July 20, 2016
In reading these posts, Lindsey tells me she comes across as a buzzkill who hardly says anything. That comes from my lack of skill as a writer, not from any buzzkillery on her part. I am still a novice at writing about other people and reconstructing dialogue. She has always been patient--indulgent, even--with my boyish enthusiasm for big ideas and hiking, and I am always grateful for her companionship. I think that’s important to note before I write about this day, in particular, when my enthusiasm for hiking (and my desire for food) led me to push her too hard.
I wake in the middle of the night to a full moon rising over the eastern wall of the basin. I leave the tent and have a look around. Banner Peak, Thousand Island Lake, the whole granite bowl—everything is incandescent silver. The lake is frosted glass. A few stars shine beside the moon like jewels in the night. I feel as if we're on another planet or in another dimension. How many nights like this do we lose in our city boxes? As we block out the mosquitoes and insulate ourselves from the cold with thick walls, we also blindfold ourselves to the world. We distract ourselves from the loss by pursuing trinkets and status instead. What is it for? Do we hope that we’ll be able to trade those for something that will give us solace? It’s a fool’s trade. Trinkets and status will only buy you more of the same. I can skip it. Give me the wild, undiluted, direct experience of life. I drink the vision until I am full, then I return to the tent and sink into a deep sleep.
We wake to a brisk morning, like late fall in the midwest. The sun has already hit Banner Peak, but it hasn't yet reached us. We race to pack up camp; the pace helps to stoke our inner furnaces, but there’s no keeping the chill off our skin.
The morning climb is tough, but enjoyable. We stop several times to soak up nature's greatest hits: the first warming sunlight on our skin, the glint of tarns, the cleansing sounds of rushing streams, the butterscotch scent of pine trees baking in the sun. The tarns hold a particular magic; miniature rock islands are decorated with twisted bonsai trees like a zen garden.
We stop just beyond Island pass for breakfast. I look for a place to use the bathroom, but there is water flowing through nearly every crack and gully. It takes me a few minutes to find a place that is sufficiently far from water. On the way back, I stop to watch where a small stream tumbles into another and trace the maze-like path of their combined waters downhill with my eyes. How long must these streams have been here to carve the granite like this?
Over a hill and down, we get a view of the range where we are headed. Lindsey points out a low spot: "is that the pass?”
“No, I think it’s over there.” I point further to the left, where my memory tells me it should be. Over the next hour, it becomes obvious that the trail is headed directly to where Lindsey pointed. I admit my error. We climb up to an alpine basin, then start up the final switchbacks to the pass. We stop to talk to a couple of hikers on their way down, who tell us that the best view from the pass is a little to the west of the trail. We thank them for the info and continue on our way.
It’s tough hiking, and fully exposed to the sun, but we’re in good spirits all the way to the top. As long as there's a view to look forward to, the difficulty can’t touch our good mood. There are about fifteen people at the top, all of them right next to the trail. Lindsey and I use our insider information and step off the trail to explore to the west. We do find a slightly better view. Lyell Canyon is a grassy carpet unrolled in a long curve to the northwest; the Lyell Fork of the Tuolomne River meanders in curlicues along its center like an artist’s doodle. There’s also a steady supply of snowmelt to filter and drink, so we stop for lunch and refill our bottles from the source of the river below
I check the map on my phone.
“Only about 12 more miles to Tuolomne Meadows. We could make that before 5.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Lindsey says. She’s reticent.
“The grill has veggie burgers,” I entice her.
“Let’s see how it goes. I don't want to rush it.” She's open to the idea, and I take that as a victory. Now that veggie burgers are on the table, I’m ready to go as soon as we finish eating. Lindsey feels the unspoken pressure and she packs up too. We start a winding descent through rock fields. Much of our foot placement is along the larger rocks that define the edges of the trail, because the trail itself has become a small creek running steeply downhill. I look for a copse of trees where Brian and I waited out a hailstorm. I think I find it, but everything looks different than my memory.
