Decision

4.10.16

I’d like to say that the decision to thru-hike the John Muir trail with my husband and 6-year old daughter came while atop a mountain pass, looking down across the expanse of the Sierras. It’d like to say that it was an “a-ha” moment, borne out of the beauty of the backcountry. In fact, the decision to thru-hike the John Muir Trail, known to backpackers as the JMT, came while speeding south along I-5 en route from the Bay Area to Los Angeles, discussing the boredom that can so easily become one’s life if we let it. 

Anyone who knows our family would have automatically assumed that this was Paul’s idea. In fact, it was mine. We had talked before about hiking the entire Pacific Crest Trail with Sara when she turned 10 or 11, but that was far enough away to not really seem real. I heard myself saying to Paul that we should take a month this upcoming summer and hike the JMT as a family. Without hesitation, he enthusiastically agreed, after which I wondered, “What crazy plan did I just unleash?” Before I knew it, I had secured a highly coveted permit and plans were underway. Our bedroom was transformed into a topo-map display with the 13 Tom Harrison maps that make up the John Muir Trail and dehydrated foods began to appear in bulk, piled high in our living room. Suddenly, things were getting real.

It wasn’t until I started telling people what we were going to do that I started to doubt myself and my decision. “You’re going to do WHAT? Are you crazy? Can Sara really do that?” These are just a few of the common responses that I get when I tell people that we are planning to thru hike the JMT with our 6-year old daughter this summer. 220-miles from Yosemite to the top of Mt Whitney. 47,000 feet of elevation gain. 10-mountain passes all over 9000 feet. One month in the backcountry.

It’s only through other people’s eyes that the fear and doubt begins to creep in. Are we really prepared for this? Paul reminds me that we are limited only by our own expectations and our expectations of Sara, but I wonder if that is really true. Where is the line between expectation and performance? I do know that we have the power to make this happen- to transcend the limitations that society puts on us, the doubts, the fears and all the “shoulds” and “can-dos.” And yet the power of the mind- and the minds of others- can be such a strong limiting force. That is, in part, what this trip is about. A chance to prove to ourselves that we can trust our inner instincts, even when everything and everyone on the outside believes otherwise. After all, isn’t that what adventure and courage is all about? Going forward in spite of your fear. Yes, indeed, putting one step in front of the other, little by little. Mile by mile.

Information Overload

5.17.16

One of the joys of going deep into the back-country is the fact that I get to unplug from the many demands of my regular life. We live in a world of information overload, almost never turning off our devices, never turning off the sphere of influence, social programming and hence, our brains. So for me, retreating into the back-country is a way to simplify my life. And yet, nothing about preparing for the JMT is simple. By the time we make it to the trail head, we will probably feel like we've already climbed Mt. Whitney.

Managing the logistics of resupplies, gear upgrades, food planning, mileage planning and drop off/ pick up logistics is an epic adventure in and of itself. I joined the JMT list serves and Facebook groups in order to glean useful information. And I've gotten that information- and then some. Never did I imagine that I would lay awake at night agonizing over whether to purchase trail runners or hiking boots, ultra-light rain gear or run-of-the-mill ponchos. Gear was suddenly discussed, not by brand, but by ounces. Do I really need that 4 ounce sleeping pillow? And the early season snow reports? It's enough to make my head spin. I'm starting to get the hint that this is no ordinary walk in the park.

Doubt

5.31.16

There are a lot of scary things in the wilderness- fierce weather, swollen rivers, bears, blisters, to name a few. But these fears are not the ones that keep me up at night, as our launch date quickly approaches. It is a much greater fear that hijacks my mind and renders me temporarily disabled. Doubt.

For the most part, I have an inherent confidence in myself about this trip and in Paul- a confidence born in real-time experience. I know that we have the technical skill-set, the lived experience and the knowledge to complete this trek. But is that what this journey actually calls for? As my mind wanders into the dark hallways of doubt, other needed voices call to me- patience, perseverance, dedication, ego-lessness. Do we have enough of these ingredients to go the distance? For I am certain that these skills will be the ones that carry us through. It is hard enough to summon these needed friends for myself, but my responsibility is so much bigger than that. I must hold these for Sara too. I will need patience, when she has none. I will need perseverance, when she wants to quit. And I will need confidence when my mind- the biggest critic of all- shouts at me through waves of doubt and causes me to call into question, even the best of intentions.

As parents, we often show strength when our children are scared, but that show is precisely that- an act, a facade, a role brought about by experience. I want to believe that I am the confident, capable, strong woman whom my daughter believes me to be. I need to believe that. For me. For her. But even so, who will hold my strength, when I have none? 

 High Sierra Loop, 2015

High Sierra Loop, 2015

Food

6.23.16

I don't like to cook. And even when I do, I'm not very good at it. Fortunately, I have a husband who is competent and creative in the kitchen. And for that, I am supremely grateful. That being said, I'm still a mother, so the desire for my child to eat healthy, nutritious foods, runs deep. So, despite my internal resistance, I make Sara well-balanced lunches every day and send her off to school feeling like I can check one box off my "good parenting" list for the day. Like most mothers, I stress when my child doesn't eat well. I used to pride myself on what a "good eater" my young toddler was, bragging about how she ate tofu and broccoli for her preschool lunch. I was sure that somehow this was a reflection of what a good parent I was.

Enter elementary school. Day after day, the healthy lunches that I painstakingly make each morning come back untouched. I start begging and negotiating with Sara to eat just one or two of the vegetables on her plate. She starts writing kindergarten-style essays at school about how much she loves pizza, spaghetti and macaroni and cheese. And just like that, she's a regular kid.

Like most kids, Sara won't eat if she doesn't like what's in front of her. And in most cases, that's not a problem. She'll still survive. But not on the trail. And not with 220-miles in front of her. Nope. On the trail, you eat what you've got. End of story. But what you've got, well, that's another story.

