John Muir Trail - Part 1, July 15-26

We've arrived in Mammoth Lakes as planned, having completed the first almost one-third of the John Muir Trail. This stop is our only visit to a real town along the entire JMT. Here's the run-down on our backpacking adventure to date.

Facts and figures: We were told that about two parties per day begin the JMT in Yosemite Valley. Generously figuring half that from the Mt. Whitney end and a three-month hiking season, perhaps 200 parties attempt the trail each year. Our impression is that the majority of people who start the trail do finish it, unlike the ten times as long Pacific Crest Trail -- we met several parties bailing from the PCT in the Yosemite area.

Hiking: So far, about half the miles have been new territory, while the rest we've covered on various past trips. (The second portion will be at least 80% new.) Never have we hiked this distance with the kids in one go, however, and we're only getting started! We've stuck to our planned very modest pace, except when we decided to compress the last three days into two -- the soft beds and Caesar salads of Mammoth were beckoning. Along the way we took two side-trips: an enjoyable morning climb of Half Dome (photos 1 and 2) with a lazy afternoon afterwards, and a beautiful but strenuous cross-country day-hike (photo 3) in the vicinity of Thousand-Island Lake and Banner Peak (photos 4 and 5). Aside from simply enjoying the beauty of the Sierras -- something Emily claims she can do for only so long each day -- trail time is spent chatting about a wide variety of topics and squeezing in a last bit of travel-schooling: logic challenges and spelling bees.

Social: We had three burning questions when we set out: Would we run into anyone we knew? Would we develop any multi-day relationships with other JMT hikers? How often would cell service enable "we're-still-on-the-trail" messages to anxious family and friends? The first question was answered on day #3: Just as Tim was regaling Emily with tales of what 6th grade would be like, along came Tim's 6th grade math & science teacher on a Yosemite backpacking trip with her family. The second question was answered perhaps a day later, when we found ourselves apace with an amiable solo hiker Greg, traversing the JMT for his fourth time. (The first time was long ago at age 14, on his own with a 15-year-old friend.) We ended up camping and hiking on-and-off with Greg for several days. He was a great conversationalist and engaged Emily & Tim for hours (photo 6) with magic tricks, word puzzles, new card games, and stories of his extensive travels. The kids continued to play their new games and practice card tricks on Alex & Jennifer on a daily basis, long after Greg pulled ahead of us. As for cell service, we caught signals every few days on peaks and passes, but we expect service to be far less frequent on the remainder of the JMT.

Wildlife and nature: It's still late spring by mountain standards, so wildflowers have been excellent. We've seen cute marmots frequently at the higher elevations
(photo 7), a few deer (photo 8), lots of nice birds, an unfortunate over-abundance of overly-friendly mosquitoes (they should abate as mountain summer sets in), and two bears -- one on the trail, and one paying a congenial evening visit to our camp until Alex chased it away. Tim continues his great interest in nature photography, consuming our six camera batteries at an alarming rate. Photos 4, 7, and 8 in this travelog are his, as usual taken with a simple camera.

Equipment: Our equipment, both old and new, has generally been great (with some exceptions, noted below). By far the best addition has been hydration packs all around. They're much more convenient than water bottles and encourage massive consumption -- certainly a boost for hiking, and no problem given the prevalent Sierras streams and lakes. Their only negative is frequent stops for "relief," but we're encouraging numerous stops anyway as part of our not-in-a-hurry attitude.

Food: Opinions vary. There's only so much one can do with severe constraints on weight, volume (due to the bear cannisters), and shelf life. With a great deal of thought and pre-trip research, and the addition of a small titanium frying pan and feather-weight folding spatula to our kitchen gear, we've been enjoying dramatically more culinary variety than on previous backpacking trips. We rarely resort to the often dreadful freeze-dried backpacker meals (although some of the desserts are excellent). Still, boredom is beginning to set in with certain staples, especially for the kids. Cream of Rice at breakfast and instant mashed potatoes at dinner are particularly feared; "I'll choke it down" is heard all too often when those items are served. We're a bit apprehensive about the remaining two-thirds of the hike in this respect, but we're making some adjustments in Mammoth to favor the favorite items. It's too late to modify the mailed and mule-train packages, but there are always those emergency days of food to raid when the emergencies don't materialize.

Supplies: In the previous travelog we mentioned that it was pure guesswork deciding how much to bring and reprovision of various supplies. How have our predicted consumption rates worked out? Far from perfect of course, but not disastrously either. We carried too much sunscreen and way too much powdered milk, while we were stretched a bit thin on insect repellent, matches, and chapstick. Here too, we're making adjustments in Mammoth.

Fishing: As we gathered equipment for our trek, Tim observed that super-light gear falls into two distinct categories: super cheap-o (usually thin plastic), or super expensive (various high-tech materials). Admittedly Tim's super-lightweight collapsible fishing pole fell into the cheap-o category -- and it fell apart early on. We've already purchased an other-category pole in Mammoth. Freshly-caught trout in bread crumbs and olive oil could go a long way towards alleviating the food complaints. (Incidentally, our 3-ounce Frisbee also falls into the cheap-o category, but we're not worried about it.)

Daily routine: We've spent our entire travel-year striving for an early-to-bed early-to-rise schedule. We'd failed completely before now, usually thanks to late dinners out or packing in one last activity at day's end. Now, finally, with no activities (except perhaps the mosquitoes) to keep us up at night, we've achieved our goal. We're in the tent not long after 8pm, asleep not long after 9pm, awake and well-rested by 6am. After packing up camp, we're usually on the trail by 8am on the dreaded "I'll choke it down" hot cereal mornings (and, to be fair, on granola mornings too), 8:30 on pancake mornings. We'll hike, with a lunch stop and plenty of other breaks, until somewhere in the 1:30-4:30 range. Then it's time to whip up an afternoon snack (popcorn, baked goods, and s'mores are especially welcome), set up camp, purify water (Emily has graciously relieved Alex of pumping water, his least favorite chore), just relax on early-arrival days, have dinner (you know what's uttered when mashed potatoes appear), and off to bed. Our campsites have been uniformly beautiful, alongside lakes, rivers, and mountain peaks (photos 4 and 9 for example).

Injuries and illnesses: Thankfully, nothing to report, not even a blister. Alex's sprained ankle has caused no slow-downs, and it continues to improve with daily trail therapy.

Weather: Afternoon thunderstorms are fairly common in the Sierras, and there were some doozies each of the last three afternoons before we hit the trail. The pattern changed just as we set out, and we've been exceptionally lucky so far. We had a bit of drizzle on two occasions -- not enough to break out the rainjackets or pack covers -- and that's it. Most days have been blue skies with just a few clouds. It seems unlikely our luck will hold for another three weeks, but we can always hope.

Laundry and bathing: Backpackers aren't the cleanest lot, but we've camped by lakes frequently enough for periodic bracing dips (photo 10) and clothes rinsing. These primitive bathing and laundry methods will need to last us twice as long on the next leg of the trail (although we'll pass some hot springs after about a week) -- let's hope we don't run into anyone else we know.

Next: We're taking two "rest days" in Mammoth Lakes. Resting actually means repairing and replacing some clothes and equipment, picking up a few supplies, doing laundry, getting Tim a haircut, renting a convertible for a joyride to nearby Bishop to visit the galleries of well-known nature photographers Galen & Barbara Rowell and Vern Clevenger, patronizing the local pool tables, and generally enjoying the comforts of civilization. We'll hit the trail again on July 28. Look for a final travelog (of the entire year!) in the August 20-24 range.

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