JMT Day 21: Sleepless in Sierra

[to Shadow Creek, ~11 miles hiked]

Red’s Meadow: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Around 1am, I woke up to the sound of some guy yelling, “GET OUTTA HERE, BEAR! GO! GET OUTTA HERE! GO AWAY, BEAR!” Uh-oh. Cyn and I lay there frozen for a minute. [Well, Toby lay frozen. I took a few minutes to wake up and was very confused. I misheard the guy and thought he was saying “Come here, Bear!” so I thought he was calling his dog, which made me think for a while about how weird it must be to have a dog named Bear out here. But once I cleared that all up in my brain I was on high alert. –Cyn] We heard a few other folks unzipping their tents, the little lights of their headlamps bobbing around, while the guy kept yelling. It sounded like he was one or two campsites away, maybe. Then we heard — and felt [Not. Cool. –Cyn] — something very heavy run right past our campsite and fade into the distance.

So…that was pretty unsettling.

There was quite a bit of excited/anxious murmuring among the other hikers in our site, but we stayed in our tent. Cyn wondered how she’d ever be able to calm down enough to sleep now, and I tried to reassure her that a bear in camp is not necessarily a big deal, especially since we had all of our food and smellable items locked safely away from our tent as always. “Sure,” she whispered, “but we don’t know all these other people’s bear practices!” As if on cue, I heard someone get out of their tent to put something in the bear locker — something I could only assume had been in their tent with them until now. Yikes! But mostly, my mind was occupied by a new worry: after feeling the ground shake as that animal ran by, I couldn’t stop envisioning a scared-off, running bear that didn’t see our tent in the dark and trampled us by mistake. (I didn’t tell Cyn about this fear until the morning, when I also noticed that our tent was tucked next to a very large bush, making trampling highly unlikely. Whew. [Thank you for keeping that from me!! –Cyn])

It was very difficult to fall asleep again, and when I did, it felt like only one second passed before I heard the whoosh of an air mattress deflating nearby. It was 5am, and someone in our site was starting to pack up. A second hiker woke up and they began to chat about the bear. The second guy kept exclaiming “Holy shit! Are you serious?! I slept right through it! Holy shit!” Ah, I thought grumpily, you must be the person who was snoring all night. By this time, everyone was awake and starting to pack, so Cyn and I dragged ourselves out of the tent.

We were the first people to arrive at the cafe, 20 minutes before it opened. I secured a place in line while Cyn used her last shower tokens [Showering daily seemed so silly at this point, but it did feel pretty nice to stand under some warm water again. –Cyn]. Then at 7am on the dot, they opened the door and we piled in along with a sea of hikers. Cyn steered us toward seats at the end of the bar, and I felt like I’d won the lottery when we were the first to have our orders taken! I had french toast, eggs, bacon, and a big glass of orange juice. I could have easily eaten two more plates. The real food I consumed during our 12+ hours here made a huge difference for me. I couldn’t explain it, but in the day or two just before arriving here, I’d been feeling vaguely depleted. I was hiking well and was never overly tired, but just felt like I couldn’t quite get fully nourished or hydrated, despite eating very regularly and consuming plenty of electrolyte drinks. Those two good meals of fresh food at Red’s Meadow really replenished whatever my body was missing. [Same here I think. I didn’t feel nauseous again for the rest of the trip, and I can only thank Red’s for that. –Cyn]

We picked up our resupply bucket from the store (cheers to the friendly Red’s employees!) and laid the food out on a picnic table to sort and pack. [I dumped all my ProBars. It was clear to me at that point that I’d rather starve than eat another one of those. And I really did have plenty of other food. –Cyn] I struck up a conversation with the fellow next to me. He was also northbound, and had started just a day ahead of us. Coincidentally, he was also from Illinois and also a professor in the UI system! How about that. We asked if he’d heard the bear-related commotion last night. He had, but sincerely doubted it was a bear. He said no one had actually seen the animal — apparently the yelling guy had heard some noises and yelled from inside his tent. In the morning, our new professor friend saw deer tracks around the campsites, and he thought it more likely that a deer had run by than a bear. I was fine with believing that.

At a nearby picnic table, a southbounder was on the phone, ordering new trail runners in a slightly desperate tone of voice; she’d been hiking only a couple of days and already had massive blisters. After she hung up, another hiker convinced her to try Superfeet insoles, and I cringed inwardly. Cyn and I both used them last summer and are now certain that they caused the intense structural foot pain we had during — and for weeks after — our hike (but other people swear by those insoles, and I sincerely hope they helped her out!). I could not believe how many SOBOs were literally hobbling around Red’s due to blisters and other foot pains. We actually observed a few folks give up altogether and hop on the shuttle to Mammoth, cutting their hikes short just a few days after starting. I felt incredibly grateful that Cyn and I had done some shorter trips before embarking on the JMT. I think we probably could have done this as our first trip, but it would’ve been an awfully steep learning curve, and far, far less enjoyable.

Hiker dork leaving Red's Meadow.
Hiker dork leaving Red’s Meadow, in clean clothes.

