August 5th 2018: Lyell Fork – Tuolumne Meadows; 13 miles
It took me so long to write this final post because it took me this long to come to terms with what the following paragraphs are going to describe. It should come as no surprise that I was not able to complete the trail in its entirety, as the Ferguson fire was not even close to being contained at this point. More heartbroken I could not have been and it will take a very long time for me to accept the fact that 20 miles were left unconquered when I know full well I could have completed them. But alas, here is it: my final day on the trail.
Last night was the first night on this entire journey where I was alone. Granted there were nights when people weren’t nearby, but I at least knew there was someone within proximity of where I was staying. Last night, however, I didn’t see a soul. Which shocked me because I thought it was a pretty awesome campsite at a pretty awesome location! Right before Donahue pass going SOBO and right after the pass going NOBO. Prime real estate! Well obviously I was wrong, or maybe the other hikers knew something I didn’t. Because this was the worst night of the entire hike, and it wasn’t because I was alone.
Being alone didn’t bother me at all. At this point, I think (I hope) I know what I’m doing when it comes to camp life. I’m not worried about bears or things that go bump in the night, so I was actually looking forward to having a night completely devoid of human interaction. But then the wind started. And it didn’t stop. Starting gently at 5pm, the wind soon picked up in gales and brought with it ash. Thank God I set up my tent as soon as I got into camp, because with only 2 stakes (ultralight!) my tent surely would’ve blown away into the abyss. To help out, I stayed in my tent to make sure with my weight and the weight of the pack, it wasn’t going to blow away. I watched hikers come and go, wondering why they weren’t staying. But like I said, I secretly hoped they would move on so I would have a night alone.
The wind got worse. So much worse. Because I was in a valley of sorts, it created a wind tunnel. I could hear bad gusts coming up the valley 5 seconds before it would hit the tent. Gave me plenty of time to prepare, not that any preparation would do any good! The gusts must’ve been at least 60mph. For the majority of the night, my tent was blown completely horizontal, right over my face. Needless to say, I did not sleep very well. I had visions in my head that the wind was so strong it would knock my bear canister over. Following the whatever law of whatever dynamics (physics wasn’t my strong suit), the canister would stay in motion until it met something that would stop it… and that would be a nearby stream. I was convinced that my bear can was gonna float away! Totally ridiculous. But I was in a heightened state of annoyance and sleep deprivation from the wind, so my brain wasn’t working so well. The only thing that would’ve made it worse would be rain. Luckily the heavens didn’t open up on me, however, it did rain ash. I wasn’t too surprised, considering how terribly smoky it was on Donahue and how low visibility was before I went in my tent. Another nail in the coffin of my hopes of finishing the trail.
The wind didn’t die down until 6am the next morning, exactly when I wanted to wake up. Good because I could break down camp in peace, but bad because it didn’t give me a chance to catch up on any semblance of sleep. But knowing it was likely my last day, I didn’t need sleep. Plus it’s all downhill to Tuolumne Meadows, so I could practically sleepwalk and be okay. And my bear canister took the wind beating well – it was still standing! The same cannot be said about my tent, however. The poles were bent from the wind. But with it already looking a bit long in the tooth, I personally think the bent poles add even more character to the old beloved Marmot tent.
Well I guess I was sleepwalking because I had a pretty bad fall down a steep decline heading down into the meadow in which I almost lost a Nalgene bottle and my pride. An older gentleman witnessed the fall and asked if I was alright. I tried to brush it off like it was nothing, but it actually hurt quite a bit. Nothing like a hard fall to wake you up in the morning!
As I continued the day’s hike, I took it all in. I took more breaks and took in the views. I also was super hungry which accounted for the majority of the breaks. Leave it to the last day for my appetite to kick in full gear! I ate my entire day’s worth of food by 10am. It felt so weird knowing that this was my last day on the trail. I had a lot of teary moments, looking back on the struggles, pure joy, and breathtaking views I experienced on the trail. I wasn’t ready for it to be over, especially cut short. But I had no other option.
