In the second week of August, I went backpacking on the John Muir Trail.
The idea was that Bee journalists were going to explore the reasons people set upon the quest of hiking this world-famed route, which stretches from Yosemite Valley to the top of Mount Whitney, and whether it changed them afterward.
Four teams divided the 211-mile route and have been blogging about their daily adventures. A series of print stories will run on Sundays in September beginning today.
Photographer Darrell Wong and I had the first leg.
I hadn't been backpacking before. (Well, once. But only overnight. And we had pesto pasta and wine for dinner, and my gimpy dog came along.)
But I thought I had given myself, and the entire project, a big fat swipe of no-set-expectations insurance:
"... an adventure, by definition, has no certain outcome, " I wrote in the Aug. 6 introduction, parroting a saying from my childhood.
We invited readers along the journey with a no-fault disclaimer: "We don't know for sure where all of this will take us."
In case you missed the blogs, here's the quick rundown. I fell off logs and rocks and down mountains. I fell into logs and rocks and mountains, invariably face first. I recalled, a bit late, that I have a touch of vertigo. I hit heads with Jim Hurley, who joined us for the trek at the last minute. He became the unappointed, but de facto, leader, and I became the vanquished marching to someone else's schedule.
In order to even get my pack on, I had to bend at the waist and shake my hips in a manner usually only found in music videos. The satellite phone we brought for blogging hardly ever worked. And my fame on the trail preceded me. Hikers would take one look at the redhead in the white cowboy hat and say, "Hey, aren't you THAT reporter?" -- meaning "Hey! You're that klutz everyone is talking about!"
In short, I managed to trip, slip and slide my way across the Sierra.
Then I came home. And that's when things got difficult.
I kept thinking of Nigel Dean, 50, and Tim Glenn, 47, two English buddies intending to hike the John Muir Trail.
I met them on my second day of hiking. They were carrying a bear canister, the clunky barrels that backpackers use to protect their food, in a shopping bag. They told me they were hiking "The Great Walks of The World" and the John Muir Trail was next. They made it sound like there was a definitive list, stamped and approved of by a universal strolling community.
They'd already walked choice bits of the globe over the past 16 years: the Italian Dolomites, the Isle of Corsica, the Tartars. But those routes had little huts along the path. This time, Nigel and Tim had to stop at REI in San Francisco and spend $1,500 on equipment for their first backpack.
"I think walking is healing for the mind, body and soul. And wilderness takes it yet another step, " Nigel said.
They looked exhausted as they made the climb to Sunrise Camp.
"You don't do it for the grueling, but sometimes the grueling is part of it, that's just the pity of it, " Tim said.
They had had their first mishap the night before.
"I had a disaster with a dehydrated chocolate fudge cheesecake, " Nigel said. "I put three times too much water and I'd never heard of graham crackers so I didn't know what they meant when they said to put those on top. In the end, we drank it. It wasn't a bad hot chocolate, albeit an expensive one."
I loved all of this: that grueling is just the unintended pity of a quest to heal body, mind and soul; and that screwed-up chocolate cheesecake can still be a fine cup of hot chocolate. These were the exact kinds of cheery truths I wanted to gather on the John Muir Trail.
But just days later, I would cling precariously to a rock thinking of those who went before me and those still behind me. And I would think of Nigel and Tim and inwardly scream to them to take their shopping bags and cheesecake and plucky British wit and flee! Find some pleasant, rolling hillside. These mountains weren't for messing around.
John Muir was not a trail kind of guy.
He was arguably a superhuman. He was the first to climb peaks that even now, with modern equipment, are treacherous and mostly out of reach, and he did it wearing nail-heeled boots carrying a knapsack with only tea and bread. He set his own schedule, disappearing for days and weeks, going where there were no trails. Later in life, he would grow ill and feeble when he was not in the wilderness. He would set off for trips and his family would beg him to stay, telling him he wasn't well enough to go. But he would return with renewed health and vigor. Wilderness for him really was a tonic.
