Fire On The Mountain

I’m a fifth generation Californian and avid backpacker, so the John Muir Trail (JMT) has been a dream since I was a teenager. I walked over 550 miles on the Camino de Santiago from a small town in France across the north of Spain to the Atlantic Ocean. I hiked and camped for several weeks in Argentine and Chilean Patagonia and through the Himalayas in Nepal. But I had never hiked the JMT in my home state, so I made it my only New Year's Resolution for 2021.

On April 12, I entered the lottery to receive a wilderness permit. I was not selected the first day, but the second day I received a permit reservation to hike southbound from Yosemite to Whitney Portal starting September 28. The Yosemite Wilderness Center sent emails warning about late season conditions, but I was willing to risk hiking through snowstorms to spend three weeks in the Sierra.

My hiking partner Samar and I had just begun preparing for the JMT when the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced they were closing all National Forests in California. Higher temperatures and extreme drought conditions set the stage for 8,000 wildfires burning almost 2.5 million acres and destroying almost 4,000 structures across the state in 2021. The Dixie Fire, the largest single wildfire in California history, started raging July 13 and is believed to have been started by a tree falling on a PG&E powerline. The KNP Complex fire was caused by a lightning storm on September 9 and led to the closures of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

Luckily for us, the National Forests re-opened on September 17. We used the National Geographic map guide to create an eighteen-day itinerary, which meant walking on average 12 miles a day to cover all 211 miles. Many resupply stations were closed, but we shipped one box of food to Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR) to pick up on day six, and we dropped off a second bucket at the Mt Williamson Motel on our way to Lone Pine to pick up on day fourteen. We told our employers we were taking three weeks off work and made several trips to REI. I had many backpacking and camping essentials, but I still needed a water filter, a bear canister, dehydrated food, fuel, and a solar panel charger. Samar needed pretty much everything, including a backpack, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and hiking shoes.

We drove from Los Angeles to Lone Pine, the nearest town to the end of the John Muir Trail. A woman working at the Dow Villa Motel told us that indigenous people call the trail Nuumu Poyo, or the People’s Trail, as it’s part of a network of routes that have been used by tribes for centuries. We left my car in the motel parking lot and rode the Eastern Sierra Transit Authority (ESTA) bus to Mammoth, where we spent the night before catching the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS) bus to Yosemite the next morning.

The first four days through Yosemite National Park, Inyo National Forest, and Sierra National Forest were incredible. We walked as high as 11,073 feet when we crossed Donohue Pass and as low as 7,630 feet when we reached Reds Meadow. Alpine lakes perfectly reflected mountains, creeks rushed over rocks. Thousand Island Lake in Ansel Adams Wilderness sparkled beneath a towering mountain with glaciers. The basalt rock formations of Devils Postpile National Monument looked like hundreds of columns stacked together and falling over. The soaring white granite mountains of Silver Pass made us feel small and humbled by our surroundings. We heard a coyote howl the first night, and I felt scared until I heard Samar laughing in his tent, thrilled to be in the wild. When we watched the sunset over Lake Virginia, sky turning the water a soft pink, Samar called it a “god moment”. 

Lyell Canyon Afternoon Clouds

Lyell Canyon in the afternoon

Tree Inyo National Forest Sierra Nevada

Natural tree sculpture in Inyo National Forest

 

Thousand Island Lake Backpacker

Thousand Island Lake in the morning

Shadow Lake, Sierra Nevada

Shadow Lake in the afternoon

San Joaquin River Devils Postpile

Creek near Devils Post Pile National Monument.

Overlooking Lake Virginia, Sierra Nevada

Lake Virginia in the morning.

Silver Pass in Sierra National Forest

Silver Pass in Sierra National Forest

 

In the mornings, we woke up with the sun and struck our tents, boiled water for coffee and oatmeal, scrubbed the pot clean with sand, filtered six liters of water, and started to walk, our legs fresh and spirits high. We ate bars and nuts for lunch and bathed in creeks, letting the cold water soothe our muscles. Evenings we pitched our tents, laid out our sleeping pads and sleeping bags, and boiled water for dehydrated meals that we passed back and forth. We were usually inside our tents before sunset, “hiker’s midnight,” exhausted after a day of walking and grateful for rest.

