Category: Travel

jmt-sunrise

A Day in the Life of a JMT Thru-Hiker

The first light of morning on the JMT begins to stream over the mountains, through the tree’s canopy, and into your tent. These mornings were welcome, as seeing the sun’s morning glory while still bundled up warmly inside your tent was actually a rarity on the JMT. More often than now, however, you’re confronted with the unenviable task of rising to the dark, cold blanket that lies heavily on your campsite before the sun’s rays have the chance to lift it off.

Chilly mornings thicken the blood and slow down all bodily processes. Everything happens a little more slowly first thing in the morning. Naturally, it takes time to work out the kinks from the previous day before mustering up the courage to throw your pack on again and step out confidently to meet the day ahead.

After a warm helping of oatmeal, a much-needed shot of instant coffee, and a glance at your planned mileage for the day, you break camp and continue down the same comfortable path you were so eager to leave the night before.

Completing the JMT only requires the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other. I suppose the challenge really lies in the sheer number of times one must be willing to endure this simple act if they wish to complete the entire trail. Trust me, there are days when simply putting the next foot forward is much more challenging than you’ve possibly imagined.

Every hiker that’s been out for weeks will tell you that you’re simply bound to have “off” days, much like even the greatest athletes in human history. There are days when your feet seem detached from the body. You feel clumsy. Your feet can’t seem to pick out the right spots. You struggle to find the path of least resistance. Then, there are other days when the ground simply flows beneath your feet effortlessly, and you’re left to take in the beautiful surroundings with your head up and your eyes alert.

But let’s get back to today: After three hours of hard hiking, it’s time to take your first major break. Depending on the number of miles you’re going for on a given day, you might choose to break for an early lunch or you might choose to push into the early afternoon before making your first pit stop.

The morning is undoubtedly the best time to hike once you’ve given yourself over to Nature’s schedule. The air is crisper and lighter, and lower temperatures make pushing hard miles much easier on the body in the early part of the day.

Lunch is always a welcome reprieve on the JMT. It typically signals the onset of that, “It’s all downhill from here,” mentality for the remainder of the day. While this is almost always figuratively true, it’s quite often accurate in a more literal sense as well.

Because you’ve already put so much time into planning, you’ve probably thought about NOT lining yourself up for a stormy pass or backbreaking climb in the afternoon. While everyone has their unique style, most hikers prefer to knock out the toughest mileage before noon so that they can literally cruise “downhill” in the afternoons.

Lunch on the JMT typically consists of whatever “ready-made” foods you’ve compiled leading up to the trip. Not many use their mid-day break as an opportunity to bust out the camping stove and burn up precious fuel.

The knowledge that your lunch will be ready as soon as you fetch it from your pack, however, often motivates you to push those few extra miles before giving into a well-deserved rest. Mid-day on the JMT, on sunny days, was the best time to throw the pack off your shoulders and hurl yourself down on the grass. When it comes to moments of sheer satisfaction on the JMT, stopping for lunch was on par with finally settling on a consensus-approved campsite at the conclusion of each day.

Hiking in the afternoon was always the most physically taxing, as the heat and the accumulation of morning mileage begin to take their toll. Short rests are much more frequently interspersed throughout afternoon hiking, and that funny energy I can only describe as a mild mania is much more likely to settle upon the group after lunch. Afternoons were the playground for random outbursts of song, prolonged attempts to communicate with nearby wildlife, and any other general shenanigans that could be mustered.

The boundary line where physical exhaustion meets mental stubbornness can be a wonderful place to forget your fears and lose your mind for a few moments, and the warm rays of the afternoon sun presented the comforting atmosphere necessary for many of these moments to be fully embraced by the group, without worries or trepidations of any kind. Afternoons on the JMT: the place where your body is pushed so far that your mind begins to break. But is it a breakdown, or should it be viewed, more positively, as a breakthrough?

But I digress, and whilst you’ve allowed my intense period of reminiscing to run its’ course, you’re undoubtedly still waiting for more about the actual, physical experience of hiking through the Sierras. Well, just for fun, let’s jump to a splendid section of trail with a river on our left and towering rock piles with clever nicknames rising thousands of feet to our right. We come to a hanging suspension bridge. Yes, you heard that right: A hanging suspension bridge built over a river way out in the middle of the woods, expressly for the purpose of transporting backpackers and hikers from one side to the other.

We cross, one at a time, as the instructions clearly dictate, and it begins to drizzle as we stand around marveling at the fact that we’d walked nearly 200 miles only to find a perfect suspension bridge, crafted and constructed by the hands of many skilled men, waiting for us such a seemingly wild place Such surprises, and indeed many much better than this one, are commonplace on the JMT.

