John Muir Trail – Days 4-6: “Smoke Above Tuolumne Meadows”


December 21, 2015 • Camps and Hikes, imaginary worlds, John Muir Trail, Latest, Madness • Views: 1571


Made camp this morning at a lake beneath Cathedral Point, a mile off trail. I could have went on and reached Tuolumne Meadows before late afternoon, but I told myself that I would worry less about speed records and “pushing” myself, and instead try to enjoy the journey. When I get tired I feel like a horde of walking zombies. I set my tent on the far side of the lake beneath some trees and was preparing to wash myself and give my feet – and blister – some needed fresh air when a ranger appeared. I showed him my permit but he said I was ten feet too close to the lake. Ten feet farther out was granite and so I was forced to move camp to an isolated spot away from the trees where I was exposed to the wind and the sun. I was in a sour mood after that.

Ranger helped me move my tent. Asked me if I was feeling alright, if I had any flu symptoms or a fever. I told him I had a blister on my toe and I hadn’t pooped right for four days but that none of that was abnormal for the first leg of a trip. I pressed him about the fever questions but he said there was a bug going around and that if I felt ill it would be best to take a break at Tuolumne or postpone the trip altogether. He didn’t say anything further and I didn’t see him again all afternoon and evening.

Maybe it was good that Dad didn’t hug me.

I know I’m close to Tuolumne because the lake is filled with clean looking hikers and folks packed with camera gear and heavy picnic lunches. A couple sat near me smoking cigarettes as they ran their feet through the clear water. They kissed and touched bodies and I thought or hoped that they might do more but they never did. Each set of hikers looked like they were on an island. Nobody spoke. I met a couple with their kid, but they were backpacking from Tuolumne to Little Yosemite. I didn’t see Danny. Didn’t see the couple I had met either. All of them were already behind schedule and needed to press on. None of the day hikers said a word or gave me anything more than a nod when I said hello.

Yesterday I got into camp in the late afternoon. I spent twenty minutes searching for a spot, another twenty setting up camp. My journal entry took a half hour. Cooking, washing up, socializing with neighbors, that was 90 minutes at least. By the time I’d washed my teeth the sun had set and it was time for bed. Today was different. I made camp (a second time) and I washed my clothes in the lake water and hung them to dry over a strung out stretch of nylon and when I sat down I realized I had another nine hours before the sun set. My blister was still a firm bubble, my body in no urge to go off hiking or climbing. I had nothing to do and nobody to do nothing with.

The city is busy. Cars drive by, a coffee shop buzzes, there’s a constant hum of activity, and the illusion of companionship. The land here is quiet. A hiker passes. You might share a few words but when they leave they leave with their bubble which doesn’t include you.

Solitude in the wild though is the ultimate punishment. Worse than prison, worse than death. It’s banishment, or at least a replica of it. You become a straggler, a vagabond, a gypsy in need of a tribe. The world becomes primitive and you become prey, at mercy to the elements around you. The weather could take you, a bear could maul you in your sleep, this fever that’s going around could strike you out in a matter of days. There’s a vulnerability you’ll never feel otherwise.

Of course, I don’t think like this most days. Most days I’m too busy to be concerned. Only days like today when I’ve got nothing but water and trees to keep me company, and nothing to do but sit and wait. Maybe a lesson: always keep moving, lest the anxiety strike.

Possible leeches in the water. Be careful.


JMT-zombies-John Muir Trail-camping

Shelter made by the old men who got sick.


Got lost leaving Lower Cathedral Lake. Trail vanished amidst high grass and mud and I ended up stuck between shrubs and trees along the creek. Stumbled across a camp that looked more like a home. Ragged tent reinforced with duct tape, fire pit overturned with rocks, cooking gear left over from a hobo 50 years ago; I didn’t see any sign that someone was around. Headed towards Cathedral Point until I stumbled into the trail with only a few scratches on my legs.

Waited an hour for my resupply bucket from the post office at Tuolumne. A line wrapped around the building and out onto the street. Local rangers said there was a rock slide that knocked out all the power and phone lines. I heard from someone else that a truck crashed into one of the generators knocking everything out and killing the driver. That sounded a bit too dramatic to be believable.

Road out is closed. The restaurant in town shut down early because they’re concerned the food could be causing the illnesses. I wasn’t worried until now. Cars are parked on the side of the road, tents in the grass since the camp filled up. Nobody seems to mind or is doing anything about it. I’m camped at the big site. Found a spot since I got here early.

An older backpacker is sharing the site with me. I never got his name. He built his shelter out of a large green tarp that he tied off on each corner to form a brick under which he sleeps. We went over maps and trails and possible routes for getting into and out of Yosemite. I showed him my water purification. I have enough to last me another month under heavy consumption. He said he hasn’t used any water purification for twenty years and has never picked up giardia or anything like that. I’m in my tent now. He’s in his shelter. He’s been coughing and throwing up the last hour. Maybe his luck ran out.

