Friday, February 28, 2014

John Muir Trail: Day 19 — Marshall Lake to Blayney Hot Springs

Morning slipped in peacefully over the high mountains to our east—Seven Gables, Gemini and Mount Senger—the sky cloudless and wide.  We ate breakfast in a rocky meadow beside Marshall Lake then hiked a short distance to Seldon Pass.  Stunted trees grew here and there, but mostly the peaks and ridges around us rose stark and cragged.  We passed several alpine lakes—Marie Lake, Heart Lake, and a cluster called Sallie Keyes Lakes—their calm water like turquoise and sapphire set into the mountains of white granite.

As we started to descend we passed several western juniper trees, their shaggy, red bark giving them the look of wild mountain sasquatches.  We stopped in a wet meadow, thick with sedges and rushes, and took turns filtering and drinking cold water from a trickling stream.  Then we left the high country and continued our 3,000-foot descent towards the San Joaquin River Valley, the trail now switchbacking down a hot, dusty, south-facing slope.

I had looked forward to a downhill day, but now I second-guessed my logic.  The trail was steep, rocky and rough, and it just went down and down and down.  I ached from the pounding—my knees, my ankles, the bottoms of my feet.  I was hot, sweaty and hungry, and my mind slipped into that numb, mechanical state that every long trail hiker experiences at some point—everything blurring away, my whole world becoming the singular act of placing a foot without stumbling.   Step.  Step.  Step…

I wanted a huge plate of smothered enchiladas and cold Sprite.  I wanted to sit on the couch and watch a football game.  To hell with these switchbacks.  Whose idea was this anyway?

Eventually, though, we reached the bottom, the trail dropping into a lush, shaded cluster of log cabins at a place called Muir Trail Ranch.  It was an idyllic setting, like the frontier homestead you’d imagine creating for yourself if you lived in a Disney Movie.  I wanted to lie down in the soft grass beneath the shade of a poplar tree and stay there forever.  Unfortunately, that would have been expensive.  We arrived at Muir Trail Ranch at 4:50, and they closed their gates to non-paying guests at 5:00 sharp.  I was tempted to plop down the credit card, rent a cabin for the night and get a family style meal.  But we’d already blown our budget at Vermillion Valley Resort.  Instead we quickly looked through the hiker buckets, scavenging some extra trail mix and energy bars that other hikers had recently left behind to cut weight.  We filled our water bottles at a spigot, scratched a friendly border collie behind the ears, and set off to find a campsite nearby along the San Joaquin River.  We had two resupply packages to pick up at the ranch, but I decided to return in the morning to fetch them.

We found a peaceful campsite along the river, shaded by a grove of tall aspens, and we ate dinner on a large rock overlooking the water.  The San Joaquin ran wide and shallow over a bed of cobbles, and after dinner Pam and I sat watching the kids wade and play along the banks.  As the sun dropped behind distant peaks, the water’s surface took on pastel shades of blue, lavender and pink.

We’d read about natural hot springs nearby, tucked into a meadow on the far side of the river, so later, as the sky grew dark, we put on our headlamps and waded across the river, holding hands and using trekking poles to avoid falling on the slick cobbles.  It was hard to see when we reached the far bank, so we picked our way across the wet meadow, our bare feet sinking into warm mud with a few inches water puddled here and there.

“Do we have to sit in this?” Noah asked, shining his headlamp down at the muddy ground and scowling.

I laughed.  “I hope not.  There must be some real pools around here somewhere.”

About a hundred yards further on we found a perfect pool, the hot water springing from the base of a large rock along one side, tall grass growing around the rest of the pool’s perimeter, pine boughs arching over the water’s surface.  We turned off our headlamps and eased into the water, groaning with pleasure as the heat soaked into our bodies.


The pool was the perfect size for our family, large enough to spread out but close enough to feel cozy, and we sat there for a long time, watching the moon rise into a sea of stars above mountain peaks.  The water felt sublime, easing the pain that had haunted my joints throughout the day.

When we finally dragged ourselves out of the water, our bodies steamed in the glow of our headlamps.  We made our way back across the wet meadow and once again held hands as we carefully waded across the river.

“This is the coolest night ever,” Kai said.

“Yeah,” Noah agreed.  “It really is.”

As I lay in the tent that night, my mind buzzed with the best kind of feelings.  Our nighttime journey across the river to the hot springs had given something fresh and new to the boys.  I couldn’t name it but you could see it in them, some new sense of adventure and wonder, and I thought back to when I was kid.  Just being outside after dark had carried its own wonderful mystery, and when my parents had added some other element of excitement—a moonlight cross-county ski, a campfire beside a desert cliff face where we danced and our bodies cast giant shadows on the sandstone, a walk to a mesa top to watch a meteor shower—I’d felt completely alive.

Those were wonderful moments in my life, memories I’ve always cherished.  And tonight I’d seen that same thing in my kids.  There were moments on this trip that were going to stay with them, shape them, give them meaningful images to lean on throughout their lives.

I smiled and listed to the river.  Thankful.  Peaceful.  Happy. 

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.