In this case, the slight drizzle that dissipated as began to prepare dinner in the twilight was a foreboding sign of things to come. After a hearty dinner of your JMT staple, dehydrated chicken and quinoa with a healthy variety of spices, the group chipped in for clean up and, before long, you’ve all settled into your respective tents to spend time writing or reading before finally closing your eyes for the night.

But a clap of lightning and the low, heavy rumbling of thunder shake you awake around 4 am. You can hear the incessant beating of raindrops on your tent, but you can only lay your head back down and hope the storm blows through before you’re supposed to hit the trail again. It doesn’t. It sticks around and graces you with its’ domineering presence for close to 24 hours. All you can do is sit inside your tent and read or write, leaving only to prepare food or quickly scuttle over to a companion’s tent to discuss the JMT hiker’s eternal dilemma when confronted with unfavorable weather: “Do we stay, or do we go?”

Such is life on the JMT. Mother Nature ultimately holds all the cards. She has the power to delay, suspend, or cancel your trip if she desires. All you can truly hope is that she shows you enough compassion to give you fighter’s chance at testing your mettle, and pushing your boundaries, on the JMT.

Securing Permits

If you’re interested in exploring the wild places that are accessible via the 210-mile-long JMT, it’s best to start planning as early as possible. Each group of hikers needs to purchase a permit for the JMT, regardless of whether you’re through hiking or just completing a select section. If you’re truly interested, you should be sure to visit the National Park Service to explore the process of obtaining a wilderness permit.

Those interested in fishing while hiking the JMT should also be sure to purchase a fishing permit before setting foot on the trail. You’ll have a few options when selecting which specific permit to choose, but you should have no issue doing this either in Yosemite Valley or Whitney Portal before getting underway.

Best Time to Go

While the best time to hike the JMT will vary depending on seasonal weather, as well as your desired starting point, most hikers prefer to tackle the trail anywhere from early July to the end of September. This doesn’t mean the trail is completely inaccessible outside of those months, but the conditions might require a bit more heavy gear if you wish to be truly prepared. Check out this convenient FAQ page for more info on the best times, and the best direction, to hike the JMT.

Logistics

Planning meals for a month in the wilderness and sending resupplies to the proper locations months in advance is difficult in its’ own right, but those who wish to complete the JMT successfully must also consider a number of other logistical factors, including monitoring weather conditions to be sure you include the proper gear and arranging pick-ups and drop-offs at either end of the trail. Every individual hiker on the JMT must carry a bear proof container for food storage purposes, and the details of pick-ups and drop-offs can vary greatly depending on which terminus you start from and where you’ll be traveling from to get there.

If you’re starting on the north end of the trail in Yosemite Valley, you’ll need to know which entrance will be most convenient for you. There are four gates into Yosemite Valley: Lee Vining in the east, Groveland in the North, Mariposa in the west, and Oakhurst in the South.

When starting in Yosemite Valley, it can be beneficial to arrange an overnight cabin in Curry Village to give yourself a final evening to dial in any last minute details before departing the following morning. If you’re starting in the south, things may be a bit simpler, as there is only a single access point to the southern terminus at Whitney Portal, which is located just outside Lone Pine, CA.

Maps and Books

While you’ll most likely be able to obtain the best maps of the trail at the Ranger Station where you pick up your permit, there are a number of online trail maps that will help you plan your daily mileage in advance.

The most up-to-date versions of maps for the JMT section of the PCT are available here, while a breakdown of mileage separating popular waypoints, as well as elevation gain per day, can be found here. When it comes to useful literature, Elizabeth Wenk’s, John Muir Trail: The Essential Guide to Hiking America’s Most Famous Trail, comes highly recommended.

slab city - JMT Cotton Candy Clouds

“God Is Love”: A Story From ‘The Slabs’

If you can find the Salton Sea in your handy road atlas (or in Google Maps on a smartphone, like a “normal” person), your eyes may fall on the small town of Niland, CA, which lies just east of this vast body of salt water. Niland is the last “on-the-grid” town before the lawless, and arguably limitless, territory called Slab City.

Once home to WWII-era Marine barracks at Camp Dunlap, the only remains from military operations in the area, which were suspended permanently in 1956, are the giant slabs of concrete upon which the barracks once stood. These remaining concrete footers are responsible for the site’s present-day moniker: “The Slabs.”

