Summer’s 3 Percent
Whitney Portal (8,360) to Outpost Camp (10,080) 3.8 miles
Going on twenty-three, I fancied myself a naturalist, thought I knew about the wilderness, about wildness, because I had been an avid reader of John Muir and Henry David Thoreau. I enjoyed reading about Muir’s exciting climb into a giant Douglas spruce during a torrential windstorm. I liked to imagine a young bearded Muir climbing into the treetops, wind whipped like a kite.
Once on the trail, however, I had my doubts.
Bent under the weight of my backpack, hiking through rain, I began to see that Muir’s windstorm appealed to me in the figurative sense. Now the rain was more than metaphor. I splashed through puddles, and a stinging rain pelted my face. Soaked chaparral and spicy sagebrush layered with damp earth, with pine. A plastic poncho hid my head, and a garbage bag covered my pack. I wanted to revel in the outdoors, feel, like Muir had, a part of the wilderness; instead, I thought, Mile 2. What have I gotten myself into this time? We followed the trail through swaying Jeffrey pine and red fir. Our guidebook claimed that only 3 percent of the year’s precipitation would fall during the summer, yet gray sheets of rain drenched the forest. I tried to forget the weather then realized if I was going to make it, I had better do my best to accept all of it — the wind and the rain, summer’s 3 percent. Lightning cut white branches through a cloud-ribboned sky. I waited for the rumble of thunder, counting the seconds between claps to determine the distance of the storm, as I had as a child. One–one thousand, two–one thousand. Thunder seemed to shake the pewter sky. Trees wavered like indecision.
* * *
We had bragged to our friends in the bar, told them how we’d be hiking for a month, following the 211-mile John Muir Trail from Mt. Whitney to Yosemite. Completed in 1938 as a memorial to the nineteenth-century preservationist and writer, the John Muir Trail, or JMT for short, is California’s most scenic trail. The JMT follows roughly 211 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail along the spine of the Sierra Nevada, through one of the most stunning mountainscapes in the world. We imagined swimming in high alpine lakes, sunning on granite rocks, walking out into the wide blue sky. “A diet with a view,” I’d told all my friends.
I can’t remember how we initially came up with the idea to hike the trail, and certainly, it had been proposed by Erika, but once we settled on it, I believed it as fine a plan as any. It was the summer of 1993, and I had just graduated from college with a degree in biology and carried no aspirations aside from chasing boys and complaining in my journal about how they didn’t like me back. In college I could concentrate on those things, staving off the seriousness of adulthood. Though some of my friends moved back home after college, I knew I couldn’t. The night of my college graduation I went out to dinner with my parents, and my father, as usual, drank rye for dinner. My mother, in her typical manner, ignored it. After dinner we went for a walk along the cliffs on Shell Beach, and I told my father I didn’t want to see him anymore if he didn’t stop drinking. I stared out at the sea, refusing to look at him, making him feel all the more a failure. Did I think my words were cruel then? Or was I merely acting out of self-protection? Certainly, I was thinking only of myself and my need to escape. At the time I didn’t know that my father was undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia. I didn’t have any idea that within the next year he would be dead.
So, I adopted John Muir as a sort of father figure, a ghost I could manipulate into a benevolent man who loved flowers and gray squirrels, windstorms and water ouzels. With a copy of Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra in my ridiculously heavy backpack, I set off to hike the John Muir Trail.
Backpacking seemed like it would come naturally to me, at least in theory. Even though I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, I had always enjoyed playing in the dirt, collecting insects, planting gardens. I joined our college wilderness club and liked to describe myself as “outdoorsy.” I thought, like some of the male nature writers I had read, that Mother Nature was a kind grandmotherly woman who smelled like oatmeal cookies and would hug me to her soft bosom and make everything okay. With the idea of both Grandmother Nature and Papa Muir on my side, it’s no wonder I embraced the idea of hiking the John Muir Trail. People had asked me what I planned to do upon graduation, and I now had an answer: why, I was hiking the John Muir Trail. The trip became my postcollege plan, a vacation from considering grown-up concerns.
So, I adopted John Muir as a sort of father figure, a ghost I could manipulate into a benevolent man who loved flowers and gray squirrels, windstorms and water ouzels.
While Erika and I were sitting at Pismo Beach, figuring out the food drops and our daily mileage, the trip seemed romantic — like riding off into the sunset with a gorgeous cowboy without ever having to pick up dirty socks or touch a toilet seat. The numbers — the nine mountain passes over eleven thousand feet, the forty-eight thousand feet of net elevation gain — seemed like minor details, unreal and hazy like the plot of a dream. So, to prepare for the trip, I read Muir’s effusive prose, certain that I could follow in his footsteps, learn to see the Sierra as he did, a glorious range of light.
