The Pizza Deck in Yosemite National Park sells beer for $30 a pitcher—a rip off in almost any situation, and I candidly told the bartender as much. Back at the tent site, my wife, brother, sister, and her boyfriend packed their gear in preparation for the next day’s hike. This was, admittedly, an odd choice for a honeymoon. Rather than doze on a beach, I’d asked my siblings to join my wife and me on the John Muir Trail, one of the most remote and challenging sections of wilderness hiking in the US. Named for the father of our national parks system, the trail crosses only one road in its 215-mile course through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Muir called them his “Range of Light.”
The son of a rigid pastor, Muir followed his family from Scotland to Wisconsin in 1849, and found himself at home in the isolation of a largely empty American West. As a young man he would set out on adventures, some for several thousand miles, often bringing with him little more than a loaf of bread wrapped in a handkerchief. On the road he was both a loner and an eccentric: Once, during a windstorm, he tied himself to a tree and “clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobo-link on a reed” for no other reason than simply to see what would happen. He was, as Amy Marquis writes in National Parks Magazine, ever restless and, not surprisingly, “prone to lashings” from his puritanical father.
The Range of Light contains 113 mountains with elevations higher than 13,000 feet, including Mount Whitney, which, at roughly 14,500 feet, is the highest peak in the continental US. Completing the trail requires three weeks, much of it spent at elevations higher than 10,000 feet, out of the reach of even the strongest cell signal and often a several days’ hike from the nearest rescue service.
“And,” my wife said, abruptly looking up from her chores, “that probably means three weeks before the next beer.” We all looked at one another, then began cramming what remained into our backpacks. We returned to the bar, where I apologized to the bartender for the earlier hostilities, and then we gleefully ordered up two pitchers of beer.
Overnight, at Silver Pass, the rain had changed to sleet and was falling noisily through the small cluster of pines where we’d pitched our tents. I’d been awakened by the flickering of a headlamp coming from my brother’s tent, which had collapsed under the weight of accumulating ice. “Come and help me already,” he called to me. Mildly annoyed, I fumbled for my glasses, stuffed my feet into frozen boots, and trudged through the slush over to him. I let out a good snort. He was crawling on all fours with the tent clinging to him, thrashing about in a way that reminded me of a cartoon I once saw of an elephant trapped under the circus big top. Together we knocked the ice off, him kicking from the inside and me brushing from the outside. We heard cracking sounds coming from the forest: The ice was ripping branches down.
I struggled to sleep the rest of that night, beset by visions of being crushed by a wayward pine. The chances of dying from a falling tree limb in the forest are small, of course, but it happens. Most of what we fear about the wild is unfounded, but knowing that doesn’t stop you from anticipating an awful fate.
Another morning, we awoke to discover that our camp had frozen over in the night. The tent zippers were stuck fast with ice. Even our socks, hung on a nearby branch to air out, were stiff with tiny sweat-sickles. So we pushed all our gear out onto a rocky prominence, to where we estimated the first light of the morning sun would strike. Then we waited. An unanticipated benefit of life in the wilderness is its persistent inconveniences. Like a good joke or a love affair, the gratification is in the waiting—and not because you want to. Even the stove refused to light for coffee. And so we sat. And then we decided to have a swim. It was the kind of cold you don’t soon forget, the sort that lingers in your eyelids. The sun slid along its celestial path, quietly filling our mountain bowl with light. Eventually the ice on the tent was reduced to puddles. We brushed them off, repacked our bags, and started walking again.
The television was on when we arrived—square, wall-mounted, hanging in the corner above the bar. The Steelers were up by a couple of touchdowns. The sign at the entrance read “Vermillion Valley Resort.” The resort was, in fact, little more than a bar, a general store, and a collection of weary cabins at the end of a dusty road.
Although some lumberjacks and Olympians might be able to do it, it’s simply not possible for the rest of us to walk through the mountains with three weeks worth of food on our backs; a ten-day supply is the maximum weight that most of us can carry. At some point, you have to leave the trail and restock, which is how we ended up hiking down out of the mountains, some ten miles, for the privilege of dropping $300 on beer, burgers, and groceries.
Two field goals and a small tip for the humorless resort manager later, I waddled out of the bar toward the shower house. It wasn’t until I passed a mirror, naked, that I was able to assess the bodily changes that had occurred after two weeks of hiking. I was appreciably thinner. More noticeably, though, I was dirty—ridiculously dirty, the kind of what-were-you-thinking dirty that only kids can get on summer days. My knees were scraped, my tan lines like a pale one-piece suit where my shirt and shorts had been.
In a way, it felt subversive to be so satisfyingly grubby. It is a condition that we, the middle-aged and desk-bound, have largely forgotten. I’ve often wondered if children get as dirty as they do because they are uninhibited or because they secretly delight in knowing that it will annoy the hell out of their parents. I smiled at the thought of the latter, left a streak of slime on the way to the bath—just big enough for the manager to find. The coin-operated shower cost five dollars for five minutes of warm water. It felt so underpriced, I decided to have two.
When I last looked up, maybe twenty minutes ago, I could have sworn that Muir Pass was closer. I turned to look at where I’d come from. Farther down slope I could see my wife and sister winding their way up the switchbacks, small dots in a landscape of bare granite and glacial snow. Hardly anything grows up here, at nearly 12,000 feet. We hadn’t seen anybody else for days. It was very quiet. Behind us was a view of the High Sierras, through which we’d been traversing for nearly three weeks. The deep glacial valleys had already taken on a cloak of blue, and the peaks of the range were reflecting the final light of the sun as it slipped behind a cloud, filling the western sky. Best to keep moving.
We had to dig the tents out of the snow in the morning. We did this without talking. For the last ten days of the journey we didn’t speak much at all. Once we argued about gun control, and once we had an extended negotiation concerning the trade of the final ibuprofen packet for the last water purification tablets. But these were the exceptions to the general rule of silence. The beauty of the Sierra is that it says nothing, it requires nothing. Out here, in a landscape forged in the groan of ice and rock and the indifferent, patient crush of time, what we would make every effort to obfuscate becomes plain. Nothing escapes. “We all travel the Milky Way together,” Muir wrote, “trees and men.”
On the summit of Mount Whitney, we took our photos and gave our hugs. But what I remember now is how, after all of that was done, we had to sit down for a full ten minutes to catch our breath in the thin air before turning around and hiking home.