Reconstructing the Trail Home

August 14

Good morning, Moon!

Like so many journals I keep, the last day of the trip never gets written up. We rejoin the busy, urban world, and I don’t have that time to sit and relate the day’s events. So I am just going to have to go by my faulty memory of that day.

Daybreak over the lake.

I recall that the days started fairly early, with beautiful clear skies in the morning and a quiet around the lake. I think most campers were still slumbering by the time we got up and packed. Now that we have decided to hike out a day early and to a different trailhead, we are wondering how we will get to the van, which is still parked (we hope) at White Wolf. We will now be exiting the trail at Yosemite Creek/Ten Lakes trailhead. We could hitchhike, but I have found that, even though all the guide books say that hitchhiking in Yosemite is easy, it has never worked for me. Nobody has ever pulled over, even when I raise my thumb up higher so no decent soul can miss it, to paraphrase Gordon Lightfoot. I am thinking that two bedraggled hikers with backpacks might be even more difficult. So maybe one of us could hitchhike and retrieve the car while the other just waited with the packs. I also recall having fantasies that the van had burned up in a fire while we were out on the trail. The brain gets active.

It was a little difficult at first, finding the right trail, as the overused area around Ten Lakes is braided with trails. But eventually the main trail emerged from the pack.

As we climb out of Ten Lakes Basin, we began to see fingers of smoke encroaching from the east.
Yep. Definitely smoke. But blowing in from somewhere far away.
Down to the left is the deep Tuolumne River canyon. It boggles my mind to imagine the river cutting that deep channel through the ages.

The views start looking like the Great Smokey Mountains, with the mist hanging in the valleys. Only, of course, it’s smoke.

A peek-a-book view of our lake, nestled among the folds of granite.
Hiking out of the basin, feeling good on the last day. That is always the case, it seems.

At Ten Lakes Pass, we entered a broad open expanse of gravelly ground, with beautiful little buckwheats and other flowers growing sparsely throughout the area. It made it difficult to think about stepping off the trail, for fear of crushing something. But we did. We carefully picked our way over to a mixed stand of junipers, spruce, and lodgepole perched on the edge of the pass, set down our packs and just sat there for awhile, soaking up the high mountains, munching dried fruit and nuts and coming to terms with saying goodbye. We could look down into the Tuolumne River valley, and almost trace our entire trek from this vantage point. I didn’t want to leave.

Looking across the valley to Rancheria Mountain (I think).
Awwww…

Then it was back to the trail and the descent to Highway 120. The trail winds down switchbacks through quiet forests, occasionally breaking free of the trees to traverse granite patches of sunshine, with views down towards what I think is Cloud’s Rest, and Tenaya Peak. I really need to get that app that shows the peaks so that I can know what it is I’m looking at!

1,500 feet lower, B and I ran into two women, Kelly and Bren, hiking out to the Ten Lakes trailhead. they were the only other people we saw on the trail today. B is so easy with starting a conversation, and in no time we had a ride to our van all arranged! At some point, I quit taking photos. I remember walking through a big recently-burned area of forest, with blackened spires of trees standing among lush green grasses and brilliant fireweed, and down long granite slopes toward the valley below. The women were an interesting pair, who had decided last-minute to take a little overnight backpacking trip. They both work in or near Yosemite, and had been nearly trapped together in the big Creek Fire of 2020. Their accounts were so harrowing, but since I didn’t write it down, I really think I’ll get it wrong if I try to describe it. One of them had just had to evacuate from her home in Mariposa a few weeks earlier, due to the Oak Fire. They were both dedicated and veteran backpackers, and I asked what areas they most wanted to return to, but alas—I didn’t take notes and can’t remember their responses.

We finally emerged at the parking lot alongside Highway 120, and I sought out the creek for a little cooling bath before we hit the road. It felt great, lazing in the stream, nearly under the highway bridge. And again, the waters made me whole and new-feeling in this old world. 

Just a little smoke peeking over the range. We were incredibly lucky to get the clear air that we got. I’m sure that the next few days were much smokier.

Barbara and I loaded our packs into Kelly’s car and she drove us back to White Wolf, where our still-intact van awaited. It turned out that Kelly is in charge of wilderness rescue curriculum of Nature Bridge in Yosemite, a wonderful organization of which I had previously been unaware. Then it was the long journey home in the afternoon sun, bright in my eyes as I drove down the mountains. Soon, we were within cell phone reach, and the phones started beeping and downloading messages from the last six days. Ugh! Re-entry is so difficult. So abrupt and un-nuanced. Life goes on without us. Every time I see a message, a little jolt of fear runs through me. What cataclysmic event happened when I was out of range? I drove while Barbara checked her phone, and responded to her people, and then she drove while I did the same. Luckily, all is well, it seems, though Tom had a rough time while I was gone. Lots of back pain.

I’m happy to report that my shoes held up well enough for me to have no problems with the hike out. So far, I have ordered three different kinds of shoes to replace my beloved New Balance Minimus trail runners, but have sent them all back for various reasons. I expect my next pair to show up next week. Because of my foot issues, I prefer getting men’s shoes (wider toe box), but no stores stock men’s shoes in small enough sizes for me (not that they are all that small…). It’d be so much easier if I could just go somewhere and try everything on!  Oh, and I need to make sure that I always have a roll of Tenacious Tape in my pack. That stuff is amazing! Tough, lightweight and so sticky. Of course, I imagine that if I have to use it on my shoes, I am leaving a trail of microplastics on the rocks behind me, which will get washed down to the streams and carried to the rivers and end up in the ocean where a blue whale will ingest it as a part of her 95-pounds-a-day of microplastic consumption. It’s hard being a responsible member of the community of Earth. But I’m so thankful I didn’t have to walk out barefoot, or in my campsite Crocs, which would have been really dangerous on the rocks.

The phone shows a nice easy 6.6 miles for today’s hike. We were back home to Berkeley in time for dinner. I want to go again. Thanks for hanging with me as I revisit the hike. Wish I had more photos of the day, but it just didn’t happen.

Wherein I walk my shoes off

August 13

At 9:00 PM last night, I definitely smelled smoke in the air. I know it’s a long ways off, wherever it is, but I got anxious and couldn’t sleep. I lay in my bag plotting escape routes, and figuring how quickly we could get going if need be. Not good for sleeping. Plus, it was cold, and i kept rolling off my Neo Air pad. I guess I erred on the side of too much air last night.

6:00 AM and B and I are up and on the trail by 7:30. I love the mornings. We had been dreading the climb over into Ten Lakes Basin, but it was remarkably easy and short! There were exposed rocky switchbacks, but not for very long. The weather was perfect but for the smoke hanging in the lower elevations. This morning, I can see it down there, but not smell it. We saw a small fire not far from Ten Lakes, but the majority of this smoke is coming from some place much farther away—thankfully.

As we started up the switchbacks, we looked back toward Tuolumne Peak, and up the Cathedral Creek valley
Junipers. What’s not to love?
Today, I am happy and my pack feels light. I am made to walk.
Higher and higher we climb.

Coming up the switchbacks, we passed many beautiful junipers. They are so picturesque! I want to do a portrait of each one.

My favorite portrait of the day.
Looking down into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. Directly across from where Cathedral Creek plunges into the T is our campsite of three days ago.
The iconic shot of the intrepid hiker.
Barbara chose the less-dramatic pose.
At 9,398 feet, we arrived at the first lake in Ten Lakes Basin.
A beautiful morning!
Such clear water!
I think that little blue dot is our destination for the day.
A couple of nice young men took our picture. They were impressed with my age, surprised that I’m not bedridden at 72. Ah, youth!
A day of dreaming at the lake. I can see why it’s such a popular destination.

We got to North Lake and dropped our packs at a beautiful sport, only to be invaded ten minutes later by an REI outing with 14 people. Apparently, this was their chosen lunch spot. We let them have it, and wandered around the lake, lazing in the sun and shade. It was nice talking for a bit to the guides Jeremy and Millie, based out of Richmond, CA. Our neighbors! Jeremy knows my compass class instructor from REI, Banning Lyons. Banning had told me that he was writing a book, when I took the class maybe six years ago. Apparently, he has finally finished it, and has a publisher! His story was an interesting one, and I look forward to reading it in print.

Smoke on the horizon!
At 8,947 feet, our elevation for the night.
I took a photo of Barbara, which ended up being on the back of her new album. Check it out!
Barbara is having her CD release show on December 18, 2022, at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley! Check it out!
Our campsite, on a little spit of rocky land jutting out into the lake. Perfect!

My shoes are falling apart. Large chunks of the sole have just disintegrated and peeled off. This, and the fact that B is still having some pain with her blister, has made us decide to cut our trip a day short and hike out tomorrow. I used all the remaining Tenacious Tape to fasten the soles back on. I hope it works. I had bought this pair of New Balance Minimus trail runners on EBay a couple of weeks ago, because my feet love those shoes, and apparently New Balance has discontinued them. So an online search came up with this pair, at a reasonable price, looking to be in good shape. But I don’t feel too good about my score right now.

Happy update on the shoes: I wrote to the people who sold them to me, and they graciously issued a full refund, even though I said I wasn’t asking for one! So much for shoes that match my gaiters. I am trying out other shoes, but haven’t found a pair that I like yet. I have had troublesome feet, with a very painful Morton’s neuroma and a bunion, and the Minimus shoes have, happily, done away with those issues. Suggestions for replacements are welcome.

There is great swimming in the lake, but way too many people around here. I mean, you can get privacy, but not nearly as much as I would like. Because of our feet, we decided to stay put, though, and not find a more remote lake.

The REI folks fed us their leftover lunch of beautiful goat cheese, fresh snap peas and apples. That was nice of them. It’s rare to get fresh veggies and fruit on a backpacking trip. The flavors just explode in the mouth!

In the evening, the lake was quiet and the sky clear. I lay watching for the occasional shooting star and making wishes. Well, you never know…there might be something to that. Now that we have made the decision to leave tomorrow, I am feeling anxious to get home, to make sure everything is okay. This was a relaxed, slow low-mileage day.

Today was an easy 9 miles, much of it spent just strolling around the lakes and wandering up side trails. I feel good physically, and there is a bounce in my step that wasn’t there on Day 1. I want to be back up in the high country, as we were on occasion the last couple of days. Tomorrow will be one big up and then down, down, down.

The Ups and Downs

August 12

Morning at McGee Lake

Today was a long day, from McGee Lake to the south fork of Cathedral Creek. Lots of up and down, and I felt pretty good all day. But B was suffering from her blistered foot and got very tired. I ended up waiting for her for long stretches of time—long enough that I began to wonder if I should reverse direction and try to find her. We have a rule to always wait at all water crossings and trail signs. And I have done that, but still, there are long waiting periods. And then she shows up, all happy and smiling and ready to push on. Such a trouper!

Up in the granite, my favorite place.
North fork of Cathedral Creek. The water is low, but so clear and cool.
Suddenly, a little patch of mass so green it almost hurt my eyes!
This lookout point was really special. A nearly flat expanse of smooth granite with randomly-spaced boulders scattered across it.
Where we are headed and not headed. The last time I was on this trail was in June 2018. The snow nearly obliterated the signs, and there was nobody else to be seen anywhere—though there were footprints.

We saw an osprey at Glen Aulin fly right over our heads and land on a snag overlooking the T. Saw dippers in the river, lots of stellar jays, a few ravens, woodpeckers, mountain chickadees, juncos and robins. I always think there should be more wildlife than we see, but this is a well-traveled area and maybe they avoid us—except for big fat marmots who want to chew a hole in our packs. Actually, I don’t know where they are around here. Haven’t seen any so far.

I guessed that this is Tuolumne Peak, towering above us, but later on decided I was probably wrong. Maybe not…
The trail at the top of the first pass, over into the valley of the South Fork of Cathedral Creek. We stopped at the saddle for a little while to just enjoy the sunshine and the air.
Looking down on the little pond on the far side of the pass. It has no name.
Looking across at the far side of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. We will be spending the night somewhere at the bottom of the valley. It’s a long ways down…
Slow-motion group dance of the lodgepole pine. They look like they are doing a hula!
We entered into an area of very happy hemlocks, growing all around a lovely green meadow.

I love being up high. We stopped for our midday hot meal in a hemlock grove by a tiny freshet running over the granite. It was a perfect Japanese rock garden, only better.

Yeah…it’s a lousy photo of Barbara. This is our lunch spot.
Celebrating a mother tree, surrounded by her offspring. I am currently reading “Finding the Mother Tree,” by Simone Simard.
Definitely smoke is beginning to blow in. From where?

We camped this evening near an area where Cathedral Creek runs over smooth, sculpted granite. I bathed in a tub-sized pool and sat naked in the sun to dry. It was so free-feeling! I rinsed out my clothes as usual and spread them to dry in a little hemlock tree.

This little lake was the last water until we hit South Cathedral Creek. It’s a tiny gem, nestled right up to the lip of the rock before it spills over into the valley.
…and down the other side we go. Somewhere down there is tonight’s campsite.
I waited for a long time at the point where the trail hits Cathedral Creek, for B to show up. Such a lovely late-season flower garden here.

Late in the afternoon, I saw smoke blowing in—or at least visible. It looked like it might be coming from way over by Sonora Pass, maybe. We are in a valley now, with blue skies everywhere, but I think I can see some smoke to the north. I can’t smell it, though.

The creek runs over smooth granite with lots of little bathtub-sized pools. The smooth stone on my bare feet is such a tactilely rich experience.

I love the walking up and down, through the various biomes. We are now in lodgepole and hemlock. Yesterday, we passed a Jeffrey pine that made the air smell so delicious—butterscotch, vanilla, maple syrup. I stopped to put my nose to a crevice in the plates of bark, and just breathed it in. Glorious!