The original plan was that after graduation Erika and I would set off on our own to hike the John Muir Trail. Erika and I, the two most unlikely picks for our sorority — neither of us had a clue which fork to use first at a dinner party — gravitated toward each other on pledge welcome night and became fast friends. We both had an affinity for longhaired boys, the Grateful Dead, skiing, and the outdoors in general. That’s where the similarities stopped. She was, and still is, a mystery to me. The fastest, strongest, most athletic woman I have ever met, Erika sometimes seemed more machine than girl, whereas I could usually be found bumbling around in circles, certainly daydreaming, most often lost. Erika’s world, however, didn’t include the nonsense of daydreams; she was practical to the extreme, and for her the world presented no more mystery than a solvable algebra equation. She didn’t see obstacles, only challenges. And I admired her. She represented what I wanted in myself — the ability to let go of the uncertainties that made my head spin and see the world as a controlled system, one that I could navigate, if only I tried harder.
Erika, built like a deer, seemed equipped to spend the summer in the Sierra, her legs long and lanky, her body hard and angular. With her long blonde braids, she looked like a Viking woman warrior. I took two clumsy steps to her deliberate one and felt hungry hours before she started to think about lunch. Erika had been backpacking since she could walk and planned a whole list of long-distance trips — the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail, El Camino de Santiago. The John Muir Trail, she said, was just the beginning.
Erika wanted to complete the trail for a sense of accomplishment, for bragging rights. She also thought it might get her in with a mountain man, which at the time didn’t seem wholly unreasonable to me. She had joined our college logging team, her specialty the ax throw, for the same reasons — to boast and meet men. On the trail Erika wanted to hike at least twelve miles a day. In her mind she had arrived to Yosemite before setting one boot on dirt at Whitney Portal. From the beginning she talked about the trip as if it were in the past tense. When we applied for our permits, she told the ranger, “We’ll be in Yosemite by the end of the month.” At the trailhead, she told fellow hikers, “We are just beginning the 240 miles we plan to hike. We’re hiking out for our food, so we are going to have hiked 240 miles, not 211.” Erika had the ability to enjoy the romantic notions of a long-distance hike without ever dwelling on the discomfort of the present moment.
I knew that hiking for a month alone in the wilderness with Erika would most likely kill me. In part that’s why I agreed to invite Dionne, who didn’t know the first thing about hiking or camping, but that fact hid among the secrets I intended to keep from Erika. With short blonde hair, close-set blue eyes, and a ninety-eight-pound frame, Dionne resembled a pixie. Although she lacked experience in the outdoors, Dionne was all grace. Her heels tapped the earth like a bird’s, the toes following, always pointing outward. A trained ballerina, she had danced her entire life. Aside from my not wanting to be alone with Erika, I invited Dionne because her boyfriend, Geoff, had begged me to bring her along. We had been college housemates, and he thought this trip might function as a cure.
“If she goes on the trip,” he had said, “maybe it will help her get better.”
“Maybe,” I answered, “but no way. She’s not coming.” Geoff sat on my bed and started to cry.
I told myself it was a good cause and at the same time — the selfish truth of altruism — a way to make myself feel better because I could be so helpful; more than that, however, I couldn’t stand to see a man cry. I had seen my father cry only once. And he was drunk, making both the drinking and the crying frightening. I couldn’t do anything to stop my father from crying, but I could do something to stop Geoff. So I said yes.
Geoff whisked Dionne off to the sporting goods store, outfitted her with gear, and handed her over like a kitten we’d adopted from the pound. She had never been backpacking, or even hiking, in her life. And there she was, on the first day of our month-long trip. Rather than dwell on the true gravity of the situation, I thought about myself — what a good Samaritan I was — and about my reward: I would no longer have to hike alone with Erika.
Erika and Dionne hardly knew each other before the trip, so I decided it best that Erika didn’t know about Dionne’s lack of experience. Or her illness. Erika had looked a little suspicious when Dionne pulled out all her shiny gear, so I quickly said, “Dionne got all new gear for this trip,” as if old, well-worn hiking boots and backpacks were squirreled away in her closet at home. I saw Dionne as an ally, so I acted out of selfishness. I didn’t think about how dangerous the hike could have been for her. I didn’t think about how the trip that Erika had so carefully organized could have been jeopardized.