There are two primary factors dictating the food that we take on the trail: weight and distance between resupplies. Roughly speaking, Paul and I each carry 8 pounds of food in a 2-pound bear canister. The 16-pounds of food needs to last all three of us the full distance between resupply points, which is about 55 miles, or in our case about 7 days. Oh and did I mention that it all has to actually FIT in the bear canisters? That, along with all of our scented products and anything else that a bear might find interesting in the wee hours of the night.

We've chosen our food carefully. Everything that we bring must pack a nutritional punch and get us over those high mountain passes. The smell of Paul's homemade jerky fills the house as we re-package our food into tiny zip-lock baggies. My novelty food items won't fit in the bear canister, so Paul makes me choose between dessert and toilet paper. It's a tough choice, but in the end, the chocolate has to go. And as much as it pains me that Sara will not eat a fruit or vegetable for a month, I feel confident about the one food item that I know will keep her going steadily mile after mile. The food for which she will walk across the entire Sierras and then some.

Jellybeans.

It's GO time!

7.4.16

Well, our backpacks are packed, our food resupplies have been sent, our shuttles have been arranged. At this point, there is nothing left for us to do, but GO. We are just 3 days away from the start of our epic adventure- an adventure that began exactly 8 years ago today in Yosemite. On that day, Paul and I met for the first time and walked the first 9-miles of the John Muir Trail together, as part of the Elevation-SF hiking group. We had a big adventure ahead of us that day, as we began the 19-mile journey from Curry Village to the top of Half-Dome and back. Little did we know that our journey together would take us much further than those 19-miles, with peaks and valleys that rivaled even those of Yosemite. On that day, we were still strangers, unaware of all that was to come. What a journey it has been, and will continue to be.

Our life together began on the John Muir Trail. And to the trail we return exactly 8 years later. On that pre-dawn morning 8 years ago, mere minutes after Paul and I first met, we spotted three bears wandering through the forest just off the trail. Three bears, clearly a family and clearly at home. And although we didn't know it at the time, I like to think that those three bears were like the three of us- at home in the sanctuary of each other and of the great outdoors. Indeed, Sara has never known a life without the influence of the back-country. Its in her blood, as it is in mine. Growing up deep in the Rocky Mountains, the familiar 14,000 foot peaks that surrounded my hometown of Telluride, Colorado were like familiar friends who kept me safe at night and kept me rooted in something always bigger than myself.

And so, in the famous words of John Muir himself, "The mountains are calling, and I must go."

 First Family Backpacking Trip in Big Sur, 2010: Sara, 20 months old

First Family Backpacking Trip in Big Sur, 2010: Sara, 20 months old

Finding Our Rhythm

7.9.16

Transitioning from one way of life to another takes time. We are creatures of habit. We like our routines, our familiarities, our creature comforts. So moving from life in the “front” country to life in the “back” country requires a great deal of adjustment, fortitude and patience- especially when traveling with a 6-year old. We are all stumbling about trying to find our rhythm. We schedule short days at first, as we adjust to the new reality of carrying our lives on our backs. Our shoulders and hips ache under the weight of our packs. At full capacity, our packs weigh in just under 40-pounds. That’s our base weight, plus food and water. Setting up and breaking down camp takes a long time, as we circle around each other trying to figure out who is going to do what. Sara is as helpful as any 6-year old can be, which is to say, not helpful at all.

In the first few days, we are still our “old” selves. We respond to things the way we typically do, not having fully transitioned from one life to the next. Sara asks repeatedly, “How much longer? Are we there yet? What’s for dinner?” These are the questions of her “front” country life and she has yet to settle into her new identity. We too find ourselves reacting to small irritations, as if they are big.  In our regular lives, these moments define us.

Eventually, we settle into a routine. And in the familiarity of that routine, we find solace. We wake up when the sun rises, make coffee and breakfast, break down camp, put our lives on our backs and start walking. I teach Sara how to make up stories in her head when she gets tired and this appears to be a breakthrough for her- and for me. Like most 6-year olds, she is a talker. And like most 6-year olds, she talks about the things that are important to her- cats, birthday parties, Halloween costumes, recipes. Paul and I do our best to allow her the space to talk incessantly about these things, as she finds her new rhythm, but eventually we too must retreat to the silence and solace of the great outdoors. So I fill her with jellybeans and implore her to please talk to herself in her own head. She gets it. At least for a little while.

By the time we reach our first big pass (Donohue Pass, 11,050 feet), we are settling into our stride. Paul teaches Sara how to balance on rocks across rivers and streams and we all seem to understand that the up-hills require a different kind of fortitude and patience. And a whole lot more jellybeans.

Sara finds a walking stick which she names “Little Whitney.” The stick for her becomes not only a physical support, but also the very essence of what makes sense- something to hold on to. For the entirety of this trip, she is without any of her regular “things.”  She has with her, a lightweight journal and a pen and a few colorful erasers. That’s it. For a modern day kid, that’s pretty much the equivalent of parental neglect and so she clings to “Little Whitney” with every fiber of her 6-year old self.

Halfway up Donohue Pass, Sara realizes that she has left “Little Whitney” near the stream crossing where we were forced to take off our hiking boots and wade through the stream in our Crocs. And so she does what any 6-year old who has just lost the one thing she has to hold on to would do- she cries. My guilt about taking my child on a 220-mile hike has not yet been transformed into pride, so I do what any parent with a guilty conscience would do- I drop my pack in the middle of the trail and head down the trail in search of “Little Whitney.”