More people on the trail today—short hikers from Tenaya or May Lakes, going to Glen Aulin. But after the May Lake turnoff, there has been nobody. No, not exactly right: there was a group led by a Teva-sandaled woman guide, one young man from Oakland and a lone Aussie woman.

Much of every day up here—hours on end—is spent alone, with just my thoughts and emotions. I spend a lot of the time just trying to register, take in and retain the beauty all around me. Sometimes it is overwhelming, and I start to cry. All my emotions seem to be just under the skin, and the skin is so easily torn, like a delicate covering of tissue paper. Waves of sorrow wash over and around me in the midst of all this space. There is the intense depth of the drought, the fact of Tom’s physical decline, the worry over everything in the World, the guilt and fear of being away from home if something were to happen. And then the wave is past and I am again floating in the Beauty, grateful for what is here around me.

Our campsite for the night is in a large clearing among sparsely-placed lodgepole and little hemlocks. There is an “improved” campfire ring, surrounded by wooden benches and tree-stump seats. But it looks sort-of like a ghost camp. Where are all the people? This is a relatively untraveled area connecting two of Yosemite’s popular hiking destinations. Yet we see nobody on the trail, which winds along on the far side of the creek from us. Out on the rocky slope below our camp, you can catch glimpses into the Grand Canyon f the Tuolumne, and trace our path.

My phone shows 11.3 miles today. There were precious few places to camp on this stretch where water is available. I guess that’s why people avoid it. It’s a long pull. But so beautiful! My favorite part of the trip so far.

Most definitely smoke! I started smelling it at around 9:00 at night, and I stayed awake for hours plotting escape routes, just in case.

Definitely Not Too Old! I am Reborn

August 11

A really good night’s sleep last night! I immediately noticed that I was stepping more lightly and surely on the rounded stones, going down to the river this morning. 

Packing up in the early morning light. Such a good night’s sleep!

We woke at 6:00, and were packed and on the trail by 7:30, stopping to talk to our neighbors–the same couple who have gravitated to each of our campsites. They are lovely 30/31-year-olds, really into vacationing with backpacks in beautiful places. They hadn’t noticed the grinding holes or rock-lined storage places, but now maybe they will know to look and start seeing the history around them.

A little too early in the day and too shady for me to think about swimming, but the pools are just gorgeous!
There are some mighty fine trees along the river!

B’s foot feels a little better today. We doctored it with moleskin, kept in place with Tenacious Tape. Man, that stuff is sticky!

We swam, or at least submerged ourselves three times today. All beautiful spots. Now that we are closer to Glen Aulin and the famous series of waterfalls, we are seeing more people on the trail, including some larger groups of 4-6 people.

Crossing Return Creek on a very civilized bridge.
There has been so much work put into creating and maintaining this “trail.” It’s really a walk in the park.
Ewe approach the first of the famous falls.
Looking back the way we came.

The waterfalls are spectacular, even with so little water in the river. Waterwheel Falls is less than overwhelming at this flow, but still throws out a mighty hump of water.

Waterwheel Falls
B takes a break at LeConte Falls. I recently finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The High Sierra: A Love Story,” wherein he advocates for the renaming of many of the Sierra places. This fall would be a good candidate for a name change.
Sometimes, the woods are so thick and green and the water so placid, that if it weren’t for the towering cliffs, we could be in the north woods of Wisconsin.
All day long, we leapfrogged the young couple who took “our” campsites, as either they or we would stop to swim or just take in the sights. We caught up with them in the broad meadow above California Falls, and exchanged photo-taking.
All day long, I found myself musing on the quantity of mules and dynamite it must have taken to make this trail. Everywhere I looked, there were the signs of blasts in the granite, like this one. It makes it ever so easy to stroll through the park. Too easy.
Our last swimming stop of the day, just below Glen Aulin. B was watching the fish exfoliate her legs. No comment.
Looking up from the swimming hole.

We arrived at Glen Aulin in the afternoon and rested there for a bit. We had been considering hiking out from there to Tuolumne Meadows because of B’s foot, but she has decided that we should go up to McGee Lake and reassess tomorrow.

Glen Aulin and the popular pool below White Cascade. Too many people for me
Looking west from the bridge across the Tuolumne in Glen Aulin. As we were standing there, an osprey flew overhead and landed on the top of the dead tree on river left, barely visible. I considered blowing up this photo so you could see it, but it’s a nicer picture this way. You will just have to imagine that it’s there.

After we passed one couple hiking from May Lake, there was nobody on the trail from Glen Aulin up to McGee Lake, and we have the place to ourselves. The lodgepole woods are so very quiet. Not a soul nearby. Ahhh! We walked to the shore of McGee Lake, a good-sized body of water surrounded by trees, with views north to Cold Mountain and over toward Ragged Peak. I had visited Ragged Peak in probably 1969. Haven’t been back since. On that trip, my boyfriend Charles and I took our dog, Noah, off-leash the whole way, which is of course a no-no in Yosemite. But we were free-range hippies and didn’t pay much attention to rules back then. Now, I would probably be pretty unhappy with my younger self if I met her and her dog on the trail. Though I would probably still like that dog a lot…

This stub-tailed lizard was hanging out at our campsite. It didn’t seem particularly distressed that we were there, but maybe it was still in shock from losing part of its tail.
A well-established campsite, with all the amenities, just a little ways off the trail and completely private. At the far end of McGee Lake.

We ate an early dinner, and now it’s 7:00 PM and B is already in her tent. I just went to mine to avoid the mosquitos, which just started coming out.

McGee Lake.

Tonight there is a full moon, and the cold light turns the granite to molten silver. It’s otherworldly out here. I watch the moon arc across the sky through the trees.

Today, we covered 9.8 miles. Pretty-much all uphill. We are back up to 8100 feet elevation. I am happily tired, glad to be where I am right here, right now. Good night.

I really need to get some new long underwear! I think these may have made their last trip. Silk doesn’t stand up to wear and tear very well, but is just so comfy for sleeping.

Am I Too Old For This?

August 10

My brother Brian’s birthday! I, of course, forgot to send him a message before I left, and now there’s no way to call. But I am celebrating his birth anyway.

It was a long night. I haven’t figured out my new pad. It’s very narrow, and if it’s too full, it bucks me off. So last night I erred in the direction of too little air. Tonight, I’m going to get it perfect. I hope. It has shaved a number of ounces off my base weight and created more room in my pack, and I do want to love it. I woke—or rather, decided to finally get up—at 6:00 AM. I puttered around camp and visited the river nearby to watch the sun expand over the valley. Beautiful. 

A tree skeleton, among the living. Morning light on the river.
How many years does it take the sculptor to come up with this work of art?
Golden in the sun, gray in the shade.
I’m in love with light on water.
Except for the reflection, you wouldn’t know there is water covering the rocks. It’s so crystalline.
The river is so low, this late in the summer and in this year of terrible drought. But nothing is more beautiful.
“Just like a tree that’s standing by the water, we shall not be moved”

B is tired today. Me, too, but I am also invigorated just being up here. Lack of sleep doesn’t seem like that much of a problem once I’m up and moving around. Poor Barbara has a blister on the bottom of the ball of her foot, which is very painful. We treated it: drained it and applied antibiotics and moleskin, but today it’s back. She waited too long. We discussed hiking out from Glen Aulin, if it is continuing to cause her pain. I’m okay with that. We need to do what we have to do to take care of each other.

Packing up our campsite, day 2.
I relished the shade in the early part of the hike, walking under the overarching oaks.
The Tuolumne flows over smooth granite stone, dropping into pools that are sometimes impossible to just walk past.

It was a long hot walk today. We only saw three people and two rattlesnakes on the trail all day. The climb up over the Muir Gorge cutoff nearly killed my spirit, and I wondered why I do this. For fun?? And maybe I’m too old. I guess I need to hike easier trails in cooler weather—but not too cool.

Can you see it? The rattler wouldn’t hold still for a portrait, so all I got was the receding tail. I’m not quick enough with the camera.

We stopped and swam twice in the Tuolumne, and it was fantastic! The water is cold and bracing, and so refreshing. Every time, it makes all the negative thoughts and tiredness just flee my mind.

The holy waters make me whole. I am filled with gratitude to be right where I am.
It’s hard to imagine the eons of moving water and ice involved in the making of this canyon.
A small bear skull greeted us at Rodgers Creek.
I apologize if these photos are a bit grizzly. Actually, they are black bear. I found it fascinating.
And finally, I turned my attention to what was just behind me, on the other side of the trail! Rodgers Creek is one of the few water sources entering the canyon from the north.
Looking back down the canyon, climbing up the Muir Gorge cutoff.
And up towards the gorge.
A long hot walk in beauty. We finally hit the river again.

We finally made it to our chosen campsite, a nice oak-shaded flat shelf above the river, not far from a lovely swimming hole, only to find that the couple who were at “our” campsite last night beat us to it again! They complimented us on our taste in campsites. There’s room down on the second level for a couple of little tents, so we are staying here.

On one of my many tours of Germany, I recall looking at the Rhine, near the headwaters, and painstakingly creating a sentence in my limited German. Das Wasser is vie flussige jade. Right here, right now, in this late afternoon light, that is what the Tuolumne looks like. Liquid jade.

We swam, rinsed and hung out our sweaty, dusty shirts, pants, socks, sun gloves, gaiters, and underwear, ate our dinner (I didn’t write anything about it and now can’t remember if it was good, bad, or indifferent) by the river perched on perfect chair-shaped rocks and watched a dipper hopping upstream. We are almost directly across from where Cathedral Creek runs into the Tuolumne. You can look across and up at about three waterfalls.

Looking across at Cathedral Creek.
The view from our dinner spot. Not bad!

Today was a 9-mile day, pretty-much all uphill, except for the mile or so coming back down to the river from the top of the Muir Gorge cutoff.

2022 Visits to the High Country

It has been a long time since I have written anything in my High Sierra Rambles blog. Some of that time, of course, could be attributed to winter, when I generally avoid the mountains. I am not a snow person, having gotten a rough start at snow camping and snowshoeing on a high school trip to the Donner Pass area. It involved getting the flu and shivering for two days in a wet sleeping bag, which led to a mild case of frostbite which affected my toes for a few decades. But enough about that. I like the look and the smell of snow, and I love that it is what makes California stay as green as it does late into the season in the high country. But another thing that has been keeping me from writing is that so often when I am in the mountains, I am thinking of home these days, and worrying that I am not there. As some of you readers may be aware, my long-time partner in music and life, Tom Rozum, is dealing with Parkinson’s. It has already taken away his ability to play music, and much of his joy. Now it has progressed to the point where it is not easy to get around or do simple things like dress himself. Left to his own devices, it can take five minutes or more to get his shirt on. If I assist, it takes a few seconds. This is help I willingly give. But it means that I am not as free as I once was to go off on a ramble. So each trip feels even more precious and important than the last, knowing that I may not be able to do this much longer. And at 72, I am thankfully still strong and supple and can still glory in the uphill struggle posed by a faint, rocky trail. But for how much longer? Who can say? I never take the granite for granted.

I wanted to finally let all of this out of my heart a bit, in order to be able to write my blog more freely and openly. I hope that you, dear companion, don’t feel overly-burdened by what is making me feel a little lighter. And so with this as a backdrop, here is a little tale of a hike that Barbara Higbie and I took in August in Yosemite National Park.

August 8, 2022

Barbara and I got together to gather our equipment at my house at about 2:30 in the afternoon. About an hour later, we were riding the first wave of rush hour traffic out east: 580, 205, 5, 120, 99, 120. The highway numbers are so familiar to me that I don’t really think them anymore. I just point the van and go. 

At 6:00, we found ourselves in Groveland, sharing a combination plate and a beer each at Cucina Michoacana. Then it was back on the road to our camping site off of Cherry Lake Road. It’s a handy place, quiet and lonesome, up a dirt road to the top of a hill. The sunset was beautiful and quiet, except for the crickets chirping incessantly almost all night long. I woke many times to watch the gibbous, nearly-full moon cross the sky, and to watch the stars in their slow procession. The sky was clear, and the night was warm. We had been so afraid of fires canceling our trip, but so far, it looks gorgeous.

Well, yes, it’s “soft focus,” but it’s all I have…

August 9, 2022

Morning came early, at 5:30 for me. I woke B up at 6:00 and we packed up and drove to Camp Mather for breakfast and coffee at the Evergreen Lodge. For so many years, I made the pilgrimage up here to the Strawberry Music Festival, and I love seeing the little cabins, the dusty grounds, and tall pines under which so much great music was made and enjoyed. And there are so many memories tied to that place—ranging from ecstatic joy to deep heartbreak, and everything in between, from probably 1982 until the Rim Fire of 2013 caused the festival to have to change locations. Generations of kids raised at the festival now have families of their own. Barbara and I lingered, taking advantage of the wifi to check email for the last time and to just savor the place. Then it was on to Big Oak Flat, where we stopped to claim our permit. The ranger was so beautiful, clear-eyed, and fit that I think I momentarily fell in love. She told us we could change our permit to start at White Wolf, instead of hiking in at Lukens Lake, to hike the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne and then circle back on the south side up into Ten Lakes Basin. This meant that we didn’t have to hike as fast or as far, since the Lukens Lake trailhead required us to backtrack for the first day.

At White Wolf, about to start our downward journey. The campground here is closed, and has been since the start of the pandemic. Eerily quiet.
We hiked through an old burn, and the little seedlings looked so happy!
At the lip of the canyon, looking west toward Hetch Hetchy. Now it’s down, down, down.
The intrepid Barbara Higbie. Behind her is one of the three hikers we saw on this trail that day.
It never fails to amaze me how these trees grow out of a tiny crack in solid granite!

