Euphoria: Thru-hiking the John Muir Trail

I’m lying in the bed of a pickup truck. I’m lying on my neoair, or as my hiking partner, Scott, called it while acknowledging its limitations, a yellow balloon. He had popped his while laying on granite shards at the base of one of yosemite’s large cliffs. And it is of such a strikingly un-outdoorsy shade of yellow that I claimed the Thermarest fabric supplier must have had a sale. When his sleeping pad had popped a week earlier, he wasn’t even mad. It had been a long day and it was almost expected that something else might happen. The worst face of Murphy’s law.

This is our seventh hitch of the night, or at least I think it was. Let me remember. First it was Steven, right when we finished thru-hiking the John Muir Trail from Whitney portal down to the town of Bishop, then the spunky canyoneers, Jen and Marie. They had seen us asking for cardboard and a sharpie at the outfitter in Bishop while they returned their rented bear canister. When they drove by us with our recently manufactured sign, they peeled off and gave us a ride all the way into Yosemite, to Toulomne Meadows. Unfortunately, in another fit of Murphy’s law, Yosemite had caught on fire and that fire had near surrounded our vehicle in the valley. We would have to take a over 100 mile detour out of the park and back in to reach the valley. Next up it was the Santa Cruz resident, Christian, on his way home from a beer drinking vacation with some buddies in Mammoth Lakes. It was the first leg of the massive detour to circumnavigate the fire to head in a different entrance. When exiting the park, we asked a ranger about our prospects and with a grim, sympathetic look, handed us a hand drawn map to navigate us around the park to get to the valley. Christian took us out of the park where we then were left at an intersection seemingly in the middle of nowhere to hitch a ride with Anna, the fiery environmentalist and recent Penn State grad doing research in the park. She too was rerouted by the fire, but not as severely. When she dropped us off, we had been hitching for nearly 7 hours and the sun was setting. Our chances of getting a ride were decreasing by the minute. But then the heavily intoxicated Dennis and his loyal wife and designated driver Cindy picked us up to shuttle us just a bit further down the road. Well into the night the yoga instructor Heather and her 3 month old wild licking puppy, feeling terribly sorry for the two bums we were, picked us up. As soon as I sat down in the cab of her small pickup, the adorable, well rested pup, dove after my headlamp and clenched jaws down on the spotlight. For the next half hour she danced around the crowded cabin in a bit of energy that was far beyond Scott’s and my sleep, food, and water deprived states. But we still played with her and loved on her even as she smeared her butt on our faces, licked the salt from our limbs, and gnawed on the objects on our foreheads. I was sad to leave that truck and that adorable little dog because I knew the next hitch would be much harder to catch.

Thru-hiking the John Muir Trail, Fastpacking

Well past dark Scott and I hiked down the road, realizing thru-hiking the John Muir Trail didn’t just entail the 220 miles of trail, thumbs outstretched, sign displayed, edited to now specify “Yosemite…VALLEY”. We couldn’t walk it, at least we wouldn’t make it before dawn. It was nearing midnight and we still had some thirty miles to go. In a bit of despair and apathy, I said to Scott, “I’m taking a break,” which I think he rightly interpreted as, “I give up.”

This is when my little shorty starburst yellow sleeping pad came out of my pack. In an instant I had blown it up and without a seconds delay was face down on the side of the road, drool accumulating on the nylon pad. I was asleep the instant my limbs hit the ground, sprawled on the side of the road like a disoriented drunk. In some extremely ambiguous amount of time that simultaneously felt like an eternity and no time at all, I woke up to hear discussion nearby. “Grayson, we’ve got a ride!”, Scott shouted over to me.

I lifted up my sleeping pad and carried it underarm, like a surfer ready to go shred some waves, over to the cab. I exchanged a brief bit of conversational thanks with the driver, which I believe may have included the comment, “that was the best nap of my life,” before laying down in the bed of her truck.

At that moment I found myself in one of the most euphoric moments of my life. Not only had we succeeded, we would be back at my car in half an hour, and Scott would be on his flight out of San Francisco by morning, but I was riding on a blanket of air in the bed of a pickup truck into Yosemite Valley in the dead of night, well past the ethnic invasion of picture snapping tourists.

I’m laying in the bed of a pickup truck. I’m tired and it’s late. I’m really tired. I am sprawled out with my legs bowed against the tailgate. It’s cold, but not uncomfortably so, just noticeable on my bare legs. The truck is older, at least I suppose from its conservatively small size and creaking over the right wheel. I can see the Milky Way overhead, a sky littered with stars, and the occasional streak of a burning meteorite. The trees pass overhead like an impossible tunnel, a gateway that the truck seems to be splitting through. The sky turns overhead as if on a turntable, mimicking the unnoticeably gentle turns of the truck below. The truck sighs a gentle vroooommm around the turns and up the hills and cries loudly through the rock tunnels. I can see El Capitan come into view on the right, even more looming and foreboding than in the light. There are people up there on that half-mile wall. I can’t see them, but I know they’re there. I’m grinning with satisfaction, not really, but I would be if I weren’t so damn tired. It’s one of those moments of euphoria that I could chase my whole life but still never capture except for in the obscurest of moments. It is akin to love, or of a picturesque scene with a dear friend. I have felt it only a few times in my life and I can name them all. Once was a late night swim on the James, once was a drive down I-64 with friends heading to virginia beach. Another was after being disqualified from a triathlon in Philly when I realized nothing really mattered. The latter one being freeing as well as euphoric. But never has this feeling been expected. Truly though, driving into Yosemite Valley in the bed of a pickup truck past midnight with Milky Way hanging like a fog overhead and the glow of a raging lightning sparked forest fire on the horizon is inconceivably beautiful. It is bucket list material so far beyond our limited imaginations that the entry and the check happen all at once.

Her name was Lupe, and her passenger was Victoria, and they absolutely made my day beyond what they will ever be able to imagine, for the ride, for the simple optimism of humanity, and for the elation. I will remember how their dimly lit faces and their little pickup looked to me that night for the rest of my life. And I hope, in some way, they know how much their small act of sympathy and generosity meant to me.

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