And once Dionne joined our group, the three of us bragged about “girl power” and how it would be us three women, out in the wilderness “alone.”
That didn’t last long.
* * *
We didn’t really know Jesse — we picked him up in a bar three weeks before the hike. We were in Mammoth Lakes, planning our trip, and met him through our friend Jason’s stepbrother Neil. Erika, Neil, Jesse, and I ended up skiing together at Mammoth Mountain on closing day, the Fourth of July. Jesse was a twenty-five-year-old snowboarder, one of those guys who always said things like “It’s cool” and “No worries.” Being a friend of a friend’s stepbrother, he was technically a stranger. At the bar after skiing, I told Jesse about our plan to hike the John Muir Trail, and after a few beers he decided to join us. And I encouraged him. “We’ve planned it all,” I said. “All you have to do is show up. It’s going to be a blast.” Maybe Erika didn’t want to spend a month alone with me and Dionne either, because she agreed to it.
In my twenty-two-year-old hormone-addled mind, a man’s value was directly proportional to his relative attractiveness, but with Jesse’s lanky body, pimple-scarred face, and swoopy, sun-bleached snowboarder hair, try as I might, I didn’t find him attractive. So this once it wasn’t the fling factor. I thought having a man around in the wilderness might come in handy, proving I hadn’t been quite as committed to girl power as I had let on. I liked the idea of an all-women’s trip, yet still, something in me felt relieved when Jesse decided to join us. Even then, I hated myself for feeling it.
Also, because of the secrets about Dionne I held from Erika, I hoped Jesse would function as a diversion. Jesse, however, imagined a little hiking, some fishing — fun and relaxation. He clearly had no idea what he’d gotten himself into.
* * *
Our Day 1 Plan, making it the six miles to Trail Camp, proved ambitious, considering our late start, the elevation gain, the rain, and our heavy packs. I had already nicknamed my pack “Big Fucking Heinous Load,” “Big Heiny” for short, because I couldn’t even get her on without either sitting on a rock to do it or else having someone else help me.
Mile 1 rated wet but novel. I enjoyed the sagey smell of earth, the sounds of water filtering through the canopy above. The trail twined through a mixed pine and fir forest, into the cool, misty air. I tried to remember the names of trees, looked around for wildflowers, watched the rivulets of water stream down our trail. I felt self-sufficient, smug even, carrying everything I would need on my very own back. I didn’t feel like quitting.
Not until mile 2.
That’s when raindrops snapped at my face like rubber bands. My wet bangs hung into my eyes, making me feel like a soggy sheepdog. That’s when I had that feeling of panic, rising like acid from my stomach: What was I doing out there? Water puddled on the trail, soaking into my cotton socks. I tried to keep from feeling sorry for myself by imagining conversations with John Muir. He would have said something about the “glorious” rainfall or the “noble” roar of the wind. I tried to see it that way.
I thought having a man around in the wilderness might come in handy, proving I hadn’t been quite as committed to girl power as I had let on.
“Isn’t this so great?” Erika turned around and asked. “The perfect start.” With her poncho draped over her large external-frame pack, she looked like a giant turtle. She claimed that the old-fashioned external frames were superior to the new internal frame packs. No sweat on my back, she had said, and I can find everything right away. I had only worn a backpack like that once, when I first went backpacking a few years earlier and had rented one; I felt like I was carrying a refrigerator down the trail, so I quickly went out and bought an internal-frame pack. The salesman called it “sleek,” though on the trail I would not describe anything about myself as sleek.
The pines creaked to the wind’s rhythm. Muir says he “never saw a discontented tree. They grip the ground as though they liked it, and though fast rooted they travel about as far as we do.” At my pace the trees seemed to be traveling faster than I did. By mile 3 I wished I no longer had Muir’s prose in my head. Day 1, and I wanted nothing more to do with Papa Muir’s positive attitude. The gray mist turned to true rain, and I wiped water from my eyes. I gave up trying to avoid the puddles on the trail. I knew it rained in the mountains, yet somehow that detail had never made it into my picture of hiking the trail.
The trail followed Lone Pine Creek, and I watched as the raindrops vanished into the tumbling water. “I’m a little hungover,” Dionne said to me. Her face glistened. I nodded, not because I felt hungover but because I imagined her face shined wet with tears, not rain — something I could relate to.
