Friday, June 27, 2014

Does Nature Make Us Happy?

I wanted to share a short excerpt from a great article in Psychology Today by MarilynPrice-Mitchell, Ph.D.

“In today’s age of high technology, research shows that our hunger for the natural world still endures.  In fact, our connections with nature could just be the best medicine for people of all ages—improving our health, happiness, and well-being.  Those same connections could also heal the planet.

Few would disagree that our natural and cognitive worlds have grown disconnected.  Most of us, particularly children, spend far less time in nature today than in recent decades.  There are no required classes in nature connectedness in our schools, nor is nature a well-utilized tool for teaching kids to critically think about the world around them.  New research, however, suggests our relationship with nature may be deeply linked to our happiness.”

To learn more about how our relationship with nature is linked to our happiness read the full article HERE.  And go outside.  Get mud on your feet!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

John Muir Trail: Day 32 — Bubbs Creek to Tyndall Creek

The morning passed slowly.  We watched a couple deer browse across the river as we ate breakfast, and we lingered in the sun enjoying warm drinks, not leaving camp and starting up Forester Pass until almost eleven o’clock.

After only a couple miles we stopped again for lunch, and with the food we’d received from the nurses and the rangers we were actually able to eat until we felt full—peanut butter, olives, fresh M&Ms, spicy jerky, a grape electrolyte drink that tasted like Kool-Aid…  I can’t tell you what a luxury it was!

Afterwards, as we climbed to the summit of Forester Pass, we felt stronger than we had in days.  Pam and Noah hiked like they had wings on their feet, beating me to the summit by nearly half a mile, and Kai chatted enthusiastically with me about everything under the sun as we climbed, never looking tired or complaining.  It was the highest pass we’d encountered, but with all that food nourishing our bodies and spirits, sweeping away the hollow gnawing that had plagued our stomachs for days, the climb felt almost like a cake walk.

The views from Forester Pass were stunning enough to stop you in your tracks, an endless sweep of granite—razor-sharp ridges, spiky crags, and cliffs diving hundreds of feet to emerald pools in cirque bottoms.  We sat on a narrow band of rock at the top, the world giving way to thin air beneath our boots, and looked back at Karsage Pinnacles, Center Peak, and an endless army of mountains stretching to the north and west.

“You guys hiked through that sea of mountains,” I said, putting my arms around the boys.  “That’s pretty awesome.”

“Yeah,” Noah said.

“Now we’re like on top of everything,” Kai added.

“We sure are.  You guys have done so well.  And now you’ll always know you can do really big things in your lives.  You can make big things happen.  Just take one step at a time and keep going.”

A few other hikers arrived to share the ridgetop with us, and we celebrated with them, swapping stories and taking pictures.  One of the men looked at Kai and smiled.  “You look like you’ve lost a couple teeth on this trail.”

“Yep,” said Kai.  “I buried two of them already, and I’m going to bury the third one on Mount Whitney.”

A grin spread across the man’s face, up into smile lines at the corners of his eyes.  “I’ve heard some good stories on this trip, but that’s the best one yet.  I love that!  You’re seven years old.  You’ve hiked two hundred miles and left a trail of teeth along the way.”

Kai grinned back like a jack-o-lantern.

The ridgeline we sat atop is named the Kings-Kern Divide, and it was definitely separating things on that day.  Back the way we’d come, to the north and west, the sky was clear and blue and perfect-looking.  But to the south and east, the direction we were heading the air was gray and hazy, choked with smoke.

“I heard there were some new fires, but I didn’t expect it to be this bad,” I told one of the men.

“I talked to a ranger yesterday, and it sounds like there’s a terrible fire north of Yosemite.  There calling it the Rim Fire.  I’m afraid it’s going to be smoky like this all the way to Whitney.”


On its southern slope, Forester Pass dropped a sharp thousand feet to a wide, u-shaped glacial valley called Diamond Mesa.  Smoke hung trapped in the valley like a dirty fogbank, and we descended into it down countless switchbacks.  Kai started experiencing minor asthma symptoms, and I hated the fact that the kids had to breathe such unhealthy air.  “I sure hope it doesn’t stay this bad all the way to Whitney,” I told Pam, and she nodded.

