How Hiking the John Muir Trail Changed Me

Hiking 211 miles through the Sierra's pushed me to my limits and was the reality check that I so desperately needed

We are all looking for big adventures in life. Being somewhere that is so immense and feeling the simplicity of the world all at once. The day we received our permit to hike the John Muir Trail, I saw a chance to reconnect with nature and take a step back from my current life. I saw a chance to break away from my desk job and comfortable life in San Francisco and strip myself down to the bare bones of what I was. Months of planning and imagining life in the wilderness passed, all the while thinking to myself, you will love yourself again, you will find your strength again.

As John Muir so greatly put it, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” John Muir, I do not know why you chose to hike through the wilderness. I do not know what was going through your mind or why you decided to start walking, but I will forever be grateful.

What I realized throughout this adventure, was that thru-hikes certainly involve physical strength and preparation, but more than anything, they require an emotional and mental awareness. It is up to you to trust yourself and have faith that you will succeed.

Day 1, July 10th, 2017: “Every step I take, my shoulders ache. They feel as though they are slowly being ripped apart. My feet throb with every step and my right big toe nail is definitely going to fall off. My groins are sore. Really everything hurts. But that's all part of it, right? I can't think of a better thing for me right now then pushing myself to do this. I need to be pushed. I need to be tested...I know this is going to be hard, I just need to remember this feeling and these moments, like putting my toes in the water at the end of the day and seeing how simple and breathtaking this trail is.”

The beginning was a blur of aches and pains, of slowly removing ourselves from civilization and losing those creature comforts we have in our lives but never really seem to acknowledge. Letting the weight of my pack sink in, we gradually moved away from the boisterous tourists in Yosemite Valley.

Here we were, embarking on a 211 mile backpacking trip through the depths of the Sierras, climbing mountain passes over 13,000 feet. Just your average couple from San Francisco who quit their jobs and were not really sure what they were searching for but were ready to get lost in the mountains. We were embarking on the John Muir Trail after the worst winter that the Sierras had seen in years, causing hikers to back out because the snow was too dangerous and the trail was impassable. We were cautiously optimistic. We were nervous but knew we had no other option. We were ready to be pushed to our limits. 


With every step I took, my body embraced the silence and welcomed the aching. My mind cleared of life’s pestering to-do lists and I was present on the trail.

                          

On day two we passed fewer and fewer people as we encountered slippery, slushy snow patches. The realness of it being just the two of us was sinking in and that for the next 18 days we were going to see every side of each other. We were getting used to our moods and reactions to different obstacles. As the sun began to sink low in the sky, we arrived at our campsite. Not even 100 feet away was a calm, flowing river. Slowly, we both peeled off our socks and boots and lowered our tired feet into the frigid water. I reached down and submerged my hands, wiping the dirt away and rubbing the freezing water on my sweaty face. As the sun continued to set over Cathedral Lake, I breathed a sigh of simplicity and happiness as the cold water flowed over my body.                                         

By day three, we knew how to handle the snow fields, both mentally and physically. We were used to taking cautious steps and delicately maneuvering through this unexpected element. I was able conquer these obstacles without hesitation. I embraced the danger and the uncomfortableness and it felt wonderful. Not more than three days into this adventure and away from my normal life, and I was being bold. I was not second-guessing my hiking or navigating skills. I was putting all of my faith in the wilderness and not overthinking it.  That night we pitched our tent below the treacherous 11,056ft. Donahue Pass, the first real challenge of the trip. We filled our bottles in a nearby river and bathed in a pristine green meadow, not another soul in sight. Wiping away the dirt from the day, we let the sun dry our naked, aching bodies, knowing that in less than eight hours we would be caked in mud again.

As my head hit the pillow on day five, I remember feeling an overpowering sense of strength and accomplishment. We awoke at 4:30AM to a steep and icy climb over Garnet Lake. We had scrambled to the top, digging our microspikes into the rough surface, slipping and sliding and using all of our power to stay on that icy slope. We came to the top just as the sun was rising, and there we were. We had overcome the toughest moment of the trip thus far, all before sunrise. It was an inexplicable feeling, to have accomplished something so big before the world had awoken. We then walked 13 miles all before 2PM to get to Reds Meadow Resort and devour double cheeseburgers and milkshakes. It was glorious. The sun was shining, our bellies were full and we lounged in the sun outside. We were chatting with other hikers, having spontaneous conversations and hearing stories of people who were very different than us, yet the same. After getting a second round of burgers and milkshakes, putting more calories in our stomachs then we had in the past 3 days, we slowly wandered up to our campsite for the night. It’s a funny feeling when you realize that you are getting used to a new routine and actually really enjoying it. We were able to set up our campsite in seconds, taking on different roles. Our bright, little orange tent standing strong in the wilderness as we took a second to acknowledge that the best part of setting up camp was to see the different backdrop that was surrounding it each night.            

