Southern Tier Bike Route – Getting Ready

2020 was a shock for everyone, and I was of no exception. 2020 was a year I was very much looking forward to. The start of a new decade (for me too – hello 30s!), plans for big trips, and new excitement for adventure yet to be discovered – I looked forward to 2020 with optimistic enthusiasm. And so when the world shut down so early on in the year, so did all my hopes and dreams. I was temporarily furloughed, which I took advantage to the best of my abilities by running and getting acquainted to my new road bike, baking bread, trying out new recipes, and even picking up needle point (and maybe a month long vacation to Florida). But this was nothing compared to what I was hoping and dreaming for. With so much heartache affecting the entire world, I felt selfish pining away for the lost trips and potential adventure left undiscovered because of COVID-19. This, along with a slew of unsavory events life threw my way this year left me in a pretty blue mental state that could only be brightened by a drastic change involving an epic quest.

We’re back!

The Southern Tier Bike Route (STBR) has always captured my attention, even before completing the TransAm. I was very much enthralled by the landscape that lends itself to this route – the desert Southwest. Call me crazy, but I love the romanticism found in the unforgiving vast environment, the red rock sunsets, and the resilient cacti that litter the barren, unforgiving terrain. Heat has never been an issue for me and I was never intimidated by the brutal rays of the sun. The only issue is finding someone to ride this route with me. Sheena, my ever trusting “yes man” dug in her heels at the mere mention of riding the STBR. Unlike me, Sheena does not take kindly to heat and I was lucky she was even willing to ride down the pacific coast in the summer of 2018.

But these are COVID times. And people have been known to do crazy things in COVID times. Like the one and only Sheena Sanchez asking ME if I was still interested in cycling the STBR. When an opportunity like that arises out of the blue, you don’t hesitate or question. It was my turn to be a yes man. So I said yes. And the planning began.

The shortest established route across the United States, the STBR (for our purposes) starts in San Diego, CA and travels 3022 miles East to St. Augustine, FL. It passes through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama. Being in the deep South of the US, timing is pretty critical. The western portion is high(ish) in elevation and some of the passes can experience snow as early as fall and can run into early Spring. On the flip side, the desert gets pretty darn hot in the summer (shocker) and can place an already overworked cyclist in a very dangerous position and risk for overexposure/overheating. Additionally Florida’s hurricane seasons keeps getting longer and longer. Not one who wants to get caught in a hurricane on a bicycle, avoiding FL during this season is also of high importance. The best bet, for us at least, is to start out in early March and just see where that takes us.

A rough itinerary for our ride. Starting in San Luis Obispo, we’re picking up where we left off in 2018. The second half of the STBR through LA>FL will likely look different than the ACA maps.

But not so fast! Sheena proposed another brilliant idea. Why not start out where ended in 2018? Since we ended 300 miles North of San Diego on our Pacific Coast tour, Sheena suggested starting in San Luis Obispo and complete the Pacific Coast as a warm up for the STBR. Without much arm twisting, I told her that was a great idea and so it was established. We would ride from SLO to San Diego and turn left and head East all the way to St. Augustine! With a pit stop at the Grand Canyon, New Orleans, and Panama City Beach FL, the trip was starting to really take shape.

Is it selfish to ride a bike tour during COVID times? Maybe. But traveling on a bike where you spend most of the time alone and camping at night void of crowds seems like a fairly socially distanced activity. Sure, we will have to go grocery shopping (where precautions will be taken to ensure safety), but I have to go grocery shopping in NJ as well. In fact, being on a bike I will encounter less people than I do daily with work. Being a physical therapist and working during the majority of 2020, I have become somewhat desensitized to COVID. I have worked with a multitude of patients who actively had the virus or who conquered it. While I am sympathetic towards the hundreds of thousands who have succumbed from the virus, my mental health needed a break. And because of that, I will likely make very little commentary on COVID in the following posts during this trip. I am riding to clear my mind, not focus on what derailed life for so many of us.

And so here is the plan. I have already gratefully received a leave of absence from work and my trusty steed Ol’ Bessie is already in California and reassembled. I will be flying out to Colorado the first week of March to meet up with Sheena and catch up. A few days later we will fly out to SLO, reunite with our bikes, and set off back down the coast either 3/7 or 3/8. We plan on stealth camping on BLM for the majority of this trip, or stay with carefully screened Warm Shower hosts. When all else fails, hotels are a last ditch option.

While I’m excited for this trip, it doesn’t come without reservation. Of course, there is a pandemic still continuing throughout the country. But I’m optimistic that with falling number of cases and herd immunity picking up with vaccination, we will be safe in that regard. Texas is a big state. Like huge. I’m planning on it taking up to 4 weeks to cross this massive state. Based on past tours, crossing over state lines is such a feeling of euphoria. Holding off on the gratification for nearly a month is going to take a huge mental toll on me. Third, but certainly not least, the South doesn’t have the greatest reputation for respect for cyclists. While Southern hospitality is something I have definitely read about in other blogs, I am leery of distracted drivers or opportunistic thieves. But I was worried about that in California as well, and look how great that trip turned out.

Before (Addie not included). If you look carefully, you’ll notice that we are upgrading our luxury experience with the addition of a lightweight chair! How boujee.

The bags are packed and the flights are all made. The Southern Tier Bike Route will begin just a short week from today and I cannot be more excited!

After (fat Cat not included)

Four Passes Loop (Colorado) 2018

Fresh off the John Muir Trail, I had a choice to make. Either go back to work or join my dad and brothers on a backpacking trip in Colorado. Was it even really a choice? I still had my trail legs and didn’t even have to unpack Big Booty Judy. Besides adopting Addie, this was the easiest decision of my life. I purchased a flight and soon found myself in Denver heading over to Estes Park to start the acclimation process.

My dad took it upon himself to fully research The Four Passes Loop. For the first time in a long time I didn’t have to worry about logistics, camping spots, or mileage. I put my full faith in my dad’s apt ability to make sure everything is planned down to the very minute. And considering he’s the one who taught me everything I know, I trusted him implicitly! And it felt pretty great to just go along for the ride (or really the hike) without all the headaches that responsibility brings with it.

Four Passes Loop Trail map. We were headed clockwise.
https://scoutingmagazine.org/2016/08/plan-backpacking-trip-colorados-four-pass-loop/

The Four Passes Loop is one of the most sought after loop trails in the United States. a 27 mile loop trail near Aspen CO, the trail takes a hiker over (you guessed it…) four passes around the Maroon Bells. Because I did zero planning or research, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. However, I wasn’t really too worried since I figured if I could handle the JMT, a 4 day low mileage hike should be a walk in the park. I didn’t look at a map or elevation profile. Looking back at it, maybe I should have. But it was also thrilling going in totally unaware of what challenges I might encounter.

Elevation Profile Four Pass Loop
Elevation profile I should have studied before setting out.
http://hikingwalking.com/index.php/destinations/co/co_cent/aspen/four_pass_loop
Typical Keane photo

The first day in Colorado we all hiked in Rocky Mountain National Park to acclimate. Even though I had just previously spent 3 weeks at altitude, I was worried that being home at sea level for 2 weeks knocked out that advantage. Having suffered so much from altitude sickness the first few days of the JMT, I wanted to avoid nonstop vomiting and praying for a less painful death at all costs. I was more than happy to spend some time at altitude taking in the scenery of RMNP. The first day we hiked out of Bear Lake Trailhead and headed up to Emerald Lake, an easy first day trek of just 4.1 miles.

Emerald Lake
Heading back down from Emerald Lake

The next day we upped the ante and tackled the Sky Pond trail, an 8.5 mile climb that was a lot more technical than I had anticipated. We had to climb up a 30′ water fall full of other eager hikers. The weather wasn’t exactly our friend once we reached the highest spot, with cold gusty winds that threatened to soak us with rain, but it was beautiful. And being close to 11k’, we all did very well and felt confident that we were ready to set out for the Four Passes Loop.

At Sky Pond
Nothing better than those Colorado views!
Cautiously climbing down the waterfall

Realizing that the weather in CO can turn cold pretty quickly and all of us packed shorts, we stopped at REI to grab pants. I also remembered last minute that my air mattress failed the last few nights of the JMT. Not wanting to spend 3 restless nights being jabbed by rocks and sticks, I quickly picked up an ultralight mattress. I was slowly but surely on my way to becoming an ultralight hiker – ha!

And so it was time! Because it is such a popular spot and is threatened to be loved to death, the rangers have rightly attempted to control visitors by shutting down parking lots between 8am and 5pm. If you arrive between those times you’ll be turned away and forced to take an expensive shuttle into the park. We just made it and luckily for us we found a great parking spot in the overnight lot! We filled out permits (who knows how long a non-lottery permit system will last) and we set out, just as clouds were rolling in.

The journey begins!

We spent some time at Crater Lake taking in the views, getting to see why it’s one of the most photographed places in Colorado. We weren’t the only ones enjoying the beauty. There were loads of day trip tourists, one of whom scored a scolding from my dad for flying a drone.

We pressed on as the clouds rolled in and the temperatures dropped. Soon it was quite cold and the wind was really picking up. I was worried that if it poured we’d all get hypothermia and die. Yes it was August, but once temperatures hit 60, if you don’t get dry and into a warm spot, you’re vulnerable to succumb to the effects of hypothermia. While a farfetched scenario, considering we all had pretty decent sleeping bags, I was still fearful. Or at least really unwilling to be uncomfortable for a night. I pushed that thought into the back of my mind and pressed on.

Starting to feel the chill

Along the way we met John and his dog, Sadie. Being a dog friendly trail, I was sad Addie had to sit this one out but I was happy to see another four legged creature loving life. We talked to John briefly and then proceeded to find a camp for the night a few miles down the trail. After much debate, we settled on a spot right when it started to rain. John caught up with us and set his tent in the same spot as ours. We set up our tents quickly and sought shelter. Soon the rain eased and we ate a quick dinner and got to know John better before it started right back up. The rain didn’t stop the whole night and we were stuck in our tents until the morning, something the JMT trained me well for.

Having a blast in-between rain soaks! John to the right.

The morning didn’t show much promise. The higher elevations was covered in snow and the rain didn’t stop down where we were. We were all cold and wet, miserably eating our breakfast trying our best to dodge raindrops. The first words of doubt started to bubble up in conversation. John and Sadie decided that the weather was not in their favor and the poor forecast forced their hand at heading back. They said they’ll try to attempt it in a few days in clearer weather, but going counter-clockwise. If they succeeded in waiting out the weather, we would likely see them again towards the end of our journey.

