Yosemite, Part Nine
- Number 26 on my life list.

Part 9
Back to the Valley
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“When you’re alone in nature, a second week is really important. Right before the second week, that’s when you start to feel that bliss, you know what I mean? When you feel connected to everything,” a co-worker said the day before I left for Yosemite. “You really need two weeks.”

I’ve had many fleeting mentors in my life. Some I’ve never even met in person. Some I only talked to in passing or while helping them with a computer. Sometimes we live thousands of miles apart but meet briefly while hiking on the same trail. They go about their lives not realizing they carry words like chunks of flint. One day they rattle off just the right sentence, at just the right time, and a spark ignites something in me.

“If only I was your age again,” he said.

“If you were, if you don't mind me asking, what would you do differently?” I asked because I saw a lot of me in him. In a way I felt like I had an opportunity to ask my sixty-year-old self for direction. If I continued to work here for another thirty years, even though my passions were elsewhere, what would I want to tell my younger self?

"I would go live in the mountains,” he said. 

- - -

I emerged from my tent. The forest was chilly in the shadows. Through the trees, I saw rays of sunlight warming bedrock by the cascades of Snow Creek. I grabbed breakfast and a water bottle then went to lay on the rock to absorb the heat. 

After a backpacking trip, there is often a part of me that is happy to be heading home; happy to find the absolute nearest greasy diner or to feel the heat of a much needed shower. Sometimes I daydream about falling onto my bed and sinking into that marshmallow-soft pillow. But not this time. Not even a little bit. I needed that second week. I came to the woods to cure monotony. Stopping the treatment after only a week was too early.

Two nights ago, on North Dome, I looked into the valley and fantasized about eating pizza and drinking a bottle of cold beer. I didn’t even want that anymore. I wanted to drink from the stream. I wanted cold trail foods like pop tarts, trail mix, or foil packages of tuna salad and Spam. I wanted to sleep on the ground even though I’d be woken frequently from back pain. I actually wanted the burden of pack weight on my tired shoulders. I wanted to warm myself on solar-heated bedrock on a chilly morning, even though my home could be warmed with a slight turn of a thermostat dial.

The sound of the gurgling stream made me crave a drink. I didn’t mess around with purifying it. I crawled to the rivulet, plunged my face in the water, and sucked it down. It was ice cold, flavorless, perfect. No aftertaste of chemicals or rubber filter hoses. I came up for a breath then went in for one more drink. I pulled back with cold water dripping down my face. I didn’t bother to dry off. I laid back on the warm bedrock and let the wind and sun do that. 

As I lay there, that feeling of bliss washed over me again. That co-worker would know what I’m talking about. With it came a fervent resolve to start a new chapter of my life. Not because life was bad, but because life is good. And unfortunately, it is also short. There isn’t enough time to do the same things again and again. I wanted a life built on a wealth of experiences, not possessions. I wanted a tensionless job over money. And contrary to the norm, I actually wanted uncertainty over security. I wanted to see if I could cherish simplicity and embrace the unknown, rather than cling to things that make my life safe and comfortable, but dull.

I wondered if I would be able to maintain this sentiment when I got back home. Would the trees go back to being just trees? A safe and comfortable life has a way of convincing you that you shouldn’t change. And what did change even mean? Would I leave Indiana? Would I go back to school and start a career that would allow me to spend more time outdoors? Did I need a career? Would I use the next few months to have one life-changing adventure? I had no idea. All I could really say for sure was that I’d take down my camp for the last time on Yosemite’s North Rim. I would head down the mountain. Beyond that, who knew? And not knowing was exactly how I wanted it to be. The rut has to die, preferably before I do.

- - -

The first couple of trail miles were undemanding. I stared down at my shadow deep in thought. This would be the last day, for a while, when the length of my shadow told me all I needed to know about time. Tomorrow I would be back to schedules, deadlines, and alarm clocks. 

The trail turned into a three-thousand-foot descent into the valley with over two miles of switchbacks. Back and forth I hiked the narrow twisting trail. Each time I looked at the valley, I was closer to that blanket of pines I watched over all week. 

I caught up to a young couple also finishing their trip. We reached the valley and got to know each other while strolling down a mile of flat wooded trail. The man was a doctor who used his career as an opportunity to work all over the world, rather than to acquire the highest salary. More inspiring words like flint. I had become increasingly fascinated to learn how others managed to lead interesting and unconventional lives.  I enjoyed talking to them, but my voice was raspy, like I had been screaming at a Paul Anka concert all night. (Yes, that's right, Paul Anka.)

