THE JOHN MUIR TRAIL
PART SIX: SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK
Forrester Pass to Mount Whitney
The final leg of our trip covered approximately 31 miles, from the border of Sequoia National Park at Forrester Pass to Mount Whitney and on to Whitney Portal. We took 2 1/2 days to complete this part of the trip. Highlights of this trip included the Bighorn Plateau and the summit of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States.
RING OF FIRE
We followed an incredible stretch of trail down from Forrester Pass. This path was literally carved out of the cliffs. As we hiked, we were constantly amazed that anyone ever endeavored to build a trail there at all. Such a feat would certainly never occur today.
Although this stretch of trail was a feat of engineering, it takes a lot of maintenance to keep the route passable. We were only a short distance below the pass when we ran into a trail crew. They were working to repair damage to the trail, and had all of the hardware with them. One of the girls in the crew was an ace with a jackhammer. We spoke with one of the workers, who mentioned in passing that the lovely weather we’d enjoyed for the last few days was expected to change. Another monsoonal system was expected to move in on Friday. We were overjoyed to hear this, as we were planning to summit Whitney on Friday. I can’t imagine a more dangerous place to be in a thunderstorm.
We resumed our hike, and debated our options again. I was pretty confident we could make it to Guitar Lake, below Mount Whitney, by that evening if we pushed ourselves. That would put as a day ahead of schedule, enabling us to summit Whitney on Thursday. However, I wasn’t real sure how much I wanted to push myself. I was more inclined to enjoy the last few days of our hike without rushing through it. Plus, getting out early would just create additional logistical challenges. Our ride wasn’t scheduled to pick us up at Whitney Portal until Friday evening. If we went out early, we’d probably end up spending the extra day at the campground there. Loading up on burgers and beer had its appeal, but I’m sure neither of us needed to spend 24 hours doing that!
The weather was a concern, but we rationalized that the storms were more likely to arrive in the afternoon. We fully expected to be well on our way down by then. We knew we were leaving a lot to chance, but then, we were leaving a lot to chance when we first set foot on the trail back in Yosemite Valley.
After the rugged descent from the pass, we enjoyed a gentle stroll past two alpine lakes. Below those tarns, we stopped for lunch along a pleasant stream. At this point we were still above treeline, at over 11K feet in elevation. Believe it or not, Bob’s thermometer indicated that it was 85 degrees! At that altitude, even at noon on a sunny day, those kinds of temperatures are virtually unheard of.
After lunch, we dropped down to treeline and rock hopped Tyndall Creek. A moderate climb followed as we worked our way up to the Bighorn Plateau. We reached the broad, open plateau at 3:30, and strolled a short distance away from the trail to check out a small pond. The pond sits right on top of the plateau, making it rather unique, even after passing hundreds of lakes, ponds, and tarns over the past three weeks. It was very windy there that afternoon, but as soon as we reached the pond, I knew we had to camp there. To hell with finishing the trip a day early.
For me, this spot was the most amazing part of an incredible journey. The pond is surrounded by lush grass interspersed with vast stretches of flat sand. From its shore, there are walls of mountains in literally every direction. I called for a break, and began working on convincing Bob to spend the night there. While we relaxed, we pondered the mountains directly across the water from us. They were some impressive peaks, and I thought one of them might be Mount Whitney. The more I gazed in that direction, the more I thought it probably was. I wasn’t certain though, and it wasn’t until the next day that we were able to confirm it.
Eventually the wind died down, and Bob agreed to spend our next-to-last night there. Although I probably could’ve happily sat there gazing at the mountains all afternoon, I did grow a little restless. Rather than just frittering away the rest of the day, I decided to explore a bit. Curiosity drew me towards the crest of the plateau and the modest summit of Tawny Point. Before long, I found myself working my way up its sand and scree-covered slopes. It was still a hot afternoon, and early on I moved from the shade of one pine to another. Before long though, I’d left the last of the trees behind. I worked my way around to the west side of the mountain, which appeared a bit less steep than the southern ridge. I worked my way up at an angle, before making one big switchback and pushing on towards the summit. The last stretch was a tedious walk through talus, but I reached the top 40 minutes after leaving the pond. From there I had a 360 degree view. The most interesting vista was to the east, over the Wright Lakes Basin to the high peaks of the Sierra crest. In the other direction, I could see our pond far, far below.
