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.