Wednesday, December 25, 2013

John Muir Trail: Day 11 — Shadow Creek to Red’s Meadow

Shadow Creek was aptly named, tucked into a narrow canyon with steep walls blocking the sun until late morning.  We rose in the shadowy cold, ate breakfast and walked the short distance to Shadow Lake as the sun hit the water.  Tendrils of fog hung above the lake, the air ripe with smells of wet pine and half-rotten wood.

We headed southeast, ascending steep switchbacks through a forest of lodgepole pine, mountain hemlock and fir trees.  Occasionally the trees gave way and I stopped to soak in the mountain views and catch my breath.  But the boys were strong.  They had changed so much from the previous week.  They just pushed on all morning, walking side by side without stopping, talking excitedly about their world of stretchies, butt crack monsters and stretchy butt cracks (you’ve gotta love young boys).

We’d run low on food, and we stopped beside a pond for a skimpy and entirely unsatisfying meal of nuts and dried fruit.  Afterwards, I walked to the shore to filter water.  The lakebed was mucky with algae and fine sediment, so I walked out onto a fallen log to keep the gunk from clogging our water filter.  Water striders ran across the water’s surface and small fish darted here and there beneath them.

I’d filled three bottles and was nearly finished with the fourth when for some spastic reason I lost my balance and slipped into the pond, soaking my boots and my only dry pair of socks (I’d washed my other pair in the creek that morning).  “Darn!”

I trudged through the muck back to shore, took off my filthy boots and wrung as much water from my socks as I could.  The water I squeezed out of them was black as coffee.  I let the socks sit in the sun for a few minutes before putting them back on and lacing my boots over them.  Then we shouldered our packs, still hungry, and pushed on.  I squished when I walked.

Late in the afternoon we reached Johnston Meadow and stopped beside the trail.  “Should we camp here?” I asked.  We’d gone eight miles since morning, and we were all hungry and starting to feel trail weary.

“How far is Red’s Meadow?” Noah asked.  We’d told the boys that there was restaurant in a place called Red’s Meadow where we’d be stopping for a real meal and could probably get ice cream or some other remarkable treat.

“It’s still four miles,” I answered.  “We’ll get there tomorrow.”  Pam and I had secretly fantasized about gorging ourselves on hamburgers, fries and cold Sprite that evening, but we’d agreed that it was unrealistic to expect the boys to hike twelve miles.

“Can we please do it today,” Noah asked.

“Yeah, can we?” echoed Kai.

“It’s a pretty long ways,” I said, grievously aware of the hollowness in my stomach, wanting more than anything to say yes but trying to be realistic.  “I think we better just plan to eat lunch there tomorrow.”  I could almost taste the hamburger.

“Please,” the boys begged in stereo.  “We can do it.”

Pam and I looked at each other and reached some silent understanding with our stomachs.  “Okay.  But if you get too tired we can stop along the way.”

“We won’t.”

And they didn’t.  We descended an uncomfortably hot, dusty section of trail into Devil’s Postpile National Monument, everyone plodding quietly, lost in our own daydreams of blisters and burgers, backaches and blueberry cobbler.  The bottoms of my feet ached, and smoke from the Aspen Fire once again thickened the air.

As we finally neared Red’s Meadow we entered an area that burned in 1992 during the Rainbow Fire, a blaze that consumed more than 8,000 acres of forest around the Mammoth Lakes area, and it felt somehow surreal walking amongst the charred carcasses of trees that burned more than twenty years earlier, the air now heavy with smoke from a new fire, the evening light casting an orange glow on everything.  We coughed and hacked to clear our lungs and pushed on.

We reached a fork in the trail at the same time as anther John Muir Trail hiker named Bill.  There was no sign, and we pulled out our maps and tried to figure out which route led to French fries and a cold drink.  “I think it’s that way,” Bill said, pointing to a dusty section of trail that ran on through the valley we’d entered.  “But I’ll run up this way a little and check it out.”  He nodded to the other branch.

“Sounds good.  Thanks.”  Pam, the boys started hiking again while Bill took off in the other direction.

We’d gone maybe half a mile when I spotted Bill running towards us without his pack.  “It’s back here.  They close in five minutes, and they said they’ll turn people away!”

