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 higher, things got drier.

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Above Wilson Creek, we passed through a sunlit meadow.

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Such a Japanese-garden esthetic!

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Looking back down the trail. 

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Trees and other vegetation thinned as we worked our way up to the pass.

Today was as easy as yesterday was hard. We topped Benson Pass by 10:30, and took some time out for a snack and to just enjoy being. Then Smedberg Lake by 11:30.

We heard and saw Clark’s Nutcrackers up on Benson Pass. I have certainly heard enough of them on this trip, but they have always been distant, and these were the first close-up sightings. They are such garrulous critters, and their talking is one of the sounds I look forward to. Makes me know I have arrived!

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Looking forward to Volunteer Peak. We will walk around the right-side base of the peak and turn left to climb up and over the shoulder to Rodgers Lake.

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I considered turning this clockwise, because it looks just like a human torso, but decided against it. The geologists would probably object. But look at those nice legs!

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We walked through little gardens all the way down the path.

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We walked across an ancient lakebed, which is slowly becoming a desert.

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The fractured granite piles look like the remnants of an ancient stone city.

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Barbara heads out across the old lakebed.

Sorry! I couldn’t stop taking photos today. Bear with me, please.

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Smedberg Lake was cold and windy. It would have been a great time for a swim, had the weather cooperated.

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Filling a water bottle in the lake.

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Black and white or color? It hardly made any difference.

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The trails are so artful!

IMG_4970IMG_4971IMG_4972After descending Benson Pass, we started seeing people, and counted 20 on the trail today, but there hasn’t been a soul since we took the trail less traveled. There were many long-distance hikers, from Bend and Ashland, OR, and Shasta, and who knows where else. One guy had been hiking for six weeks. He said he had hiked the entire PCT a few years ago, and now he’s just going slow, stopping to fish and enjoy the scenery, actually experiencing the places he raced through before, and resupplying every 75 miles. We asked him if he ate the fish he caught, and he said no, most of the time it was catch-and-release. Then he educated us about the difference in flavor between brook and rainbow trout. I had no idea. Apparently, rainbow is much more “fishy” tasting (I guess that means brook trout must taste like chicken).

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We took the left-hand trail.

I prefer a trail like this, where the grass can still grow on it—fewer feet stomping it down. The Pacific Crest Trail was nice, manicured and well-traveled. But I am glad to be turning away from it.

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Finally reached the top of the little saddle over to Rodgers Lake.

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Barbara showed up a couple of minutes later. The sense of distance (which you can’t really get from these iPhone photos) is pretty heady up here!

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Looking at the backside of Volunteer Peak. I had considered scrambling up it, earlier in the day, but I don’t feel the drive to do that anymore. Amazing how a few miles on the trail will wear off the edges…

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And ahead of us, what’s over the rise?

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Pretty Ranger’s Buttons.

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Whoa! It’s Rodgers Lake!

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Skunk cabbage meadows lined the trail.

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A little vernal pool caught the reflection of Regulation Peak behind it..

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We got down to the lake, and stopped to rest for awhile on a granite slab. I love this wide strip of quartz in the middle of this boulder.

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It helps to stretch.

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Barbara looks happy, as usual.

Now we’re at Rodgers Lake, so of course I can’t get the Jimmie Rodgers song, “Away Out On The Mountain” out of my head. It is so, so, so stunning here.

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The views from our granite slab, to the left and the right. Rodgers Lake is huge!

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And the views from our preferred smooth rock on the lee side of the lake.

The weather is changing. We could be in for some cold or a storm. We shall see. We met a young woman from Berkeley hiking solo, a gardener named Sequoia. Afterwards, I wondered if that was her “real” name, or a trail name. And what is real, anyway? Met another guy named Megaphone, who really enjoyed talking.

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View of the lake from below our campsite. So nice to just sit an be.

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Of course, sitting is all very fine and good. But I needed to explore what might be over the hill. Turns out, it’s tomorrow’s first destination: Neal Lake

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See the rock in the foreground of the previous photo? Well, it has a crack through it, and inside the crack grows the most beautiful chartreuse lichen.

We have set up camp not too far from the lake, in the leeward side, anticipating some weather blowing in with the wind. It is so very pleasant here. Today was Barbara’s hard day, while I was “the Kid,” effortlessly climbing the ridges. Tomorrow starts our two days of downhill to Pate Valley, and then up the Tuolumne.

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I think this lodgepole wishes it were a Joshua tree. It just looks so Mojave to me.

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My tent site.

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Evening comes to the high country.

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Every moment, the light changes.

IMG_5014For some reason, my back is extremely sore today, right in the spot where I fractured two vertebrae in our 1994 car wreck. I am very, very pleased to find out that Barbara gives a great back massage! It helped me so much. Grateful for those strong piano hands!

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Alpenglow, as seen from my tent. I was too tuckered out to want to get up and actually get a good shot of it, justifying my immobility by saying it’d be gone by the time I got up (it wouldn’t have been…).

13 miles, and 63 floors climbed, according to my phone. A beautiful day!

Day 2 Virginia Canyon and Matterhorn Canyon

8/12/20

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Brrr! At 6:00 AM, Cold Canyon lives up to its name.

