This story was published originally in The Bee on Sept. 24, 2006.
Among hundreds of peaks that form the High Sierra, Tawny Point is barely a bump, an insignificant pile of rocks dwarfed by two 14,000-foot neighbors, Mount Tyndall and Mount Williamson.
During all those nights the Mount Whitney High Country trail map lay open on my dining room table, I spent hours studying the jagged contour lines of Tyndall and Williamson. Tawny Point never once grabbed my attention.
Guess I had to be there.
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When I first saw Tawny Point on the afternoon of Sept. 1, after a 10-mile hike over Forester Pass, I couldn't help but notice how perfectly the husky 12,322-foot mountain reflected in the placid water of the Tyndall Frog Ponds. When the sun dropped, I marveled as its crumbling cliffs turned from white to glowing yellow. After darkness enveloped the sky, I sat alone in the forest, gazed at its brooding outline illuminated by a perfect half moon, and felt pure exhilaration.
Compared to better-known places that photographer Tomas Ovalle and I visited along the John Muir Trail, on the fourth and final leg of The Bee's monthlong trek, insignificant Tawny Point hardly seems worth mentioning. Except I can't get those images out of my mind.
That's the thing about having a wilderness experience. You never can predict when the magic happens. It just does -- and sometimes where you least expect.
Before setting off on our 70-mile hike, which began in Kings Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America, and culminated atop Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states, my skeptical mind wondered how much real wilderness would be out there.
So many people from all over the world trample the John Muir Trail that in certain circles it's known as the John Muir Highway or (even better) the John Manure Trail.
Full confession: Those circles often include me.
Ever since T.J. Osborne and I scaled Kaiser Peak in the summer of 1985 while working as counselors at a Boy Scout camp at Huntington Lake (and earning a two-month stipend of $75), mountains have been an integral part of my existence.
In my late teens and early 20s, I backpacked throughout the Sierra Nevada, including several trips of a week or longer on the Muir and Tahoe-Yosemite trails. Years later, as my tastes graduated to alpine climbing, I began using trails as entry and exit points for cross-country routes.
Even though cross-country travel in the High Sierra is relatively easy, at least by mountaineering standards, few actually do it.
Which, to me, is kind of sad. Trails may reduce the need for backcountry navigation skills, but they also limit the experience. Instead of being free to explore, you end up walking only where others before you have walked, camping where others have camped and seeing what others have seen.
Where's the adventure in that?
So while being tethered to the Muir Trail for seven days as it crosses two 13,000-foot passes and one of nearly 12,000 feet certainly beats the alternative of being tethered to my desk, I'll admit to some initial reservations.
And that was before phrases like "satellite phones" and "daily blogging" entered the conversation.
When John Muir ventured into the High Sierra to study the movements of glaciers or wax poetic about wildflowers and songbirds, he carried little in the way of provisions. Often, all he brought was homemade bread and tea.
I was taking two bear canisters stuffed with dehydrated dinners, dried fruit and nuts, beef jerky, oatmeal, energy bars and powdered electrolyte replacement drink.
When Muir made the first ascent of Mount Ritter, solo, in the fall of 1872, he didn't bother with a coat or blankets. He slept in a thicket of pine trees and maintained a nearby fire to stay warm.
I was packing long underwear, a fleece pullover and beanie, a down vest and sleeping bag rated to 32 degrees. Not to mention a tent, foam pad and tiny pillow with its own stuff sack.
Yes, modern conveniences are wonderful. But there's a line I don't cross, and it lies somewhere between digital watches and GPS units.
To me, the allure of wild places centers on a primal urge to "get away from it all." Backpacking strips away the excesses of urban life and reminds us of what really matters: food, water, shelter, companionship. Everything else is superfluous.
I worried that dictating my thoughts into a satellite phone and speaking with folks back at the office would hamper that process. What I came to realize, however, was this hike wasn't about me. This was a chance to actually report from the mountains and take readers along for the journey.
Hearing how colleagues on the first three legs struggled to pick up a satellite signal, the whole debate seemed rather pointless. My ever-resourceful bosses, however, managed to rent a new phone just before I hit the trail. While this new phone couldn't transmit photos, my voice would bounce off the stratosphere just fine.
Tomas and I didn't begin our journey on the Muir Trail. To get there, we hiked 151/2 miles from Road's End, meeting up along the way with Jim Hurley and Emily Franciskovich. The 27-year-old longtime friends from Visalia had been part of The Bee's journey since Yosemite Valley.
Early on, foot traffic was light. But the closer we got to the Woods Creek Crossing, 6 miles below the heavily visited Rae Lakes basin, the more people we encountered.
To my surprise, the dozen or so backpackers I met along the trail that afternoon didn't seem like too many. At an unnamed creek tumbling down from Sixty Lakes Basin, I helped Burkhard Kempf, a middle-age German traveling with his brother, Egon, scan the trail for his lost sunglasses.
