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.