The trail that bears John Muir's name was finished in 1938, 100 years after his birth. As I first walked the John Muir Trail, I felt it was like a magic tunnel through his world. All around was a true, vast wilderness. But the trail offered a flatlander like me safe passage. At least at the beginning. Farther along, the path got steeper and rockier and stopped at river after river, some of which were running fast.
The first how-do-I-cross-this? stream I came to on my trek was as wide as a backyard pool is long and about 3 feet deep. Boulders formed an uneven wall across in one spot. I watched a man coming the other way cross the rocks seemingly without looking down. I was walking with Emily Franciskovich, an experienced hiker, but she too found the boulders daunting. We decided to take off our boots and wade through the cold water.
A father and daughter from the East Coast were camped at our decision spot. They told us they didn't try to cross. They just decided that near its bank was a good place to end their trek and spend some time together just hanging out. She had a wide, pretty face but still somehow looked just like her weathered father. They'd been backpacking together for years, but this trip was different. This time, the father told me, he couldn't keep up with her.
"This trip really was the passing of the baton, " he said.
"Did it make you feel proud or sad or what?" I asked.
"Poignant" he told me. "It's a very, very poignant feeling."
Does scenery matter?
The first few days, everything was a lark. Oh, sure, I fell off a boulder backward and a bear canister lid tried to get away from me and a personality squabble between me and Jim, the backpacking pro, had become, as far as I was concerned, an iconic clash between those who want to rally the troops and conquer mountains and get to Agnew Meadow at such and such a time, and every person who simply designs to wander of their own accord -- but, still, the world was so pretty!
It was butterscotch-scented pines, spindly-legged deer with comically long ears, wildflowers and splash-in-me brooks.
As we climbed higher and farther away from the land of picnickers and sunbathers, the scenery changed. It became a majestic beauty of peaks and glaciers that seemed to dwarf even time. Emily and I were hiking together for a little while. We talked about how war had damaged our fathers. Vietnam for hers, Korea for mine. I wondered if we talked about these things at this place because only here, where glaciers towered, did there seem to be something big enough to absorb war's tragedies.
The days and mountain passes and winding valleys started to run together as I walked and walked and walked. Trees disappeared for long stretches at a time. I was above treeline, higher even than forests. This was the terrain in storybooks when the hero goes to find the all-powerful wizard.
I didn't see much of it. The trail grew steeper and too close to precipitous drops. As I had proved to be the least sure-footed creature in the Sierra, my eyes stayed on the ground choosing each step. For hours at a time, I only looked at rocks and my dusty hiking boots.
By the next-to-last day of the trip, I was reduced to nothing more than walking and breathing. Step. Breathe. Step. Breathe.
We had been moving with packs on our backs for seven and eight hours a day, seven days straight. It was a schedule I never wanted to follow. My shorts were starting to fall off my hips. My mind was numb.
The trail was steep and covered with deep red shale that shifted and slipped underfoot. I stopped after one little slip to let my heart stop pounding and finally looked out. There was a white-glazed mountain, a lavender haze, green meadows far below.
"Why, it looks like Switzerland!" I thought, even though I have never actually seen Switzerland.
Not five minutes later, I spotted a group of older men powering up the hill I was gingerly stepping down. They were sure-footed, compact and, I was quite certain, Swiss. I have no idea how I knew.
"I was just thinking this looks like Switzerland, " I said to the first man as soon as he was within talking distance. "Does it?"
"Yes, " he said in a Swiss accent. "Only this is much bigger."
As he walked off, I noticed a deep-pink flower growing seemingly right out of a rock. It occurred to me that we had gone places where there were no trees, but there hadn't been one stretch, no matter how austere, where I had not seen a small flower here and there.
I went down the shale and across a valley of cobalt lakes, then up several hours of steep, wooded switchbacks before finally getting to the appointed campsite for our last night. There was still a little sunshine left. I didn't immediately start setting up my tent or doing anything task-oriented: an act of small and petty rebellion on my part. I climbed on to a rock drenched with golden sunlight. I lay there, and I mourned.
