The John Muir Trail was a journey, before, during and after

By Mark A. Neikirk

It is evening, and the sun has set below the mountaintops, which rise above a horizon you cannot see. So there it is, the fading July sun hidden but not yet gone for the night. Its light reaches up to bask the stony faces of the great, grand mountains that define this section of the John Muir Trail in the High Sierras.

No more than 15 minutes have passed since the sun made it last appearance until morning. Then, it was  bright enough and high enough to fall evenly on the whole of each mountain. The range, in those minutes, was washed out and indistinct, a silhouette of broad, round humps. Stately, yes; magnificent, no.

Now, as it sinks invisibly and incrementally, the angle of the suns light shifts and illuminates the mountains differently. The last beams shine brightest on the more western mountains and on the west side of their many contours. Whether convex or concave, the various vertical, diagonal, and horizontal textures pop in or out of view as they are either lit or shadowed by the sunlight’s finale.

The changing light sets everything in motion. What’s seen in one instant in one relief is seen in another relief a moment later. It is as if someone is toying with the brightness and contrast knobs on an old television. The best metaphor is a television that predates color – because this place, the Ansel Adams Wilderness, is named for black and white photography’s master practitioner and because these mountains are themselves monochromatic. Not that color is wholly absent. At one point the mountains have a purple hue, though that majesty is brief. And the sky is blue, very blue, except for a faint spectrum of yellow and orange where the sun was last seen and for a band of clouds in shades of gray that trace the ridgetop in an almost perfect mimic of the peaks beneath. Does the air move across the mountaintops and conform to their shape, then mold the clouds in accordance? I don’t know; but certainly the mountaintops look like the cookie cutter and the clouds the cookie dough. At least, tonight they do.

Our theater for this is a granite plateau some 10,000 feet above sea level and just above a strip of meadow where we have camped beside an alpine lake, itself a jewel. Intimate. Pretty.  At once a picture of peace but also wild. Everything is deathly quiet. Noise is something you imagine not hear. A marmot scurring to its hole. The breeze ruffling a duck's feather. It makes you speak softly, as if in church. 

We have hiked for three days, camping twice along the way to be here. To see this. There is no question, as you witness the light dancing across the mountains, why Ansel Adams came here with his cumbersome large format cameras and glass plates to record the sun’s interplay with these mirrors, these mountains  sheered of their vegetation by yesterday’s glaciers and today’s thin air. “A good photograph,” he said, “is knowing where to stand.” Where we sit, he once stood.

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Before I go further, let me tell you that this is an account of a historic hike: the first fully sanctioned Patio Boy excursion that did not include Bob Pauly, our hiking group's founder and leader, and did include wives: Jane Goetz, Paula Heidrich, and Kate Neikirk – three women who proved their mettle, whether in or out of their comfort zones. In? Lunch with the icy mountain water rippling over their tired feet. Going to bed early for a night of uninterrupted sleep. Chocolate, though merely M&Ms, since they could stand the High Sierra heat. Out? A thousand feet of gained elevation, not once but three days in a row. Mosquitos swarming at a water stop. The baking sun finding its way through the sparse shade. Day’s end with no shower, no toilet, no mattress and box springs, and no clean sheets. "This is so far outside of Jane's comfort zone," Mark Goetz said of his wife. He was smiling and proud. 

Bob implemented a new rule before this trip: Any hike that includes at least three Patio Boys in good standing shall henceforth be an official Patio Boy Trip, with each night in a tent counting as one night out. So for Mark, Dave Heidrich, and me, Mark Neikirk, our nights out total is plus four. And for Jane, Paula, and Kate, their debut on the Nights Out Chart will greatly multiply the presence of women on the list, previously stuck at one. Pam McCallen, who hiked with her husband, Leo, several years ago, recorded two nights out. So it was a good week for women. Hillary got her presidential nomination; the Patio Boys got a sixfold increase in female nights out. Trump that.

None of us was sure how this would go. We have perhaps 100 years of marriage among us, which means the cumulative experience of joys and hardships is substantial. But backpacking over several days together on the John Muir Trail would be a new test of our vows for better or for worse, and, given an intestinal bug that manifested itself with unpleasant consequences, in sickness and in health. Richer or poorer wouldn't come into play much, since what money's spent on backpacking is spent before or after, not during. 

