[to Rush Creek Trail junction, ~8.5 miles hiked]
Toby and I had a regular morning routine at this point, which involved him getting up and getting dressed, me going off into the woods while Toby breaks down the tent, me finishing packing up the tent while he went off into the woods, both of us snacking while packing up our stuff, and then taking off. It was a pretty well oiled machine by now. But this morning, when I came back from my solo trip, Toby was sitting on a log looking totally forlorn, and with nothing broken down or packed up around him. He said, “you have to get the tent stake out of the ground. If I keep trying, it’s going to make me cry.” So rewind a minute to last night. I was generally the one to set up the tent at night. And last night, I was pounding one of the stakes into the dirt and felt a little more resistance than usual. But it wasn’t a ton. I looked around thinking it could be a tree root, but the nearest tree was not all that close. So I decided it was just extra packed dirt or something. Big Mistake. It turns out I had indeed driven the stake into an extremely thick tree root, and that tree was not about to give it back up again. I guess I don’t know my own strength?
We tried everything. We dug all around it. I tried knocking it around horizontally with a rock to dislodge it. I put my trekking pole through the little loop on the top and pulled on it for more leverage — the loop broke instantly. I even took out our tiny pen knife and tried to cut away some of the root — the tree audibly laughed at that point. Toby started trying to dislodge it by hitting it again when suddenly he popped up with something in his hand. I thought he’d gotten it out! But no, it was just half a tent stake. [I swore a lot at this point, and had to step away to compose myself. –Toby] We decided to cut our losses. No longer the perfect leave-no-tracers, we resigned ourselves to the fact that half of our tent stake was just going to stay in that tree root. We buried the root back up and said goodbye, apologizing to the tree for what we’d done. Since I had found the items I thought I’d lost the day before buried in the crevices of my pack, that was the only thing we lost that whole trip — half a freaking tent stake. [Stupid stake. –Toby]
So off we went, our pride wounded, to start our climbing for the day. It was going to be several miles uphill right off the bat. For once it wasn’t feeling too warm, but we were dealing with significant crowds of weekend hikers. This was just going to keep happening as we got closer to Yosemite, but we were having trouble adjusting. [We were also still dealing with mosquitos, which continued to swarm me in particular. Everything I’d read suggested that by the end of July, mosquitos wouldn’t be an issue. So as I hiked and swatted, I said out loud, “Don’t forget, today is July 31st — your last day, you jerks.” Cyn suggested they were getting in one last feast before their favorite hiker left the trail. “Yeah,” I said miserably, “their favorite eatery, The Left Elbow, is closing in a few days.” –Toby] The trail wound along Shadow Creek, providing many beautiful views of waterfalls and water rushing over rocks that we got to admire as we occasionally made room for other hikers with lighter packs passing us up. We arrived at a trail junction, and I checked the sign — Garnet Lake, where we were heading, straight ahead. There was a huge group of dudes standing at the junction and I just wanted to keep going to put some space between us and all of these people. So we ambled along a flat trail, when after about half a mile a lake appeared where we were not expecting a lake. And it seemed in retrospect that the JMT shouldn’t have been very flat at all at this point. We checked GutHooks, our GPS app, which we were very happy to have working again and yep, we were on the wrong trail. This was definitely not my morning. So back we went, thinking at least it was flat and at least it wasn’t raining like it was when we did this last summer. When we got back to the junction, I noticed that the sign was angled differently than I’d realized and we were supposed to take a right instead of go straight ahead. But in my defense, it was not as clear as it could have been. [This is true. Most of the signs we’d seen the last few days had extra directions and arrows scratched into them by previous hikers, but you had to look closely to see them. –Toby]
So now we were really climbing. Climbing was mostly feeling good at this point in the trip, but on this day, we were both struggling. As usual, I was struggling more than Toby. We started leapfrogging The Venetians, R. & J., and I mentioned something to R. about how hard today felt despite getting some rest and rejuvenation at Red’s, and she said, “Or maybe it is because of that.” Good point. Sometimes it takes some time to get back into the swing of things after taking a rest. So we continued plodding along. Finally I decided I needed to eat but Toby felt like he wanted to keep going, thinking that we were near the end of the climb. So I stopped and had a snack while he kept hiking. ProBar eaten (the non-gross kind, the one covered in chocolate. I didn’t hate those yet.), I put my pack back on and for 10 or 15 minutes I got a sense of what it might be like to hike alone and I kind of liked it. I then found Toby sitting on the side of the trail, lots of uphill ahead of him, and he said “we weren’t that close to the end after all.” So we continued up the trail together and I thought about how much I like that too. [Awww. –Toby]
After this the whole trail got very pass-like, and since we were headed to Garnet Lake after the climb, I started joking that it should be called Garnet Pass. We picked our way over loose talus covering the trail as we made our way up the switchbacks. We got to the top. It looked exactly like a pass to me, but I don’t get to make these decisions, so we didn’t stop for our usual pass treats. Instead we started downhill toward Garnet Lake and it was so beautiful. [Today was the second day in a row that we’d noticed a lot of haziness in the distance. We wondered if there might be a fire out there. –Toby]