We hiked approximately five more miles, making our way across the barren, windswept mesa, finally making camp at dusk in a dry patch of forest beside Tyndall Creek.  It was a picturesque campsite, the creek running swiftly through a band of willows along the valley bottom.  A breeze had kicked up and blown some of the smoke away, and as we ate dinner a light drizzle started.

Later as we lay in the tent it rained for real, and we read the last chapter of The Hobbit serenaded by drops on the tent.  I woke several hours later, and the rain was still falling gently.  It was a soothing sound, backed by the chanting of Tyndall Creek, and I lay staring into the darkness listening.

Keep raining, I thought.  Soak the forests and stymie the flames.  Get rid of that nasty smoke so my kids can breathe.

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.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

John Muir Trail: Day 31 — Charlotte Lake to Bubbs Creek

I woke several times in the night and felt Kai’s forehead.  There was no sign of fever, and he hadn’t had a dose of ibuprofen since midafternoon.  He slept restfully, and when he woke in the morning his eyes didn’t have the same glassy look that had freaked me out the day before.

“You feel better?” I asked.

He nodded.

“Anything hurt still?”

“I don’t think so.”  He shook his head.  “I’m thirsty.”

I unscrewed the lid of a water bottle, handed it to him and watched him guzzle several gulps.

We took it easy and let Kai relax around camp all morning.  Thanks to the nurses we ate a little extra food, and the boys each had a second cup of hot chocolate.  I walked down to visit Rick and Suzanne at their cabin and tell them Kai was feeling better, and it was fun to get a glimpse into their life as rangers in the Sierras.  Their one room cabin was small but cozy, cupboards and shelves stocked with gear for all circumstances, nonperishable food items, maps, books and an assortment of clothes.  A small gas stove and a narrow wooden counter defined a small kitchen in the corner, where Suzanne had recently set a large pot of water to boil.

I’d often dreamed of being a ranger when I was a kid, and I’d even considered it during graduate school, but in the end I’d decided it might be a hard path to take if I wanted to get married and eventually have a family.  But as far as I could tell, Rick and Suzanne had a great setup.  Clearly it was a lot of work.  They had to deal with people like us!  And already that morning their radios buzzed with information about fires and injuries.  Soon they would be setting off to help with rescue operations.  But they got to spend months together in these beautiful mountains, doing meaningful things, living a healthy existence and sharing peaceful moments together between the many crises they dealt with.

“I just want to thank you guys again,” I said.  “It was such a relief to be able to contact a doctor and get input last night, and now Kai seems almost all better.”

“We’re glad we could help,” Rick said.

We talked for a while before I hung my head sheepishly and brought up our food situation.  “I hate to ask this, but do you guys by chance keep a stash of food for unprepared hikers?  We’ve been running low, and now that we got slowed down by Kai getting sick we’re going to be scrimping a little.  We have enough to survive, but it would be good if we could stuff some more calories into the boys each day.”

Suzanne smiled at me.  “You shouldn’t be embarrassed.  People ask for food all the time out here.  You should ask other hikers too.  They often want to get rid of some weight.”

“We’ve got a bear locker outside, and I think we still have some stuff that backpackers have left behind,” Rick added.  “And we might have some extra stuff in here we can give you too.”

They set about sorting through their cupboards and a large metal bear locker out back, and ended up putting together a sack of stuff including a full jar of peanut butter, a large bag of oats, some crackers, a little trail mix, a couple energy bars and some homemade pasta that Suzanne had freeze dried herself at their winter home in Grass Valley.

“This is like Christmas,” I told them as I said goodbye and headed back to my family.  “You guys are so great.”

We ate an early lunch that involved a lot of creamy peanut butter, and afterward we just sat there smiling at each other for a while.  The boys wrote thank you notes and drew pictures for Rick and Suzanne as Pam and I packed up camp, and we set off around midday.

We hiked about five miles, dropping more than a thousand feet to Vidette Meadows then climbing another thousand to camp beside Bubbs Creek at around 10,500 feet.  Kai moved a little slower than usual, but given that we’d feared he was on his death bed the day before, I was impressed that he trudged five miles without complaining.  The next day we would crest Forester Pass at 13,180 feet, and from where we set up camp we’d have a short but steep three mile climb to the top.