We packed up our wet tents and slogged forward. The rain did ease, but being cold and wet I was still worried about hypothermia. We soon spread apart, with Tom and Chris taking the lead and me sticking with dad. I could tell he had doubts about the safety of marching forward, as did I. My damp hands were already white and wrinkled and my toes were losing sensation (not super uncommon for me). The boys stopped and we caught up. Dad verbalized his concerns and we all held court, weighing the pros/cons of continuing the journey. Arguably the smartest of the Keane siblings, Tom whipped out his phone and opened a coin flip app. Brilliant. We decided our fate would be in the hands of Tom, literally, as we let the coin dictate our future. Lo and behold, the coin flip gods determined we were to continue on! Without debate, we did just that.

We had two passes to traverse this day, West Maroon Pass and Frigid Air Pass. With the surrounding mountains shrouded in clouds and fog encroaching in on us, I felt as if I was on a mission to cast the One Ring to Rule us all into the fiery depths of Mordor in attempt to save the world from falling into darkness. I enjoyed it and was happy with the decision of placing our future on the fickle whims of a coin.

West Maroon Pass was relatively easy, it’s approach reminded me a lot of the southern face of Pinchot Pass on the JMT. I got up it relatively easily and waited for everyone else to join, getting pretty cold and miserable in the process. Again, the weather did not give way for too much of a view, so we caught our breath and marched for Frigid Air Pass, only a few short miles away. We descended from West Maroon Pass and walked through a lush green valley.

Thrilled by the view!
Breathtaking!
hiking down from the pass gave us a taste of what we were missing out on.

We stopped at the lowest part of the valley for lunch/snacks. Completely oblivious and not dong my usual pat down to assure myself that I have all my things, we set forth. 10 minutes later we heard people yelling towards us. Being so far away, I could only make out the word “phone!”. I did the pat down I should have done half a mile back and realized my phone was amiss! In a panic, I dropped my pack and instinctively ran towards the group, running as though I was attempting to beat my best 800m time. All my photos from the JMT were on that phone that I had yet to upload. If I lost that phone, gone were those memories and I would have been totally devastated. That phone was like the holy grail to me. I realized how truly lucky I was that these folks found my dear device and thanked them immensely. We saw so few people on the trail that it was as close to a miracle as anything else that they came across my phone.

The site of the missing phone, before it went missing.

Thinking Frigid Air Pass was going to be a piece of cake, I soon ate that cake when we came to the last 100m of the pass. It was straight up. And on loose, wet dirt it was like hiking 45 degrees up sand. At points using my hands, I distracted myself with thoughts of “why would they name a pass out here after a refrigerator??” I didn’t even think maybe it was because the air is actually literally frigid. That thought and other creative names I would’ve came up with to name this beastly pass fueled me up, along with Chris laughing at how ghastly and ridiculous the climb was. We all rejoiced at the top of the pass, thinking surely this is likely to be the steepest and most difficult of the passes. Famous last words.

All smiles after finally being done with that final climb.
Atop Frigid Air Pass
Heading down Frigid Air Pass, Tom looking particularly fashionable sporting a forest green poncho.

We snapped some photos and headed our way down to our second night’s camp. As we set up near a gorgeous waterfall, the sun made its first appearance of the trip and we were all elated! Finally, there was hope for a gorgeous bright second half of the trip. Everyone was very thankful for the coin’s wise and fruitful decision.

Night 2 campsite
Look at that sun!!

We woke up bright eyed and bushy tailed for the third pass of the hike, Trail Rider Pass. Being at the lowest point of the two passes, we knew we were in for a climb. Being that I did zero research on this hike, I had no idea what that climb entailed. It entailed about 2000′ of elevation gain over roughly 2 miles. Pretty happy I had no idea I was about to conquer one of the more difficult passes I had ever come across.

The calm before the storm.

We climbed. And climbed. And climbed. It was gorgeous scenery that we got to take in with plenty of breaks to catch our breath. We even got to see a small plane fly right by us! Reassuring in so much as if we all perish on this pass, at least there was a chance our bodies would be retrieved.

The climb

But the steepness gave way to a gentler grade to the top and we all basked in the glory of conquering yet another pass. Only one left to go! The view from the top was again stunning with breathtaking views of Snowmass Lake, which just so happened to be right where we were headed as we descended the pass.

The old man made it!!
Snowmass Lake
Thrilled to finally have a view!
The only thing missing from this picture is mom.


We camped just past Snowmass Lake, avoiding the crowds the huge body of water draws. Our site was higher than the trail and we had a birds eye view of it. Chris spotted John and Sadie hiking, but they just exchanged hellos and John was on his way. I was happy they made it back on the trail, though maybe they would’ve been wise to have flipped a coin.

Final night campsite.

The next day was our last day! Just one last pass to conquer – Buckskin Pass. A little traumatized from Rider Pass, we all were hesitant to get too excited for today’s challenge. But it ended up being one of the more fun passes I’ve encountered! It was a gentle grade (comparatively) and the view was stunning.

The only bridge crossing of the trail
Heading up Buckskin Pass
The last push

We all made it to the top early and had enough time for Tom, Chris, and me to make it to the top of Buckskin Mountain, a pretty steep climb. But relieved of our packs, we made it relatively quickly. We met a friendly couple up there and snapped some pictures, a great future Christmas present for mom and dad.

We joined back up with dad and enjoyed the views of Pyramid Peak and Maroon Peak as we started back down for our final miles of the trail. But not before the plane from yesterday flew back right above us!

We ended the trail where we started and looked back with a sense of accomplishment. I don’t think any of us were prepared for the challenges we would find on the trail, mostly being the temperamental weather. But we persisted and onward we marched!

Another hike complete!

We ended the trip with a bike ride up and down Glenwood Canyon. Afterwards we shared dinner with our cousin Julie and her boyfriend Adam in Denver.

No trip is complete without a bike ride!
Unfortunately, Glenwood Canyon was victim to a brutal forest fire August 2020 and the scenery we enjoyed in 2018 is now gone, charred and scarred.

Overall it was a wonderful trip. Being only 27 miles, I definitely want to return someday soon, either to run it in one day or bring Addie on the adventure of a lifetime. But alas, after the Pacific Coast Highway bike ride, Mt. Washington, the JMT, and the Four Passes Loop, my 2018 summer of non stop adventure had finally come to an end, and I was due to go back to work the following week.

Three Sisters Loop (Oregon) 2019

The Pacific Northwest is one of my favorite scenic spots in the United States. With hidden picturesque waterfalls around every corner, green moss hanging from trees who were just saplings during the American Revolutionary War, and rivers dusted with grey gloomy fog, the PNW is the setting of fairytales and holds a very special (and magical) spot in my heart. Coming off of the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim hike, I was looking for a loop hike I could do in less than a week. When I stumbled across the Three Sisters Loop in Sisters, OR, I knew I found the one. In 2016, during my cross country bike ride, we rode through Sisters on our way over McKenzie Pass on the second to last day of the ride. Being the last pass on a 2.5 month journey, this little town made an impression. I was happy to go back and explore the Three Sisters. Plus, though this loop does require a wilderness permit to hike, you can fill one out at the trailhead. There is no limit to the number of walk-up permits so there is no silly lottery system. However, starting next year they are beginning a lottery system, so the timing was pretty darn perfect!

A map I used from https://www.hikeoregon.net/three-sisters-loop.html – a GREAT resource for TSL planning.

The Three Sisters Loop is a 50 mile trail that loops around – you guessed it – the Three Sisters. Set in the cascade mountain range, the trail takes you around the North, South, and Middle Sisters – three volcanoes of various levels of (in)activity that make up the notorious Three Sisters. Known for a very limited window of opportunity to hike due to early and late snowfall, I knew that hiking this trail in the beginning of August would be perfect.

When doing my research for this trip, I scoured the internet for trail descriptions and maps, mainly so I knew how to break down the 50 mile loop trail. I found a few great blog sites authored by folks who had hiked it, but couldn’t find much information on campsites along the trail. Being so, I winged it. All I knew was I definitely wanted to stay at Camp Lake, a 10 mile addition that takes you to a lake right at the base of Middle Sister. I also saw (last minute) that you can actually hike up South Sister. Why wouldn’t I opt to hike an additional 10 miles up an active VOLCANO!? It was a done deal. I was prepared to hike 70 miles over the course of 5.5 days. Relatively easy hike.

After gathering gear and buying a lifesaving map off Amazon, I was on my way! I flew into Portland and stayed 2 nights at a hostel there. I explored the Columbia River Gorge and revisited my beloved Multnomah Falls – true magic that not even Disney could replicate. The next morning I woke up super early partly because I had a 3 hour drive to the trailhead to start this solo journey, and the majority being that my body was still on east coast time, so I couldn’t sleep in even if I wanted to.

Multnomah Falls
Overlooking the Columbia River

At 10:30am I arrived at the Pole Creek Trailhead, one of the many trailheads you can use to access the Three Sisters Loop. It was a rough ride to the parking lot on an unpaved road full of crazy kamikaze chipmunks who took pleasure in watching unsuspecting motorists swerve out of the way to avoid running them over. The parking lot was full – except for one spot that I very quickly grabbed. It was pretty darn hot out and the lack of shade definitely exacerbated that. In 2017 there was a devastating fire that wiped out the majority of the forest in this section. Without trees, the whole area is pretty exposed without respite from the sun. So I lathered up plenty of sunscreen, gathered my stuff, and filled out my permit. at 11:19am I set out for the loop, ample time to make it the 7 miles to Camp Lake.

Entering the Three Sisters Wilderness!
The desolation found at Pole Creek Trailhead caused by wildfires

The beginning of the trail was 1.7 miles of uphill to the official loop. Once on the loop, it’s practically impossible to get lost. With the Sisters as landmarks, if you just keep them to your right (I was going clockwise), you are going in the right direction! After 1 mile on the official loop trail, I took a right and started my journey to my first “excursion” to Camp Lake. Having the time and hearing amazing things about this little lake, I didn’t mind taking the side trip. Although, the 5 miles to the lake were unpleasant and I couldn’t wait to get them over with. They were uphill and just not my cup of tea. But I did meet a very friendly ranger who was checking permits. We talked briefly about our time in the Sierras/JMT (he took kids there for summer camps) and talked about weather – in which he said I should expect thunder storms this evening. Oh my old nemesis – we meet again.

Making my way across South Fork Whyschus Creek on my way to Camp Lake.
Great photo opt displaying South Sister after a tough climb.

