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Trail Talk: Life Lessons From the John Muir Trail

Because nobody is #sweatydirtyhappy all the time

11.07.18

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Trail Talk: Life Lessons From the John Muir Trail

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People are fascinating! I use the term in the most colorful way possible because humans are the only living species on Earth that can make you laugh, cry, scream, and feel as though your life may be ending all within one short backpacking trip in the wilderness. Nature is, by far, the least of any hiker’s concerns. I have learned over the years through some hilarious and challenging hiker bloopers that we must be extremely cautious of our fellow human travelers because nobody is #sweatydirty happy all the time, and REI sadly does not sell Cranky People Spray.

But seriously, I have hiked and backpacked with some pretty nutty people, so I have gotten pretty good at taking punches in the outdoors. I had a guy I was backpacking with race to try to catch up with me on the trail even though I was behind him the entire hike (he didn’t realize he was in front of me until I found him waiting at the trailhead). I had a gal scream at me in the middle of our campsite just hours after meeting me because she felt like she was the fifth wheel in our group (this was the very first time we all had actually met each other). And I recently had a camp neighbor scream at me and call me “trash” for stepping too close to her cabin while I was searching for a cell signal so I could send a work email.

Some trail names should always be left unsaid

I knew we were in for a treat when I had to unexpectedly jam five people, five 65-liter backpacks, and my dog into my Honda Accord for a six-hour drive up to the Eastern Sierra. Our carpooling plans got a little jumbled at the last minute, so we had to play Tetris with our bodies and gear. We were off on another adventure to backpack 26 miles on the John Muir Trail over three days, and within an hour into the drive, I knew we were in for a treat.

After joking that two of my friends in the backseat who are moms were child abusers because they had left their kiddos, one of the gals exclaimed that she forgot her headlamp and her solar lantern. Easy fix: Just buy another headlamp when we get into Mammoth and forget about the lantern (an unnecessary backpacking item). As soon as we arrived in my favorite mountain town after another grueling five hours in the car, we picked up our wilderness permit from the visitor center and grabbed food and beer from Mammoth Mountain Brewing Company. At lunch, the topic of trail names came up. A trail name is a nickname that is given to you on the trail usually by someone who has hiked with you before. One of my friends in Colorado gave me the trail name Trail Goddess. With a mischievous grin on her face, Ms. I-forgot-my-headlamp quickly exclaimed that her trail name was Problem Child. “Something always happens to me on the trail or I am always forgetting my gear,” she stated.

During our six-hour car ride, she was constantly telling us how experienced she was as a backpacker, but I have learned over the years that backpacking is like scuba diving…you never really know someone’s experience level until you actually see them in action. The words “You are so SCREWED, Kristen” kept circling around in my mind.

I made a mental note to myself that I would just need more vodka for this special trip, and I could handle anything for four days…its four days, what could go wrong?

That one time when my car alarm was actually helpful

We made our way to our campsite after stopping by an outdoor gear store so Problem Child could purchase her headlamp. We had decided to spend a night tent camping in Mammoth so we could get an early start on the trail in the morning. Upon arriving at our gorgeous campsite and meeting up with two other friends who were adventuring with us, we all quickly learned that Problem Child was overly terrified of bears, did not know how to set up any of her gear, and didn’t bother reading any of the detailed pre-trip emails I sent out. I quickly opened another beer and said a few positive mantras to myself because I knew I was in for a challenging adventure. We helped her set up her tent and spent at least 45 minutes going through all of her gear and teaching her about “bear safety” in the outdoors. After a couple of hours of explaining that scented lotions and baby wipes are, in fact, scented and need to be kept in her bear canister, it was clear our group needed a break and I needed another beer. Most of the gals went to find the bathroom and the camp store, and a couple of us stayed behind to watch a California black bear meander into the forest only a few feet from our campsite.

“At least all this scented vs. non-scented talk was not a waste of time,” I jokingly said to my friend standing next to me as I watched my 14-pound dog bark excessively at this bear.

Problem Child missed the bear sighting because she was in her tent and somehow didn’t hear the loud commotion of people screaming (people go nuts over bears, and it’s quite entertaining to witness). When she finally appeared from her tent and heard about the bear sighting, she freaked out and said some overly ridiculous comments about bear spray and bear bells and stated that she better not see a bear on the trail. Of course, I was quietly hoping we would run into lots of bears.

