“Spellbound and dumb with awe … overwhelmed in the sudden presence of the unspeakable, stupendous grandeur.”
— Galen Clark, guardian of the Yosemite Grant, describing visitors’ reactions upon entering Yosemite Valley c.1910
When my girlfriend suggested that we spend the month of June hiking the John Muir Trail, I might have said yes too quickly. It was February when she’d suggested it. June was a long way off and a 340km trek from Yosemite National Park to Mount Whitney with the woman I love seemed as far off as my dream of one day playing the stage at Madison Square Garden. I hadn’t taken a substantial backpacking trip since 2002, a four-day hike deep into Arizona’s Canyon del Muerto — ‘Canyon of the Dead’ — where the bloody history of the route was attested with names like Massacre Cave and Starvation Ridge.
The land around Yosemite tells a similar tale. The Yosemite library identifies three distinct tribes of Native Americans who originally inhabited the area. The California gold rush in the mid-19th century brought people looking to get rich quick from as close as the eastern US and Mexico and as far away as China. While this brought diversity and some semblance of community to the area, the one thing the settlers had in common was their push to get the tribal leaders to give up their gold-laden lands.
From the Mariposa War to the infamous Donner party, the high Sierras saw their share of barbarism in the 19th century. It would be a battle of wits between two men, however, that would lead to this area becoming one of the first federally protected lands in the world and the eventual christening of the John Muir Trail. One of the men is John Muir (duh), but the other was a much bigger name in his day: an esteemed professor at Harvard University and chief of the California Geological Survey, Josiah Whitney.
Old Guys Fighting and Furthermore
John Muir was one of those Renaissance men whose list of vocations included carpenter, poet, small-time politician and amateur scientist with a penchant for geology. He was known for his habit of striking off into the then-untamed wilderness with nothing but a loaf of bread and a shotgun for months at a time.
My girlfriend and I would be taking the bare essentials as well, which today means iPhone, Kindle, water filter, 20 vacuum-packed, freeze-dried meals of lasagna and chicken filet (with grill marks!), all of the ramen our packs would hold and two cases of mint-chocolate protein bars.
We started our trek in Tuolumne Meadows. When the Sierra Nevada mountain range was formed 250 million years ago, ocean tides pushed one side of the range up a little faster than the rest from Tuolumne, causing a smooth, gradual slope climbing eastward. This is the path we would be following for the next 17 days, the elevation rising as gracefully as if the earth had simply stretched out and thrown its arm over the back of the sofa.
Day one from Tuolumne Meadows to Lyell Canyon was only 10km, and we camped on the rim of a boulder colony overlooking the river below. As we gradually developed our ‘trail legs’ the daily distance increased to 24km a day. My original intent was to keep a notebook thick with descriptions of every bend and turn of the trail, and I stayed true to this intent for the first week or so.
The pages are peppered with descriptions like “bears make a low moaning sound at night, like a sea monster or an engine powering down” and “marmots look like tiny, tuskless walruses.” The most noticeable thing about the notebook, however, is that as I personally found myself growing more used to camping in more remote places and having a protein bar for breakfast, my notes dwindled to a scant few sentences every few days. It was as if we’d grown numb to the beauty: the grey mountains towering above and the crystal clear streams, the giant trees and the little animals that lived in them. Much to Whitney’s chagrin, according to a theory loudly promoted by Muir, the mountains — smooth and sculpted like a scoop of ice cream — were carved by glaciers.
According to the book John Muir: Magnificent Tramp, Whitney believed that “for unknown causes and by processes not understood” the ground beneath Yosemite had suddenly opened up, and the sheer cliffs of the mountains were made as large walls of rock broke off and fell into the insatiable mouth of the earth. Whitney stood on his reputation with Harvard University at his back to make sure this ridiculous theory would be the one that went into the history books, shaming his detractors until they bowed their heads and stepped back into the shadow of the great professor. Muir, who refused to shut up, was publicly shamed by Whitney at first as an instigator and a fool, later as a “sheep herder” and “ignoramus”. It is safe to say that the two of them were not friends.