We spotted a buck deer as we set up the tent then Kai and Pam went to play by the creek while Noah found a peaceful spot to lie down and read.  I cooked dinner and we ate on a flat rock by the water’s edge as the sun set.  To our north the Kearsarge Pinnacles glowed red, and the stream’s surface turned plum colored, the water serenading the high valley as it slipped past.

Pam and I sat close to the boys, and I knew she was soaking them in the same way I was, quietly celebrating their youth and the wonderful fact that they were alive, feeling thankful to share this time with them, wondering at the unwritten pages life had in store for them.  “I love you guys,” I said quietly.

“You too.”

We went to bed early, and I slept without stirring, as if I’d become just another stone in the landscape.

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.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

John Muir Trail: Day 30 — Glen Pass to Charlotte Lake

Note:  Pam and I were worried about Kai and did not take a single picture on this day.

In the early morning hours Kai took a turn for the worse.  We didn’t have a thermometer, but just from feeling his head his fever seemed high.  He complained of a headache behind his eyes and sharp pain in his lower back and abdomen.

I got up at the first hint of light, grabbed a water bottle, a snack bar and a map and jogged back over Glen Pass.  We’d passed a ranger station at Rae Lakes, and I figured that if I could find a ranger we could radio a doctor or somebody who could inform me about the incubation period and specific symptoms of hantavirus.  It we could just rule out that possibility I wouldn’t be so worried.

As I ran up and over the rocky pass I felt numb, like something about me wasn’t real.  I kept trying to tell myself that there were a million things that could have made Kai sick.  He’d had plenty of fevers before and he always got better in a matter of days.  I’d never even worried before.  Kids got fevers all the time and they didn’t die.  But then my mind would fixate on that small space beneath that boulder on Mather Pass, and the scent of rodent urine would fill my nose as if some of it had gotten stuck there, and I’d think back to my old classmate Jason Hauser, to a specific party in college where a bunch of us had been dancing in a living room and he’d been in the center of it all on a coffee table making everyone laugh… how a few years later he taken a breath that smothered all that life out of him.

I couldn’t stop thinking about how it would feel if that happened to Kai.  How nothing would ever be right again.

I passed a handful of hikers on the pass, and I stopped to ask them if they knew anything about hantavirus, but most of them knew about the same amount as me.  You get it from mouse excrement and it starts with flu-like symptoms.  Nobody knew the incubation period or anything more specific about the initial symptoms.  So I kept running.

It was only about three miles to the ranger station, a small wooden cabin tucked into a cluster of pines near the lake, and I reached it in the early morning.  But when I climbed onto the porch and raised my hand to knock I spotted a note tacked to the doorframe.  It explained that the ranger was away on extended patrol and wouldn’t be back for several days.  I knocked anyway, several times, but nobody answered.

I found a piece of paper and wrote a note explaining our location and situation—we were trying to learn more about hantavirus so we’d know whether or not it was a valid concern.  Then I ate the bar I’d brought, sucked down half a bottle of water and started jogging back over Glen Pass.

I returned to Pam and the boys late in the morning, and Kai was still sick.  Pam had used the tent to make a shaded area for him, and he was just lying there looking miserable and weak.  Pam had been forcing him to drink water, and she’d gotten some food in him.

“How do you feel?” I asked him.

He looked up at me with glassy eyes.  “Not very good.”

“Where does it hurt?”

“Just the same.  My eyes and right here.”  He pointed to his lower back and sides.

Pam and I walked off a ways and tried to figure out what we should do.  There was another ranger station at Charlotte Lake, about three miles further along the trail.  “I can go try to find a ranger there,” I offered.

“Maybe we should get Kai off this mountain,” Pam said.  We were still perched on a rocky shelf well above tree line, everything around us steep and jagged.  “If we have to evacuate, this isn’t a very good spot.”

We looked at the map together and realized that we could reach a better place to camp in less than two miles—flatter terrain, an escape route over Kearsarge Pass to Onion Valley, and the ranger station just a short distance away at Charlotte Lake.

“We can carry all his stuff,” Pam said.  “And we can just go really slowly and help him out.”