You know a bear is looking for food in the campground when you wake up in the middle of the night to loud banging noises. That same night, I awoke to our camp neighbors banging tin plates and cups together to scare away the bear from their campsite at  2 a.m., and all I could think of was, “I hope Mr. Bear leaves soon so I can get out and go pee.” After 10 minutes of impatiently holding my bladder, my car alarm was set off, and of course my keys were locked in the bear box. I looked outside of my tent and all I could say was, “Holy Fu$K, there is a bear on my car.”

His front paws were on my driver’s window and he was peering into my car looking for food. Problem Child started yelling loudly from her tent, and I told her to be quiet since she had nothing to worry about since the bear was clearly looking for food IN MY CAR. I thanked the car alarm gods for quickly scaring the bear off my car after a 90-second eternity.

I was on my feet tearing my car apart at the crack of dawn the next morning to discover that chocolate candies and lots of food wrappers were left inside Problem Child’s backpack in the trunk of my car. Bear safety lesson #1 was clearly a fail.

Now I am that neurotic person who makes you search your backpack in front of me if you are storing your gear in my car in bear territory.

Raise your hand if you peed today

We arrived at the trailhead, and after ensuring my car was 100% bear proof, we gathered our packs and started off on our adventure: two nights, three days and 26-ish miles in some of the most beautiful backcountry in the United States. We we were so excited to be section-hiking the John Muir Trail! We were planning to camp at Ediza Lake on night one and Thousand Island Lake on night two, but when we were only 2 miles from our night one camping destination a very nice hiking fellow we came across on the trail told us that there was no bridge to cross to reach Ediza Lake. The bridge to Ediza Lake was out, which put a huge wrench in our plans. The water was swift and high, we had a very difficult scramble in front of us, and I was already dragged through so much drama that I knew making a dangerous attempt to either boulder over rocks or cross fast moving deep water was not going to happen. I already had a backup plan, but I stayed quiet and listened to my friends talk about options as I apologized to my pup, Moo, for an unexpectedly long (and very hot) hiking day. My friends asked for my opinion of what we should do, and I quickly stated we should definitely hike to Garnett Lake where we will camp for the night. Ediza Lake was completely out of the question!

“Yes, it is going to make for a longer day, yes it is super hot right now, and yes we have to cross another 10,000-foot ridge, but not everyone in our group is prepared to scramble over rocks or wade through swift moving water with 40-pound packs, and I do not feel comfortable putting Moo through that” was my game plan and explanation, and everyone agreed (we really did not have another option).

We had 6 more miles in the very exposed heat, so everyone filtered more water, put on their big girl pants, and made their way to Garnett Lake. Problem Child was extremely irritated about our game plan, but we were shit out of options, and we were all in the same boat, so I tried to explain we have to just roll with the punches because backpacking trips never go as planned. I decided to hike with Problem Child because it was clear she was irritated, and it didn’t seem she was doing well. We were about 45 minutes behind the rest of the group, keeping a very slow 0.8-mile per hour pace, and within one mile of starting out toward Garnett Lake she exclaimed,“I think I am out of water.”

Now how can that even be possible? We all each filtered 3 or 4 liters of water when we decided to head toward Garnet Lake because we knew there would be no more water crossings for another six miles. I was very confused and beginning to get very annoyed. I literally asked if everyone had at least 3 liters of water for this next leg of our hike before we made our way to Garnett Lake. “What? When was the last time you filtered water?” was all I could ask her.

“At lunch.” she replied.

I was repeating about every swear word in the English dictionary in my head because lunch was approximately 6 miles back, 3.5 hours ago. She never filtered water before taking off for Garnet Lake. She just sat back and watched everyone. We had 6 miles to go and 3.5 liters of water between the three of us including my dog. I knew I could spare at least a liter for Problem Child, but I wanted her to understand the importance of hydration on the trail. I was officially pissed. She complained, moaned, bitched and groaned for another 2 miles and finally exclaimed,“This is the worst trip ever, and I hate this.”