B and I had hiked up the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne before, circling down into it from the north, and we had been so enamored of the Pate Valley area and the river itself, that we wanted to visit it again. The hike from White Wolf into Pate Valley is a long, long downhill, and it was hot and dry! We each, at separate times, hit a little wall of exhaustion. When the trail leveled out alongside the river, the tiredness caught up to me, and I had to drop my pack and stretch out my waffle pad to rest for awhile. We were right above what looked to be a good swimming hole, but I couldn’t muster the energy to scramble down the steep bank to allow the water to invigorate me again. I just lay there, looking up at the cedar and lodgepole pine surrounding me, waiting for the urge to move to re-enter my body.

We stopped for lunch and a rest where Morrison Creek meets the trail. The next couple miles, we had the creek beside us, plunging steeply down to the valley floor.
Suddenly, I was stopped in my tracks by a message! And yeah…I know you are admiring my beautiful orange shoes that match my Dirty Girl gaiters. Above the gaiters, my legs are filthy with trail dust. Probably works better than sun screen to block the sun’s rays.
Pate Valley far below, our destination for the day.
Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. I would love to see that dam removed. Surely there’s a better way to save water and get electricity!

Today, the trail crew—the CCC—were working on the steep trail from White Wolf. Hard, good work. As I came upon the first of them, he said, “You are the first person to ever set foot on this step,” pointing to his handiwork under my descending shoe. By the end of the season, who knows how many other feet will have stepped there?

All the way down the White Wolf trail, we saw only one group of three people: a father and his son and daughter. They had huge packs and the dad didn’t look like he was going to make it. We passed them, and never saw them again. I spent a little bit of my energy worrying about them. When we got the Pate Valley, we could see a number of tents in the main campground, and passed the sprawling CCC camp just at dinnertime. The smells made me suddenly very hungry.

Finally! Relatively flat walking. I love how the wood and stone, lichen, leaves and moss blend together.
And at last! The Tuolumne River flows below us. Even in my tired state, the sight is exhilarating—slightly, anyway…

B thought that she had a little pebble in her shoe. She ignored it all day long, and it became a very painful blister, which dogged her for the rest of the trip. But then finally there we were, at our swimming hole by the grinding rock. The big slab of granite has at least 20 mortar holes. An overhanging bench sported a row of pestles, ready for the people to come along and put them to use. Someone had added to the pestles we had lined up in 2020, and some of the stones were of questionable shapes to be really useful, but it proved that we weren’t the only people to have discovered this hidden gem of a spot. A swim in the water made me new again, and all the tiredness and frustration of the long downhill slog floated off of me like so much trail dust.

The swimming hole and grinding rock, just off the main trail, but not often visited. I’ve never seen anyone else there.
Ah! those dirty legs are about to come clean again!
B stops to take off her shoes. You can see some of the many mortar holes scattered on the rock.

Tramping down the trail, I was imagining the gatherings that must have taken place in Pate Valley, with Miwok, Paiute, and Mono people from both sides of the Sierra converging here for late summer harvest. I was wondering if they used this steep trail, and then I realized that of course they wouldn’t. They would have been camped all the way up the Hetch Hetchy Valley, fishing for salmon, gathering acorns and seeds, drying the fish on racks in the meadows, trading fish and acorns for obsidian from the eastern side of the mountains. No need to take this steep trail when you could saunter up through the valley. Off to the west, we caught glimpses of Hetch Hetchy, now a big reservoir with a wide bathtub ring in the near-white granite. So much has been lost here. But if the dam were removed, I think that the valley would begin to regrow in no time. That would be a sight to see!

Pestles lined up under the rock overhang, ready and waiting for the people to return.

We headed for our campsite of 2020, in a clearing near the Tuolumne, tucked away behind a barrier of young pines growing close together. We left the main trail on a little footpath and wound our way past the remains of stone-lined storage pits and threading our way through the pines to the campsite, only to find it occupied! But we found a nice place a little farther upriver. It was all good. This is, after all, in Yosemite National Park, and we are bound to see other folks on these well-trodden trails.

We ate, washed out our sweaty clothes and cleaned our filthy feet. There’s a lot of fine dust on that White Wolf trail. We doctored Barbara’s blister, and then it was time for early bed.

Elevation at White Wolf: 7875 feet

elevation at Pate Valley: 4380 feet

Miles traveled: 11.8 (longer than I’d like on the first day out)

So many times today, and every day spent in the Sierra, I see things I would love to share with Tom. I regret that we never backpacked together. He would love it here.

Day 6, August 31, 2021

Farewell to the San Joaquin. I have had Jim Ringer’s masterpiece song, “Tramps and Hawkers,” stuck in my head all week as we crossed and recrossed this river.
Tome Rozum sings so beautifully!

We got up early today, around 6:00, and packed up so that we would have time for one last soak in the hot springs before we had to leave to catch the ferry at Florence Lake. This morning, our favorite soaking pool was already occupied by four young through-hikers by the time we got there. But they were about ready to leave, and invited us to join them, which we did. It’s fun hearing the stories of the trail. Some seem born to ramble, and some are definitely being dragged along. One couple had met on a backpacking trip led by the father of one of them, and I think they are in it for life. The other two met on the trail, and were just teamed up for the duration of the trek. A fiercely independent young woman who liked having a man around the house, just in case…

The forest floor
I love the junipers so much, I hate to say good-bye to them.

The dusty miles back to the ferry dock are starting to look very familiar to me, as I have hiked them six times now, I think. We met one of the Muir Trail Ranch crew returning on horseback, leading a mule carrying supplies back to the ranch. We stopped and chatted for awhile. I was very curious about how one makes reservations there these days, and whether they could arrange for a less-able-bodied person to ride in on horseback. The answer to the latter was yes, they do that all the time. The answer to the former was that the ranch is generally rented out to groups, and if you know a group, there are often accommodations available for one or two people extra within that group. I would love to come back with my partner, who would be hard-pressed to do the hike at this point. So if anyone reading this knows of a group that is making or has made reservations for 2022, I’d love to hear if there’s room to be included to piggyback on their stay. The other thing I thought about was actually forming a group and reserving the whole place for a week. Expensive, but idyllic. It would be a great place to have a music gathering! But of course I would need the more affluent to help sponsor the less affluent. That could work.

We walked through the dry meadows. I’d love to see what the view is like from the needle up on the hill!
We hate to say goodbye…
Modern art installation, courtesy of Ma Nature.

By the time we got to the ferry dock, we were hot and dusty, and took advantage of the free half hour or so to swim in the lake. How wonderful that felt! At first, it seemed too cold, and then after a few minutes I didn’t want to get out. The shallows over the smooth granite were almost warm. My skin felt completely alive.

Severely-depleted Florence Lake. We are still quite a ways from the shore, and you can clearly see the old waterline on the boulder in the foreground.

The ferry operator told us that as of midnight tonight, all national forests would be closed. Nobody can enter, so that firefighters and other personnel don’t have to worry about any more people who might need to get rescued from potential fires—or who might start them. There was one more hiker on the ferry with us, who was going to the Florence Lake store to meet a friend who was supposed to drive up from SF with his resupply, and join him on the trail for a week. The friend hadn’t arrived yet, and I overheard from a phone conversation that he hadn’t yet left SF. He HAD to get there by midnight, or the hiker wouldn’t get his supplies and his friend couldn’t join him. As it was, if they missed the last ferry of the day, they would have to hike around the lake, since after today there would be no more ferry service. I hope they managed to get together!

Looking back at the mountains.

The woman running the Florence Lake store (who was also the ferry operator) told us that she had to, on very short notice, close the store down for the season tomorrow. That meant shutting off the electricity, which meant that all of the frozen foods left behind would have to be thrown out. She gave us It’s It ice cream sandwiches (“a San Francisco tradition since 1928”), and offered us more. If only we had had a cooler! I discovered It’s Its when I was in my 20’s, and for years they were my very favorite treat. I don’t eat that stuff much anymore, and hadn’t had one in decades. It was sooooo delicious! Margaret and I were in post-hike ice cream heaven. Plus, the store dog was a real pleasure to hang out with. I wish I had taken some pictures of him. He never begged for food or even asked for attention. But he accepted pets, seemed to enjoy the company, and regarded me with deep soulful eyes.

Here’s what the ferry ride was like.

Margaret expertly drove the slow Kaiser Pass road out to the highway, and then we were zipping back down the mountains and foothills into the smoke-choked San Joaquin Valley. It feels good to be back home, with ocean breezes protecting us from the drifting smoke, but oh, how I miss being at 10,000 feet. Here’s hoping for a big snowpack leading to a late season in 2022. I’m planning the next excursion already. Thank you for sharing the trail with us!

Day 5, August 30, 2021

My phone says we have hiked 10 miles. The map says we have hiked 7. Hmmm…I choose to believe my phone.

Our dusty camp near the first San Joaquin bridge
The view from the bridge, as we start off in the morning.

We are at Blaney Hot Springs, across the San Joaquin from Muir Trail Ranch. For some reason, all the other backpackers are on the other side of the river, which is great for us. We have a spacious, beautiful campsite to ourselves, with nobody else anywhere nearby, a short walk from the springs. We sat for a long time in the hot springs and soaked. I have felt a little beat up, with my Morton’s neuroma making itself felt. Yesterday I dug a sliver out of the bottom of the dame foot—a remnant of the Grand Canyon raft trip last March. I stepped on a sharp shard of something or other on the first night of the 21-day trip. At the time, I got most of it out, but a little bit remained. It finally worked its way to the surface of my foot, five months later.

Our nicely-appointed campsite near Blaney Hot Springs

This morning’s hike was pleasant, but my knee was hurting and I was feeling sad about coming out of the high country. The outside world’s worries were starting to weigh on me again. We haven’t seen much wildlife on this trip. A doe, her two fawns from this year and her yearling daughter, and a fine buck. Chickarees, ground squirrels, chipmunks, jays, dippers, juncos, Clark’s nutcrackers, a few hawks, a marmot or two. It’s a quiet time of year and a fairly busy trail.

Another bridge, another view, early morning on the trail.

Today, at the Piute Creek bridge, we met Vanya. She is from Bulgaria, came to the US as a teenager, was homeless for awhile, and is now a cardiac surgery nurse. She has brought over her parents—for whom she is the primary caregiver—and several cousins who are all doing well. She was maybe in her late 40’s (it’s harder and harder for me to tell anyone’s age), warm and bubbly, full of energy. I asked if she sang any Bulgarian songs. She was surprised that anyone would ask her that, and with lots of apologies about not being much of a singer, she launched into a song, full of the Eastern ornamentation and the bold, committed vocal style. It was great!

This particular hot spring pool is perfect! Shoulder-deep, clean, and a just-right temperature.
Ahhhhh…we had this little pool to ourselves today.
The view from our pool. Not bad.

So dry! My skin is flaking away. The sky remains thankfully deep blue and smoke-free. At this lower elevation, we are surrounded by aspen and pine.

A short walk through the meadow the trail led us to a perfect little lake, just right for a dip after the hot springs.
Another view of the little lake.

I highly recommend Fernweh mushroom pot pie backpacking meals. They are really good. Well, I take one meal, open it up and add various other ingredients: home-dehydrated spinach, kale, kashi, and parmesan, and potato flakes. Then I extend it to two meals. Margaret brought delicious chicken broth, and my dehydrated miso is great, too. We are eating really well on this trip.

My knee kept me awake last night, even with three ibuprofen. The hot springs are helping a lot!

Margaret and I stopped to weigh our packs and get rid of a little garbage at the Muir Trail Ranch backpacker station. I haven’t been here since they moved it over from the main ranch yard. Makes more sense for the ranch to have it removed, but I liked being near the horses and snooping around the grounds (exactly why they moved it!). My pack weighs 20 pounds, after I removed about a pound of detritus picked up along the trail, including some wrecked footwear. Nice to be rid of it. I go into the wilderness and gather lost soles—my own personal Savior Complex.

The new backpackers’ station at Muir Trail Ranch. Not nearly as interesting as the old station. There’s a little store where you can purchase necessities, and through-hikers can mail their resupply buckets here. People were under the pop-up tents with the contents of their packs spread out on the tables and benches, sorting and repacking. There are some buckets on the porch with food and other supplies that people left behind, and anyone is welcome to take what they want. I still have two pair of then-new socks that someone left behind in 2014.
We lingered on the banks of the San Joaquin, cleaning up and basking in the changing light.

1:58 AM Sleep is hard to come by, but I don’t really mind. The stars are brilliant and the night is still. The river is murmuring in its rocky bed in the distance. This is the most comfortable I’ve felt in my tent. Must be the lower altitude, the flatness, the cool air, and time spent soaking in the hot springs. Such a beautiful unexpected spot. Just took three more ibuprofen and am hoping that they will lull me back to sleep soon.

Crescent moon is just coming up among the trees. I heard the owl far off as I drifted to sleep earlier. It could be one of the same ones we heard on our first night. We are not far downstream from there. Good night.

Day 4, August 29, 2021

Early morning on Evolution Lake
Sun just hits the escarpment towering above us.
Beside the tree to the right is our open-floor-plan kitchen. I hear my cup of tea calling.

Margaret and I enjoyed a beautiful, relaxed morning at Evolution Lake. We walked over to the outflow overlook again, just to admire the view. There was more smoke in the valley this morning, but we were blessed with clear skies. We broke camp and shouldered our packs at about 9:00 AM. I suggested that we drop our packs at the faint trail to Darwin Bench and go have a look-see. Margaret was all for it.

A little later.
Ta-da!
Looking west in the morning, we could see a layer of smoke lying heavy in the San Joaquin Valley.
One of the many creeks flowing from the Darwin Bench. More dippers! I really wish they were still called water ouzels.

It was so beautiful up there. You have to look pretty carefully to find the path at times, especially because everything is calling so loudly for you to come take a look. It’s easy to wander off the trail. Fields of Spring wildflowers were still in bloom, even this late in the season—lupines, mostly—and streams were flowing everywhere. It put me in mind of John Muir writing about the Sierra. He often referred to the mountains as fountains, because of how the water sprang from them. Even in this dry, dry season of a dry, dry year, there is water flowing. Good thing, since it is the drinking fountain for most of California.

