[to Happy Isles trailhead, Yosemite Valley, ~6.5 miles hiked]
Somehow I’m always the one writing the last day of our trips. I love writing the last day because I get to talk about food a lot. I hate writing the last day because now it’s really, finally, over. And while Toby has a big trip coming up, my backpacking future is less certain for work reasons. So this really might be it for a while. That’s heartbreaking to think about.
And we were pretty heartbroken when we woke up that morning. It was interesting to me to observe how much being out this long affected things. On the Wonderland the summer before, I wanted to keep going in some ways, but I was also kind of ready to be off the trail. This year, having spent almost a month living like this, I had a harder time understanding why I would stop. It seemed silly. We had lived this way for so long that it felt like we could just do it forever. I did want a day or two off trail to eat real food and rest up. But I would have been perfectly happy after that to just get back on the trail and keep walking. [Same. -Toby] That was not an option though.
So we had our last morning of our routine. Toby’s little watch alarm beeped at 5 a.m. and I barely noticed it, and then dozed off and on while he did his routine to warm up his ankles and start to get dressed. [I had dreamed all night that chipmunks were eating holes in our tent. This was not the case. Nor did we have a bear visitor in the night. Whew. -Toby] He woke me up around six, and we began to pack up and get ready for our last 6.5 miles. It didn’t take long given what a routine we’d developed, but we lingered a bit, not really wanting to start. The Venetians were awake and starting to pack up too. They were headed to Half Dome that morning and then to a cabin in Yosemite for the night. We walked over to their tent site and gave them hugs goodbye, saying how nice it was to get to spend this time with them and wishing them luck on future adventures. And then we were off.
After about 10 minutes of hiking in the cool, quiet morning, we saw one half of the Newlyweds just off the trail, on his way back from collecting some water. It took me a second to be sure it was V. because I’d never seen him without a hat before. They had hiked Half Dome in the night and were also preparing to finish the trail today. We again said goodbye and asked him to send our best wishes to J., and then we headed down the trail, our trail buddies now all off on their own journeys.
The hiking this day was sort of unremarkable, maybe because we knew that there was apple juice at the end of it. After we passed the turnoff for Half Dome, we mostly passed day hikers/weekenders who were headed that way. Almost everyone we passed asked some version of “Oh my god was Half Dome amazing?” We kept trying to tell people that we didn’t do it but we’d done the John Muir Trail. Very few people knew what that was and were therefore less impressed than they should have been. It started to feel a little lonely. [One person took a look at our packs and declared us “troopers” for carrying them up to Half Dome, since most of the day hikers just had tiny little packs or even just carried a bottle of water in their hands. “No,” we said, “we’ve been hiking for almost four weeks.” At one point near Nevada Fall, we stopped for snacks and water and people stared as I clambered over some rocks to fill up my bottle from the stream. We were definitely entering a different space here. -Toby]
We started playing a game on the way down of trying to guess which of the people who were passing us were starting the JMT. We gauged this mostly by pack size and we were usually right. This allowed us to wish people luck, give some advice, and answer some questions. A couple people wanted to know what sort of snow they would encounter on passes; we assured them that at this point they’d see very little. One guy just looked at me with an exhausted face (people starting at Happy Isles, the official start of the trail, are greeted by a brutal 4 mile climb right off the bat) and asked if it got easier. I looked at him and said very sincerely, “you get stronger.” I’m not sure if that was the answer he wanted at the moment but it seemed to help. We asked one pair, a woman and her daughter who was maybe about 8, and it turned out they were just out for a few days but the woman had done the JMT twice and was so excited for us to be finishing. We traded stories with her for a while and chatted with the daughter, who seemed tough as nails and happy as a clam to be lugging her large pack through the woods for days on end. Toby and I both felt a little jealous that she was getting this indoctrination so young, but also thrilled to see a young girl loving the outdoors. [This kid ruled. -Toby]
We saw other hikers constantly this day, but about a mile from the end we took a turn and suddenly the now-paved trail was packed with people. We were going in the opposite direction of pretty much everyone and had trouble making it through the crowds. I was surprised that our smell wasn’t parting this crowd of tourists like the Red Sea, but they all seemed sort of oblivious to the fact that we needed some space to walk too. My now-familiar post-trail irritation at the world was starting to creep in. [On this stretch, Cyn turned to me and said “Can we just turn around and go SOBO now?” I agreed that sounded pretty amazing. -Toby] And then suddenly, there it was. The sign that marks the beginning/end of the John Muir Trail. Holy shit.