I find the stick at the side of the stream crossing, just where she left it and I head back up Donohue Pass, furiously trying to catch Paul and Sara. They are way ahead of me, reaching the snowline, unencumbered by the weight of sticks and conscience. They have found their rhythm. When at last, I reach them, just before the pass, I hand over Sara’s stick, breathing a sigh of relief as I wait for her heartfelt expression of gratitude. But that’s the other thing about 6-year olds. They are exceedingly ungrateful; unaware of the mental gymnastics that we parents perform in order to support their growth and happiness. Without missing a beat, she takes the stick from me and continues up the pass. I wait for the thanks that never comes. Yes, I too am developing a new rhythm. The rhythm of letting go.

Little by little, we find ourselves. Sara moves back and forth between stories and silence. Paul develops an efficiency in setting up and breaking down our camp homes. My anxiety about the enormity of this trip begins to fade as I watch my little daughter become more confident and self-assured with each passing day. Our bodies and our hearts grow stronger. Yes, I believe we have finally found our rhythm. We are on our way.

 At the trail-head. Still fresh.

At the trail-head. Still fresh.

 Heading towards Donohue Pass.

Heading towards Donohue Pass.

 Cuddling at camp.

Cuddling at camp.

A Brief Respite

7.12.16

The big kids have arrived! Paul’s older kids have joined us on the trail for 2 days and it is such a welcome respite for us all. Sara idolizes her older siblings, so she is overjoyed to have new energy in our midst. She is eager to show them all how strong and confident she is becoming, so she walks quickly, helps them set up their tents and tells them about all the things she has learned already on the trail. Her older sister Maya makes an elaborate fairy house with her out of sticks, acorns and leaves (a craft that I am actively called upon to recreate multiple times for the remainder of the trip) and we all relish in the community feeling of having people whom we love with us along this journey. Paul and I experience the brief respite of having divided attention, knowing that Sara is well loved and taken care of by her older siblings. For the first few days, we have had no one but each other and we have been Sara’s only source of entertainment and support. We cherish the few moments in which we don’t have to be fully “on.”

 

The big kids meet us in the Thousand Island Lakes region of the Ansel Adams Wilderness. It is truly breathtaking. Were it not for the killer mosquitoes, this place would be paradise. Fortunately, a gale force wind blows in the night the kids are with us, blowing away all of the mosquitoes and nearly taking our tents with it. It is a dramatic introduction to the elements out here.

 

The next day, we all hike together and my heart swells with pride to see Sara keeping pace with her older brother and sisters. She is loving the company and I am feeling grateful for their efforts in making it out to join us for this brief respite. Tomorrow, we will part ways, as they loop back to their car and we continue Southbound towards our first resupply.

 

When the morning comes and we all say goodbye, the three of us are fueled by our family encounter and we head off with happy hearts and renewed energy towards our first resupply. And the day proves to be the first of Sara’s power days. Having initially set modest goals for the trip, we planned to travel about 8 miles per day at a pace commensurate with her little legs. But she is on fire! We log our first 11-mile day and make it to Red’s Meadow by lunchtime. We are greeted by fellow hikers who all gasp in astonishment at the 6-year old hiker who is making history on the JMT. We pick up our resupply bucket, organize our food and head straight to the café, where we indulge in Double Bacon Cheeseburgers and Root Beer Floats.

 

We return, gluttonous, to the café for dinner and breakfast the next morning, where our server writes down Sara’s name in her record book. Our bellies full, our packs heavy and our spirits high, we return to the trail, unaware that this will be our last true encounter with good food, flush toilets and cell service. As decadent as our resupply is, we are eager to get back on the trail, back to our rhythms and back to ourselves.

 Saying goodbye to the big kids after their brief visit.

Saying goodbye to the big kids after their brief visit.

 Cleaning the Red's Meadow Cafe kitchen out of their bacon supply.

Cleaning the Red's Meadow Cafe kitchen out of their bacon supply.

Losing Things

7.15.16

It’s easy to lose things on the trail: bottle caps, vials of hydrocortisone cream, highly coveted pee-rags, weight (we collectively lost 24-pounds between the three of us). But there are other things to lose on the trail that are gifts along the way: your sense of time, your career identities, your inhibitions, your agendas.

 

On the trail, no one asks you what you do for a living. It’s such a common question in our regular lives and yet, I am struck by how this question almost never comes up in casual conversation while hiking the JMT. Perhaps it’s because what you do for a living is of no consequence when you are hiking 220-miles at high altitude. Instead, the conversations center around “Why” each person is braving the JMT and what circumstances led each of us to this journey. And for us, the questions always focus around how in the world it is humanly possible for a 6-year old girl to be thru hiking the JMT. How brave she is. And how brave we are.

And so for a brief time, we get to lose our outside identities and focus solely on the reasons why we have embarked on this great adventure. Watching Sara’s growing strength, curiosity and confidence leaves no doubt in my mind about the reasons why we have undertaken this epic journey. She leaps confidently across streams, informs Northbound travelers about the trail conditions that they will soon encounter and runs ahead of us to read the trail markers. Fellow hikers High-Five her and ask her how old she is. She is un-phased by their amazement, but a little smile escapes her lips, letting me know that she understands on some level that this is a big deal. Our daily mileage increases as we allow Sara to set the pace and before we know it, we have shaved a day off our itinerary. We slowly let go of our agendas, our timelines, our ideas of what we can and cannot do.

 

We lose our inhibitions, bathing naked in rivers and lakes, lying prone against hot lizard rocks to warm our sun-kissed bodies. Paul is a master at finding secluded spots where the three of us can strip down, get clean and enjoy the feeling of the warm wind on our naked skin. These are the moments when we all feel truly free.

 

Over the course of the next three days, we make it over three more passes, each rising higher than the other and each more magnificent than the one before. Just over Selden Pass, we spot a Bald Eagle flying in circles above us, the first and only one that any of us have seen in our lives. Chills run down my spine at the sight of this iconic bird and I am struck with a sense of reverence and privilege for all that we are experiencing.