At Garnet, we stopped on a little rocky outcropping sitting in the lake and had another snack. We gazed into the crystal clear water, watched fish jump out of the lake, and gawked at the the mountains surrounding us. We were really taking our time now, trying to enjoy every last minute of this trip. [To my surprise, I also had to deal with a huge blister here. My feet had really callused up by this point and I hadn’t even thought about hotspots in days, but I found a loose thread inside one of the toes on my toe socks that had been rubbing my big toe all morning. Argh. –Toby] But the trail calls and so eventually we picked up our packs and moved on. It was uphill again but I was feeling back to my new, old self, steadily checking off the switchbacks. At one point we passed a llama train, and the second llama in that train whined with every other step, sort of like this but more whiny. Toby and I really felt this llama. Even though we were having a good climb, we decided that this llama spoke for us, and for the rest of the trip, when we felt tired, one of us would make a whiny llama sound and the other would say, “oh whiny llama.” We still do that, honestly. [Whiny llama is so often an appropriate response to life. –Toby]
Garnet Lake was followed by the other gemstone lakes, Ruby and Emerald. We continued to pass weekenders and enjoy the beautiful hiking. And then we crested a gentle ridge and got our first glimpse of Thousand Island Lake. Oh my freaking god. I wouldn’t say that the lakes were blending together on this trail — each moment was incredibly beautiful. But Thousand Island Lake was something so different from what we had seen so far. It was enormous. And it was dotted with tiny little islands throughout that made it seem sort of other-wordly, especially with the snow-spattered Banner Peak and Mt. Ritter providing the backdrop. We stopped here for lunch, setting up on a big granite slab jutting out into the water. We decided to stay here for a while, soaking everything in. The Venetians were lunching nearby and I felt sort of comforted by their presence, and people were occasionally ambling past on the trail behind us. We lay on the rock, pulling fleeces on against the breeze (one of the only times I used that thing), watching the water and some little furry creatures trying to steal our potato chip crumbs, and feeling like the luckiest damn people in the world.
Quick interruption for a funny story. We were watching the trail and saw a family hiking along including a kid who looked like a girl of about seven with a full-on backpacking pack. She was trailing everyone else, kind of sulking, when suddenly she sat down on the trail and threw off her pack. Her dad (I’m guessing) came back and tried to coax her up, but she would not budge. He got her to move off the trail and they sat for a while, conversing. After a few minutes we saw him get up, put her pack on on top of his own, and walk off with her behind. She had a new spring in her step now that she was sans pack. We were at quite a distance, but suddenly we heard her exclaim, “THIS IS THE LIFE!” And Toby and I laughed for approximately one hour.
Back to the reverie. . .I think if it had been up to Toby, we would have just moved in there. We would have developed some foraging and hunting skills real quick and built a shelter out of fallen branches and you wouldn’t even be reading this blog because we’d be hunkered down under the Sierra snow eating squirrel meat and loving our lives. [Yes, I believe I declared that I would just lie on that rock slab until the National Park Service built a ranger cabin around me. Thousand Island Lake was one of my very favorite places. –Toby] But, given our lack of actual survival skills, we kept walking, knowing that we only had 3.5 days worth of food in our packs. The climb out of Thousand Island Lake provided new views, and new experiences, and we stopped approximately one time for each island to take pictures and soak it all in.
Eventually we had to turn away from the lake and were walking along Island Pass. It was a beautiful, gentle, plateau-like feature, more like a ridge than a pass. And I started ranting about Garnet “Pass” again and how if this was a pass than certainly Garnet Pass was one and I should get some credit for that. We also passed a guy with a big, long, grey beard who greeted us so cheerfully that I started imagining that he was the ghost of John Muir. And then I felt all warm and fuzzy at the idea that John Muir, in his afterlife, might be allowed to just wander this trail and greet all of the hikers who get to enjoy the incredible thing that he (and others of course) made. We got to what we thought might be the “top” of the very flat terrain that was Island Pass and saw that there was a lake just off the trail. We took that trail and ran into the Venetians, who were packing up from a great, shady snack spot. I joked that we were going to steal their spot and J. said, “It’s a great table. Don’t steal our tip.” We chuckled and found out that we were all heading to camp at the Rush Creek Junction, so maybe we would see them there.
After our snack we hiked another mile or two to the Rush Creek Junction and started looking around for a tent spot. We took the side trail and saw a spot right near the water, but Toby decided he wanted to scout around a little more. He wasn’t seeing anything but I pointed to a spot up a hill that I thought might be good He came back down and said it was perfect. And it was. Perfectly flat and not far off the trail but also so private because we were up on a little plateau above everything. I had honestly thought we wouldn’t have a good, private spot for the rest of the trip because of the increased traffic. But here it was. One last night all to ourselves. It was perfect.