The night before, we had gone out to the natural hot springs with Jesse and his roommates. After only one wine cooler Dionne laughed and swayed about like a dinghy in wind. We toasted our upcoming trip. Erika and Dionne went into the springs naked. I wore my bathing suit and consequently ranked the least interesting. In truth I was probably the most likely to engage in a little last-minute fling before our foray into the forest, but I had already learned that nice girls weren’t supposed to do those types of things, so whenever possible, I feigned modesty.
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Like many young women, I wanted more than anything to attract men. I tried to fill the space inside of me with flirtations and flings and, truth be told, fucking. I felt sure that if I persuaded a man to love me, I would feel complete, worthy. Of course, like many young women do, I equated sex with love, yet the second I slept with someone, he inevitably lost interest. And like many young women, this never stopped failing to surprise me. At the time I didn’t have any idea what a cliché I was. All I knew was that the way I went about relationships left me feeling empty, like an abandoned suitcase left in the attic.
After a while I tried, not always successfully, to change tactics. Though I failed to question the impulse behind my desire, I finally figured out that men would be more interested if they couldn’t see it all up front. Why give away the entire shop, as my mother would say, in the storefront? I had studied biology and tried to make sense of the human dating world through the animal world — something like the opposite of anthropocentrism. I told myself, the male peacock and mallard were adorned with the fancy plumage; the male lion and buck endowed with the ostentatious mane and horns. In biology the females aren’t flashy, and the males are quick to fight over them. By the end of my college career I had created my own dating-by-Darwin theory. So that night I soaked in the hot sulfur water, sipping a bottle of Zima, watching steam rise while the sun sank into the folds of the mountains. I hoped someone would notice me, but to no one’s surprise save my own, no one did — not even the guy I had briefly dated.
Meanwhile, Erika and Dionne posed for photographs, black silhouettes against the Owens River Valley and brindled sky, all feathers and flash. The guy I had briefly dated seemed to be flirting with Erika. I told myself he spelled t-r-o-u-b-l-e anyway, and Erika knew that. I can’t remember if I felt smug or jealous. Probably a mixture of both. Either way, my relationship with Erika had always been complicated. Too often we ended up competing for the attention of a man who didn’t really want either one of us. Rather than displaying a true sort of girl power, we turned on each other. I was passive-aggressive to her aggressive. Because of the various jealousies in our friendship, a former boyfriend had once told me he thought Erika liked me, that she was a lesbian. I told him that, unfortunately, it wasn’t that simple.
* * *
At Outpost Camp Jesse asked, “Should we stop here?” Rain washed over the trail, through the creek, and into a waterfall. We could hardly hear him. The rumble of water echoed like a passing train.
“Here. Stop. For tonight. Now,” he yelled. We were supposed to make it to Trail Camp the first night according to the Day 1 Plan. We were only at Outpost Camp, just 3.8 miles in.
“Yes, yes, yes.” It seemed too cold for rain yet somehow wasn’t. We huddled under a canopy of lodgepole pine and red fir. I felt sure more than 3 percent of the year’s precipitation had already soaked into my skin. I wanted to stop too, but I didn’t dare say a word. I knew all about the Day 1 Plan. Six miles on day 1. That was that. I stood still, shouldering Big Heiny, listening to the wind and rain, waiting to see what would happen.
“We have to stick to our agenda,” Erika said. “We need to stay on track.” Dionne’s face glowed red like a radish. Jesse crossed his arms over his raincoat, making it evident he wouldn’t be moving anytime soon. Would Erika make us hike on without him?
I had studied biology and tried to make sense of the human dating world through the animal world — something like the opposite of anthropocentrism.
It wasn’t in Erika’s nature, like it was mine, to swerve from a plan. The main reason I had agreed to hike the John Muir Trail with her was that with Erika I knew it would happen. Even my mother had said, “Without Erika, you and Dionne would be wandering around the wilderness in circles.”
“Well, you do what you want. I’m stopping here,” Jesse said. He let his pack drop to the wet earth. Dionne and I waited there like two aspens connected by a single root, until Erika finally agreed. Jesse had already come in handy.
I dropped Big Heiny with a thud, and I felt light, as if I were floating. I had used that cliché about a load being lifted from my shoulders, but I don’t think I ever really appreciated exactly what that felt like. Psychological burdens may weigh on us, yet in reality they are forgotten once we are faced with actual physical ones. Maybe that’s why we choose to carry the physical burdens — they take our minds off the intangible, the real troubles in life.
