How to Get Back to the John Muir Trail | Chris Tarry


I’m sitting in my bathroom fully clothed, toilet seat down, staring at the wall. I’ve managed to escape the whirlwind of activity in the kitchen; my eighteen-month-old daughter is throwing her food at the cat and I can hear my wife pleading with her to stop. I’ve had my daughter all day – I’m the stay-at-home dad, the guy who mashes the peas and slices the strawberries into bite sized chunks. I can change a diaper in two seconds flat. I am a Sippy Cup master. There’s a picture of my friend Jon and me on the bathroom wall. We’re standing on a snow-covered rock; he’s got one hiking pole raised triumphantly in the air, and I’m doing the same with a mitten-clad fist. Clouds leak out behind us, and we’re holding each other so we don’t fall. We’re both smiling, but you can sense the cold. Jon has his jacket open and the wind is taking the edges of it and exposing the other three layers he has on underneath. I’ve got on a down jacket that looks like the kind of thing worn on Everest. My face is barely visible under a toque, snow goggles, and synched-up hood. I look at this picture every day. It could be on the cover of Outside magazine.

I fancied myself quite the outdoorsman for a while there, before the baby, and the diapers, and the sleepless nights. And when I look at this picture I see a guy I barely recognize: fifteen pounds lighter, muscles on muscles, a well-oiled machine.

Three years ago, loaded down with the best hiking gear money could buy, Jon and I caught a red-eye from New York to Fresno with a connection in Denver. In our backpacks were titanium pots, ultralight tents, carbon fiber hiking poles, foldable Sporks, bear canisters, and toilet paper that dissolved in the woods. We’d weighed everything with a digital scale. Both of our packs weighed a lean thirty-one pounds. We’d had packing conversations like this:

Me: One pair of underwear or two?

Jon: How much does underwear weigh?

Me: .3 ounces.

Jon: One pair should be enough.

We were off to hike the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, one of the most technically challenging hikes in North America. The trail runs from the Yosemite Valley in northern California, to the summit of Mt. Whitney (at 14,505 ft. the tallest peak in the lower forty-eight) in the south. The JMT is two hundred and twenty-one miles, end-to-end. I’d been working out every day for eight months because I knew what was coming. We’d attempted the trail once before, and were returning to finish the job.

A record-setting pace for completing the JMT is about seven days. On our first attempt, we tried for eleven. After cranking out seventy miles in two days, we were already behind schedule when my ankle gave out. I was forced limping from the bush and, Jon, never one to leave his hiking partner behind, decided to see me to safety. We shook hands and promised we’d be back the following year.

And so here we were, a year later, spending the night at a Holiday Inn Express in Fresno. We planned on catching a ride the next morning into the backcountry from a guy named Ricky, a college friend of my wife’s. When I’d called him from New York to arrange the ride, Ricky spent an hour on the phone telling me about his fear of cellphones. We offered him $200 for the lift.

Ricky over the phone: Dude! I would totally have done it for free. I might even come with you!

Me, not sure what to say: Um, okay.

Jon and I were a perfectly matched hiking team. We weren’t particularly close friends; he was the husband of a friend of my wife’s, the type of acquaintance that comes pre-packaged with marriage. We’d become hiking buddies through necessity, two lonely outdoor enthusiasts surrounded by New York City concrete, not a place that bred hikers naturally. Over the course of three summers, we’d summited nearly every peak in the Catskills and completed large sections of the Appalachian Trail, the Long Trail, and all two hundred miles of New York City’s closest state park, Harriman.

Jon worked on Wall Street and I worked as a professional musician. We weren’t what you’d call financial equals. Jon made in a week what I made in two years. He was a nine-to-five man. I was too, but on the PM side. We shouldn’t have worked, but we did. At our peak, we could crank out thirty-five miles of hiking in a single day.

What we lacked in closeness, we made up for in well-matched skill sets. Jon could practically make a spreadsheet predict the future, handy when calculating calorie intakes, gear weight, and precision scheduling. I had years of experience booking tours with disorganized musicians; logistics were second nature to me. I could land a resupply bucket in the middle of a national park with freighting precision.

Jon and I were taking bets on whether Ricky would show, and if he did, whether he’d have a vehicle capable of driving us into Vermillion Valley Resort, the deepest backcountry resort accessible by car in North America. It was where we’d left the trail the year before.

For nearly its entire length the John Muir trail rarely dips below 8,000 feet. At Vermillion Valley Resort, the closest the trail comes to civilization, it pushes 10,000. The road in is a notorious mix of half road and half washed-out cliff faces. Ricky assured me over the phone that his car could make it, and when he pulled up two hours late, we were happy to see it was a Subaru, most likely four-wheel drive. The windows were open and the Grateful Dead was blasting from the car stereo.