We packed all our stuff, ate a quick lunch and gave Kai another dose of ibuprofen.  Then we started slowly down the trail.  We’d taken everything out of Kai’s pack so he could carry it empty, but that made him mad.  “I don’t want it empty!”  He looked sick as a dog, yet he was still embarrassed for anyone to see him with an empty pack and think of him as a weak little kid.

“Kai, you’re sick.  It’s okay if your pack is empty today.”

“I don’t want it empty!”

We ended up stuffing his sleeping bag inside and fluffing it so the pack looked full.  Then he carried it without complaining.

We walked slowly, and as we went Kai seemed to perk up a little, which gave me hope that it was just some little bug that he’d fight off soon.  But every once in a while he’d wince and put his hand to his abdomen.  “Are you still getting those pains?” I asked him.

He nodded but kept walking.

We reached a flat open area at the turnoff for Charlotte Lake in the early afternoon, and we stopped there, finding a shady place for Kai to lie down.  He looked better than he had in the night, and his skin felt less feverish to the touch.

“Maybe we got ourselves all worked up over nothing,” I said to Pam, and she nodded.

“It could just come and go in waves though.  Sometimes viruses get worse again at night, you know?  Or maybe it’s just the medicine.”  She was right, but I think both of us felt a little more hopeful than we had hours earlier.

Noah lay beside Kai with a book and kept him company, and Pam watched over them while I jogged the short distance to Charlotte Lake.  But when I found the ranger station it was all locked up and nobody answered when I knocked.  I talked to a couple men camped near the lake, and they told me that three nurses were camped just a quarter mile further up the trail, taking a rest day after completing the Sierra High Route…  Three nurses out here in the middle of nowhere at that very moment!  What were the chances?

I walked up the trail and found three tough-looking ladies with cropped hair sorting through gear.  “Are you by chance the group of nurses I heard about?” I asked, feeling embarrassed.

They all looked up at me and one of them answered.  “Yeah, we’re nurses.”

“I’m so sorry to bug you, but I’ve got an eight-year-old son that’s been really sick, and my wife and I got ourselves freaked out that it could be hantavirus.”  They listened kindly while I explained how we’d taken shelter on Mather Pass and then explained Kai’s symptoms a little.

“I think hantavirus is probably pretty unlikely,” one of them said, and I could have hugged her.  Then they conferred with each other a little while.  “You’re smart to think about hanta, because it does happen, but it’s rare.  We don’t really have experience with it and don’t remember all the details, but I’m thinking the incubation period is longer than three days.  I’m thinking weeks, not days.  Just let him rest and keep an eye on him.  You’re in a good spot with the ranger station right here, and you could evacuate if you need to, but I think he’s going to be okay.”

“I can’t tell you how much better I feel after talking with you,” I said.  “I’ve just been building this thing up in my head and making myself crazy all day.  I probably totally overreacted.”

“Well that’s your job, Dad.”  One of the ladies smiled at me.  “And it’s good you’re taking it seriously, but chances are he’ll be okay.  Stay here though and keep an eye on him for a while just to be sure.”

I thanked them again and started to leave when one of them asked, “How are you doing with food, being slowed down and all?”

I looked at the ground, a little embarrassed.  “We’re actually really low.  I was planning to ask the ranger if they had any sort of emergency stash.”

“Well here.  We can give you a little.”  And they all jumped into action, opening their bear canisters and digging through them.  “We could have given you a lot more earlier today. Our friends came in with a resupply, and we ended up sending a bunch of stuff back.  They left just an hour ago.  But we’ve got a few things.”  And the things they gave us were like treasures from a dream—shortbread cookies, packets of Nutella, crackers, olives, electrolyte drink mix…

“I can’t thank you enough,” I said.  “This is so nice.”  I stood there feeling like I should do something for them in return, but there was really nothing I could offer.

“No problem,” one of the ladies said.  “You just watch over your son and then enjoy the rest of your trip.”

I walked back up the trail feeling lighter.  For the first time all day my head felt a little clear, like I could really see things and my thoughts didn’t buzz like static in my head.  Everything was probably okay.

I was about half a mile from Pam and the boys when I spotted a ranger walking towards me, having a conversation on a walkie-talkie.  She paused as we got close to one another.  “Have you seen a dad with a sick kid?”

