There is a game I play when I hike the John Muir Trail. I’ll often take a break at lunch and go on a short walk off the trail – perhaps as much as several hundred yards. I’ll deliberately avoid “social” or “use” trails and try to step off in a direction no one has appeared to have gone before. As I’m enjoying my salami and cheese (which has become a favorite trail lunch), I’ll imagine that I am the first person who has ever sat at that particular spot and saw that particular view. Given the history of the Sierra Nevada, and the popularity of the trail, my fantasy of repeatedly going where no man has gone before is unlikely, but I’ve always said that a bit of self-deception is a good thing.
The opposite side of that coin is how much history has occurred on and near where we walk – how many times hikers speed past spots, where something remarkable or momentous happened, without knowing. In the past I’ve described the ordeal of Donald Downs. Another famous fatality occurred almost exactly one mile from the John Muir Trail: the death of Steve Fossett.
Younger readers can be forgiven if their first response is, “Steve who?” For those of us who are a little older, there was a time that it was almost impossible to pick up a newspaper without reading an article about Fossett, either describing his preparations for, his progress at, or his successful completion of some record-breaking adventure in aviation or sailing. I’ll bet the average person doesn’t even know that some of his achievements are even possible:
♦ In 2001, as captain of his sailing catamaran Cheyenne, he crossed the Atlantic Ocean in less than five days, cutting nearly two days off the previous record.
♦ In 2002 he was the first to fly around the world, alone, in his balloon Spirit of Freedom. It took him eight-and-a-third days to make the flight from western Australia (and then all the way around) to eastern Australia.
♦ In 2005 he was the first to fly a single-engine airplane, the GlobalFlyer, around the world without refueling and without landing, this time beginning and ending in Salina, Kansas.
He also set records in gliders and airships, and climbed six of the seven highest peaks on the seven continents. (Due to problems with asthma, he did not attempt Everest.)
On the morning of September 3, 2007, he took off from a small Nevada airfield north of Bridgeport in a small, two-seat aircraft. He loved to fly and this little airplane, a Bellanca Super Decathlon, is widely known as being great fun. It was a little more than one year later before his crashed aircraft was located at the spot indicated on the map above. He almost certainly died on impact. The accident investigation concluded that he was caught in a 300 foot-per-minute downdraft that matched or exceeded his aircraft’s ability to climb at that altitude.
Emily Lake is a popular side trip for JMT hikers, and the northern edge of the lake is less than 3,400 feet from the site of the crash.
The next time I find myself gnawing at my salami lunch, instead of fantasizing that I am the first ever on this spot, I might better imagine what else has happened nearby. If only the trees and rocks could talk.
Good hiking, Ray