I kept asking her if she was feeling okay and she adamantly stated that she felt fine and she had already drank plenty of water for the day. She said she knew she was hydrated because she was “sweating a lot.” We started going back and forth about this, I told her she was dehydrated and she was adamant she was not. We were going in circles, and I knew if I tried to explain the physiological process of sweating, it was going to go in one ear and out the other. I started asking her more specific questions about her fluid intake and output for the day. I didn’t care that she was having a horrible time or that she hated me because I was too concerned or that she was now putting herself and our group at risk. I am a family doctor and also work in an emergency room, and quickly rushed into my doctor mode, calculated her fluid ins and outs, and decided this girl is getting evacuated off the trail as soon as we catch up to our group. I was about to give her a liter of my water when we came across a stream. “Halleluiah,” I thought to myself.

 We walked past the stream and I almost lost my mind. “This chick is not going to filter water. She is just going to keep on walking in her damn dehydrated state,” I thought to myself.

I asked her if she was going to filter any of this water, and it dawned on her that she probably should. As I was getting eaten alive by mosquitoes waiting for her to filter water, she loudly demanded that I help her because she could not manage her water filter on her own. I held her Smart water bottle and the clean end of the filter as she pumped water through her MSR filtration system. After we were finished pumping water and 38 mosquito bites later, I told myself she would of course thank me when we got to camp for helping her filter water and making sure she was safe on the trail (she did not have a map or a navigation device). Let’s just say that was wishful thinking. Four miles to go at a 0.8 mile per hour pace in 90-degree temperatures up a 10,000-foot ridge behind a woman who literally hates my guts and is a dangerous hiker…“It’s a beautiful day to be alive.”

“Who has cell phone service right now?!"

That was all I could muster out of my mouth when we finally reached the top of that 10,000-foot ridge and I saw all my friends waiting. Each one of my friends looked at me without saying a word. They knew I had steam coming out of my ears and I had to take quite a few deep exhales to prevent myself from crying out of frustration. Two gals had cell phone service, and I quickly asked them to call the two mule companies we saw at the trailhead to get Problem Child off this trail. That quickly opened up a tall can of worms, but I was 100% done hiking with her.

“Raise your hand if you have peed on the trail today” I asked our entire group, as if I was a third grade teacher.

Everyone raised their hand and began saying how many times they peed on the trail over our 9-hour hiking day, except for Problem Child. I knew she hadn't peed all day, and I wanted the group to clearly understand the situation we were in. We were a group of seven women backpacking together in the wild, and we all needed to understand what was unfolding in front of us. I then explained to Problem Child that I was extremely concerned for her hydration status and also very concerned about the decisions she was making on the trail, and if she came into my ER I would stick a needle in her arm and give her a 1-liter bag of normal saline. Right then and there, the rest of the group understood the gravity of the situation. Every gal in the group searched for a way to safely get Problem Child off the trail, but the quickest way was to finish our loop through Thousand Island Lakes, and this was only day one. We had two more days to go.

I was done sweeping for the day, and I needed a beer. I picked up my pace and hiked next to one of my girlfriends while another gal stayed behind Problem Child to make sure she didn’t jump off a cliff or do something else completely off the wall. We all came to the beginning of Garnett Lake and quickly chatted about filtering water. We all asked how much water Problem Child had left, and her response was “I don’t know,” and she kept walking. One of the gals told her to stop and check because we were at a water crossing. I guess my trail hydration lesson didn’t sink in. Throughout the next two days, we made Problem Child take out her bladder from her backpack at every water crossing and visually show us how much water she had left.

Does anyone have an extra spoon?

Problem Child continued to ruffle everyone’s feathers when we got to camp and for the duration of our trip. She refused to keep her scented items in her bear canister at night, she still could not figure out how to set up her tent, and she slept with her bear canister next to her tent (after watching every single one of us find places to store our bear canisters away from our campsite). The next morning she realized she was out of camp stove fuel and convinced someone in our group to boil her water for every single meal from here on out. She continued to complain about the tremendous chore of filtering water, and although I kept my distance, every single gal in our group would tell me some ridiculousness Problem Child was getting into. I started to respond, “I don’t care anymore.”