 

 I am grateful for the courage to undertake this journey, for the opportunity to expose Sara to the truth, beauty and reverance of the great outdoors. I am grateful for the moments in which I get to choose who and how I want to be. To let go of the identities that I cling to, the agendas that dictate my actions. And little by little, I begin to lose the last shreds of doubt and fear about our journey as they slowly vanish over the vast Sierra horizons.

 Our favorite campsite- at the base of Silver Pass.

Our favorite campsite- at the base of Silver Pass.

 Making tracks.

Making tracks.

Expectations

7.16.16

So often, we live our lives in relationship to our expectations. When life meets the expectations that we set, we experience a sense of synchronicity, a knowing that all is as we expected it to be. We create scenarios in our minds based on what we believe to be true and we often live ahead of ourselves in anticipation of the expectations that we seek.

 

And yet, life rarely presents itself in the ways that we create in our minds. On the trail, expectations become part of one’s daily conversation. Hikers traveling in opposite directions are eager to inform each other of what lies ahead. As we listen to these anecdotes, we prepare ourselves mentally for all that is to come, creating images in our minds to help us predict the unpredictable. Traveling Southbound, as we are, the passes only get bigger, higher and more dramatic. Tales of skinny catwalks with thousand foot drops, altitude sickness and long stretches of lose rock loom ahead of us, threatening to push us to our physical and psychological limits. We lay awake at night imagining ourselves laying breathless by the side of the trail or plummeting to our deaths over the edge of a sheer rock cliff.

 

Still, each day, presents itself with fresh eyes. When I allow myself to be present with what is actually happening, rather than what I imagine to be true, I am filled with wonder at how different each moment is from what I have come to expect it to be. We have become trail strong. We have our own truths. We climb the passes slowly, but steadily, stopping frequently for water, electrolytes and Jelly Bean breaks. We greet descending hikers letting us know that it is “not much farther” to the top, knowing that that is a nicety that we all tell each other in order to summon the strength to keep moving forward. We travel miles over switchbacks, baking in the hot Sierra sun and are greeted on the other side with breathtakingly expansive views stretching far into the horizon. Waterfalls beckon to us from Evolution Valley and granite domes sit like Kings alongside the trail, calling to us from thousands of years of history.

 

Allowing ourselves to see what is, rather than what might be, is a moment to moment to practice. And when we suspend our expectations, the truth of each moment can be spectacular. As we forge on towards our second resupply at Muir Trail Ranch, I allow myself to take in the sheer immensity of all that we are experiencing. Sara sets an aggressive downhill pace, with which I genuinely struggle to keep up. The trail stretches out for miles ahead of us after Selden Pass with endlessly blooming wildflowers flanking our trails and feet. Sara picks the different colors- purple, blue, yellow, pink, orange and white. She skips and sings as she collects flowers into small bouquets that she will later use to decorate our tent and campsite.  In this moment, there are no expectations. Just this. Just now.

 

As we near Muir Trail Ranch, I am slowly pulled away from the moments in front of me and find myself once again living in the anticipatory halls of my mind. As with our first resupply, I am looking forward to new foods to add to our menu. I am eager to make contact with my friends and family, to let them all know that we are now two full days ahead of schedule and feeling strong. I compose text messages in my head that I imagine sending with pride. I make lists of things that I want to buy at the Muir Trail Ranch store to ease some of our trail cravings. I am so caught up in my anticipatory expectations of our second resupply, that I pay little attention to the hand-scribbled sign on the MTR trail marker that reads forebodingly, “Hikers not welcome, don’t bother.”

 

After the long, hot descent to Muir Trail Ranch, fueled mostly by our hopes and expectations, we finally arrive at the little resupply station to find…nothing. Well, not exactly nothing, but certainly nothing that we were expecting. Muir Trail Ranch consists of one table, an awning, several hiker buckets where people dispose of things they no longer want, a “store” that sells fuel and Band-Aids and a horse stable, guarded protectively from bears by a mangy barn dog. No flush toilets, cell service or general store. No wedges of parmesan cheese that had filled my fantasies for miles. Muir Trail Ranch is in fact nothing more than what it actually is- a place for us to collect the resupply buckets that we had sent prior to starting our journey.

 

Expectations are the authors of our lives. We live our lives in relationship to those expectations. And when our reality fails to match those expectations, we suffer. Because Paul and I had built up so much hope for what we expected to find at Muir Trail Ranch, we both suffered an emotional letdown more painful than anything that we had yet experienced on the trail. We had waited for days to be able to make contact with our friends and families. We had talked about the supplies that we would replenish. Perhaps we’d even get a bottle of wine to celebrate our midway point. But in the end, what we got was the oatmeal, mashed potatoes and dehydrated beans that we had sent ahead of time, never knowing that by the time we arrived, we would give anything for something new.

 

Sara had no such expectations. So when we arrived at Muir Trail Ranch, she was delighted with the bags of discarded peanut M&Ms rescued from the hiker buckets. She was thrilled to meet fellow hikers who were frantically trying to fit another week’s worth of food into their bear canisters and who, like us, tossed foods they could no longer stand to eat anymore. She relished the shade under the awning and talked at length with an old lady who was visiting the ranch for her 30th year in a row. And that mangy barn dog? He turned out to be the highlight of her entire trip.

 Mountain Girl.

Mountain Girl.

 Yet another stream crossing.

Yet another stream crossing.

 

 

Ups and Downs

7.20.16

The John Muir Trail is defined, among other things, by its indomitable passes. Ten total, including Mt. Whitney, all rising well over 10,000 feet and totaling 47,000 feet of collective elevation gain. Each day is, in its own way, defined by those passes. We plan our days based on the elevation profile ahead, often camping at the base of each pass, in order to conquer its formidable ascent early in the morning before the sun threatens to level us with its penetrating rays. We are forever in relationship to those passes, either preparing to summit, celebrating at the top or recovering on the other end. They are the high points of our journey- and the low.

