Wednesday, October 30, 2013

John Muir Trail: Day 3 — Sunrise Creek to Sunrise Mountain

As day broke, I crawled out of the tent into a world thick with smoke, more smoke by far than we’d experienced during our first two days of hiking.  A ranger we’d passed the previous afternoon had ensured me that the Aspen Fire, the raging monster creating all that airborne soot and ash was still more than seventy trail-miles away from my family, burning southeast towards Mammoth Lakes.  We were heading that way, but we were almost two weeks away, and fire crews were making progress towards containing the flames.

I shook my head and tried unsuccessfully to stretch the stiffness from my body.  The fire sure smelled closer than that, like we’d been sleeping inside some giant barbeque pit.  My throat turned scratchy.  My eyes burned.  And all the doubts that had plagued me, the ones that questioned whether or not an everyday Joe like me could really navigate more than two hundred miles of Sierra wilderness with two elementary school kids, flared up all over again.

I’d imaged how healthy it would be for my boys to get away from San Diego and breathe clear mountain air for a month.  But this was like sucking on a muffler and walking up Interstate 5.  Was it even safe for my kids to be out here?  Kai had flirted with developing honest-to-goodness asthma since he was a baby.  Was this going to push him over the edge?

The sun climbed over the distant mountains like some orange-pink ball of fire in the sky.  It was beautiful in an alarming, post-apocalyptic sort of way, and it meant we’d have to reconsider everything in Tuolumne Meadows.  Maybe this wasn’t our summer to hike the John Muir Trail.  Maybe it had all been too much to bite off anyway.  Those thoughts left me feeling dark and hazy like the sky as I scowled at the eerie sun and walked over to pee on a bush.

There was nothing easy about that morning.  We climbed more than two thousand feet while smoke antagonized our throats and lungs.  The kids blew their noses more than normal, and their snot came out black.  At one point, just before midday, as we trudged up a relentless series of switchbacks, Kai hit a wall.  He’d had it.  He sat down heavily beside the trail and his body just sank onto the rocks.  He didn’t say much; he’d never been the kind of kid to whine a lot.  But you could read his face like an open book.  Everything about that moment sucked for him.  He didn’t want any part of any of it.  He hated it.

We stopped and sat near him.  I pulled a Jolly Rancher from my pocket (part of a small stash I’d brought to bolster the kids in tough moments), and unscrewed a water bottle for him.  “You can do this, buddy.”

But it was Pam that really helped him, her unorthodox creativity, her ability to commiserate before attempting to bolster.  “This hill sucks.  Tell you what, when you make it to the top you can say one cuss word as loud as you want.”

His eyes lit up.  He nearly choked on his Jolly Rancher.

“Just one,” she clarified and smiled at him.  “After you make it.”

“As loud as I want?”

“As loud as you want.”

I looked at the two of them and laughed.  It was ridiculous.  It was questionable parenting… and it worked brilliantly!  We rested for a few more minutes, passing around a water bottle, and when I said we should probably push on Kai was the first to shoulder his pack.

We couldn’t see the crest of the hill for a long time.  It just went up and up through the trees, switchback after switchback.  But eventually the climb ended on a wide ridge topped with the kind of boulders Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble used to build their homes.  A breeze had kicked up, cooling our skin and dispersing some of the smoke.  They sky was actually shifting from gray to blue.  Dozens of fritillary butterflies floated around us, their wings a brilliant yellow-orange with black spots.

I took off my pack and inhaled deeply of the somewhat less hazy air, not paying much attention to Kai as he climbed to the top of the tallest rock.  He spread his arms, the wind tousling his hair, and he yelled with all his might. 

Of course I couldn’t know it then, but that was a turning point for Kai and for our journey.  Our strategy had admittedly been irreverent.  We’d let our son yell the holy mother of curse words at the top of his lungs from a mountain ridge.  But it worked.  The smoke, while lingering for several more days, diminished steadily, and our son gradually grew stronger.