The idea of this trip was born months ago, when Mark Goetz sent an email inquiring whether any of the Patio Boys would be interested in joining him on the John Muir Trail near Yosemite in midsummer. Would wives be welcome, I asked. They would, he replied, and next thing you know Kate was getting a backpack and a Shewee® for her 60th birthday. One of those gifts didn't make the trip. By spring, everyone had some kind of new gear. Boots. Sleeping pads. Buffs. Blow-up pillows. Our and REI credits were piling up. But we also had plane tickets and an itinerary. We were going to do this, not just accumulate new gear.

Let me just say that if NASA ever decides to resume manned missions to the moon, the agency may want to recommission Air Force Staff Sergeant Mark Goetz. There would be no risk of another Apollo 13 if he were put in charge. To say the man is organized would be like saying Shakespeare was a playwright or Clapton a guitarist. Long before departure, we each received a folder of spreadsheets along with confirmation of bus tickets, hotel rooms, campsite reservations, and necessary entry permits. Our packets also contained tutorial essays, including one by an author inordinately fond of baking soda. He saw it as a balm and cleanser of every conceivable foul effect of hiking. Brush teeth with it, freshen breath, armpits and elsewhere with it, do laundry with it, treat insect bites with it. Another tutorial was on how to comply with the National Park Service rules for excrement. No Shewee® required.

The spreadsheet told us where we would be when and how we could get there, starting with our flight (Friday, July 22, 2016, 9:40 a.m. CVG) and continuing to our arrival at the trailhead (Monday, July 25, 2016, by 10 a.m. to pick up a permit – don't be late). And so on to the finish (Saturday, July 29, 2016, Tuolumne Meadows, catch 6:45 p.m. YARTS bus to Shiloh Inn, Mammoth Lakes, Calif.)

It was so intricate that one might reasonably be concerned that a single delayed flight, missed connection, or unanticipated change in the weather might throw the whole plan off. There was no Plan B, at least not it writing. This needed to work.

There were favorable omens from the start. By order of the airline gods, each ticketed passenger is allowed one bag at 50 pounds each. Anything over is another $100. Mine and Kate’s bags were, respectively, 71 pounds and 42 pounds at the Delta counter. We repacked on the spot, bringing the heavy bag to 49 pounds, the lighter up to 48, and stuffing the rest into carry-ons. If this is how things were going to go, we were going to be fine.

You don't get to the John Muir Trail easily. It was planes, trains, and automobiles, starting with a direct flight to San Francisco, an airport tram to Budget to pick up a minivan for the drive to Merced, Calif., in time to take the YARTS (Public Transit of Yosemite) to the Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome Village, after which YARTS was combined with a succession of shuttle buses, some of which were free, others exact change only, and still others iPad enabled for your credit card. 

Right away we experienced a near miss. Thinking we had time, we took an hour for lunch and drive-by sightseeing in San Francisco. We were there by noon and had until 5:40 p.m. to get to Merced, 130 miles away. Kate's parents were newlyweds in San Francisco, and she grew up with the stories. Dave is an investor in Stewart Iron Works, which supplied the bars to Alcatraz and so had once been fêted by the island prison's caretakers. Sgt. Goetz spent some time here, too, as so many military people do. Paula, Jane, and I had at least had Rice-A-Roni as kids, the San Francisco treat, so we had ties, too.

Our one hour didn’t account for the fact that although glaciers have long since left the Yosemite Valley, glacial traffic is very much a fact in the Golden Gated City. It was after 3 p.m. before we were out of town. Siri predicted we would arrive in Merced at 5:45 p.m., five minutes late for a bus we needed to catch. We learned this while on a freeway that was neither free (it was secretly tolled, which the rental van's transponder knew even if we did not) nor much of a way (for miles and miles, only the motorcycles moved, and they did so by driving between lanes of stagnant cars at high speed – or did until one screwed up and wrecked, tangling traffic even more).

Traffic finally started moving, and we picked up the pace. Cutting through the backroads, we trusted Siri’s recommended shortcut through the San Joaquin Valley’s endless almond orchards, which are interesting scenery if you are fond of trees that look like Charlie Brown Christmas specimen  and architecture that might be described as neo-manger. But we weren’t in for the scenery. We were shaving minutes. Meanwhile, there was also the matter returning the minivan to Budget, which the map showed as near the bus station but indeterminately so. In reality, it was a mile away.