The little path through a garden of lupine beside the singing creek led us onward and upward.
Looking back down the trail.

We spent a couple of hours enjoying the place, and almost talked ourselves into a swim in the frigid lakes. If the wind hadn’t been blowing, I believe we both would have immersed ourselves completely. If Barbara Higbie had been there, she would have done it! And then I would have to rise to the challenge. Lucky for me, she wasn’t there As it was, I settled for some good splashing and then lying in the sun for a bit.

Brrrrr!
There is something about being above 10,000 feet that just makes you want to keep climbing upward. I guess the light-headedness is intoxicating.
We caught this marmot by surprise, and it hunkered down and stayed still, hoping we wouldn’t see it.
It was refreshing to meet a marmot who was unaccustomed to handouts from humans, and didn’t boldly come begging!
We watched each other for a long time.
Looking at the backside of the ridge that ran along the east side of Evolution Lake. One of those peaks is Mt. Mendel.

After a bit, we walked back down and retrieved our packs. We hadn’t seen a human anywhere, since we turned off on the Darwin Bench trail. No evidence of camps, either. Margaret suggested that we camp near Evolution Creek, just above the steep set of switchbacks. I didn’t recall seeing any campsites around there, but it was such a beautiful spot, and I readily agreed to the plan.

Farewell to the High Country

We went, but there were no campsites anywhere, search though we did on both sides of the creek. So we ended up hiking all the way down to the San Joaquin, where we have set up camp before the first bridge. There’s lots of space and nice sites, but it all seems beaten-down, dusty and dirty, after our time on the granite slabs above. I hate to leave the high country, but this has been a very good visit. I am still feeling the lack of conditioning, and though I am grateful for what I have, I miss the 69-year-old me!

Lunch break on the trail. I harvested my neighbor’s orange tree, and dehydrated the slices. It’s an amazing burst of flavor! And so pretty!
McClure Meadow again.
We met this intrepid and very well-dressed hiker today.
Of course, she was in the National Park, where dogs are prohibited, but I think it’s questionable that she really even qualifies as a canine.

We hiked 12.2 miles today. More than I would have ideally wanted, but every step was so, so worth it! Tomorrow, we soak in the hot springs.

Day 3, August 28, 2021

I realized, in looking over yesterday’s entry, that I didn’t do much to describe the trail we have been on so far. Except for the first 4.5 miles, it is all part of the John Muir Trail, so not the most remote stretch you could find, by a long shot. But the majority of backpackers are going the same direction as us, north-to-south, or as the through-hikers say, “SoBo” (as opposed to NoBo). Still, we walk for hours on end without seeing anyone else. The first 4.5 miles of the trail are heavily trafficked by horses and four-wheel-drive trucks, bringing supplies into and out of Muir Trail Ranch. Then there’s about a mile of dusty trail before backpackers can even think about making camp. The first campsites we saw are lovely, shaded, flat, and near the river. But also, they were all taken when we arrived sometime around 5:30. A short walk away, through a narrow defile between granite ridges, we found a level, shaded campsite alongside the river, and didn’t see another human until we hit the trail the next day. Then, yesterday, we walked along a well-worn trail that ran about a quarter mile away from the banks of the San Joaquin until we came to the bridge across Piute Creek, at the junction with the Piute Pass trail. There is a beautiful swimming hole right there at the bridge, and of course we took advantage of the chance to cool off before continuing. From Piute Creek, the very rocky trail runs just above the steep banks of the San Joaquin, until it levels out and moves on into quiet spruce, fir, and pine forests. We crossed the river twice (on bridges), before we came to the Big Climb. The trail climbs with many switchbacks from about 8500 feet to 9200 feet, in the space of about a half mile. Then you come out at the mouth of Evolution Valley, and smooth sailing. That gets us to last night’s campsite, along the creek in the quiet woods.

The view from my tent in the morning.
Home, sweet home!

Today, we walked through McClure Meadow, which is a beautiful open park, with a meandering stream that flows slowly through the now-dry mostly-golden grasses. We stopped to talk with the ferry guys along the way, and met a young man from Santa Barbara who is a musician. I said I used to know quite a few musicians in that area, but they were mostly retired or moved away by now. But the first person he mentioned was Vince Semonsen, a friend and former river guide on the Tuolumne and Rogue rivers. Small world!

Skunk cabbage or Camas lilly? Of course, I was wrong…
Evolution Creek winds through McClure Meadow
A little higher up is Colby Meadow. I don’t know where one ends and the other begins.
Someone lost a shoe!
I think this might be a fossilized land shark.

It was a long day today. The climb out of Evolution Valley to Evolution Lake just about killed me! It was a slow slog through beauty, and I felt every muscle on every step. I remember it being kind-of tough in 2014, but nothing like this. But I also noticed that when I would rest, or be overtaken by young, hale backpackers, I only needed to casually mention my age to be called “bad ass.” It does the spirit good! Everyone out here is younger than me. I reminded myself of my former neighbor, Mrs. Sephus, who would start almost every conversation with “I’m 70-something years old. Of course, my husband, he’s younger than me. I walk downtown every day to the Blue and Gold Market.” To which my 20-something self could only reply, “You’re an inspiration!” It’s been a hard year for me to try and stay in shape, what with the knee injury, vein surgery, and carrying around all this worry about my family, and my voice issues. I am getting in touch with the fact that I am just plain exhausted. But I am so, so thankful to be here. Te weather is clear and dry. No smoke today at all.

Young backpackers I met along the trail.
I recall that two of them were Margaritaville and Rascal, but I can’t remember the third one’s trail name, I’m sorry to say.

On the trail up to the lake, I stopped at a nondescript spot to take a little break, and said hello to a young man coming down the trail. He said I was close to the top now, and continued on his way. I watched him go down another couple of switchbacks, stop, and then turn around and come back up. He said he had missed the very faint turnoff to the Darwin Shelf, which happened to be right where I was sitting. He said he was camped up there, that it was beautiful, and was taking day hikes from there. He said that today, he had climbed up to the razor-thin ridge leading to Darwin Peak, and decided it was just too foolhardy to do on his own. Smart young fellow. I filed that information away, and continued the climb.

Evolution Lake, Darwin Peak and the ridge up to Mt Mendel
Home, sweet home, again!

Evolution Lake is beautiful! There is a broad open flatfish smooth granite bench along the bank, and that’s where we made our camp. We had to share it with three other people, but that was okay. I took a walk over to the outlet, where the creek plunges over a lip and down into the far reaches of the valley below. It was a perfect place to enjoy the sunset, and watch the fish jumping like crazy for some recent hatch, while the bats swooped above. Many of the fish flashed red in the low sun, and though I am woefully ignorant, I would guess they were cutthroat trout—and I’d probably be right.

Looking back from whence we came. That little comma of a meadow at the far end of the valley is where we were this morning, I think.
I had to resist getting sucked into this vortex!
Looking back at Evolution Lake, as the sun began to sink low.
The lip of the lake, looking down to the “secret park” at the top of Evolution Valley. I want to go there next time!
No place I’d rather be.
Ahhhhh…

The alpenglow was spectacular.

Immense jagged ridges hem in the lake

Because I hadn’t slept much the last couple of nights, I accepted the offer of an Ambien, a drug I had never tried before. I slept like the proverbial dead for four hours, and then staggered out of my tent to answer Nature’s call. Then I went back to my fitful sleep until morning. I don’t think I like that drug. I would much rather just be awake and aware of the incredible shifting night sky than to be knocked out like that.

The phone says we hiked 9.4 miles. My legs think it was more like 15.

The silver waterways turn gray, the darkness overtakes the day, and the Magic Light has gone away…

Day 2, August 27, 2021

Our first camp, after doing the wash. Almost time to gather everything up and get it all back in the packs, as soon as I finish my cup of tea.

Today is looking a little smokier than yesterday, but it’s still not bad. This morning, some hikers coming down from Evolution Valley said it was clear there, and they were right. I got very tired out today. We had meant to maybe hike as far as Evolution Lake, but stopped a few miles short of there, at the mouth of Evolution Valley. Our campsite is beautiful and quiet, though we saw lots of people on the trail. We are hidden behind a large granite outcropping not far from slow-moving Evolution Creek. We see nobody, and they don’t see us. The four men from the ferry kept leap-frogging with us all day. Luckily. They found Margaret’s credit card and return ferry ticket on the trail.

Our trail followed the San Joaquin up into the high country. There were some beautiful falls and swimming holes.
We saw very few really big trees still standing, but there were some mighty ones that had fallen. Without the trail crews, this one would have been quite the impediment to forward travel.

We have scrapped the Goddard Canyon plan for sure. We would need one more day to make it not be too much of a push. I am feeling good, in fact euphoric, being up here in the Sierra, but so very, very tired. Margaret is far more fit (well, I do have 10 years on her), and is making us some broth, which tastes delicious. As does almost all the food we brought. Flavors seem to explode in the mouth up here. Some highlights are my dried Damsun plums, from the backyard tree. They are like natural, organic Sweet Tarts!

We found out today that Richard, one of the four men sharing our route, is our neighbor. He lives perhaps two blocks from Margaret and four blocks from me! It always amazes me how many fellow Berkeleyans I run into up here in the mountains.

We stopped for a nice long lunch break where the trail leaves the San Joaquin and begins to climb steeply up to Evolution Valley. Here, Margaret poses nonchalantly alongside my big purchase of the year: a brand-new Bearikade bear canister. It has lightened our load considerably!

We stopped multiple times today for dips in the San Joaquin, and scrambled down to very beautiful Evolution Creek for more negative ions. There isn’t much water, but it is so invigorating and refreshing! The ford at Evolution Creek was only ankle-deep. I didn’t even bother to take my shoes off, but just splashed through. My hiking shoes, which are New Balance Minimus trail runners, dry remarkably quickly.

Looking back down the way we came, as we climb up to Evolution Canyon. I had been wanting to revisit this place since hiking the John Muir Trail in 2014. But I had forgotten what a slog it is to get up here! One step at a time…
We couldn’t resist dropping our packs and scrambling down to Evolution Creek, as it tumbles through its scoured granite bed.
Steep!
Ahhh…this was a good stop.
We indulged in a brief dip in this pool. That’s some cold water!
Toward the mouth of Evolution Valley, where the creek starts to level off, we took yet another break to cool our toes.
Made it over with nary a miss-step.
This part of Evolution Creek was so idyllic, winding among the sweet-smelling pines. The dippers hunted in the riffles, so intent on their work
that they didn’t even seem to notice us.

Well, it happened! I was sitting in my tent writing and sipping broth, and I managed to spill the broth on my clothes and the tent floor. Now I have more chores to do. And I KNEW I was taking a risk, bringing food into the tent. When will I learn to heed my own warnings?

The view upward from near our campsite. Tomorrow, those mountains will be a lot closer!

I had to move my tent about six feet over, to a much more level place. What looked perfect when I set up, ended up having a hump in the middle, so that no matter which way I faced, my head was downhill.

It is so quiet and peaceful here. The phone says we covered 8.7 miles and climbed 25 flights of stars. I am amazed at the difference in my conditioning that a year has made. I really am dragging, but thankful that my knee isn’t acting up. Sometimes, I think I can just burst out into song, but when I do, the voice is still not there. I hit walls and just can’t access much of my range. Doctors prescribe rest and patience, both of which are difficult for this patient.

Another early night to bed, after watching the bats feeding above the creek.

Alpenglow on the peaks. I am in my happy (albeit tired) place.

The Only Outing of 2021

When this year started, I had planned two excellent backpacking excursions, but had to cancel the July outing due to a knee injury (I was riding hills on a bike in Wyoming with a too-short seat and strained my knee). By the time August rolled around, I was definitely stir-crazy, and anxious to be up in the mountains. In my non-hiking life, things were going slow. I had had to cancel all my concerts after I lost my voice due to a viral infection in early July. I was in a deep funk, and couldn’t wait to spend a week just walking. Luckily, I had planned a trip with my friend and neighbor Margaret, and though we had to cancel the first two days of it due to canceled flights (for me) and smoke fears, we thought we’d take the plunge. We ended up spending 6 beautiful, clear days in Kings Canyon National Park and the John Muir Wilderness. Here’s how it went down.

Margaret closing up her pack, on the granite shore of Florence Lake. The boat on the upper right is our ferry.

Day 1, August 26, 2021

Margaret and I left Berkeley at about 6:30 AM, heading off in the crepuscular light to drive to Florence Lake, about 6 hours south and east of home. Although I had played music at Margaret’s wedding some 20 years ago, we didn’t really know much about each other, so we chatted and filled each other in on our families and our histories. The sky was smoky and the land we drove through was incredibly parched and dry. We gasped at the devastation wrought by last year’s Creek Fire, and worried for the future of the Golden State. Arrived at Florence Lake at 1:30, after a long, slow drive over Kaiser Pass Road. It’s only 22 miles long, but took at least an hour and a half to navigate the potholes and hairpin turns. Purchased tickets for the ferry that would take us across the lake to the trailhead, and had time for a lovely swim beforehand.

Sharing our ferry ride was a group of four men, all probably in their early 50’s, three of whom gone to high school together. The four had been backpacking together every summer for 30 years. We had similar itineraries, to hike up alongside the San Joaquin River into Evolution Valley, and on up to Evolution Lake. We figured we would be leap-frogging each other for the next few days, anyway. Originally, I had wanted to hike up to Lake Wanda and then head overland to Goddard Canyon and back down to the San Joaquin. However, our shortened trip made that feel too ambitious for my one-and-only outing of the year. Better to take it easy and have no expectations.

The well-worn trail led through beautiful meadows up to Muir Trail Ranch. Much of the trail is traveled by horsed=s and heavy trucks, so is very dusty.
Still, it was beautiful, heading always slightly upward and closer to the heart of the Sierra.

