The Art of Suffering Well
My mom sat across from me crying, choking down bites of french toast and scrambled eggs as the waitresses watched uncomfortably from a distance. She was distraught because for the past few days she had been unable to eat more than a few bites at a time without gagging. We had a lot on our minds, first and foremost the phone conversation we’d had with my step-dad the night before at a resupply station a third of the way through our backpacking trip. After listening to our laments about mosquitos, heavy packs, injuries, weather, and food, he asked the question we had been too afraid to ask ourselves: “Why don’t you just quit?” He didn’t know this at the time, but I was definitely tempted. It had been in the back of my mind since day one. But I squirmed and cringed every time I imagined myself actually giving up. Hiking 10 miles a day at high altitude with a heavy pack isn’t naturally fun for me. Now add unrelenting storms, pooping in self-dug holes, feisty mosquitoes, and dehydrated food. This was day eight. I was miserable, tired, and unhappy, so why didn’t I just quit?
About a year ago, my mother decided she wanted to hike the John Muir Trail, a rugged, 220.8-mile footpath high in the Sierra Nevada mountains between Yosemite Valley and Mt. Whitney that winds through three national parks. I hesitated at first, because although I had done my fair share of backpacking, I wouldn’t rank it as one of the top ways to spend my summer between undergrad and grad school. But my mother wore me down as she always does, playing on my love of physical feats and adventure. We managed to obtain a permit for the entire route, which is difficult to get. The idea of backpacking for almost an entire month stressed me out, so my mother did 99% of the planning and preparation, organizing 150 meals and figuring out logistics for resupplies and campsites. Until the week prior, I lived under the delusion that I would not be spending 24 days in the wilderness. But eventually reality set in, and we began our hike.
The first few days in Yosemite were especially hard; we weren’t acclimated to the altitude yet, which was all above 8,000 ft. Our bodies resisted the heavy packs and long miles. The first few campsites had bathrooms, which we later realized was an incredible luxury that I did not appreciate enough at the time. The third day we encountered a father and son who were two days away from finishing the JMT from south to north, the opposite of the direction we were going. Because we were exhausted and anxious about the next 22 days, we inundated them with questions. “You do get stronger,” the father assured us, “but the uphills are always hard.” That line became our battle cry, figuratively and literally, as we climbed 47,000 feet of elevation over 24 days.
On our fourth day, a friend who had hiked the first three days with us departed at Tuolumne Meadows, the first resupply stop on our route. My mother and I were now on our own. My mom was introspective about having spent most of her outdoor life in the shadow of men. Whether it was backpacking, rock climbing, or ultra-running, she had always relied on men for their knowledge and had let them take the lead. This was the first time it was just us, two girls, on our own in the wilderness. Ironically, that very day we met a father and son on the trail and spent the next 6 nights camping and hiking with them. Regardless, I was proud of us. There were very few mother-daughter pairs on the JMT, and we did exceptionally well.
The four days (38.5 miles) between Tuolumne and our next resupply point, Red’s Meadow, were just as tough as the first four. The mosquitos were so unrelenting that we hiked a few days in head nets. The alpine basins were stunning, but the thin air made the trek getting there all the more difficult. After a day where we climbed two passes, I got heat exhaustion and completely lost it, spending most of the night crying and feeling sick. Every day had highs and lows, an emotional rollercoaster; one moment you were in awe of the alpine scenery and the next second your leg was going numb from the waist belt hitting a nerve in your side. By the time we reached Red’s Meadow, we were exhausted. My mom had been unable to eat much for the past week and was losing too much weight. So she was devastated at the resupply restaurant when she ordered french toast and eggs, one of her favorite meals, and couldn’t even swallow the first bite. Cue the tears and the breakdown.
That morning was a defining moment in the hike because the easy decision would have been to quit. Unfortunately for my future sanity, we went with our hearts, not our heads. The day of the restaurant breakdown actually turned out to be the day we got our trail legs, hiking 12 miles instead of our scheduled 6.5 miles. Two days past Red’s Meadow, on day nine, our next defining moment occurred. As we got close to where we wanted to camp, the rain began to pour. Our campsite was at a beautiful alpine lake over 10,000 feet, just below a pass that we would climb in the morning. As dark clouds rolled in, they seemed a bit too close for comfort. We barely had time to set up our tent when it began to hail. At one point, the wind and hail became so powerful that we had to use our arms to hold up the side of the tent so it didn’t collapse on us. Within minutes, our tent had a strong river flowing underneath. My mother and I were sitting on plastic bags, grasping on to our bag of clothes and sleeping bags to keep them dry while the thunder and lightning rumbled and flashed around us. I sang “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” from Annie to myself between terrified sobs. The storm lasted three hours, which was long for the High Sierra. Three hours of waiting nervously for our tent to fully flood, shivering from the chill of our wet socks and clothes. As the rain lessened and the thunder died down, we decided it was safe to emerge from our tent. When the hail started, there had been only one other tent around us. Now there were seven tents that must have been set up mid-storm. The sense of community was incredible as our fellow survivors exited their tents. Everyone was asking who needed help with their tent or gear and comforting one another. One guy had only a tarp for shelter so he had essentially spent 3 hours swimming his way around the camping area. We eventually moved our tent from the flood zone and warmed up, but that traumatic experience was etched into our memory.
