In June 2018, my partner Alex and I completed our thru hike of the John Muir Trail and the High Sierra Trail. In three weeks we hiked 300 miles through the rugged Sierras raising $2,000 along the way for two incredible causes near to our hearts: the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Sierra Club.
I kept a journal throughout our journey that I wrote in each night. While taking time to reread the tiny beige book tonight, I laughed at the contrast between my entries from the first few days compared to the last. In Yosemite Valley, our starting point, I nervously spilled out hundreds of tiny, cursive words detailing my expectations and hopes for the three weeks ahead. By day twenty, however, entries were simple logs completed in haphazard scribbles. I’m happy to have my personal journey on trail written down and reflected stylistically as the days passed (I too felt like a haphazard scribble by the end). I was deeply impacted by my time on trail, but not exactly in the ways I was expecting. I’ll back up just a bit…
I knew I wanted to do something exciting and challenging with my summer post graduation— something I had never done before. Alex shared this vision so we started to do some research. We landed on hiking the JMT and HST in a single trip, linking two of the most pristine trails in the United States running through the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. We received our permits for the JMT in January. It’s rumored that only around 2–5% of permit applicants are successful each year, so when we received the lucky news we immediately celebrated (Hank’s Charcuterie rabbit pot pie??) and began planning.
Alex had plenty of backpacking experience under his belt (the Long trail, a few backcountry trips in New Mexico) but I, however, was a complete n00b to true backpacking. I quickly realized how different the prep was for this trip compared to what I was used to in the outdoors — weekend or week long climbing trips with access to our vehicles. Suddenly, weight mattered! I joined some incredibly helpful Facebook groups and anxiously awaited REI sales to purchase the gear I needed. Most importantly, my backpack. I hiked with an Osprey Aura 50L in dark green, my beloved turtle shell. I also began to train on local trails, though in Kansas that didn’t involve much elevation change.
By June, I was dying to get on trail. During afternoons I intended to spend on my summer reading list, I often became distracted with reviewing my gear list, our itinerary, and updates on trail conditions. Finally, the day of departure arrived.
The largest hiccups of our trip occurred on day one. First, my pack didn’t arrive in Fresno. Thankfully, we were able to locate it, but in the meantime we missed our bus to Yosemite. So we took a three hour Lyft to the valley (didn’t know this was even possible). Huge shoutout to Larry Potter (the actual name of our driver!) for agreeing to such an outlandish request. Next, we had issues attempting to pickup our permits at the park. Our trip route is apparently a little unusual — most hikers don’t plan to add miles to the end of the JMT with the HST. After many calls, the ranger felt convinced we were allowed to hike our hike and granted us our permit.
At the time, I wasn’t sure if these were going to be our only roadblocks of the trip, or just the first of many. My calm and optimistic outlook of our journey was already being tested! I tried to view this as an opportunity to push forward into the unknown despite my potential fears.
The night before we started hiking, I lay awake in our tent at the Yosemite backpacker campground reflecting on our months of preparation and trying to calm my nerves for what would be a challenging first day (all! uphill!). I remember wondering if I would be different by the end of the trip. I pictured myself at the finish in Sequoia: tan, more confident, and at peace with the chaotic season of life I was currently experiencing. I hoped to productively use the ten hours of hiking each day to process the end of my time in Lawrence KS, and the beginning of my next chapter in Seattle. I was grateful for this period of uninterrupted time to think and live simply with Alex in the Sierras.
Our first few days were less of the romantic soul-searching in the wilderness I had envisioned, and more of a literal uphill battle. Most of my difficulties were mental — was I hiking quickly enough? Why was my hip flexor going numb? Could I actually do this for nearly a month?
But any mental struggles were dwarfed by the sheer beauty of the landscape around us. Stopping to catch my breath meant having a chance to pause and take in the magnificent views. And, we were blessed with mild, enjoyable weather. Each morning I could feel my legs and feet and mind adjusting more to life on trail.
Comfort in the Repetition
The days began to blur together. Wake up, pack up camp, filter water, hike, lunch, hike, filter water, hike, eat a king size Snickers bar (usually a highlight), set up camp, cook dinner, journal, read, sleep, repeat.
Our mileage steadily increased, growing to stretches of 18–20 miles before sundown. Three times we even conquered two mountain passes in one day! I felt strong, grateful, and in awe of this region that John Muir deemed “The Range of Light.” We saw bears, a massive tree fell scarily close to our tent once, and several wildfires were springing up near the trail. But, I was confident we were capable of adapting and pushing through whatever challenges presented themselves.
Two weeks in we took a “zero day” (a day we hiked zero miles!) at the Mount Williamson hotel in Independence, California. The town had one restaurant — a French bistro! Perfect because I had been craving french onion soup. Alas… they were closed due to the French world cup semi-final game (so close…). So instead we ate at a taco truck twice, and spent most of the day enjoying AC in a real bed watching a Chopped marathon.
The day off helped our tired bodies recover. Receiving encouragements from home went a long way for morale too! I felt ready to conquer our last week, which included a sunrise summit of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48.
The morning of the summit we woke up at 2am and hiked up, up, up in pitch darkness (aside from our headlamps) for nearly three hours. Though we couldn’t see the peak at all, views of the Milky Way were the clearest I’d ever seen. Looking toward the top of Whitney we saw tiny white orbs bobbing along zig-zag paths — other hikers several hundred feet ahead of us.
The summit felt like a victory. Just two years prior to this trip, I was a self-branded couch potato and lover of the indoors. After discovering a passion for climbing and getting outside, a lot changed for me. I gained confidence and energy, friends for life, and memories I’ll cherish forever. Alex was endlessly encouraging to me as I was beginning to love climbing and hiking, so it felt surreal to share this achievement with him.
The top of Mt. Whitney marked the official end of the John Muir Trail going southbound, as well as the beginning of the High Sierra Trail heading west.
After a few more days hiking the beautiful High Sierra Trail (our favorite spots were Kern Hot Springs and Bearpaw Meadow), we were met by my family in Sequoia National park at the trailhead. We spent a wonderful few days eating our way through San Francisco — a perfect conclusion to the trip.
I miss the simplicity and grittiness of our time in the Sierras. Much less of my time hiking was spent in reflection than I’d predicted, but I’m thankful the trail forced me to stay present. By not constantly looking ahead or rethinking the past, I was able to focus on and truly appreciate the process of achieving our daily goals — getting from point A to point B. I was constantly inspired by the beauty around us, from the never-ending mountains ahead, to the wild flowers at our feet, to the stories other hikers carried with them. It’s been several months, and I still suffer from post-trail blues sometimes.
Alex and I moved to the Pacific Northwest for graduate school. Alex attends law school at Lewis & Clark in Portland, Oregon studying Environmental Law, and I’m attending the University of Washington in Seattle pursuing my masters in Human-computer Interaction and Design.
I have a feeling this is just the beginning for me and a lifelong obsession with long distance hiking. In the future, I plan to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, and beyond! Thanks for reading and donating to our adventure.