This year marked the 100th birthday of the National Park Service. I spent a small chunk of it honoring the legacy of John Muir, whose relentless advocacy helped create the national parks and preserve much of the wilderness for future generations.
My hike on the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada – 211 miles from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney – was supposed to be a family adventure. My brother Pete inspired our trek and was the planner in chief. My son Abe and his girlfriend, Megan, joined in.
This was no “Wild” – the story of a woman whose impulsive, unplanned solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail became fodder for a best-selling book and hit movie. We left nothing to chance.
We had spreadsheets that tracked the weight, in ounces, of everything in our backpacks, down to the ChapStick. Our food plans calculated each meal in calories per ounce. And we prepared a precise daily itinerary, complete with the locations where we intended to camp each night.
Then reality happened.
Two weeks before the hike, Pete was stricken by excruciating back and leg pain while walking across his driveway. The diagnosis: a pinched sciatic nerve. Somehow, he made it to the Yosemite Valley trailhead, hoping for the best. But he was forced to call it quits after five days and leave the trail near the Mammoth Mountain ski resort.
Megan, meanwhile, was dogged by altitude sickness from the start. Headaches, nausea, bloody noses. When she was hiking she was the strongest member of our group, but she was miserable. So she and Abe reluctantly decided to abandon the hike a short time later, after 60 miles.
Suddenly, I had to decide whether to continue on my own or quit and try again some other time. I had never hiked alone in the wilderness, never camped alone outside a campground. I couldn’t even remember ever going on a day hike by myself. But I decided to press on.
At first I was apprehensive, but you are never truly alone on the John Muir Trail, even in late September as the summer hiking season winds to a close.
Thanks in part to Cheryl Strayed’s book and the movie that followed, the number of hikers on the JMT has exploded, nearly doubling since 2011 to almost 4,000 per year. To get a permit you must apply via a lottery, six months in advance.
That spike in demand prompted the National Park Service to cap the number of permits at 45 per day for John Muir Trail hikers leaving Yosemite. The Park Service, concerned about crowding and its effects on the wilderness, is weighing even more drastic steps.
The agency is considering further, substantial reductions in the number of hikers who can depart from each trailhead each day, or limiting the total number of people allowed to enter each of several zones along the trail. Another idea: requiring hikers to designate in advance exactly where they intend to camp each night, and then limiting the permitted capacity of those camping areas.
Requiring hikers to reserve a campsite in the Yosemite wilderness would be impractical. As our hike showed, you can never be sure exactly where you are going to camp each night. There are too many variables.
But any further reduction in the number of trailhead permits would be even worse, and from my vantage point, unnecessary. We started our hike on a day when all 45 permits were sold out, and had been every day for months. But we saw few people on the trail once we got above Yosemite Valley.
I counted about a dozen northbound hikers a day for the first several days, and hardly anyone going south like us. Later, the ratio flipped, with more going south than north, but I never had trouble finding a place to camp away from other hikers.
When I first set off on my own, in fact, I was hoping to see more people. But that feeling quickly faded. Within a few days I was treasuring the solitude, a rare opportunity to be unhooked from the internet and all the world’s problems.
I did meet a few interesting people. My favorites were two guys from the Central Valley. Dave, from Dixon, was lean and fast, and Jon, from Vacaville, was a big guy with a bum knee.
Dave, carrying both of their tents to take some weight off his buddy, would hike to the top of a pass, pull an ultralight chair and a book from his pack, and sit and read while Jon labored up the mountain. Then they would regroup and hike together again, with Dave outpacing Jon on the descent for a time before stopping to wait, usually near a creek crossing.
Their friendship was endearing, and I bonded with them as we passed and re-passed each other along the way.
But walking solo through the wilderness was also fun. It focuses the mind. You hear every twig that snaps in the forest. You smell the woods and the dirt and the wildflowers. You notice the light changing the way the landscape looks as the sun rises over the canyon walls.
As long-distance hikes go, mine was remarkably problem-free. The weather on all but one of the 14 days was perfect. It rained lightly one afternoon and evening. And my biggest equipment failure was a lost bite valve on my drinking tube. No bears raided my camp. I was lucky.
On a typical day I was on the trail for 10 or 11 hours. With no one to talk to, what do you think about during all that time? I thought about my family and friends, relationships, my place in the world. I marveled at the scenery and considered how the aspens’ leaves are most brilliant just before they die.
But I also pondered more prosaic matters. Is that a blister on my foot or just a tiny rock in my shoe? Is that knee I tweaked yesterday getting better or worse? What am I going to eat for dinner? Where is the next source of fresh water?
Mostly, though, I thought about two things that were as apt in my everyday life as they were on the trail: Where I had been and where I was going.
In this case, I was going to Mount Whitney, the highest point in the continental U.S. And after six days alone, I had company again. Abe and Megan met me with a resupply of food, then joined me for the final 40 miles. We left our last campsite at 2 a.m., just in time to reach Whitney’s summit for sunrise.
It was bone-chilling cold as we huddled together at 14,500 feet on the edge of the mountain in the subfreezing dawn glow, waiting for that bright orange orb to peek above the Nevada horizon. But it was worth it. When the sun finally rose, it was a glorious sight, the perfect way to end the adventure of a lifetime, paying homage to Muir, an American hero who had the kind of foresight we should remember, and strive to emulate, today.
Daniel Weintraub is editor of the California Health Report. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.