When I stared out, there was barely a cloud in the sky. The few that were there were convening over South Sister. They were cute little fluffy buggers, innocent looking enough. However, this wasn’t my first rodeo and I could hear them talking in my head. “Hey! Did you hear Emilie is on the trail?! Let’s get everyone together and put on a show for her this afternoon!”. Having experienced horrible storms on all of my backpacking trips (it monsooned 17 of the 20 days on the JMT), I knew that even the smallest most innocent clouds can turn the nastiest. And I was right. The party was meeting right above South Sister and they were not happy. I picked up the pace hoping to get to camp before the storms unleashed their power.

As I was rushing, I heard a loud BOOM that stopped me dead in my tracks. All simultaneous thoughts, I began to worry about thunder, gun shots, or a car door slamming. Being that none of these were viable causes for the loud and sudden noise, I looked around and right in front of me was a huge rock slide coming down from Middle Sister. Not my first rock slide (I witnessed one climbing Mt Whitney) I watched in awe. It is the most jarring sound and the cloud of dust that followed was huge. I may have been the only person who witnessed that powerful moment.

The Rockslide with dust cloud to the right of the tree.
Approaching Camp Lake just as the thunderclouds were approaching

After what felt like eternity, I finally made it to Camp Lake! I quickly found a campsite (not hard to do, there was only one other group there) and right as I finished setting up camp, the thunder rolled in. I saw 2 guys sprinting down Middle Sister in sheer panic and I soon sought shelter in my tent. I quickly wished I bought a new tent because the old Marmot ain’t what she used to be. But I had to deal with what I had. At first I didn’t think anything of this storm. Sure I was pretty exposed at 7,000′ in a crappy little tent, but like I said, this wasn’t my first rodeo. The rain was pouring down in sheets and the lightning turned pretty violent. Then the rain did too, aggressively so. I looked out and saw it wasn’t rain at all, but pea sized hail. If they got any bigger, I knew it would shred the tent. So I just buckled down and prayed that didn’t happen.

South Sister from Camp Lake
Hail following the first thunderstorm

Eventually everything slowed down to the point where I was relaxed enough to take a nap. During the storm the temperature dropped at least 20 degrees. But when I woke up the sun was shining and it was starting to heat up again to the point where my tent felt more like a sauna. I took advantage of the pleasant weather change and took a walk around the lake. It was simply beautiful. During the trek, I stumbled upon a pretty awesome snow tunnel carved by a crystal clear stream. The sun soon was taken up by more clouds and I went back to my site to cook dinner before another storm rolled through, much less aggressive than its predecessor.

At 12am I woke up and took a peek out of my tent. What I saw took my breath away. I have seen some beautiful night skies in my day, but I have never seen such a marvelous display. The milkyway was brilliant and dazzling, like a knife carving through the dark night sky. I could see it with such clarity that it was as if I could reach up and take a bite. Making the side trip to Camp Lake was worth it, if just to witness that night sky.

South Sister basking in the early morning sun

In the morning I broke down camp quickly and set out for the trail at 7am totally not at all thrilled with the prospect of having to backtrack almost 5 miles to the trail junction. But it was at least a down hill 5 miles so I packed up camp, strapped on Big Booty Judy and away I went, totally zoned out. After 2 hours I finally reached the split and set out for Green Lakes – my prospective home for the night. Being only 9 miles away, I knew I’d get there before 2pm leaving a whole afternoon to just sit around. Not one to overly enjoy free time, I toyed around with the idea of going an extra 5 miles to Moraine Lake, which would make it a pretty hefty day. My original plan was to stop at Green Lakes tonight then get up SUPER early tomorrow to drop my gear at Moraine Lake so I could summit South Sister. Going the extra distance to Moraine would logistically make sense, but I was going to play it by ear and listen to what my body told me.

Leave no photo op unphotoed!

The trail to Green Lakes had its ups and downs – literally. But let me tell you, it was pretty. What wasn’t so pretty was the attitudes of the limited amount of passerbyers I ran into. Most were not very friendly, barely getting out of your way on the trail and not even acknowledging your hello. However, the ones that were friendly donning smiles all asked about last night’s thunderstorms. We all shared the same terrifying experiences.

The trail opened up into a meadow with a full view of all three Sisters and Broken Top. It was stunning. I made it to the very aptly named Green Lake (I’ve never seen a more radiant emerald green in my life) at 1:15pm – as did the clouds. I decided then that I would go the extra 5 miles to Moraine Lake. I was worried that if I delayed getting there until the morning, all the sites would be taken and there wouldn’t be a place for me to drop my pack before the ascent up South Sister. With my mind made up and the clouds rolling in, I figured I’d better set out quickly to beat any potential storm.

The emerald brilliance of Green Lake

The 5 miles to Moraine Lake were mentally exhausting, but came with reward. It led me through lava fields and streams that were truly gorgeous. Finally I made it to the lake at 3:32pm. With thunder booming in the distance and physical exhaustion setting in after 18 miles of hiking, I found a great spot to set up camp and lay down. I was almost immediately rewarded for my decision to go the extra distance because within 2 hours all the spots were taken by other eager hikers.

First encounter of lava heading into Moraine Lake

I spent some time down at the Lake’s shore. Moraine certainly isn’t as scenic as Camp Lake – especially with 3 grown men bathing in it – but at least it’s only 0.3 miles away from the South Sister cutoff trail. I spoke briefly to the three bathing men who had just completed summitting South Sister. They admitted it was tough, but totally doable. It took them 4 hours to get to the top because of the massive elevation gain. The pit in my stomach grew only slightly. But I effectively squashed its growth. Surely if these guys could do it, I can too!

Moraine Lake, perfect view of South Sister, who I will be on top of tomorrow!

After going to bed early, I woke up early to get moving by 6:24am. With an elevation gain of 4,000′ (Moraine Lake sits at 6.3K’ where as the summit of South Sister sits pretty at 10.3K’) over 3.5 miles, I knew my body was in for a rude awakening. I don’t think I’ve ever gained that much elevation in such a short distance before (event the Grand Canyon was more forgiving) but I was ready for the challenge.

I set out at a leisurely pace, allowing my legs to enjoy what was surely to be the only relatively flat part of the trail. Then did things change – quickly. The gentle grade yielded to a steep slope with pretty efficient elevation gain. Soon Moraine Lake was looking smaller and smaller and the summit was inching closer and closer to my grasp. In fact, 2 hours in, I swore I was about to reach the top! Not too shabby! I was pretty impressed with myself when I asked a couple coming down (they spent the night at the top) if it indeed was the summit. They laughed. Nope, it was a false summit hiding the true summit. I still had a ways to go. My legs were starting to protest after the initial climb. But their protests fell on deaf ears cause I was making my way to the top, with OR without them.

Teardrop Pool

The ascent up South Sister was insane. Being an active volcano, the whole way to the top was cinders, pumice and lava rock, all of which are very unstable and loose. It’s very similar to hiking on sand – one foot forward, 6 inches back. Thank God I had enough sense to bring my trekking poles. A couple I ascended with (Paige and Ken from Lexington KY) did not have poles and I felt so bad for them. But hey, they were doing it – and I heard not one complaint from either of them.

View south of the false summit of Mt. Bachelor
Trail to the summit of South Sister. The trail is difficult to distinguish, but if you look closely you can see little specks of people ahead on the trail. Lewis Glacier to the right, Clark Glacier to the left.

The trail follows a razorback ridge with Lewis Glacier to the east. The glacier named for the second half of that famous expedition – Clark Glacier – is to the West. I didn’t know it at the time but I was between the arguable founders of the West! While taking some time inspecting the glacier, appreciating its immense and powerful presence, I noticed that it was carved with crevasses. Even with my limited understanding of glaciers I knew that crevasses are often times hidden and extremely unstable. One is liable to fall in and never come out – the cause of much of my hiking anxieties. Just as I was having this thought, I heard Paige and Ken as well as another couple we were keeping pace with gasp and say, “Oh my God! There are people crossing it!” I looked over and sure enough, there were 2 people who looked surprisingly like ants crossing over the glacier, heading straight to the deepest crevice. My stomach dropped. They were dangerously close, like 5 feet away. It made me sick. I was sure I was about to witness the traumatic death of two strangers. The other couple (Christina and Marcus from San Jose CA) took pictures every minute of the thrill seekers, tracking their progress across the glacier so when they eventually do fall in, there is a record of where/when for search and rescue. After about 10 minutes, the daring duo SOMEHOW made it across the frozen tundra and were making their way to the top on the same trail as us. We knew we’d run into them at the top.

The two daredevils having just crossed the most dangerous park of Lewis Glacier.

After a tremendous climb, we made it to the ice field that was covering the opening of the dormant volcano. The worst of the climb was over! Only 0.5 miles to the true summit with an elevation gain of 100′. I was elated. The whole rest of the hike I talked with Christina and Marcus. What an interesting couple. They have hiked 1000s of miles all throughout the country in all kinds of weather conditions. They had stories where they thought they might never make it out alive as well as stories of pure elation enjoying scenery, adventure, and good company. I could’ve talked to them for hours.

Made it! View of North Sister.


The summit offered gorgeous sweeping landscape views of North Sister and the surrounding mountains. However, after only half an hour at the top, I started to feel sick. Like violently vomit sick. I knew this feeling all too well. At 10K’ I knew I was getting altitude sickness and needed to get down ASAP. I told Christina and Marcus, and they started the descent with me, along with Paige and Ken. While we were descending, we were in the midst of 1000s of tortoise shell butterflies making their annual migration. I felt lucky that I happened to schedule this hike during the migration unknowingly, for it was such a magical moment.

I could’ve spent eternity here, if not for altitude sickness!


During the descent, I got to know both couples better. Paige and Ken are planning on retiring in Bend, OR in just a few short years to spend their golden years skiing and hiking. During the conversation, we were passed by a young man who looked familiar. Paige instantly recognized him as one of the two daredevil glacier crossers. She questioned him about his death defying trek. Dressed in baggy basketball shorts, sneakers, and equipped with a draw string bag, he was totally clueless the danger he put himself in. He admitted this was only his 3rd hike – ever. He only started hiking last week. And the other person he crossed with? They had just met that day. Beginners luck I guess.

Christina making her way down South Sister.

Soon all the couples and I parted ways at Moraine Lake. They had another 2 miles to get to Devil’s Lake, where they started. I got back to camp at 2pm completely wiped. I thought about going 5 miles to Rock Mesa Creek, but just the thought put my legs and feet into full panic mode. This time I listened. I decided to give my body a rest and enjoy the afternoon. I filled my water, went for a dip, and just relaxed, reflecting on the almost perfect day I had climbing South Sister.