John Muir’s theory won out in the end. Centuries of glacial activity carved the landscape into the cirques, moraines, horns and other Sierra Nevada-specific names for the cliffs and valleys of this region. Whitney stuck to his guns, however, championing his idea that “the bottom of the valley sank down” until his death in 1896, even as geological science advanced and more and more evidence was gathered to support the theory of glaciation. Muir is often painted as an innocent in the feud, the doe-eyed amateur or the kid from The Emperor’s New Clothes, but when he founded the famous conservation group Sierra Club in 1892 it was with a plagiarised seal — an almost exact replica of Whitney’s club, the California Geological Survey — and copied motto, Altiora peto — “I seek the highest places.”
To be fair, that’s a catchy motto. To be unfair, stealing the motto of a club that belongs to a very outspoken critic of yours is a very cheeky move. One wonders if Muir didn’t see Whitney as a cranky old grandpa and was just rubbing salt in the wound. In tribute, Mount Whitney is the last rock you climb, the cherry at the top of the John Muir Trail and the highest mountain in the lower 48 states of the US.
My girlfriend and I summited it at sunrise, having crashed early the night before so we could leave at midnight and finish the climb for 4am — just as the sun began to stretch its pink fingers across the sky. It was a freezing cold morning. A guy who we’d been hiking with dropped down on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend right there. My girlfriend took a picture of them. There’s a great photo of us, as well, wrapped in sleeping bags and jackets at the apex of Mount Whitney, grinning and punch-drunk from 17 days in the wilderness, still having fun yet looking forward to a pizza and a hotel room.
The hardest part about writing, as in any art, is that some things are just too big to capture. In the case of Muir and Whitney, the opposite seems to be true. The mountain captured them.
“As long as I live,” wrote Muir, “I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens and get as near the heart of the world as I can.”
Trekking down Mount Whitney was no small feat — a 1,500m descent that took several hours. We ran out of water at some point and just kept walking, hot and thirsty. I’d accidentally left a bag of snacks my girlfriend had prepared at the top of the mountain, so this last leg of the hike was clouded by hunger, thirst and an uncomfortable silence.
It was our first fight in months. Two walls of granite hung on either side of the canyon as if suspended midair, and the trail descended in a sandy 75-degree slope. Although I’d been on a daily regimen of Ibuprofen and other native medicines, pretty much every part of my body was either sore, swollen or otherwise damaged. I stopped and turned. “I’m sorry about the snacks,” I said.
I thought about the “unspeakable, stupendous grandeur” all around us — all that we’d hiked over and yomped down, the beauty we’d been submersed in for nearly three weeks. The sunlight caught her hair in a way that looked as if she was wearing a halo. I looped a finger through one of her belt loops and pulled her close. She was sweaty, unshaven, unbathed and absolutely, fantastically beautiful.
“Come on,” she said, “or we’ll never make it down.”
We hitched a ride from the base of Mount Whitney to the town of Lone Pine, California, and got some pizza, a hotel room and a case of Sierra Nevada IPA. Within a few days I was partying with friends in Palo Alto, with only a few telltale scars to suggest I’d spent the last two-and-a-half weeks of my summer vacation in the wilderness. Muir once said that the Sierras leave an imprint, that nature “flow[s] into you as sunshine flows into trees”.
It’s a sweet thought — that some fundamental part of me bonded with some fundamental part of nature — but Muir was a hopeless romantic whose letters, frankly, start to sound a bit insane when he writes to Ralph Waldo Emerson about being baptised in “holy mountain light” and sleeping “in a crease of the bark of a sequoia”. They are some lovely mountains, though.
The John Muir Trail is in California and runs through Yosemite National Park, the Ansel Adams Wilderness, Sequoia National Park and the King’s Canyon National Park. It starts in Yosemite Valley and finishes in Mount Whitney. The closest major city is San Francisco. For more information go to johnmuirtrail.org.