“Yeah...  That’s probably me,” I said.

“Where’s your son?  He’s not by himself is he?”

“No.  He’s with my wife and other son, just up the trail here.”

“Somebody radioed us after finding your note at Rae Lakes, and we’ve been looking for you.  You should have stayed put.”

“I’m sorry.  After I left that note we decided we should probably get down off the mountain.  My son actually seems to be doing a little better.”  I was starting to feel silly.  All day I’d been the epitome of a nervous dad, actually more like a mother hen, certain the sky was falling down to crush my son.  I explained to her that the thing that really got us worried was the possibility of hantavirus.  “We really just want to radio someone who can tell us if that’s even a valid concern.”

As we walked to meet Pam and the boys, the ranger introduced herself as Suzanne and radioed her partner, telling him where to meet us.  With growing embarrassment I gathered that they’d both been on a wild goose chase, up and down the mountain looking for us.  And when we arrived at the clearing where I’d left Pam and the boys I felt even sillier.  Kai didn’t look one hundred percent healthy, but he certainly looked a lot better.  He no longer looked like a hollow-eyed waif on the grim reaper’s doorstep.

A few moments later Suzanne’s partner arrived.  He looked worn out and a little irritated as he repeated the first word’s Suzanne had told me.  “We’ve been looking all over for you.  You should have stayed put.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said sheepishly.  “We didn’t know you were looking and we figured it was best to get down off the mountain.”  I told him how we’d taken shelter on Mather Pass a few days earlier, and how Kai had seemed really sick in the night and throughout the morning.  “We just got scared about hantavirus and wanted to talk to someone who could help us figure out if it was a valid concern.”

He kept his eyes on me and his face softened while I talked.  Finally he smiled.  “I understand.”  Then he turned to Kai.  “We’ll let’s take a look at you.”

He went through a detailed first responder assessment like I’d learned in a backcountry first aid class several months earlier, and Suzanne wrote down their observations.  Afterwards they radioed an emergency dispatch station and after sharing all their observations with the nurse on the other end Rick finally asked the question that had been haunting us.  “There’s concern that the subject may have come in contact with hantavirus.  Do you have information on the symptoms and incubation period?”

We waited for several minutes while the nurse contacted a doctor and reviewed resources from the Centers for Disease Control.  Finally we got our answers.

“The early symptoms are flu-like.”  The nurse’s voice crackled over the radio.

Kai had flu-like symptoms.

“There’s uncertainty about the incubation period,” the nurse continued, “but observations suggest it’s between one and five weeks.”

I took the deepest breath anyone ever breathed.  It had only been a few days since we’d sheltered on Mather Pass... only half a week, far less than five weeks, and Kai was already looking healthier.

“You guys have a choice,” Rick told us.  “We can get a helicopter for you today to evacuate Kai.  One of you could go with him.  There wouldn’t be any cost.”

Pam and I looked at each other and shook our heads.  “We don’t want to evacuate unless it’s really an emergency,” Pam said.  “Maybe we should see how he does tonight and then make a decision.”

“He looks so much better.”  I was embarrassed as much as relieved.  “I’m sorry you guys ran all around and we wasted your time.”

“You didn’t waste our time.”  Suzanne smiled at me.

“That’s why we’re out here,” Rick added.   “And you’re not out the woods yet.  It sounds like he’s doing better but things can change quickly.  Why don’t you camp near our cabin and we’ll see how Kai’s doing in the morning.”

“Thank so much,” I told them.  "I really appreciate everything you guys have done."

We made our way down to Charlotte Lake as the sun set, and we settled into a campsite just a few hundred yards from the ranger cabin.  I opened the small packet of shortbread cookies and divided them between us, and it felt like opening the best present on Christmas morning.

In the middle of the night I woke and rolled over to look at Kai.  His breathing was relaxed.  He looked peaceful.  I touched his forehead, and it wasn’t feverish.

I stayed there propped on my elbow looking at him for a long time.  Finally I kissed him and lay back down.

I was a mother hen.  An over-reactor.  A handwringer…  A dad.

“Thank you,” I whispered.