It was truly surprising how long it took to get everything together in the morning. As the days went on, we got into a rhythm and perfected our morning routine to under 2 hours. Often we would get up at 5:15, but cooking a hot breakfast, organizing our packs, and taking down the tent would prevent us from getting out of camp until 7:15 am. The early starts allowed us to get over passes early in the day before the storms hit in the afternoon. We hiked in a low-water year, lucky for us because higher water stream crossings can be extremely dangerous. Last year, two JMT hikers died fording streams. Many days entailed stream crossings that slowed us down. Some we could cross by rock hopping or walking on a log. Others required wading. Strong currents necessitated removing our boots, putting on our water shoes and inching our way through knee-deep water, making sure not to trip or slip on a slick rock.
After 11 days we arrived at Muir Trail Ranch, a resupply station at the 110-mile mark. From that point forward we crossed high passes almost daily. We camped at beautiful alpine lakes, but the hikes to them often had bad footing and involved steep switchbacks. I began to despise dehydrated food, which we ate out of plastic bags morning and night. The storms persisted throughout the final days as well. It ultimately rained 11 of our 24 days, which added challenges to our miles and to setting up and breaking down our camps. Many times we sought shelter on the trail under a tree, wearing rain gear and ponchos and hoping for a short storm. It seemed like every day someone was telling us that tomorrow’s weather was supposed to be better. It rarely was. Our last day began with a 3-mile, 2,000-foot climb and ended with an 8.7-mile, 5,000-foot descent. The relief when we reached civilization at Whitney Portal was indescribable. We were smelly and skinny (I lost around 10 pounds, my mom lost 5) but ready to use a real toilet and clean the grease and dirt from our bodies.
Every night before going to bed my mom and I would say our highlight of the day. For me almost every day it was the people we met and re-met along the way, our “trail family.” If it weren’t for Ron and Zach (father and son) and Teresa, Andrew, and Jake (mother and sons) and others we met along the way, I would have been a constant emotional wreck and very, very lonely. The John Muir Trail is emotionally and physically exhausting, but the people you meet give you energy and remind you how lucky you are to be able to do it. Zach and Ron taught us all the backpacking basics that we were lacking, including that duct tape and Vitamin I (Ibuprofen) solve all problems. Ron gave a trail name to my mom: The Big Hurt, because she is not big and doesn’t hurt people. He always thought he could keep up with her but was never able to. We ran into Teresa on our second day and found out she would be exiting at Whitney Portal on the same day as us with her two sons. We eventually ran into her again on Selden Pass and spent most of the rest of the trip camping with her family. Her positivity and enthusiasm for the mountains was a necessary reminder of how lucky I was to be in the outdoors. I gave myself a trail name, Latch, because I have never craved human interaction as much as I did on that hike. I would wait at the edge of our campsite every evening and try to persuade people to camp with us so we wouldn’t be alone. I would create a sales pitch for each campsite, depending on its strengths, and point out those highlights to each passing victim. I think I missed my calling as a real estate agent. I want to thank all the kind people who listened to my pitch and decided to camp with us. A unique camaraderie existed on the John Muir Trail that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. Because we were all in the same boat, people were incredibly generous and helpful, often willing to go above and beyond what they needed to do to help. In a rainstorm two guys helped us find the right trail. Some man volunteered where he had found cell service a few days prior. We helped an older man who had fallen and another who had underestimated the difficulty of the trail and had to hike out. There was this deep sense that kindness was of the utmost importance. You never leave your fellow backpackers behind, even if it inconveniences you. The bond that formed is hard to explain because it transcends normal relationships. It was nice knowing that you had a community of people on the trail who were there for you if you needed something. My friends had joked among themselves that I was going on this hike to find my trail husband. Unfortunately that didn’t happen, but I met some amazing people who made my days infinitely better.