Day two was glorious because I refused to hike next to Problem Child, I met my trail Jesus, a very kind thru-hiker from Eastern Tennessee (I should write a blog post entitled “Trail Magic” about this amazing man), and our group spent most of the day swimming in crystal clear water and basking in the sun at Thousand Island Lake. As we were getting ready to cook our food before sunset on night two, Problem Child asked the group if any of us had an extra spoon. She forgot her headlamp, did not bring enough camp stove fuel and forgot her spoon. We all blurted out in unison, “No!”

We were all officially done with her nonsense. Of course, I asked myself, “How is this girl eating her food without a utensil?“ I quickly thought to myself, “She could use her bathroom shovel if she really wanted to.”

Always bring an extra pair of pants

The morning of day three, Problem Child could not figure out how to get all of her gear in her pack, I managed to completely break a BearVault bear canister that I borrowed from a friend, and we were hiking out of camp before sunrise in order to make it home at a decent hour (I hate tearing down my tent in the dark). My friend helped Problem Child pack her backpack, and within a few hours we were safe and sound back at my car. Problem Child was staying in Mammoth to visit friends, so I dropped her off at the Starbucks, wished her good riddance, and the rest of us drove to Bishop (much more comfortably in my car compared to the drive up) to grab lunch. Of course, we just could not stop talking about the sheer ridiculousness we endured on the trail. It was straight out of a movie! After finishing lunch, I checked my phone and noticed I had about a dozen text messages from Problem Child regarding her iPad that she left in my car. She insisted on bringing her iPad on the trip (even though there was no service) because she couldn’t live without it. I explained that I am not responsible if something happens to this iPad and advised her to leave it at home. I knew her iPad was not in my car, but I needed witnesses in case she tried to report me for theft. All four of us tore apart my car, looking for this iPad, and I texted her back explaining that it was nowhere to be found, told her to use the app “Find my iPad,” and wished her good luck once again. She insisted that I must have taken her iPad when I rummaged through her backpack after the bear set off my car alarm, and at that point I gave my cell phone to my friend sitting in my passenger seat and asked her to handle the rest of this texting conversation because I was done.  We were all dumbfounded and shaking our heads in disbelief, but I knew I had witnesses and these gals would back me up in case Problem Child took this any further.

“Kristen, did you know that she tore her pants on the first day getting out of the car at the trailhead?” I just about swerved my car into oncoming traffic because I could not control my laughter.

 “She did what?” I exclaimed.

“Yes, when she was stepping out of your car at the trailhead on the first day, she split the back of her pants right down the middle and did not bring an extra pair of clothes, so every time she bent down, I got to see her rear end. She had to backpack in split pants for three days.”

“Well, karma is a bitch, isn’t it?!”

Problem Child found her iPad a few days later; it was in her backpack after all. No apologies or words of gratitude were ever expressed.

Take home lessons:

  • Always bring an extra set of clothes.
  • Write a packing list and follow it, then double and triple check that you brought everything.
  • Don’t brag about your trail experience.
  • When everyone in the group is filtering water, taking a bathroom break, eating a snack or setting up camp, you should be doing that too.
  • When someone sends out a pre-trip detailed email, read it.
  • Learn the name of the trail you are hiking on and the campsites you are staying at before you set foot on the trail.
  • If you have never used your gear before, set it up at home and watch a Youtube video if you need help.
  • If you don’t enjoy backpacking, that’s okay, don’t partake.
  • Don’t throw your food waste in the bushes.
  • California black bears want to eat your food; they have no desire to eat you.
  • If you did forget something, make a mistake, or have a question, use your manners and be nice about it.
  • You are responsible for your own safety on the trail, no matter what.
  • Always bring more alcohol than you think you actually need.

This was definitely a memorable and beautiful trip, however this was by far the most challenging backpacking trip I have ever endured. I arrived at my mom’s house to pick up by grumpy Shitzu (my saint of a mom watches my older dog when I travel), and I shared every detail with her over a couple of bottles of wine. I was sunburned to a crisp and had over 200 mosquito bites on me, but my mom and I still laughed so hard that we cried. This trip has officially gone down in history, and it is just too good not to write about (in stride of course).

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