IMG_4892IMG_4895A grueling day! I had a bad night of very little sleep, though I was rewarded by the sight of a long, bright meteorite streaking across the velvety black moon-free sky during one of my awake and out-of-the-tent moments. I couldn’t get comfortable, and it was cold (unless I hunkered down in the bag). We camped in Cold Canyon, just past Cold Mountain, and it is aptly named. I got up at 6:00 AM to the meadow covered in frost and a low white mist just below us. Then, when the sun finally hit, the ground sparkled like diamond dust. It was very dewy last night, and we had to wait for the tents to dry before we could pack up.

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Here comes the sun!

Today was mostly unrelentingly uphill, except for the steep, unrelenting downhill into Virginia and Matterhorn Canyons. We went up to lodgepole and down to to red fir and back up to lodgepole and then to red fir numerous times.

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Looking down into Virginia Canyon. Somewhere down there is our water source, after 7 miles of dryness (if you don’t count rain and frost).

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We were greeted by a dipper running through the granite puddles when we got to Return Creek, at the bottom of Virginia Canyon.

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Fantastic fungi!

When we finally got to Miller Lake, a brief swim saved me. I had really been hitting rock bottom energy-wise, and B had given me a couple of magnesium capsules, which were supposed to help with oxygen absorption in the blood but instead mostly messed with my intestines. Ugh! Meanwhile, Barbara was just chugging along nice and steady, and I was thinking to myself, “So this is what 70 feels like. I don’t like it,” but throughout it all, the landscape was spectacular. I didn’t take many photos, as I was too busy just keeping going. I took to referring to B in my mind as “The Kid.”

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The Kid

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Peek-a-boo views of distant ridges.

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The graceful mountain hemlocks were everywhere.

We met one lone young man, hiking from Sonora Pass to Mt Whitney, who told us about the incredible thunderstorm he had been in the night before. It sounded like B’s and my night below Elizabeth Pass. Scary! Briefly met another couple who were on their 320th trail mile. They had that look of wild ecstasy in their eyes. And when we got to Matterhorn Canyon, we met a young woman standing alone in the meadow waving her wet socks around her head. She was hiking with someone else, who we didn’t see. And that was it for the day. This is the Pacific Crest Trail, and I had expected it to be much busier. Thankful that it wasn’t.

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Miller Lake showed up just in time. I thought we’d never get there. A brief dip in the cold water brought me back to myself. It would have been longer but for the unrelenting wind. Cold! Clark’s Nutcrackers made a racket from the far side of the lake.

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The trail leads on, with a sharp right turn away from Miller Lake to the lip of Matterhorn Canyon.

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The Sawtooth Range, and Matterhorn Peak! Now it’s down, down, down to the canyon floor.

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The very steep switchback trail down to Matterhorn Canyon didn’t allow for any panoramic views, but the lighting among the trees was soft and golden.

Now, at the mouth of Matterhorn Canyon, we have a lovely campsite, with a beautiful stream nearby and lots of very unafraid large deer. They know that they are living in Paradise. We rinsed out our clothes and set up camp. Barbara walked over to an area she didn’t think she had been in before, and found one if the Wright socks that she had recently bought two pair of.. She said, “Oh, I must have dropped my other!”, and searched unsuccessfully all over the camp area, until she finally realized that all her socks were, in fact, accounted for. She was wearing one pair, and had the other in among her washing. She just happened to find a stray sock, same color, size and make, that someone else had lost! We now use it for our potholder. If you lost a sock in Matterhorn Canyon, I have it. Drop me a line.

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Matterhorn Canyon, our own private Yosemite Valley.

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Our granite bathtubs at camp. Cold water!

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A camp visitor. We have to make sure that any sweaty clothing is not available for the salt-loving critters to munch on.

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We didn’t have any fires, but used the former fire ring as our kitchen.

I have been struggling all trip so far with my drinking apparati. Since I lost the water bottle clip (I think it got accidentally “recycled” at home), I have been trying to figure out how to either attach my bottle somewhere that I can reach it more easily than the side pocket of my pack, or rig up a bladder-type apparatus to my pack, which isn’t made for such a thing (a disadvantage to the stripped-down very light pack I have). Today, I decided that my Macgyvered “fix” is much more trouble than it’s worth. Plus, I miss being able to gulp water straight from the bottle. Now, though, my water bottle has a hole drilled into the middle of the cap, so I need to be very careful when I set it down, that it doesn’t spill. And in dry places, ants seem to like to crawl inside.

It was a hard, hard day. Tomorrow will be equally difficult, if not harder. I’m going to sleep early, probably by 8:00 PM.

13.3 miles. Good night.

Northern Yosemite and the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne—8 days of up and down.

8/11/20

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The view from our campsite in the Stanislaus National Forest

Barbara Higbie and I left Berkeley yesterday afternoon, at about 2:00. We packed up the van and double-checked everything. All good! We caught the first wave of rush-hour traffic leaving town, and inched along toward Tracy. After that, the roads cleared, and as we hit Highway 120, I saw the billboard for Bass World, one mile up the road. Suddenly it came to me: I’d forgotten my trekking poles. Those are invaluable things on these outings, really helping with both uphills and downs for the knees and hips. So we pulled off the road, walked through the 100-degree heat and into the over-the-top Disneyesque shopping experience, past the fish tank with a couple of good-sized sturgeons swimming lazily around, under and alongside the waterfall and past the stuffed wolves, coyotes, mountain goats and elk, to the hiking department. $40 later, we were out of there and on down the road.

