John Muir Trail: Italy Pass

A trip to town on the John Muir Trail isn't like the Appalachian Trail or Long Trail, where every few days you come to a road, put out your thumb, and in less than an hour a stranger has driven you to a town and your belly is full of fast food. The JMT is a bit more remote than that. 

Lightfoot, whose priorities are clearly skewed, needed to get off the trail to be in his brother's wedding. (Just kidding, Lightfoot, give your brother my best.) I was running low on food, so headed to town with him to get supplies for the next 115 miles.

Bishop, California was about 15 trail miles and 20 road miles east, so we headed in that direction down a side trail. Fifteen trail miles isn't quite accurate though, because for several of those miles, there was no discernible trail. My maps only cover the JMT, but luckily we met a man with detailed maps who everyone just called "Steam Engine".

"They call me Steam Engine 'cause I'm old and loud," he said loudly.

He was going a little out of our way to get to his vehicle, but from there he was driving to Mammoth Lakes, where Lightfoot left his car. Steam Engine offered him a ride, so we said our goodbyes at Italy Lake and I headed to Bishop on my own.

At the lake, a hiker on his lunch break let me look over his maps.

"It's quicker if you go over Italy Pass," he said, pointing at it on the map. "You can't make it to the road before dark though."

"No?" I said. It didn't look that far.

"No, it's a rough trail, there's no way you'll make it," he said then recommended a place to camp.

I think I can add another thing to the list of things I have learned about myself this year: When someone says I can't do something that I think I can do, I'm highly motivated to prove them wrong.

I scrambled up Italy Pass, leaping over boulders, and stopping every once in a while to leave stacked rock cairns like breadcrumbs to lead me back to the JMT. I loved every minute of being off trail without a map.

From the top of the pass, at over 12,000 feet, I found a wilderness even more awe-inspiring and remote than anything on the JMT so far.

I gaped at the thousands of mountainous acres ahead of me. It was vast, barren, and isolated. It seemed finding the road to Bishop without a map could be a lot like finding a needle in acres of haystacks.

The next few miles were easier, though. An old trail that lead to Pine Creek Pass, where I needed to head next, was still partly visible and previous hikers had left their own cairns. The miles were slow, as I frequently had to stop to search for the trail. Not to mention stopping every hundred yards to take photos of the abundant lakes, cascading streams, and bare rocky mountains that enclosed the valley. All that matters, though, is that even with all my time gawking at the scenery, I made it to the road before dark.

I continued down the curvy mountain road toward the main highway, but by nightfall, not a single car drove by to wave my thumb at. Next to a turnout by the road, I found a small flat piece of land big enough for my tent that was partially hidden by a mound of boulders and dirt.

"Home sweet home," I said outloud to nobody.

I spent the night there and would put my thumb back out the next morning and continue toward the highway.