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.