That afternoon the wind continued to sweep soot from the air, and by the time we reached camp for the night the sky was blue with a scattering of soft, white clouds.  I pitched our tent on a narrow shelf of rock, the door facing east so we could watch the sunrise through the screen as we woke the next morning.  Then I went to filter water and soak my feet in a small stream that ran playfully off the side of Sunrise Mountain.  Wildflowers grew like scattered pieces of rainbow in a meadow beside the creek, and as I let the water numb my feet I picked a few stalks of wild onion and chewed them.

The boys played, running across wide slabs of granite that sloped haphazardly for several hundred feet before reaching the Cathedral Fork of Echo Creek.  They ran as if we’d never hiked at all, as if they’d never been tired or cussed a hill.  But eventually they settled in the shade of a juniper tree and entered some imaginary world of their own creation.  You could tell by their faces, by the way they lingered together without finding something stupid to argue about, that the imaginary world they’d created was a cool place, somewhere worth spending time.

After dinner we lit a small fire and sat beside it as I read another chapter of The Hobbit out loud.  The sun set, enlivening Matthes Crest and a million small peaks around our campsite with alpenglow.  The wind had died, the first stars visible in the eastern sky, and as I watched the sky darken something inside me started to give way—some uncomfortable structure that I’d built inside myself over the previous two decades of career and trying to be a grownup and struggling to keep my family’s heads above water financially.  It was a structure that I’d hardly paid attention to really, but it framed my mind and stretched down into my body.  It poked my lower back, slumped my shoulders and made me want to pop my neck all the time.  It was a structure I’d built unintentionally each day while sitting in my cubicle, racing home on the interstate with a millions other rats, and opening the mortgage statement to wonder how we could manage it.

The structure didn’t break that evening, but I noticed it.  I questioned it.  And it cracked a little.

Read the full series by clicking on the links below:
Day 1 – Day2 – Day 3 – Day 4 – Day 5 – Day 6 – Day 7 – Day 8 – Day 9 – Day 10 – Day 11 – Day 12 – Day 13 – Day 14 – Day 15 – Day 16 – Day 17 – Day 18 – Day 19 – Day 20 – Day 21 – Day 22 – Day 23 – Day 24 – Day 25 – Day 26 – Day 27 – Day 28 – Day 29 – Day 30 – Day 31 – Day 32 – Day 33 – Day 34

J.S. Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

John Muir Trail: Day 2 — Little Yosemite Valley to Sunrise Creek

We woke just after dawn to a world still blanketed with smoke, and we were slow getting started.  By the time we actually laced our boot and began hiking, the sun had climbed well above peaks to the east and turned the earth into an oven.

The trail was packed with day hikers heading towards Half Dome, and although I was happy to see that so many people were motivated to get out and explore the wonders of Yosemite, I felt anxious to get beyond the Half Dome turnoff and into a bit more solitude.  Just before we reached that point, three bare-chested guys wearing fraternity baseball caps passed us, their skin soaked with sweat.  I didn’t see a water bottle anywhere on them, but they each held two cans of Budweiser, one in each hand. 

I couldn’t help but chuckle, and I glanced at Pam.  “You can only hope that ends well.”

She laughed and we trudged on.

At lunchtime we stopped by a small tributary and snacked on trail mix, dried apricots and Clif Bars.  It was already becoming clear that I hadn’t packed enough lunch food, so we had to stop eating before anyone really wanted to, but the kids’ spirits seemed higher than they had the day before, and I felt hopeful as I watched them explore and play along the streambanks.  I leaned back against a fallen log and reached out to hold Pam’s hands.  We’d situated ourselves the way we always do at outdoor restaurants—just on the edge of the shade, so that she could soak in the rays and I could get out of the darn heat.

Everything felt doable that morning.  The kids had been tough and hiked without complaining.  The smoke had cleared a little bit (now we were just breathing air like you might find in downtown Los Angeles, not Lanzhou, China).  A light breeze came and went, making even the heat manageable. 

Unfortunately, as soon as we started hiking again, Kai’s spirits took a nose dive.  He’d hung tough all morning, but now he’d had a taste for playing barefoot along the streambank, and lugging a 15-pound backpack up a steep, hot, dusty hill felt like a real drag.  I could hardly blame him.  He was a seven-year-old kid.  I preferred being barefoot beside the streambank too! 