“Dionne and I will sleep in my tent. You and Jesse sleep in yours,” Erika said. I pulled out the tent poles and stopped for a minute to watch Jesse unpack. I tried to find him attractive. A fling could take my mind off all the walking. A little excitement, and I might not care so much about the rain, the switchbacks, or Big Heiny. We set up the tents, ate granola bars, and got into our sleeping bags. Before I could talk myself into Jesse, he fell asleep.
Wet chaparral and pine filled the evening air. The metronome of rain and Jesse’s snoring created a weird trancelike song. I listened for a while, feeling a yearning I couldn’t name, unable to sleep. Then the panic began rising again like floodwaters. Determined to push it back, I turned on my headlamp and pulled out my paperback anthology of Muir’s writings and my journal. Muir says, “The weather of spring and summer in the middle region of the Sierra is usually well flecked with rains and light dustings of snow, most of which are far too obviously joyful and life-giving to be regarded as storms.” I tried to imagine the rain and wind as joyful and life-giving. I turned onto my side to write in my journal: “August 2, 1993: The joyous rain welcomed us today into the forest.” I sketched a tiny picture of our camp by looking out the mesh window: Jeffrey pine, granite, manzanita, water, red fir, sky. Even though I couldn’t see it, I added a moon because I knew it was full. Day 1 and already lying in my journal.
Hiking to Tent City in Men’s Underwear
Outpost Camp (10,080) to Trail Camp (12,000) 2.5 miles
An old mountaineer once told me that it’s tradition that the guide in a backcountry expedition wears a white cap. The white cap has to be given to the guide by someone in the group. Erika wore a white cap. She bought it for herself. She said it kept the sun off her head and that white goes with anything, but I knew she had designated herself the guide of our ragged crew.
Before even the birds started, Erika tromped about camp and sang, “Wake up, wake up. It’s time to go.” I had always seen getting up early as a moral act; still, I hated it. We had already fallen behind schedule, so I knew Erika was right — we had to get up. Erika wanted to summit Whitney from Outpost Camp, yet with the way things had started, I had my doubts again.
Dionne had already climbed out of Erika’s tent. She wore a green fleece sweatshirt and men’s underwear — not boxers but tighty-whiteys, the kind with the peephole in front. I figured that she was still wearing her pajamas and would change before we set off on our hike. I figured wrong.
Jesse pulled on a tie-dyed T-shirt and shorts, stuffed his sleeping bag in its stuff sack, and headed for the food. Before Erika noticed, he had fetched the food from the tree — a preventative measure used against the bears in the days before the now-required bear canister — and was eating oatmeal. Erika carefully measured out exactly two and a half tablespoons of oatmeal per person per day. Jesse filled his plastic bowl to the top, added the boiling water that Erika had heated, and inhaled his breakfast. I waited for Erika to scold him for eating too much, yet she didn’t say a word. That was fine by me because I was hungry.
Like most women, I had been on enough diets to know how many calories were in things. Although this skill was mostly a waste of brain space, I could rattle off the caloric content of most common food items: an apple, 80 calories; a slice of cheesecake, 350; a Big Mac with cheese, 700; a family-sized bag of Doritos, 2,150; two and a half tablespoons of oatmeal, 110 calories. Our oatmeal breakfast wasn’t even enough energy for a twenty-minute Jane Fonda workout, much less hiking up the tallest mountain in the Lower 48.
Chubby from childhood, I thought the hike would be a good way to lose a little weight, but as usual, I wasn’t willing to be uncomfortable. When my mother, a former British beauty queen, took me to a modeling agency when I was twelve, the talent scout laughed us out of his office. “Maybe if she loses twenty pounds,” he had said, “or more.” Chubby apparently rated “cute,” but it didn’t meet the qualifications for the runway. My mother was more upset than I was, and to make me feel better, my father took me out for ice cream. After I finished my first cone, my father had said, “How about another one? Do you want to try the mint chip?” My mother volleyed me her look, so I said, “No thanks, Daddy. One cone is enough.”
* * *
“Are you going to eat?” I asked Dionne.
“I already ate.” Dionne ran her fingers through her short blonde hair, attempted a smile.
“What did you eat?”
“A granola bar I had in the tent.” Erika overheard this and marched over, and we got a twenty-minute lecture about hanging all of our food, plus lotion, toothpaste, and lip balm. We all have to do our part, Erika said, to protect the bears. Dionne and I both knew there had been no granola bar in that tent, but Dionne would rather be chastised by Erika than admit she hadn’t eaten.
“Well, I’m hungry,” I said. Dionne wouldn’t look at me. I poured oatmeal into my bowl — more than the ration yet certainly not as much as Jesse had.