At 5:36 p.m., Mark Goetz swerved into the bus station like Starsky and Hutch arriving at a crime scene. The bus arrived simultaneously from the other side – the entrance. Goetz was arriving through the exit, which included signage that read, “No cars beyond this point.” If technicalities count, we were in a minivan.

Our immediate task was to offload 300 pounds of bags so Goetz could hustle the van back to Budget while using his Uber app to arrange a ride back before the YARTS left us behind. None of this was in The Plan. This was all B stuff but it was working.

We loaded slowly. We asked to use the restroom. We asked the bus driver about his children, his pets, his life goals. Inside of ten minutes, Goetz was back, his Uber driver paid, our luggage loaded, our tickets purchased. A few minutes the other way and we would have been stuck in Merced for the night, touring almond grove irrigation systems instead of Yosemite’s glacial cathedrals of granite with their plunging waterfalls and vast valleys.

Seated peacefully aboard the YARTS, with its plush seats and big windows for viewing the Sierra Nevada range as it came into stunning view, we couldn't help but feel charmed.  The fact that we were on this bus and headed on schedule to Yosemite could hardly be interpreted as anything more than a good omen. It put all is a good, post-frantic mood for the two-hour ride to Half Dome Village inside the boundaries of national park. We arrived after dark, 17 hours after leaving home in Kentucky. We checked in, stowed our bags, and bought a round of beers at Half Dome’s tiny, funky bar. Cheers!

Half Dome would be our home for two nights inside three platform tents, which are like huts in which the government housed fission scientists during the A-bomb experiments out on the atolls. Each had a double bed and two kind of safes: one for your wallet, purse, and jewels to guard them against theft by humans; the other for your food and smelly necessities (toothpaste, deodorant, bug spray, hand sanitizer, and sunblock) to guard them against theft by bears. Both worked.

Half Dome Village is a fun venue. The canteen overfeeds you at a reasonable price. We’d buy breakfast for one and split a plate per couple without leaving hungry. Bacon. Eggs. Toast. Potatoes. Dinner, too, was big enough for two. The showers were clean, the water hot. And the scenery is pretty spectacular. Glacier Point rises behind camp, steep and imposing. Trees hide its base, but there's no hiding something this large. It towers.

The village was also where yet another good omen appeared, this time in the form of William Templeton, a cashier the Mountain Shop and consigliere of all things climbing. Please, if you are ever in Half Dome Village, say hello and thank you for us. On our last day in the village, we needed a place to store our bags after check-out time and until our bus to Mammoth Lakes, Calif., arrived, a period of a few hours. Mammoth Lakes is a ski town that would be our final staging point before putting on our backpacks and hiking Muir for five days.

We wanted to grab some lunch and buzz out to El Capitan to listen to a ranger talk about climbing its face. We thought maybe the Mountain Shop could stick our bags behind the counter for the afternoon.

 “Just put them in your car,” Bill advised.

“Don’t have one. We took a bus here,” I explained.

“You could store them the bear lockers behind the registration office. No one will bother them,” he suggested.

We nodded, thankful but doubtful. The bear lockers are not that large and they don’t lock. Bill seemed to recognize our reservations.

“If you can’t find a place, I’ll store them in my car. I’m here until 8 tonight,” he offered.

“Really?” I said. “That would be really generous. If we do that, we’ll tip well.”

“I wouldn’t take your money,” he said, stretching his neck and showing a lump. “I have Stage Four cancer.”

Treatment, he said, was working and more treatment was ahead. A cancer survivor myself, and the son of a father and father-in-law who both died of it and a mother who nearly did, I understood immediately what he meant. Grave illness amplifies your appreciation of life. So many people do so many good things for you that you want to give back. And things that once seemed important don't anymore. Things like tips. 

No omen could have put our impending hike on firmer footing. A grace had been given, and it would accompany us over 40 miles of back country hiking that began at Devil’s Postpile, a place where volcanic heat demonstrated its power to reshape the Earth, and ended at Tuolumne Meadows, a place where a river demonstrated its power to do the same.

