This story was published originally in The Bee on Sept. 10, 2006.
The Sierra reminds me.
Trail hikers frequently talk of coming to their senses in the high places -- finding escape from the din of cell phones and honks of cars. They leave behind stuff-crammed buildings, carrying only a bag.
I think the John Muir Trail reminds me how to be myself. How to play. That I'm not God. That beauty can surprise you.
And, the trout up there make grown men crazy.
I dreaded that dirty brown ridge.
Everything I heard about Bear Ridge made me dislike it. More than 2,000 feet of climbing. Dozens of switchbacks. Dry trail.
Of the 58.9 miles I would hike on the John Muir Trail in August, I fretted about the 4.6 miles up Bear Ridge the most.
We first caught sight of the ridge from the top of Silver Pass. Jim Hurley, a fellow hiker from Visalia who was walking the entire trail, pointed it out. It looked unwashed next to the gleaming snow and granite of Selden Pass. A scratchy stubble of trees covered it.
On day six of our hike, Bee photographer Eric Zamora and I left for the ridge with bellies full of toast and eggs from Vermilion Valley Resort. As we ferried across Edison Lake, I whispered prayers written on notebook paper. The wind caught and carried my words away.
An oozing blister on my left foot began hurting as soon as we hit the trail. Dull pain throbbed with every step of my boot. Then we began climbing.
I was in for a surprise. Bear Ridge was beautiful.
I stepped over cold veins of mountain water cutting through the earth. Gaps between tree branches made windows to the blue sky and the white rock soaring around us. The wind blew "shhhhh" through aspen leaves.
My plodding and panting ended with a flat trail through a scented grove. Purple and yellow flowers peeked between pine cones. I sat on a fallen tree and soaked up quiet minutes.
There was more to come. The day we climbed Bear Ridge would be my worst on the hike. And my best.
Days before I discovered Bear Ridge's beauty, I learned an important lesson about respecting wildlife in the backcountry.
Don't underestimate the power of fish.
I knew Eric fly-fished. I knew Jim fly-fished. They both loved it enough to carry fishing rods into the middle of nowhere. Fellow hiker Emily Franciskovich and I would swap "there they go again" looks when Eric and Jim began chattering about it.
Then, I saw what these fish do to people.
One morning, Jim, Emily and I stopped at Virginia Lake to filter some water. She crouched by the edge, pumping water into her water bottle. I stood a few feet away, shoving cheese crackers into my mouth.
Suddenly, his eyes fixed on the water, Jim said with metered intensity, "Girls! Don't. Move."
Jim rushed to his pack to get his rod. Moments later, he paced the lake's edge with the delicacy and energy of a dancer, never taking his eyes off the fish he'd spotted. He cursed and coaxed. The fishing line zinged back and forth.
Minutes passed. We stared. Emily broke the silence with, "Can I move?"
Jim said no, then, yes -- if she stayed low to the ground. Emily crawled basic-training style to another water bottle to fill it. Eventually, we left Jim to the fish madness and continued up the trail.
Soon, Jim will pour his wiry energy into the suit-and-tie work of real estate law. I believe he'll be good at it. But on the trail, he got to play. He dueled with a fish.
That night, we camped on the other side of Silver Pass. Emily sat bundled in cap and coat, watching the mountains around Selden Pass blush as the light faded. Jim wrote in his trail journal. He announced that the fish showdown was his favorite part of the day.
Emily kept her eyes on the mountains.
"This is mine, " she said.
Emily taught me the names of wildflowers and delighted in reading about place names along the trail. She joked that she embarked on the JMT to justify her purchase of a giant new backpack. In truth, she likes the physical challenge and the silence.
"The noises are straight from the earth, you know?" she said.
She and Jim both graduated from Redwood High in Visalia, and they often swapped stories about which classmate dated whom and who got wasted when. The rest of the time, they joked like siblings. Jim teased Emily about her novice fire-building abilities. Emily teased Jim about his expert fire-building abilities.
Playfulness counts for a lot in the backcountry.
I got teased for constantly sucking on Jolly Ranchers. One guy we ran across called them "hill pills."
The day Emily and I climbed to the top of Silver Pass, much more slowly than Jim, we noticed scratches in the hard-packed snow against the rock. We realized someone had scrambled up there and written something.
Then we realized what it said.
"Got Jolly Ranchers?"
I need to throw away the box of alcohol swabs in the cabinet under my bathroom sink.
I bought them a few days before I left for the John Muir Trail, intending to use them as antiseptics for any blisters I might get.
A few days into the hike, a blister bulged from the side of my left heel. I decided to cut it and keep it clean.
One morning, I sat on a rock and propped up my foot. I used a knife to slice open the blister. As it drained, I readied a bandage and tore open an alcohol packet.