I hung out a bit before beginning the rapid descent to camp. Once back, we pitched our tents and made dinner. I treated myself to my favorite freeze-dried dinner, Mountain House Lasagna, which I’d been saving as a special treat. This place was so spectacular, I felt like it demanded a good meal. After eating, we settled in for the evening’s entertainment. Sunset couldn’t come soon enough, but when it finally arrived, it blew us away. Initially the sky, the mountains, and the pond began changing colors, reflecting the gentle evening light. Finally the sun dropped below the mountains behind us, and the real show began. A few minutes later, Mount Whitey and the surrounding peaks began to light up with Alpenglow. It was simply the most dramatic display of Alpenglow I’d ever seen, with one peak after another catching fire in a ring surrounding us. The Alpenglow alone would’ve been stunning, but everything we saw was reflected in the calm waters of our pond. Even after the Alpenglow faded, the show went on. The sky changed colors every few seconds, from red, to purple, to pastel, to a mellow blue. And then, finally, darkness descended upon us, allowing millions of brilliant lights to illuminate us from above. After such an incredible performance, it seemed appropriate that the Heaven’s would present us with a breathtaking encore.
We were up before 6 the next morning for sunrise. After the previous evening’s show, we couldn’t wait to find out what else the Bighorn Plateau had in store for us! Despite our enthusiasm, getting up was a little difficult due to the morning chill. I bundled up, grabbed my camera, and went for a stroll around the pond. Sunrise was pretty, as the surrounding mountains turned gold one after another. Although it was lovely, it lacked the drama of the previous evening. Of course, at this point, we were horribly spoiled.
We enjoyed a warm breakfast (the last of our trip) and took our time breaking camp. We knew there was no reason to rush, since our next destination, Guitar Lake, was only 9 miles away. We were looking forward to an easy day, as we didn’t have any major passes to tackle. Plus, we had eaten most of our food, and putting on our packs was almost pleasant. At this point, the Ursack contained only garbage, and we each had room in our food barrels for our cooksets. It was quite a change from when we left Muir Trail Ranch eight days earlier!
We broke camp at 8:20, and met Mike and Janet on the trail a few minutes later. We chatted with them for a bit, and found out that they had started at Tuolumne Meadows the same day we had left Reds Meadow. At the time, I thought they both looked familiar, but I couldn’t say why.
We hiked a fairly easy stretch of the JMT, passing through occasional meadows with views of Mount Whitney. We dropped down to rock hop Wright Creek and Wallace Creek, climbed to Young’s Ridge, and dropped again to Sandy Meadow. After one more hill, we reached a junction, where a sign suggested that Mount Whitney was only 8 miles away! After such a long journey, it was hard to believe we were nearly finished.
From the junction, an easy stretch of trail led to Crabtree Meadows. There we picked up our WAG bags. In the Mount Whitney area, burying human waste is prohibited. Instead, the Park Service requires hikers to “pack it out”. WAG bags are the preferred method for doing this. I wasn’t in a big hurry to use one though, and we were right at the magical poop-packing boundary, so I backtracked down the trail a short distance to dig a hole. I call this “strategic bowel management”.
We had all afternoon to hike 3 miles, so we decided to kill some time at Crabtree Meadows. We walked over to the ranger’s station, hoping to get an updated weather forecast. There wasn’t anybody home though, and the blue skies overhead continued to offer encouragement. We paused for lunch at Crabtree Creek, before returning to the JMT. When we arrived, we ran into Mike and Janet again. At this point, Janet realized where she had seen me before. The morning we had been in Mammoth Lakes, they had been waiting for the YARTS bus along with Christy and me! We had actually chatted briefly, before they had boarded the bus, bound for Tuolumne Meadows. They had ended up sitting next to my wife, and had conversed most of the way.