Ricky: Hey, Dudes! Wanna grab some nosh before hitting the road?

Jon: How about we stop somewhere along the way?

Ricky: Groovy!

Jon handed Ricky the spreadsheet he’d prepared with our schedule. Ricky looked at it, rolled it around in his hands, turned it over and checked the other side as if searching for the key that might help him decipher it.

Ricky: Are these dates and times?

We wanted to get to Vermillion Valley as early as possible, so we could catch the ferry service (provided by the resort) across Edison Lake. Once there, it was a three-mile grind to the trail junction with the JMT, where we would set up camp and get an early start the next morning.

Ricky: Toss your gear in the back next to mine.

I collected our packs and pulled opened the hatchback. Inside was a burlap rucksack that looked like it had seen action in Nam. Our backpacks looked like Space Shuttle supplies next to Ricky’s.

Me to Ricky: You still planning on coming?

Ricky: Gonna decide when we get up there, Dude. I’m not much of a planner.

If you counted our first attempt, Jon and I had been preparing for this hike for two years, and Ricky was going to decide that day. I had the Parks Service on speed dial, Ricky didn’t own a phone. Jon and I packed personal GPS locators, titanium multi-tools, and a rented satellite phone. During our original conversation, Ricky had told me that titanium made him nervous.

Me to Jon while Ricky walks away and lights up a joint: Who hikes the JMT with no preparation?

Jon: Maybe he’ll smoke enough pot on the way up that he’ll forget he wanted to come.

We stopped for Mexican food outside Shaver Lake, about halfway to Vermillion Valley Resort. During lunch, Ricky filled us in on his life as a water treatment specialist, something Jon and I were surprised sounded so legitimate.

Ricky: I’ve been all through these mountains. I know more about the water ecosystems in this area than just about anyone. This is some good Mexican, you guys buying?

When we had abandoned our attempt at the JMT the previous year, we’d waited three days for a ride from the Vermillion Valley Resort. We knew the rarity of a guy like Ricky, someone with the lifestyle that could accommodate an eight-hour round trip into the backcountry just because. We paid for lunch, filled up his car, and pushed on. We were only halfway up the mountain and we had already dropped two hundred dollars on Ricky’s ride, lunch, and gas.

After another forty miles the road became a mix of single lane gravel and tree roots. Bears darted out in front of the car as Ricky navigated the sliver-thin road. He unrolled the windows and cranked Van Halen.

Ricky: I bet the bears love this!

Me: Are we going the right way?

Jon: Maybe we should check the map.

A delivery truck lumbered down the road toward us, we had to pull over so it could get by. Ricky slid the car to the side of the road and the three of us got out and admired the view.

Jon to all of us: Check out how close the car is to the edge!

Ricky: Whoa, baby. That is close.

Ricky’s wheel was three inches from a vertical drop of a few thousand feet.

Me: A guardrail would be nice.

Ricky: Amen to that, Brother.

When Jon and I had taken this road the year before, it had been early in the morning, before the sun had come out. We’d caught a ride from the resort’s chain-smoking cook, and slept, cramped in the back of a smoke-filled jeep. We had missed the depth of the beauty that was now staring back at us.

Ricky on the beauty: This is why we’re here!

Me: Here now? Or as in alive?

Ricky: Both!

We got back in the car, cranked Van Halen and Ricky leaned on the horn.

Ricky: This is part of the trip you’re going to remember, trust me!

We pulled into the parking lot of the VVR. The trail of dust that had followed us up the mountain swept over the car as we parked. Ricky got out and slapped the hood.

Ricky to the Subaru: Good job, Betsy.

It felt as if we’d been there yesterday. The smell of dry pine needles was everywhere; I could taste them in the back of my throat. It had been a bad year for rain at the VVR. It felt like you could stare at a tree, think the word Fire!, and the whole place would go up. There were groups of hikers sitting at picnic tables, a few of them drinking the one free beer the VVR promised to anyone leaving the trail. Franny and Gibson, two camp dogs I recognized from the year before, were sleeping under a dusty pine tree.

Jon to me: I feel like a VVR veteran.

Me: Those dogs haven’t moved in a year.

Injured hikers had written their names on a chalkboard nailed to the resorts screen door. There were fifteen people waiting for a ride off the mountain. We could see Ricky’s financial wheels turning as he surveyed the list. He placed his name on the “ride” side and hadn’t put down the chalk when ten people hobbled up offering him $200 each for a lift into Fresno.