We stopped at La Michoacana in Groveland for a shared plate of enchiladas, rice and beans, eaten in their very pleasant outdoor area, and then headed up the highway to Cherry Lake Road. We were too late to get into the backpackers’ campsite at Hetch Hetchy, so we figured we’d just pull off the road in the Stanislaus National Forest somewhere. This was an area that burned in the Rim Fire of 2013, and there were still standing dead trees, but so much life coming back! The shrubs and bushes were full of wildflowers and insects and the air was full of birds. There were lots of young trees. I don’t know if they were planted or whether they are just coming back naturally. In either case, it was nice to see. We drove up a dirt road out of sight of the paved road, and set up camp.

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Thunderstorms in the distance, and is that snow still on the mountains? Or the sunlight glinting off bare expanses of granite?

I confess to being pretty nervous when it comes to camping at places that one can drive to. It seems far more dangerous to me than camping where one has to make an effort to get there. But the air was sweet and full of the sound of a million or more crickets, the evening warm, and no signs of recent humans. There were cattle grazing not too far away, and I briefly imagined a stampede in the middle of the night crashing into my tent, before I fell asleep.

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Sunset, August 10th

By about 7:30 this morning, we were packed up and back on the road. It had been a long time since I had taken this road, so I ended up taking a wrong turn and followed the road down to Cherry Lake and the dead end at the Kirkwood trailhead. Interesting! There’s a California Conservation Corps headquarters down there, and those guys in their trucks act like they own the roads. Kind-of scary to meet a convoy barreling down around a curve and taking up most of both sides of the road. Luckily, there was a turnout right there, and we took shelter and they thundered past. Then back up the canyon and on in to Camp Mather, the site of so many ecstatic years of the Strawberry Music Festival. We stopped at the Evergreen Lodge for coffee, a cookie and an orange, and then drove on to Yosemite. So exciting, driving into the park!

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The Tuolumne meanders through its meadow. Johnson, Unicorn and Cathedral Peaks, and Medlicott Dome in the distance.

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Ahhh! The scoured granite expanses! And rain in the future.

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The Tuolumne drops into the top of its Grand Canyon.

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Tuolumne Falls

We got on the trail at 10:00 AM, and it was astoundingly beautiful, walking along the Tuolumne River as it winds through Tuolumne Meadows, then past Tuolumne Falls and White Cascade, where we stopped in Glen Aulin. That camp is closed this year, but the backpackers’ camp is open. We pondered whether to stop there for the night, but decided it was too early and there were too many people. We rested, had our hot meal at about 1:00, and loaded up with water, as a ranger had told us that there was none to be found between Glen Aulin and Virginia Canyon, some 7 miles distance. We  figure we’d make a dry camp somewhere in  between the two. Now it’s almost 6:00 PM and we have set up camp at the edge of a beautiful meadow in Cold Canyon, just below Elbow Hill. On the way here, it rained a bit (just enough for us to pull out our rain gear, walk for about 20 minutes, and then take it off again). The skies are clearing and it’s starting to get cold as I sit here.

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Beautiful new bridges over the Tuolumne. The old ones were washed out in Spring floods a few years ago.

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Dressed for the weather.

There is nobody around here, and we are totally on our own. So far, this trip is more than I had hoped for, for scenery, aloneness and weather. And we just got word over the Garmin In-Reach that Biden picked Kamala Harris for his running mate. Exciting news! She is one smart, capable person.

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The trail suddenly opened up into a long meadow through Cold Canyon, as the weather cleared.

8:00 PM: No water anywhere. The meandering stream in the meadow is mostly bone-dry, with the occasional tiny stagnant puddle every mile or so. I fear that this may be the case for much of this trip, as the year has been particularly dry and last winter’s snowfall was pretty sparse. 150 years ago, John Muir said, “Every mountain is a fountain,” and I am afraid that may not be the case these days. I’m not used to not being able to wash up before bed. My feet are filthy, but I’ve managed to clean them pretty well with a face wipe. I can’t imagine putting them in my clean sleeping socks otherwise.

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Home, sweet home.

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Our little tent city in Cold Canyon

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Happy me!

There was nobody on the trail from Glen Aulin to here. Three young men did pass us about an hour ago, headed the opposite direction. I have been reading chapters from Konrad Lorenz’s book, “King Solomon’s Ring,” out loud to B. His engaging stories about animal and human behavior, mixed with lots of interesting biological facts, is so enjoyable for both of us. Kudos to Marjorie Kerr Wilson for a beautiful job of translating it from the original German. Such a good read. I had last read it over 40 years ago, and figured it was time to revisit it. Plus, it is a very lightweight paperback, and every ounce counts. Also on this trip, I brought my old Kuhl hiking shirt, which I wore on the John Muir Trail in 2014 (and many subsequent hikes since). It is so worn-out, but I like it better than any other hiking shirt I have had, including ones from the same company. And of course, because it is so great, they don’t make them anymore…

The phone shows 10.8 miles today. Not bad for the first day!

Day 8, Back to “civilization”

7/28/2020

Barbara and I were up and leaving camp by about 8:30 AM. from here, the trail rises to Timber Gap in aa little over two miles, with an elevation gain of 2,500′. I felt really good and strong, and the pack was, of course, the lightest it’s been the whole trip, since we ate all the food except for today’s snacks. That’s one of the ironies of the trail: when you start out, you are in the worst shape and carrying the heaviest load. As you get stronger, the load lightens. Wish it could be the other way around!

