Wednesday, April 9, 2014

John Muir Trail: Day 21 — Piute Creek to Evolution Meadow

The steep walls of Pavilion Dome cast shadow across our campsite until late morning, keeping the valley chilly, and the boys and I remained snuggled in our sleeping bags later than usual.  Ravens made a racket in the trees above us, and a couple sparrows darted from branch to branch along Piute Creek.

“Kai, we should start a documentary film studio when we grow up,” Noah said, his voice still scratchy with sleep.  “We could make movies about astrophysics.”

“Yeah,” Kai sat up a little, a big gap where his missing front tooth had been.  “About cowboys too.”

I tucked my face into my sleeping bag and smiled as they talked.  The film projects they were each imagining at that moment were so different that it made me chuckle.  Wormholes and gunslingers.  Quantum mechanics and lawless saloons.  They both sounded interesting.

When we finally broke camp we hiked upstream along the San Joaquin River for a few miles before reaching a steep turnoff to Evolution Valley.  Pam and I struggled beneath the weight of our new food supply and the midday heat as we trudged up a thousand feet of switchbacks, but finally the trail leveled out and we stopped for lunch beside a beautiful section of Evolution Creek, the water running crystal clear over wide swaths of granite, dipping into pools and scuttling across riffles, the banks lined by a company of pine and fir trees.

Noah and Kai had climbed the hill as if it was nothing (we hadn’t added any of our new rations to their packs), and after scarfing down a little food they ran along the creek and played.  It was such a huge difference from our first week when Pam and I would have had to practically drag them up such a steep section of trail.  I was proud of them… and a little jealous.

I looked at Pam and nodded towards the boys.  “I want some of what they’ve got.”

She shook her head.  “Not a chance, old man.”

We hiked another mile or so up Evolution Creek before spotting a perfect campsite—a wide open area beside the creek with large boulders for playing on and several inviting swimming holes.  I took a long bath in the creek then sat drying in the sun, and afterwards Noah and I played frisbee.

That night we decided to have a campfire, and I had just lit the kindling when Kai came over with a horrified look on his face.  “I don’t have my jacket.”

“What do you mean you don’t have your jacket?  You’re fleece jacket?”  Kai had been carrying a fleece jacket and a thin rain shell, and he needed both.  We’d brought the bare bones when it came to clothing.  Every item was necessary.

“It’s not in my pack.”

“Have you had it since we got here?”

He shook his head.

“So you think you left it at our last campsite?”  Every day before breaking camp I’d walked around and carried out a thorough search to ensure that we weren’t leaving anything behind.  I even had a name for it—my idiot check.  I couldn’t image that we’d left an entire jacket behind.

I looked at Pam.  “They were playing all over the valley this morning,” she said.  And it was true.  They’d run everywhere while Pam and I were packing up gear, and the sun had risen above the peaks during that time, heating the valley quickly.  Kai could have taken his jacket off far from the perimeter of my idiot check.

We searched all of our bags just to be sure, but his jacket was nowhere to be found.

“Kai, you’ve got to pay attention to stuff like that.  It’s a big deal.”  I was angry, but you could see he already felt terrible so I tried not to lay into him too hard.  “You’re definitely going to need that jacket, especially if a storm hit us.  You’ve got to be responsible for that kind of stuff.”

“I’m sorry.”  He looked almost like he could cry.

Pam and I walked over to stand beside the creek.  “Do you think he can make it without the jacket?”  I knew we barely had enough food to last to Whitney Portal, and the thought of backtracking and wasting a day made me feel sick.

She thought for a second then shook her head, and I knew she was right.  We’d been exceptionally lucky with weather.  So far we hadn’t even experienced a real storm, but several evenings had turned chilly enough that we’d put on every layer we’d  brought, and now we were heading towards the portion of the trail with the highest elevation.  Kai would need his jacket.

“I guess I’m backtracking tomorrow.”  I shook my head and stared at the river.

We sat by the fire that evening, but the missing jacket took a little fun out of it all.  What if I couldn’t find it?  Chances were that he’d be fine whenever we were hiking and his body was working hard enough to generate heat… unless we hit a really bad storm.  But what about evenings at camp.  If worse came to worst I figured he could just stay in the tent, wrapped inside his sleeping bag.  But what fun was that?

That night I dreamed of snow.  It was the only bad dream I remember having on the trail, and it was a short one, more like a quick image.  Snow was falling—big irregular looking flakes, more like the lace doilies I remember seeing in my great grandmother’s house when I was a kid—and on the ground it lay crusty and icy.  I was digging into the snow, my fingers stiff with cold, and I uncovered Kai’s face.  It was greyish blue and frozen, his eyes rolled back and empty, his mouth slightly agape and crusted with ice.

I woke with a start and sat up.  There was enough moonlight coming through the tent walls that I could make out the rough shape of things.  I reached over to peel open Kai’s sleeping bag and look at him.  He seemed normal enough.  I touched my hand to his forehead and found it hot, a little sweaty even.  I tucked the sleeping bag under his chin then crawled outside to pee.

The sky was a sea of stars.  Evolution Creek gurgled endlessly through the darkness.  And I shivered.

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.