy they were so far away, and happier still that they left before sundown.
The clouds rolled in early in the afternoon and though I could have easily gone on I didn’t want to go much farther in a storm. I set up my tent and shared an early dinner with Thalia. She wanted to go on ahead to Red’s Meadow, though she probably won’t reach it till well after sundown. She laid out the maps she had found and followed a windy red line south into Kink’s Canyon.
“That’s not the John Muir Trail,” I said.
“There’s a high country route that follows the trail but stays up above treeline. There’s no trail, just a route you can navigate to follow your way southward. I heard about it and read up on it but didn’t see much sense in doing it just yet. But those guys last night…that seems to be the route they had set on following. Staying in the high country, off trail, where few would see them, until they get to this spot…”
She pointed to a spot on the map called “The Ionian Basin” and the “Enchanted Valley”. The red line stopped a point that looked unreachable. Mountain walls lined the valley and the map didn’t include any trails. In red ink someone had scrawled a large “X” and written the words: “The Heart of the Mountain.”
“I don’t know what’s going on. I’ll probably camp in the forest outside Red’s and give a look in and see if much is going on. I don’t like the look of the land these days. Everyone’s got a queer look on their face. The oddest chaps of all – those fellas we ran into last night – well I don’t like them one bit. And I don’t suspect they’re the only ones up here. I don’t know why just yet, but I’d recommend not going into Mammoth. You got enough supplies to last you a month. Go into Red’s, get your resupply, then head south. If you don’t run into me and want to find me, make for this spot.” She pointed to the “X”. “That’s where I’m headed.”
“What are you going to do there?”
“Something’s going on. This is the first clue. The Heart of the Mountain sounds like something.”
I snapped a photo of the map. She shook my hand and headed out. I climbed into my tent. The rain began. The thunder came soon after. Thalia tramped west off trail towards the mountains. A pair of squirrels followed at her heels. Lightning struck the summits of Banner and Clyde Minaret, as though the storm were trying to shock the dead monoliths back to life. It was the last thing I saw before I zipped up my rain fly for good. I don’t know if I’ll sleep tonight.
© 2016 Christopher Dart