Many aspects of backpacking surprised me, but the most surprising was the fear and anxiety I felt constantly. My mom and I joked about how different our particular fears were. I never doubted my physical ability to get over a pass or finish the day; those were my mother’s fears. My fears were more irrational: a bear falling on our tent, an earthquake triggering an avalanche on the pass we were crossing, getting hit by lightning, a wildfire. It was probably best that our fears were so different, because I was able to remind my mom how strong she was and she was able to remind me that we were not going to get crushed by a bear and die. Basically all of California was burning up around us while we hiked, so smoke was an occasional problem. Some days the smoke was so thick you couldn’t even see the ridges around you. I cried 7.5 times on this trip, which is a lot if you know me at all. I couldn’t help but be reminded that our shelter, a tent, gave us a false sense of security and was, in fact, just one layer of material away from the outdoors. I will say, though, that the camping part of backpacking is the best part. I was comfy in my sleeping bag, and most nights we were in bed before 8 pm and slept well. A line we heard regularly was that 9 pm is a backpacker’s midnight. I wholeheartedly agree.
We met a nice guy along the way who said that backpacking is 60% pain and 40% awesomeness. The real challenge is overcoming the 60% pain so you can appreciate the awesomeness. In retrospect, I don’t think my mom or I was able to truly overcome the pain and discomfort. Though we constantly tried to suffer well, doing so is more easily said than done. I let my fears get the best of me, whether it was of avalanches or fires or bears or snakes. I couldn’t get past the heavy packs and long miles to truly appreciate the scenery and how unique the experience was. Would I ever do the JMT again? Absolutely not. It’s funny writing this days after leaving the trail, because I can already feel the edges softening and my perspective shifting. I appreciate filtered water less and am hardly noticing how nice it feels to sit on a chair with a back. I was afraid of this happening, because I didn’t want the softening of memory to tarnish or poison the genuine experience. But I also believe that reflection is important. I’m sure I’ll have a million hot takes as the days go on, but here is my current analysis: Completing the JMT was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I was emotionally and physically exhausted every day. There wasn’t a day that went by where I didn’t wonder why the heck I’d agreed to hike 220 miles. But I do feel accomplished and I’m impressed with my mental and physical strength in the face of extreme obstacles, literally and figuratively. In the words of our wonderful friends who resupplied us, backpacking is miserably awesome. Some days are miserable and some days are awesome. Most days are both. Though I need a lot more growth before I truly perfect the art of suffering well, I believe that we should all be attempting to find the awesome among the miserable.
Day 1 (July 12): Glacier Point to Little Yosemite Valley 6.5 miles
Day 2 (July 13): Little Yosemite Valley to Sunrise High Sierra Camp 8.3 miles Day 3 (July 14): Sunrise High Sierra Camp to Tuolumne Meadows 9.3 miles
Day 4 (July 15): Tuolumne Meadows to Donahue Pass Footbridge 10.5 miles
Day 5 (July 16): Donahue Pass Footbridge to Emerald Lake 10.2 miles
Day 6 (July 17): Emerald Lake to Trinity Lakes 11.4 miles
Day 7 (July 18): Trinity Lakes to Red’s Meadow Resort 6.4 miles
Day 8 (July 19): Red’s Meadow Resort to Duck Pass Trail 11.9 miles
Day 9 (July 20): Duck Pass Trail to Squaw Lake 8.9 miles
Day 10 (July 21): Squaw Lake to Mono Lake Trail 7.4 miles
Day 11 (July 22): Mono Lake Trail to Upper Bear Creek Meadows 9.9 miles
Day 12 (July 23): Upper Bear Creek Meadows to Muir Trail Ranch 9.5 miles
Day 13 (July 24): Muir Trail Ranch to Evolution Meadows 8.4 miles
Day 14 (July 25): Evolution Meadows to Sapphire Lake 9.3 miles
Day 15 (July 26): Sapphire Lake to Le Conte Ranger Station 11.3 miles
Day 16 (July 27): Le Conte Ranger Station to Palisades Lakes 10.0 miles
Day 17 (July 28): Palisades Lakes to Bench Lake Ranger Station 11.5 miles
Day 18 (July 29): Bench Lake Ranger Station to Woods Creek Trail 10.6 miles
Day 19 (July 30): Woods Creek Trail to Rae Lakes 6.1 miles
Day 20 (July 31): Rae Lakes to Bullfrog Lake 5.5 miles
Day 21 (August 1): Bullfrog Lake to Lower Forester Pass Meadow 5.8 miles
Day 22 (August 2): Lower Forester Pass Meadow to Wright Creek 10.1 miles
Day 23 (August 3): Wright Creek to Guitar Lake 7.4 miles
Day 24 (August 4): Guitar Lake to Whitney Portal 11.4 miles