There was no way around it. This was gonna hurt. For a trail that runs 211 miles, ending on the summit of the highest point in the Continental U.S., you don’t expect the first day to be the one with the longest and largest climb. And yet, that’s exactly how the John Muir Trail introduces you to the scenery of the High Sierra: by exacting a pound of flesh.
John Muir Trail 2022
Daily dispatches and photos from the John Muir Trail, a 210-mile footpath running from Mt. Whitney to Yosemite Valley through the heart of the High Sierra.
The Sierra must be seen to be fully believed. And Yosemite is the beating heart of that Sierra. Of the more than 4 million annual visitors to Yosemite National Park, the vast majority never leave Yosemite Valley, however. With highlights known the world over—El Capitan, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, Glacier Point—you can hardly blame them.
From our perch on a hidden bench above the trail, the same soundtrack that had lulled us to sleep was now the first to greet us. There’s something a little comforting about it. That while you’ve been asleep, the gears of nature have kept turning, almost completely unchanged. That everything is, by all appearances, exactly the way you’d left it the day before.
When dawn broke, it started by touching only the tops of the mountains surrounding our camp, before spilling down the flanks of granite to where we lie in our hammocks. It was nature opening the blinds.
The Sierra Nevada—literally, “the snowy mountains”—has recently begun to challenge its very name. In the past twenty years or more, the cyclical nature of snow and sun in these mountains has become anything but cyclical.
If you’ve ever read John Muir’s book, My First Summer in the Sierra, it’s plain to see the deep and endearing love he had for the mountain range that his name has become nearly synonymous with. You also may have noticed that he had an equally deep and unwavering loathing for the sheep that grazed throughout the Sierra at the time.
Evolution is a very very slow process. We need only look at ourselves to know how true that is. How long does it take for us to change even the smallest of things—a habit, perhaps? Real change, it seems, requires a patience that does not come naturally to a species whose lifespan is but a fraction of the earth’s.
Morning broke with a chorus of crashing water and overlapping birdsongs, melodies and harmonies, calls and answers. To hear these as the first sounds of morning, and then to open your eyes to the scenery you’d almost forgotten in your dreams, is very nearly the definition of waking up in paradise.
To wake with the realization that you’re not on the trail you’re supposed to be, might normally be cause for alarm. But in this case, it was by design.
Reality came knocking early. Saddled with 6 days of food for the final stretch to Mount Whitney, we could delay the inevitable no longer. In accordance with the first law of hiking—that what comes down, must go up—we pointed our steps back up toward Bishop Pass for the second day in a row, aiming to reverse everything we’d done the day before.
The confluence of two creeks, a mere stone’s throw from our proverbial bedroom window, seemed not to care that morning had broken. Nature’s white noise machine chugged along, ignorant of day and time. The alarm on my wrist was more particular about exactly what time it was, and its buzzing was as inescapable as the reality it brought with it. Everything ahead of us was in one and only one direction: up.
It’s easy to love John Muir, or at least the idea of him. That’s the appeal of idealists. Soaring rhetoric and a righteous cause in the proper hands can bring a groundswell of change that compounds like an avalanche. But it is a rare idealist who is able to effect change in the world. John Muir was certainly one of them.
As with most evenings on this trail, I am cozy in my hammock before 8:00pm. Sweet Pea would be proud. This is the second time I’m doing this hike (the first time was in 2015). And with each passing mile, I can’t help but think how little has changed and how much has changed, all at the same time.
The Sierra. The range that has captured the fascination of icons like Ansel Adams and John Muir. Superlatives have been spilled over its incredible beauty, its almost idyllic climate, and the trails that beckon you to explore it ever more deeply. It may best be known as the Range of Light, but to me, it is simply the place where stone meets sky.
The buzzing on my wrist comes as no surprise. In those brief moments drifting in limbo between asleep and awake, I struggle to register what exactly it is floating above my head. Beyond the soft armor of mosquito mesh surrounding me, and through the tarp stretched taut above, an amorphous shape of white bends into unrecognizable shapes and patterns, like sunlight seen from beneath the surface of water.