Day 15: 18 miles
Andy from the hostel drives us back to the trail at Red's Meadow. The rain has stopped and the land is foggy and moist. We follow the trail through a forest of burnt and fallen trees, mysterious hues of grey all around. The fog eventually starts to burn off around noon, I can see that parts of the sky are blue. Steam rises from the earth as the sun warms the ground. The moisture spins off in spirals and chutes and evaporates into the forest. We climb gently at first and then steeply up to Purple Lake, past a tumbling field of boulders and all the way to a second lake.
The weight of my pack feels oppressive today. I'm carrying six days of food plus a bear canister. My shoulders ache, radiating pain all the way down to my elbow. My knees creek on the downhill with all the extra force. My feet protest. No one said this was going to be easy, I guess.
The valley past Lake Virginia spreads wide and I can see a small creek winding through at the bottom. We switchback all the way down to this creek. It's early evening and already I need to wear my gloves. Our camp spot is beside the creek and has a nicely built fire ring with a large metal bucket sitting right beside it. Due to the fact that it just rained, we have a bucket to douse flames, and that it's freezing cold only at 5 pm, we decide it's appropriate to build a fire tonight. The boys get started immediately at collecting wood. I put on all my warm layers and join them.
The focus of the evening is eating all my food. I'll eat my way out from under this heavy pack. Plus, the more I eat, the warmer I will sleep.
Day 16: 25 miles
Despite my best efforts, I wake every few hours feeling too cold. I rearrange myself into the warmest possible position and fall back asleep. I'm packed up and doing sun salutations to keep warm at 5:26 am. Then my friends are ready to go and we start down the trail.
My mind is still focused on the surrounding coldness when we round a switchback at a steady downhill pace. Caught up in the momentum, Huck's bear canister goes flying out from on top of his pack where it was loosely secured. I watch it bounce off a rock and sail downhill in the morning darkness. Huck swiftly bounds into the brush after it. The rest of us walk the trail down to the river and across to wait. We see his light on the slope, searching desperately. Finally I see him grab for something.
"It was stopped by a rock. One foot lower and it would have been carried away by the river" he tells us.
The frozen soil crunches like snow beneath my feet as the sun shines its first rays on the highest peaks. We don't stop walking until we reach the top of Silver Pass, at which point I am too hungry to be cheerful anymore. This is easily solved by spoonfuls of granola, a warm mocha and the sun cresting the horizon.
The way down is bright and flat. I hide behind a rock to take off my layers and walk alone for much of the morning. It becomes steep and rocky on the descent, so I use my trekking poles to jump gracefully down each of the stone steps. After a while it is too much. Too steep. I wonder when we will reach the campsite Mud and I slept at last year. Seems like it should be just around the corner.
I'm still looking for this campsite when I catch up to Harpo and Huck. I'm happy to see them. It seems I am always able to catch up to people when I want to, but also able to hike alone when I want. It's a good group I've found. Huck tells us about the Iditarod race as we make our way down the canyon. At last we pass the campsite I've been picturing and stop soon after for lunch.
We eat on large boulders on the shores of the river. I'm baking in the afternoon heat, forgetting that cold even exists. Fifteen more miles and one more pass, we decide. This feels ambitious. I'll be tired, but I can do it. My pack weight is not yet manageable.
After lunch we walk a path through aspens. Their leaves carpet the ground, a sad mixture of yellow with black speckles. Branches chime in the breeze. Their light green trunks bare the tattoos of those who came before me. Humans who think they deserve to leave their mark on nature. Hearts and initials and dates all carved into the trunks of these majestic trees to remain forever. I'm saddened by this. We dominate enough of this earth. Can't we just leave these trees to be beautiful and untouched?
I climb away from the aspens through a cool and shady forest. When the switchbacks become too much I listen to a podcast. Rich Roll talks with the makers of Cowspiracy (now on Netflix! Watch it. Really - watch it!) about government sponsored destruction of wild animals in the name of animal agriculture. There are more wild horses in burrows than running free. The number one cause of species extinction and deforestation = animal agriculture. This makes me climb harder.
At the top I find Harpo and we walk together for much of the afternoon. The terrain is gentle and easy until the very end of the day when we climb Selden pass. The cold comes soon after.
We sleep just above a lake on the other side of the pass. To stay warm we all lie under the half shelter of Huck's tarp for the night, watching shooting stars. It feels good to lie down. I'm asleep before I get to see a shooting star. But I'm told they were there.
Day 17: 15 miles
I'm so warm all night that I preemptively take off layers before we even start walking. I regret this immediately in the morning shade of the forest. My hands are frozen numb until finally I get to wear Huck's special fleece lined mittens from Denmark. This makes everything better.
Harpo and I walk the path down to Muir Ranch with a young JMT hiker behind us who blatantly cuts switchbacks, trodding through undesignated territory. We find this curious. Moments later we see Groucho stopped and talking to him about human impact on nature - hike your own hike, but respect the trail, he says. The kid is new, still learning.
"He'll probably keep talking to him until the kid feels awesome." Says Harpo. Impressive.
At Muir Trail Ranch we scour the immaculately organized hiker boxes for new snacks. I end up giving away more than I take. Twinless joins us after camping five miles earlier last night. We all head to the hot springs above the ranch, take off our shoes to cross the river and set up an afternoon pause next to the pool of warm water. We sit lazily in the mineral-speckled water with dragonflies flying about erratically.
When we leave, the trail takes us into Kings Canyon National Park, sometimes in the shady shelter of trees, sometimes not. Rocks are strewn unnecessarily across the trail and I struggle with my footing at times. Regardless, my pack weight is starting to feel reasonable today and things are looking up. After a walk along a steep rock wall with deep grey and blue waters rolling down the riverbed beside, we cross the San Joaquin river.
On the way up to evolution meadow we pass several waterfalls - all tumbling and elegant. We all walk together and it feels like a celebration. Of what, I don't know. Nature, life, beauty? We have another campfire in the evening and I sleep warm all night. I feel so spoiled.
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