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.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

John Muir Trail: Day 29 — Woods Creek to Glen Pass

We left the waterfalls on Woods Creek knowing we had ten miles and nearly 3,500 feet to climb before reaching Glen Pass.  Despite the extra dinner we’d eaten the night before, our bodies still felt undernourished and worn out as we trudged upwards along South Baxter Creek.

Early in the afternoon we reached Dollar Lake, a pocket of water tucked against scree slopes and rock walls, and this idyllic pool of water proved to be the gateway to a long alpine valley lined with meadows and placid lakes.  The days of rain had passed, the sun bright and hot, and the blue water and occasional sandy beaches beckoned to us like sirens but we hiked on, knowing we were low on food and needed to put miles behind us.  Noah and Kai spotted several fish from the trail and shouted with excitement when they saw a few exceptionally large trout.

We passed a few bear lockers, and I stopped to check each of them in case any fellow hikers had left surplus food, but I only found a couple sacks of garbage that some selfish fool had been too lazy to carry out.  For lunch we sufficed with a few handfuls of trail mix each, guzzled some water and kept hiking.

In the late afternoon we reached Ray Lakes.  Ten days earlier I had seen a note tacked to a bulletin board at Muir Trail Ranch which read, “If you could live anywhere on the John Muir Trail, where would it be?”  That question had stayed with me, and up until now I’d determined that my answer would be someplace in Evolution Valley.  But Rae Lakes—with tiny islands and emerald coves, ringed by the massive peaks of Black Mountain, Painted Lady, Mount Rixford, Mount Gardiner and Mount Cotter—gave Evolution Valley a hard run for its money, and I never quite decided between the two.

We spotted a doe and her fawn beside the lakeshore, and we stopped for a short water break and watched them before leaving the valley and facing the final 1,400-foot climb to Glen Pass.  It was a grueling climb, the toughest of the trip for me, which I attributed largely to the emptiness in our stomachs.  At several points I felt lightheaded and had to stop and lean against the rocks, but Pam trucked on ahead of all of us, and the boys never complained.  They just plodded through the fragmented granite, switchback after switchback, as the sun dropped and our shadows lengthened.

All three of them beat me to the top by a wide margin, and as I finally approached them on top of that razor-thin ridge I grinned, a warm gratefulness swelling inside me.  My family had grit.  With just a couple oatmeal packets and a few handfuls of nuts to fuel them, they had carried packs nearly ten miles and climbed 3,486 feet.  They had walked more than 175 miles with me since leaving Happy Isles, and here we were together, hungry and trail-worn, standing on top of the world.

Pam dug into her pack and pulled out two lollipops that she’d bought at Vermillion Valley Resort and handed them to the boys.  Their eyes shot wide and they both shouted with excitement.

“I didn’t know you had these!” Noah said.

“I’ve been saving them for a special time,” she reached out and hugged both boys.  “I didn’t even know you were so tough.  You didn’t complain a bit, and that was a hard hike!”

The sun was near setting and a cold breeze had kicked up, so we pulled on long shirts and started down the shadowy southern slope of Glen Pass, the boys sucking their bright green lollipops as they walked.  Just below the ridge we spotted a pika sitting on a rock.

“I finally saw a pika!” Kai squealed.  “I really saw one.”  He’d caught shadowy glimpses of movement in the rocks on a few occasions, which he’d thought might have been pikas, but this was the first time he really got to see what one looked like and watch it for a while.  “He’s so cute.”

“They’re the cutest,” Noah agreed, and their enthusiasm was contagious.

We stopped at a high pond a short distance below the pass and set up camp.  The pond was in a small cirque, bounded by cliffs and talus slopes.  We ate dinner sitting on large boulders as the granite all around us ignited with the setting sun, surrounding us in the alpenglow.

After reading The Hobbit we lay in the tent talking about the day.  “Can you guys believe we only have about 40 miles left?”

“We could be done in four days if we keep hiking like we did today,” Noah said.

“We’ll get to see Grammy and Papa and Franklin,” Kai chimed in excitedly.  My parents were going to meet us at Whitney Portal and bring our little Chihuahua Franklin whom they’d been taking care of.  “And we can have donuts!”

We were quiet for a while imaging donuts.  Then Kai added, “But can we just stay with them for a couple days then hike back to Yosemite.  I like it out here.”