 

Every hiker has their victory pass and their nemesis. We all tell stories about which passes nearly brought us to our knees and which ones surprised us by our own strength and tenacity. These mountains present daily challenges which force us to dig deep into our reserves, to call upon our greatest strengths and to go beyond the limits of our mental and physical capabilities. We gaze wearily upon the summits which, despite their appearances, are much further away than they seem. There are some that feel unreachable and others over which we soar proudly, surprised by the ease with which we conquered the unimaginable.

 

Each pass is its own journey and we in turn, become defined by them. They are the physical expressions of our internal landscapes and each summit brings forth its own victory.  Switchbacks which stretch out for miles expose our greatest doubts and insecurities. Tempers run high and we question our belief in ourselves and in each other. On the backs of these mountains, our demons emerge and our smallest, most insecure selves peek out from hidden crevices. These are the lows. The can’t dos. The moments in which we are temporarily overtaken by defeat.

 

But in the end, we persevere, in spite of ourselves. And our doubts and insecurities are transformed into triumph. We rely on each other for support and we draw strength from each other. We reach the top and we look back from where we came with amazement. From our vantage point of victory we access new truths about ourselves that we will call forth the next day when faced with taller, harder climbs.

 

Such is the way of the trail. And as we travel Southbound, the passes, which by all accounts should be getting harder and more formidable, are transformed instead into our personal victories. We are conquering these mountains, as we conquer ourselves.  Muir Pass, Mather Pass, Pinchot Pass, each rising higher than its predecessor and each gracing us with a victory that lends strength to our bodies and our souls.

 

We are now camping at elevations higher than ever before, as the winds whip at our tent and we huddle together with other hikers preparing to summit as we are. Tent cities crop up at the bases of high elevation passes, as there are few places to camp amidst the rocks that blanket the landscape above 11,000 feet. As much as we cherish our solitude, we love the occasional communal camping, which brings us closer to our trail families whom we’ve come to know along the trail. We all share stories about our journeys so far and come to know each other in ways that would take years of shared experience in the outside world. And when the sun comes up in the morning, we will pack up our temporary homes, fuel our bodies with coffee, oatmeal and miso soup, pump water from a nearby stream and set out for another day on the trail.

 Garnet Lake- Ansel Adams Wilderness

Garnet Lake- Ansel Adams Wilderness

 Top of Forester Pass- our highest pass before Mt. Whitney.

Top of Forester Pass- our highest pass before Mt. Whitney.

 Heading down the south side of Forester Pass.

Heading down the south side of Forester Pass.

 "Tent City" at Wanda Lake at the base of Muir Pass.

"Tent City" at Wanda Lake at the base of Muir Pass.

 

 

Intuitive Parenting

7.22.16

Life as a parent is not easy. And life as a parent while in the backcountry is another dimension entirely. In our regular lives, we frequently rely on the advice of experts to tell us how to parent- what things to respond to and to what degree. When to take action, when to let things go. I am one of those experts who helps people know what choices to make when it comes to their children. But when it comes to my own child, these decisions are rarely easy and almost never straightforward.

 

Today is our 16th day on the trail and we have discovered that Sara has developed a parasite. She discovered it in fact. Worms in her poop. My initial reaction was one of horror, disgust and fear. Like most parents, the thought of one’s child having to suffer is unbearable and we want to take away this suffering as quickly as possible. If I was at home right now, I would run to the internet, google the information and be flooded with thousands of pages of information ranging from harmless anecdotes to threats of death.  I would call all of my friends who are parents, get their advice and then make a swift plan of action. Most likely, I would be on my way to Kaiser, praying furiously that my daughter had not already sustained irreparable GI damage from my not having noticed the parasite earlier. I would want to fix this. Right away. But I am not at home. I am in the backcountry, miles away from all information that can prove both helpful and harmful.  

 

For the past two nights, Sara has woken up complaining of pain and discomfort. Is this related to the worms? Or is it the general discomfort that comes from walking over 8 hours a day in sweaty clothes that never seem to get clean? Whatever it is, I am panicked and it is the middle of the night. As with most things, the anxiety that strikes us as parents is always worse in the middle of the night. Thoughts become repetitive, irrational, apocalyptic. I have figured out that a cold compress (aka- a handkerchief soaked in an ice cold mountain stream) takes away any nighttime discomfort and allows Sara to sleep peacefully through the night. But after she falls back asleep, I become racked with guilt and fear. What is this parasite? How serious is it and do we need to end our trip and seek immediate medical attention? In my sleep-deprived panic, I wake Paul up in the middle of the night and we both agree that we don’t want to take any chances when it comes to Sara’s health. With our headlamps on, we look at the map and determine that we can hike out the next day over an unknown pass. It’s a long, arduous hike that will take us to a road where we hope to flag down a car who will take us to a nearby hospital. We can tackle this issue. Stat.

 

After our middle of the night decision, I lay away for hours, crestfallen. No parent wants their child to suffer. And yet, we had come so far and conquered so much already. I was devastated at the thought of abandoning our efforts midway. I imagined myself letting our family and friends know that we had to pull out. Everyone would understand, of course. But my heart was heavy. I didn’t sleep at all that night.

 

As often happens, the light of day offered a little more hope and a good dose of reason. Paul and I looked at the map again and realized that a major trailhead (the turn-off to Onion Valley) was only three days away. If we could keep Sara comfortable, we could hike towards the trailhead, where we might be able to get more information about this mysterious parasite and if need be, could hike out at a place where we were sure to get immediate help and support. We told Sara our plan, assured her that we would take good care of her and continued to move forward.