“Two and a half tablespoons,” Erika said. “You definitely have too much there.”
“You can have my part,” Dionne said.
“But you might want it later,” Erika told her.
“Fine.” I poured the oatmeal back into the plastic bag and carefully measured two and a half tablespoons. It didn’t even cover the bottom of my stainless steel bowl.
After eating, which didn’t take long, we broke down the tents and packed up our things. “Time for camp check,” Erika called. “We should make it look better than when we arrived.” I had already checked my area, but I walked around in circles looking at the ground in order to satisfy Erika. Jesse sat on his backpack, arms crossed, waiting.
“Okay. Looks good,” Erika said. “Good. Let’s go,” Jesse said.
Erika sported her white cap, and Dionne still wore her men’s underwear. When Dionne passed oncoming hikers, they would look straight at the peephole in her underwear and roll their eyes or shake their heads, especially the women. For the most part we found women supportive on the trail but not always—and there was something about the underwear that really got to them. They gave her a “how dare she” look, and to this day I’m not sure if they were mad because the underwear implied some sort of conformation to gender roles or a rebuttal against them. Or perhaps they saw the underwear as just plain embarrassing, unseemly.
But Dionne wasn’t trying to make a statement with the underwear. They were a matter of practicality. Dionne had intended to wear the underwear to bed and the tight jean cutoffs to hike in — that is, until she wore the denim shorts in the rain. Anyone who has attempted tight denim for a hike in the rain, or even in the sun, knows exactly why Dionne chose the underwear the next day. Yet I didn’t want to expose Dionne’s inexperience and poor clothing options, so I kept my mouth shut. And who was I to talk? I wore flower-print men’s boxers to hike in, so I figured I would bring that point up if Erika mentioned Dionne’s choice in hiking attire.
The weather cleared, and the early sky shined purple. We forded Lone Pine Creek and followed the switchbacks past Sierra chinquapin and patches of Indian paintbrush. Bright pink fireweed lined the rocky trail. After a footbridge and more switchbacks, we reached Mirror Lake, a greenish lake, reflecting the surrounding mountains, pocketed in a granite valley. Thor Peak towered above.
We climbed a granite stairway, passed broken and weathered whitebark pine and a few willows. Two hikers approached us. They were shirtless, and both glowed neon pink with sunburns. They had come from Death Valley and were going to “bag” Whitney that afternoon. “We will have been to the lowest and the highest elevation in the United States in one day,” they said with German accents. I told them that Whitney was the highest mountain in the Lower 48, but fifteen stood taller in Alaska. I asked them why they wanted to do all of it in one day. They just said goodbye and jogged up the trail, likely thinking I was a know-it-all, which I have to admit is still one of my unfortunate tendencies.
Often people say they hike mountains because they are there. Even though some women have taken on this attitude, it seems to me that it is an internalization of man’s view of nature. For Erika the idea of the conquest made sense, but for me it didn’t — and still doesn’t — fit, yet I had no better way of looking at things, though in part maybe that’s one of the reasons I was there: I was in search of my own view of wildness, my own connection to the natural landscape.
I was in search of my own view of wildness, my own connection to the natural landscape.
The previous summer I had hiked Mt. Elbert, the highest mountain in Colorado, with Jack, a man I had dated for a few months. I had never questioned whether or not we would reach the top, and it wasn’t all that important to me. Jack insisted on getting up early because the weather service had called for thunderstorms. I agreed, and I didn’t think about breakfast or water or anything else. As we started to hike, small cumulus clouds began to form. I knew these clouds could grow into huge anvil-shaped thunderheads in under an hour in the high country.
“Hey, don’t those look like thunderclouds?” I asked.
“Those little things? Naw. We’re fine.”
I knew Jack was worried, though, because he picked up the pace. He had worked for the Forest Service building trail all summer, so he was fast and strong. I worked as a waitress at a Mexican restaurant, eating chips and drinking margaritas. Still, I tried to keep up with him, thinking if I could, he would be impressed. I also kept a close eye on the clouds, spiraling like stairs into the sky.
We reached timberline, usually about eleven thousand feet in Colorado, when my stomach started to sour and my head filled with cotton. The windswept trail unfolded in front of us, up a grassy slope, and then through a field of uneven granite, a landscape that always reminded me of the cratered moon.
“The clouds are getting bigger.”
“We’re okay,” Jack said. “We just have to hurry.”
“I thought we were hurrying.” The clouds climbed the sky above us, and the wind gained strength. The air dampened, and I knew the conditions were just right for an electrical storm.