I smiled the kind of smile that spreads through your whole body.  “I’m glad you like it.  We’ll come back, buddy.  We’ll be out here again.”


Pam and I woke just after midnight to the sound of Kai whimpering.  We felt his forehead and his skin was on fire.  I crawled out of the tent to get ibuprofen and we roused him enough to help him swallow the pill and drink a bunch of water.

“He’s burning up,” Pam said.  Then she rubbed her hand through his hair and leaned close to him.  “Kai, can you tell me if anything hurts?”  She had to rouse him a little and ask again before he responded.

“My eyes.  And my back hurts.”  His voice was groggy.  He pointed to an area around his kidneys which freaked me out a little.

“Do you feel like you need to throw up or go to the bathroom?”


Pam and I laid there for a while comforting him in the dark, thinking through his symptoms and trying to make sense of them.  Eventually Pam looked at me.  “It couldn’t have been our shelter on Mather Pass could it?  All that rodent poop?”

“No.  That was marmot poop.”  We’d seen several notices about hantavirus in Yosemite, and we’d read all about an outbreak originating in their canvas tent cabins the summer before.  We knew people could contract hantavirus from the urine and feces of deer mice, and from what I’d gathered the sickness was usually fatal.  “Marmots don’t carry it, and I don’t think deer mice live up that high.”

At first I felt really confident that Kai couldn’t have hantavirus.  But laying there in the darkness I started second-guessing myself.  What did I know about deer mice?  Maybe they did live at high elevations.  It had been three days since we took shelter from the lightning on Mather Pass, but I had no idea what the incubation time for hantavirus was.  Could it be 72 hours?  It seemed like there were other viruses with a 72-hour incubation period.  Worry started gnawing in my gut and kept getting worse as my mind ran away with the possibilities.

Finally I crawled from the tent and dug through my backpack to find the field guide.  I searched the index by the light of my headlamp then turned to the page detailing mice.  The first words at the top of the page read, “Deer Mice are widespread and are found in all parts of California including the Sierra.”  Kai had another field guide in his pack and I grabbed it, frantically flipping through the pages until I found deer mice.  It said they were widespread through all elevations in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  I felt sick, like I could throw up.

If Kai had hantavirus he would probably die, and it was all my fault that we’d been caught foolishly in that lightning storm and gone under that stupid rock.  I’d thought momentarily about mice when we first took shelter, but I’d told myself the poop was clearly from marmots, and I’d dismissed the idea.  But what if I just hadn’t notice the mouse poop?  It would have been a lot smaller and less noticeable than the marmot scat.  We’d been in that small space scooting around in the dirt for over an hour.

I got the water filter and our empty water bottles and walked to the pond and filtered water just to be doing something.  I felt numb, like plastic.  I splashed the icy water on my face and looked up at the moon and the million stars and begged them.  “Please don’t let Kai have hanta.  Please.”

Finally I went back to the tent and lay down beside him.  But I never slept.  All night I just laid there and held him and listened to him breathe.

Years earlier, I’d gone to elementary school and then college with a wonderful guy named Jason Hauser.  He was one those charismatic, creative individuals who seem more full of life than the rest of us.  He was a little crazy in the best kind of way.  He was smart and fun and had this infectious laugh and everybody loved him… and he died in his early twenties from hantavirus.

I imagine all parents have moments when they face the knowledge that their kids can die—that the person you love more than anything on Earth can be snatched from you like a whim, and sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it.  My mind ran wild with fear, and it was so powerful.  Really I had no idea what was ailing Kai, but he hadn’t been around any sick people, and his symptoms didn’t seem to match giardia or any other waterborne intestinal bugs I’d read about.  He wasn’t vomiting or having diarrhea.  We’d been in the high country for a month, so it wasn’t altitude sickness…

My mind fixated on hantavirus and kept telling me that everything lined up.  I felt helpless.  I couldn’t really think straight.  I just lay in the darkness begging the universe to let it be something else.

Please.  Something else.

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.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Monday Meditation

"One of the most tragic things I know about human nature is that all of us tend to put off living. We are all dreaming of some magical rose garden over the horizon instead of enjoying the roses that are blooming outside our windows today."
– Dale Carnegie