Burkhard, who carried the lighter backpack, was comfortable in conversational English. Egon, who carried the heavier one, could only manage this sentence: "I'm the sherpa."
At Dollar Lake, I swapped stories and posed for pictures with John Franssen and John English, two buddies from San Diego, as they enjoyed their first multiday backpacking trip.
"I've noticed it's not so much about the scenery and the miles but the people you meet along the way, " said Jonathan McAuley, a 30-year-old from Park City, Utah.
As much as I enjoyed conversing with fellow backpackers, something still was bothering me -- and it didn't take long to figure out what.
All I had to do was take a big whiff.
Look, I realize that without horses and mules much of the Muir Trail would never have been built and certainly couldn't be maintained. But why should backpackers be compelled to endure manure every step of the way?
The smelly piles are everywhere: forests, meadows, passes, even stream crossings. Lose the trail? Just follow your nose.
At Arrowhead Lake, I discovered horses aren't the only animals that leave behind messes. In our campsite, I found bits of plastic wrap, scraps of toilet paper and a dried-up tea bag.
Even though there was a metal bear box nearby, required for food storage, a strand of nylon rope hung from the branch of a foxtail pine 12 feet off the ground -- the remnants of where someone had hoisted their bear bag.
As I sat on a granite slab writing my daily blog and wondering how long that rope would be stuck in that tree, my thoughts were interrupted by the thundering roar of a military aircraft.
They call this wilderness?
Every backpacking trip has one day that stands apart. For Tomas and I, (and I suspect Jim and Emily as well) it was the day we tackled 13,180-foot Forester Pass and entered Sequoia National Park.
Forester Pass, the highest crossing on the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail that stretches from Mexico to Canada, haunted me. On my last visit there a dozen years earlier, it took every ounce of my strength and willpower to reach the top.
This time, I ate an extra packet of oatmeal and broke camp early.
The climb started innocently enough, but soon the trail poked above timberline and started zig-zagging above a rocky, unnamed basin with a cluster of snow-fed tarns. Plump marmots watched me from their lookouts, whistling as I passed.
The thin air was beginning to take its toll, robbing my blood of precious hemoglobin, when I got my first glimpse of the summit. It didn't look much like a pass at all -- more like a wall between two peaks.
I swallowed hard and kept hiking, buoyed by clusters of wildflowers called red fringe blooming at 13,000 feet. Amazing how life so fragile can exist under such harsh conditions.
On a switchback that was blasted into the mountain, my eyes focused on an intricate rock wall designed to keep the trail from eroding. I thought about the days of labor it must've taken just to build this wall and offered silent thanks to those who did it.
My head buzzing in this manner, I counted off the final switchbacks and arrived at the pass quicker than expected. Before me in both directions stretched a never-ending panorama of barren mountains, blue skies, deep canyons and forested ridges.
I felt total euphoria -- and a little light-headed. For the first time on the trip, I could see beyond the end of my journey.
Here's how Muir himself described mountain passes like Forester in his first book, "The Mountains of California, " published in 1894:
"To the timid traveler, fresh from the sedimentary levels of the lowlands, these , however picturesque and grand, seem terribly forbidding -- cold, dead, gloomy gashes in the bones of the mountains. ... Yet they are full of the finest and most telling examples of Nature's love. ... Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain-passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action."
I wasn't the only one feeling on top of the world.
Jim and Emily, who grew up in Visalia, had been told their whole lives that some of the most spectacular scenery on Earth was right in their backyard.
Both were incredulous, dismissing the notion as little more than hometown pride. But now, with Mount Tyndall and the peaks of the Great Western Divide rising in front of them like opposing fortresses, their glowing eyes saw a different truth: This is some of the most spectacular scenery on Earth. And it's in our backyard.
"Of all the places we've been, " Jim said as we marched across a windswept plateau toward Tyndall Creek, "Sequoia is the best by far."
I was inclined to agree.
By the time we arrived at the Tyndall Frog Ponds that afternoon, all the horse manure, litter and rope left hanging from tree branches had vanished from my thoughts.
Tawny Point was ready to work its magic.
From Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney, the Muir Trail passes through a world of towering peaks, deep gorges, lush forests, fragile meadows and literally thousands of lakes, rivers and creeks.
It is a world where man's impact touches only a thin ribbon, so that by leaving the trail you can find utter solitude.
But no matter how splendid, scenery alone isn't the sole reason for the trail's allure. From seasoned wilderness trekker to first-time backpacker, everyone who leaves footprints along its 211 miles is part of the larger story, a human tale.
As an outdoors writer, I often struggle with how to best describe nature to people reading the paper at the kitchen table.
Want to experience the Muir Trail? Get out there and leave some footprints of your own.