“I don’t feel so good.”
“Eat a PowerBar.”
“I’m not hungry.”
But Jack had hiked too far ahead to hear me. We climbed quickly over the granite, and I felt sicker and sicker. I began to dry heave and suddenly figured it out.
“Down. I’m going down,” I shouted.
“What? You’re not stopping, are you? We’re almost there. We can’t go down now,” Jack called from above. He then turned to continue climbing. I knew at that point I had the beginning signs of altitude sickness. Thunder rumbled through the valley below us. I began running down the mountain. I had finished with chasing Jack up the peak. It had become obvious that impressing him with my hiking prowess wasn’t going to happen. Who cared if we made it to the top? Jack cared, that’s who, so he kept going. I descended at least a thousand feet before I began to feel better. I drank a lot of water, ate, and continued down. With each step I began to feel normal again.
Jack caught up to me on his way back down. “I really wanted to have lunch up there, but I didn’t know where you went.”
“I was getting altitude sickness, Jack. You know you can die from that, right?”
“Right.” It wasn’t worth arguing over. He had reached the peak, and the important thing was that I hadn’t been stupid enough to follow him the whole way up. We hiked down through the forest in the rain; the gray sky quivered with thunder. In truth most of my wilderness experiences had been defined for me by the men I dated or hoped to date. They chose the route, the goal, characterizing the way we would see the wilderness. Sometimes I kept up, but most times I didn’t. John Muir says, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” That hike up Mt. Elbert helped me envision a future without trying to impress Jack with skills I didn’t possess, so I did receive more than I was seeking. That may not be exactly what Muir meant, yet I wanted to believe Muir’s ideas could include the likes of me.
* * *
“Look. There it is.” Erika pointed to Mt. Whitney rising up over Pinnacle Ridge, the smoky granite towers like carved totems, ancient faces with white beards, looking down on us. I tried to imagine myself on top of the rock needle. I could focus only on the landscape between the peak and me, the largeness of it, which gave me vertigo. The contours no longer brown lines on a topographic map, faint like a long-ago memory. Instead, the earth pressed into a steep granite ridge, and beyond, the jagged snow-patched peaks poked at the sky’s blue dome like spires.
From Trail Camp a small lake in the basin reflected Wotans Throne and its snowy skirt. A granite and talus-covered world, except the multicolored tents dotting primary colors across the white, gray, and brown landscape.
Jesse threw down his pack. “I’m not hiking Whitney today,” he declared. “That’s another five miles to the top, and then we have to get down the other side.” Erika consulted with her map, read about the frequency of afternoon thunderstorms on top of Whitney, checked the cloud-patched sky, and finally agreed that we should wait until the next day. Two days of hiking, and we had only covered 6.3 miles. At this rate our trip would take us two months.
I dropped my pack, grabbed my journal and a bottle of Gatorade, and climbed the rocks above the scattering of tents. I tried to follow the hundred or so switchbacks that we would climb the next day but couldn’t see them between the barren rocks and snow. Even though I couldn’t make them out, I knew that concrete steps had been poured by trail crews to help with our ascent, and I wondered what Muir would have thought about all of these improvements on the trail. Since then, wire hand cables have been erected for added safety.
I counted twenty-nine tents below. A middle-aged couple argued about how to start their camp stove. I imagined Muir sitting on this spot, looking at Mt. Whitney. What would he think of all these people? He once said, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is necessity; that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” The nerve-shaken people had found out, and Trail Camp itself was now a metropolis of rip-stop nylon and reinforced canvas. Toward the later part of his life Muir agreed that the parks needed to be accessible to the people to foster an appreciation of wildness, but he could not have foreseen this. Even in the “backcountry,” the world finally was too much with us.
I imagined Muir sitting on this spot, looking at Mt. Whitney. What would he think of all these people?
A fat marmot scampered across the rocks and looked me in the eye. “Lots of people, huh?” I asked him. The marmot scurried even closer in, looking for food. He reared back on his hind legs and chirped. He stood so close I could see his yellow buckteeth. I went back to writing in my journal but was interrupted by the sound of plastic against rock. For a moment I sat astonished, then I yelled, “Hey, marmot! Give me back that water bottle!” I chased after him. He dropped the bottle and waddled along, across the rocks. Even though marmots sleep nine months of the year — one of the only animals to go into a true hibernation — this one had managed, in just three months, to get fat off the food and Gatorade from the overcivilized visitors at Trail Camp.
