Finding My Own Way in the Sierras
Earbuds in, I cruise down the smoothest trail I’ve seen in weeks. To not be tumbling down steep granite steps is such a relief, I forget to take breaks, forget to think. Tomorrow is town day in Mammoth, and my one goal is to get as close as possible to Red’s Meadow, a popular trailhead and exit point, and get to town early the next morning. Dreaming about my mom’s cookies that are waiting at the Airbnb my parents have rented, I stroll past a 900 mile marker on the side of the trail. Wait, what?? I stare at the rock arrangement suspiciously. I was planning to camp at mile 891. Maybe it’s just in the wrong place?
I open my map on my phone, which hasn’t been working all day, and suddenly the GPS decides to cooperate. 900 miles. That means I have six more miles to a bed. It’s nearly 7 pm, much later than I normally hike, and my watch tells me I’ve already walked 24 miles. The thoughts of a bed, cookies, and hiking my first 30 mile day crowds out any exhaustion I’m feeling. I text my dad requesting a ride, make myself pee, chug electrolytes, and devour a handful of pistachios. For the next two hours I hike in a frenzy, through nightfall, past tents, a curious deer, bats, and into a parking lot. My dad’s only question: how many? Just me, I reply.
This is my first day of hiking alone since my actual first day on trail.
After hundreds of miles of picking campsites together, gathering at water sources, and sharing second breakfast, I’ve decided to strike out on my own. It’s been an exhilarating day. In the morning I cross over Silver Pass, and see thunderstorms gathering. Knowing I have two large climbs ahead and a wonky GPS, I spend all day racing the clouds. The adrenaline carries me, and by the time I collapse in the backseat of my parents’ rental car, I’m exhausted, proud, and a bit delirious.
Three days later I find myself sobbing on the side of the trail as my parents hike back to the car, leaving me to start my first stretch alone. Overwhelmed with homesickness, I cannot imagine the amount of decisions I have to make on my own now. My pack, full of food, weighs on my shoulders, and every time I lose my breath going uphill it triggers more sobs. I am so lonely and fear I’m in over my head. It feels like walking away from the southern terminus all over again, but now I’m staring down mountain passes, stream crossings, and the threat of bears. Why did I decide now was the time to start solo hiking?
In a normal or high snow year, I would never consider hiking the Sierras alone.
For safety and morale, I’d want other people around as I traverse steep snow and ford rushing streams. Yet, as the days passed, I found the small snow patches and low water levels to be mostly fun, or just wet and cold. As my confidence increased, I felt a pull to hike faster than the group’s pace. But, in Kennedy Meadows, the last stop before the Sierras where hikers pick up bear cans and snow gear, we discussed sticking together, going the pace of the slowest person, and staying within earshot and eyesight of each other on the passes.
This all felt reasonable and familiar to me, so it was an easy commitment, until I realized our expectations of one another were not all that clear.
Is it appropriate to make everyone pay for a satellite text to say you’re tired? Can we leave the person sick with the flu at the bailout turn off, or do we accompany them all the way to the parking lot? Can I hike ahead when I’m not anxious about the terrain, but someone else is?
In the desert, questions of sticking together were much more about social bonds and who needed to do what town chores. Slightly differing itineraries weren’t a big deal. But in the Sierras, with the higher level of commitment, we all backed into our corners, determined to hike how we wanted to hike and sway everyone to our own plans. Each had her own fears: mosquitos, elevation sickness, exhaustion. I wanted to get over passes early in the morning, partly because the snow was firmer and storms were less likely, but mostly that’s what you’re supposed to do, dammit.
Hiking day after day with this tension was exhausting.
It’s impossible to miss the beauty of the Sierras, but I knew I wasn’t fully appreciating the grandeur of where I was. Much of our silliness disappeared, and the easy banter was replaced by discussions of our group dynamics, as I tried to work out what was happening and ended up just gossiping.
We climbed Muir Pass, the last one I had fears about. I desperately wanted to enjoy it, but I found myself grumpy about the morning’s late start. I declared I could not hike according to other people’s fears. It was true, but I also knew I was getting unreasonably cranky. We were hiking every minute together, and we’re imperfect people. I needed to leave before I became insufferable to myself and ruined my own hike by being an asshole. So the next day I hiked ahead and camped five miles past the others, telling them I was buying more time with my visiting family.
This is how I find myself hiking the last section of the Sierras alone.
I have to face my own fears instead of reacting to others’. I have to figure out my own itinerary and try to find some joy in the midst of loneliness. It takes me a week to stop crying every morning, questioning all my decisions. Fortunately, hiking alone means I’m suddenly meeting more people, and other hikers are familiar faces within a few hours. People I’ve just met talk me into hiking Half Dome, and I join in, knowing I’ve got to do something fun to pull myself out of this deep funk.
Slowly, I can feel myself returning to the hiker I like being around.
I spend mornings daydreaming, afternoons dancing to music. I make little sound effects when I trip or round corners. I talk to the animals. I take photos again. By Sonora Pass, the end of the Sierras, I am practically bouncing down the trail, amazed by everything again. I text the tramily, who are a day ahead, that I’m chasing them to Tahoe. I won’t hike with them again, not in the same way, but I want to swap stories, photos, and joy. I want to remember them for the delightful people they are, not their fears I grew to resent. I want to make peace before I continue. I plan to keep hiking on my own, but I won’t forget all the miles and joy we have shared. Now is just the next chapter.
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