*Prior to this very sentence, I gathered all this information from my trail journal, detailing every boring detail of the day. Now that I’m writing this 17 months after the journey with a lot of life changes, the trail journal is stuffed in the deepest darkest corner of my storage unit. Retrieving it requires a level of finesse and patience that I lack at this moment, so the rest of this excerpt will rely solely on my memory – admittedly my worst attribute. But because waiting to write this blog till forever has been weighing heavily on my soul (and needing to check it off for future entries this spring), I will trust in my memory and make any edits when the little red diary resurfaces.*

After a storm free night, I broke down camp and set out for another day on the trail. My expected overnight stop was only 9 miles away at Reese Lake. Thinking I would get there early, I looked into pushing a little further. I was going to make that decision once I reached Reese Lake.

Pacific Crest Trail and LeConte Trail junction.

My morning was quiet and I didn’t see many other hikers along the way. After a few miles, I turned onto the PCT where I figured was a perfect spot for a short rest. At the junction, as I was grabbing some snacks, a hiker joined me. While I forget his name a year and a half later, I will never forget this particular man. In his 60s, he was an accomplished orthopedic surgeon who did not seem overly impressed that I was a physical therapist, all but telling me he thought rehab post surgery was pointless. He was section hiking the PCT and he was on day 2 of a 5 day jaunt. At the time, though a little rough around the edges, I enjoyed his company. We set out together and hiked a few miles before I rethought my first impressions. The conversations that ensued left me feeling a little uncomfortable (not in a creepy way) with undertones that were not exactly politically correct. After he lit his 6th cigarette on the trail, I decided I needed some solitude and told him I was going to pick up the pace in an effort to ensure a camp spot at Reese Lake and I bolted, unsure but hopeful this would be my last encounter with him.

The Husband
Wildflowers were in abundance

I reached Reese Lake right around noon, entirely too early to stop. The lake was full of happy hikers reveling in the cool water on such a hot day. With much of the trail exposed, I could see where the water was tempting for a hot and sweaty hiker. But terrified of the far-fetched possibility of obtaining a brain eating amoeba, I never indulge in an alpine lake dips. I sat far from the trail with the lake still in view in an effort to avoid being spotted by Richard (I know for a fact, that’s not his name, but let’s just call him that for now until I find my journal). I ate my lunch in peace, entertained by the swimmers and the occasional dog.

Reese Lake

As I was relaxing, I looked at the map and tried to come up with a plan for the afternoon. The next few miles of the trail looked pretty bare in the way of campsites. Obsidian Limited Entry Area was 5 miles away and though would make a great spot to stop overnight, it’s illegal to do so without a specific permit. And I was plum out of specific permits. Only a mile long stretch, Obsidian was detailed as an oasis full of ferns, life, and waterfalls. I figured that outside of it’s borders there should be camp sites. Based solely on a guess, I packed up and set out for 5 miles to the southern border of OLEA.

The hike there was gorgeous, with purple wildflowers showing the way and grand views of The Husband with barely a hiker in sight, I was in basking in solitude bliss. It was a flat stretch and I was able to cover ground pretty quickly. I found myself at the edge of OLEA around 3pm. Still earlier than I wanted, I found a perfect camp spot and dropped my pack. Before setting up camp, I took a short snooze in the shade. I explored the area around camp and found the perfect site for a tent. The tent was pitched and dinner was eaten and I took in a beautiful sunset all to myself. I was so enamored by it I didn’t even think to photograph it.

After the sunset in the purple dusk, I saw Richard pass by. Not wanting to disturb my peaceful spot, I ducked low in my tent, fairly certain that he did not see me. In this moment, I wondered “am I the unfriendly hiker I was so annoyed with just 2 days ago?”. But this thought was fleeting as I told myself no, Richard was just difficult to tolerate for long stretches.

I had a disturbing night sleep that night and was happy to get moving in the morning. Though a perfect spot to stay for the night, I had an uneasy feeling about that campsite. Right before strapping on Big Booty Judy, I figured I should empty the old tank. I went over to a tree I used just the day before and right before I was to release my bladder, I noticed a black book. Where did that come from!? I picked it up and flipped through it, trying to find any information with regard to its owner. As someone who journals all my adventures, I would be heartbroken if I lost mine. I would hope that if someone picked it up, they would try their best to return it to me. However, besides some deeply disturbing doodles, there was no information as to who this journal belonged to. Despite this, I strapped it to my pack and decided I would look more thoroughly later, determined to return it to its owner.

I entered OLEA and what I read about it was true. It was stunning. I walked down to the waterfall, where I ran into Richard again. We talked briefly. He camped just right past where I was. He saw he saw my tent, but wasn’t sure if it was me. I told him I must’ve been asleep already. A little white lie never hurt anyone.

Obsidian Falls
Obsidian Falls

We trekked together on and off that day. Despite being in his 60s and a chainsmoker, Richard was in pretty good shape and could keep up with me the majority of the time, with the exception of steep inclines. We stuck together through the Sister Springs. It reminded me so much of the JMT it filled me with nostalgic yearning to go back to the Sierras.

Sister Springs

When we reached the lava section, Richard slowed considerably. I went ahead and fell completely in love with the landscape this section offered. It was like walking into an evil castle, with pumice spires and dragon fire ravaged decay. I hiked through those two miles with a smile on my face. Though gorgeous, this section was relatively steep. The switchbacks up Sawyer Bar were intense and hot, but worth every drop of sweat for that view of clouds bathing in the valley. At the top, I waited for Richard, cheering him on as he slowly ascended to the top. He was very proud of himself, and I was proud of him too. Knowing that he was pretty tired, I figured this would probably be the last time I’d see him. I told him I was planning on having lunch at South Matthieu Lake, where I’d be turning off the PCT and onto Scott Pass Trail. He’d be continuing on the PCT. We agreed we’d meet at South Matthieu Lake for a final farewell. With him still catching his breath, I continued on to make my way over Opie Dilldock Pass.

On top of Sawyer Bar
Richard taking a break on Sawyer Pass.

Compared to other passes I’ve trekked, Opie Dilldock Pass was a piece of cake. It offered fantastic views of Mt. Washington, Mt. Jefferson, and Mt. Hood. I took in the view for a few minutes before starting back up to South Matthieu Lake.

View on top of Opie Dilldock Pass
View of Mt Washington, Mt Jefferson, and Mt Hood atop of Opie Dilldock Pass

Having only hiked 7 miles to the lake, I didn’t feel super tired. But it was only 11am so I figured with only another 5 miles to my camp, I took some time to just relax waiting for Richard. It was at this point that I remembered I still had the mysterious journal from the morning. I took it out and started to read it. What I found within its pages was deeply disturbing and I had no clue how on earth this journal ended on the PCT in Central Oregon. The only entry that even alluded to the PCT was a day hike in the Sierras, hundreds of miles away. The other entries spoke only of a European backpacking trip, substance abuse, and internal struggle. The author clearly had a lot of demons, but the author was never identified. I couldn’t even tell if the author was male or female, let alone any kind of information to return the journal to them. After noticing a chill in the air, I took note of the time. It was 1pm. I couldn’t believe it! I was so engrossed in the journal I lost all concept of time. The chill was to the bone. I checked the temperature. It dropped 20 degrees since I took rest. The sky looked the ever familiar gray I have grown accustomed to and the clouds consumed the sun. I grabbed my jacket and looked at the journal. It emitted such a horrifyingly negative energy that I didn’t want to carry it anymore. So I made the decision to leave it. The 7 miles it hitchhiked on my pack was enough. I looked around for Richard, but there was no sign of him. With an impending storm and having already spent 2 hours waiting for him, I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to go. Indifferent towards not saying a final farewell to the man who I didn’t altogether enjoy hiking with, I said good riddance to the journal and headed out.

South Matthieu Lake before the clouds rolled in

Sure enough, thunder boomed in the distance and I was sprinkled with a light cold rain. I made it to the camp early, once again. Only 5 miles to the Pole Creek Trail Head and the end of my trip, I considered pushing it. But considering I wouldn’t make it into Bend until late and I didn’t know where I would stay, I decided to make camp and enjoy my last night out in the wilderness. I wasn’t all that thrilled with my camp spot – not because it wasn’t great, cause it was. It was right next to the flowing Alder Creek and pretty secluded. I just had an eerie feeling about it. That night I tossed and turned, with images of the journal floating through my mind. I’m glad I got rid of it. I’m convinced it was evil and I didn’t want it anywhere near my tent.

Ominous sunset at Alder Creek.

I got up early that morning and got out of Dodge. The 5 miles in the wildfire stricken forest went by quickly and I soon found myself at the parking lot, the end of another journey.

Final view of South Sister from Pole Creek Trailhead

While I enjoy any adventure I go on, this one was different. Devoid of too many other hikers, I was alone for a good portion of it, not something that usually bothers me. But this time it did. Looking back on it, I should’ve planned to hike longer mileage days so I didn’t have so much free time. I could’ve easily hiked this trail in 4 days as opposed to the 6 I took. The terrain was not difficult and aside from the voluntary South Sister venture, the elevation change was manageable.

Soon I was on my way to Bend, where I explored, got souvenirs, and had a wonderful dinner. At dinner I met Alex and his friend. We spoke of the adventures they went on together and of the Three Sisters Loop I had just finished. We agreed to hike Mt. Bachelor the next day before I had to head to the airport. However, that night I opted out after doing some research. The road to the trail head required a 4×4 and I did not want to risk damaging the rental car. So I thanked Alex for the invitation via text, but declined the offer. I was saddened that I had to refuse, as the pictures he showed me were awe inspiring.

This trip confirmed my love for the PNW, offering different landscapes that I fell in love with. My night at Camp Lake and the hike up and down South Sister was so incredibly memorable, it was worth every step just for those two experiences.

Rim to Rim (Grand Canyon AZ) 2019

Prep

When an outlandish idea infiltrates the thin “danger” filter of my mind, it’s hard for me to shake it and soon it consumes my every thought. I was in search of a mini vacation, as I hadn’t been in one in way too long. After a short internet search determined that most feasible hikes were inaccessible due to high snowfall that continued through June, I figured I was just going to have to wait until late summer to set out on my next adventure. I am cautious enough to know my limitations with regards to technical skills (of which I have none), so imagine my disappointment when my search yielded no results for a snow free trek. Then by some unknown power – some may call it divine intervention, other pure idiocy – the idea popped into by mind to hike the Grand Canyon, a dream of mine for some time now. Surely the Grand Canyon won’t be covered in feet of snow, right??