The top hits in a Google Search for Slab City suggest it as a relaxing “winter getaway” for retired RV-folk, otherwise known as “Snowbirds.” The ‘city’ also sees many daily visitors, but a much smaller percentage venture to stay overnight. If you’re willing to continue past the ‘gates’ at Salvation Mountain, the city is actually spans a large area, extending, quite ambiguously, for miles in every direction.

The area covered by Slab City, however, wasn’t my main concern as we approached. Tagged widely as ‘The Last Lawless Place in America’, Slab City promised a unique experience, to put it kindly. Who and what one might encounter in this desert settlement, was anyone’s guess. And as we approached, my stomach was uneasy about the prospects.

An Interesting Introduction

We rolled into Slab City as the sun set brilliantly over the calm salt waters to the west. In the fading light, we made out dozens of RVs, of various size, age, and condition, scattered across this patch of barren desert. In search of any human willing to offer their version of an introductory speech, we followed signs to the ‘Internet Café.’

When we pulled into the ‘café’ parking lot, what we found in front of us was little more than a 10’ by 20’ square of concrete littered with couches and chairs and covered by a crude tin roof. Clearly, the major expense was the 52-inch flat screen television hanging on the wall. It was an obvious contradiction to its’ surroundings, but even way out here one must be able to tune into their favorite NFL games.

This was the occasion for several community members gathering at the café on this night, and we had barely stepped out of the RV when we found our ‘greeting party’. Two men approached us, one in his mid-40s and the other mid-20s. The former also claimed to be a newcomer to ‘The Slabs’ while the latter informed us he’d been roaming around “these parts” for nearly five years.

After exchanging stories and passing around the customary peace pipe, we found ourselves engulfed in a ‘wild goose chase’ for the elder stranger’s pet circus cat. The irony of the situation was undeniable, as the man had been boasting of his talents as an animal trainer just five minutes before discovering his own cat had been lost. He even claimed to have worked with the famous Barnum & Bailey’s circus and that his pet passenger was “the most famous trained cat in the world.” But it appeared that a failure to roll up the passenger side window in his truck had resulted in the escape of this famous feline. As we canvassed an unknown desert landscape in the dark, the thought of this being an elaborate ruse came to my mind, and once it did, I couldn’t escape that sneaking suspicion that we were being duped. These men could have been an honest cat trainer and his newfound stoner friend, but they could also have more sinister intentions in mind.

As my suspicions grew, I found it more and more difficult to give these men the benefit of the doubt, and I finally convinced my travel mates to abandon this ‘wild cat chase.’ The uneasy feelings I harbored upon entering this lawless frontier had been validated by our first encounter, and I began to wonder whether this side-trip had been a mistake. Without a word of farewell to the two strangers combing the desert for their feline companion, we quickly and quietly stole back to our RV to relocate.

Driving Around in the Dark

Per a recommendation from our greeting party, we next followed signs to a town called East Jesus, which actually lie on the western edge of the The Slabs, now that I think about it. The streets of East Jesus were dark and quiet, and it was clear that we had arrived in the ‘dog days’ that often follow an extravagant gathering. It was just three days after the celebration of the New Year.

The creative artwork in East Jesus would have been quite a sight in broad daylight, and even in the darkness it was quite impressive to see the time and energy the community had poured into their creations. These statues and sculptures were lifeless, and we found little in the way of human life as well, but as we decided to turn tail and head back towards a more central location in the city, however, we heard a man call out to us from his property just off the road. We pulled over and he came down to chat. He carried with him a thick accent. It was heavy and reminiscent of Russian, or possibly another Easter European country.

I don’t have a good ear for accents in the slightest, and we failed to ask where he hailed from. My suspicions being raised from our previous encounter, I sat silently in the rear of the RV while my two companions conversed with the accented stranger. He seemed honest and genuine, but my trust was not in generous supply in those moments, even for my travel companions. However, we were where we were, as one might say, and this gentleman appeared to be the best informational resource available at the time.

Us being three men in our early 20s, he recommended where we might find a few ladies to show us around Slab City. Of course we took his suggestion, despite my reservations about the prospect of finding three upstanding women willing to entertain three stinky vagabonds and a dog sharing a space of less than 200 square feet. (In hindsight, if there were ever a place, Slab City would seem to be it!)

What followed was another hour of navigating through the dark, dusty ‘streets’ of The Slabs trying to decide upon a spot to make camp for the night. Eventually, we drove past a small camp that boasted a cozy-looking bonfire. There appeared to be six or eight young folk close to our age sitting around the fire. One played guitar and sang while the others stared into the fire and swayed to the music. This seemed like our crowd, and I made the suggestion that we circle back and inquire as to whether we might join them.