We stalled around there for awhile for no apparent reason. Finally we decided it was time to shuffle on to Guitar Lake. Just as we were about to leave, we heard footsteps and looked up to see Molly heading our way! After leaving Molly and Rosa back at the Rae Lakes, we really hadn’t expected to see them again. It was a pleasant surprise seeing Molly now.
Molly quickly caught us up on everything that had happened over the past few days. She had hiked with Rosa over Glenn Pass, and had met the ranger we had seen heading back to the Rae Lakes. From there, they had continued down to Charlotte Lake, where they’d found another ranger. He was planning to hike out over Kearsage Pass the next morning. After a lengthy discussion, Rosa had decided to hike out with the ranger, along with another group that was going that way. However, she had insisted that Molly finish the trip. Molly had been reluctant initially, but Rosa talked her into it. That morning they parted ways, and Molly had covered a tremendous amount of ground, hiking around 16 miles from Charlotte Lake, over Forrester Pass, and down to Tyndall Creek. She had ended up only two miles behind us the previous evening. Now she had caught up, and it almost seemed like destiny that we finish our journey together. We invited her to join us, and all five of us gathered our gear for the march up to Guitar Lake.
We endured one more climb, passing lovely Timberline Lake on the way. We ascended above treeline once again, and arrived at the Guitar Lake basin around 4pm. We picked out a campsite, while Mike and Janet pushed on. They had another camping area in mind, a bit above Guitar Lake. It wasn’t until the next morning, when we saw their spot, that I realized that we had chosen poorly. Although it was scenic, Guitar Lake wasn’t one of my favorite campsites. The area was crowded with other campers, and its location above treeline afforded little privacy. Our tent sites were a bit rocky and uneven, too. I didn’t sleep particularly well that night, although that may have been due to adrenaline. We had a big day planned for Friday!
We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and killing time. While hanging around camp, we saw a large group of young boys heading up the trail towards us. This was startling, as most of the people we had seen on the trail were in very small groups. As they approached, Bob said, “Oh no, look what’s coming this way”. He didn’t speak loudly, but it must’ve been the strange acoustic properties of the Guitar Lake basin that caused his voice to echo off the surrounding cliffs. I think Bob was relieved when they continued up the trail, to a large camping area just above the lake.
Later, I found some pretty sunflowers near Guitar Lake to photograph, and I took a stroll down to the lake’s outlet. That evening we tried to play cards, but everyone was restless with anticipation of Friday’s climb. Fortunately, the sky remained clear, offering hope of one more day of good weather. We all finished off my last pouch of instant mashed potatoes, which served as a nice appetizer to our freeze dried dinners. I wasn’t real interested in carrying those potatoes any further, and we reasoned that we could use the carbs!
It was chilly that evening, and we all went to bed at dusk, as we were planning an early start the next morning. We still had 16 miles to go, over the tallest mountain in the country (outside of Alaska). Plus, if the weather did turn, we figured it would probably be in the afternoon. We hoped to be well on our way down from Mount Whitey by then.
We were up at 4:30 the next morning. This sounds early, but we were well behind the morning rush at Guitar Lake. Many of our fellow hikers had departed earlier, in hopes of reaching the summit of Mount Whitney for sunrise. Personally, I was looking forward to sunrise at Guitar Lake. It was mighty cold there at 4:30, and I knew it would be worse higher up on the mountain.
As we prepared for our climb, we noticed a long line of lights winding its way up the mountain. If we’d had any doubts as to the route of the trail, those were gone now. The trail was clearly illuminated by the hikers preceding us. It was spooky though, as the lights took the appearance of an eerie procession. With the cliffs of Mount Whitney looming like the walls of some dark castle, it looked like a patrol of Orcs, marching by torchlight along the gates of Mordor.
I had a few challenges that morning. First, I had managed to crack my headlamp early in the trip, and my duct tape repair job was finally giving out. Luckily, I was able to make the light work enough to break camp. Also, the zipper on one of my tent doors had quit functioning. I was just glad that these problems cropped up at the very end of the trip!