I sat back down, opened my journal, and, still thinking about Muir, wrote, “Even the animals here are tame. What wildness is left? How do we fit in? How do I fit?” I had no language of my own for the landscape, no way to define myself within it. The unanswerable questions hovered like the buzzing of an insect at night, and every time you turn on the lights, you can’t find the source. The low din of wings resumes only in the dark.
I sighed and turned to drawing, a way to try to capture what I saw without overthinking it. I sketched Whitney. From my studies in college I knew that all of this had been under the sea eighty million years ago, another idea impossible to fathom. It was hard enough to imagine the glaciers of two million years ago, carving canyons, scraping out lake basins, making mountains.
A little boy, no older than seven or eight, walked down to the lake with a pot and a bottle of Dawn dish soap and began washing his dishes in the water. I looked around. Although I knew only the basics of backcountry travel, I certainly understood that soap should not be used in alpine lakes, or any lakes for that matter. Shouldn’t somebody do something? Bubbles formed in the water, and without any other way to respond, I began to dislike the small boy. A man came over, and I listened. I felt confident that this man would reprimand his son.
“Good job,” the man said and patted the boy on the shoulder. My disgust moved to the father. How could the boy know that soap pollutes mountain lakes when his father either doesn’t know or knows but doesn’t care? Didn’t they pay attention to the ranger’s talk about keeping soap out of lakes and streams? Maybe they had, yet being responsible in the backcountry is inconvenient. It was much easier to wash dishes in the lake than to scrub pots and pans with sand. Rarely do we set out to pollute or destroy a landscape; rather, it’s a consequence of carelessness.
I hoped this boy and his father were not going to the bathroom too close to the water; luckily, at the time a solar toilet had been provided at Trail Camp for solid waste. Because people also used the toilet for their garbage, the toilet has since been removed, and now campers are given a bag when they get their permits, and they are instructed to carry out their waste, which I would think deters people from camping at Trail Camp, especially thru-hikers. Carrying toilet paper and tampons seems trivial in comparison to carrying out one’s own waste. I’m glad we weren’t confronted with the choice of holding it or carrying it all the way to Lake Edison.
Erika, Dionne, and I made a pact to carry out all toilet paper, tampons, and other personal hygiene items. We each carried a Ziploc bag for the purpose. When I was dating Jack, he couldn’t even stand the sight of a tampon in the wrapper, so I would hide the pink-and-blue boxes behind the toilet paper under my bathroom sink. Now I would be carrying around a baggie full of used tampons. We knew that a month in the wilderness necessarily meant at least one period for each of us, something men don’t have to consider when planning a long hike, another reason men can forget about their physical bodies in a way women never can, because even if we try, our baggies of feminine products remind us.
We didn’t discuss this matter or any other bathroom issue with Jesse, aside from Erika handing him a bag and saying, “Here is your personal baggie.” He frowned at her and stuffed the bag into his pack. He also backed away when he saw us putting our toilet paper baggies into the bear bags with the food.
The boy and his father walked back to their camp, passing Erika on her way over to me. “There you are. We need water. Your turn.” Erika tossed me six water bottles and the filter.
I was careful to avoid the area where the boy had just washed his dishes, as if it made any difference. This water was somewhat polluted, which was why we filtered, boiled, or added iodine to it before we drank it. I felt ashamed because I had just sat there while that little boy poured soap into the lake. I didn’t feel like I had the experience or the authority to say anything. Erika would have said something to that father and son, and maybe they would have listened to her. I pumped the water and justified my silence: What do the rocks care?
I filtered the six quarts of water and then returned to my sketch. I worked quickly to finish because the sun had dipped behind the granite backdrop, and with it dropped the temperature. The alpenglow slid from the mountain like a yellow scarf off a woman’s shoulder. The rock I sat on sent a shiver, like a cold fish, swimming up my back. I looked at my drawing. My mountain scene could very well be under the ocean: the mountains shot up like coral, and rocks floated in sand. At the bottom of my picture I wrote, “Day 2, August something. Mt. Whitney, eighty million years ago as seen from present-day Tent City.”
Suzanne Roberts is the author of Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, as well as four poetry collections. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Rumpus, The Normal School, River Teeth, and National Geographic’s Traveler. She teaches creative writing for the low-residency MFA program at SNC-Tahoe and serves as the current El Dorado County Poet Laureate.
Excerpted from Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, by Suzanne Roberts. Copyright © 2012 by Suzanne Roberts. Reprinted by permission of Suzanne Roberts.
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