IMG_4797The trail, through lodgepole and sugar pine and various other spruces and the like, led through meadows alive with flowers and butterflies. There were little white ones, orange ones, and on the way down some of those beautiful tiny Sierra blues. Chickadees sang “‘Bye, Laurie” to me as we walked past. Stopping to rest at one point, we watched a whole family of marmots waddling among the rocks. Chipmunks and ground squirrels ran hither and yon. It was a beautiful morning!

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Ranger’s Buttons (don’t you love that name?)

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The perfect garden path.

There were occasional views across the Middle Kaweah River Valley to Little Blue Dome, Morro Rock, and glimpses of the High Sierra Trail.

 

IMG_4807The last bunch of switchbacks to Timber Gap were a little daunting—more psychologically than physically—because I couldn’t tell where we were headed. I’d think I’d see the Gap ahead of us, but then the trail would make an abrupt turn and I’d have to rethink where we were going to reach the top.  And then suddenly, there we were at 9,500′, and it was all downhill from there. True to the name, Timber Gap is pretty heavily wooded, so not much in the way of views.

The last leg of the trip was a breeze. My legs felt positively bionic, and i definitely had regained my stride. Feels so good!

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It looks very Alpen, coming down to Mineral King, but wilder.

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I can see the van!

Coming around one bend, I was surprised to see a Douglas squirrel nearly at my feet. It looked like something right out of a Japanese Manga magazine, with huge eyes, tufts on its ears, a perfect question mark of a tail curled over its back. Its’s definitely the prettiest member of the squirrel family I have ever seen. I had this feeling that i had seen one before in my rambles, but honestly couldn’t say whether it was only because I have read about them and seen their pictures so often. I knew it immediately. It foraged under a tree for awhile, and then ran up onto a branch to munch whatever it had found. My heart leapt for joy. I tried to take photos, but of course they were completely inadequate. So I stole one off the internet.

 

douglas squirrel

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This is the best I could do…

Back at the van, the unwrapping process was straightforward and without mishap. There was a big puddle of water on the tarp from the thunderstorms. I could hear the stream rushing just out of sight from the parking lot, and suggested we take one last rinse-off before ewe changed our clothes and started the long drive home. Now, that was a GOOD  IDEA!

 

IMG_4814Driving out on Mineral King Road, we passed through Atwell Mills, and were awestruck, and saddened, by the size of the Sequoia stumps everywhere. Then, farther down the road, we looked back the way we had come, and could see Sawtooth Peak and the beginning of our hike.

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Add two feet all the way around, to account for the bark. That was a Big Tree!

Farther still, we stopped in Three Rivers for ice cream. The best I ever had!

Then it was back on Highway 99 and a quick trip back up north to home. I confess, it was good to get home, just in time to harvest the last of the plums, and to see my loved ones again, but I am already ready to hit the trail again. Thank you for traveling with me.IMG_4830

Barbara just sent me some more photos from our trip to share, so here they are. Enjoy!

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Whoa! A Sugar Pine cone. I  am standing in mountain misery, FYI.  It’s a very pungent, resinous ground cover. I thought that it was Scotch broom I was smelling at Val’s Cabin, but no. This is it.

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Standing on the edge of Precipice Lake

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Overlooking the Middle Kaweah Valley, facing east toward Hamilton Lakes. Tiny peak in the background is Eagle Scout Peak, which rises above Precipice Lake.

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One last view of Kaweah Gap.

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Nature left a piece of Art at our Granite Creek campsite.

Day 7, Redwood Meadow

7/27/2020

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Spent dogwood blossoms lined our path this morning.

I had a rough night’s sleep. It was too hot for my bag, and I couldn’t get comfy. I went to bed at 8:30 PM, and woke at 9:30 to beautiful half-moon light on the bright granite, and again at 1:30 to a black sky full of incredible stars, and then tossed and turned until 6:30. Now it’s almost 9:00 AM, and we are ready to leave camp. I am still worried about that group of 10. Where would they even have done their business here, in this narrow granite defile, without defiling the entire place?

 

California Coneflowers3:50 PM

We arrived at the trail junction with Black Rock Pass, and made camp. The weather is ideal, the river water is cold but something far short of icy, and there is ample shade. The hike today was steep, and passing through Redwood Meadow was extremely emotional—like visiting a former concentration camp. That strip of trees that John muir wrote about is nearly completely gone. In most places, there are just a few skinny survivors. They look so alone, and I am sure they are missing their family members, who stood beside them for 1000+ years.  In their sense of time, the holocaust was yesterday, a mere 100 years ago. Humans. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like for the trees, or what it feels like now, to live with such a gaping would still fresh in their memories.

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Fallen giants snaked through the woods

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B took a moment to commune with one of the fire-scarred survivors.

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Looking up from inside the tree.

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We reminisced about “My Side of the Mountain”

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Incredible fire-retardant bark of Sequoiadendron Giganteum.

Tomorrow will be a big day, over Timber Gap and into Mineral King, where we will unwrap the van, change our clothes, and drive home.Already, the outside world and all I have to do is starting to weigh on me.

 

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Sugar pine cones! They are soooo big!

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Every creek has its own lush strip of jungle growing beside it.

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As the trail wound through the folds of the mountainsides, we occasionally came across small stands of Sequoias. Even these skinny young ones towered above the pines.

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Our concession to our loved ones was a Garmin In-Reach, just in case. B sent a prewritten message saying “We are stopping or starting. All is well. Sending love.” It was often difficult to get any reception at all. I had heard that holding the car remote next to one’s head intensifies the strength of the signal, so B tried it with the Garmin. It worked!