 

We set our intentions for the day to find out as much information on the trail as we could. We had been told by other hikers that there were many doctors, EMTs and military personnel hiking the trail. Surely, they could be of some help to us? And so…Enter the magic. I had been told about “trail angels” before we left. These are people who chose to walk the trail for a few days handing out goodies and resupplies to people hiking the trail. Do-gooders who simply feel great about bringing happiness and joy to fellow hikers. Well, these trail angels exist. And we found them in abundance.

 

Within the first hour of our day, we met two teachers who quickly diagnosed Sara’s condition as “pinworm”, letting us know that they had seen it many times with their own children and students. They assured us that it wasn’t life threatening and that the biggest issue was one of “comfort.” They told us that a simple over-the-counter medication would treat the issue and that if need be, we could finish out the hike. If only we could walk down to the corner store and pick up those meds! But of course, those meds were miles away. Sara appeared to be comfortable. She was her usual energetic self, allowing us to believe that we could continue moving towards our goal. If only we could get those meds, my mind would be at ease.

 

As it happens, we had a resupply coming to us on the trail in 3 days via pack stock. Could we possibly summon the trail magic and get those meds into our resupply? We had no means of communication to make this happen, but people on the trail are amazing in so many ways. A number of travelers had the sense to carry two-way communication devices with them and they were thrilled to be able to help us. We sent messages to the outside world, unaware of whether those messages were ever received. Two 18-year old boys who had just graduated from High School sent a message to their father on the “outside” asking him to contact our resupply coordinator and to send the meds in our upcoming resupply. We profusely thanked the boys as they went on their way and I crossed my fingers that the message would be received.

 

Over the course of the next day, we sent many messages along the trail, some via borrowed one-way text and many others via “trail mail.” Messages left on trail markers were relayed to us from hikers coming in the opposite direction. As the only people hiking with a 6-year old, we were easily identifiable and the messages reached us easily. People were eager to help. I was profoundly struck by the interconnectedness and humanity of this shared experience. On the “outside”, we live such insular lives, separate from our neighbors, our families, our communities. So often, we are looking out for ourselves, isolated, lonely, alone.

And yet, the magic of the trail exists not only in the beauty and humanity that shows itself with each passing step, but in the reminder of the interconnectedness of all things- and all people.  Two days after sending our trail messages, we summited Glen Pass, a rigorous climb that took us up above 11,000 feet. There are always “summit parties” happening at the top of each pass- people hanging out together, celebrating their latest victories, swapping stories and often sharing trail snacks. Here, atop this incredible summit, a man, who happened to be a doctor, approached us and said that he had a message for us. He pulled out his phone and showed us a picture that he had taken of a fellow hiker’s text message device. It read, “Got your message. Meds coming in the July 24th resupply.” Tears of joy filled my eyes, not only for the relief of knowing that we would receive Sara’s meds tomorrow, but of the sheer humanity and collective effort that went in to making this magic happen. The doctor gave us a full supply of witch-hazel wipes for added comfort and assured us that the pinworms were harmless and could be treated easily with the meds that were coming tomorrow.

 

The next day, when we met our packer along the trail, we received our final resupply of food, along with the medications that came on the wings of trail angels. Such beauty and magic rests not only in my renewed faith in humanity, but also in a reminder of the faith in which we must have in ourselves. The trail offers the opportunity to return to the intuitive wisdom and intuition with which we all come into the world. We naturally know what our bodies need, what our hearts desire. We are hard wired to connect with others and to make decisions based on intuition. And yet, we have moved so far away from this internal awareness, often falling prey to the advice of others and failing to recognize the wisdom in our own hearts.

 

With our final resupply, we had everything we needed to continue our trip. We had food and medication. We had a profound sense of community and togetherness. We had faith in ourselves and in the wisdom of our parenting decisions. We had everything we could possible ask for. Except fuel. The packer had forgotten to bring us our fuel.

 A quiet moment at camp.

A quiet moment at camp.

Expecting the Unexpected

7.24.16

When it comes to trouble on the trail, there are two choices: Be upset or deal with it. You can plan a lot of things on the trail and then there is the unexpected. In other words, Life.

 

Our two cans of fuel did not arrive with our resupply. We could survive on beef jerky and trail mix for a few more days if we had to, but we’d already grown tired of these foods and we were eager to dive into the new varieties of dehydrated dinners that were jammed into our bear cans. Had this been our first resupply, it is likely that we would have defaulted to our “traditional” responses- to be upset, panic, angry, wonder what in the world we were going to do. But the trail strengthens you in unexpected ways. It strengthens your body, your mind, your resolve. Having experienced the trail magic and generosity surrounding the pinworm saga, both Paul and I felt confident that we could get the support that we needed on the trail when it came to a lack of fuel.

 

Within minutes of departing from our mule-facilitated resupply, we encountered two hikers who appeared to have been on the trail for several weeks. We told them about our lack of fuel and they immediately handed over a half-full fuel container. Perhaps it was their compassion and intrigue around a 6-year old hiking the JMT, but I like to think that they would have handed over the fuel anyway. People like to be generous. It fuels the heart and the soul.

 

Over the course of the next two days, we collected 2 more fuel canisters from fellow hikers and given the fact that we were ahead of schedule, we now had enough fuel to keep us going for the remainder of the trip. We wanted to extend this generosity to others and found ourselves offering extra food to fellow hikers who had tried furiously to pack 10-days worth of food into one bear canister- unsuccessfully. The barter system is alive and well on the trail. Sara found herself the happy recipient of candy bars, electrolyte chews, jolly ranchers and extra jelly beans. People were delighted to give her treats on the trail in exchange for nothing more than a gap-toothed smile.