Our RV boasted a handy megaphone and our driver slightly startled the group with an unexpected inquiry, “Y’all mind if we park here?” The answer, “Come one over,” wafted back to our ears from the fire. We had our spot for the night. Being suspicious of the folks to be found in this forgotten desert, I was last to leave the RV and greet the strangers around the fire. But once the strangers learned we came with firewood and whiskey, they welcomed us with open arms. We spent both of our nights in The Slabs with our new, although temporary, friends, exchanging food, booze, stories, and music. No hard currency passed between hands during this time.

Chance Encounters in Slab City

The next morning I stepped out for a stroll around The Slabs with our new Husky puppy, Zeke. I walked past the community cemetery and a number of individual campsites with inexplicable varieties of materials gathered in semi-organized piles. More frequently, ‘resources’ were tossed about with seemingly no semblance of order whatsoever. Once my RV-mates rose, they hopped on our bicycles and met me at Salvation Mountain.

Salvation Mountain is an altar, of sorts, that exists just inside the entrance to Slab City. It is the product of 25 years of inspired work at the hands of a man named Leonard Knight, who had moved out to the desert in the mid-80s. Upon the mountain there is written a number of Bible verses and other philosophical quotations.

This is where we met four beautiful ladies from the Netherlands. They rented a colorful “peace wagon” in L.A. and were now traveling the southwestern U.S. They caught word of Slab City on television and set their minds on experiencing this “haven for alternative living” for themselves. Our newfound Husky companion helped us make a favorable introduction and we exchanged numbers in hopes of meeting later that evening.

After returning to camp, we decided on a trip to the community hot springs, where we met a couple that had hitchhiked to The Slabs all the way from Oregon. Eventually they were invited back to our camp for the evening, which proved quite fortunate, as they recovered one of my mates’ phones that had been left at the springs. No doubt he had been a bit distracted by the beautiful group of women from the Netherlands that had also found their way to the springs.

For my part, I fell in love many times over that night, certainly aided by the booze and other substances on hand, but previously laid plans compelled us to say our goodbyes and continue down the road the next morning. I think a part in each of us seriously pondered the possibility of shirking these plans and responsibilities and remaining in The Slabs for an undetermined period of time.

I’ll be honest about pushing for our departure, however. My judgmental ego had seen enough of the place, for the time being. The original group that inhabited our camp when we first arrived traveled in a beat-up old minivan and most spent their nights lying under the stars. They told stories of dumpster diving when food was scarce and a few seemed in desperate need of significant dental care.

But despite the seeming “misfortune” that had fallen upon this lot, none asked for pity, or for handouts, or even for a lift to the closest city. In fact, they were happier than many others who would, at least by the greater portion of society, be deemed to be living a “more civilized” life.

In spite of my skeptic nature, I sit here now, weeks removed from The Slabs, strongly questioning whether these uneducated and disgustingly egotistical judgments were warranted. Were any of our possessions stolen? Did our bikes mysteriously vanish when we neglected to lock them up for two nights in a row? Did anyone attempt to take advantage of us in any way? I find, now, that the answer to these questions is a resounding “No.”

It’s important, I think, to note that those we perceive as “more civilized” or whom appear to be “more civilized,” at least on the surface, may not actually be so when the curtains are pulled back and truth is exposed. And on the flip side, those that appear to be “uncivilized” may actually have more truth and meaning to them than we would like, or care, to believe.

The Return to Salvation Mountain

As we drove out of Slab City, Salvation Mountain said to us its gracious farewell. The cars of day visitors sat in the parking lot and their inhabitants roamed the ‘attraction’ taking pictures. I considered how my closest friends and family might react to the sight that now lay before my eyes. I’ll admit it’s enough to make even the uninterested agnostic pause and ponder, and it initially struck me as being quite fanatical.

But as the mountain shrank in the distance, my eyes could only make out the largest letters presented thereupon. The ‘quote of all quotes’, one might say. The more the words sunk in, the more I felt they reflected an undeniable truth, and the more incapable I became of ignoring their message.

The message read, “God Is Love,” and for me, the truth in these words has become inescapable. As we’ve continued our travels eastward, and now settled here in Austin, this truth is reaffirmed on a daily basis. Beauty is present in many forms. Love is the inherent right of every human, from the homeless man on the street corner to the Fortune 500 CEO. Keeping our eyes and ears open to beauty and embracing love and acceptance for all of humankind, requires daily practice.

“When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it, you see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree. The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying “You’re too this, or I’m too this.” That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees, which means appreciating them just the way they are.” — Ram Dass