Toby and I stood for a while staring at the sign and trying to gather our emotions. I felt everything at once: relief, immense pride in us and what we’d accomplished, deep grief that it was over, excitement about apple juice, claustrophobia with the crowds. We both cried a little just trying to process it all. And then we wanted a picture but we wanted to ask someone who knew what we’d been through. We were standing there trying to pick someone when the mother/daughter pair we’d met earlier appeared, and we were overjoyed. So we asked them to take our picture and they took lots and helped us celebrate. Then they moved on and we were about to turn away when Toby heard a guy who was looking at the sign say “John Muir Trail 211 miles?! Ha ha ha. No. Way.” Toby, unable to help himself, said “We just did that!” and the guys were floored. Sweet, modest Toby then apologized for bragging and the guy said, “Dude if I’d done that, I’d be bragging too.” And that felt like a nice end to the trip.
Then we were in Yosemite Valley and had literally no idea how to get to where we were going. We wandered around for a long time, looking for maps and signs that would get us to the café near the shuttle stop. Some random guy who seemed to know the area saw these confused, stinky people wandering around and asked if we needed help. We did! He pointed us in the right direction and we were grateful.
Our first priority was a bathroom to wash up a little and that happened [soap! mirrors! flushing toilets! Whoa. -Toby]. Then we went to the café. We did not want to sit inside for smell reasons but the only outdoor table was in the sun. So we did what any good backpacker would do and we perched on that table watching the shady ones like a hawk — it was crowded and we were determined to beat any tourists to whatever opened up. We had several hours to kill and I was going to be comfortable. After about five minutes someone at a shady table got up and we dove for it with all of our stuff, making a bit of a scene I’m sure, but happy to be able to relax. Toby went inside first and came back with a mountain of food. I laughed at him for a while, but when I went in I was overwhelmed by options and hunger and so I grabbed anything that looked good and produced a similar mountain. We ate everything we bought with ease in about 30 minutes and then went back in for ice cream.
After that we sat around chatting and looking at facebook for the first time in weeks (so nice to have a break but also so nice to have it back!) when we saw a pair of people who looked familiar. After some thinking we realized that they were the pair we had seen right after our bear encounter, which meant they must have decided to exit the trail early. Toby went up to say hi and the woman did remember us. [Probably because I was like “Hi, aren’t you the person we told about the bear?” Hard to forget that, I guess. -Toby] And then she revealed that she had gotten off because of blisters. I didn’t fully understand until she showed us pictures. Her heels and big toe had developed the worst blisters I had ever seen. Worse than I had imagined possible. I instantly felt bad for the conversation we’d had on the trail. She had admired our trail runners and said she was having blister problems with her boots. I told her that usually if you keep walking the blisters will callus over. Which is often true. Not in this case.
After this we killed time by wandering around the village, checking out gift shops and thinking about more food. It was a weekend I believe and the height of the tourist season, and I could only barely tolerate all of the noise and crowds. Eventually we headed back toward the shuttle, which was leaving very soon, when there, sitting on a bench, were both Newlyweds. We all laughed and were so happy to see J. again to be able to say goodbye. She said “Stinky hugs!!” and we all did and then we had to go. [This was an amazing and emotional moment for me. I had been starting to feel really isolated amidst throngs of tourists and the general impersonal noise of the village. But here were these beautiful familiar faces, who had shared this incredible experience with us, who knew exactly how it felt to be here right now. I’d never been so happy to see two hikers before. -Toby]
We boarded the shuttle and in no time we were out of Yosemite and into the dry, rolling hills of the central valley. Toby and I were quiet on this ride, unable to really process everything that was happening. I listened to music and gazed out at my beloved state, so grateful for everything that had happened and so unwilling to leave. I felt so glad that we’d planned a week in Oakland with old friends and old haunts before heading back to the midwest. It gave us something to look forward to and a little time to adjust to being back in the world. We spent that week eating (seriously. I would eat a huge meal and think I was good for a while and then two hours later I would be starving), seeing friends and sharing the highlights of our trip, showing the bear picture to anyone who seemed remotely interested, and visiting our favorite places from our previous lives. At one point we decided to do a loop trail that we used to love in Stinson Beach. It starts with two miles of switchbacks, which used to take us about two hours. Without packs we felt light as feathers and were at the top of that mountain in 45 minutes. I felt on that seven mile loop how much I had changed, and while I knew those physical changes would not last as long as I might like them to, there was something bigger and deeper that had shifted for both of us, and was unlikely to leave us any time soon.