We pushed on for a couple more miles but, when Pam and I spotted a nice camping spot along Sunrise Creek, we decided to stop shy of our original destination for the night.  We didn’t want to overdo it right out of the gates, and we figured it would be best if the kids had time to play every day.  Hopefully that way they wouldn’t burn out.

As I unloaded our gear the kids tore off their boots and socks again and set off wading up the creek.  “Do you have your whistles on?” I yelled after them.

They both held up the bright orange whistles hanging from their necks, and I waved them off into whatever magical childhood adventure land they were cooking up. 

Finally, after setting up the tent, getting our dinner food organized, rinsing my sweaty shirt in the creek and hanging it to dry, I decided to take off my shoes and soak my feet in the icy water.  On my way there I nearly stumbled right into a colossal, still very fresh, pile of bear poop.  There were bright red berries and large chunks of something green in it.  “Crap,” I muttered.

I looked around, scanning the woods for any movement, anything large and dark and furry.  I spotted my kids and waved at them.  “Don’t go too far okay, guys?”    

I took a few more steps towards the creek and nearly stepped on a plastic water bottle, the kind that snaps into a cage on a bicycle.  It was all ripped to pieces, punctured in a hundred places by sharp teeth, scratched and mangled.  “Crap!” 

I scanned the whole area again, looking back at the fresh pile of scat… and I swore to myself that I would never tell Pam. 

I told myself that guys like me—guys that are super anal and annoying about making sure that everything that smells like anything is locked safely in a bear canister and that the bear canister is placed a hundred yards away from the tent—don’t get eaten in the night.  It was the drunk, half-naked frat boys climbing Half Dome with no water that had to worry.  They’re the ones that would leave a Snickers wrapper (or a Jello shot) in their pants pocket and wake up with a ravenous Wookiee tearing into their tent. 

“We’ll be fine,” I said to my feet.

Later, the boys and I made a small fire, and for a while we all sat around the dancing flames, writing in our journals and reading.  It was that magical time of evening when the sky takes on a slightly purple hue and everything seems to stop, as if the entire world needs a moment to reflect, to soak in the final, fleeting moments of daylight and appreciate the simple miracle of being part of it all.  Sunrise Creek chuckled in the background.  Now and then the fire popped and crackled.  Everything else was silent, the world completely still.  Peaceful.

We sat on a hillside with ponderosa pines and firs towering around us.  Ice and wind and the passing of eons had left large granite boulders strewn about, and the first stars were making their appearance in a cloudless sky.  To the east, we caught our first glimpses of the high alpine ridges we’d soon be travelling across, and I could imagine myself walking on them, feel the thrill of being on top of the world with endless stretches of wilderness running out in all directions.

But the mountains worried me too.  Our first two day of hiking had been tough for the boys, especially Kai, and I understood how little he still was.  Seven years old, and I’d dragged him out here to hike 200 miles and climb a combined total of 46,700 feet!  Was it too much?  Was it too soon? 

I made a wish on the first star I’d seen shimmering in the eastern sky.  “Let Kai’s spirits stay high.  Let everyone’s spirits stay high, and make this a great, meaningful adventure for our family.  Please.”

After dark, we climbed into the tent and snuggled into our sleeping bags.  I kissed the boys then lay there looking at Pam, her eyes closed.  She was here with me, with the kids we’d created, giving this crazy dream of mine a real chance even though the first couple days had been a struggle.  She was committed to the adventure, to helping the kids find their strength.  Ever since the boys were born she’s been a wizard at finding little ways to make them happy, reading their emotions and shaping moments so that life happens peacefully and productively. 

In all honesty, she was the one who’d made these first two days of unforgiving hiking work.  When the kids were flagging, my innate response was to say, “Suck it up.  Be tough.  You can do this.”  But she dug deeper, used her endless creativity to turn the drudgery into a game, spark some passion in our boys and create new energy.  If I was a slave driver with calloused hands and a whip, then she was an artist with a giant heart and one of those huge boxes of every-colored crayons, able to make the world a brighter place for everyone.  I reached out and ran my hand through her hair, and when she opened her eyes to look at me I smiled.  “Thanks for being here with me.”