We would get into the routine of awaking in darkness. The air chilling our bodies as we disassembled the tent while wearing every piece of clothing we had. Boiling the water for coffee and oatmeal and taking a small moment to prepare for the day and let the magic of an early morning on the trail sink in. I would allow the Starbucks instant coffee to warm my hands and body and just stare into whatever nature put in front of me.

Day 7, July 16th, 2017: “Walking. Always putting one foot in front of the other. Lifting each boot, sometimes wet, waterlogged and heavy, or sometimes dry and dusty. Each step feels slow but sometimes I don't even feel as though I lift my foot at all. It's something else. A force that is lifting my dirty boots up off the ground. Over crumbling rocks, granite slabs, dirt, wet creeks, melting snow, ice chunks and flowing rivers. Whatever it is, something is moving me forward. Up and down. Is it the excitement and anticipation of approaching a new obstacle? Is it that feeling I love of waking up and having no idea where the day will take me. Is it the risk that this hike entails. A risk that is unheard of in my life back in San Francisco. Is it the simple pleasures of wading through cold water and having it numb my body and wash away the dirt. Or finding a rock that makes the perfect back rest and simply sitting down into its comfort, into this earth, and thinking.

Maybe it's feeling sure of myself and knowing I will get to my destination and being okay with getting there slowly. Sitting down and peeling off my wet, dirty socks and letting my toes breathe. Moving forward alongside someone else and together our steps echo through this trail. This tiny little dirt path that we are following. Every day we see this trail and follow it wherever it may go. Not questioning it, just moving forward. “                                        


                                   

Time moved quickly on the trail, as it always does. Around day eight I began to feel nostalgic. As we curled up in our tent around 3PM to rest before dinner, we talked about the plan for the last 10 days and I began to feel a lump in my throat. This life on the trail, of waking to the beauty and the unknown, it could not already be half-way over. It was an odd moment to realize that I saw more strength in myself and more qualities that I like when I was out here. When things were simple and when the pressure was not filling my head, or maybe for the first time, when I was not holding myself back or being hard on myself. 

Day 10 marked a memorable day as we wandered into Muir Trail Ranch to resupply our food. After hearing stories about Muir Trail Ranch and envisioning it like a backpackers haven, we arrived around 1PM and although it was not much to look at, I immediately felt at home. The “Ranch” was low in the valley, containing a couple of buildings, barns and horse enclosures. We were welcomed by nods from other hikers in a happy silence of finally having a full bear canister again. We collected our resupply buckets to the smell of horse manure and the sun shone down as we spread our gear out on the picnic tables to reorganize our packs. This small little haven was providing life to us hikers. We would gather for a couple hours, repack, trade food, hear each other's stories and slowly move on. We became one big family for an afternoon, knowing well we would probably never see each other again.

                      

Each night we were happily exhausted. We were challenged and pushed to overcome tough days and lifted ourselves up out of those tough moments to really see how strong we were. Sitting down at the end of day eight and bursting into tears as I dealt with my throbbing foot will being mercilessly attacked by mosquitoes. I was crying over nothing but everything just felt so hard. Two hours later,drained of all tears and salt, I snuggled up with the one other person out there as I slowly began to breathe and realize everything was okay. These moments are neither good nor bad but they are part of the wilderness. Like climbing up and up and finally getting to the top and just screaming because you have had enough of those god damn switchbacks. Or stopping in the early afternoon as the sun is at its highest and finding a shadowy tree to relax under and enjoy some dried mango. 

Day 11, July 21st, 2017: “As I lie here, I realize the only time these past 11 days when I really think is here, in this journal. Everyone said how great it would be to come out here and think, but it's not that easy. I want to be thinking and figuring things out, but does that need to happen in one moment of clarity? One moment when you figure everything out? Can reflection and realizations come in different moments when you least expect it? I believe it.“

We walked eight miles on pure snow fields over Muir Pass. Starting early in the darkness as we normally do, when the snow was crispy. Then as the day went on, we adjusted our steps to accommodate the slushy, melting snow as the harsh sun beat down. Eight miles we walked, the scenery a pristine, untouched white. It was monotonous and frustrating to have to be so careful with every step. That day I had a lot of time to myself. To think about me and this life and what I can do. To look at myself out here and really let it hit me that I was doing it. I was out here. I just kept moving forward, down this one path, towards the end of the snow field and to our campsite. Why must I always think when I am out here? Why must I always think about what is next? Out here should not bring anything from anywhere else. When we have extended time to think, we feel pressure to come up with solutions to problems in our lives, but I wanted to just be in this pristine white world and walk. As we made out way to the end of the snow field, I felt as though I was coming out of a trance. My mind having wandered through many thoughts that I didn’t remember. No big life realizations, but was that necessary?