” I have stayed at Muir Trail Ranch twice before, the first time being when I hiked the John Muir Trail in 2014 (see Day 12, Muir Trail Ranch, August 24, 2014″) and second time when my sister and I tried to do the same route that Margaret and I had planned, in 2016 (see “Day 5, Muir Trail Ranch, July 12, 2016”). That hike was aborted by forest fires. So the first part of the trip was very familiar to me. I recognized particular inclines and declines, meadows and streams, from years before, and it felt a little like coming home again. On our first night, Margaret and I ended up staying at the same camp that my sister Kristin and I had stayed at, alongside the San Joaquin just about a mile or so past Muir Trail Ranch. This is where we were attacked by a bat and forced to make a hasty retreat (see “Day 2, World on Fire, and a Bat Attack!”). Luckily, there were no attack bats present, though I assiduously avoided the tree where the bat’s roost had been.

Margaret brought too much food for the first night, and we had to eat it all because there was no extra room in the bear canister. I felt a little over-full, and very tired after all the driving, swimming, and hiking. We had a lovely dip (a splash, really) in the very low San Joaquin, rinsing off the sweat and dust. The river runs languid and cold here. I think there’s more algae than in previous years, but who knows? It’s a low-flow, warm year.

8:30 bedtime. My hip flexers are tired out. It was a hard and long first day, but I am so glad to be here! I have this feeling like my voice will return, which is welcome. The anguish of having lost the ability to sing has been weighing heavily on me this last month. I forgot to bring a book. Margaret brought her Kindle and crossword puzzles to do while the food rehydrates.

“I’m not superstitious, but I’ll knock on wood.” —Margaret Norman

Awake at midnight, I watched the waning gibbous moon climb through the Jeffrey pines, and listened to the owls calling each other: who whoooo who who, and the response a fourth higher. Sometimes they would overlap for a note or two, sounding like gentle ocarinas in the night.

Wandering down the forest path, we heard voices calling to each other. Eventually, a few people joined us on the trail. One had a guitar and sang us a little traveling music. Unexpected!

My phone says that we hiked 7.2 miles today. Not too bad for the first outing of the year, with a fully-loaded backpack. The Jeff pines welcome us with their butterscotch scent, the river burbles along, mumbling to itself, and my muscles are talking to me in a gentle tone, saying they will try their best but lease don’t push too hard. I am happy to wake often, see the slow circling of the stars, and drift off into sleep again.

The Heights

9/11/20

We couldn’t resist stopping once again at the coffee cart, and saying hello to our friends.

Up at 7:00 AM, for a breakfast of oatmeal and tea. My knee feels fine, so we decided to try to go to Johnson Lake from the Snake Creek Trailhead (the same trailhead where we started up the Shoshone Trail to the bristlecones on our first day), and go cross-country along the ridge to the bristlecone forest we enjoyed so much on Tuesday. We didn’t have any topographical maps of the area, but only the map on the park brochure. It showed a little dotted-line route— not a trail—along the ridge.

Aspens again. As I write this, a month later, I am imagining how they look now, in their gold and silver finery under that crystalline blue sky.
If you squint your eyes, you can see a very tiny Barbara way down that trail headed my way.
The trees are covered with graffiti from decades of travelers. Most is pretty crude, but this L. H. Larsen guy had a nice hand, back in 1939.
Resting in the shade on the way up the trail.
I was surprised to see an old-style trail marker. Everything else was so new!
Welcome to Johnson Mill

All the way to Johnson Lake, my knee felt fine. The trail wound through aspen groves and across sage-filled meadows and steep forests of spruce and pine up through Johnson Mill, an old tungsten mill that was active from 1908 to 1950. It boomed during World War One, and then barely survived after that, when the price of tungsten went down. Ruins of old log buildings and rusted metal machinery were scattered about, and the forest was actively reclaiming the area.

Read on, if you want a little more background.
Trees were reclaiming the old mill. They seem unstoppable, thankfully.
I can’t imagine the effort it took to fell these trees and build these structures. And now they are all slowly returning to the earth. If I were one of the laborers, I think I’d be pretty irritated.

At Johnson Lake, the trail went up steeply to a pass. After resting my legs in the freezing cold water for a bit, we started up. The top was gorgeous, with views of the backside of Wheeler Peak, Jeff Davis Peak, and Pyramid Peak looming right above us. We took off along the ridge, but at a particularly narrow place, I was stricken with a bout of vertigo. I had to sit down and close my eyes to let the jitters pass. I have experienced a healthy fear of heights all my life, but in recent years I really thought I had pretty-much overcome it, as long as my feet were on solid ground. But this just came on so strong, and I decided I couldn’t/shouldn’t go on. Plus, it began to look like it was much farther than we had anticipated, with scree slopes and drops of many thousands of feet to the basin floor on both sides. I hadn’t felt this kind of fear of heights since I was a kid, and occasionally since then (once on a very steep tram up a mountain in Switzerland: I had to exit the tram at the half-way stop and walk back down—which was actually really beautiful and just great). As we descended back down to the pass, we saw a lone hiker, who waved and then sat down to wait for us. Having not seen another soul all day so far, it was a pleasure to sit and talk. Even more so, since he turned out to be the superintendent of Death Valley National Park, off on a little vacation. Barbara mentioned how nice all the amenities at Great Basin are, and how we had imagined that it was the pork barrel project of some Congressperson. The Ranger, of course, knew all about it. We have former Senator Harry Reid to thank, though the web of water interests, Mormon cronies, Nevada and Utah ranchers, and hydrologists is an immensely tangled one. This talk with the ranger led me to read a long, three-part article from 2008 in the Las Vegas Sun newspaper, which is really informative. Read it here. It sounds like “Chinatown” and the draining of the Owens Valley all over again. Meanwhile, I had made up my mind that if Ranger Mike had wanted to hike over to the bristlecones along the ridge, I would follow him. I was disappointed when he chose to go another direction.

We arrived at Johnson Lake. That water is cold!
This photo doesn’t give you any idea of how high and steep that ridge is above us.
As we start climbing, maybe you can get the sense of it…
Great views down to the former Lake Bonneville and Utah.
And still we kept climbing.
We finally reached the saddle, and left the trail to try our hands at the cross-country route to the Bristlecone Forest.
That’s Wheeler Peak on the left, and Jeff Davis Peak on the right. B and I renamed it Angela Davis Peak. Do you think the powers that be would go for that?
We start up cross-country toward to ridgeline.
Here’s the ridge we would have had to navigate, with no trail. In retrospect, looking at this photo, it seems like it would have been so easy. In reality, it scared the s**t out of me.
Looking down the other side of the ridge.
Barbara took this photo of me, walking back down to the pass. One of those little black specks is Ranger Mike sitting and waiting for us.

As our Ranger acquaintance left, a couple we had met yesterday at Kerouac’s showed up and we chatted with them awhile. Our solitary day suddenly became very social, sitting in the rocky saddle between the peaks without a tree in sight. Then the long steep downhill back to the trailhead. Stunningly beautiful weather—just warm enough, with clear blue skies and a light breeze. Perfect hiking weather. My knee did well, until the last couple of miles, and even then it was okay. I just had to be careful about how and where I placed my feet, and use my right leg for any big steps down.

Sun-baked bones of long-dead tree people.
Heading back down, through the aspens and conifers, on a different trail.
This late in the season, most of the color comes not from blossoms, but from the various stages of dying foliage.
We could see over to Mt Washington, and the hillside we climbed on our first day up to the bristlecones. I was sure we could get there from the ridge, but alas, it will have to wait for the next expedition.
I recognize this place! We are almost back to the trailhead.

One of the drawbacks of this place is that the water is so cold, and there aren’t any places to get into to swim, anyway. B and I are both missing the refreshing dips of the Sierra, and are feeling really grubby most of the time. So we stopped at a campsite along Snake Creek for a good private rinse in the water. Bracing and restorative. We put on clean clothes (it’s a different experience to have a van full of extra things, rather than a backpack full of only the essentials), and went to Kerouac’s for dinner again. Sorry, no food photos today…

The bar at Kerouac’s. I especially like that little sign that announces COOKIES!

I tried to convince Barbara that we should stay over another day, but duty was calling from California, and I resigned myself to the fact that tomorrow we would pack up and drive 10 hours back to the hell which is California now. My poor beautiful state!

After dinner at Kerouac’s, we caught up with the news from the home fronts. Poor California is burning up, while we are breathing clear air and will soon be gazing at a million stars.

13.4 miles, 237 flights of stairs climbed today. I am so thankful, in spite of my knee and other mishaps, for this opportunity to explore this magical place. I will come back, and I will find a way to hike along that damn ridge from the bristlecones to the Johnson Lake trail. And I am going to order a topographical map of the area. Gotta visit before Las Vegas drains all the groundwater, kills off the greasewood, and makes it a dustbowl up here.

A Good Day

9/10/20

Chamisa in the morning light is a beautiful sight.

I slept so well last night! It was decidedly warmer, and every time I had to get up was a treat—first the brilliance of the stars against the inky blackness, and then the waning half moon lighting up the forest around us. I stayed in bed until 7:30. Woke hungry and refreshed. Oatmeal and tea for breakfast, and then a hike from camp down to Grey Cliffs and up Pole Canyon to Timber Trail, and back to camp. 8.3 miles of a gentle trail through piñon and juniper and then aspen and Engelmann and mixed conifers. Meadows and clumps of sage, winding through thickets of wild roses (all long through blooming and fruiting), past stands of rugged mountain mahogany. And everywhere the brilliant gold blooming chamisa. My knee is letting me know it’s there, but nothing like yesterday.

The trail down to the Grey Cliffs led through aspen gardens, alive with butterflies and wet with dew in the crisp morning air.
This area has lots of pictographs, but they are in unmarked locations. We saw a few, in a sheltered rock overhang, the red paint mostly obscured by many years of campfires below them These cliffs look like likely places to find more, but I’ll save that search for the next visit..
Barbara communes with the aspens along the trail.
The Pole Canyon trail wandered alongside meadows and through forests.
So many slender aspens, growing in an old fire zone. We could see old, decaying burnt stumps of pines scattered among them.
The Timber Trail led up and over a little pass, giving us views down Pole Canyon and the surrounding forests.
Who lives there?
The landscape is a far cry from the glory of the Sierra, but it has its own beauty and scale, contrasts and soaring views.
The summit of the Timber Trail, at around 9,000′, looking back from whence we came.
Looking ahead, we could see the peaks and the high country above us. But we aren’t going there today…waah!
B standing on the bridge over Baker Creek, almost back to our camp.

Now, at noon, we are back at camp and B is working on my leg again. I forgot to mention that she did this yesterday, too. She has a great touch, and strong piano-playing hands, and has really helped in the rapid healing of my injury. Lucky me!

A chipmunk joined us for lunch at our campground. We didn’t feed it (not intentionally, anyway)

We saw only one person on the trail, and when we got to the trailhead, we met two young women and a man about to take off with their backpacks. We talked for awhile, and they said they had planned on hiking up to Young Lakes in Yosemite (very close to where we had been planning on going), but the apocalyptic smoke drove them out here, same as us. They also said that they had received a message from the Park Service cancelling their permit because of the smoke and fire. From Marin County, so close by us in that sense, too.

Baker Creek. This area is so dry, it is always a thrill to see the water flowing, especially so late in the summer. It’s amazing to me that there is enough rain and snow on the peaks to keep these streams running all year long!
All the trail markers, parking lots, and pit toilets are in perfect shape. Your tax dollars at work.

8:00 PM

After a lunch of crackers and peanut butter, rooibos tea, and dried fruit, Barbara and I had a nice little mid-day siesta. So pleasant. About 2:00 PM, we headed to the Wheeler Peak parking lot for a recommended 3.2-mile hike to Stella Lake. It’s one of the few fairly level paths in the park, because I am still babying my knee. It did fine until the way down, almost to the van. Suddenly, it started hurting a lot and I was trying not to limp. Then it was down the winding road to Baker, and a side trip to the Baker archeological site. In 1994, they uncovered a Fremont Culture large camp or small city on the site of a former creek (it had been re-channeled by white settlers for farming, and now was dry). The Fremonts had a large five-story building, surrounded by lots of adobe homes, and farmed corn, squash, and beans, as well as hunting for meat (elk, deer, and whatever else) in about 1200AD. The entire archeological dig is now just an expanse of sagebrush flatlands, and there really isn’t much to see there now, for the untrained eye.

The trail up to Stella Lake went through miles of aspen groves. So beautiful in the slanting afternoon light.
Through a break in the aspens, we caught views of Wheeler Peak. We had intended to take a day to hike up to the summit, but my knee changed our plans.
Stella Lake. Too cold to swim. And maybe too shallow and mucky.
more aspens…
The road from Wheeler Peak trailhead down to Baker is about 20 miles of lots of turns. Here, we were able to see where we are going.
Kerouac’s. Apparently, Jack Kerouac stopped in Baker at some point.

Then it was off to Kerouac’s for an amazing dinner. I have never passed through Baker when this restaurant has been open, and it was a real treat! It’s open Thursday-Sunday in the summer months. We had pizza with pesto and zucchini and fried Brussels sprouts. B had a couple of beers and I had a couple of glasses of a very good Sangiovese. This is a whole new backcountry experience for me, and not my usual sort of blog entry.

Yummm!

The young owners of Kerouac’s are from Manhattan. On a trip to GBNP 7 years ago, they fell in love with the area, and happened to see a place for sale, and bought it. They run a 3-room year-round motel (The Stargazer Inn) and the restaurant, which is open seasonally. It’s a great scene. COVID-19 precautions were in full swing, everyone wore masks, the servers were behind plexiglass, and we sat outside socially-distanced at picnic tables and along the porch on stools. We were waited on by the people who had made our espressos at the coffee hut down the street. We chatted with folks from San Mateo and Colorado and then came back to our little camp. Heard in a phone call home that the AQI in Berkeley is over 300. We are so lucky! Clear blue skies and cool weather.

