Mount Mendel's jagged profile turned a surreal pink at sunset. Staring at the spectacle -- it's called alpenglow -- I fiddled with a blister on my hand, and I couldn't get my father out of my mind.
Cancer had just killed him. He died five days before I arrived here.
I am in my early 50s, but I was feeling like a 7-year-old without my dad. I had come to the High Sierra to hike and write about a section of the John Muir Trail. The trip would become a rite of mourning in a breathtaking outdoor cathedral.
When my father was diagnosed in late June with an advanced case of colon cancer, I was already scheduled to hike as part of The Bee's four-leg trek along the 211 miles of this trail.
In June, I imagined I would sweat out the crisis in a deeply spiritual Sierra walk. I would haul my 40-pound backpack 78 miles and return to his side while he fought the disease.
But in July, my father had surgery, and his prognosis plummeted. The cancer had spread to his liver and decimated it -- "it's more tumor than liver, " the surgeon said. He died Aug. 17. My hike started Aug. 21.
I was crushed, and my emotions were unexpectedly fragile. But knowing this hike had been my dream for a decade, Dad had insisted that I confront the challenge whether he lived or died. I had to go.
In magnificent Evolution Valley under the alpenglow, it occurred to me that I was surrounded by life and death. Mosquitoes, bats, squirrels -- all struggled to survive each day. Even the day itself seemed to die slowly in a blazing sunset.
I turned from Mendel to look west, where shades of yellow and red smoldered above meandering Evolution Creek. I couldn't decide which direction to look -- facing east toward the alpenglow, or west toward the shimmering creek. I suddenly choked up and stared down at my boots.
My God, it was only Tuesday, the second day of the hike. Was I going to lose it at every sunset?
I spent eight days on the trail. It was a good thing, helping me work through my feelings. But, on the first three days -- Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday -- it really was not so good. I was an emotional mess.
Washing my hands in the San Joaquin River the first evening, I chuckled remembering a line from Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist Edward O. Wilson: "There are 4,000 to 5,000 species of bacteria in each gram of forest soil." I think I found every single one of them on my filthy hands.
The first hurdle on my lengthy backpack had little to do with emotion. It was just the obvious: life in the wild for a 50-something guy.
There are no bathrooms, no soap dispensers up here. Taking care of essential body functions becomes a matter of finding a rock or a tree away from streams or lakes.
Nudity happens, too.
If you dive into a cold lake above 11,000 feet in elevation to wash off the trail dust, you want to pull off those wet shorts and get into dry clothes. It's no big deal, but you stumble upon naked strangers.
For me, the much bigger impact came from the physical punishment. Each day, I carried 40 pounds, walking an average of 10 miles at high elevation, sometimes climbing 2,500 feet and often crossing streams and snow fields.
Think of climbing an obstacle course up more than a half-mile of stairs with a 4-year-old on your back.
Twenty-five years ago, I could shrug it off. I'm a different person now. I have four doctors and diagnoses ranging from torn cartilage to lactose intolerance. I have a special section for pills in my backpack.
Don't misunderstand. I am a longtime runner, an experienced backpacker in summer and a snowshoer in winter. At 5-11, 155 pounds, I am still an athlete. So is my 50-something hiking partner, Bee photographer Mark Crosse. He and I have walked to Mount Whitney, Half Dome and other Sierra destinations.
But by Tuesday night, I had blisters on each foot, aching shoulders, a slightly swollen right knee and a touch of tendinitis on the left knee.
The "ouches" were minor. I would be fine after a night of rest, Motrin and blister cushions called Moleskin.
Nutrition was another matter. I probably burned 3,000 to 4,000 calories daily. At the end of the trek, I was eating two dinners a night and running out of food. I lost more than five pounds, which is a big loss for me.
It was worth the pain and pounds.
The sunset in Evolution Valley was a once-in-a-lifetime view. The sights kept coming. We found campsites at two High Sierra lakes where time seems to have stopped.
At Wanda Lake, Mount Goddard juts out at 13,568 feet, complete with glaciers in the chill of primitive Evolution Basin. Boulders are scattered wherever the receding Ice Age left them 10,000 years ago.
Above Upper Palisade Lake, 14,000-foot peaks soar. The trickle of glacier-fed streams plays quietly as night falls. The sky fills with starlight and shooting stars. The temperature hovers in the high 20s. We slept out without a tent to see the stars.
Said backpacker Bernie Tevelde, 65, of Seattle, "I've been hiking more than half of my life. The beauty here is unbelievable. This puts Washington to shame."
But I could enjoy this paradise only to a certain point in those first few days.
Nature haunted me. I saw my father in the gnarled lodgepole pine, the glacier near a ridge line and the emerald pool along an unnamed creek. Grief would sweep over me. At Colby Meadow, I dreamed of my father's death.