Day One: Monday, July 25, 2016, Devil's Postpile to Trinity Lakes, 7.4 miles, 1,300 feet of elevation gain.

We started at the Postpile, where tall, timber-looking rocks appear like giant deck posts but in cross section are hexagonal, not square, a function of how molten volcanic rock cracked as it cooled. To picture the main wall of the Postpile, think of strands of spaghetti stuck together and enlarged to the height of a five-story building. The Postpile impressed us as a curiosity more than as a piece of John Muir’s inspirational wilderness.  But it was a harbinger of the unique things we would be seeing in the days ahead.

From there, the trail officially began as it crossed a stream through a meadow and headed a little uphill. Soon, we crossed water again. We lingered to catch a breath, hydrate, snack, and deet  our exposed skin against marauding mosquitos. This being the summer of the Zika virus, precaution seemed prudent. Our fellow Patio Boy Mark McGinnis had been on this trail a month earlier and sent back photos of himself wearing a headnet on which mosquitoes had alighted en masse like flightly barnacles. We arrived secretly petrified of attack by these blood-thirsty mini-zombies. It never really happened, and happened less so with each foot of gained elevation.

We hiked until nearly sunset, and then began to look for places to camp. We needed access to water, enough flat land for three tents, and, if possible, a fire ring. Later itno the hike, fires would be prohibited. Here, they were allowed. A campfire is a good pick-me-up after a day on the trail. Also, the smoke is a deterrent to mosquitoes, which were still around on this first night.   We were near Trinity Lakes, which might more properly be named Trinity Marshes with all that implies. Toward the last of these, we found an elevated site on the opposite the side of the trail from the lakes, where there were fewer bugs, a fire ring, and the driest wood on the planet. You could pretty much tell the wood, “Burn!” and it burst into flame.

We made chili, took a sip of bourbon, and settled in for our first night back country. By 9:30 p.m., we were asleep.

Day Two, Tuesday, July 26, Trinity Lakes to Ediza Lake, 7 miles, 400 feet of elevation gain.

Up around 6:30 a.m., we ate hot muesli, drank coffee and tea, then packed up and started hiking by 9:30 a.m. This day would bring more elevation but also more beauty. Our destination was Ediza Lake, a two-mile side trip that was worth every step up to 9,265 feet above sea level, which is high enough to notice the thin air. Kate, who is asthmatic, needed to pause often and oxygenate. She, like Paula and Jane, had trained hard for this trip, walking with a pack and finding steps to climb. But nothing quite prepares you for what's necessary back country. Jane wore a FitBit and kep track of each day's walk. You don't get days with 29,000 steps and 76 flights of stairs back home.

Impressive as the numbers are, they don't tell the story of the experience. For one thing, the stairs (and in places, the trail crews really have built stairs) are made of stone. They are uneven and often built at a slate. The numbers also don't capture the visual aspect of hiking. When going up, the trail to Ediza winds steeply around barren rock, exposed to a merciless sun. Then it flattens out and rises gently through a pine forest lush with ground plants, including huge lilies that were past their blooming stage but striking nonetheless. Nearly the whole way, Shadow Creek is visible. Alternately slow and pooling, then tumbling and falling wildy over and around boulders, Shadow Creek might very well be the stream that parallels the Stairway to Heaven, if there is such a thing.

Ediza always seemed around the next bend but never was until, finally, there it was, clear and gorgeous. Fed by melting snow, the lake occurs at the foot of the Minarets that rise like towering wafers of rock with thin, jagged tops that slice into a sky so clear and so blue that you wonder if it could possibly be made of the same air you breath down below rather than of some high altitude elixir that renders everything brighter.

We were, in seemed, in an elegant, silvery Ansel Adams photograph come to life. Up to this day, I’ve never slept in a more beautiful place. The lake was laid about below us, the mountains above, and a sky that by night had more stars than a beach has grains of sand. That, I suppose, is an exaggeration, but I’m stretched for another metaphor to make the point. Van Gogh might have wished he had painted here.

Come morning, the lake was still and perfectly reflected the Minarets and their spotty patches of snow, snug in the recesses hidden from the summer sun. In the meadow, the green grasses were brightened further by the reds of the Indian Paintbrush that bloomed all about. Here, the rare was abundant.

