Wednesday, November 6, 2013

John Muir Trail: Day 4 — Sunrise Mountain to Cathedral Lakes

I rose before Pam and the kids and sat on top of a boulder in the cool morning, watching the sun rise over a long granite escarpment to the east.  Nearby, lightning-struck trees burned orange in the early sunlight, and birds cut through the air below me.

Once the sun was fully in the sky, I gathered our water bottles and walked to the narrow stream where I sat filtering water and chewing on the mild-tasting stems of swamp onion.  It grew it great clumps along the water’s edge, hundreds of pink blooms bright and cheery as the morning.  The boys emerged from the tent, all tousle-headed and dirty-faced, and they brought their stuffed animals over to share an adventure beside the creek.

After breakfast we hoisted our packs and set out across Long Meadow towards Cathedral Pass.  Ground squirrels poked out of holes and scurried through the clumped grasses, and we stopped often while Noah and Kai pointed them out, laughing and struggling to capture images of them with their cameras.  Robins sang and dozens of butterflies floated past us in the air.  Pam and Kai spotted a sooty grouse in a wildflower meadow, and then Kai found a tiny frog alongside the trail, picked it up and gently held it for a while before letting it go on a clump of grass. 

Eventually the trail started climbing again, lodgepole pine trees growing stunted and twisted around us.  We stopped for lunch beneath a large outcropping called Columbia Finger, the land falling away to our east with wild views of Echo Creek’s Cathedral Fork and the jagged Matthes Crest beyond. 

Unfortunately, lunch itself was less than satisfying, and that was my fault.  I had been so concerned about weight as we planned and packed for our trip that I’d underestimated the amount of lunch and snack food we would need.  By this time, our supply was running really low, so I let the boys eat the granola bars and limited myself to a few handfuls of trail mix and dried apricots.  Then I closed my eyes and leaned back to let the sun warm my face, dreaming of all the hamburgers and ice-cream sandwiches I would eat once we reached Tuolumne Meadows.


Before we left Columbia Finger, Noah got out the thick field guide I’d been lugging along, and we spent some time identifying trees we’d seen in our previous days along the trail—incense cedar, red fir, white fir, and ponderosa pine.  The fact that he so clearly wanted to know the name of every living thing we witnessed made me happy, so despite the fact that the book weighed as much as a brick I was thankful I’d brought it along.

All afternoon the boys walked side by side, sharing dreams about their futures.  They seemed to settle on owning farms somewhere in the countryside, where they could grow hundreds of fruit trees and keep dozens of animals as pets.  They planned to make money selling ice-cream made with ox milk and the fruits they grew.  They also planned to make sodas from the fruits, and then use them to make all flavors of floats.  They would buy an old ice-cream truck, fix it up and become millionaires selling their frozen treats to people at farmer’s markets. 

They were so happy and excited sharing these dreams that Pam and I just smiled, silently agreeing not to spoil their fun by pointing out the economic holes in their business plan.  In fact, their dreams sounded surprising similar to the fantasy life we’d planned for ourselves in the early days of our relationship—the organic farm we talked about buying while we searched under the couch cushions and car seats for lost coins to buy milk.

We told Noah and Kai how much we would enjoy coming to visit, lying in hammocks amongst the fruit trees, sipping plum sodas and riding Friesian horses into the sunset.  And who really knows.  Maybe they’ll prove to have the Midas touch I’ve always lacked and someday they’ll make it work.  As we neared Cathedral Lakes, Kai decided that after a few years of farming he’d use his riches to buy a cozy beach house in Malibu where I could visit him for extended surf vacations.   I was sold.

In the midafternoon we took a short side trail to camp along the shore of Lower Cathedral Lake, our campsite hosting incredible views of Tressider and Tenaya Peaks, which framed the far shore like some backdrop out of a fantasy movie.  I swam out to the middle of the lake and floated there on my back, letting the water soak into me, the sun baking the parts of my skin that rose above the water’s surface.  The boys played along the lakeshore in their underwear, their feet and legs muddy, their voices free and loud and satisfied.


After swimming I sat on a rock and let the sun dry my skin.  Two deer meandered slowly past our camp towards Cathedral Peak.  Chipmunks darted over rocks and around treetrunks, while dozens of little birds chirped from the branches and flitted through the air.  High above all of us, a hawk circled in the blue sky.

Later, when the sun had dropped and the magic of evening hushed the world, we all strolled to a wide slab of rock and lay on our backs, looking up through a kaleidoscope of tree branches to the sky.  A few wispy clouds had eased in during the afternoon, but mostly the sky was a deepening, brilliant blue.  We talked for a long time about what animals we’d choose to be if we could pick just three and spend a day in the skin of each.  We thought about it silently first then shared our choices, and Pam and I amazed each other by picking the same three out of all the thousands of possibilities—a dolphin, a grizzly bear and a crow.  I’d been tempted to include a honey bee, because I’d like to experience what it’s like to be inside a hive, but I settled on a crow instead.  Kai and Noah both wanted to be monkeys.  Kai chose an eagle and a whale as his other options.  Noah decided on a squirrel but never settled on a third choice, instead talking at length about all the dozens of possibilities that would be equally incredible.

After Pam and the kids crawled in the tent, I stood in the dark for a while, looking up at the first smattering of stars and enjoying the cool air on my face.  I thought of my parents, the many nights we’d spent outside when I was a kid and how much I loved those times.  And I thought about my life, how everything seemed to have happened so quickly when I looked back at it now and how quickly all my future days would pass by too—how important it was for me to do the right things with those coming days.  I remembered a quote from the poet Mary Oliver, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

“I don’t know,” I muttered to the sky.  “I still don’t know.”  I was forty-one years old.  I wished I had a better answer.

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.