I remember my dreams on the trail better than in my normal life, probably because there are fewer distractions, so I spend more time with my thoughts and memories, getting closer to my subconscious. I often dreamed of water, maybe because of all the lakes and creeks we walked past during the day. In one dream, my grandmother and I lay on the bottom of the ocean, breathing and looking up at the underside of whales.

Samar and I took breaks under trees so that I could sit in the shade, but Samar always chose to rest in the sun. Whenever we took off our backpacks and walked, we called it “moonwalking” because we felt so light for the first several steps, almost weightless, like walking with no gravity. We counted down together “three, two, one” before putting our backpacks on again so neither of us had to wait unnecessarily for the other. Two toenails on my left foot turned purple. When I go on long hiking trips, I realize my body is capable of much more than I think. The trail breaks you down, makes you feel incapable, then builds you back up, leads you to find your hiker legs, makes you feel invincible.

Samar shared stories about growing up in Punjab in the north of India, where he watched people kill cobras with sticks and burn them to destroy the poison. His father is from a small village, and stories from his father’s childhood sound like magical realism. He told Samar about a kind of lizard with such a strong grip that he would catch one and tie it to a rope, throw the lizard so it grabbed onto something, then swing on the rope or use it to climb. Samar taught me about the ten Sikh Gurus and how the last Guru wrote their teachings in a book, which became the living Guru. I love the idea of text as a spiritual teacher.

It’s true there were signs of climate change early on. Despite emails from the Yosemite Wilderness Center about potential thunderstorms this late in the season, the days were hot and sunny. The ranger who issued our permit at Yosemite Wilderness Center requested we take a moment to appreciate the Lyell Glacier on the northern slopes of Mount Lyell, the highest point in Yosemite National Park, since it’s rapidly shrinking. In Ansel Adams Wilderness, we walked through what was once a shady forest but is now a field of blackened tree trunks, cracked and jagged and without foliage.

We didn’t see smoke until the fifth day, as we descended from Silver Pass. The air became thick and milky white, and we couldn’t see more than ten feet in any direction. In the post-apocalyptic landscape, the sun was an eerie neon red, and each inhalation smelled like a campfire. Because of COVID, we had masks in our backpacks, so we hiked the rest of the day with masks covering our noses and mouths. We were supposed to arrive at VVR the following day to resupply, but we considered going a day early since we thought it might be unsafe to sleep in our tents. Ultimately, we were too tired to hike the additional six miles in the dark, so we camped near the Mono Creek Trailhead and planned to walk to VVR in the morning.

Smoke Backpacks Silver Pass

Smoke while descending from Silver Pass.

 

The smoke disappeared during the night, and we woke to a blue sky. I felt intense relief and happiness, certain we would finish the trail. We quickly struck our tents, packed, and started walking along Lake Edison via the Mono Creek Trail to VVR.

Most years, a ferry runs across Lake Edison so that JMT hikers don’t need to travel twelve miles off trail to reach VVR. However, the ferry didn’t run this year due to low water levels: Lake Edison was so dry it resembled a moonscape. The lake is fed by snowmelt, but so little snow had fallen in California this year that by October, Lake Edison was only at 8% capacity. We eventually got off the trail and walked through the lake as this was a more direct route, our feet sinking into the sandy lake bed with each step. 

Low Water Levels Lake Edison, Sierra Nevada

Low water levels of Lake Edison

 

After six days of hiking, VVR seemed like an oasis. We sat at one of the wooden picnic tables by an outdoor bar decorated with string lights, where we met the owner Michael, his wife Priscilla, and their five children. Two months prior Michael was hiking the JMT and twisted his ankle. He made it to VVR, where he received medical assistance and was able to recover, meanwhile falling in love with the place and ultimately buying it. We met a veteran who told us fish used to be so plentiful in creeks on the JMT that he didn’t even need bait to catch them, just something shiny on his fish hook. Another man named Peace Pipe was hiking the JMT for his 50th birthday, and his “woman” sent him a resupply box that included whiskey and cigars, but she sent it via USPS instead of UPS, so he had to zero at VVR while someone retrieved it from the post office. Samar and I walked through a screen door into the store, where we bought beer from an old man named Spirit with bright blue eyes and long white hair.