 

These mini-crises on the trail offer the amazing opportunity to connect with others. Talking with other people, asking for help, hearing their own stories. These are the moments that connect us to each other, that allow us to see ourselves in their eyes, to know others more intimately. In our regular lives, we so rarely ask for help. Vulnerability is not a characteristic that we show in abundance. Our lives often revolve around being self-sufficient, fighting uphill battles alone and forgetting that the world is ready to offer its support if we let it. The trail is the great equalizer. Unexpected things happen all the time, often forcing us to shift course, adjust and come up with a new plan. And we cannot do it alone. When we open ourselves to the help and support of others, unexpected things happen. Human connections are forged, trail friendships evolve and suddenly we become aware that we are not, nor have we ever been, alone.

 Mule delivering our food and meds- but no fuel.

Mule delivering our food and meds- but no fuel.

 Fin Dome- Rae Lakes Region

Fin Dome- Rae Lakes Region

 Rae Lakes.

Rae Lakes.

Eye on The Prize

7.26.16

We have Whitney within our sights! After soaring up and over Forester Pass (13,200 feet) early this morning, we traveled along high altitude plateaus that seemed to go on for miles, only to be rewarded with our first sighting of Whitney from 16-trail miles away. She rose, majestic and foreboding in the distance, beckoning to us and giving us our first glimpse of what was to come. Rising higher than all other peaks (14,495 feet), Whitney signaled for us, the culmination of our entire journey. Until this moment, Mt. Whitney had been only an idea in our minds, a destination towards which we moved endlessly each day. But at last, here she was. Majestic, awe-inspiring and very very real.

 

In two days we would be standing on the summit of the highest point in the contiguous United States, having traveled over 200-miles by foot. Having come this far with our 6-year old daughter, I could feel the build-up of adrenaline mixed with relief as I imagined the three of us rising to the peak and knowing that we had made it. We had travelled, not only through rivers and mountain passes, but through the contours of our hearts and minds to arrive at this point. And we were almost there! We all felt the rush of actually seeing the finish line and were motivated to push on in spite of the long miles.

 

Fueled by thoughts of completing our journey, we quickly closed the gap over the next two days between us and Whitney until at last we rested in its shadow at our highest camp of 12,400 feet. We had been on the trail for 21-days, but we felt as though we had traveled a lifetime. We had grown strong, confident, capable. Miraculously, we had shaved 5-days off our original itinerary and our visions of warm beds, hot showers, non-dehydrated foods and good friends and family had quickened our pace beyond what even we thought possible.

 

As we began to make camp for the night under the shadow of Mt Whitney’s west facing wall, we felt the first few drops of rain that had fallen in 21-days. While I ambled through the process of setting up our home for the last night on the trail, Paul had a greater sense of urgency and urged me to move quickly. I didn’t want to rush this moment, this last night of living the trail life and moving at the pace that I had come to love. I wanted to do things my way. And yet, as I had come to learn over many days on the trail, the wilderness has its own rhythm. It bows to no one and it demands attention.

 

Paul’s urgency was well placed and within minutes the soft drops of rain that were at first a welcome respite from the Sierra sun, soon swelled to dark rainclouds filled with hail. The sky opened and the rain and hail pelted our tent vigorously as claps of thunder echoed in the distance. Lightning struck in places not far away and we watched as our tent whipped under the power of the wind. We felt warm, safe and dry inside our trail home, as we had many nights over the past three weeks. We felt certain that we could wait out the storm.

 

Just as we were prepared to wait out the deluge, Paul noticed that the bottom of the tent appeared to be floating above water and we pushed our hands tentatively against the bulging from beneath. Water was collecting under the tent, faster than we could push it out. As long as the tent held out, we would be okay, but the storm gave no indication of letting up. Paul knew that staying warm and dry were key factors to outdoor survival, so in a heroic effort, he donned his rain-gear for the first time in three weeks, left the sanctuary of our tent and entered the storm, armed only with a half-ounce poop shovel.

 

As Paul expertly dug a trench around our tent to divert the water, Sara jumped enthusiastically around inside the tent, thrilled with excitement at our latest adventure. Our days had been the same for so long and this was an entirely new set of circumstances. We were excited to see what was going to happen and we welcomed the experience of not knowing. Having assured our safety, Paul returned to the warmth of the tent, where we all nestled into our sleeping bags to wait out the storm.

 

As is typical for high altitude, the storm ran its course after three hours. We waited it out comfortably in our tent, all feeling grateful for this adventure, as well as for the safety, warmth and good condition of our gear. When the last rain had fallen and the skies cleared at last, we ate our final dinner on the trail, as we gazed upon the Sierra sunset that would close the chapter on our final evening. Inside my head, I said a silent prayer of thanks and gratitude for all that we had been through. The good, the bad. The challenges and the triumphs. I welcomed and loved them all.

 

Tomorrow morning, we would wake up early and summit Mt. Whitney.

 First sighting of Mt. Whitney

First sighting of Mt. Whitney

 Keeping Warm in Sleeping Bags.

Keeping Warm in Sleeping Bags.

 Sunset after the storm on our last night- at the base of Mt. Whitney

Sunset after the storm on our last night- at the base of Mt. Whitney

Mountains

7.28.16

This morning we summited Mt Whitney. After 3-weeks on the trail, we had built up our strength and we were prepared, both physically and emotionally for the 2,500 foot climb ahead of us. Having slept at the base of Mt. Whitney, just above Guitar Lake, we were already above 12,000 feet and had less than 2 miles to go to reach the top. We ascended the first 1,500 feet to Trail Crest, where we dropped our packs along with all the other hikers and began the final ascent to the top. It was at this moment that I truly understood the appeal of ultralight hiking, as I was relieved of the 38-pound burden of my pack. I felt like flying up the mountain, but the uneven terrain and narrow catwalks kept us walking at a slow and steady pace. Along the way, we passed hikers who were climbing Mt Whitney as a day trip or doing the JMT Northbound. They had not had the chance to acclimatize to the altitude and were stopped along the side of the trail, gasping for breath. But not us. We had been living at 10,000 feet for over three weeks now and the air felt light and free. For the hundredth time, I said a prayer of gratitude for our strength and good sense to hike the JMT in the Southbound direction.