“I like it.”  She smiled back.

Before I closed my eyes and hunkered further into my sleeping back I reached up to triple check the bear spray I’d stashed near my head.  It was still there—ready for me in case some ravenous monstrosity stole into camp to eat all of our oatmeal and freeze-dried pasta.

Read the full series by clicking on the links below:
Day 1 – Day2 – Day 3 – Day 4 – Day 5 – Day 6 – Day 7 – Day 8 – Day 9 – Day 10 – Day 11 – Day 12 – Day 13 – Day 14 – Day 15 – Day 16 – Day 17 – Day 18 – Day 19 – Day 20 – Day 21 – Day 22 – Day 23 – Day 24 – Day 25 – Day 26 – Day 27 – Day 28 – Day 29 – Day 30 – Day 31 – Day 32 – Day 33 – Day 34

J. S. Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

John Muir Trail: Day 1 — Yosemite Valley to Little Yosemite Valley

I’d dreamed of this trip—actively like a little boy—for months and months.  I ordered guidebooks and maps a full year before we planned to get trail dust on our boots, and I carried them with me to work and to bed and to the bathroom so that I could dream and dream and dream.  I could close my eyes and see the granite mountaintops.  I could feel the pine-scented breezes that would blow gently through our campsites.  I was already soaking in the perfect swimming hole.

So on this morning, when everything was finally going to turn real, when we were going to strap on our packs and get real dirt on our feet I was… stressed.  I was overcome by that neurotic everything-has-to-happen-just-so kind of stress that I remember observing (with an uncomfortable blend of pity and disgust) in fathers when I was a kid.  I’d seen it rear its head as shouting and cussing when fathers and sons attempted to attach motorboats to trailers at the reservoir, or as honking and throwing coffee cups on the first morning of family vacation when the neighbor’s car was packed, the engine running, and little Lucy was still in the shower and Junior needed to poop.  “We should be in Albuquerque by now!”

Only now, I wasn’t a kid watching some grown man throw his little I-want-to-be-in-control-but-I’m-not hissy fit.  I was that grown man.  “We have to get to the dining hall when it opens at 7 o’clock.  We can’t be late!  This is a big day and we’ve got to catch an early shuttle to the trailhead and get started.  It’s going to get hot…  And don’t you know there are real bears out there, and it’s my job to protect us, so just shut up and do what I say.  Put your boots on!  Eat some more eggs!  You’ll be starving soon.” 

We were having fun.

It really is a blessing that I married a woman who only puts up with so much of such manly behavior, and she finally gave me that look—the one that says, “If you don’t stop acting like a two-year-old, then you’re going to lose even more control, big guy.  Just try me.”

I shut up, got myself a second cup of coffee, and tried to sip it slowly, my leg bouncing like part of an overactive sewing machine.

To be honest, my stress really surprised me.  I was just so excited.  I wanted everything to be perfect.  I wanted it all to happen just the right way, so that every moment would be a magical experience for the whole family.  I wanted them to see how amazing it all was.  I wanted it to be like the best kind of Disney movie…  I wanted all that so badly that I was being a complete jerk, which is what dads do sometimes.

When we’d finally lugged our packs to the shuttle stop at Curry Village, bound for the trailhead at Happy Isles, I felt myself relax a bit.  We were almost there.  Sure it was after 9:00, but we were doing it.  This thing was really going to happen.

Then my son Noah turned to me with wide eyes and a look of panic on his face.  “I need my book.  The Jack London book Grammy and Papa got for my birthday.  It’s in the car.”

I felt my skin heat up.  I felt the extra coffee in my belly simmer.  But I managed to smile.  “I’ll go get it.”  This was my family.  I’d asked them to join me on this big adventure, and somehow they’d all agreed.  They were excited about it!  I wanted them to stay excited.  So what if we didn’t get to camp until midnight.