They are anywhere the action is.
Some 20 years ago, on a previous trip to GBNP, I spent a couple of nights at this lonesome motel.

Midnight:

I woke up when I think I heard a branch break, thinking of the crackling of fire. There are no campfires permitted here anywhere, and this evening while strolling around the campgrounds, we saw a fire at one of the sites. It was in a fire ring, and people were tending it. But just now I woke up panicked about wildfire and imagining that it had escaped the ring and was burning the forest. So scary. I’m too awake now to go back to sleep for awhile.

Critters have been pretty hard to see here, except for the nonchalant deer and the few brazen chipmunks. But we did see that ringtail, and a beautiful big owl, so we know they are out there. Today on the Timber Trail we saw elk prints, and today at dusk a fine big buck. And of course, we have heard lots of Clark’s nutcrackers and various little birds flitting through the trees. I wish I could identify them all.

Today’s mileage shows as 11.8. Not bad for a gimpy knee.

One last aspen forest, before I sign off for the night.

Day 2: Recovery

9/9/20, 9:30 AM

Going nowhere fast today!

Well, last night was hell. When I lay down, my legs started cramping—I guess from the nearly 16 miles of hiking yesterday, which might have been overdoing it for the first day. I rubbed them, tried to quiet them, and drank water, but the only thing that worked was to get up and walk (requiring unzipping the bag, grabbing my parka from the sleeping bag stuff sack which I use as a pillow, finding my shoes, donning my balaclava and gloves). Walking calmed the legs. More ibuprofen and lots of water. Try again to sleep. The night was crystal-clear and the temperature hovered around 29 degrees F.

As soon as I lay down again, the same thing! Got up and walked as the waning gibbous moon was rising and washing out the stars. The road was white in the moonlight, and I cast a long black shadow. As I turned back down to the tent, my knee went crazy again. I decided maybe I should try sleeping in the van, in a seated position. That worked like a charm for my legs, but not for being able to sleep. Ugh. I keep lots of blankets in the car, and wrapped my legs well, but couldn’t get the rest of me warm enough. Back out into the cold to the tent to grab my sleeping bag and back to the van to try again. That at least kept me warm enough, but sleep evaded me.

Finally, at 3:00 AM, I decided to try lying in the tent again. This time, the legs cooperated more or less, and I slept fitfully until 7:30 AM.

My knee is pretty painful, so we drove up the road to the Wheeler Peak trailhead and Bristlecone Campground (closed for the season). B is hiking to the bristlecones and I am hanging out in the van resting my knee. Not what I had planned, but it is fine. Maybe in an hour I’ll walk around some. I’ve been up here a few times in the past to visit the bristlecones and the glacier, and I didn’t want her to miss it.

A glimpse of the remains of the glacier, nestled in the crook of Wheeler Peak

Now, at 10:30, I have combed and braided my hair (not an easy task after yesterday’s hike and the night in my balaclava cap), taken two more ibuprofen, and laid out my waffle pad in the back of the van. Too cold to nap outside—for me, anyway. Lying down for a try at another bout of sleep, beautiful sleep. Aspens surround me, their leaves talking in the breeze. We are at 10,000 feet on what was once an island in Lake Bonneville. It’s quiet, calm and warm in the van.

I slept like a rock for two hours, and woke only minutes before Barbara returned from her hike to the bristlecones and the glacier—or rather the remains of the once-mighty one. Now it’s just a dusty patch of year-round snow and ice, tucked up against the cliffside of Wheeler Peak. Did I mention that on yesterday’s epic hike, we saw nobody else all day long? We were all alone in that area of the park. Today, we are at the most popular spot, and there are lots of hikers, motorcyclists, tourists of all stripe milling about up here.

I took the ADA trail through the Engelmann spruce, limber pine, and aspen. Read all the informational displays and was thankful that my knee seemed to be doing okay on flat ground. At least there’s that (and that’s a lot!).

I learned lots of little factoids from the ADA trail plaques.
This trail wasn’t here the last time I was up here.
Great Basin NP is really an island! So fascinating!
I was so thankful for this little flat trail today, after my knee issues. I love that it makes at least a little of this area accessible to so many more people.
And here’s Lehman Creek, which runs year-round and waters the ranch lands below.
After reading the display about forest fires and the progression of regrowth of trees on my ADA path walk, it was easy to see the mountainside as a patchwork of various burn areas over decades, and centuries, of lightning fires.

On the way back down to our campsite, we detoured to the Lehman Caves Visitor Center. The caves are closed this year. I had toured them decades earlier, long before they were a part of a non-existent park, when they were one of the roadside attractions along Hwy 50. I mostly remember that they had colored lights trained on various stalagmite and stalactite “features,” which bore names like “Madonna and Child,” and such. I’m sure it’s not so hokey now that it’s part of a national park! The cafe at the Visitor Center was a revelation, and I had a delicious, fresh salad and B had world-class chili.

Did I tell you that on our arrival to the park, we saw a ringtail cross the dirt road in front of us? So cool! It was gone in a flash, of course. They are also known as miner’s cats and ringtail or civet cats, though they are members of the raccoon family.

There’s really not much more to tell about today. We went back to the coffee stand in the morning, and met two dogs who sort-of run the town of Baker. We found out about good hikes for tomorrow.

The chihuahua is the ringleader of this two-member gang, who terrorize the inhabitants of Baker for handouts. Barbara befriended them with treats, and they became our instant best friends.
Sculpture in downtown Baker.
We stopped at the ranching exhibit, midway between our campsite and Baker. Didn’t learn much of anything, but enjoyed the silhouette art.
And of course we had to take advantage of this photo op in a nearby field of sagebrush.

We had each bought beers at the cafe—a Great Basin Wild Horse Ale for me and an Icky IPA for Barbara (named for the Nevada state fossil, the ichthyosaurus). We sat comfortably in the van parked at our campsite and drank. Not the trip we had planned in any way, but full of incredible beauty, and clear smokeless skies. Forecast low tonight will be 32 degrees F. Warming up!

I walked 1 mile today.

Escape from the Fire

9/8/2020

After our last backpacking trip in Yosemite, I wanted to head right back up to the high country, for another backpacking trip. So I applied for a permit to go to Ten Lakes Basin, a relatively short hike up from Tioga Pass Road. I had an idea that Barbara and I could practice our off-trail skills and I could practice my compass-reading. Plus, this late in the season, swimming would be great in the lakes! We were stoked, and had our packs all ready to go two days in advance of leaving. But California was on fire, and the smoke blanketed the state. It was looking really bad, though the AQI still showed clear air in the Sierra. Yesterday morning, I called the ranger station in Tuolumne Meadows and talked to a ranger, who, after a lengthy discussion, said that he would not recommend coming up. He said hikers had started leaving the high country due to the smoke. We were crushed, so I spent some time on the computer looking for another place we could go, out of the smoke and where we could still get a permit, if needed. There was nowhere in the whole state.

Then I had a brilliant idea, to drive 9+ hours to Great Basin National Park! This little-visited gem is on the border of Nevada and Utah, on US Highway 50 (The Loneliest Highway). It didn’t take much to talk Barbara into it, when she realized it was either go there or nowhere. And a long drive for a road warrior musician is no big deal, unless there’s a sound check and a gig at the end of it. I LOVE this place. Long before it became a National Park, it always held a magic spell on me. There is a place on the highway where you can glimpse the cliffside of Wheeler Peak, which reminded me of Blueland, from The Dragons of Blueland, which I read when I was 7. I always imagined there was something special up there, and when, in the 1980’s, I drove by and saw it had become a new National Park, I immediately started exploring it. It IS magical! An island rising up in the middle of the big dry lake which is the Great Basin, crowned with 4,000-year-old bristlecone pines and year-round springs running down to the desert surrounding it.

Driving over the Sierra, the smoke was horrendous, and even worse in Reno. We left home at about 12:45 PM yesterday, and arrived here in the dark at about 10:30, found a campsite at the Baker Creek campground (3+ miles up a dusty washboard dirt road), set up our tents and went to sleep. A crazy powerful wind started up at some point, and woke us and kept us awake most of the remainder of the night. The ground was too hard to drive tent stakes, so we used rocks, which got dragged about by the wind and collapsed our tents. But we awoke in pretty good moods, and walked around the campgrounds looking for a more sheltered site. We decided to visit the Visitor Center and make a plan for the five days which stretched before us.

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Okay. I admit, I am being stymied by the new WordPress program. I can’t figure out how to add captions to some of the photos. So here are the captions I would have attached, had I been able to, for the above photos:

  1. Barbara standing at the Shoshone trailhead. This park has such great new infrastructure. We kept wondering who made a deal with whom to make it all happen. Not that we don’t love it, mind you!
  2. Mt. Washington, straight ahead and up.
  3. Looking back down the trail, and across at the white granite escarpment of Granite Peak.
  4. I honestly can’t remember which direction I was looking for this shot, or the next one. I was just in awe of the expanse of space around us.

We stopped at the little coffee trailer in Baker, on our way to the Visitor Center, and were really impressed by the quality of the espresso. After studying the maps, we decided to hike up the Shoshone Trail to the bristlecone forest on the ridge.It took about a 45-minute drive up a dirt road to get to the beautiful new trailhead (opened in 2017, I think). It was a steady climb up through aspen, spruce and pine to Mt. Washington and the first bristlecones. Then we wandered along the ridge toward Pyramid Peak, through a wonderland of healthy bristlecones and limber pines of all ages.

Up in the high country!

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All the while, a storm seemed to be brewing up by Wheeler Peak, and deep grey skies were quickly approaching us.

Stormy weather approaching. Wheeler Peak is obscured by cloud. Pyramid Peak rises in the distance.
Approaching the summit of Mt Washington, we were met with ominous clouds.
Hello, darkness!

We reached an elevation of 11,775′, and the trail was very difficult to follow. I thought it skirted a peak, so I took off over the scree—you could see that others had gone that way, but maybe they were mountain goats instead of humans. It was rough going and slow. After a while of wandering up and down the slope, I cut back up to the ridge and hollered to Barbara to join me. Suddenly, we were surrounded by more bristlecones, growing out of the gravelly granite. The more exposed to the elements the trees are, the longer they live, as the dry winds keep them from rotting, for thousands of years. That is something to ponder. I mean, what does a 4,000-year-old being think about, minute-to-minute? We must seem like so many ants to them.

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I found a sign, which said, “Bristlecone forest. Please stay on trail.” Immediately after the sign, we lost the trail completely in the hard rubble, but we figured it must just follow the ridgeline.

We really wanted to stay on the trail, but there was none to be found. Which was, at the same time, really great and as the day wore on a little disturbing.

The wind at the top was incredibly powerful, and I confess I was worried that I would be blown off and over the edge, where we could see down 4,000′ or so to the basin floor. I walked crablike, using my trekking poles on the left side to push me away from the edge.

The wind wanted to send me flying over the edge, or so I thought…

Finally, we saw a trail heading down a draw where we thought we needed to go. It was, by this time, 4:30, and I feared we might run out of sunlight before we got back to the van. We happily left the windy ridge, following the fainter and fainter trail until we lost it. Rather than return to the windy ridge, we decided to bushwhack down the drainage, which we could see fro the ridge would eventually get us in the vicinity of the van. So for the next two hours, we chased the light, going as fast as possible in the right direction, over and under fallen trees and crossing and recrossing the creek. B and I both began to tire, and and I got anxious (because I always feel that if there’s an accident it’ll be my fault for getting us in the situation), though the beauty never failed us. Occasionally, we would hit about 50 yards of an actual trail, probably left over from native Americans or early white settlers, or just a popular animal path through the tangled woods. It always brightened my spirits, but then it would disappear under a windfall or into the creek. When we finally hit the actual, groomed, modern trail, around 6:30, we were ecstatic and exhausted, but nearly danced down the final stretch to the van. Though we were never in danger of getting lost for long (we knew we had to follow the stream down and it would eventually lead us to the road, if not the trailhead), the terrain was really rough, and if anything had happened, it would have been very difficult to get help. I only stopped once for photos in the woods.

Fallen trees everywhere were the biggest obstacle to our progress down the mountainside. It is amazing to me that in this incredibly arid land, streams continue to run year-round from these heights.

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A couple more bristlecones for your viewing pleasure. Each one seemed to want its portrait taken.

Somewhere along the way, my left knee began to give me pain, and by the time we got to the van, it was stiff and didn’t want to bend. We got back to our new (out-of-the-wind) camp at about 8:00, and rehydrated our dinner while we set up our tents. I was looking forward to a good night’s sleep. Walking down to the tent site from the van, I suddenly got a shooting pain in my knee, and hobbled the rest of the way. Took two ibuprofen and bedded down. A cold, cold night, but happily the wind was still. And the most beautiful dark sky with way, way too many stars. The Milky Way flowing right overhead. Saturn and Jupiter shining bright. I wish I could take a picture of that!

15.2 miles, 312 floors climbed. Good night.

Day 8: Coming Down

8/18/2020

I didn’t make any entry into my journal for this last day of our hike, but it is still vivid in my mind, and so here goes:

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Early morning on the Tuolumne. A beautiful day!

Barbara and I popped out of our respective tents, fully dressed, at exactly the same time this morning, sometime near 6:00 AM. We seem to have synchronized our inner clocks perfectly.

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Looking east and then west along the Tuolumne. In the immortal words of Jimmy Martin, “The thing about it was, it was perfect.”
A not-so-good selfie, but I have been told that people like to see people in photos. So here ya go.
One of the people who was a tiny dot on the top of one of my Tuolumne Falls photos from my last post took this photo of B and me at the bridge across the Tuolumne.
Just another gorgeous view along the banks of the T.