 

We all watched the peak grow closer, knowing that the top of Mt. Whitney signaled the official end of the JMT and the successful completion of our hike. As descending hikers high-fived Sara and congratulated us on hiking with our 6-year old, my pride in my family grew stronger with each passing step. When at last we crossed the snow threshold and ascended the final section of the trail, tears sprang to my eyes. We had done it. We were summiting Mt. Whitney with our daughter after 22-days on the trail. I don’t know if it was the altitude or the relief of having made it, but my head was spinning and I felt bursts of laughter coming forth from within me.

 

When at last we reached the top, we were greeted by fellow hikers whom we had met along the way and leapfrogged with along the trail. Many of these hikers had been with us for days and knew the trails that we had come through. These were my people. My trail family. The ones who had survived the mountain passes, the heat, the mosquitoes, the trail food and the hail storm that had come in the day before our ascent. They greeted us with cheers and clapped for our accomplishment. As had become typical, Sara shied away from the attention, having grown weary of people’s amazement in her.

 

Our celebration at the top was brief, but wonderful. At long last, we made contact with our families and friends with the tiny bit of cell phone power that made itself available at the top. I was so happy to be sharing this moment with the people whom I loved back home. I had missed them so much and wanted them to be part of our accomplishment. I didn’t know it at the time, but several people, including my mom, had watched our ascent up Mt. Whitney with our SPOT GPS device. When I found this out later, my heart felt warm and connected- as if they had been there with us on this epic journey. I was reminded yet again of the value of family and friends and of the importance of connection. We hugged our trail families at the top and all shared in the wonder of what we had all just accomplished.

 

As the clouds moved in, we knew from the day before that weather can change in an instant at high altitude, so Paul cautioned us to make haste down the mountain. The day before, from the safety, warmth and comfort of our tent, we had watched as people scrambled down the switchbacks in the rain and hail, some having panic attacks as the lightning and thunder threatened from above. We didn’t want to be stuck on the mountain in those conditions, so we relished our moment as long as we were able and then gathered ourselves for the long descent. We had all agreed that we wanted to go the distance and walk all the way to the Whitney Portal trailhead after summiting, so that we could enjoy the comfort and luxury of a hotel bed and shower that night. It would be an epic day, to be sure. Our biggest day yet- 14.5 miles, which included the summiting of Whitney and the arduous 6,000 foot descent to the Whitney Portal trailhead.

 

Shortly after descending the first 1000 feet, the rain started to fall. We quickly pulled out our rain gear for the first time in 22-days, put on our pack covers and continued on. It felt good to be prepared. The rain didn’t phase us and it only served to quicken our pace. Ninety-seven switchbacks and 10-miles later and we would be at the trailhead. Those were hard miles. The aggressive downhill slope was hard on the knees and back, but we were propelled by dreams of burgers, hot showers and a warm bed. We were elated at what we had accomplished, but we were all ready to be done.

 

The switchbacks down to the Portal seemed to go on forever, but we eventually made it. We had built up a strength and a resilience that allowed us to go the distance, even when we were tired. The oh-so-familiar childhood questions of “Are we there yet?” and “How much longer?” no longer escaped Sara’s lips. She had learned that the distance between trail markers was measured in hours and that the only way to get there was to keep moving forward.

 

As we rounded the final switchback into the Portal, the adrenaline of triumph and the relief of having made it through pulsed simultaneously through my body. Hikers whom we had met along the trail and at the top of Mt. Whitney clapped and cheered and welcomed us to their tables, where they were furiously eating bacon cheeseburgers and fries. I was filled with mixed emotions. While I was so happy to be finished, I also knew that the magic of the trail would fade quickly once we returned to the real world. I didn’t want this trail life to end. I knew that life would demand our attention in ways that the trail does not. Our regular struggles would return to us and we would find ourselves faced with obstacles and limitations that seem unmovable.

 

I am determined not to let this happen.

 

As long as we are alive, there will always be mountains to climb. They may be physical mountains, but more often than not, they will be the mountains of our hearts and minds. We will continue to be faced with obstacles that seem insurmountable and in those moments, we have a choice. We can give in to the doubt and overwhelm that can overtake us as we gaze upon these mountains in our way. Or we can dig deep, make contact with our own strength and forge ahead, knowing that even the greatest, fiercest mountains are conquered over time.

I hope that I have given my daughter a gift that she can hold with her throughout her lifetime- the gift of knowing that she can be anything, do anything and conquer even her own greatest challenges, fears and limitations. I can think of no greater way to be a parent than to instill in her a confidence in herself and a belief that the world is a place of magic and beauty- that she need only to believe in herself and in those around her. She may only be six years old and still believe in fairytales, but real magic is all around her, every moment of every day.  And if she can believe in magic, then so can I. It is all around us. In the trees. In the rivers. In the humanity of the experiences that we all share. In our connectedness with fellow travelers along this journey of life. And in ourselves, when we conquer our own mountains and come out on the other side.

 

And so I bid farewell and take the magic with me: to learn, to grow, to thrive, to live. May we all be blessed with the opportunity to experience the beauty and shared humanity that is around us all the time. We need only the wisdom and humility to recognize it.

 

Until the next adventure…

 On the way to the top of Mt. Whitney.

On the way to the top of Mt. Whitney.

 The summit of Mt. Whitney!

The summit of Mt. Whitney!