This camp area at the trail junction to Black Rock Pass, is very popular (though there are only 5 of us camped here tonight). The bear box is completely filled with someone’s gear and extra food, which is starting to rot and stink. Apparently, some guy came through with an 80-pound pack (that’s what we were told, anyway), and decided to unload stuff before trying to go over the pass. He isn’t coming back for it, as he’s doing the loop hike back out over Sawtooth Pass. What an idiot. They really should make people take a class before they are allowed to come out here and desecrate their surroundings. Am I being elitist? I don’t think so. I pity the poor ranger who has to come clean it all up and haul it out.

At 7:30, the bugs drove me into my tent. Always more buggy under the trees. Hopefully, I’ll have a good night’s sleep tonight. We visited for a long time this afternoon with a 21-year-old engineering and social justice student at Cal Poly, hiking by herself and a little lonesome for company, I think. Claire is smart, funny, and ready to engineer a new reality! It makes me hopeful for the future to meet people like her.

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Our camp at the crossroads. Barbara said, “I don’t think I would design my living room with that giant log poking through the middle of it!”

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Squeezing water, one of our ever-present chores of the trail.

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The beautiful creek by our campsite. Perfect for rinsing off the sweat and dust of the trail.

9.2 miles today, 62 floors climbed. I’m tired and a little wrung out from the emotional hits of the day. There always comes a time, on these trips, when I feel stripped of my every-day defenses. I welcome it and dread it, both. Today was that day.

 

Day 6,The road more or less traveled

7/26/2020

IMG_4722I slept really well! Woke up at about 4:30, and then slept again until 6:30. The day is clear and perfect. The sun hit our camp after a couple of hours. We have the morning to laze around, dry out our clothes, take a swim, and then hike down to Bearpaw Meadows. I am so sad to leave the high country, but the silver lining is being able to sleep again. I guess…IMG_4724

IMG_4728IMG_4735IMG_4727IMG_47297:00 pm

It’s been an eventful day. This morning, while entering the lake for a swim, Barbara slipped and fell. She caught herself with her left hand, which tweaked her wrist pretty badly. We had just enough first aid tape to tape the wrist, and she says it feels a lot better. So we got to use our first aid supplies! Two kinds of tape, and the little knife.

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The view from the bridge over Middle Kaweah River

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Looking down Middle Kaweah Valley. The High Sierra Trail (on right side) is a masterpiece of trail engineering.

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Pearly Everlasting (love that name!) and Paintbrush

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Looking up toward Elizabeth Pass.

Absolutely stunning views along the High Sierra Trail! I was thinking all the way to Bearpaw that I would ask if there are any cancellations for the High Sierra Camp there, so that I could bring Tom out here to see this incredible place. But when we arrived, the High Sierra Camp was just wooden skeleton buildings. Turns out that it never opened last year because it was such a big snow year, and this year  it didn’t open because of COVID-19. So another little dream bites the dust.

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We were too late for the thimbleberries this year.

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The scent of horsemint woke up our slumbering senses.

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We are soon to be at the bottom of this valley, crossing over the river coming from Hamilton Lake, and then the creek leading from the backside of Eagle Scout Peak. Farewell to the High Country!

B and I spent awhile talking to the ranger at Bearpaw. She thought we should move on to Granite Creek, which is still quite a ways down the trail. As we left Bearpaw, we left the popular High Sierra Trail and started down a trail that I think nobody had walked yet today. It was such a quiet, shady, peaceful trail, down, down, and down to the lowest elevation on our trip. That’s where we are now, and it’s idyllic. Or it was, until a group of 10 hikers showed up and said they were supposed to camp there. There was obviously not enough room for 10 people, let alone 12, counting us. We were puzzling what to do, and decided we’d move on to help make room for them (even though there was no water for miles in our direction). The leader said no, they would go on to Middle Kaweah River, about 1.5 miles farther down the trail, since they couldn’t all fit there anyway. The group seemed so ill-equipped for such a long day. It was their first day out, and they had already hiked from Mineral King over Timber Gap and through Redwood Meadows, where the ranger told them there wasn’t any water and they needed to move on to Granite Creek. That’s a 12-mile first day, with at least one person carrying a 45-pound pack. Barbara referred to then as the Donner Party. I felt very guilty for having this spacious (for two people) campsite. And yet, relieved, because we were tuckered out.

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The deserted campgrounds at Bearpaw Meadows

We had stopped at Bearpaw Meadows backpacking camp for our hot meal earlier in the day. It was really strange, as the entire campground was totally deserted. We were the only ones there. At one point, as I started to stretch out on a log for a rest, I heard a rustling and looked up to see a young black bear hurrying through the meadow, probably on the heels of his mom, who was somewhere ahead in the trees.

IMG_4749We descended from Bearpaw through beautiful oak and madrone forests, down to 6100′ elevation. Such a change of scenery! We were enthralled, rather than being disappointed, as I had anticipated upon leaving the high country. Tomorrow morning, we will be in a Sequoia grove, which we are really looking forward to. I had just been reading about John Muir’s trek to this area to document the Sequoia groves. He said that there was a wide swath of the trees, from a mile to three miles wide, stretching all the way from what is now Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park down through the very area we are in now. He had written his dispatch from the Middle Kaweah River, which we had just crossed a couple of hours ago. All along the trail, I was imagining coming around a bend and seeing the giant broccoli tops of Sequoias rising before us. It hasn’t happened yet, but maybe tomorrow.