Day 14, July 24th, 2017: “I lie here in our tent. Dirty, sweaty and I am pretty sure there is something seriously wrong with my knee. Yet, I am happy. I had a good day full of taking risks, seeing beautiful sights, talking with my favorite person in the world and just walking. We descended than ascended to the most gorgeous array of trees, blue lakes and mountains landscapes. Somewhere in that ascent I became very happy.”

I do not know why I felt happy on that climb or why the optimism was flowing through my veins at the end of day 14. There was nothing special about this part of the trail, but there was also no pressure to talk or to think or to prove myself. I was okay with the dirt smudges on my face and I was genuinely excited to have a dehydrated meal again that night. I just felt ready for whatever life had for me. This feeling was empowering. Every step I took I felt stronger. Every step I took, I felt like I was falling back in love with myself. I knew that feeling would not last forever, but I let it sink in for the last two miles of Day 14.

          

On day 17 as we lay in tent for the last time on the trail, I thought about how in 24 hours we would be done. I wondered how the world would look from the other side of Mt. Whitney. I wondered how it would feel to sleep in a bed and have an ice cold beer. But then I stopped thinking about tomorrow and I began to let all of my senses in. The wind calmly ruffling our tent. The serene picture of Guitar Lake nestled below Mt. Whitney. The stale smell inside of our tent. And us, reading, playing games, sitting and breathing. Here we were. As we set up the stove to make dinner, my body relaxed into this nightly routine which I now craved.

Day 17, July 27th, 2017: “I feel like for so much of my life I watch the clock and countdown hours or days until the next big moment. For the past 17 days, I have lived in a world where time is not an issue. When it's light you can hike, that's the only rule. For the longest period in my life I have not been bored or been staring at the clock. This is huge for me and the fact I have not had this thought until today further proves my point. I am ready to be done but I am not ready to lose some of the daily routines I have out here. Of waking up and not knowing what I will see that day or where we will camp. Of our peaceful coffee breaks or morning treks as the sun is rising. “

The ascent to Mt. Whitney was just as I had anticipated. It was gradual, it was hard and it was over before I knew it. Climbing to the top as the sun illuminated the surrounding deserts and the small town of Lone Pine...it was bittersweet. We were standing at the highest point of the continental US and I felt full and tall and ready to emerge from the trail and see what I could do in this world. Holding hands we stared at the world and at each other. We walked down in silence, letting the day sink in. We passed other hikers who we knew, lingering and making small talk, neither of us really believing the trail was coming to an end. We enjoyed every last bite of our salami and almond butter sandwiches and relived memories from days before.

And that was that. I had walked 18 days straight. I had made it through thunderstorms, ice fields, hanger, slips and falls, only really spoke to one person, lost a toenail, saw epic sunrises and cried many times. I had met people from all over the world, I had jumped into ice cold lakes and I had summited Mt. Whitney. Out of all of my experiences on the John Muir Trail and everything that happened, here are the top 10 ways that the JMT changed me:

  1. There is no covering up the pain or the bad days. I must have cried over 10 times on the trail -out of pain, fear, hunger, exhaustion- but the trail sees you for what you are and accepts that.
  2. Your reaction to the unexpected elements are the moments that surprise you the most and give you strength. Discovering that I had an ability to take on these obstacles without doubt and navigate through snowfields without fear revealed how brave I can be. 
  3. The trail is meditative and you have a lot of time to yourself. I saw every single part of my mind and heard every thought I had and could not hide from it. I embraced the dark thoughts and the good thoughts and began to understand myself more.
  4. The most meaningful moments came from sitting and watching nature. I have never felt more relaxed then stopping at Evolution Lake for a coffee break and staying there for 2 hours, letting the afternoon sun dry my sweat and staring at the shining alpine lake.
  5. There is usually a reason behind anger or negative feelings. Hunger and exhaustion can affect you in ways you cannot imagine, and you just need to take a second and think about where this negative feeling is coming from. My tears dried by simply taking a quick break or stuffing my face with steaming hot dehydrated Pad Thai meal.
  6. Waking up every morning and feeling a rush of excitement, readiness to start the day and now knowing what it will entail. Having energy and excitement for the unknown.
  7. You have the power to make connections and have the opportunity to make someone else’s day. Stopping and saying hello to a French man hiking alone resulted in him giving us leftover food he did not need, such as snickers bars, nature valley bars and dehydrated meals. He will never know what that meant to us.
  8. How easy it is to let things go. How you cry or yell, but then that part of the trail ends. You get up and dust yourself off. The sun sets, washes away that moment, and you can start over.
  9. Forming a connection with someone else on such a deep level allows you to open up and go through this amazing experience together. We left feeling stronger then ever. We know every fear, every strength and every darkness within each other.
  10. The simplicity of life and nature. You can either fight it or you can let it in and bring this simplicity into your life no matter where you are. You can make time to walk, breathe, explore and look around you. 

Published: January 31, 2018

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Morgan Woodhouse

San Francisco