I'd walked by snowbanks in August and not touched them, been within feet of red stripes growing on glaciers and not investigated. I'd twice gone back to sleep when there was a bear outside my tent, too tired to unzip the flap for a peek.
I cataloged the faces of the people I'd met for the briefest of instances, from the well-timed Swiss man to a world-trotting New Yorker who had run after me uphill to give me a mosquito net to McCray, the Yosemite National Park mountain store clerk who had helped me pack my pack then caught up with me on the trail three days later just like he said he would. I hadn't had more than a few minutes with any of them. I was always behind. Always rushed.
Maybe if I could have hiked faster, spent less time falling on my face. Maybe if I had gone my own way. But I fell into a schedule I didn't want to be on and missed an amazing universe so very close all around me.
It was a sense of loss and failure that didn't ease up when I got home.
Friends tried to help.
"You were out of your element, Donnie, " said Jason, a Bee Web designer, quoting the movie "The Big Lebowski."
"You were always a little clumsy. It's not like this is something new, " my brother reminded me.
An acquaintance invited me on a picnic.
"Where?!" I asked suspiciously.
"Nowhere north of Woodward Park, I promise."
I wanted to be intrepid. But now I was drawing the line at Friant Road.
Ron Mackie, an ever-optimistic retired ranger whom I had often interviewed for stories, tried to tell me that my reactions were very common for a first-time backpacker. He has bet me lunch that by this February, when it's gray and foggy in the Valley, I'll be ready to plan another High Sierra trip. But he also told me that years and years ago he'd once dated "a real nice woman. Then I took her backpacking and she never spoke to me again."
After a week, my swollen ankles went down. My bruises faded. People were walking past my house to college classes. It was a new season. I moved on. I still felt I had faltered, but I didn't have time to fret about it anymore.
Then I came home one day last week to find a small pot of flowers and a note:
"To Diana, who is afraid of heights, who has an atrocious sense of balance, who can't put on or take off a backpack, and who can't hold her own in an argument. Thanks for reminding me that sometimes just making it through -- no matter how banged up -- counts for something."
Because of the blogs, I don't know if the note is from someone I know. But I do know it's from a friend.
I read the note and I could hear my father's voice. He died many years ago, and I thought I had forgotten his rumble. But there it was in my head:
"Every day vertical is a good day, " he used to say.
And maybe there are some days when just managing to put one foot in front of the other and breathe counts as triumph. Especially if you notice a wildflower or two along the way.
Graphic Text: The sun rises over The Bee hikers' campsite at Thousand Island Lake on Aug. 14. In the second week of August, Bee staff writer Diana Marcum and photographer Darrell Wong set out in the High Sierra to unlock some of the mysteries of the world-famous John Muir Trail.
Jim Hurley, left, and Emily Franciskovich, both experienced backpackers who joined Bee hikers Diana Marcum and Darrell Wong in the first leg of the John Muir Trail, talk by the fire at their campsite at the Sunrise High Sierra Camp on Aug. 9.
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Fishermen try their luck at Thousand Island Lake on Aug. 14. Emily Franciskovich said Banner Peak was in the background. As The Bee's first group of hikers climbed higher and farther away from the land of picnickers and sunbathers, the scenery changed. It became a majestic beauty of peaks and glaciers, though the scenery was sometimes lost in the grueling up-and-down trekking.
A field full of Indian paintbrush wildflowers near the hikers' High Sierra campsite at Thousand Island Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness on Aug. 13.
Marek Warszawski helps Diana Marcum with her backpack before hitting the John Muir Trail on Aug. 8. Without the help of another person, Marcum had to "bend at the waist and shake my hips in a manner usually only found in music videos" in order to get her pack on.
Bee photographer Darrell Wong snaps a photo of himself in front of Garnet Lake while backpacking along the John Muir Trail, on Aug. 14. Diana Marcum and Wong inaugurated the 211-mile trek along the High Sierra trail by four teams of Bee staff writers and photographers.