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Middle Kaweah River

Today, we immersed ourselves in every body of water we crossed: the Middle Kaweah,  Eagle Scout Creek, and Granite Creek. Every time, we were completely alone, and so we dunked au naturel. I’m so glad those ten people didn’t happen by any of those times. We seem to be blessed with good timing. Nothing wakes up one’s senses and refreshes one like a dip in a cold mountain river! 

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A clear, cold hot-tub-sized pool in Eagle Scout Creek called to us. We had to answer the call.

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Looking downstream from the bridge over Granite Creek. It looks like an amazing swimming hole down there at the end of the chute, but there’s certainly no easy way to get there!

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Our snug campsite at Granite Creek

IMG_4757B had a nose bleed in the middle of last night, while I slept the sleep of the dead. She was up dealing with that, and I guess finally got it under control. She said the inside of her tent looked like a murder scene. Poor thing! This evening, something stung my torso, and I momentarily imagined that I would get some sort of allergic reaction, but luckily I didn’t. It hurt like hell, though. Because we thought that someone else might want to show up  and share our camp, we placed our tents as close to each other as possible. I am so worried about that group.

My phone tells me we hiked 10.8 miles today. I hope I can sleep tonight.

 

Day 5, Kaweah Gap, Precipice and Hamilton Lakes

July 25, 2020

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Early, early morning. Well, it just goes to show—even  though I had the most perfect tent site, I experienced the worst night of no sleep. I just couldn’t get comfy, where I should have slept like the proverbial rock. I attribute it to the 11,000′ elevation. I think my heart kept me awake working harder than usual to process oxygen. But the blush of pink dawn is in the sky over Kaweah Gap, and the chickadees are singing in the foxtails. The sky is without the blemish or beauty mark of a cloud. I’m hungry and want my tea.IMG_4629

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Rock Fringe growing where it should, among the rocks. While B slept, I wandered in the growing light and snapped photos.

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Foxtail pine “in bloom”

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What do you think? Black and white or color?

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The rest of the tree. It was a giant, for the altitude!

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The “perfect,” sleepless campsite. For some reason, I don’t seem to be very bothered by the lack of sleep. No morning grogginess.

4:00 PM

We had a great stroll out of 9 Lakes Basin and stopped on Kaweah Gap to enjoy the views and try to take some selfies with the timer on my phone. For some reason, it wouldn’t work (which may have had something to do with my not donning glasses to see what was actually going on on that little screen).IMG_4633IMG_4645IMG_4661IMG_4675

Then down to Precipice Lake, where we sat awestruck/gob-smacked and in wonder at the beauty. We stopped on the way down to make up a verse to “Little Birdie” and make a little video of it, which looks terrible, but sounds reasonable.

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Those colors are real and not enhanced! The water was cold, but B was indomitable. This time, I sat out the swim opportunity.

Up on the Gap, we saw a Sphinx moth buzz past us. We saw one yesterday, too, while stopping to talk with Donald. He thought it was a hummingbird. They are amazing-looking critters, and the only place I have ever seen one is right up there at Kaweah Gap. They flit and hover like hummers from flower to flower and drink nectar with their long tongues, which look as straight as a hummingbird’s beak. The last time I was up here, one flew all around my ankles, maybe attracted to my brightly-colored Dirty Girl gaiters, and gave me a good chance to study it. At Precipice Lake, we were surprised by a water shrew running under the  water at Barbara’s feet. It’s the largest of the shrew family, and seemed quite at home under the surface. On the walk today, we also saw lots of dark, nearly onyx-colored lizards, one of which flashed its indigo sides and belly at me. Lower down, there were lizards that looked like Zuni or Hopi jewelry, speckled with turquoise down their backs.

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The trail down from Precipice to Hamilton Lake is really beautiful, snaking along steep, glacier-polished granite an sometimes wandering through little hanging gardens of wildflowers.

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We found good tent sites, and took a lovely swim in Lake Hamilton. It was fantastic, the warmest water so far, so we could actually enjoy it and stay in longer. We rinsed out our clothes, set up our tents, made a meal, and as the meals were rehydrating, it began to rain. This gave me a chance to don my rain pants and jacket, which  I hadn’t used so far on the trip.  I LOVE it when everything I bring gets used! As a further example of this, I was able to repair my pack with two lengths of used dental floss yesterday. Today, the other side got wonky, which required two more lengths of floss. Yay! It’s the little things out here which bring delight. We sat in the drizzle and ate one of the best meals we’ve had: Berkeley Bowl black bean soup mix with dehydrated okra, spinach, carrots, rice and parmesan cheese (I dehydrate parmesan at home. Yum!). It was yummy. We followed it up with a Luna bar for dessert.

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Valhalla looms above us in the gathering weather.

Just as dinner ended, it began to rain in earnest, so we retreated to our tents. I am enjoying hearing the distant thunder and listening to the steady drizzle on the tent. It’s a very pleasant temperature. My phone shows that we have traveled 8.5 miles  today. I suppose that’s possible, but it didn’t feel like it, since it was mostly downhill (for a change).

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Now we are having a good, steady downpour—so welcome to these parched lands. We are snug and content.

Today, while walking up to the pit toilet (Hamilton Lake is too popular to NOT have one), we saw a doe nursing her two fauns. They butted their heads, pulled on her teats, and wagged their tails just like little lambs.

