JMT Day 24: Recovery

[to Upper Cathedral Lake, ~13 miles hiked]

Since Toby wrote the last day, I just need to emphasize again how devastated I was at the thought of not being able to finish our trip as planned. I had spent so much of our hike wondering whether or not I could do all of the trail. Only in the last few days had I begun to let myself believe that I would really finish, and it was already feeling like one of the hardest, most rewarding things I would ever accomplish. That night I kept trying to rationalize – even if we got off at Tuolumne, we would have hiked the same distance as the actual JMT since we’d started farther south than that end of the trail. The “JMT” is just some arbitrary designation anyway. Why did it matter if we did the whole trail, especially since I had skipped part of it by skipping Mt Whitney (though at this point I already had plans to come back for that – High Sierra Trail, 2018! [Yes! Yay! –Toby])? But I wanted to finish our plan, damn it. And I spent a lot of the night crying as I wondered if that was a possibility.

The other disappointment was that I was pretty sure we were not going to see the Venetians again. Trail families are strange animals. I’m not even sure they thought of us as a trail family, to be honest, but even though I knew so little about them outside of trail talk, I had gotten used to seeing them off and on most days over the last week or so and I was kind of attached to them. But we knew they were going further than we ended up going that day, and it seemed unlikely that we were going to catch up. In all of this chaos, I was really wishing we could see some familiar faces, but I tried to let go of that.

So when I woke up in the morning, I was cautious. I noticed that Toby did not ask me how my leg was feeling, even though I was sure he was dying to know. [I was. Though was also kind of dreading a bad report. –Toby] But I appreciated the space as I felt things out. I did the alphabet with my toes to warm up my lower legs and ankles – that felt fine. I put my feet out of the tent, slid on my camp shoes and stood up – that felt fine. I ambled off to go pee – that felt. . . fine!! At that point I was starting to get excited. The same walk had driven me to tears the night before. I told Toby about these developments and we were cautiously optimistic. He took on the responsibility of doing most of the packing up, and then we strapped on our packs and we were off.

The trail was flat, but I was determined to take it slow and easy. I was still convinced that something would go wrong. I could not believe that given the amount of pain I was in the day before, that things would just be okay just 12 hours later. The most I hoped for is that it would be a little better, maybe just good enough that I could tough it out and finish the rest of the trip. But I was feeling zero pain. Just some stiffness. We got to our first tiny uphill, and I thought oh now it’s all over, it’s going to hurt again. But no. Still fine.

Early morning in the valley. So flat we almost felt like we were back in Illinois, but with about 1000% more pretty.
Early morning in the valley. So flat we almost felt like we were back in Illinois, but with about 1000% more pretty.
It's was dewy that morning and the grasses all around us were sparkling as the sun came up over the mountains.
It’s was dewy that morning and the grasses all around us were sparkling as the sun came up over the mountains.

So at that point, I decided to relax and enjoy the walk. We weren’t flying through the valley like we’d imagined, but we were probably maintaining a respectable two miles per hour. We watched the mist come off the river and saw several deer having breakfast in the meadow. [And then a deer and two fawns strolled right across the trail in front of us! It was so magical. –Toby] We passed a ranger cabin on the other side of the valley and chatted about what it would be like to spend the summer there. We passed people fishing, and others out on a weekend trip. It was a beautiful morning.

And then we realized we were only a couple of miles from Tuolumne and that we were probably going to be okay on the rest of the trip. And that, better yet, there were cheeseburgers in our near future. We picked up the pace and started trucking it through increasingly deep sand on the trail. We flew past a pack mule train in which one mule was acting up and getting quite a talking to from its person. We wafted our backpacking stink past weekenders and dayhikers, dreaming about all of the delicious things the café might have to offer. My achilles tendon was pretty much forgotten.

I was so hungry for fresh food that I saw this probably completely deadly mushroom and said, "Oh my god that looks like a hamburger bun" and hiked even faster.
I was so hungry for fresh food that I saw this probably completely deadly mushroom and said, “Oh my god that looks like a hamburger bun” and hiked even faster.

The trails around Tuolumne were confusing, but eventually we found a ranger cabin to try to ask some questions. Toby wanted to check about a section coming up that he’d heard was closed to camping. The ranger didn’t know, weirdly, but he directed us to the permit office. We got there just five minutes before 11 a.m.,  the time that they let people in to try to get walk-up permits. We strolled into the office and just minutes after us followed a huge [HUGE! –Toby] line of people. We felt so lucky not to have to deal with that line.

From a river crossing (on an actual bridge!) just before we started hitting the touristy area.
From a river crossing (on an actual bridge!) just before we started hitting the touristy area.

After that we did some road walking. [I’d asked at the permit office how to get to the cafe, and the ranger there pointed to the road and said “It’s a big white tent. You can’t miss it.” This was true. –Toby] Our first goal was to eat fresh food. Toby and I looked at the café menu and he went inside to order while I looked for a picnic table. I rounded the corner to the spot with the tables, and there were The Venetians! And better yet, The Newlyweds were with them! Trail family reunion!! I was beyond thrilled to see them. They all lit up when they saw me too, and I settled into a table with The Newlyweds and recounted our bear story, and then filled all four of them in on my achilles tendon issue. J. responded with a wink, “if you want some pain killers, I have the good stuff.” We got to hear about their trips too, and exchanged our travel plans for the next couple of days. We thought we might see each other again. I really hoped we would. But they had been hanging out for a while and it was time for them to move on out of Tuolumne. We wished them a good trip and settled into our burgers. A family next to us asked us what parts of the park they could see from their car. I explained how we only knew about things on the one trail. [They asked, “Have you seen any wildlife?” Oh boy, have we ever. Here’s a photo of a giant bear. –Toby] They got really interested in our trip [They really wanted to know how long it had been since we’d bathed and washed our clothes. –Toby] and offered us some cherries from a huge bag they were munching on. My ingrained politeness made me say no thank you at first. But then Toby gave me a look and I realized I was turning down fresh fruit, which I hadn’t had in weeks. We devoured those cherries and thanked those folks a million times for sharing.