We continue among two lakes with the signature murky blue of glacial runoff (the Lyell glacier that sits above them is one of the southernmost glaciers in the Northern Hemisphere. It is on its last leg and may have even been downgraded to snowfield by this point). Another steep downhill takes us down to the river created by the lakes’ outlets, and we cross on large stepping stones that have been deliberately placed.
The next section takes us through a garden-like collection of flowers, shrubs, and scattered trees. Water seems to flow everywhere through them. We eventually make our way to a bridge, where a lady signals to us to stay quiet. As we approach her and the bridge, she whispers to us that there's a deer lying down on an island next to the bridge. We cross quietly and look over at the halfway point. The island is small and covered with bushes, and it comes right down to the center post of the bridge. It takes a second for my eyes to adjust to the dark shadows, but when they do, there she is, just as promised: a doe, curled up and looking right back at us, only a few feet away. She watches us warily but stays put. Her fearful eyes fill me with compassion, and we move off the bridge so as not to disturb her further.
The climb down the rest of the pass seems much longer than I remember, and by the bottom, we’re both tired. But now we’ve hit the flat meadow of Lyell Canyon, and food is just ahead, just 8 more miles of flat dirt track through the meadow. In my eagerness I take the lead, which is a mistake.
A good rule of thumb when hiking with others is that the slower hiker goes in front and sets the pace. When the faster hiker is in front, he or she will naturally move ahead and have to constantly stop and wait. The slower hiker will either try to hike faster than they are comfortable, or they will fall behind. Sometimes both. And both are frustrating. Of course, I don’t always want to hike in back, especially on a steep uphill, so sometimes we agree that I’ll hike ahead for a while and wait for her at the top. On this long flat meadow, though, we've made no such agreement, so Lindsey is trying to keep up with my pace, which has opened up considerably on the easy terrain. The leader is also the one who can most easily call for a break. I don't need a break, and it doesn't even occur to me to take one.
We speed onward with long strides and I'm feeling the endorphins. I'm cheery and upbeat. We pass a group of trail workers cutting boulders and setting them in the trail. I chat with them as we pass by, and that’s when I realize that Lindsey is especially quiet. She doesn’t look happy. I try to bolster her spirits with the promise of real food.
“Only a couple more miles. It's gonna be close, but we can totally make it in time.”
The look on her face tells me I've said something very wrong. I try again.
“You’re doing great. That veggie burger is going to be so good!”
Her silence is worse than any shouting match. I concede the point and we slow down. It doesn't seem to help. We walk the last two miles in a cold silence, speaking only when necessary. It's only after we reach the campground and walk the last quarter mile to the store that we start to talk it out. As often happens, my eagerness took her out of her comfort zone, and I was blind to it until it was too late. I apologize, and things are better.
The grill is still open when we arrive a couple minute before five. There's still a big line, so it looks like they won't be closing yet. We go into the store to pick up my resupply for the next section—they’re supposed to close at five too. The worker climbs up on the desk and pulls down my box from a cubbyhole, then he gives me a lecture about the fact that I'm two weeks late to pick up my box, and they almost threw it away. It's not something I had thought of, and I'm grateful they held on to it, but I also feel like I’m doing everything wrong today and I'm not thrilled about the lecture. I’m polite and thank him for the box: next time I'll be more careful. We go back outside to get in line for food, and there’s an employee at the end of the line telling people that he’s the end of the line and they won't be serving anyone else. The store shows no sign of closing. I’ve made the wrong choice, and now we’ve missed our chance for a real cooked meal. I just want to cry.
I expect Lindsey to be mad again, but maybe because she can tell just how dejected I am, she seems more sympathetic than upset. We go back to the campground and find ourselves a spot that we share with a father and his two kids. We cook a rehydrated meal and chat until the sun goes down, then Lindsey and I retreat into the tent and talk a little more about our plans. We've decided not to hike down to the Valley; she doesn't want to hike tomorrow, and it’s not part of the PCT, so I don’t mind skipping it. Instead, we’ll take the bus, pick up the car, and go stay a night with my Uncle and Aunt near Coarsegold, then she'll take me down to Agua Dulce so I can complete the section that I skipped. Tomorrow we’ll have some real food.