I stared at him, my trail-weary mind taking a moment to soak in what he’d just yelled to me.  Five minutes.  We had to run.  Even if we ran it was almost impossible that we’d make it in five minutes.  The boys had hiked twelve miles already.  We were beat.  Our backpacks felt like motorhomes on our backs.  “Okay.  Thanks.  Tell them we’re coming!”  I yelled back.  Then I turned to the boys.  “We have to run or we won’t make it.”

“We won’t get food?!” Noah practically wailed.

“No!” Kai echoed.

“Just come on.”  I took Kai’s pack off his shoulders and hugged it to my chest as I ran back up the trail.  “Hurry guys!”  I pictured my hamburger, a giant juicy thing slipping away through the trees.  It was surprisingly nimble and quick, like some spritely wood nymph that would let me glimpse it, giggle a little and then disappear beyond a cluster of tree trunks.  But I was going to catch it.  I was going to run it down and grab onto it with my teeth and wrestle it to the ground and tear into it like a savage.  My burger would not get away!

Eventually I reached a parking lot by some stables, my heart thumping like an Alex Van Halen drum solo.  Pam and the boys were out of sight, behind me and around a bend in the trail.  “This way, guys.  Run!”

About a hundred yards further on a cluster of buildings came into view.  There were several people milling about a log building with a sign that read Mule House Café.  A couple walking dejectedly in my direction shook their heads.  “They said they’re not letting any more people in.  They just turned us away.”

“You’re kidding me.”  I stood there, feeling like I might melt, my hamburger wood nymph disappearing forever into the forest.

Then I turned and looked back the way I’d come as Kai came running over a crest in the road.  He looked so little, his face worried and streaked with dirt, his hair unkempt and sun-streaked.  He was seven years old and he’d hiked twelve miles over rough mountains and through choking smoke to get a hot plate of food and a cold drink.  He was going to be crushed.

When he caught up to me I put my hand on his shoulder.  “I think they closed, buddy.”  I felt him wither beneath my hand.  “But let’s hurry over there and just make sure.”

When we reached the building we saw Bill standing outside.  “They’re closed.  They turned me away.”

“No.  I’m so sorry.”  He would have made it if he hadn’t come back to find us.  He would have been sipping on a cold beer already, sucking salt off a pile of French fries.

I dropped our packs against the wall and looked down at Kai again.  His face was flat, defeated-looking.  “Come on, man.”  I put my hand on his shoulder.  “Let’s just go talk to them.”

I led Kai in the front door and walked up to the counter.  The tables were packed, mostly with people staying at the nearby campground, but I recognized a few John Muir Trail hikers we’d passed earlier in the day.  They had fabulous heaps of food in front of them, cold bottles of beer in their fists, sodas with real ice cubes!

The lady behind the counter looked up and our eyes met.  I was painfully aware of the fact that I hadn’t showered in almost a week and probably smelled like a pent-up fart.  Then her eyes went down to Kai and lingered there.

“He just hiked twelve miles to get here,” I said quietly.  “Is there any way you can squeeze us in?”

She kept looking at Kai, as if weighing whether or not such a little guy really could have hiked that distance to arrive at her restaurant.  “You guys hiking a section of the JMT?”

“The whole thing actually.  He’s doing great.”

She looked up to meet my eyes again and studied me for a minute.  “Just the two of you?”

“Actually there are five of us.”  I thought of Bill outside and crossed my fingers behind the counter.

She looked back down at Kai, shook her head a little and then glanced around the restaurant.  “You’ll have to wait a while for a table.”

“No problem.”  I wanted to hug her, maybe even kiss her, but I stunk and knew such a thing wouldn’t be appropriate even I was freshly showered.  “No problem at all.  We’ll just wait outside.  Thank you so much.”

In the end Pam, Bill and I ate three of the most perfect hamburgers in the world, while Kai scarfed down a hotdog and Noah inhaled a grilled cheese sandwich.  We washed it all down with huge servings of pie and ice cream while the world darkened outside the restaurant windows.

We left our waitress a large tip and went to sleep knowing with all certainty that the Mule House Café at Red’s Meadow was the most perfect spot on Earth.

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.