We choked down some cold granola cereal and broke camp. We got on the trail at 5:30, which was a bit before our normal 6am hole-digging time. Of course, we were now in the Mount Whitney zone, where hole-digging is prohibited. I’m not sure if it was the morning cold or the change in routine, but neither Bob nor I felt inspired to use a WAG bag on our ascent.
We both started the hike in our long underwear, but that was a mistake. It wasn’t long before we scattered among the boulders surrounding the trail to shed clothes. We resumed the hike, as the first light of day began to illuminate Guitar Lake. We were well above the lake by this point, and the scene was breathtaking. The water turned pink, as the first bit of sunlight set fire to the peaks in the distance. Guitar Lake wasn’t my favorite campsite, but the view of it from the thin air of 13,000’ was dramatic. As we continued to climb, the morning light offered us more gifts. The entire canyon was still in the darkness, except for two small tarns that captured the light of dawn. The two tarns glowed like the eyes of a dragon, warily guarding the treasure of Mount Whitney.
We reached a bench dotted with small tarns, and ran into Mike and Janet. They had camped there, high above Guitar Lake. It was a cool spot, and it had given them a bit of a head start that morning. In fact, they were just starting to break camp when we hiked by.
We resumed the climb, first through dozens of short switchbacks. Those eventually gave way to a series of long, sweeping switchbacks. These switchbacks are known as “The Eleven”, and they lead all the way to the junction with the trail to the summit. We marched through these, passing sheer cliffs and convoluted arrangements of boulders. We counted each switchback as we ascended, though long minutes stretched between each one. Fortunately the grade was gentle, and we were still feeling strong when we arrived at Packs Rest.
Packs Rest is the nickname for the junction with the trail to the summit. Here, the JMT turns left and climbs along a precipitous ridge towards the top of Mount Whitney. Another trail continues ahead, climbing over the pass of Trail Crest, before dropping down to Mirror Lake and Whitney Portal. The junction is called Packs Rest, as virtually every JMT thru-hiker chooses to leave his pack here for the final push to the summit.
When we arrived, Packs Rest looked like a sidewalk sale at REI. There must’ve been a dozen packs stacked among the boulders surrounding the junction. There was getting ready to be a lot more though, as the large group of boy scouts we’d seen the previous day was only a couple of switchbacks behind us. We added our packs to the pile, and prepared for the final climb. The wind was brutal at Packs Rest, and it was extremely cold. The sun was still below the crest of the ridge, on the other side of the mountain, and we remained in the shade. We were all looking forward to basking in its warmth on the summit.
We gathered some essentials, which I put in a fanny pack for the summit hike. While we were organizing our gear, Molly ran into some friends she’d met on the trail. They had just come down from the summit, where they’d seen the sun rise. They looked frozen, but happy for the experience, nonetheless.
We followed a rough, rocky trail just below the crest of the ridge. If Mount Whitney is a castle, then this must’ve been the battlements. We passed through narrow notches carved in the cliffs, and ducked under massive boulders. At several places, we reached a notch in the wall above us. At each of these windows, we were treated to a spectacular view of the sun-splashed desert to the east. We gazed down on sparkling lakes, shimmering in the sunshine. Beyond was the long rift of the Owens Valley, followed by more mountains and deserts. It was a great preview of the vistas that were waiting for us at the top.
The last of the windows was the best. Here, the sun was shining directly through. We all stopped to bask in its rays and thaw our frozen limbs. From there, we had a clear view of the route ahead. Another traverse would lead us to the end of the battlements, and the beginning of the summit ridge. From there, it would only be a short jaunt to the top.
