John Muir Trail Set-Up, July 12-14

We spent a whopping six weeks at home before departing for the last leg of our travel-year, the John Muir Trail. As with our previous visits home, we warped directly back into suburban life -- one day we were wandering the markets of Vietnam, the next day we were dropping Emily at the 5th grade karaoke party. None of the family had culture shock or difficulty adjusting to home life, although we'll see how things go when the trip is completely over.

As usual, Jennifer and Alex caught up on work while the kids busied themselves with activities. In addition to graduating from elementary school despite her rather spotty attendance over the past year, Emily played some soccer, took piano and percussion lessons, and most importantly reunited with friends. Tim had the distinct privilege of attending
only band rehearsals, math class, and end-of-year parties during his last two weeks of 7th grade (his ideal of what school should be, perhaps without the parties). He also immersed himself in his latest fad -- photography, continued a previous fad -- fossil-hunting, made an entrée into the neighborhood babysitting scene, and joined a new ice-hockey team (including a parent-child game where Jennifer dusted off her 20-year-old skates to be the only Mom on the ice). Both kids thoroughly enjoyed a sailing day-camp where they learned to race tiny Optimists, a completely different experience from cruising on good old Cyrene.

We had a real scare when Alex sprained his ankle jogging in the mountains outside Tucson while attending a work conference. The ensuing swelling and limp were disconcerting to say the least, but with lots of ice and rest, Alex feels confident he's ready to hike.

Despite its lack of a long plane ride or exotic locale, the John Muir Trail has been just as challenging to prepare for as any other leg of our travels -- more challenging in some ways. We'll be in the wilderness for over a month, with everything on our backs and only two stops in real civilization, both of them within the first 1½ weeks. Even devoting sizable chunks of our five home weekends to getting ready, there wasn't a lot of time to spare.

The John Muir Trail officially stretches 211 miles (sometimes reported as 215) from Yosemite Valley to the summit of Mt. Whitney, the latter being the highest point in the continental USA at about 14,500'. We figure with side-trips and the additional mileage to reach the Mt. Whitney trail-head, we'll be hiking about 240 miles. The fastest recorded time for completing the trail is about 4 days; we're planning for more like 33. (It took us two weeks to hike the Mont Blanc Circuit, which extreme runners complete in about 24 hours, so we're doing better this time.) Ambitious hikers without children along -- even sadistic parent-hikers with obedient kids -- can finish the trail in about three weeks. Our almost-five-week plan allows for a leisurely pace, occasional rest days, mid-afternoon camp arrivals, and side-trips -- the first one being an ascent of Half Dome on day #2 (the second time up Half Dome for the kids, third for the adults). We may end up deciding to move faster overall, giving us extra time at home before school starts in the fall. Or, since we need to pack a few extra days of food for emergencies anyway, perhaps we'll slow down and eke out every possible minute in the mountains.

With food and other consumables weighing in at about 6-7 pounds per day, we'll have five reprovisioning points along the way; they're numbered on the map. The longest we'll go without reprovisioning is the 9-10 day stretch between points 4 and 5.
The excellent profile of the John Muir Trail below can be viewed in very readable full resolution here (click on the map at that site to enlarge). The "Food Cache" points marked on that profile correspond to numbers 1-4 on our map. We've hired a mule team to deliver a package to a spot near Kearsarge Pass Trail, number 5 on our map.

We've been taking normal-length backpacking trips forever and we generally try to keep our pack weights reasonable, at least given the circumstances. (The most challenging period was when the kids were too young to hike so we had to carry both of them plus our stuff; gratefully those days are over, we hope.) For this trip, we've entered the realm of fanatical ounce-shaving -- our postal scale has been our close friend throughout the packing process. From mini playing cards to high-tech clothes (and not many of them) to a 4-ounce gizmo that allows us to bake in our ultralight titanium cooking pot, we've debated the per-ounce merit of every single item, ultimately getting rid of quite a number of things we intended originally to bring along.

On the other hand, we didn't even consider sacrificing books to enjoy in camp, though we did slice some of them up and put pieces in our reprovisioning packages. Nor are we permitted to forgo bear-proof storage containers -- five strong to hold our food, at a hefty 2½ pounds each. (Just two days before departure we learned that our three older containers had been recalled due to "a statistically significant number of compromises" in the paws of you know who. We decided it was worth perhaps our tenth trip to REI over the last month, plus a complete repacking of the first batch of food, to upgrade our containers and rest easy that we aren't living in danger of a "compromise" if a visitor comes along.)

A rough weighing of our gear suggests that before adding on food and water, our four packs average about 24 pounds each. Alex and Jennifer will shoulder most of the remaining weight, which at its absolute maximum will be another 75 pounds, but on average more like 35 and thankfully close to 0 at the minimum. (We'll let you do the arithmetic to come up with total pack weights, which are just a bit too impressive at the maximum end of things.) Fortunately the truly burdensome loads are in the latter half of the trip -- numbers 4 and 5 on the map -- when we hope to be in extra-good shape.

Despite our best efforts, preparing for a hike of this magnitude required a number of decisions about food and gear that we had to make without much basis; stay tuned for a report on how our guesswork played out. Setting up for the hike hasn't been a simple proposition either. As this travelog is being posted, we're in the process of positioning our two cars at both ends of the trail, dropping off provisions here and there (though some had to be mailed), and establishing a little "home base" at the Holiday Inn in Mammoth Lakes. We'll spend our last night before hitting the trail at Yosemite Lodge in the valley, a coveted reservation we had to secure exactly 366 days ago (when we happened to be in Sorrento, Italy). About one-third of the way through the hike we'll stop into the Mammoth Lakes Holiday Inn for a day or two of R&R -- it's not far off the trail from Red's Meadow on the profile, or number 2 on our map. Look for the next travelog at that time.

Small media update: While home we discovered that, with our permission, some of our travel photos have made it to "real" web sites. The camper rental folks apparently didn't mind that we backed the beast onto a small ferry in Chile -- our photo capturing the event now appears in the rotation on their home page. Far more extensive is the full-page spread the boat charter company devoted to our adventure in the Andaman Islands and Myanmar.

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