Wednesday, December 4, 2013

John Muir Trail: Day 8 — Lyell Fork River to Donahue Pass

It was a tough day of hiking, the climb towards Donahue Pass steep and continuous, our packs heavy from the resupply in Tuolumne Meadows.  But I was impressed with Noah and Kai.  Despite the fact that it was probably our toughest hike yet, they trudged steady uphill without complaining.  Of course, I had a pocketful of Starburst and Jolly Ranchers, and they knew that if they kept a good attitude they’d get to choose one every mile or so.

Early in the day, I’d found a cluster of wild strawberry plants beside the trail.  Most of the tiny fruits had been taken, but I managed to find three ripe ones, and I gave one each to Pam and the boys.  As we struggled up the trail a short while later, Kai stopped and looked back at me.  “They should make Starburst that taste like that strawberry.”

“Don’t you think it’s better just to eat strawberries?”

“Yeah, but we don’t have any more.”

We ate lunch on a tall rock, looking back at the green meadows of Lyell Canyon, sunlight glinting off the pools and meanders of the lazy river.  I would have given anything for a swim after eating, but the river was far below us now, so I settled for taking my boots off and lying on my back in the shade.  The kids ran around us on the rocks, and I smiled.  They were like windup toys all of a sudden, squirreling around and laughing, but as soon as we started up the trail again I knew I would need my pocketful of candy to maintain even an inkling of all that energy.

We intended to push all the way over Donahue Pass before camping, but a short distance below the summit we passed a meadow with great views of Mount Lyell and Donahue Peak, a creek forming a pond in the center.

“Maybe we should stop here,” I said quietly to Pam, “and keep it fun for the kids.”  But in all honesty it was me that had run out of steam.  I was beat, and that pond of water looked more inviting than any swimming pool I’d ever seen.

We dropped our packs, and within minutes the boys and I had stripped to our shorts and stood in the pool.  It was cold, the water having melted directly off snowfields on the jagged peaks above us, but I practically fell into it, holding my breath and lying beneath the water’s surface for a moment before jumping back up and hollering.  It was like some instant shot of wilderness espresso, my body suddenly recharged, all the energy that had drained away during the long climb rushing back in.  I dove a couple more times then went to dry in the sun.

Kai stayed along the water’s edge all afternoon and into the evening, watching fish and catching frogs.  He’d hold the frogs gently in his muddy hands for a few moments, studying them intently before letting them go again.  Noah played beside the water with him for a while, but eventually made his way to his own private portion of the meadow where he spent hours reading and enjoying his own thoughts.

We ate dinner as the sun set, alpenglow turning the snowfields to fiery jewels on the mountainside, the air calm, the pond’s surface reflecting granite ridges like the Sierra’s own looking glass.  We practically inhaled a package of Pepperidge Farm cookies.  Then I went to sit beside the creek, a lively cascade below the pond, where I filtered water.  A ground squirrel popped up nearby to watch me.  A Clark’s nutcracker flew over the water then perched on a stunted lodgepole pine nearby.

That night, as we lay in the tent, I felt the exhaustion creep back into my body, my limbs melting into the ground.  Pam read and Noah wrote in his journal.  Kai lay beside me fiddling with a loose tooth he was certain to lose any day, and I wondered if the Tooth Fairy was supposed to visit the John Muir Trail…  The Tooth Fairy hadn’t really planned for such things.

The air was so calm outside our tent, so quiet.  It seemed the only thing in the world was the stream.  I closed my eyes and let the tranquil sound wash over me, and I slept all night without waking.

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.