Rangers came by during dinner to check in with campers. Everyone that works here seems concerned, though nobody is talking about “it”, whatever it is. Simply reiterated that a landslide knocked out the power and shut down the road and that everyone not backpacking will be stuck here at least a couple more days.

When I asked about the rumor that a truck had crashed he said that sounded like the type of rumor someone here would start. When I asked about the flu that everyone seemed to be picking up, he reiterated that the source was most likely some contaminated food from the restaurant and that the restaurant had been shut down. Also, that most illnesses in the wild come from improper hygiene and that he had noticed some ill practices among many of the PCT’ers who had come through. It seems unlikely to me that a small restaurant in the mountains that serves burgers and ice cream could be the culprit for so much illness. But then again, under-cooked chicken caused half of my friends to get sick way back during summer camp when I was a kid. I understand the flu spreading fast in offices or restaurants and grocery stores. Everyone is in close contact. But out here there’s so much space; nobody touches anything that isn’t there own. The one thing everyone shares – water – is purified with their filtration. It’s a bit odd. Until I know everything has passed over I’m going to be strict about washing my hands, not sharing food, not touching anything that isn’t mind and not allowing anything that is mind to be touched.

Despite this, everyone in camp not throwing up seems chipper.

The PCT’ers – the people hiking the Pacific Crest Trail – look like wandering gypsies. They’re more bearded than dirty. The dirt itself has a painted-on feel. They walk the grounds with confidence and a swagger. They’re the only ones who smoke. The only ones who drink wherever they choose. Their home country is Burning Man. They even have the hiker names: Dandelion, Sunshine, Screwtop. One couple, who doesn’t exactly fit in with them, answers the question, “What is your trail name?” with: “Oh, we’re just Adam and Ally.” The rest talk with an exaggerated surfer’s drawl. They don’t look approachable or nice, though surely they are. I’ve met people like this. Train hoppers, vagabonds. You can see it in their hands. You can see it in their eyes. To do that – to go away for three or six months – would require a bit of madness right? To say, “I don’t fit in this world” and go off and start your own.

Found Danny at a camp with some of the PCT’ers. (Three of them are wearing kilts!) Danny had a bunch of weed and was passing it around, another PCT’er had some homemade moonshine he’d picked up off a guy coming in.

“Super weird dude, bro,” this guy said. “Had a pack like anyone else has a pack, but he had this pouch on his belt that looked like it’d been made from animal skins. Homemade DIY leather. He had a knife on him all the time, like always out so you could see it. But he had the moonshine and I gave him a pack of smokes and it was a deal.”

“He say anything to you?”

“I didn’t ask nothing else.”

“You meet a girl on the trail?” I described Thalia to him but he only said, “Dude, I meet a lot of girls on the trail.”

Contrast the PCT hikers with the tourists. They, more than anyone, appear clean. Their pants are clean and pressed. They wear bright colors and make-up. They’re perfectly tan, perfectly pale, perfectly everything they want to be. They wear the outdoorsman’s outfit: tailored and properly fit. But they don’t have that stare. The look that says you’ve been in the bush just long enough to forget what anything else is like.

The older hikers and the older travelers – I’m talking over 50 – don’t look like anything. They don’t have time for showiness. Their look is crafted over the years. Honed by life and nothing more.

My resupply package didn’t include dinners. Not sure how I forgot that. I’ll do an inventory another day. Either way, I have one dinner left and enough food to last until my next resupply point. Plenty of Snickers.


zombies, fiction, stories, JMT, sunset

Donahue Pass

Didn’t sleep. The older man beside me was throwing up all night until about 3AM when he became silent. The sound and smell made me nauseous. Before sunup I heard calls from some far end of the camp. A fight had broken out. It was still dark. The birds hadn’t started. I loaded up my backpack, bypassed breakfast and my morning routine – stretching, cleaning, an attempt at a bowel movement – and set off. Two of the guys in kilts were pressed against each other. They fell to the ground and began to wrestle. The campers around them stirred awake. As I left I could still smell this terrible stench from most of the camp sites. Worse than what’s coming from the bathrooms. (Went whale watching once when I was a boyscout. I got nauseous and went into a lower deck which was filled with boys who had vomited so much there was a thin layer of it covering the ground, as thick as cooking oil in a skillet.) Saw Danny wake up and try intervene. He was a marine and could probably do something. I wanted to help. Was too scared. I’d have probably gotten hurt or caused more harm. Walked off and left camp.

Hiked 12 miles. Stopped after an hour to eat some breakfast and wash my face in the river water. The sun came up and the air became warm but clouds rolled in and brought with it thunder. The trail was flat for seven or eight miles as it followed the river. I passed a couple spots where people had camped. The tents were up but nobody had woken, even by midday. Soon I reached the trees and began to climb up switchbacks. It’s the first “real” pass on the entire trail, or the first pass significant enough to have a name. I could have kept on but I spotted lightning over the pass and decided it wasn’t worth the risk. Lightning is a killer for hikers.