That's when the smell hit me. Raw alcohol. What was I thinking?
After sterilizing the wound, I slowly lifted the swab to my nose, closed my eyes and breathed in the fumes. The ghost of a craving stirred in my guts.
I wish I could say that's the only time I did that. I would be lying. I did it every morning thereafter when I cleaned my blister.
I'm a recovering alcoholic. I got drunk for the first time at age 17 (cheap rum) and took my last drink at age 25 (Bushmills Irish whiskey).
During those years, I did the things alcoholics normally do: drive drunk, lose memories and disappoint people who love them. I deserved to lose my job, home and freedom. Instead, I got something I didn't deserve. Sobriety.
My first weeks without drinking were hell. I couldn't get alcohol out of my mind. Numerous times, I slept over at a friend's apartment to avoid going out and drinking. I hated myself for being so weak. But, I kept attending a recovery group, and I didn't drink.
That's about the time I signed up for the first hike I ever took on the John Muir Trail, a walk up the side of Mount Whitney. The five-day hike would be my first real backpacking trip.
Besides looking for distractions from my own misery, I went on the trip for bragging rights. I pictured myself as powerful and self-sufficient, standing atop the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states. I'm rolling my eyes just thinking about it.
The mountain did me a favor. It beat the tar out of me.
The trip began about eight months into my sobriety. By then, cravings didn't dominate my thoughts.
But I felt savaged by emotions no longer blunted by alcohol. I cried more, I loved more, and it frightened me.
In early September, we left the Valley for the Whitney hike in 100-degree weather. We arrived in Horseshoe Meadow at night, and snow flurries were falling. As I unrolled my sleeping bag with numbing fingers and crawled into it, I suddenly felt unprepared and a dread of what was to come. Fear was a familiar emotion.
I didn't know that fitful night, as I tossed under bright stars, what this trip would mean.
Without my 2004 walk on that segment of the John Muir Trail, I don't believe I could have loved this summer's John Muir hike the way I did. Whitney redeemed my hiker's soul.
The trip was harder than I expected.
Heat and cold turned my skin raw. My body hurt. I put all my clothes on each night and shivered inside my bag. One night, I cried inside my tent to the sound of the wind, desperate to pray and too empty to utter a word.
God taught me prayers on that trip that didn't have words. When I wasn't exhausted, I was dazzled. I feasted on crag and meadow, barely able to absorb the raw color around me.
Drinking alcohol taught me to be selfish without caring for myself. I was arrogant in my self-sufficiency and a stranger to grace. But along the trail, I grew to cherish the shouts of encouragement and quiet "Good mornings" from my hiking companions.
On the way down Whitney the final day, I know I looked terrible. I hadn't washed, and the skin on my face was peeling away. As I passed one of our hikers on the way down, I paused to say hello.
She beamed at me and said, "You look gorgeous." I've never forgotten those words or what they did to my heart.
During those five days, in some moment, Whitney stopped being something to defeat.
I stopped worrying about being strong enough, and I learned to visit wild places with gratitude instead of expectation.
With that illusion gone, I was free to fall in love.
After coming off Whitney, I wrote: "This trip stripped away all of my identifiers -- job, house, cat, car, family, friends, city. It punished my body, removing food, warmth, cleanliness, rest. And it exposed me, unflinchingly, to beauty that I cannot put into words."
I crashed hard on the other side of Bear Ridge.
That August afternoon, Eric pushed ahead while I stopped in shade to drink water, scarf down trail mix and take ibuprofen.
Dehydration and fatigue hit me hard, and for two hours I just focused on putting one foot in front of the other.
Late in the afternoon, Eric and I made camp at mosquito-infested Upper Bear Creek Meadow. We ran into George "Tin Man" Andrews there, a JMT hiker from North Carolina whom we had befriended at Vermilion.
As night set in, George announced he was going fishing. A few minutes later, Eric and I heard a loud yelp from Bear Creek.
George had just spotted his first golden trout. He later described the moment lovingly -- a sudden rainbow flash beneath shallow waters.
He said the trip paid for itself in that moment.
Eric and George caught four golden trout and built a fire. As mosquitoes fled the smoke and the air grew cold, George wrapped the fish in tin foil with oil and spices. We sipped hot drinks and sucked plastic straws filled with honey as the fish cooked in hot coals.
After a time, George asked if we thought the fish were done.
"I eat sushi, " Eric said.
"In North Carolina, we call that bait, " George replied.
The fish skin peeled away with the foil. We used camp silverware to floss the meat from delicate bones. It wasn't more than a morsel, and it was wonderful.
The three of us lay on our backs. There was the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, the Milky Way. Eric and I saw shooting stars.
My sleep that night was the best of the whole trip -- deep and dreamless. Eric told me it was the trout.
Maybe it was.