Toby with chocolate soft serve. He talked about how delicious this was this for weeks.
Toby with chocolate soft serve. He talked about how delicious this was this for weeks. [STILL talking about it. After not getting my chocolate malt at Red’s Meadow, I was extra ecstatic about this cup of deliciousness. –Toby]
After eating we went over to the post office to pick up a box we had mailed ourselves. We had sent ahead a clean set of clothes to carry for the last two days of the trail. We were spending a week in NorCal after our hike was over and had mailed clothes for that week ahead to some friends in Oakland. But to get to those clothes, we had to take a bus, spend a night in Merced, and then a rent a car, and we didn’t want to subject people to our stink. I sent myself the lightest things I could think of — some yoga capris, a t-shirt, and a clean pair of underwear. [Cyn had forgotten which t-shirt she mailed herself, and literally every day of our hike to this point, she wondered aloud which shirt she would find in the package. –Toby] [It just bothered me so much that I didn’t know what it was! –Cyn] We bought some juice at the store and drank that while we packed up our stuff — our bear cans were empty enough that we could put our clean clothes in there, and didn’t have to worry about how they would smell to a bear — and then we were off again.

Mmmmmmm hydration.
Mmmmmmm hydration.

[This is Jeffrey, the best and friendliest postal worker ever, inside his super amazingly organized post office at Tuolumne Meadows. He has worked there for 14 seasons and loves his job. (Also while in line at the post office I met a group of folks who would be starting a NOBO hike in a few days. They had applied 33 days in a row for a SOBO permit and never got one! Dude.) –Toby]
We were off the trail at this point and asked a number of people for directions back. They were all very vague and confusing. But like most everything else on this trip, we started walking and decided we’d figure it out. We wandered through a car camping site for a while until we found a map that helped us find the way back. And then we were back on the trail, starting a two mile climb up toward Cathedral Lake. My nervousness about my achilles tendon came back. It had felt fine all day, but I hadn’t done any actual uphill. I quickly discovered that my leg was fine, but this climb was killing me. It was about 1 p.m. and so, so hot. I took so many breaks and felt so cranky. Where the hell were my trail legs!?

About halfway up, we stopped to filter water and take a shade break. It was so needed. We stopped in a kind of weird spot by water and encountered many weekenders and one large mule train (I had to caution Toby not to move too suddenly to get out of its way. I had no idea going into this how useful my knowledge of horses would be). We saved one family from veering off on the wrong trail. And another dude came along and looked at our bladder full of creek water [which Cyn was literally filtering at that very moment! –Toby] and said, “You’re not going to drink that, are you?” To be totally honest, at this point I was so sick of mansplaining and unsolicited advice from (mostly older) men on the trail that I wanted to punch this guy in the face [SAME. –Toby]. If our ripeness, which no doubt these clean people could smell at 20 feet, didn’t convince people that we’d been keeping ourselves alive out here for quite a while, I didn’t know what would. But whatever, we were badass and we knew it.

We started off on the last half mile to Cathedral Lake and oh what a difference a break and the cooling of temperatures will make. My legs were back, my achilles felt great, and this climb was a total joy. Not least because we saw something sort of magical — the beginning of a spring coming right out of the ground. We stopped and watched as the water just bubbled out of the sand, in total awe of all of the things there were to discover out here. (Video below of the spring followed by a little moment of surprise at the mountain in the distance at the end. Apologies for the framing. I don’t know when I will learn to turn my phone, but it was not this day.)

Arriving at Cathedral Lake was spectacular. If I had to pick a place on the trail to build a cabin and live forever, this would be it. The fact that I still couldn’t believe I was able to get here might have been part of that. Twenty-four hours before I could barely walk and now here I was, looking at this stunning, clear lake surrounded by mountains. As we wandered around trying to find a campsite, we noticed that it was already pretty crowded here. There were people with music blaring and cases of beer camped right up against the lake. We took a little side trail and found a spot that was not the prettiest campsite, but it was secluded [I thought it was a pretty campsite! –Toby]. We got to work pretty fast setting up the tent, having a snack, and securing our smellables, and then we booked it to the lake. I guessed this would be my last lake swim of the trip and I intended to make the most of it.

Our tent site with Cathedral Peak in the background. Apparently we didn't get any picture of the lake this day, which is a bummer. It was stunning.
Our tent site with Cathedral Peak in the background. And okay, yeah, that’s totally pretty.
Cathedral Lake. Hard to get a good picture of by my god it was beautiful here.
Upper Cathedral Lake. Hard to get a good picture of it but my god it was beautiful here.

I stripped down to my trail bathing suit — so, you know, my underwear — and started to wade in. I noticed just across the lake was a pair of people hanging out naked in the sun and I fell even more in love with the backcountry and California all at once. The water was actually a tolerable temperature for the first time on the trail, so while Toby stayed near the edge, I swam out into the middle of the lake. I paddled around and floated for at least 20 minutes, maybe longer. As I lay on my back gazing up at the blue sky and the peaks of the mountains around us, I tried to soak it all in. I wanted to be able to remember exactly what this felt like for a long time to come. This trip was ending much too soon, but I was going to absorb every last piece of it that I possibly could.


Bonus gross-out pic. This is what sun gloves look like after wearing them all day for 24 days straight.
Bonus gross-out pic. This is what sun gloves look like after wearing them all day for 24 days straight. That sleeve on my arm is the original color.

One thought on “JMT Day 24: Recovery

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s