I can remember my very first camping trip and my first exploration of the Sierra Nevada quite clearly, even though I was no more than ten-years-old. The world was different back then. Instead of children being constantly supervised or enrolled in “activities,” kids my age were often booted in the rear end and sent off to play on their own. Such was the case this amazing afternoon.
We had pulled into the campground (someplace near, but not in, Yosemite) at about midday, and within a few minutes I was ready to explore. I got permission from my Mom and was on my way. Suffice it to say that I wasn’t carrying the ten essentials.
I crossed a small creek on rocks and a log and made my way into the forest. I noticed immediately a stretch of redwoods growing almost in a straight line. I kept them on my right and walked for what seemed to me a long way.
It was probably less than half a mile.
At the end of the line of trees I found a small clearing with a patch of yellow flowers. I turned right, and turned right again. I figured that after those two turns I could walk in a straight line back to the creek, cross it, and be back at the campground.
After walking about twice as far back as I had walked out, I got the first inkling that something was wrong. I was lost.
You should know at this point that no one in my family was a hiker or backpacker. I was not a Boy Scout. I was out here on my own, armed only with the wilderness knowledge I had accumulated after living the first decade of my life in places like Detroit and Orange County, California. In other words, I knew what a tree looked like, and that’s about it.
I decided to retrace my steps. I remembered my group of yellow flowers and there was that line of trees. (These images are still pretty clear to me, some 45 years later.) Except, of course, that it turns out lots of trees look like they’re growing in lines if you look at them from different angles. Oh boy.
In the end I just kept at it. I was confident about my patch of flowers, and from that spot I stepped off in a number of different directions, always carefully paying attention so that I could return. I must have walked back and forth for at least two hours.
Eventually, I retraced my steps almost exactly and bridged the stream using the same rocks and log. I wandered into our camp and my Mom asked if I was having fun.
Now, I may have been a poor route finder, but I wasn’t stupid: I knew that if I told my Mom I had gotten lost my days of trekking through the wilds would come to a quick end. It stayed my secret for decades. (I think I worked up the nerve to tell her when I turned forty. At least I think I did; maybe she still doesn’t know!)
That was the day I fell in love with the Sierra Nevada. You see, even though I was lost and should have been scared out of my wits, I had had a blast!
Later, on the same and subsequent trips, we would visit Yosemite National Park, the Emigrant Wilderness, and June Lake. In ensuing years I would discover Shaver Lake, Huntington Lake and Dinky Creek. I would repeat my meandering at each, thankfully with a much better appreciation of the finer points of land navigation.
Each step I took within the Range of Light was pure joy. Each time I left I regretted it. One year, when we first entered the mountains on a week-long trip to Shaver Lake, I recall turning to my wife and saying, “You know, I love this place so much that I start to lament the fact we have to leave the day we arrive.”
The ultimate pilgrimage, however, escaped me until 2009. For eighteen days late that summer, I walked from Happy Isles to the top of Mount Whitney. The experience was indelibly etched into my memory. I still remember, quite clearly, the bus ride to the trailhead, the first night’s campground (almost all the campgrounds, really), turning a corner and seeing three bears, each wind-swept mountain pass, the friendly marmots, the friendly people – almost everything. While writing the “favorite spots” portion of the book it was more like RELIVING the experience than remembering it.
Think of it as a virtuous opposite to “post-traumatic stress disorder.” Call it “post-euphoric delight disorder.”
And I remember thinking everyday on the trail: more people should do this. I still think that.
If there is even a tiny chance that you might want to give hiking the JMT a try, go ahead and click that “Buy” button, above. The worst that can happen is that you will experience the hike through my eyes, see some pretty decent photos, and learn something. On the other hand, it just might change your life.