Day Three, Wednesday, July 27, Ediza Lake to Island Pass, 8 miles, 1,500 feet of elevation gain.

Up again around 6:30 a.m., with the same routine: breakfast, break camp, on the trail a little after 9 a.m., with plans to make it past Thousand Island Lake, renowned as an Ansel Adams favorite lake to photograph and equally favored in the iPhone Age.

The day's walk took us past one alpine lake after another, beginning with Rosalie, where we stopped for lunch and to wash out sweaty clothes. At water’s edge, a brook trout swam up, curious and eager for any fly we might swat and flick into the water. The first few fish were smaller, maybe six or seven inches. But in time, their foot-long cousins arrived. We should have packed an elk hair caddis and some line.

The JMT at this time of year is crowded, which doesn't mean there is a constant stream of people but it does mean that rarely do you walk more than 10 minutes without an encounter. The gender mix is about fifty-fifty. There are couples, like us, hiking together, but also mother-daughter and father-daughter teams, as well as groups of friends of one or both genders. It makes bathroom breaks a little dicey. "Dude, I'm right here," David was advised once, and a phrase was born that we repeated as shorthand for the trail’s human bustle.  A park service intern who was counting heads said the trail's popularity had exploded since the movie "Wild," which featured Cheryl Strayed's walk on the Pacific Coast Trail. The PCT and the JMT are merged here, so hikers attracted to one or the other were both present for much of our trip. Mostly, everyone says "good morning," "hello," or – a little too often for my taste – "happy trails," as if they binge-watched "Roy Rogers" on Netflix before breaking camp. Now and again, we talked to passersby a little longer, getting a little trail intel or just sharing an appreciation for this place.

No knock on Thousand Island Lakes, but we pressed on for the sake of privacy and progress to a little higher spot above Island Pass (10,200 feet) beside a comparatively tiny and, so far as we could tell from maps, unnamed lake off the trail. A small meadow was squeezed between this lake and slightly higher plateau of granite about which were scattered boulders that provide perfect seating for a sunset over the more distant mountains. This I’ve already described above.

There we sat in awe, until the darkness fell and the stars began to appear again. We were exhausted and in bed before the night sky achieved its full glory. Only those of us whose bladders could not keep until morning would see the Milky Way, the constellations, and all those unknown pinpoints of light that veritably transformed a canvas of black into a work of celestial art.

Day Four, Thursday, July 28, from Island Pass down and then up to Donahue Pass and to the footbridge below, 8 miles, 500 feet of net elevation gain but our gross gain to the pass was over 1,600 feet as we went down, back up, then down again.

If the day before Ediza was the most beautiful place I’d camped in my life, then on this day it fell to second, as this was now first. “To wake up in place like this, wow,” Goetz said at sunrise. “A gem. Just a gem.” Again, the water was a plate of glass, and the mountains reflected in sharp resolution. Were it a photograph, you could turn it upside down and not tell you’d done so.

Today’s destination would be Donahue Pass, which at 11,066 feet would take us as high was we would get all week. It was a slow hike up an endless sequence of switchbacks, each of which brought into view another false summit. You never really knew when the climb would end; but you knew it would end well. The pass is the border between the Inyo National Forest, managed by the state of California, and Yosemite, managed by the National Park Service. A ranger who arrived just after we did checked our paperwork, and told us, “My authority stops right here,” and noted that boundary. Another hiker seemed pleased to test that delineation, inhaling a bong from the Inyo side.

The pass is postcard perfect beauty, with breathtaking views in 360 degrees. We could see the vast valley we had ascended in one direction, the vaster valley ahead – the Lyell Canyon, though which a stream ran like a glistening thread across a long roll of green cloth, the meadow. On every side, great walls of granite rose, impossibly steep. Over some of them tumbled falls, impossibly high. Seen up close and from the side, arrows of water are spit out past the main flow as if from a spigot. They form leading edges that look like the heads of long fishes, their bodies being streaks of water fanning out behind them. The heads spurt until they dissipate, and the whole thing is an unending succession of ghost fishes, appearing, disappearing, and then reappearing one behind the other. The bowed granite must push the water out like this. It’s a marvel to see, and leaves you wondering whether you can see this anywhere else in the world.