We hurried ahead, now in the grip of summit fever. The last ascent was gentle, but required clambering over talus. Finally the summit cabin came into view. We signed the summit register there, and strolled the final few yards to the top. There we were treated to a fantastic view worthy of the highest peak in the “lower 48”. The vista stretched out in every direction under a clear morning sky. The view to the east, over successive waves of mountains and desert valleys, may have been my favorite. However, my eye kept getting drawn to the north, to where we had come from. As I gazed out over those folded mountains, I imagined that I could trace the route we had followed. Far below, I spotted the tiny, magical pond on the Bighorn Plateau where we had spent one glorious night.
It was only 9:15, so we took plenty of time to enjoy the summit experience. We had a snack, and took the obligatory summit photos. There were some other hikers up there, too, but the summit is large, and it would take a huge group of people to make it seem crowded. After lounging for a bit, I took a long tour of the summit. I wandered all the way around the summit plateau, taking in the view from every vantage point. In a couple of places, I spotted tent sites where the talus had been cleared. Near the very top, I stumbled across a clump of Sky Pilots that were somehow blooming at almost 14,500 feet. They were a bit wilted, but I didn’t care, for there was no doubt that they were the highest wildflowers in the contiguous United States.
We loitered for an hour before heading down. We met Mike and Janet again just before we left the summit. We chatted for a bit, and promised to save them a seat at the Mount Whitney café.
We hiked back towards the windows, and gazed down on Guitar Lake from high above. At the first window, we met a man and his son eating subs in the sun. As we passed by, Molly commented that it looked like a great place for lunch. He greeted us, and promptly offered us an extra sub. I had been at a high altitude all morning, but now, suddenly, I was light headed. A fresh sub? With real meat? My eyes probably popped right out of my head. Clearly, this was no ordinary man and his son. We had met angels.
We set upon that sub like a pack of ravenous wolves. Molly tore off a chunk of fresh bread, and cheese, and meat; dripping with oil, and vinegar, and mustard, and handed it to me. I swallowed it whole.
The three savages polished off that sandwich in about 30 seconds. When I looked up, juice running down my chin, I realized that we may have made a spectacle of ourselves. I say this, because the angels were staring at us with what can be best described as horrified fascination. For a moment, I felt like I was at the zoo, only I was the animal in the cage.
We thanked the angels profusely for their kindness, and chatted briefly before shuffling on. Our thru-hike of the JMT was over, but our hike wasn’t. Unfortunately, the JMT inconveniently ends 8 miles from the nearest road. We still had to walk those 8 miles, and descend 6000’ in the process. We weren’t looking forward to it, but now that we had the taste of real food in our mouths, we had our motivation. Cheeseburgers, French fries, and cold beer awaited us.
SEND ME ON MY WAY
We returned to Packs Rest, and hoisted our loads a final time. At this point, we endured one final insult. From here, the trail CLIMBS a couple hundred feet to Trail Crest, the highest pass of the journey. Just when you think it’s all downhill from here, you find yourself struggling uphill.
We attained the pass, which was a bit anti-climatic, and started the marathon descent. We dropped down through some 100 switchbacks. Some were broad and gentle, while others were so short, I actually got dizzy as I twisted and turned through them. I spent most of my time on this part of the hike staring at my feet, which was a bit of a shame. The views of Mount Whitney from its rugged back side (or would that be its front side?) were staggering.
The grade finally eased, and we reached Trail Camp and a small lake. We stopped there for lunch, which was regrettable. The area was crowded with campers, and everywhere we went smelled like pee. This didn’t help my appetite, which was thoroughly unimpressed by the pathetic scraps remaining in my bear canister. The last of the German bread was smashed to bits, and the peanut butter looked nauseating. Energy bars still looked like energy bars, and my raisins had all the appeal of rabbit turds. With a fresh sub behind us, and cheeseburgers ahead, I must’ve been a little spoiled. I choked some food down anyway though, knowing I’d need the energy to finish the hike out.
We continued down the trail, passing some nicer campsites farther on. A rough, steep, slippery descent followed, but Molly was the only one to take a spill. She was walking ahead of me, when her feet went out from under her. Her feet were actually over her head when she landed rather dramatically. It looked bad, but as soon as she started laughing, I knew she wasn’t injured.
