Wednesday, July 2, 2014

John Muir Trail: Day 33 — Tyndall Creek to Timberline Lake

A light drizzle fell as I crawled from the tent just after dawn, and the first thing I noticed was that it smelled fresh, not acrid with smoke but wet and alive.  The rain had washed away the ash that choked us the afternoon before, and I smiled as I walked down to the stream and filtered water.  A young buck stood in the wet willows across the river, and for a while we just watched each other, everything motionless and silent except for the water that flowed laughingly between us.  Then he went back to browsing and I walked back up the hill to cook breakfast.

It drizzled off and on all day, and although we saw flashes of lightning in the distance it never got close enough to threaten us, which was a good thing because the trail was exposed for much of the morning.  We wound past the barren crown of Tawny Point then crossed Bighorn Plateau, a great windswept expanse of bunchgrass and scattered rock.  Trees were few and far between, and more than half of those that existed had been struck by lightning, standing like twisted, orange-gray carcasses to remind us that if we didn’t keep moving the storm would eventually sweep down and barbeque us.

To our north dark columns of cloud hung across the land, drifting slowly and shapeshifting, parting now and again to give us momentary glimpses of the towering crags around Mount Whitney.  The trail wound up and down, and by early afternoon we were tired, but we pushed on, wanting to get close to Mount Whitney so we’d have a good shot at reaching the summit before lightning became an issue the following morning.

We hiked eleven miles to reach Timberline Lake just as the storm hit with earnest.  The rain fell in sheets and we took shelter beneath a cluster of fir trees until a short break came, during which we set up the tent, finishing just in time for the next cloudburst.  We piled inside and huddled together inside our sleeping bags to get warm.

About an hour later the storm let up to a drizzle again, and I got out to cook dinner.  The sun was low, and its rays cut through the throng of clouds in golden shafts, forming a brief rainbow across the lake.  The rain came back before I’d finished cooking, so we ate in the tent.

“Tomorrow you boys will stand on the highest mountain in the continental United States.  Can you believe you’ve come this far?”

They both smiled then Noah said a little wistfully, “I really like being together out here like this.”

“Me too,” Pam said.

“It makes me really not want to die,” Noah added, and his voice was suddenly choked with emotion.  Tears wetted his eyes.

“Oh, honey,” Pam said, hugging him really tightly.

I reached out to touch both of them and smiled at Noah.  I think I knew exactly what he meant.  I related.  Being out here, out in these mountains with my wife and my kids, made me feel more deeply than I had in a long time that I wanted to be alive.  Really wanted it.   I wanted to keep being with these people I cherished, every day, seeing amazing things with them, sharing the simplest of joys and the grandest of challenges.  I wanted to make more time to live like this, to immerse myself in places that were still full of living things and unspoiled landscapes, because being here made me feel more connected, more deeply human, more alive.

We were quiet for a little while then Kai added, “I really wish we could just go down and see Grammy and Papa after Mount Whitney but then turn around and hike back to Yosemite.”

A smile came over me, the kind you can feel from the bottoms of your feet to the top of your scalp, and I hugged him.

“Of course we’d eat some donuts first,” he added quickly.

We laughed out loud and all leaned our bodies against each other.  “I wish we could, buddy.  I wish we could.”

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.