The walk down from Donahue Pass was easier and faster than going up, gravity now being an ally and the air thickening. But the steep trail is manmade, with stepping stones in places that look like cobblestones installed at 45-degree angles. You cannot hurry. Every step is taken with care. You are looking down so often that when you do look up the great walls of stone seem to move, the way your car, when stopped at a light, seems to move when another pulls up. You are in motion, not the mountains, but somehow there’s a role reversal for an instant. It is dizzying and dangerous, given how things drop off. 

Halfway down a whiff of a pungent, musky smell meant a bear might be near. We walked on high alert, though at the top of the pass the ranger had assured us that bears in Yosemite are “like raccoons, more pest than threat.” No one is ever attacked by a bear in the park, he said, but food supplies are at risk in heavily used camps. Some solace, that; but we still took our time here.

Watching the clock, we knew we would need to camp soon, but the options where thin. The immediate meadow was upon us quickly but the handful of campsites in evidence were taken. We asked directions of everyone, and got conflicting information until Matt from New Jersey appeared with an app for that. Before sundown, we came to a wooden footbridge and campsites, as Matt's app said we would. We picked one out and pitched tents. There were more people, more mosquitos, and fewer stunning views than we wanted but this would do. “Heck of an emergency campsite, isn’t it?” I said to Goetz, and we agreed: If this is the worst Yosemite had to offer, we were in a good place.

Clouds loomed, and we could hear thunder as we prepared dinner. “It never rains in California,” the same ranger who told us not to worry about the bears informed us. It rained. For us, the rain was light but Matt and his girlfriend had hiked another half mile to the first stretches of Tuolumne Meadow. They'd set up their tent in the nick of time to shelter them from a pelting hailstorm. They, and others in the meadow, would spend the next morning drying their gear.

Again by 9:30 p.m., we were tucked in, exhausted, and asleep. The day also had brought the first signs of a gastro-intestinal disorder that would make the next day more challenging for those suffering it, and the probability ending the hike a day early more likely, meaning four nights, five days on the trail, not five and six. Earlier, we had passed a man leading llamas up to Donahue Pass. We were stopped to pump and purify water. He looked at us with derision and said in a voice that was some weird combination of Yoda and the Grim Reaper, “There’s no giardia in the Sierras. Winter kills it.” I don’t think our sufferers had giardia. We had nurses among us, and they surmised the disorder might have been altitude sickness or a bug contracted back home, on the airplane, or in town. In any case, Llama Man's statement seemed ignorant the more you parsed it: I think therefore I am ‒ and all that. To be killed, you must first exist even if you are a microscopic bacteria. If the winter kills giardia, then giardia must exist in summer before being killed. It being summer now, giardia would be at its peak. Also, this supposedly wise counsel was coming from a man leading animals that were pooping all over the trail, which is to say into the watershed.

Distrust is sometimes well-founded, even if it is of a man who looks all-knowing and intends to sound so. Remember that when you go to the polls on Nov. 8.

Day Five, Friday, July 29, below Lyell Canyon at the footbridge to Tuolumne Meadows campground, 13 miles, and 1,200 feet of net elevation loss ‒ we were going downhill.

Again, up by 6:30 a.m, on the trail by 9 a.m., we were now assured an easy walk on a trail that would be, for the rest of the way, either downhill or flat. We followed a meadow that was a bottomland for Lyell Creek and, at some point officially became Tuolumne Meadows.  From time to time would see mule deer grazing. At every stop, we could look into the stream and see trout either fixed in moving water, looking upstream for what might be pushed their way, or in still water darting from the shore’s overhang and rising to some misfortunate bug. By lunch, we had reached a long waterfall that fell across smooth, terraced granite that was, in places, pink. We sat down beside the stream and cooled our weary feet, eating a lunch of sausage and a gorp of mixed nuts and raisins. Fine dining in the finest of places.

Long stretches of easy trail provide time to talk, and on such stretches we did. We knew each other at varying levels when we started this trip but knew each other more deeply by its conclusion. We talked of God, of politics, of childhoods. We laughed when Kate called the JMT the JTM, the latter being a brand of prefab barbeque sold back home. “Kate, you must be hungry,” Dave said. We stopped and talked with other hikers, especially those who saw Goetz’s Cincinnati Reds cap and shirt, and so connected to our hometown, either with affiliation or rivalry. “Go Dodgers,” one said. We talked of “Trail Magic” – the way good things just happen on the trail, like meeting Matt and his trail app at a time when we needed it most.