We dropped down into the trees, and stopped for a break at Outpost Camp. This is a nicer spot than Trail Camp, and it offered a pleasant place to relax and rest our weary feet. I soaked mine for several minutes in the icy creek, before shoving them back into my dusty boots one final time.
We resumed the hike on a better stretch of trail. There were plenty of gentle switchbacks, and the footing was greatly improved. Before long, Whitney Portal came into view. What were those shiny things down there? Cars! That first glimpse was a tease though, as it seemed to take forever to cover the final stretch down to the campground and store. On the way down, we passed several groups of hikers on their way up for a weekend backpack. Many were hauling monster loads, which seemed bewildering after weeks on the trail. What were they carrying in those things? Beer? It was so funny, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see two guys schlepping a sofa.
By this point, I was feeling a certain urgency. I had avoided using my WAG bag all day, and I didn’t want to give in now, with toilets featuring actual seats virtually in sight. Plus, I wanted to save the WAG bag for my wife’s Christmas stocking. I knew that would have all kinds of potential for entertainment. So I picked up the pace, and began to sing:
(To the tune of “On the Road Again”, by Willie Nelson)
“On the commode again,
On the commode again,
I just can’t wait to get on the commode again.”
We reached the trailhead at 4:45. Conveniently, two toilets are located just across from the trail. I used them both.
With that business taken care of, we waltzed up to the store / café. Bob and I had each shipped packages with clean clothes there. Oddly, they had Bob’s, but mine was missing. I was only mildly annoyed. While Bob showered, I started in on the beer. The store didn’t have Dead Guy Ale or Fat Tire, but they did sell Moose Drool, which was more than adequate. Aside from being a good beer, Moose Drool has the added attraction of including a witty phrase inside each bottle cap. Mine said, “Always drink upstream from the herd”, which seemed mighty appropriate after the last three weeks.
Molly joined us for burgers and fries, which were every bit as good as expected. We ate outside at a picnic table, which was a little bewildering. Occasionally a car would pass by. What was that?! My memory was hazy, but it sure was loud and smelly, and moving fast.
A bit later, Molly’s parents and Rosa arrived. They joined us for awhile, and it was nice to meet them. It was a relief to see Rosa, particularly for Molly. She had last seen her at Charlotte Lake, and hadn’t had any contact with her until they arrived.
A bit later, Mike and Janet showed up, fresh off the trail. They joined us, and bought a round of beers. We enjoyed hanging out with them, while waiting for our shuttle to arrive. I spoke with our driver on the phone at the store, and it seemed that he would be delayed. An earlier group of hikers had been late, throwing him behind schedule. Bob and I were not particularly distraught by this. After all, we had good company, and the store was in no danger of running out of Moose Drool.
CAN’T GET THERE FROM HERE
The most difficult part of planning this trip was figuring out how to get back to San Francisco from Whitney Portal. Whitney Portal is at the end of 12-mile dead end road originating in Lone Pine, California. Lone Pine is in the Owens Valley, which is what I call the Nevada portion of California. It’s so far removed from the major cities of California, it might as well be in Nevada. In fact, it’s easier to get to Lone Pine from Reno, Nevada, than from San Francisco or Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, our flights were scheduled to depart from San Francisco first thing Sunday morning. That left us with about 36 hours to get there. This sounds like a lot, but then it had taken us three weeks to arrive at our present location.
I made a mistake in planning this trip in chronological order. I planned out the whole hike, and obtained our permits, before giving much thought to getting home. Unfortunately, the public transportation options in Lone Pine are minimal. There is limited bus service, but not on the weekends. There are no car rental agencies. The rental car we had at the beginning of the trip had been returned to Thrifty in San Francisco by Christy two weeks earlier. We would have to consider some other options to get home.