IMG_4710By 6:30, the rain had stopped, and the sky was clearing. We sat on the smooth granite dome which makes the lake’s  beach, and drank rooibos tea and split a granola bar, while we watched the light change on Eagle Scout Peak and Valhalla, and the ever-changing reflections on the lake water.

IMG_4713IMG_4720IMG_4719The place has filled up with campers. I count a dozen tents, where there used to be maybe four. The beach is full of socially-distanced little bubbles, taking selfies and yakking away. B recently returned from Wisconsin, and brought back a joke: The toothbrush was invented in Adams County, WI. We know this, because if it had been invented anywhere else, it would have been called a “teethbrush.” I am giddy, and will laugh at almost anything.

LiveforeverIMG_4708Now it’s 8:45, and almost “backpackers’ midnight,” and time to seek sleep. Good night.

 

 

Day 4, Nine Lakes Basin

7/24/2020

8:45 am

We had a nice, leisurely morning at Big Arroyo. My cup of tea tastes so good—warm, soothing and it perks one up. We had a major stove mishap this morning, and I think I have pretty-much destroyed my little Soto stove. I had bought it used from a guy in Alaska for $15 some years ago, and it has always worked perfectly. This morning, though, I failed to notice that it had come partly unscrewed from the gas canister. So when I went to light it, it started a fire at the base and mostly melted the trigger that lights it before I could put it out. Now the stove won’t light on its own anymore. Luckily, we carry a couple of Bic lighters (one of which seems to have quit working), and we can still have our hot beverages and meals. Whew.

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You can’t really see the rock-lined depression from the photo, but to my eyes, it was pretty obvious.

I found an old Native American storage pit near the old cabin here. It’s basically a depression in the ground lined with rocks, which had originally had a cover of some sort. Out in the woods around here, there is a horrid mess of tiny pieces of old toilet paper and stuff careless humans have left behind. I really don’t understand how one can walk so many miles in beauty to get here, and then trash the place!

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Big Arroyo log cabin.

I washed off my dusty tent (it’s like a car—runs better when it’s clean) and am waiting for it to dry in the sun before we pack up.

Nine Lakes Basin, later in the day…

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We set up camp at 2:00 PM among the foxtail pines. It’s breathtakingly  beautiful—and at 10,000′, it’s breathtaking anyway. We met Donald, a fellow from Berkeley today on the trail, who knows this area very well. He said, “Go up into the trees, and you’ll find a great campsite, and you’ll think you can’t do better. But just a little bit further on, and toward the waterfall, there’s an even better one.” It was just as he said, though we shied away from the first campsite anyway because of its position on the ridge. It seemed like it could possibly be in another wind tunnel. This new camp even has a piece of old wood with “WELCOME HOME” carved into it. It is secluded, sheltered,  near a great water source, and out of the path of the strongest winds. There are views up to Kaweah Gap and down Big Arroyo, and massive cliffs with a cascade pouring down from the upper basin. I am tired and happy.

IMG_4555On the way up Big Arroyo today, we hiked for awhile alongside the creek. It was absolutely beautiful, and we didn’t see anyone for hours on end. Then, when we stopped so that I could fix my pack (more on that later), B went off to pee. As she squatted, she happened to glance up, and noticed a man some distance away with binoculars trained on her. Pretty funny, in all that emptiness!

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A morning stroll down a garden path. So civilized!

Sierra Lillies

Sierra Lilies dream alongside to stream

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We are surrounded by rocky domes and spires.

IMG_4537Over the past year, I have been walking a lot with someone with serious health issues, and it has been work to slow my pace to his. Now I am feeling like I can’t find my old rhythm. Maybe it’s age-related, maybe I just lost it somewhere. I am hoping that on this trip, I can find that beat of my feet on the trail again. But I am so grateful to be able to get out here. I thank my lucky stars!IMG_4543IMG_4544

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One of the things I love about hiking with Barbara is that we almost never pass a body of water without stopping to get wet. I think we spur each other on that way. And it always feels soooo good! This little river was too cold to fully immerse ourselves in.

B is reading a book on the power of prayer, which includes this great quote from Arthur Eddington (astronomer, physicist, philosopher of science): “Something unknown is doing we don’t know what.” I really feel that out here.

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Horseshoe Lake, 9 Lakes Basin

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Barbara puttering about in the kitchen.

5:45 pm: It’s raining, and we are sheltering in our tents. We timed it perfectly—just got back from a hike into the upper reaches of 9 Lakes Basin. We could see the storm brewing on the other side of Lion Rock, and most likely going strong at Tamarack Lake and over Elizabeth and Colby Passes.IMG_4554IMG_4550IMG_4561IMG_4559

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From the first fluffy white cloud to appear, to a full-blown thunderstorm with rain and hail…

We wandered upward along granite shelves, picking our way from lake to lake and stopping to admire the views and approaching clouds. Stopped for a swim in one of the lakes, which didn’t seem to have an inlet and so was warmer (less cold) than some of the others. I just started to write that it would hav been better if the sun were hotter, but damn! It was perfect! The rocks were warm, for drying off.

IMG_4565IMG_4567IMG_4573Everywhere we walked there were tiny flowers. It was impossible not to occasionally crush them underfoot. The horsemint and pennyroyal scented the air and woke our senses.

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We hurried to lower ground as the storm threatened. Thunder, lightning, and big ol’ raindrops, reminding us of our trek over Elizabeth Pass, where the storm is sitting now.