We pawned a few food items off on other hikers, used real flushing toilets for the last time, and set off again, packs heavy with our last resupply. (Last resupply! What! This was so strange to realize.) Before getting back on the JMT, we took a short side trip to Devil’s Postpile. This is a national monument consisting of 60-foot high basalt columns, just half a mile or so beyond Red’s Meadow. We declined to do the full loop up and around it, knowing we had enough climbing on our plate for the day, but stood and appreciated its grandeur from below. As we navigated the many little intertwining trails out of here, we saw two deer standing perfectly still in a distant meadow. Their peaceful presence in the morning light reminded me how very glad I was to be getting back into our quiet walking routine. I wondered briefly how the Red’s experience might feel very different for NOBOs vs SOBOs. All the southbounders we’d run into had told us how truly incredible Red’s was — but they’d arrived there after just 2-5 days of hiking. The northbounders we knew (who, like us, had been out much longer by the time they hit Red’s) all seemed to feel a bit uncomfortable with the smells, noise, and activity there. I noted how sensitive and finely-tuned all of my senses had become over the past two weeks, during which we had not crossed a single road, and felt a familiar sense of calm settle over me again as we left the crowds behind and walked further into the forest. Ahhhh.

Devil's Postpile.
Devil’s Postpile.
Devil's Postpile, with a Toby for scale.
Devil’s Postpile, with a Toby for scale.
Reading all of the geological and historical information, of course.
Reading all of the geological and historical information, of course.

Once we turned onto the JMT, we encountered a hot, steep section of trail. A pair of southbounders passed us and asked if we’d come from Red’s. “Yep,” Cyn said, “and the hamburgers are great.” Their faces lit up: “Hamburgers!!” “Enjoy the showers,” I said as we moved on. “SHOWERS!!” they shrieked in unison. It was pretty cute. Later we ran into a northbounder who asked where we were planning to camp that night. I always answer this kind of question vaguely — partly because we’re never sure exactly where we’re going to camp, but partly because it feels safer to keep that info a little protected. So I told him maybe near the Rosalie Lake area. He then said he was planning to stay at Rosalie too. We left him behind, hiking in silence for several minutes before both of us, suddenly and simultaneously, confessed that we’d had an uneasy gut feeling about that conversation, though we couldn’t quite say why. We knew there was probably nothing to it, but agreed to add a few extra miles to our day and camp somewhere north of Rosalie instead. [I was 99% sure we were totally safe. But, I never have this kind of feeling about people on the trail and I decided to just listen to that. I generally feel extremely safe while backpacking (definitely safer than I do in the regular world, which is statistically much more dangerous),  though a little less so closer to places like Red’s where someone can get there quite easily from a town. Since we don’t carry much by way of defending ourselves (though our trekking poles are quite hard and pointy at the ends) I figured better safe than sorry. Especially since we both had the same gut reaction. –Cyn]

The smells out here — all along the JMT, not just in this section — were amazing. Everything smelled fresh and earthy and grassy. Every few days, as we passed through a meadow area, Cyn would declare, “Mmmmm, smells like pasta!” She meant that the plants around us smelled like a particular herb-based pasta dish, but characterized it as simply the smell of “pasta” (if you know Cyn, this will not surprise you). [I did talk a lot about pasta on this trip. –Cyn] We leapfrogged with The Venetians in this section, passing the smallish Gladys Lake and on down to Rosalie, where we stopped to eat. Like Cyn, by this point I’d stopped eating planned meals and just consumed whatever looked good at any time. For “lunch” today I ate two meat sticks, one oatmeal creme pie, four Milano cookies, and a cup of nuun. And felt great about it. I almost regretted not camping at Rosalie Lake — it was beautiful, with several relatively secluded spots for a tent. But we were committed to pushing past, now less to assuage our earlier apprehension than to get a few more miles in and make tomorrow easier.

Cyn at Rosalie Lake. (I think. Maybe Gladys Lake. But probably Rosalie.)
A very happy Cyn at Rosalie Lake. (I think. Maybe Gladys Lake. But probably Rosalie.)
Rosalie Lake. Imagine kids jumping off boulders into the cold water nearby.
Rosalie Lake. A group of kids were jumping off boulders into the cold water nearby.

We hiked down a set of switchbacks to Shadow Lake, at which no camping is allowed. It was very pretty there, and we did notice an excellent tent site nearby, but followed the rules and hiked on. We crossed Shadow Creek and stopped to admire a large rushing waterfall. Shortly after, we discovered a few campsites near the creek, and decided to call it a day. I was tired — the lack of sleep at Red’s was catching up with me. The trail continued ascending above our campsite, but because we were tucked behind some trees and boulders, it still felt relatively private. (Bathroom privacy was another matter, though, since we had the water on one side of us and a very steep hill across the trail on the other side. It took some creativity and extra walking to find spots that were properly leave-no-trace and also visually hidden from hikers that might appear on the trail above.) I felt relieved to be utterly alone here, free to appreciate the sound of the rushing water and the peaceful forest all by ourselves. We enjoyed dinner and a little foot-soaking in Shadow Creek. Cyn dug through her pack and worried — it seemed she had lost her buff and the stuff sack for her pillow. Hmm. We went to bed noting that we now had only five days left, a realization that felt equal parts exhilarating and disappointing.

Shadow Lake.
Shadow Lake. Those clouds!
Waterfall at Shadow Creek, not too far from our campsite.
Waterfall at Shadow Creek, not too far from our campsite.

–Toby


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