“Wow, my voice sounds terrible,” I said. “It’s hoarse from not talking much all week.”

“Oh, it’s not normally like that?” The girl asked, and then we all laughed at me.

The road parted, and so did we. At the backpacker camp, I set my gear on a picnic table and sat down to rest. At the adjacent site, two guys were sitting on the top of a picnic table with their feet on the bench. They wore cotton t-shirts, flannel, and jeans, so I didn’t think they were backpackers, but just taking a break from walking around the valley. When one of the guys headed toward the restrooms, the other walked over to me.

“Where you headed?” he asked and ran his fingers though his shaggy mop of curled dark hair. 

“Well tomorrow, back to Indiana. I just finished my hike.” 

“We’re getting ready to hike the John Muir Trail.”

The John Muir Trail is arguably the best trail, with the most spectacular mountain scenery on planet Earth. They will hike over two hundred miles through Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, and some of the most breathtaking wilderness areas in the country. They will gaze at numerous scenes made famous by the photographer Ansel Adams and will end their journey on the summit of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States.

“That’ll be amazing,” I said. “It’s on my list. I plan to come back to do it someday.”

“You by yourself?” he asked and I answered. “That’s cool. So, you’re from Indiana, huh? Do you take a lot of trips like this?”

I told him about a few of the places I’ve hiked. When I mentioned Shenandoah, he told me about his thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, as Shenandoah makes up 105 miles of the nearly 2,200-mile trail. 

“You should add the Wonderland Trail to your list,” he said. The 93-mile trail circles the base of Mount Rainier and is considered, by many, one of the best trails in the country. 

“It already is,” I said, knowing that only getting one week of vacation at a time limits my opportunities to complete these longer trails.

“We hiked all but twenty-three miles of it,” he said. “Then the weather got too dangerous and we had to get off the trail.” 

“Hey, hold this.” His friend came back and handed him a metal mug. He had thick dark hair and a thick matching beard.

“What for?” he replied.

“I need to go lay down on top of that big rock over there.” He pointed at a large round boulder ten or fifteen feet high, and ran off. 

“So, you’ve been living on a trail quite a bit then.” I said.

“Yeah. Everyone says I should have gone to college, but this is what I want to do for now. I just asked myself, do I want to live the life I want, or the one I’m supposed to live.” This sentence has been smoldering in my brain ever since. It was like my own subconscious talking to me, the angel on one shoulder arguing with the devil on the other. 

They seemed like drifters, wanderers with no particular place they would call home. The kind of guys that would get a job only long enough to fund the next big trip, without worrying about savings accounts, 401ks, or promotions. But could anyone look them in the eyes and say they are wasting their youth? Actually, I can imagine many people saying to them, “You’re doing it wrong. You should be getting your degree. Don’t you know you need a career? You need to make money, so when you’re old and retired, you’ll have the time and freedom to travel.” I can imagine many people saying that, but never noticing the irony.

“So, how many days are you taking to hike the John Muir?” I asked him.

“Well, he’s made a work commitment,” he took a sip from his friend’s mug. “So, we only have thirteen days.”

“Wow, so that’s what—” I tried to do the math quickly in my head, “—seventeen miles a day?”

“Eighteen,” he said. His friend jogged back with dirt and leaves stuck to his hair and clothes.

“Jesus, what’s all over you?” he asked. “What happened over there?”

“What? I was laying down on a rock. What do you expect?” He brushed the debris from his hair and shirt. “So, did you tell him about our 2010 Summer Expedition Madness?”

“Yes he did. But, I didn’t know it had a title,” I said. “I’m jealous. It doesn’t get much better than The John Muir Trail.”

“Why don’t you come with us,” he said without considering his friends thoughts on the matter.

“No, I can’t. I’d have to quit my job to do that.”

“So, quit your job,” he said it as though it shouldn't even require any consideration.

It’s funny how things happen sometimes. You decide you need to explore new opportunities and one falls in your lap almost immediately. There’s nothing magical going on. There are opportunities everywhere, I just don't notice if they aren't part of my usual routine.  Just like how when I'm driving home, I don't really think about all the roads that don’t lead to my house. That is until a day comes when I don’t feel like going home. Sometimes I turn down a road I've never been on just to see where it leads.