Ricky to the crowd, hands in the air like Jesus: I’m still not sure I’m going back to town, everyone. I might join my bros here for a few days on the trail. I’ll let you know.

Me to Jon: Dig Ricky negotiating options.

The crowd dispersed and Jon and I went to buy ferry tickets. The next boat across the lake was in an hour, so the three of us bought beers and joined the hikers at the picnic tables.

Trish from Baton Rouge was taking a few days rest at the VVR, investing in a hot shower and a good meal before continuing down the JMT. She had planned on twenty-six days but worried she was already behind schedule. David from Vegas had his leg up on a stump next to the picnic table. He had pulled something coming down Donohue Pass and was eyeing Ricky over the top of his beer. Shelly and Francine were two attractive college girls from Boston, they were hiking the trail as a graduation gift to themselves. Francine had twisted her ankle walking through Red’s Meadow and the two of them had been at the VVR for three days waiting for a ride.

Me to Shelly and Francine: Same thing happened to me last year. You could be stuck in worse places.

Shelly to me: You got that right, this is amazing.

We all sat around and nursed our beers. Jon pulled out a map and started memorizing our route to the trailhead.

Me to Ricky: So, you coming?

Ricky: I think so. Maybe.

He polished off his beer and told the table he was going down to look at the lake, Shelly and Francine stood up and followed him. Jon and I got busy doing a last check of our gear. We hung our packs on a rusty hook attached to a scale and weighed them.

Jon: I wonder if we need rain pants?

Me: Probably not.

We dug into our packs, pulled out .5 ounces worth of rain pants, and dropped them in the Hiker Donation Box.

When the ferry pulled in, there was no sign of Ricky. More injured hikers got off and made their way up the hill toward the resort. Jon and I loaded our gear into the boat and waited. Eventually, I looked toward the lakeshore and spotted Ricky. He was sitting in the sand with Shelly and Francine, all three had beers, and the girls were leaning in real close passing a joint. Ricky spotted us and gave a wave.

Ricky yelling to us: I think I’m gonna stay, Dudes!

Jon to me: Looks like someone found their ride.

We smiled, waved, and hopped into the boat. Four other hikers got in behind us and the ferry pushed off. I looked toward the beach as we pulled away, Ricky was dancing in the sand and singing Van Halen; the girls were clapping along.

When we reached the other side of the lake, Jon and I suited up. The packs were the heaviest they’d be for the entire trip. It would be six days until we reached our next resupply; I’d arranged to have it carried in on horseback. We hiked the three miles to the trail junction and set up camp.

Jon next to the fire: What do you think Ricky’s up to?

Me: Living moment to moment.

The next day, we pushed on. Over Bear Ridge, up Muir pass and beyond, slower this time. It took us thirteen days to finish, if you include the two days from the previous year.

I know I was there. I have the pictures to prove it: Jon and me on the top of Mt. Whitney; my wife, Michelle, hugging me as we walked from the woods reeking like animals; eating burgers and drinking a victory beer in Whitney Portal, the closest town to the end of the trail.

I remember Ricky. I remember the summit of Whitney and climbing into the car Michelle and her parents had driven up from L.A. But I don’t remember much of the hundreds of miles in between. Those memories feel locked in the picture that hangs in my bathroom.

Sometimes I sneak in there even when I don’t have to go. A few minutes to myself from the hectic family life that has all but ended my hiking career. I’ll close the door, sit on the toilet, and stare at the picture. I try to pull memories from the looks on our faces, but what I get are only glimpses. What comes back is Ricky, that feeling of what it might be like to shed responsibility. This is how I get back to the John Muir Trail now, three minutes alone in the bathroom. But that is me standing on top of that mountain. I did that. I found the strength to finish. And then somewhere I’m needed, there’s work to be done, responsibility seeps in under the bathroom door in the form of a two-year-old’s laugh. I stand up, grab hold of the door handle, and fling myself boldly back into the world. Daddy rejuvenated. Daddy stronger than ever.

Chris Tarry is a Canadian writer and musician living in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Literary Review, On Spec, The G.W. Review, PANK, Bull Men’s Fiction, Monkeybicycle, and elsewhere. His first nonfiction piece, “Largo, Lento, Grave,” is forthcoming in the anthology, How To Expect What You’re Not Expecting (Touchwood Editions, fall 2013). In 2011 he was a finalist in Freefall Magazine’s annual prose and poetry competition, and most recently, his story “Here Be Dragons,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Chris is also a four-time Juno Award winner (the Canadian Grammy), and one of New York’s most sought-after bass players.

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