I saw a ton of people starting their SOBO journey. With Tuolumne Meadows so close, I wasn’t surprised to run into so many fresh, bright eyed hikers who didn’t smell like weeks worth of BO. They smiled happily and congratulated me on my journey. I was happy for them and a little jealous that their journey was just beginning. I ran into two older men and had a quick conversation with them before realizing one was wearing an ACA hat. The ACA is the organization I used to ride the TransAm route and used their maps for the Pacific Coast Bike Route earlier this summer. We talked about bike tours and how different it is from hiking. Good to have a conversation about something other than the John Muir Trail!
When I arrived at the Tuolumne Meadows cut off trail, I ran into a ranger. I asked him his honest opinion about Yosemite Valley opening tomorrow. “Not a chance”, he said ,rather bluntly. He also told me it wasn’t a smart idea to wait around optimistically to see if it’ll open in the next few days. He thought the valley would be closed for the entire season. Though I wasn’t surprised by his response, it still killed me. After we departed paths, I called my parents to tell them I’ll be coming home early.
When they answered, I couldn’t speak a word, phrase, or even a syllable. I was crying hysterically, coming to the realization that this was real, I was really forced to quit the trail. They calmed me down and I was able to explain the situation. After a few minutes on the phone, I saw something not far away come out of the woods. “Oh my God it’s a bear!” “WHAT?!”, I heard my mom say (her worst fear is bears) “Get out of there!”. I was only slightly alarmed, mainly because I had a pocket full of fruit snacks. I hung up the phone, threw Big Booty Judy on my back, and walked to the wilderness center. Mr. Bear followed along with me, keeping a good 40 feet between me and him. He didn’t seem too concerned with my existence, so I tried to feign the same kind of indifference. They can smell weakness, right? Luckily I made it safely to the office.
There I figured out with the help of my parents how to get home. I was going to take a 4:30pm bus from Tuolumne Meadows to Lee Vining, then take a bus in the morning from Lee Vining to Reno for a flight home. While waiting for the bus to Lee Vining, I ran into Paul and Jeff, brothers from Seattle who completed the trail a few days ago. They waited around to see if the valley would open, but gave up after a few days. Paul was going to Reno to fly home, however, Jeff was sticking around because his truck was parked in Yosemite Valley. Being retired and just recently widowed, he had plenty of time to wait for the valley to open. Both were very nice guys and I enjoyed talking with them and getting to know them. Finally the bus arrived and off I went for the journey home.
Lee Vining is a tiny town, but was a perfect place to stop for the night. Paul and I waited for the ESTA bus (late as usual) and we were shocked by what came to pick us up. It was an bus full of hikers from Mammoth who had to cut their journey short. When I say it was full, I mean it. Getting our bags to fit was an exercise in Tetris and patience. There were no seats left on the bus, so Paul and I were forced to sit on the floor. On a bus full of young, able bodied men, you would think one or two would offer their seat to a woman OR an older man, but nope. The art of chivalry and manners was lost on my generation.
Eventually we made it to the airport where I had 7 hours to my flight. I don’t even remember what I did to pass the time, I was so bored. When I finally could check my bag, I didn’t have full confidence the woman who tagged my bag knew what she was doing. I crossed my fingers that it wouldn’t be the last time I would see BB Judy. My fears were justified because when I landed in Philly, Judy was no where to be seen. Frontier’s baggage representative reassured me that she would be delivered within 24 hours. She arrived at 1:30am missing one trekking pole. Another reason to not fly Frontier in my opinion.
But I was home. Not on my own terms, but here anyway. Seeing my family and Addie was great, but would’ve been greater had I completed the trail.
I will follow up with one last final post soon reflecting on my experience. Over a month later, I’m still digesting what I experienced and the feelings I have being home and returning to work.