The hike I had set my eyes on is infamously known as the Rim to Rim hike. This world renowned trek starts at one end of the canyon, goes down to the bottom, crosses the Colorado River, then heads back up the other side. Depending on the route taken, it is a 21-24 mile venture recommended only for experienced hikers and it is advised to be done either in the month of May or late fall, as temperatures in the canyon can reach highs of 120 F degrees easily during the popular summer months. It is also highly recommended that hikers split up the miles over a few days to prevent hiking in the heat of the day and the sheer exhaustion that is sure to ensue after a hike of this nature. Most deaths in the park do not occur due to falls of high ledges (though Instagram worthy selfies are causing a spike in this number), but instead are due to dehydration, hyponatremia, or heat stroke from unpreparedness on the part of an overly ambitious hiker. The National Park Service has it posted in the park (see pic below) and on its website to NOT attempt this hike in one day. Upwards of 20 people per day are rescued within the canyon due to ignorance and lack of respect of the environment in which the canyon calls home. Going down is easy, going up is mandatory and requires 2x the effort. Add in heat and sun exposure, and you have a recipe for disaster for an inexperienced human looking for a good photo-op to end up in grave danger.

Due to planning in the past a Rim to Rim hike over 4 days 3 nights, I knew that the logistics and planning the trek can be just as difficult as the hike itself – and luck is a huge player. Below the canyon rim, there are 3 campgrounds and one ranch hikers can stay in. Perfect! The only hang up is that for camping you need a permit and to stay in the ranch you need to plan a year in advance for a reservation or luck out with a last minute cancellation. Permits are assigned in a lottery based system that I have never had any luck with. There is a high demand and low supply for these precious permits. There was no way I was going to score a one last minute, so if I wanted to hike Rim to Rim it had to be in one day. A daunting task and lofty goal, but one I thought I could attain. As I said earlier, it is not advised to hike past the end of May due to rising summer temperatures. Being late May when the idea popped into my head, I missed the window of opportunity. But early June is close enough, right?!

I knew immediately I wanted to start the hike on the North Rim, as it is 1000 feet higher in elevation and 14 miles of descent. The problem is where to stay. The North Rim is not nearly as popular as its Southern cousin and has a lot less amenities. There is a campground and a lodge that also fills up a year in advance. On a whim I called the lodge and asked if there were any cancellations in the first 2 weeks of June. After a short pause, the concierge affirmed that there was a room available for June 7th. I booked it immediately and just like that the plans were set in motion for me to do a Rim to Rim hike in one day on Saturday, June 8th – two weeks away.

I booked a campsite at Mather Campground on the Southern Rim (again, really lucky I snagged a spot last minute) and scheduled a shuttle from the South Rim to the North Rim, a 5.5 hour journey. The shuttle service is a godsend, as the hike is a thru hike, it would be really inconvenient to get done the hike and have to figure out a way to get to the other side of the canyon where you likely had to park. The last thing I booked was a flight. I had to pep talk myself to pull the trigger – as booking a flight would force me to commit to this ambitious trip. I was ready for the challenge apparently, because I hit “Book Flight” confidently and next thing I knew, I was getting ready to fly into Phoenix for the adventure of a lifetime.

Let the research begin! Like I said, I have poured over the details involved with planning a Rim to Rim hike before. I knew I wanted to descend via North Kaibab trail and ascend up to the South Rim via the Bright Angel Trail. The South Rim is also home to The South Kaibab trail. It is more spectacular and shorter than the Bright Angel Trail (7.1 miles vs 9.5 miles), however, it comes with its disadvantages. It is a much steeper and more difficult ascent and it does not have water access or any ounce of shade, not a risk I was willing to take for a shorter journey. I spent hours reading blogs by others who Rim to Rimmed in one day, watching youtube videos, and creeping on Instagram those who were doing it in current time. I read their words, jotted down tips, and compared my fitness level/experience with theirs. I was on par with all of them and with proper preparedness, I was confident that I would be able to complete this hike.

Though the forefront of my mind was confident with my abilities, the little voices in the back of my head that have power when I sleep were not convinced. I spent many sleepless nights rolling around or ripped from sleep with a rapidly beating heart worrying about everything that could go wrong. Heat stroke. Cardiac arrest. Hyponatremia. Slip and fall 1000’s of feet to my death. Broken bones. Helicopter rescue costs. All of these at the same time! I felt like I was in over my head and about to undertake an impossible task. I tried my hardest to shut these voices up right until the night of the big day.

Soon I found myself on a flight to Phoenix June 5th. From there I spent the night and morning in the gorgeous Sedona. In the morning I watched the sunrise from Airport Mesa and hiked Cathedral Rock. I only made it half way up because there was a lot of rock scrambling involved, the last thing I wanted was to snap my ankle in half. So I turned around and was on my way to the Grand Canyon.

I checked into Mather Campground, set up the old tent, and explored the South Rim. I peeked out over the vastness to the Northern Rim and felt a pit in my stomach. Only 10 miles away (as the crow flies), it looked like an eternity. Was I really about to hike from there to here!? How is that even possible!? Well, I would soon be finding out.

After a very crowded and rowdy sunet – seriously people stop blasting your EDM music on blue tooth speaker in National Parks, your holding everyone present hostage to your horrible music tastes – I had a great night at Mather Campground. The night sky I saw during a 2am bathroom visit were awe inspiring. I could see thousands of stars, including the shooting variety, and the Milky Way. But alas, the sun woke me up at 4:30am – a good indicator of when I could expect the sun to shine in the canyon the very next day! I broke camp, ate breakfast, and mosied around until the 8am shuttle to the other side. While moseying around, I ran into an older gentleman who told me he hiked across the canyon 50 years ago over a few days. I told him I was attempting the same hike in one day. Quite taken aback, he looked me up and down and said “Well I guess you look fit enough, good luck” and walked away. Well, that was reassuring.

And the reassuring didn’t end there! At the shuttle meeting place, I talked to a Canadian father/daughter duo who just literally came off the trail after a 4 day hike. The 8 year old girl was cheery and said the hike was easy. The dad, not so much. Once again my one day trek was met with blank stares of disbelief. Fabulous. The shuttle itself over to the North Rim was full – mainly of hikers who just finished a multiday hike. One other young female and myself were the only ones about to begin ours. For once, my single day solo hike wasn’t the craziest idea in the room! Stacy was planning on getting dropped off at the trailhead and beginning the hike down to Phantom Ranch (14 miles) that afternoon, in the heat of the day. Everyone in that shuttle looked at her like she was crazy. During their hike the bottom of the canyon reached 110 degrees and there were 15 rescues. They picked apart her gear and all but subtly told her she wasn’t prepared. Made mostly in jest (she was a good sport) they offered her tips and one guy, Thomas, even lent her his hiking poles. I was the only one who told her she was perfectly fine, in a way I was also reassuring myself. Soon we arrived and Stacy was off to what I’m sure was a great hike for her!

As I grabbed my bag I heard something metallic hit the floor. I instantly knew what it was. My rose pin that represents my Grandmother’s watchful eye from Heaven fell off my pack! I went in full panic mode – that pin has been with me for the last year and a half through all my adventures and this was the trip I needed it the most. I frantically looked all over the street holding up traffic (I didn’t care – this was bigger than their need to check into the lodge) until I found it with a sign of relief. The back fastener was missing, but I bought a cheap pair of earrings at the gift shop to replace it. All was well in the world – the pin was placed in a safer location and wasn’t going anywhere.

I checked into the lodge and signed up for the 4am shuttle with 2 other women who were rim to rimming in one day. I had originally planned on starting at 3:30am, however, the shuttles to the trailhead (3 miles away) ran on the hour starting at 3am. After some contemplation, I decided to move the departure time to 3am, mostly because I would be so worried all night I definitely wasn’t going to get any sleep! No use delaying the inevitable! I explored the North Rim a little and ran into 2 brother in laws who were also getting the 3am shuttle to the trailhead that next morning. The thing is they had just hiked from the South Rim the previous day. I couldn’t believe it. They apparently do this every year so they’re used to the suffering. They offered to let me hike with them so I don’t get lonely, but I told them I’d only slow them down. I got dinner at the lodge and soon went to bed for a restless night of sleep!

Apparently I did get some sleep, as I was jolted awake at 2:15am by my blasting alarm. I ate a few bites of a sandwich, downed some chocolate milk and electrolyte drink, and did one last pack sweep to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything. Big Booty Judy is sitting this hike out, as she is too big. I got a new pack a week before the hike and he was making his big debut! Introducing Earl Grey! Hope he’s up for the task! I walked over to the lodge lobby and was greeted with a full shuttle of early rim to rim hikers, including the 2 guys I met the night before. In fact, they were the only men on that shuttle. There were 2 groups of 3 women and then me. At the trailhead I got a picture with the North Kaibab sign and was officially off at 3:09am.

The Hike

Wow. It’s dark. Even with this headlamp, I can barely see in front of me, let alone what’s over the ledge. What was that noise? Oh my god there are mountain lions around here. Am I being stalked by a mountain lion!? Well at least I’m not going to wrong way, there are Jason and what’s his face’s headlamps in front of me and those women’s behind me. Okay you got this. Legs – do your thing. I don’t want to hear one complaint from you, you hear me!? We’re going to do this and we are going to ENJOY it. Cause I can’t turn this body around, so you’re gonna suffer and you’re gonna like it.

These were the thoughts going through my head the first 2 miles of the hike. That’s how long it took me to get used to hiking in the dark and getting over the fact that I was actually in the process of achieving a goal that I had been eying up for years.  I was in descending into the Grand Canyon.  In the dark.  One misstep and BAM I’m 1500′ down off a cliff and another statistic and lesson as to not hike Rim to Rim in a day.  But, as I’m sure you’ve surmised, that did not happen.  However, there were some close calls.  I recall being sufficiently freaked out that I couldn’t see the bottom of the canyon when shining my light down there, that I hugged the inner canyon wall.  Due to rain runoff and limited ability for proper drainage on the trail, there is a bit of ditch along the inner trail, only an inch or so.  Well, looking behind me to see how far the folks behind me were, I accidentally got my right foot stuck in the ditch.  My already weak ankle rolled, causing a huge crack and causing me to fall – a bit way too close to the edge.  I scrambled up and got as close to the wall as I could.  My ankle hurt for a minute and caused me to panic for split second, but I knew I was fine.  I let my heart beat slow before starting again.  I learned my lesson on distracted hiking.