I’d imagined the moment my kids would first witness Yosemite Valley—the views so gargantuan and prehistoric that their eyes would hardly be able to digest it all.  I remembered the first time I drove into the Park, turning a corner on the winding road and seeing El Capitan rise up in front of me like some colossal petrified dinosaur.  I cussed with pure excitement and nearly drove off the road.

But it hadn’t been like that this time.  Fires burned in the Sierras, and the valley was so thick with smoke you couldn’t see across it.  The kids scrunched up their faces against the stench.  Kai’s asthma harassed his breathing.

And that’s how we started our grand adventure, squinting to see through smoke, walking slowly behind our seven-year-old son as he struggled to get enough unhealthy air to climb out of the haze-choked valley…  So far the Disney movie of my dreams was a bit of a flop.  I looked around as we struggled up the 2,000 foot climb from Happy Isles to Nevada Fall, hoping to spot a few dwarves, a singing warthog with his lion friend, maybe even a mermaid.   Come on!  This was our big moment.  Somebody throw me a bone! 

We saw several squirrels, which Kai actually liked a lot.  But they didn’t sing.

That first day of hiking was a struggle.  I can’t sugar coat it.  It was hard to breathe.  The smoke stung our eyes.  I was worried that the whole dream might fall apart before we even made it past Half Dome. 

Don’t get me wrong.  Pam and the kids were troopers.  Kai complained some, but he pushed through it.  It was hard to see and hard to breathe… and that trail was steep!

Finally, we reached the top of Nevada Fall, the Merced River throwing itself suicidally over a granite cliff into the valley’s murky haze.  The air was a little better up here, not great but better.  We dropped our packs upstream a few hundred yards, took off our boots, laid our socks on a rock and walked to the edge of an emerald-colored pool.  The water felt perfect.  It was the most perfect thing we’d experienced all day, and within seconds the kids were up to their waists, letting it soak into them. 

I sat on a rock with my feet in the water and watched the boys.  Something about being in that water changed them.  Their bodies looked more energized than they had all day.  They smiled.  They played. 

I smiled too.  I soaked my feet and looked up at the gray sky, the sun reaching through and warming my skin a little.  I glanced over at Pam, and she looked happy enough, soaking her feet in the water too.  And for the first time all day I though this whole crazy adventure could still work.  This was okay.  We could still do this thing.

We let the kids play for a long time while I filtered water then relaxed with Pam on flat slabs of granite by the river’s edge, and when we finally strapped our packs back on to push the last mile towards Little Yosemite Valley, the kids seemed rejuvenated, happier.

The backpacker camp at Little Yosemite Valley was crowded, but we’d expected that, knowing the crowds would thin to a trickle as we put miles behind us.  We set up our tent, and then the boys and I found another great swimming hole on the Merced River, where we played and washed ash and trail dust from our skin.  As evening set in we ate dinner, sitting on fallen logs, topping it all off with a few squares of chocolate. 

I’m embarrassed to say that as the sun set my stress level once again rose a little bit.  The ranger issuing our backcountry permit had gone on at some length about the abnormally large number of bear incidents that had occurred in the Park that summer.  We’d managed to choke our way through our first day on the trail, and the last thing I needed was some deranged teddy tearing his way into our tent to rip a Jolly Rancher wrapper out of my kid’s pocket… so I was a little anal again until everything that smelled like anything was secured safely within our bear canisters. 

Inside the tent, I read the first chapter of The Hobbit to Kai and Noah.  It seemed like a good trail book for the boys.  They were setting off from their suburban lives into the Sierra Nevada wilderness, while Bilbo was leaving Bag End and heading towards Mirkwood and the Misty Mountains.  As I fell asleep, I found my head filled with song lyrics from the old cartoon version of The Hobbit.  “The greatest adventure is what lies ahead.”

I hoped it was true.