Unfortunately, this wasn't one of those moments. The offer didn't even seem like a possibility at first. I had responsibilities. I had people depending on me. These kinds of things required planning, right? I wasn’t even back home and my determination to dramatically shuffle up my routine was slipping. 

“No, I can’t,” I said.  

“Are you sure?” said the guy with the mop of curly hair. “We lost the third member of our crew. His partner,” he nudged toward his bearded friend.

“Yeah, that was too bad. I miss her,” he said. “She had really nice eyes.” He stared down for a couple of silent seconds. “We need to go get our gear. You camping here tonight?” he asked.

“Well, I’m going to head into the village and find a shower and do laundry,” I said. “Mostly for the poor bastard that has to sit next to me on the plane tomorrow, but yeah, I’ll be here.”

“Cool, we’ll see you later then." And they headed off to their car.

After setting up my camp, I walked toward the village. I passed them at their parking spot, pulling out gear that was scattered in the back seat of a car with New York plates. I realized I never asked them where they were from. I’m not surprised that they drove three-thousand miles to get here, but this made me want to learn more about this, “2010 Summer Expedition Madness”.

“See you later,” I said as I passed.

- - -

I walked by a parking lot in the heart of Yosemite Village. A coyote sauntered across the road then stopped in front of me. He looked around, appearing groggy and out of place, like he had just woken up in an episode of the Twilight Zone and found himself in a mysterious futuristic version of his familiar world. It was curious why he looked out of place and not the parking lot, the hundreds of cars, the crowds of tourists. Not the stores, restaurants, canvas tent cabins, or Yosemite shuttles. The coyote seemed out of place in his own territory. After a week on the trail, I kind of felt the same way. He walked between parked cars and out of sight. A few tourists closed in on him, camera phones in hand. 

The laundry room hummed with the sound of washers and dryers. Clothes thumped and clanked in tumblers. The air was moist and smelled like dryer sheets. I threw my clothes into a washer then went to the showers next door. 

The small room had individual curtained-off stalls lined up on both sides with a narrow aisle between. A man with a white crew cut stepped out of one of the stalls and walked down the aisle toward me. When he saw me, his face seemed to light up in a friendly way. 

“Hi,” he said. 

“Hello,” I replied, but barely looked at him. I quickly retreated into a stall, so he could fit down the aisle. I kicked off my shoes then realized the man was the tax attorney from Ohio. I blew him off again! I felt terrible. I rushed outside with bare feet, but couldn’t find him and went back to the stall.

The shower was old and worn, but clean. I stood on a grated floor whose main purpose seemed to be to irritate your feet, so you’d be less inclined to take long showers. I pressed the button that delivered less than a minute of pressurized hot water blasting against my grimy skin. 

God. Damn. That’s amazing.” It was one of the best showers I've ever felt. I pressed the button at least thirty times. 

After my clothes dried, I went to Curry Village for that pizza and large soda with free refills. I planned on getting that cold beer, but I was so thirsty that the alcohol in the quantity of liquid I wanted to drink would have made even David Hasselhoff's liver cower.

After eating, I began to walk toward camp. It started to get dark so I hopped on a shuttle. 

“The next stop is the Village Store,” the driver said. “The only store still open until tomorrow morning, folks.”

I got off to pick up a couple things to eat for breakfast. I passed a cooler and went back to grab three tall cans of Guinness. This would be my pretext to have another conversation with the John Muir Trail backpackers from New York. I wanted to hear more about their trip. Maybe have their particular approach to life rub off on me. Actually, I think I wanted to be convinced to go. 

When I got back, the campground was full of backpackers. It was too dark to see much of anything other than the light around all the campfires. At the John Muir Trail hiker's campsite, food covered their picnic table where they sat immersed in conversation and laughing. There was a girl with them now. “He must have talked the girl ‘with nice eyes’ into going after all,” I thought. I didn’t want to bother them. I decided to have a snack and read, and then maybe head over after their meal.

Later, I looked up from my book and saw one of the guys and the girl walking down the trail following circles of headlamp light on the ground.  When they passed I said hello then noticed it wasn’t even them at all. Someone else must have taken their site or they decided to setup somewhere else. 

There was no chance of finding them in the dark. I was a little disappointed. I hadn’t convinced myself that my decision to say no to their invitation was the right one. Had I gone with them, my history would be unwritten. At home, I more or less knew the life waiting for me, and it wouldn’t be anywhere near as memorable. I climbed on top of the picnic table with my feet on the bench. Feeling down about the missed opportunity, I knocked back two cans of Guinness.


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