But alas, the clumsiness didn’t end there.  During one particular infamous part of the trail (infamous to me as I recognized pictures of it) under a small waterfall, I encountered some slick rock.  I was very carefully transversing the rock praying I didn’t slip when just that happened.  One foot went, then the other started sliding and I could feel myself helplessly start to slip off the ledge – which wasn’t too big of a deal, as there was a rock shelf right under the waterfall.  However, if momentum kept me propelling, surely I was a goner.  Luckily I was able to get my balance and hustled to a dry spot.  Again, time was needed to lessen my heart beat.

At this time, thankfully, the sun was making its first appearance at 4:37am and there was sufficient light for the headlamp to be turned off.  Not shortly after this did I reach Manzanita rest area, a little over 5 miles into the hike.  As I approached the rest area, Jason and What’s His Face were just leaving, impressed that I had caught up.  I spent about 3 minutes there and ate something small before departing.  There were people there camping who were just waking up.  They weren’t supposed to be camping there, as Manzanita is not a designated campground.  The people there probably sensed my irritability of them breaking the law, so I went on my way.

It was only another 1.4 miles to Cottonwood Campground.  Ideally, this would be my first overnight stay had I gotten permits.  I arrived at 5:37am when the campers there were just getting up.  I spent 10 minutes there resting my legs and mind.  I didn’t need to refill water, as it was only 60 degrees and I hadn’t drank much yet.  I put on my T-shirt and I was on my way.  7 miles down, 7 to Phantom Ranch.  9.5 to the top.  I felt great, I was ready to conquer the trail.

During the first mile to Phantom Ranch, I caught sight of the 2 guys.  But not before falling again and this time drawing blood! Curse my weak ankles!  My chase instinct kicked in and soon I caught up to them.  They showed me Ribbon Falls from a distance, something I would’ve otherwise missed as it was behind us.  We couldn’t access the falls, as the bridge leading to it was taken out in the winter.  It looked pretty mangled.  With such a tight time table, Ribbon Falls wasn’t on the agenda, as it was 1 mile out of the way.

Soon we reached the notorious Box/Oven. It is called this because you are boxed in between very high canyon walls.  When the sun shines on these walls, it causes a heating effect that can reach over 120 degrees during the head of the day, hence the appropriate nickname of “the oven” It was only 6 something in the morning and the sun was far from the depths of the canyon.  Being that I was so worried about this section, I was elated that I could actually enjoy it in 70 degree temperatures.  And did I enjoy it.  I loved every second down there.  Following a stream through a slot canyon, I marveled at the canyon walls and the beauty I found.  I let the guys get ahead of me as I took pictures and the time to enjoy it.  It felt like being in Zion, only the magnitude of it being the inner depths of the Grand Canyon made it feel all the more awesome.  At this time I felt my energy level start to deplete, so I grabbed a Guu and felt instantly better! Highly recommend these things, made a major change and they actually taste good.

Making my way through the Box, I passed a few folks who were staying at Cottonwood Campground.  They jokingly called me “Trailblazer” and “Speedy”.  Soon I caught up with the guys and before we knew it, we were at Phantom Ranch! And it was only 7:47am!  I was shocked.  During the planning process I was convinced I wasn’t going to reach the ranch until 10:30am.  I overestimated how difficult the descent into the canyon was going to be.  Turns out, I’m faster than I thought.

I accidentally blew right past the general store at Phantom Ranch and decided it wasn’t worth it to go back.  So I kept trucking another 0.25 miles to Bright Angel Campground where I took an hour break and soaked my feet in the stream.  I saw the guys go past me as I was soaking and figured that would be the last I would see of them.  I was astonished that I had already hiked 14 miles and had less than 10 to go.  I was halfway done and still felt pretty good!  My hips were starting to ache a little, but I figured going uphill and using different muscle sets would change that. The temperature at the campground read 79 degrees. Knowing that it was only going to get hotter from here on out and the sun would be beating down on me the rest of the way, I put on a tank top and loaded up on sunscreen.

And so, I began my ascent at 8:47am.  Only 0.5 miles away was the might Colorado River.  I took some time to take in the magnitude of the infamous river that carved out the very canyon I was exploring and paid my respects.  I crossed the magnificent bridge and was now on the Bright Angel Trail!  The whole first section of the trail had views of the bridge and I loved it.  Except for the sand I encountered for about a mile.  I hate hiking in the sand.  But soon it came to an end.  At this point I was fully aware of the sun’s presence. It was intense, but not stiffling hot yet. 

I played leapfrog with a bunch of other hikers the entire way to Indian Garden Campground. Some of them looked like they were not enjoying themselves so much. Interestingly enough, the ones who looked the least happy were also the ones without trekking poles. I’m telling you folks – invest in a pair of these bad boys. They are life and energy savers. I made my way up another landmark – Devil’s Corkscrew. I had watched a youtube video in which the guy made it sound like this was the most HORRENDOUS part of the hike. Was it steep? Yes. Was it hot and in the sun the whole time? Also, yes. But doable? Totally. I actually loved it. I climbed it and laughed to myself about how silly I was to have dreaded facing it. 

19 miles in (officially the furthest I’ve ever hiked in one day), I reached Indian Garden Campground at 10:45am. Again, I was surprised by the time I was making. I only had 4.5 miles left, I could totally be done this hike in 12 hours. As soon as that thought crossed my mind, I instantly made it my goal. Because when it comes to common sense vs. bragging rights, bragging rights always wins, right?! I felt I could do it because my legs still felt great and my mind was still very positive.

I spent an hour at the campground. I met Zach, a Colorado River rafting tour instructor who was hiking sweep for a group of 28 people who were hiking up from the river. He had the horrible job of carrying the packs of folks who were too tired to carry them themselves. Unfortunately for Zach, 3 people were really struggling so he had to manage their packs and his own. I did not envy him.

And so, I left for the final ascent at 11:45am, confident and elated. I looked back and could see the trail that leads to Plateau Point, a trail that is very prominent at the South Rim. I thought forever that this trail was Bright Angel Trail, but Zach informed me that I was wrong. Next time I’m at the Grand Canyon, I would love to head out to this point, as it is fabled to be the most beautiful vantage point of the whole park. 

After leaving Indian Gardens is when the day hikers started to become an issue. By day hikers I mean unprepared folks in flip flops and 16 oz of water trekking way too deep in the canyon without any respect for those coming up. Can you tell I’m not a huge fan? I made it the 1.5 miles up to 3 mile Rest House at 12:35pm. Oh what a glorious site that Resthouse was. I was starting to bonk again (but was revived with Guu to the rescue again!) and getting cranky with all the people polluting the trail. And the sun. The sun was hot and intense and now I was battling other people for shaded spots. 

I spent 10 minutes at 3 Mile Resthouse, downed some Pedialyte, and got rolling to 1 1/2 Rest House. Only 3 miles left! And boy was I ready for these 3 miles to be over. At one point during this ascent, I looked over at the North Rim and was overcome with emotion. Not sure if it was because I came to the realization of how far I came so easily when I thought surely I’d be dead at this point or the sheer amount of physical and mental exhaustion I was experiencing, but let me tell you, it felt cathartic. I was proud of myself. But pride is a sin so I wrapped up this special little moment and ventured on. 

At 1:35pm I reached 1 1/2 Mile Rest House. Again I took 10 minutes and pushed on for the final stretch! The sun was pretty overwhelming, but I knew I only had a little more to go. At some point along this stretch my left knee decided it had had enough and put on a bit of a show. I couldn’t put weight through it and soon was completely reliant on my trekking poles. See- life savers!! Even hobbling with my one bad knee, I was still passing day hikers, though I think it was probably because I had a bit more adrenaline in my system than they did at this point.

I came across a tunnel, which I knew marked the end of the trail. In my head I thought, “Wow, I came across this pretty quickly. Only 200m left!”. I was elated so I took a picture with it. And then puzzled. And then angry. After a good 400m, I realized that this was a false tunnel. There must be 2 on this trail.

I was minorly dissuaded, as my knee was screaming in agony and I still had God knows how much longer left. But hobbled on I did and BAM I saw the real tunnel! Again I was overrun with emotion, but pushed it to the back of my mind as I always do and limped up the 200m left to the finish line. 

2:37pm. I had made it. Under 12 hours. Not accounting for break time, the actual hike itself took 8.5 hours.

This is my favorite venture to date. Mostly because I had been dreaming of accomplishing it for so long, but unable to pursue to do the powers that be and forces outside my control. I never imagined hiking it in one day, but thank God that I had a fleeting thought that maybe, just maybe, I could do it. Being in the depths of the canyon and seeing the forces that carved such a marvel was humbling. I am thankful to God for listening to my prayers, my health for the ability to do this hike, my mind for pushing my body, and my body for getting me the 24 miles across the canyon. I will be thinking fondly on this experience for my entire lifetime, and look forward to getting to explore the canyon even more in the future. After all, I left a piece of my heart out there, I have to go back to make sure it’s being treated right, right!?

Rim to River to Rim, anyone?!

Day 20: Unfinished Business

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.

Day 19: Coming to Terms

August 4th 2018; Rosalie Lake – Lyell Fork; 16.3 Miles

Last night was the first night on this entire trek that I was actually cold.  Honestly, I can’t complain, especially when I though I’d be cold every single night.  I woke up still half frozen to a beautiful sight – no smoke!  It was perfectly clear. Hope pumped through my veins warming up my body.  Hope that maybe, just maybe, the fire is on its way  to being contained and that Yosemite really will open tomorrow. Fueled by this hope that my trip may not have to be cut short, I packed everything up and set out for today’s hike.

This morning, I passed nothing but lakes.  From Shadow, to Ruby, to Garnet, to Marie, it was nothing but lake after lake that I’ll never be able to keep straight.  Garnet and Thousand Island Lake were the big ones. And they were pretty darn stunning.  In fact, Thousand Island Lake is pretty infamous along the JMT.  Originally, we were going to stay there for a half day.  I scratched that plan last night.  Good thing. Cause only 8 miles from Rosalie Lake, I got there at 10:30am.  I would’ve been quite bored.  Plus a lot of people had the same idea of staying there and it was pretty packed.  Not my kind of scene.

Onward I went to Rush Creek, where I had planned to stay.  Getting there meant going over Island Pass.  Funny thing about Island Pass is you don’t even realize you’re going up it till you’re already over it and on the downhill!  It’s barely a bump in the trail and snuck right up on me, or maybe I snuck right up on it? Either way, it was an anti-climatic pass and as such did not yield any kind of view.

I got to Rush Creek shortly after 1pm.  Still feeling pretty good, I wanted to keep going because I was aware that tomorrow would’ve been a hard and long push to Tuolumne Meadows if I didn’t keep pushing.  So with the attitude of “why put off till tomorrow that which you can do today”, I tossed Judy onto my back and we marched onto Lyell Fork.  Only 4 miles away, it looked like a perfect little spot to stop.  Only problem was it was just past Donahue Pass.  At 11K’, I knew it would be considerably more difficult than Island Pass.  But then again, just about anything is more difficult than Island Pass.I had all the time in the world to get over it, so I wasn’t worried.  After the terrifying incident crossing Silver Pass in a lightning storm, I would prefer to avoid passes in the afternoon.  You just never know when a mega monsoon might rear its ugly head! However, the skies this afternoon were clear – clear of clouds and clear of smoke! Perfect.

During the climb, I had a little blimp of cell service and told my parents that the smoke was gone! Hooray! They don’t have to worry (my mom even sent a picture of Addie in a mask, no doubt showing support).  As soon as I lost reception, the winds picked up and guess what it blew in?! Within minutes, the canyon was full of thick smoke, obscuring any view of my surroundings.  Great. I’ve been looking forward to Donahue Pass for weeks and now I won’t be able to see anything! Oh well, life’s unfair sometimes.

With the wind and smoke and tired legs, the ascend up the pass wasn’t the most fun. But it at least went quickly.  I was officially in Yosemite!!  I got a little emotional at the top.  Donahue is the last pass of the JMT going NOBO, a pass I was certain I’d never get to see when I started.

I made it down to Lyell Fork at 4pm, very weary and glad to have made it.  As I was setting up my tent, it started to rain ash.  All hope I had in the morning was quickly, well, burning up and turning to ash.  I talked with two guys who started in Tuolumne Meadows that morning who had spoken with some rangers before they left.  They said that none of the rangers were optimistic about the park opening tomorrow.  In fact, many of them said they wouldn’t be surprised if it remained closed all season.  That’s when it hit me.  I’m likely going to have to quit tomorrow.  And that is also when I accepted it. I can’t push pas this.  I have to swallow my pride and let the universe have this win. Besides, I cried enough about it in Mammoth.

So it looks like I’ll be ending 20 miles shy of Happy Isles.  But, I already hiked these miles with my family a few years ago, so technically I will have hiked the whole JMT, just not in one shot.

I’m exhausted.  The wind is still kicking around and being annoying.  I have a feeling it’s going to be another cold night.  But it’s the last one so big whoop.  At this point, I can handle it.

Day 18: Take It Easy

August 3rd 2018: Mammoth > Rosalie Lake; 9 miles

I woke up to the sound of my alarm, ready and excited to get back on the trail.  Though I was glad to have a roof over my head and a bed to sleep in, the Hostel was loud and I missed the quiet comfort of my tent. In fact, I got better sleep in my tent than I did in the hostel!  I went downstairs to grab a quick breakfast and promptly left after getting into a slight altercation with a man who thought he was more entitled to my phone charger than I was.  After dropping out of the JMT due to smoke, he found himself low on battery charge and ordered me to let him use my cord because he forgot his.  I had overheard him telling another hiker how much of a big shot he is in DC, so I told him he could find a cord at the Rite Aid down the street… surely he could afford one there.  I grabbed Big Booty Judy and soon we found ourselves on the shuttle back to Red’s Resort.

On the bus I was relieved to see that I wasn’t the only crazy person going NOBO directly int o the line of fire.  There were plenty of folks doing the same thing!  We got dropped off at 8:30am and I hiked with a group of guts from SoCal who were section hiking.  We passed by the famed Devil’s Postpile.  Not entirely sure what to expect, I was left minorly disappointed by the monument.  Really interesting looking, however, it was such a small geological feature that has accrued so much notoriety on the trail I was expecting a little more.  I stayed with the group until the JMT junction and we played leapfrog for the rest of the day.

Where I am camping tonight has been an issue of internal debate for the last couple of days.  Originally, I was supposed to stay at Rosalie Lake.  But that’s only 9 miles from Red’s Resort, and I wanted to go a little further to make it to Tuolumne by Sunday.  The problem with going further is there is no reliable water. Jen Warned me of that and gave the recommendation of staying at Rosalie Lake.  When I asked the guys their opinion, they agreed.  They told me to just take it easy, what’s the rush? I wasn’t sold until I actually got to the lake.  It’s beautiful, possibly my favorite late yet! I fell in love immediately and knew I had to stay here for the night.  I found the most perfect camping spot and an even better writing rock! The only problem is that it’s pretty windy and smoke is starting to settle right in the lake.

Speaking of smoke, all day it was a very ominous presence, causing an eerie feeling amongst the dead trees I’m still hiking through.  However, it hasn’t really bothered me or affected my breathing.  Someone at Red’s gave me an N95 mask, however, I haven’t had to use it yet.  And not that I’m really planning on using it – it makes breathing harder, especially when hiking uphill.

I was really tired today, (maybe it was all the blues at Bluesapalooza last night) so I wasn’t really bummed about calling it quits at 12:30pm today.  I had the whole afternoon to myself, save for a when the guys came over to inspect my campsite after seeing how much better mine was than theirs.  We had a nice conversation about their experiences in the Sierras.  I even taught them the thunder position, something they may find useful considering how many thunderstorms there have been out here.  They had never heard of it before and poked fun at me for even knowing what it was.  All in good fun.

Being in such an inspirational place has put me at peace, something I was definitely in need of after being in Mammoth.  I love it out here and am so sad to think that a week from now it’ll all be over.  I know once I get home I’ll be daydreaming about it out here, wishing I was back in it, despite all the adversity and hardship I have experienced.

The peace and quiet has been interrupted by a group of boys daring each other to jump in the frigid lake.  The air being filled with their screeches allows for some entertainment.  What’s not so entertaining is them urging each other to “just pee – you pee in the ocean, what’s the difference?”.  No – please don’t.  I’m pumping water from there later tonight.

With the smoke, the sun looks beyond spooky.  It look downright post-apocalyptic! After 5 pm it turns bright pink and you can look right at it.  The closest phenomenon I can compare it to is the solar eclipse.  It evokes the same kind of almost primal doomsday feeling.  I’ll be glad when I won’t have to deal with smoke anymore, I can definitely say that.

Day 16 & 17: And on the 17th Day, Emilie Said, “Let There Be Rest”

August 1st & 2nd 2018: Deer Creek > Red’s Meadow Resort; 5.5 miles > Mammoth

My poor weary body can rejoice! I’m writing this on a comfy chair in a hostel with a full belly of REAL food.  I haven’t had a 45 pound pack strapped to my back for over 24 hours and my legs feel fantastic! Although smoky and hot, this rest day in Mammoth was just what I needed.  However, I am getting a little itchy to get back on the trail tomorrow… it feels like cheating being off of it!

Yesterday I got to Red’s Resort right in time for breakfast.  The 5.5 miles there were easy, however, they were filled with devastation.  I walked through a forest of dead trees, likely dead for a while.  I’m unsure how they got that way (Edit: Lightning sparked fire in 2008), but there was an odd beauty to the destruction. As I descended into the resort, I saw the smoke that I had been warned about.  It made for hazy views into the meadow.  People coming up from the meadow were wearing N95 masks and complaining about how thick the smoke was down at the bottom and warned me to get out as soon as possible.  When I told them I was headed into Mammoth, they said that it wasn’t much better there.  Great!  Eventually I made it to Red’s (such a beautiful sight to see the sign!) and had a delicious – albeit pricey – breakfast.  Worth every cent.  Afterwards I picked up the resupply bucket and rooted through it to see what goodies I wanted to take along.  I gave most of it back because I still had too much food leftover from the MTR resupply and Marybeth had her resupply in the bucket as well.

I stuck around at Red’s for a while, talking with other hikers and just killing time since I didn’t have a plan for when I got into Mammoth.  Eventually I caught the shuttle into town and I checked into the Moderne Hostel.  I went around town to get supplies for a much needed shower.  Mammoth is not very pedestrian friendly.  Walking anywhere is putting your life on the line.  Luckily, however, the town offers free trolleys to you take to and from various points of interest.  Just simply hop on board and go to your destination worry free! I took the most amazing shower and for the first time in over 2 weeks I felt clean!  Plus now I won’t terrify Boy Scouts hiking the trail with my hairy legs – pretty sure I gave a few of them a decent fright as they passed by open mouth shocked by my legs – ha! I met the woman staying in the same room as me. Jen from Monterey (we bonded over their impressive farmer’s market) was hiking the JMT SOBO, but bailed out at Mammoth due to severe knee pain that started after coming down from Donahue Pass.  She was going to spend a few days here to see if it felt better, but after not being able to put any weight through it, she made the tough decision to drop out.  She was awesome to talk with and is a super friendly and sincere person.  Living in CA so close to the trail, she is planning on coming back out next year to attempt it with her 16 year old son.

Soon it was time to think about dinner. Someone who I had met on the TransAm suggested I go to Liberty Grill. It was right down the street and is owned by a Philly guy.  After looking them up online, I saw they had burgers and was immediately sold.  Though not entirely hungry, I still ordered and ate everything.  It was all gone quicker than I’d like to admit.  The poor people at the bar had to witness the pure savageness of me devouring that food. When I got the bill, I came to learn that Danny offered to pay for my meal! Thanks Danny!!

With an uncomfortably full belly, I went back to the hostel and immediately went to bed to sleep off the food coma.  At exactly 4am, I woke up and immediately regretted scarfing down all that fried greasy food.  I had a bad case of bubbly guts and practically fell off the top bunk in a rush to get to the bathroom.  Pretty sure I gave Jen quite a fright in my frantic rush.  I should’ve known this was going to happen – after 2 weeks of such bland foods, assaulting my stomach with a burger and fries was not a great idea.  But it tasted so good!!

In the morning I went to a coffee shop to try and figure out a game plan for getting to Yosemite amidst all these fires.  Mammoth is extremely smoky. In fact, I woke up to the smell of smoke this morning.  I know that a bunch of JMTers are either cutting their hike short or cancelling it altogether because of reports of smoke.  I began to question whether my bullheaded decision to try to push to Happy Isles was smart, or (more importantly) safe. Ultimately I came up with the conclusion that if the smoke gets too much to handle, I’ll just turn back and come home from Mammoth.