Read the full series by clicking on the links below:
Day 1 – Day2 – Day 3 – Day 4 – Day 5 – Day 6 – Day 7 – Day 8 – Day 9 – Day 10 – Day 11 – Day 12 – Day 13 – Day 14 – Day 15 – Day 16 – Day 17 – Day 18 – Day 19 – Day 20 – Day 21 – Day 22 – Day 23 – Day 24 – Day 25 – Day 26 – Day 27 – Day 28 – Day 29 – Day 30 – Day 31 – Day 32 – Day 33 – Day 34

J.S. Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

John Muir Trail: Bowling in Bishop

Like most great outdoor adventures, this one started at… the bowling alley.  The high desert town of Bishop felt like an oven as we rolled in along 395, our car smelling of fast food, young boys and backpacking gear.  Even the old western-style storefronts seemed to be sweating, and people sat in small patches of shade, the heat like something iron and heavy, pushing down from the sky, making it hard to move.  After grabbing cold drinks and oversized hamburgers we meandered across the highway to a bowling alley—which was highly air-conditioned and wonderful.

My boys, Noah and Kai, had only bowled once before, during another family vacation in Pismo Beach.  And they loved it.  They loved the shoes.  They loved lugging half a dozen brightly-colored balls to our ball return station and trying them all.  They even told me they liked the smell of bowling alleys—decades’ worth of sweet stuff stuck on hard-to-reach surfaces, the faintest hint of old cigarette smoke left over from the days of my childhood and before, when you could still light up and work on giving yourself (and everyone else) cancer inside such buildings.

But I discovered there is a new twist on bowling, something they didn’t have back in the seventies when I was inhaling secondhand smoke and hunting for that elusive strike.  They have bumper rails now.  You can actually put rails up along the edges of the lane so that your ball never goes in the gutter.  You can roll your ball towards the gutter, slow as molasses, watch it bounce from side to side down the length of the alley and still get a strike!

Not only is your risk of developing lung tumors lower now, you can bowl like an idiot and still beat your father!

And it was fun.  We laughed.  We teased and harassed each other.  We tried to spin our balls to make them curve down the lane the way those really studly bowlers on television do, the guys with mullets and special gloves.  We did little dance moves in our slippery shoes.  We clapped when Johnny Cash came on the radio.

I’ll be honest with you.  At first I hated the idea of bumper rails.  It seemed cheap.  It seemed like cheating.  But as we walked home, sweating in the late-night desert heat, I reconsidered bumper rails.  They were okay.  They were fun.  They helped my kids have a good time.  They made the ball do funny things.

And I started thinking it would be really cool if life had some sort of bumper rails—something soft and indiscrete and forgiving that you could put around your kids without embarrassing them.  Of course I’d never want to keep my boys from experiencing all those important, small failures, the ones that help all of us learn about ourselves, understand the world around us and become better human beings.  But I’d love to have bumper rails to keep them away from life’s truly dangerous failures, the ones that lead to honest-to-goodness gutters with all their hypodermic needles, ruinous relationships and infectious diseases.

But I guess you can’t build a bumper rail like that, not with plastic or wood or metal anyway.  You can’t put your kids in a giant hamster ball or pad their clothes with packaging peanuts.

I actually thought about it for a long time that night as we lay in our cheap hotel room, sweating beneath the sheets, and I realized that in a way this whole trip was about building bumper rails for my kids.   That’s what I could give them—the mountains, a million stars, a month of sunsets.  We could laugh together.  We could talk and share dreams and spend hours in each other’s company.  I could kiss them on the forehead after reading to them each evening, and we could sleep side by side, and maybe somehow that would be enough to build a bumper rail.  Maybe that would be enough to keep them from life’s really big gutters.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not Super Dad.  I can be a real asshole sometimes.  I’ve lost my temper and yelled and slammed doors and been just as unfair and impatient as the next guy.    But when it’s all said and done, when my two boys sprout weird hairs on their bodies and grow into men, when they leave the imperfect nest Pam and I have built for them, I hope these times we’ve shared surround them as they go.  Maybe something small, like diving together into an emerald swimming hole or watching bats dart across a dusky sky, will pad them more than corduroys full of packaging peanuts ever could. 

I liked the thought of it anyway.

Just before I finally dozed off, a chorus of coyotes started up in the distance, a pack of them yipping at the desert sky, a family sticking together.  And I guess that’s the way you do it.  You journey into this uncertain world side by side with the people you love, and you make time to howl at the moon. 

J.S. Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer