3 Things I Learned on the John Muir Trail
September 22, 2021
Nature doesn't cater to the needs of the explorer. It doesn't stop raining just because your clothing is soaked. The trail doesn't bend and weave to make that mountain pass less steep of a climb. It’s cold, it’s hot, it's smokey, it's incredibly challenging…. the wilderness can make or break you. Completely vulnerable to the elements and the environment we must learn to adapt if we wish to be anything other than miserable. Thru hiking demands that we abandon any notion that we are in control and instead surrender to the ground beneath our feet.
I am a planner to my core. I make excel spreadsheets, I read all of the guidebooks, I educate myself on every possible aspect of an adventure and make the best plan ever. The Sierra Nevada couldn't give two shits about my plans….
After 3 weeks on the John Muir Trail, here is what I learned:
Slow down and take a break
Day 3. Mile 30. We are walking… well, waddling like freshly hatched baby penguins... through Lyell Canyon, miles from our planned camp site. Our feet aching with every step. We spent the last two days climbing thousands of feet out of Yosemite Valley only stopping for lunch and to filter water. Hiking to reach the most beautiful destinations on trail. I spent the weeks prior to this trip with a magnifying glass on google maps making sure to find the best camping spots. But by day 3 I was genuinely worried we wouldn't make it if we continued pushing the way we were. Our feet protesting, unwilling to carry us further, we dropped our packs several miles from the meadow I had circled on my map. As we settled into our space for the night we looked across the creek to see a fawn and doe grazing quietly in the field. A second pair joined them, and then a third. Magical doesn't begin to describe what it's like to watch a tiny baby deer grazing only a few yards from your tent. At that moment I decided to put the plan aside and shifted my focus to each day's journey.
Sure it would be great to make it to the next beautiful camping spot on my list- but instead we kicked our shoes off and took a dip in the river next to the most beautiful meadow filled with baby deer.The next day we made our way up Donahue Pass, stopping to take a dip in the river that I had circled as camp for the night prior. We splashed, we smiled, we enjoyed every second soaking in the sun on the riverside as we gazed up at the massive peaks encircling us. It's cliche as hell, but learning how to slow down and enjoy each and every moment on trail changed everything. And you know what's funny… the more breaks we took, the more we paused to appreciate the incredible trek we were embarking on, the faster we moved. Within a few days we were back on ‘schedule’, but not because we forced it. Because when we stopped to soak our feet in the glacial rivers... they were far more willing to carry us to wherever we wanted to go.
ENJOY THE LITTLE THINGS
3 weeks seems like a long time, until it's over and you're looking back wishing you had spent more time sitting on that rock in the sun, doing absolutely nothing but breathing. Wishing you had swam in more rivers, jumped in more lakes, watched every sunrise and sunset a little longer. Wishing you had enjoyed every single second of being out there a little bit more. Sitting here on my couch now, It's easy to reflect back on the eye-catching landscapes. The jutted peaks and raging rivers I took pictures of. They scream for attention…
What calls to me most, though, are the memories I have watching ants wandering across the trail carrying crumbs as I walked past, the time we took a break to watch a little frog hop around for 20 minutes and the hours sat in the setting sun tracing the ridge lines with my finger tips. Sure the jaw dropping landscapes are unforgettable, but what really makes me smile when I think of the 3 weeks we wandered in the Sierra Nevada are those little things.
So next time you're out in the wilderness staring at those big things, take a moment to notice the tadpoles swimming in the lake, the way the tree and grass and bushes are growing, the peaks behind the one you hiked here for.. the little things that make the big things so wild.
I'm sure we have all heard the quote “Don't look back, you aren't going that way.” but trust me on this one…. LOOK BACK! I can't count the number of times turning around took my breath away. Seeing where we came from… the miles and miles we walked. The way the views changed every step we took forward.
Most days on the John Muir Trail we typically ascended or descended 3,000 feet… Some of those days were open over high mountain passes with wild views, others we climbed in the trees until we reached the top. Steep, hot and physically demanding the reward of turning around as we took breaks to see the mountains, lakes and rivers we had walked past or couldn't see from below motivated us to keep going. On the days we descended into valleys our minds were blown as we glanced back to see the massive peaks we stood shoulder to shoulder with a few miles ago towering over us.
While it's important to look forward with drive and ambition as you hike to the top of the steep rocky pass, pause and look back- celebrate how far you have come!
I'm sure there are a million more things I could talk about when it comes to what 3 incredible weeks on the John Muir trail taught me, but those lessons might just be for me. At the end of the day, it was the most brutal and magical experience I have ever had. I am grateful for every second of it!