We ate our last helpings of oatmeal, drank our last cups of coffee (for B) and tea (for me), with the last of our powdered buttermilk. No snacks for today. We spread out our tents by the river on a lovely smooth clean expanse of granite to dry out after yesterday’s drenching. The wait forced us to enjoy our last campsite, as we slowly pack up our well-worn clothes, personal trash, and detritus picked up along the trail. Finally, the tents were dry, and we finished our packing and hit the trail. From here to the van, it’s mostly a pretty flat wander, mostly along the Tuolumne out to the parking lot, for about 5 miles or so. Easy-peasy!

Happy person!
We just smile a lot on these trips. That’s all. Just smile.
Early morning light in the meadows. We watched a very unconcerned doe and her two skittish fauns alongside the trail. We were too engrossed in watching to remember to take photos.
Unicorn and Cathedral Peaks again, in the distance.
This place is just soooo beautiful!

We had parked in the lot for the stables, so on the way back we took the turnoff to the stables. I kept waiting for the landmarks that I remembered from our hike out, and nothing looked very familiar. Then, suddenly, we were out of the trees and actually at the Tuolumne Meadows stable. Like everything else in Yosemite, it never opened this season, and it looked so desolate. We hadn’t been there before. I was briefly disoriented, until I spotted the parking lot off to the right, and the van sitting patiently waiting for our return.

Tuolumne Meadows stables are just empty tent frames. They never opened up this year.
I’d guess this is a tack room. With a long hitching post, and log steps to mount up with ease!

We tossed our very light packs into the van, and drove the short distance to the Tioga Pass Road bridge over the river. We took one last rinse-off in the bracing waters of the Tuolumne, and done our clean clothes. Heavenly!

Tioga Pass Road is spectacular, plunging over the smooth granite mountains and down the rubbly Nevada side to Mono Lake and Highway 395. I was too busy driving to take any photos. The air looked hazy, and Mono Lake faded out to invisible in the near distance. At 395, we turned left to the town of Lee Vining, hoping to find something to eat. The town is still pretty closed up, but there was a restaurant with an outdoor patio, and we donned our masks, sanitized our hands, and sat down to a fantastic late brunch. I had eggs over easy with hashbrown potatoes, salsa, and sourdough toast with marmalade. We shared a piece of cherry pie for dessert (too sweet for me). It was really incredible-tasting. When I backpacked in my teens, we always used to stop at the A&W drive-in in Tracy on our way back from the mountains and order root beer floats. That doesn’t appeal much to me anymore (at least, I don’t think it does. Maybe I should try one again…), but this food celebration had the same ritual feel to me.

Photo by Barbara Higbie

Having to deliver Barbara to the campsite on Highway 50 meant that we got to take the road over Monitor Pass. As long as I have lived and traveled in California, I had never yet been on this road. It’s so exciting for me to have a new road under my wheels, and this pass is a beauty! When we stopped up near the summit to take photos, we talked to two motorcycle riders who were enjoying the road, too. They told us that there was a fire east of Mono Lake that was causing the smoke in the air. And they mentioned the dry lightning storms of the night before last that set off over 300 fires around the Bay Area. So that’s what I smelled all the way up in the mountains. The nose knew. What will we be coming home to?

The Sawtooth Range, as seen from the other side, outside of Bridgeport, CA
The view from the Monitor Pass overlook. Blessed rain in the distance!
Looking east into Nevada.
Once over Monitor Pass, it was smooth sailing on through Markleeville and up and over to Highway 50, and eventually home.

Now I am back home, and California is on fire. Luckily, here in Berkeley, we are far from the actual blazes, but inundated with smoke. And friends, acquaintances, and strangers are being evacuated and losing everything to the flames. Poor California! We need our water, we need our snow, we need cold winters in the mountains. We need our rivers to flood the valley floor in the Springtime and replenish the groundwater. 

Barbara and I have been planning another hike, in Yosemite, for next week, but just this evening I got news that there s a fire very nearby. Maybe we will just stay home indoors. 

Wishing you well wherever you are.

Day 7, Mother Nature takes charge

8/17/2020

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Packed up and ready to go in the morning. Thank you, beautiful campsite!

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This morning, I could have sworn that I detected a very faint scent of woodsmoke in the air as I sat here by the river. It came and went, and the sky was clear, so I forgot about it. But the afternoon lightning now is making me remember it. It’s a worrisome thing, these extra-dry conditions and fire from the sky.

We stopped three times to swim in the river. So incredibly refreshing every time. It was a hot and sweaty uphill climb all day, and the river seemed to get colder the higher we went. But every time, I was ready to start up again, with renewed energy

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We left our camp in the early morning. I love the coolness and freshness of the trail before the sun is overhead.

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We passed so many great swimming holes, but it was too early and not yet hot enough to want to plunge in.

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Some swimming holes weren’t particularly accessible, though they beckoned mightily.

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We walked through an area with huge old cedar trees growing beside the river.

The last three days, I have felt occasional hunger. At first, it felt good, but my energy is starting to flag (Barbara’s, too), and I blame some of that on the heat and the climb, and some on the lack of sufficient caloric intake. You live and learn…

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As the day warmed, we gave in to temptation and stopped for our first swim. It was short, maybe more of a dunk and a paddle than an actual luxuriating swim, but it did the trick!

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Looking back down the canyon from whence we came.

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We skipped this one…

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The day got hotter and hotter, and the trail wound up and up.

Tomorrow will be a quick 5-mile hike to the van, a dip in the T and a change of clothes, and we will hit the road over Tioga Pass to Highway 395. I need to drop B off at a family lake camp (which I am happy t do—I haven’t had a road trip in a long time).

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Our first view of Waterwheel Falls.

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Resting above Waterwheel Falls. In this tree, I saw the chickaree.

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The view downriver from Waterwheel Falls.

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This little guy/gal ignored us as it concentrated on whatever it was eating. The Douglas squirrels/chickarees are the cutest critters!

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Th Tuolumne just before it plunges over Waterwheel Falls

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We were joined by four hikers above the falls. I snapped this photo and then sent it to them, when I got cell service.

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LeConte Falls. Right before we got here, I slipped on the trail and fell, cutting my elbow. We stopped here to doctor it up and wash my shirt. The amount of blood was awesome, and hardly hurt at all!

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I got one mosquito bite, right on my forehead over my right eye. Not bad.

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“Cloudy in the east, and it looks like rain” more and more as the day progresses.

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At this point, I think we were at California Falls, but I can’t say for sure. The entire stretch of the Tuolumne looked like a waterfall, but maybe they are just classified as cataracts. In any case, this shelf had the most exquisite designs in the polished stone from millennia of Spring floodwaters.

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See what I mean?

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It takes precious little encouragement for wildflowers to grow.

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Barbara is feeling good!

There haven’t been many people on the trail today, until we got near Glen Aulin. Then suddenly, here’s the outside world! Everyone is donning masks to pass us on the trail, and there are fewer friendly hikers. Just people hurrying past on some sort of mission or other. We fished out our masks and joined the parade.

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This is really great trail-building all up the canyon. My deep gratitude to everyone who made that happen.

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Looking back down the canyon, again.

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And suddenly, we were alongside a typical Wisconsin canoeing river, except for those telltale cliffs.

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I will miss these clean, bright granite expanses.

We enjoyed stops at Waterwheel Falls, LeConte Falls, California Falls, White Cascade, and Tuolumne Falls. They are spectacular, even this late in the season with a tiny fraction of their Spring flow.

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Wait a minute…maybe THIS is California Falls?

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When we got to Glen Aulin, we were greeted by a little soft, cooling rain. Lovely!

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By the time we got to the bridge at Glen Aulin, the sky had cleared and we had stopped for another swim

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We are in our tents above Tuolumne Falls, and the rain is coming down. We watched the storm approach for a long time, and it finally arrived. Thunder and lightning about ten miles away, but a really nice downpour. We had set up our tents and just finished dinner when it started.

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Tuolumne Falls, and the approaching storm.

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Looking east from our campsite right before dinner. Something is happening over there!

Shit! A lightning flash and immediate crack of thunder that made me jump and holler involuntarily. That’s close! But so far, nothing any closer, and no repeats of that surprise.

The sun is shining in under the storm. I had been thinking that the hot air coming up the canyon might keep the storm at bay. And it is, for everyone still down in the canyon. But we are up top at the end of it. Oh, well. A storm like this reminds me who is in charge. It’s really raining now.

Whoa! It’s hailing now! The stones are the size of large green peas, and it’s deafening inside the tent. I am so grateful for this little mobile home.

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After the rain stopped, we emerged from our tents and explored the area.

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Another beautiful campsite. No harm done by the rain.

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I climbed a large smooth granite hill near our camp. The Tuolumne disappears over the lip of its namesake falls right here.

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The afore-mentioned granite hill. It looks like a whale or an elephant.

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View from the top.

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My phone shows 11 miles hiked today, from 2 miles west of Return Creek to here above Glen Aulin. I don’t know how that is, as on the map it looks like it should have been 7 or 8 miles.

As the sun set on our penultimate day in the Sierra, the light kept changing and intensifying, causing me to take too many photos yet again.

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One moment, the sky was heavy and gray…

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…and the next, it was clear blue skies!

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IMG_5344IMG_5345IMG_5348It’s off to bed now, and all I can think about tonight is tomorrow’s breakfast. And the chance to eat a big lunch somewhere on the road.

Day 6: The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne

8/16/2020

3:30 PM

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Watching the morning come.

I woke after a too-hot night at about 5:30 AM, to a beautiful clear sky. The clouds had vanished during the night, and I was able to lie comfortably and watch the stars. B said that in the middle of the night she heard a loud snuffing and sniffing outside her tent, right where her pack was. She didn’t hear any footsteps or other noise. She turned on her flashlight, and probably scared away whatever it was. I think it must have been a bear, having a look around. The Bear Vault wasn’t bothered, and everything in camp was as it had been when we retired to our tents.

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A couple more Phil Brown tribute photos:

IMG_5173IMG_5172I love this river. Everywhere I look, sights remind me of Phil Brown and his paintings and pastels of the South Fork of the Yuba. I miss having him in my life, but he left beautiful work behind, and that’s something. By all accounts, he was a beloved teacher, who showed his students how to see rather than just look at their subjects.

My flashlight—a new, fancy, light rechargeable one—died last night and of course I had forgotten the charging cord, which was tucked neatly into the pocket of the solar charger we didn’t bring because a friend of B’s loaned us a better, lighter one with a battery pack. It’s so hard to keep all the bits and pieces together. It’s a new moon, so only starlight at night, which is okay by me. I miss reading by flashlight, but not so much as I thought I might. There is lots to busy my mind, and also lots of emptiness to be enjoyed and savored.

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I don’t know…the way these logs were laid out just didn’t seem “natural” to me. I like to think it was the framework of an Ahwahnechee lodge.

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We walked along beside the river much of the time, and as the day grew hotter, the water beckoned louder and louder.

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“Amber tresses” of tree.

It was a splendid hike to this camp today, though a bit too hot for my liking. We are in the heart of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, and it is magnificent. It took us awhile to get here because we had to stop and swim a couple of times. We are both hungry today. Our allotted portions of food haven’t changed, but we think that the lower altitude makes one hungrier. We have enough food for the trip, but certainly not much, if any, extra. I think I skimped on my snack portions,  overcompensating for the last trip, when I had nuts and fruit left over.

Leading up to this outing, I had dehydrated Damson plums from my backyard trees, and pears and apples from my mom’s backyard. Also parsley and parmesan for the dinners and my big experiment—miso. All turned out great, I have to say. And the soaked and dried almonds are especially delicious.

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After about 4 miles alongside the river, we started up over the bypass for Muir Gorge, a particularly steep and narrow portion of the Tuolumne. I hated to part from the banks of the T, even for a few miles.

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These trails are works of art. Wait…have I made that observation before?

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More rocks in clear green water. Can’t get enough!

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This oak started growing out from under this boulder quite awhile ago.

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Manzanita is a great sculptor!

We are about 1.5 or 2 miles west of Return Creek, which was our intended destination, but this site is so pretty and shady. Just downstream is a beautiful-looking swimming hole which is calling to me.

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Looking westward, back down the canyon.

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We leave the river below us, but only for a few miles.

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I am constantly amazed, and comforted, by how tiny we are in the world!

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Register Creek, as dry as can be.

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Looking down into Muir Gorge. See that saddle to the left of the left-side hump? That’s where the trail will take us (I think…).

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If I had seen this scene in a Japanese painting, I would have said that it was completely exaggerated and out-of-proportion, but here it is in real life.

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The tiny piece of shade offered at high noon by this venerable old juniper at the highest point of the Muir Gorge bypass was most welcome.

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And now we head down toward the river again.

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The dry bed of Cathedral Creek, across the river from our campsite.

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The trail plunged down into the trees again. 

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This area had been burned, but not so badly that the majority of the tall trees were lost. The woodland had an open, expansive feel about it. It reminded me of Joaquin Miller’s writings in “Life Amongst the Modoc,” about their use of controlled fires to keep lines of sight open for hunting and such.

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Looks like someone had a dinner party here!

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One more climb into the granite…

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…back down to the trees…

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…and back to the river again. We didn’t stop to swim here, and now I am regretting it. That’s an Olympic-sized swimming hole!

We set up our tents and took naps for about an hour or so. B is still napping.

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It was a little buggy there, among the trees, but not bad at all.

Our campsite is in a stand of cedar and oak. A fire came through here some years ago, and there are a few tall cedars standing dead. None right by camp, but close enough to hit it if one chanced to fall while we’re here. That’s a scary thought, after having been at a river camp on the Tuolumne a few years ago, when a seemingly healthy and huge old oak, laden with acorns and leaves, fell down in the middle of the night. If anyone other than the quick-witted, athletic river guides had been sleeping under it, I am sure that someone would have died. Or if any of them had been in a tent. They had just enough time to wake and run before it came crashing down, after a loud cracking sound. I have been leery of trees ever since.