We indulged in creature comforts: laundry, showers, hot lunch, cell phone service. We did not have reception on the trail, and while I appreciated the digital detox, at times it was frustrating to be cut off from the world with no way to communicate with our loved ones or get information about the fires. We checked an app that showed up-to-the-minute fire conditions and saw the menacing red blobs were not on the JMT itself, though they were on either side of it.

An old man with a bushy mustache who worked at the pack station up the road wore a cap that said, “Log It Graze It Or Watch It Burn.” I wondered if there might be a fourth option that acknowledged the role of human intervention, versus lack of human intervention, in spreading wildfires. We asked what he thought the fire situation was on the trail, and he said it would likely get worse the further south we went because of the KNP Complex Fire in Sequoia. Hoping he was wrong, we walked back along Lake Edison to the JMT and pitched our tents in the same place we camped the previous night. 

When I woke, I was devastated to see the smoke had rolled back in, and my eyes watered as soon as I emerged from my tent. Samar and I decided to walk four miles up switchbacks to Bear Ridge Trail in the hopes it would be clear on the other side of the ridge, but the smoke was just as thick from up there. I realized then how anxious it would make me to fall asleep each night not knowing what to expect the next day, which way the wind would blow, whether or not we would be able to continue.

I am not a quitter. I despise not seeing something through to completion. I had committed to spending three weeks on the JMT, and I wanted so badly to feel the sense of accomplishment upon ascending Mount Whitney. I felt exiting the trail now would be disappointing to my loved ones but most of all to myself. I had spent so much time thinking about and preparing for this. I couldn’t just walk away.

Samar tried to rationalize with me, explaining that it wasn’t good for our long-term health to hike in these conditions. He said it wasn’t enjoyable to hike with masks covering our faces, and we couldn’t even see the landscapes through which we walked. He implored me to think about the people who loved us and trusted us to make responsible decisions. Ultimately, I acknowledged he was right, so we walked eight miles on the Bear Ridge Trail back to VVR, where we spent the night in a cabin before hitching a ride to Fresno in the morning with the owner Michael. We rented a car in Fresno, drove to Lone Pine, retrieved my car, and drove back to Los Angeles two weeks earlier than expected.

Smoke Over Bridge Mono Creek

Smoke in the air by a bridge over Mono Creek

Smoke Sky Lake Edison, Sierra Nevada

Lake Edison in the smoke

 

It was heartbreaking to witness the effects of climate change, but I don’t believe California is doomed to burn. Humans have the ability to prevent our state from going up in flames if we act now, and in some ways we’re stepping up: companies are taking accountability, and politicians are signing bills.

As we drove down the mountain from VVR to Fresno, I was impressed to see construction workers on CA-168 digging trenches to bury power lines underground. I later read that PG&E has committed to ripping out 10,000 miles of overhead power lines and burying them. On September 23, 2021 Governor Gavin Newsom signed the largest climate package in California history, consisting of twenty-four climate action bills and $15 billion to tackle the climate crisis. He approved $1.5 billion in new spending to prevent wildfires, which signals an important policy shift in a state that has historically focused more on extinguishing wildfires. 

But we are not our politicians or our corporations. What can we do? I think about the ranger at the Yosemite Wilderness Center who requested we take a moment to appreciate the Lyell Glacier before it melts. This is what we can do: look, notice, be present, be grateful. I question why I wanted to hike the JMT. When people ask mountaineers why they climb, they say, “Because it’s there.” I feel free and expansive in nature, and walking gives me clarity about my life off the trail. Now, I have a sense of urgency to see everything before it’s too late. Climate change is upon us, and we have already lost much. It is my hope that all of us who seek the wilderness because that’s where we find peace, who choose to spend our one wild and precious life in the outdoors, have the chance to see California in all its glory.


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