Several months before the trip, I did some serious brainstorming on how to get back to San Francisco. Considerable thought and internet research turned up multiple options, ranging from mildly entertaining to absurd. We thought about seeing if Steve Fossett could fly us there, but he seemed to have disappeared. We contemplated getting a private shuttle to Ridgecrest, and catching a commercial flight from there to San Francisco. We considered a shuttle to Tehachapi, followed by Greyhound to Bakersfield, and then a series of trains to San Francisco. We discussed getting a shuttle and a bus to Reno, and then a train from there. Most of these ideas were rejected due to cost. On the other extreme, we thought about relying on hitchhiking. However, that seemed risky given our tight time constraints. My favorite idea was renting a U-haul in Lone Pine and taking it one-way to San Francisco. I was in favor of this plan, simply because of its absurdity. Bob shot that one down though, as he didn’t want to drive a U-haul halfway across California. I can’t really blame him.
Eventually we came up with a plan that would utilize virtually every means of transportation known to man, excluding hot air balloons. We’d arrange for a private shuttle to take us from Whitney Portal to Mammoth Lakes. From Mammoth Lakes, we’d catch the Saturday morning bus to Yosemite Valley. From there, another bus would take us to Merced, where we could get on a train to Oakland. From there, we’d take the commuter train to the San Francisco airport. A free shuttle bus would then deliver us to the hotel, where we’d enjoy a few hours of rest before we flew out the next morning. As long as none of the buses were more than a few minutes late, this plan would go off without a hitch. Of course, if we missed any of our connections, we’d be totally hosed.
Early on, Christy’s uncle Ed had offered to pick us up at Whitney Portal. That had been an extremely generous offer, as it’s a LONG haul from Jackson to Lone Pine. I had been reluctant to take him up on that, and Ed had subsequently made plans to be in Pennsylvania for a family reunion that weekend. However, he had mentioned that his stepson, Jason, might be able to help us out. We communicated with Jason, and he agreed to pick us up at Yosemite Valley and deliver us to San Francisco. This was even more generous, as we had never even met Jason previously.
PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES
“Those aren’t pillows!”
John Candy, in “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”
Our shuttle driver, Bob Ennis, arrived a bit later that evening. He was a little late, but that was due to circumstances beyond his control. We wished Mike and Janet well, and rode with Bob down to Lone Pine. There we switched vehicles (this would be a theme) and went the rest of the way to Mammoth Lakes. Bob dropped us off at the Holiday Inn, where I’d gotten another free room. Bob provided excellent service for us at the price we originally agreed to, despite a massive increase in gas prices in the months after we made our reservation. I highly recommend his service, and will definitely contact him if I need a shuttle service in the eastern Sierra’s in the future. Bob can be reached at his website:
We were exhausted when we arrived, so we scrapped our plans for a second dinner. I’d hoped to wash my filthy clothes, but all of the hotel washing machines were full. I ended up rinsing them out in the sink, hoping they would be more or less dry by morning. Then we cranked up the air conditioning (it’s hot down at 6,000’!) and slept in beds (2) for the first time in weeks.
We were up at 5:30 the next morning. Fortunately I was able to intercept Bob, who seemed to be on his way out to the front lawn to dig a hole. I re-directed him to the bathroom, and put my dirty but dry clothes back on. I wanted to get in touch with Jason to confirm our plans, as I hadn’t spoken with him in over a month. Unfortunately, the hotel didn’t have a computer with internet access for guests to use, so I hadn’t been able to check my email. Also, we didn’t have our cell phones with us, so he didn’t really have any way to get in touch with us. In fact, Christy had left our extra luggage, including our cell phones, with Ed. The plan was for Jason to bring all of our stuff with him when he picked us up.
I didn’t have Jason’s number, so I called Ed. This was fortunate, because he had spoken with Jason, who was trying to get in touch with us. I got Jason’s cell phone number, called him, and left a message. I left the hotel number on his voice mail, but we faced a dilemma. Should we wait in the room for him to call back, or go get breakfast? We were both starving, but we didn’t want to miss his call.
We were just going out the door when the phone rang. It was Jason, and he was on his way to Mammoth Lakes! He had decided that it was almost as easy to drive there as Yosemite, and had left very early that morning. This was great news, but it was lucky that we got in touch with him. It would’ve sucked if he had arrived in Mammoth Lakes while we were on the bus to Yosemite Valley!
