Wednesday, May 28, 2014

John Muir Trail: Day 28 — Lake Marjorie to Woods Creek

The cold was biting when I crawled from the tent just after dawn, but the sky was cloudless and I felt a surge of thankfulness as I looked up to see flawless blue stretching from peak to peak.  Our campsite was shrouded by the mountain’s long shadow, but I knew that eventually the sun would climb above the ridgeline and we could dry our gear and get warm.

I fetched our bear canisters then filtered water, my fingers stiff and clumsy with cold, my breath rising in front of me like puffs of smoke.  When sunlight finally hit our camp I boiled water then woke the others for breakfast.  It wasn’t much, just a couple oatmeal packets each, and after they’d finished the boys begged for more.

“Can I eat one more now and then have only one tomorrow?” Noah asked.  He wasn’t the kind of eater that usually begged for oatmeal, and you could see in his eyes how hungry he was.

“I’m sorry, buddy, but you’d be even more miserable tomorrow.”  My stomach felt hollow too, but the storms had delayed us and we had to ration the little food we had left.  I felt like such a loser of a dad for not having anything else to give him.  His body was about as lean and sinewy as a willow branch, and he needed calories.  “You want some water?”

He scowled but took the water and gulped it.

We laid all our wet gear in the sun, and by late morning everything was dry and we were warm and ready to hike again.  It was only a mile or so to the summit of Pinchot Pass, but the trail was steep and our stomachs were too empty.  It was a tough mile.

We stopped at the summit and sat guzzling water.  Several  gray-crowned rosy-finches flittered around the rocks chirping, and a fat marmot poked his head up a few feet from where we sat.  We hiked another mile or so before stopping again for a meager lunch.  Pam and I just ate a couple handfuls of nuts each, saving the bars and jerky for the boys.  For a while we talked about all the hamburgers, enchiladas, pizzas, donuts and chocolate malts we planned to eat once we reached Lone Pine, but after a while it was just depressing to think about all the good food we didn’t have, so we passed the water bottle without saying much.

At least the sky was still blue.  The sun was warm.

That afternoon we descended across rocky hillsides and through mountain meadows, passing Mount Cedric Wright and the headwater lakes of Woods Creek.  We followed the growing stream as it rushed down a long straight canyon, charging through narrow granite chutes in most places.  The valley walls were rocky and dry with scattered pines and clustered shrubs.  Pam collected gooseberries in a cup as we hiked and shared them with the kids in an attempt to take the edge off their hunger.

We met a solo hiker named Bill in the early afternoon, a man about my age heading the same direction as us, and he couldn’t stop smiling at the kids.  “You guys really came all the way from Yosemite Valley?  When I was your age I was eating Ding Dongs and watching cartoons all summer!”  His excitement was contagious and the kids grinned back at him.

He and I stood talking for a while, and at one point he asked me how we managed food for all of us on such a long stretch between Muir Trail Ranch and Whitney Portal.  “Actually, not very well.”  I looked down at my boots a little embarrassed.  “We’ve been really rationing and the kids are constantly hungry.  We have enough to get through, but I should have brought more.”  I smiled.  “I think the kids are probably jealous of your Ding Dongs and cartoons.”

We talked a while longer and then he continued down the trail while we sat for a short water break, but about a mile down the trail we met him again.  He’d stopped in a nearby meadow, and as we approached he walked towards us carrying a bag.  “I can get by with a little less food, and I’d like to give this to you guys.”

I could have hugged him, but I was embarrassed too.  “Oh thank you so much, but I didn’t mean to make you feel like you had to give us food.  The topic just came up and I—”

“I know you were just talking.  Don’t worry, I sorted through all my food, and I really do have enough.  I want you to have it.”  He held the bag out towards me, and I saw that it was a huge portion of freeze-dried pasta with meatballs, way more than we usually allowed ourselves for a single dinner—and I’d never seen any food that made me happier or more thankful.  He also gave the kids a couple extra hot chocolate packets each.

“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this,” I said, reaching out to accept the food.  “I’ve actually been really stressed seeing these guys so hungry, and this will make a huge difference.”  I shook his hand and felt like I should do something for him in exchange, but I couldn’t think of anything.  “Thank you so much.”

“My pleasure.  I’m so happy to see you guys out here doing this as a family.  It’s great.”

My legs felt a little stronger as we hiked that afternoon, and I smiled just knowing that once we reached camp we could stuff ourselves.

Just before evening we found a campsite beside a striking series of cascades and pools, the water running down smooth granite chutes and gathering in rock basins like some fantastic waterslide dropping into the canyon.  Before doing anything else I made the boys each a cup of hot chocolate, and they sat on their sleeping pads and savored it.  I then cooked the pasta, and we sat overlooking the water and ate and ate and ate.

“I’m actually full!” Noah said with a smile, a little red sauce smudged on his cheek, and I looked up at the darkening sky and said a silent thank you to Bill.

Later we walked down to sit beside the falls and watch the water.  The sky and granite turned soft-hued as dusk deepened.  The last bits of pink sunlight glowed on the high peaks, and everything except the water seemed to stand still.  As I watched the creek I found myself thinking of the fact that it would always be running—even when I was back in San Diego sitting in my cubicle at work, doing dishes and paying taxes—there would be this endless cascade of singing water falling from this mountaintop.  It was a nice thought.  I reached out and wrapped my arms around Noah and Kai.  “This will always be here for you guys.  Anytime in your lives when you need to get away, remember that all of this will be here for you.”

As the sky finally darkened a bat came out, swooping above the pools and fluttering up the canyon.

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.