I’m at this lake now tucked away at the top of the canyon beneath Mt. Lyell and its glacier.

Had lunch with a couple of dudes speed hiking the JMT. One guy, Bryant, asked about my walking sticks and started calling me Two Sticks. Maybe the name will hold? They’re both trying to hike the entire trail in six to eight days. Instead of boots they wore Meryl’s. Their packs weighed 20 lbs at most. Neither carried any meals. Just nuts and bars and electrolytes. Bryant lives near me in Los Angeles and apparently shops at the store where I work. Neither of us recognized each other, but the coincidence marveled us both.

They had camped at Sunrise – where I was the night before last. Asked if they’d seen anything odd at Tuolumne.

“Went right on by,” Bryant said. “Too many people. Road was jammed. Some sort of ruckus in the camp. Fights. Lots of fights. Saw that for sure.”

“I heard about this weird guy on the trail,” I said.

“We’re all weird guys on the trail,” he said. “Don’t you have to be weird to be out here?”

They went on over the pass. I watched them fade into specs and soon disappear altogether.

Chafing between my legs. No privacy to wash up. I was the first one at the lake but the lake soon filled. It’s near dusk now and Danny hasn’t shown up. He wanted to go up and over the pass but he hasn’t made it this far. Probably camped a little farther west. Good people here.

This lady, Patricia, came into camp. Also from Los Angeles. Also shops at my store. She hiked up with two of her friends who she had dropped off. They were beginning the John Muir Trail and asked her if she would hike with them their first day. She said yes since the roads out of Tuolumne were closed and the camps smelled rancid. The three of them came into camp as the rain began. None of them had on rain gear. The guy looked sick. His face was green. His eyes sagged. I don’t know how he made it this far up. The pass is above treeline. The couple wanted to continue on over the pass even though it had started to rain. Patricia said no, they had already hiked 12 miles. They started to yell. Couple said they were on a timeline. They ditched Patricia and went on over the pass. The guy was stumbling the entire time. Not sure he’ll make it. He looked real bad.

The couple I met a couple days ago just appeared, Tyler and Mary. The sun just went down and John, this older man who’s camping beside me, and I spotted their headlamps shuffling up the trail towards the lake. They got a late start. Tried to get their resupply bucket today from the post office but the office had shut down.

“Not closed,” Tyler said. “You could see someone had broken in. Ransacked the place. Spilled the buckets and a bunch of other stuff all over the place.”

“You see bears?”

“No bears. No rangers. Camp site was filled with people but nobody was talking. Just a sort of rumble between everyone. There were fights earlier and a bunch of folks looks real beat up. Road out still closed. People parked in cars along the side of the road.”

We could see a light in the far west where Tuolumne is. Looked like a fire but it was so far away it was difficult to tell.

“Power back on?” I asked.

“Not when we left. Doesn’t look like lights that would come from no generator.”

“Do you guys have food if you couldn’t get your resupply?”

“We found our bucket but somebody had gone through it. We rummaged around and bummed a few supplies to fill our bear canisters. Then we left.”

They both seemed shaken up.

The older guy beside me, John, doesn’t seem so worried. This is his second attempt to hike the John Muir Trail. The first time he got sick from dehydration and altitude sickness and had to stop early. This time he’s hiking slower and drinking more water at regular intervals (unlike the previous old guy, he purifies the heck out of his water). The illnesses at the camp are probably an outlier: too many people not drinking enough water, not eating enough, over exerting themselves, underestimating the elevation, underestimating the wild. It happens in small numbers always, but the increase in hikers along the John Muir Trail and hikers along the Pacific Crest Trail, make it all the more common in recent years. Maybe hit the tipping point.

Not sure what to think about that. It sounds plausible enough. John is very easy to talk to, as most of the older people are. I’m not so good with strangers. It helps when someone is extra chatty.

If I’m up early enough and feel strong – I’m still tired after not sleeping last night – I’m considering hiking up Mt. Donahue tomorrow. The trail starts at the top of the pass. It should take three hours according to my trail guidebook. That’ll give me enough time to get to Thousand Island Lake at a reasonable hour. Considering a day off at Reds Meadow the day after. Maybe take a shower if they have one. Maybe a private sponge-bath.

I’m thinking I’ll get sad at Thousand Island Lake. That’s where Justine and I went with my family years ago. That all feels so long ago. What a crazy world. People enter. When they exit they become a memory. Soon the memory fades. All you remember is that you loved them once.

The clouds have parted. There’s enough moonlight that I can see smoke rising above Tuolumne Meadows. Glad to be leaving that place. Roads probably closed. Looks like there’s no turning back. Excited to see what’s ahead.


© 2015 Christopher Dart

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