IMG_5222Later: The swimming hole did not disappoint. We swam, cooled down, and then sat for a long time watching the changing silver-to-aluminum-to-iron-to-gold lighting on the slick, steep granite. I apologize for the following photos. I took them all within a half hour of each other. This was the view downriver from our swimming hole. The light was just changing all the time, and when I went to choose one for this post, I couldn’t decide. But there are probably 6 more that I did NOT include…

IMG_5227IMG_5228IMG_5229IMG_5236IMG_5233IMG_5242IMG_5240Occasional very distant thunder comes to us from the higher mountains. But I don’t think there’s a chance we will get any rain down here.

Today, my phone shows 10.4 miles and 50 floors climbed. It feels like it. We saw two men headed our way on the trail this morning, and two passed us going the other direction. We saw a group of young backpackers at a campsite we passed, but haven’t seen another soul on the trail today. It’s a change, here in the backcountry, to not see any Europeans this year. Usually, they are in the majority, or at least fifty percent, once you get away from the paved roads.

I’m hungry! What’s for dinner, Babz?

 

 

Day 5: Pate Valley and the Mighty T

8/15/20

I slept really well last night. Seems to be an every-other-night occurrence. I saw another shooting star as I happened to be awake and gazing at the night sky. Jupiter has been so incredibly bright every night!

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It doesn’t take much water up here to create a garden.

Barbara and I were up and on the trail by 7:30 (very early for us), and hiking down into the oak and madrone and Jeffrey pines. We stopped now and again to put our noses into the cracks of the bark and breathe deeply of the sweet butterscotch scent of them. So delicious.

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Somebody’s breakfast

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Parts of the trail are so dry, that the greenest part is the lichen.

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I don’t know if you can see it, but there’s a little lake down there. It’s on the map, but not on the trail, but I had a yen to visit it. I was guessing there might be a faint track that we could take. But we never found it. There was one place where I guessed that we could have gotten to it with a minimum of scrambling, but that will have to wait for the next trip.

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Looking down into the Pate Valley

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The oak woodlands.

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As we descend, the granite takes on a darker aspect.

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There is precious little left of this tree, after the fire came through. Or maybe it was a lightning strike, and burned from the inside out.

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I see this as a silk bodice with lace ruffles.

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The ground is so dry. But so beautiful.

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Bear scat. I guess they’ve been eating manzanita berries.

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It was really exciting when we rounded the bend and could see up the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. Once we hit the bottom of the canyon, we turn left.

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I love being able to see what landscape lies ahead.

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The walls of the canyon rise up thousands of feet above the river.

Now we’re at the Tuolumne, in a secluded spot. I was frustrated, first by seeing and hearing Piute Creek and imagining that our trail would lead us there, and then realizing that it did not. And then by walking through the woods within sound of the Tuolumne, but being unable to see it or figure out how/where to bushwhack through the woods to get to it. Finally, I spotted a faint trail off to the right, and suggested we take it. It led to a clearing with remnants of old Native American (Central Sierra Miwok) storage pits, and we followed an even fainter path through the trees to another clearing and then to the river. Now we are at the T, in a secluded spot. We haven’t seen another soul yet today, though it’s high noon. We took a swim, rinsed out our clothes, replenished our water supply, and now we are waiting for the clothes too dry. The sun is fierce, but the shade is cool and the water is bracing.

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Down there somewhere among the conifers is the river!

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At last! The water is so precious, in this sere landscape.

The river and its rocks remind me of my longtime friend and Yuba River artist, Phil Brown. He died of pancreatic cancer a couple of yeas ago, and I can’t stop my mind from constantly saying, “Oh Phil would love this!” or  “I wish Phil were here to see this place,” or “I have to tell Phil about this!” I just searched online for a website or some place that I could share his art with you, but there are so many artists named Phil Brown, and so little of his art is online. Mostly, it’s in private homes around Northern California. But some of it looks remarkably like this:

IMG_5110IMG_5109IMG_5107After a good rest by the river, we walked back the way we had come and farther, past the trail junction, to the Pate Valley campgrounds. Just before the bridge, I noticed a large granite rock and a deep backwater pool, where the main river whisked by to the right. I left the trail to check it out. There were at least twenty grinding holes in the smooth, flat rock, in rows spaced about four feet apart from each other. It was so easy to imagine how the women would have sat across from each other in the rows, working away grinding acorns into flour and most likely gossiping. And when the day got too hot, there was the swimming pool. Under an overhang, on a natural shelf, I saw the grinding stones. We pulled them out and looked, feeling how the smooth stones fit our hands. We found a few that had fallen off the ledge, and replaced them with the others. Apparently, this was a large, seasonal village, all along the river. I imagine that Paiute from the eastern Sierra would come over and trade with the Miwok, and people looked for partners outside of their family group. There would have been a lot to gossip about, probably.

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The awesome swimming hole at the mortar rock.

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Looking back upriver at the swimming hole (to the left) and the main stream (right).

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This bridge at Pate Valley campsite was washed out in 2018, and just rebuilt. It’s beautiful!

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The view from the bridge.

No doubt about it, this was hard, repetitive work that had to be done in order for tribes to have enough to eat. But the workplace is certainly beautiful and peaceful. The water, separated from the main Tuolumne flow, is a little warmer than the main river, and the pool is very deep. It is a fantastic place to swim, maybe as good or better than most swimming holes in my long river-swimming history.

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A few of the many, many grinding holes.

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The tools were neatly tucked away under the ledge.

IMG_5134Now we’re back at the campsite, which is hot, hot, hot. Very little shade, as this area had burned sometime between 1990 and 2009 (according to the Yosemite fire history map). Many young trees were growing up in the middle of the faint path we had followed to get here, but they aren’t offering much shade yet. I am sitting in the shade of the few big trees left standing along the river, waiting for the heat to dissipate some. It may be a long wait. It is storming upriver somewhere. We can hear the thunder and see the dark skies to the east, but I think this heat will drive the clouds away from us. There is certainly evidence that people have camped here before us: a t-shirt, some underwear, a hair tie—all of which we packed up to take away with us.

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This is the life!

Today, I am hungry. I have eaten breakfast, all my snacks, and am waiting for a reasonable dinner time. It feels pretty good, to have that slight gnawing in my belly, but I am realizing that maybe the ranger at Neal Lake was right: we haven’t brought quite enough food with us this time. Oh, well. We certainly won’t starve.

After our dinner, we walked back up to the swimming hole. Still nobody else there, even though we saw other hikers in the afternoon, and people were camped not too far away from it. It seems that most backpackers are particularly uncurious about what lies just off the trail—in this case, in plain view behind a thin veil of oaks. We saw people walk past on the trail without so much as a glance in our direction. That’s good, for us and for this magic place.

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Giving a human scale to the swimming hole. This water was cool enough to be plenty refreshing, and just warm enough that you could actually enjoy a good swim or just hang out in the water without the teeth starting to chatter. Looks like a fish just jumped out there.

IMG_5133It is so sad to imagine all the tools and the grinding holes, just waiting for the next year, when they will be taken up and utilized again. But the next year never comes.

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Waiting for hands to make use of them again, the tools sleep under their ledge.

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Our secluded campsite.

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Evening comes

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The last of the sun lights up the canyon walls

Dinner tonight was Berkeley Bowl black bean soup mix, with dehydrated rice, okra, carrots, red pepper flakes, cumin, parmesan, and chicken. Delicious! We are good cooks.

10.6 miles today, and since it was all downhill, the phone tells me we have climbed one flight of stairs. Good night.

Day 4 Goin’ Down, Down, Down…

8/14/20

IMG_5019IMG_5022IMG_5020IMG_5024IMG_50236:00 AM  I woke up to a stupendous dawn—brilliant red clouds above Petit and Regulation Peaks. Rushed out to get photos, and then it was gone.

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There’s something poignant, or creepy, about this live tree being embraced by the dead. “I am always with you, my darling.”

It started raining last night at about 2:30 AM. A strange, light rain that sounded like dry pine needles falling on my tent. When I got up to check it out, the tent was dry to the touch. A rain that gives no moisture.

IMG_5032IMG_5036IMG_5033IMG_5034Now the clouds are turning pearly with the sun just hitting their eastern sides. Very Italian Renaissance. I had a restless sleep last night. Too dry, and for some reason, even though my tent site seemed level, I kept inching off the sleeping pads.

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Volunteer Peak and Rodgers Lake, from the south side.

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The granite “boat ramp” across the lake is where Barbara and I sat yesterday, when we first arrived at Rodgers Lake.

IMG_5041IMG_5042IMG_5043After breakfast, I took off to explore, and ended up walking around the lake. It was challenging. No trail, and a few boulder fields to navigate.  It was great to see the changing light as the sun cleared the ridgeline. Barbara and I had decided that we didn’t need to leave this idyllic place until afternoon. Today, we plan a fairly short hike, all downhill. Much of the way around the lake, I was thinking, “If it gets more difficult, I can always turn around,” but then it looked like I was over halfway around, and I committed to keep going. For the first part of my circumnavigation, B and I communicated via yodels (I had taught her how to yodel on our last trek, and she was an excellent student), but after awhile I was too far away.

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Near our campsite, I was stopped in my tracks by this weathered fallen tree.

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The south side of the lake is a jumble of slides.

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A piebald crazy quilt of rock.

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The view from the east end of the lake.

IMG_5052I met up with B back around at our first resting place of yesterday, and we walked back to our rock and took a swim. It took a long time to commit to the water, as it’s pretty cold. But we’ve definitely been in colder water. I feel so wonderfully alive!

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Neal Lake, under the escarpment of West Peak

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On the shore of Neal Lake.

5:30 PM

The only people we saw today were a pair of rangers out patrolling. We startled them at Neal Lake (they weren’t expecting people). It was fun to talk with them. He had been a ranger for eight years, stationed at Tuolumne Meadows, and she was assigned to the toll booth at Tioga Pass. They asked us whether we had a bear canister, and we said yes, we had one, and that we were out for eight days. He said, “You can’t carry eight days’-worth of food for two people in one Bear Vault.” We insisted that we could. More on that point later…

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I think B was influenced by meeting up with the rangers.

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Rodgers Meadows

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The stream which should meander through the meadow is dry, dry, dry…

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Farewell to the high country! I feel better knowing that we will end the hike up high again, in Tuolumne Meadows.

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After Rodgers Canyon, we began to get vistas, and we could see where we were headed.

We are camped near the junction for the Pate Valley and Pleasant Valley trails. It’s a very hot day, and there is no shade in camp. No water. The streams shown on the map are all dry, except for one tiny trickle, for which we have to compete with the bees. But it would be another four miles to Pate Valley, and we’d rather not push it and just stay here.

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Something new on the landscape: groves of aspen.

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Looking west toward Rancheria Mountain and Pleasant Valley…

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…and down toward Pate Valley

Just now, passing our campsite, we have seen a group of eight people hiking together, and also two young men, all hiking for four days (starting at Hetch Hetchy and ending in Tuolumne Meadows, where we started) and covering more ground than us, with much heavier packs. I don’t know…I would rather do without than carry all that stuff. My back has been really bothering me today. Everyone reported bears. We had seen plenty of sign (lots of scat), but no actual bears. Up here, they are timid black bears, and more likely to run away than cause any trouble (unless you threatened a cub somehow). We had walked a little further down the trail to where the map shows that we cross the creek, as we were on a search for water. The stream wasn’t even a trickle, just a few bee-filled puddles. But it was so much cooler down there than at our camp, that we just laid down on the trail and enjoyed the shade, the slight breeze, and the rattle of aspen leaves, which sounded like water. 

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Our only shade in camp.

Our campsite is on a sage-y shelf of volcanic rock amid the granite, out of the trees and bugs. There’s a large granite boulder setting in the middle of it, with mortar holes attesting to the fact that people have found it to be a good place to stay for hundreds of years—if not thousands. In a wet year, or a formerly “normal” year, the stream would have flowed nearby, through a stand of aspen.

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Evidence that our camp has been a popular spot for a long time.

We hiked back up to the stream where we had gotten water earlier, and it had completely stopped running by 6:00 PM. jUst puddles, but larger than below. We managed to salvage some water for tomorrow’s breakfast.

Tomorrow will be an easy day, down to Pate Valley, and our first chance at more water.  Then the Grand Canyon! The evening is totally clear, without a cloud anywhere. The sun has just set, at 7:30, behind Rancheria Mountain. It is too hot for my bag. I read to B about Konrad Lorenz’s observations of the mating habits of Siamese fighting fish and cichlids. Very interesting! And so very human. Or maybe we are just fishy.

Because of my morning hike around the lake, my mileage today was about 12 miles. We descended from 9,500′ at Rodgers Lake to 7,780′ at our camp. Tomorrow, we will be at the low point of 4,380′.

Day 3 Matterhorn Canyon to Rodgers Lake

8/13/20

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Matterhorn Canyon

4:00 PM  Matterhorn Canyon supplied me with a great night’s sleep. I slept uninterrupted from 8:00 until 1:00 AM, which for a woman of my age is damn good. Then I was so comfy and snug, I didn’t budge until 6:00 AM. We hit the trail at 8:00, expecting the worse up to Benson Pass, but it was like a stroll in the park. And what a park it is! The trail led up a canyon, with granite walls rising thousands of feet above us on either side. the weather was ideal, full of fresh sweet mountain air, cool in the shade and warm in the sun. The trail was empty of people until we got to Wilson Creek, and we saw all sorts of birds and flowers, and a magnificently unconcerned 12-point buck who studied us from across the swale. Eventually, he got bored and went back to eating.

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Climbing out of Matterhorn Canyon

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Up into the morning sun. 

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Bless the trail builders! This one is really artfully constructed.

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The canyon walls rose above us

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Climbing up from Matterhorn Canyon, we passed through lush forests of fir and ferns.

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As we got highe