So the plan: get to Tuolumne Meadows by Sunday, when Yosemite is rumored to reopen.  If it opens, great! I’ll finish the hike in 2 days. If it doesn’t, I can camp out there for a few days till it does.  If I run out of time, I’ll find a way back into a town where I can catch public transportation to a major airport and fly home.  I is unclear whether or not YARTs is operational right now due to the fires.  If it is then it’s an easy ride into Mammoth. If it’s not, then I’ll just have to stick out my thumb and catch a ride into town with some generous stranger.

The prospect of potentially having to end this experience early is heartbreaking to me.  Even though it’s only 2 days worth of hiking, I wanted to finish more than anything in the world.  After having such a tough first week and not being sure if I would even make it past that, I would feel incomplete having to quit early when I know physically and mentally I am capable.  But with such a devastating fire rolling through such a beautiful place, it is completely selfish of me to think this way.  I hope the fire is contained soon, not only for my and other hiker’s benefits, but for the preservation of Yosemite and the safety of the firefighters working so hard to contain it.

With all my maps laid out on the table in the coffee shop and my dirty smelly ratty cloths,  I guess I gave off the hiker vibe.  A guy, Josh, recognized me as a JMT hiker immediately and struck up a conversation.  Being a photographer and having lived in Mammoth for some time now, he is very familiar with the Sierras and the JMT in particular. Seeing I was alone and likely bored, he invited me to Bluesapalooza with him and his friends, a yearly blues festival held right down the street from my hostel that apparently is the event of the year.  How lucky I was to stumble into town the exact weekend it’s being held! Having nothing better to do, I figured why not indulge in a little bit of Mammoth culture.

I’m so jealous of people who live in California.  All of Josh’s friends were talking about all the trails they have done and how easy it is for them to get a walk up permit for whenever they want to go camping out in the backcountry.  Not fair! It took me weeks of planning and stressing to get my permits! Oh well. Such is life.

After only being able to tolerate the Blues festival for an hour, I left to get some sleep.  I talked with Sheena on the phone and practically cried about how much I wish she was here with me for this hike! Oh well, next time!

Being back in civilization has made me want to get back on the trail ASAP.  It is such a weird feeling being in a town when you know you have unfinished business out in the wilderness to attend to.  I don’t like the feeling so I’m ready to hop on the first bus outta Mammoth tomorrow and get back to Red’s so I can (hopefully) finish this hike!

Day 15: A Woman on a Mission

July 31, 2018; Silver Pass – Deer Creek: 15 Miles

I woke up this morning a little groggy.  It took me a while to fall asleep, but once I found the sweet relief of sleep, it was hard to shake it off.  I did get up once during the night to a rustling next to my tent.  My body decided that right then was the perfect time to relieve myself.  With a swift shake of the tent to scare off whatever was creeping around (I always think it’s a bear). I saw a beautiful night sky free from the dark clouds that held it captive just a few hours before.  The moon was shining brightly behind a thin veil of misty clouds.  Though eerie outside the comfort and safety of my tent, I found immense beauty despite being so vulnerable and alone.

Although my alarm went off at 5:30am, my body did not.  It was a record slow camp break down for me.  By body is beyond tired, so I gave it a break and let it take its time this morning. Besides, I have a super easy day today… or so I thought (dun dun dun!) No matter what, however,  I was going to make it to that campsite and that one spot that potentially has service.  I think a big reason why I’ve been sleeping so poorly is because I’ve been so worried about loved ones at home.  After no contact in over 2 weeks, the mind goes wild with horrible scenarios in which everyone in your family died in a fiery car crash. Or maybe the entire East coast was wiped out by a nuclear bomb.  Or maybe Addie ate another baseball and this time wasn’t so lucky.  How would I know out here in the wilderness if any of these possibilities actually happened!? So I made it my mission to find this elusive service spot and today was the day this mission was to be completed.  I just had to get my achy 28 year old body to get on board – no easy task.

But I forced it to, as I have been this entire journey.  For the sake of Addie and my mental well being, I had to make it.  The morning started with a beautiful downhill view of the mountains, bathing in the amber glow of the early morning sun.  With a little added haze of the smoke, it looked like a painting.  But soon that downhill turned into a harrowing uphill, complete with switchback after switchback in the sun.  I have grown to absolutely detest switchbacks.  They are long and neverending.  Seeing the top the whole way up is mental torture.  Finally I was at the top and only had a short hike to Virginia Lake.  Yesterday, I toyed around with the idea of going further to stop at Virginia Lake because everyone told me how gorgeous it was.  But after talking with Jeb at Silver Pass and he told me it was a 1500′ climb (now the switchbacks make sense) I decided nope – I put my body through enough.  Plus the lightning storm solidified my decision.

I really thought that was the last of it with regards to climbing.  Today was supposed to be easy!  I took a nice rest at Virginia Lake and headed for another uphill battle up to Purple Lake.  It was up and down all day.  Although tough and unexpected, today was one of my favorite days view wise.  The lakes were beautiful.  And after the lakes came views of mountains. Gorgeous vista views along a crest for 5 miles.  It took my mind off the constant up and down.

But as you can tell by the pictures, those mountains did not look happy. No, they were blanketed in storm clouds, complete with rain and thunder. However , the rain was light (only but a drizzle) and the lightning was a minor threat being miles away.

Soon I approached the zone that was promised to have service.  I turned my phone off airplane mode and kept walking.  And walking.  Just when I gave up all hope on getting service, I heard the familiar ding of my phone! I reached the sacred zone, and it had perfect service.  My mission was successful.  I immediately called my parents and all is well! Addie is happy and healthy as is everyone else.  So I should (hopefully) sleep well tonight.

After such great news, I happily hiked to the campsite.  The happiness ended when I was promptly kicked out by a rude man.  I was (and still am) annoyed by it.  In fact, he’s wearing a mosquito net and there are literally no mosquitoes out tonight, which I’m thrilled about.  Because the campground is full, two young guys from the Bay area allowed me to share their campsite.

Earlier today while getting water at Duck Creek, I ran into two brothers hiking from Bishop to Mammoth.  They’re staying in the same campground and I got talking with Chris. He’s really nice and has a 12 year old daughter interested in backpacking. Great! Start them young!!

Tomorrow is a short jaunt to Red’s Resort.  I’ll probably get breakfast there and head into Mammoth.  Not sure where I’m staying yet, but I’m definitely looking forward to a shower and bed and real food!!

Day 14: Silver – Definitely Not Gold

July 30th 2018; Bear Ridge Junction – Somewhere Past Silver Pass: 14.6 miles

Oh what a day. I feel like I can start any of these entries with this phrase, but today was truly some sort of day.  I didn’t sleep well last night. With every noise pulling me out of whatever minimal state of unconsciousness I found myself in, I was jolted away with a fight or flight response.  Normally I’m fine sleeping in my tent, but last night was not one of those nights.  When I finally did doze off, my alarm went off at 4:45am – just in time for an early morning hike to VVR.  however, at the same time,  I saw that Marybeth had texted me on the Garmin.  She’s fine (hallelujah!) but won’t be meeting me at VVR.  I went back to sleep, content on skipping the holy grail of stops.  I wanted to get to Mammoth ASAP and a frivolous stop for a milkshake and a free beer didn’t exactly fit my plans.

The 5.5 miles to the VVR junction was all downhill. Aggressively so.  3 miles of it was rocky switchbacks.  I nearly fell 1/2 a dozen times getting down it.  If I was having that hard of a time going down, imagine the poor folks forced to go up it.  I passed nearly 20 of them, each one looking more miserable than the last.  I even waited for a mule train to pass.  I can’t believe these huge animals can navigate such narrow paths.  But thank God they do.

I had plenty of time to catch the ferry, however, like I said earlier, my drive to get to Mammoth by Wednesday fueled my drive to continue moving on.  That mean a 7 mile 3K’ climb over Silver Pass. Making sure Addie is okay was worth the torture I knew would ensue with this decision.

My whole body was sore and tired from overdoing it yesterday. I attacked this pass with a whole lot less tenacity than I did Selden Pass. I hated nearly every second of it.  I found excuses to stop every half an hour (well is refilling water really an excuse? It was hot I was drinking a ton of water!), making the climb take even longer.  I take back what I said yesterday about northern passes being gentle and gradual.  Leading up to Silver Pass was steep, ungodly so.  I suffered today, my friends.  But like all the other passes, the suffering eventually came to an end and I made it atop.  At 2pm, much later than I would’ve liked.  Although it wasn’t my favorite pass to get atop, it did yield one of my favorite views, even with the hazy smoke! At the top, I met Jeb, a fellow NOBO hiker who hiked the trail SOBO in 2016.  His pace is much faster than mine, so this is likely the only time I’ll run into him. He left and not soon after, so did I.  The rumbling of thunder was heard in the distance and soon rain fell from the sky. Being fully exposed on a pass, I knew I had to get down. Quickly.

I scurried down from the pass as quickly as my tired weary legs would allow.  I still had 2.8 miles to my camping spot and most of those miles were exposed. Not where I wanted to be when suddenly right in front of my face lightning danced across the sky.  With no option for shelter and honestly quite terrified, I went back to my grade school days and recited the rosary while practically running down the trail.  The lightning was nonstop and I couldn’t tell which thunder belonged to which lightning. Didn’t matter, all I knew was the lightning was way too close for comfort. It was just one constant symphony of thunder and I wasn’t too big a fan of the performance. In an otherwise completely safe situation, would’ve been beautiful, but unfortunately, that was not the situation I found myself in.  Soon my mad scramble down the mountain led to sporadic bunches of trees.  I went from tree to tree until I was safely below the treeline, where I soon found my home for the night. And a perfect home it is! Tucked under some big trees, I was able to set up my tent and stay dry! The storm lasted for about another hour before giving up.  And now the sun is shining, of course!

One this I’ve noticed since starting the solo journey is that people going the opposite direction are way more prone to starting a conversation in passing.  Not that it bothers me, it gives me a rest and distraction.  Plus most of the people are super nice and give me information about what’s happening up North with regards to the fires.

I’m only 20 miles away from Red’s Meadow Resort.  I’m planning on getting there tomorrow.  Just kidding! It’s a relatively easy 15 miles to a nice looking campground tomorrow – and rumor is there’s a spot a mile before this campground that has Verizon service.  I can call and make contact with family and friends!! Plus that makes Wednesday’s journey to Red’s Meadow a pretty easy 5 miles. Perfect!  Today was one of my toughest mental days.  With a fatigued body and brain, I’m pretty susceptible to my mind going negative.  I had a few tearful moments feeling sorry for myself, but got my act together pretty quickly.  No tears allowed on the trail!