We had some time, so we went hunting for breakfast. We had been underwhelmed by the breakfast buffet at the hotel on our previous visit, so we walked down Main Street in search of something better. We stopped at the Breakfast Club, which is adjacent to the Shiloh Inn, and had a great meal. We returned to the hotel, and Jason arrived a bit later. It was great meeting him, and changing into clean clothes was delightful. We enjoyed some interesting conversation on our ride to Sacramento. On the way, we stopped for gas near Lake Tahoe, in Nevada. We pulled in to a pump directly behind a woman on an ATV. This seemed a bit odd, but then this was Nevada. Apparently, there’s more to Nevada than hookers and poker! This was my first visit to Nevada, and now I’ve been in every state except for Alaska, North Dakota, and Nebraska. I hope to make it to Alaska next summer.
Jason took us to Sacramento. Originally he planned to drive us all the way to San Francisco, but he had to work that afternoon, and he didn’t have time to get there and back. This was fine with us, as we were much closer to our destination. We took Jason out to lunch at his favorite restaurant, and then he drove us to the Amtrak station. We bought tickets for the next train to Richmond, which is as close as Amtrak gets to San Francisco proper. We repacked our luggage in the train station, and waited for the train. It arrived an hour later (nearly on time), and we enjoyed a pleasant ride to San Francisco Bay. The only challenge we had was getting all of our baggage on the train. This was a hassle, but somehow we managed. In Richmond, we switched to a BART commuter train. This was pleasant, too, as the train was mostly empty.
The pleasant journey ended when we switched to another commuter train in Emeryville. The first train had been empty, but this one was packed! It looked like it was rush hour, even though it was a Saturday afternoon. We could barely squeeze on with all of our luggage. At this point, I was toting a large suitcase, a large duffel bag, and my backpack. It was approximately 130 degrees on that train, and I actually felt like I might pass out. After 3 weeks of freedom, strolling through some of the most fantastic scenery in the world, I now felt like I was suffocating. Thankfully, an elderly woman offered me her seat. It was a bit embarrassing taking it, but she insisted. I think she realized that I was bound to fall over at any moment if I didn’t sit.
After a few minutes (that felt like hours) we reached a popular stop in San Francisco, and the crowd eased. This was a huge relief, and I was able to suck in some oxygen the rest of the way. We finally got off at the San Francisco airport. Now all we had to do was catch a shuttle to the hotel.
This proved to be more challenging than I expected. I had lost my hotel confirmation, and I wasn’t certain which Hampton Inn we had reservations at. I figured that out after a couple of phone calls. Then we wandered around the San Francisco airport for awhile, before we discovered where we could catch the shuttle. We reached the hotel a few minutes later. Hot showers were wonderful, and I spent a few minutes sifting through about 500 emails. Then we walked a couple of blocks, and found an upscale Mexican restaurant for dinner. The food there was decent, but the atmosphere was bewildering. It was so LOUD! Reintegrating into civilization was going to take some work!
I slept well that night, even though we got up before 5am for our flights. We caught the shuttle back to the airport, where Bob and I had breakfast before parting ways. We were on separate flights, so the rest of the adventure would be solo. Fortunately, our flights were uneventful, and we both made it home without further drama.
The JMT was a great trip, with tons of highlights. It featured challenge, adventure, and spectacular scenery. But it was more than that. Ultimately, it was as much about the interesting and generous people we met along the way, as it was about the journey itself.
Years from now, most of this trip will likely be relegated to the depths of my memory. But a few magical, unforgettable moments will no doubt remain. Arriving at the top of Half Dome and finding it deserted. Watching the first light of morning illuminate Garnet Lake. Discovering an acre of pink Heather blooming at Chief Lake. Viewing a dramatic rainbow from Upper Bear Creek Meadows. Watching the moon rise over Evolution Valley, its light dancing on the water. Seeing the setting sun turn Mount Whitney into a towering pillar of flame. Those are some of the experiences we’ll never forget.
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