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I wanted to take this log home with me, for a backyard sculpture.

Now it’s hailing a little, as we shelter in our tents, just to remind us that Nature will have her say, and throw at us anything she wants at any time.

A little while later, it had stopped raining, and B called me out of my tent to watch the sunset. Glorious!

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Kaweah Gap

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Kaweah Gap a little later. Good night.

Day 3, Big and Little 5 Lakes, and Big Arroyo

7/23/2020

IMG_4479This morning, after a good night’s sleep, Barbara and I awake refreshed and pretty-much recovered, feeling full of energy for the day. We packed up and hit the trail up to Big 5 Lakes. It’s a beautiful uphill trail through golden chinquapins shining in the morning sun, manzanita and oaks, changing to pines and juniper as we ascended. It looked like a series of mountain gardens, with views of rocky crags and peaks every whichaway.

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Miranda leads us up the trail to Big 5 Lakes

There were very few people on the trails today. We met up with Miranda, who walks faster than us. We took each other’s photos at the first of Big 5 Lakes, and then she pressed on to explore the other lakes, while we stayed to the trail to Little 5 and on north. Miranda is hiking the very-popular loop trail over Black Rock Pass (which we hear is very steep and grueling and long—as opposed to Sawtooth Pass, which is steep and grueling and short).

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The first of the Big 5’s

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So pleasant, walking along the lakeshores, in and out of the trees.

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I could stare at the water forever.

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Black Kaweah rises above us across the arroyo. The first of Little 5 Lakes appears below us.

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We send blessings to the trail crews!

Now, we are at the Big Arroyo campground, where our trail meets up with the High Sierra Trail, which runs from Crescent Meadows in Sequoia NP to the top of Mt Whitney. I expect to see lots of serious mile-eating hikers on their way to the mountaintop, to cross this feat off their to-do list. The sun just went behind Mt Lippincott at 6:30 pm. We have the campsite to ourselves!

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Mt Lippincott

Washed up in the creek. Such a good feeling after so much work. I love the chore of rinsing off the day’s dust and sweat. My hips hurt from the pack and the climbing. Our high point today was about 10,800′, and now we are at 9500′ There’s weather threatening over the Kaweahs, and it’s getting very cold. Last night, things froze. I wish I had taken photo of my socks standing straight up and stiff as boards in the morning, and my bandanna, which I could hold upright from a corner. It looked great, sparkling with frost.

All day, we were treated with views of the Kaweahs: Kaweah Queen, Black Kaweah, Red Kaweah and and Kaweah Peak. I remember them well from the other side, while hiking the John Muir Trail. They looked like fairy castles in the distance then, and now they look like mighty crumbling fortresses close-up.

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Leaving the lowest of the Little 5 Lakes behind.

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Black and Red Kaweahs, and Kaweah Peak guided our journey all day.

It was such a pleasure to have the place to ourselves this afternoon. We ate today’s hot meal at one of the Little 5 Lakes, just a ways off the trail out of the wind and in the shade. So funny! The sun is so hot and the shade is so cool, that’s it’s hard to find the right place to be just right.

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A fallen giant, and a still-standing trail ant.

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“Oh, give to me a winding stream, it must not be too wide…”

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Looking and feeling much better after a good clean-up in the stream.

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Barbara makes sure that there are no nutrients left on the wrapper.

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The Big Arroyo campsite. Lovely!

IMG_4520Now, at Big Arroyo, we have been invaded by a group of about 7 men, all hiking to Mt Whitney. They are a little noisy, and their cam is a little close, but oh well. I’m glad to see people enjoying themselves out here. B and I made some rooibos tea and I read to her the notes from a couple of our previous trips, which happen to be in this same journal. I hope I don’t run out of room in it this trip!

Today’s hike was about 10 miles. Between Big 5 Lakes and Big Arroyo, we wandered through lush hanging gardens on the steep mountainside, with lupines sporting leaves bigger than my hands. Almost jungly-feeling in some spots. Mosquitos not bad, but they do prefer those damp areas, so we didn’t dawdle there.

The menacing clouds of a few hours ago seem to have just evaporated away. It’ll be a good night on level ground (I hope). Tomorrow: Nine Lakes Basin!

Day 2, Sawtooth Pass and Lost Canyon

July 22, 2020

IMG_4478Barbara and I set up camp at the foot of Lost Canyon, among the lodgepoles next to Lost Canyon Creek, where we join the trail north to Big 5 Lakes. We wanted to go farther, but we were exhausted. Last night’s camp turned out to be in a wind tunnel, and the tents were so noisy, flapping in the wind, and close to collapsing all night long. We were on a hard-packed mostly granite area, and had used rocks instead of stakes to put our tents up. It was tough. The wind blew the rocks around, and they weren’t little ones! We both got up (not “”woke up”) at 5:30, and hit the Sawtooth Pass trail by 7ish. It was only 1.2 miles to the top, but it took 1.5 hours to get there. Looking back, I would love to have another chance to find the “right” trail! The way was braided with dozens of different paths, and it was impossible to stay on whatever the best one might have been. Lots of walking through granite sand and gravel on steep slopes, where you take one step forward and slide halfway back. Later in the day, we ran across a fellow who said he has a friend who has hiked over Sawtooth Pass five times, and had never taken the same trail twice.

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We set out long before the sun had cleared the ridge, which helped with the climb.

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Even when she’s miserable, Barbara finds reason to smile. And why not? Just look around.