Strangely, my dad would not have come anywhere near this place.
Anthony "Rocky" Grossi spent months in muddy, snow-filled foxholes in Korea more than 50 years ago. My dad was a Bronx-born city boy, the son of Italian immigrants. He was drafted into the Army, and his tour in Korea gave him his fill of the outdoors.
However, the frigid Korean winter was not his biggest problem. He had to kill enemy soldiers. It scarred him forever.
He was a sniper and a ferocious soldier, I learned. Twice, his platoon charged an enemy position on a hill. Both times, he was among the few to come back alive.
Dad had trouble keeping the rank of sergeant. When he was promoted, some loudmouth would say the wrong thing to him. Dad would slug him, and the stripe was gone the next day. But he was the guy the brass wanted running the patrols in the meanest firefights.
After his tour, he came home to Bakersfield to my mom, Lee, and his 1946 Ford. He would meet his new daughter, my older sister, Toni. She was born while he was away.
He spoke little of the war as I grew up in the 1950s and '60s. I knew him as a distant, uncompromising disciplinarian.
He worked six days a week, delivering beer. He was an honest, loyal and intense man. And he knew sports, especially his beloved New York Yankees.
That's really all I knew about him. I had no clue how complex he was. Right into my young adult years, we did not know how to get close.
Fortunately, when I launched into my 40s, our relationship warmed. My parents moved to Maui in the late 1980s, but the distance didn't matter. My middle age drew us together. We talked about maturing children, finances, retirement, politics, spirituality, love and hope.
In the last 10 years, I always sought his advice in dark times. My dad was my prized confidant.
His wisdom came to me early in the hike, but it did not calm me. His death was smothering that voice and the trek.
I woke up filled with regret at Colby Meadow on Wednesday morning. I realized I had made a terrible mistake coming up here.
My angst came to a head at Wanda Lake later that day. I wanted to hike faster to numb my racing mind: How is my mother? What will I say in the eulogy? Should I have skipped this trip and gone straight to Maui so they could schedule the service immediately?
That's when Mike Nickau, 51, of Riverside strolled by camp. Nickau chatted with my partner Crosse. He mentioned he had just quit a great-paying job as a chef to hike the trail. Crosse asked him why.
"I just got done with cancer about nine months ago -- Hodgkin's lymphoma. I'm clean, " he said. "I say, if you have the opportunity to do something like this hike, do it and stop worrying about everything else."
It was like a bolt. My father seemed to be speaking to me through this cancer survivor.
Crosse sensed the moment, snapping photographs. I tried to interview Nickau further, but he waved me off.
"People don't want to read about me, " he said, sounding remarkably like my dad.
I didn't need the interview. With a few words, Nickau had changed the whole trip. Suddenly it was better. Not good. But better.
My mind slowed. But I continued to hike faster, and I wasn't sure why.
I began to notice many of the people we met were 50-plus. In this section of the trail -- northern Kings Canyon National Park -- the closest roads are two days' hike away, sometimes more. It's the highest High Sierra, remote and stunning, and the 50-plus folks know it.
"This is the place we really like, " said Bill Edwards, 58, of Orinda.
"We've been coming here for 30 years, " said Ann Waters, 55, of Montrose.
We met younger people, too. Three teenagers blasted past us Friday at the Golden Staircase, a lung-searing ascent to the Palisade Lakes. Gasping for air, I asked one teen how he liked the staircase.
"Not bad, " he said without a hint of being winded.
I settled into a sweet rhythm with nature for the rest of the hike. My emotional moments toned down. The backcountry finally touched my soul.
Camping Thursday night at Little Pete Meadow, we woke to see a four-point buck -- a deer with a large set of antlers -- browsing in the meadow. We saw marmots, grouse and lizards.
We smelled wild onions and admired the stubborn, stunted wildflowers that somehow survive above 10,000 feet.
We cleared 12,100-foot Mather Pass on Saturday, followed the next day by 12,130-foot Pinchot Pass. The last day, we walked off the trail 15-plus miles from Woods Creek Crossing down to Road's End.
We were so exhilarated that Crosse and I dived into the freezing Kings River. When I surfaced, I knew my father's spirit had never left me. And never would.
By then, I understood why I wanted to quickly finish my dream backpack. I still had thousands of miles to go.
Five days later, I leaned out of a boat in the Pacific Ocean between Kihei, Maui, and a volcanic crescent called Molokini.
The blue salt water foamed iridescent as my brother-in-law, Tom, and I poured out my father's ashes. My sisters, Toni and Leann, my mother, Lee, my wife, Sue, other family members and close friends tossed flowers on the water.
The boat moved on. In silence, we watched the floating flowers and a white halo of his ashes.
A playful sea turtle later poked his head out of the water. A warm, Hawaiian breeze gently brushed my face. My Muir Trail journey had finally ended.