By the trip’s end, we knew about each other’s children, and what career paths they had chosen – teachers, pharmacists, marketers, theater professionals, and, with luck, one eventual Major League Baseball umpire. We all felt a special bond to Simon Heidrich, whose wanderlust brought him to the Sierras in his early twenties, and whose unabashed affection for the place put it on our radar. Simon kept in touch by text, advising us at crucial times about where to camp, what to see, where to eat. We made a side trip before coming home to Lake Tahoe, where Simon had supported himself by bartending at a pizza joint. With the help of his texts, we found an incredible restaurant, Gar Woods Grill & Pier, home of the Wet Woody (rums and frozen juices). We sat outside on the Gar Woods deck that overlooks the lake and the OMG mountains around it. Thank you, Simon. We’ve lived vicariously through your Sierra adventures; now we can return the favor – a little anyway.

We arrived at the Tuolumne Meadows Campground, our destination, by 4:30 p.m. and made our way to the grill and the General Store, one of which had cheeseburgers and the other cold beer. Simon had advised us to not miss either.

Our journey was over, and we would be returning to bus transportation, hotel rooms, and in a couple of days, a rental car and a trip to Reno to unwind.

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“Il faut aller voir.” Those are Jacques Cousteau’s words, not mine. They translate, “We must go and see for ourselves.” The great explorer followed his own advice, as did we. He saw the seven seas. We saw first saw the John Muir Trail, And then Reno.

Virginia Street is a Champs Elysées of pawn shops, ratty casinos, and Vietnamese diners – their windows steamed in cooking oil and etched in colorful paints advertising perpetual specials. Noodles. Soup. Egg rolls. Combos. The streets are busy. People walk. They pause. They mill. A pair of young women stood outside a hotel in the hot evening air. One wore gladiator sandals, the laces pulled tight against her chubby legs. She was ready for battle. Or commerce.

Up the street, a Filipino couple walked hand-in-hand in front of a woman who was hunched and gray. Mom? The three stopped in front a nondescript storefront, brightly lit and stark like the waiting room of a free clinic. The man became animated, smiling broadly and talking with obvious purpose. Through the plate glass was an upright cooler, empty except for flowers and a few bottles of champagne, lined up by price point. This was a wedding chapel. The three went inside. In a town known for the quick divorce, the opposite is about to happen.

Scene after scene, shop after shop pointed toward Virginia Street’s gaudy arch ahead, where a rainbow of lightbulbs announced, “The Biggest Little City in World.” Some of the bulbs had burned out, the neglect capturing Reno’s legendary tatter. This is not Vegas. Glitz, yes. Ritz, not so much.

We drove on toward the sign. Toward Reno’s heart. Toward hell. Il faut aller voir.

Reno is 120 miles, three days, and incalculable increments of cultural dissemblance removed from the John Muir Trail.  But here’s the thing about the John Muir Trail: It is not easy to get there. Nor is it easy to get home. But the John Muir Trail is worth all of that. And maybe we need places like Reno to remind us that we need places like the JMT.  “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings,” John Muir himself wrote. “Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”

We had booked a day at Reno’s Atlantis Resort to decompress. A pool day. A massage day. A gamble-a-little day. What we learned was Muir’s lesson: It was the mountains that blew freshness into us and made our cares drop away like the leaves of Autumn.

But so long as we here, we decided to explore. Il faut aller voir.

On the casino floor, the incessant ding, ding, ding of the slots was the sound of the house winning, the players hoping. The place was a mashup of a set design for “Beetlejuice” and a nursing home. Some gamers arrived on walkers, others with oxygen tanks and hoses into their noses. Some had both, walkers and hoses. No kidding, there was a man sleeping at one slot machine, pushing the buttons as he snoozed and, presumably, ready to awaken if his reels lined up three across.

We paused to play a $10 credit on Wheel of Fortune, a machine about which Jane Goetz had a good feeling. She won a spin. $50. Then another. $350. “Cash in,” Mark Goetz counseled. She did, and then bought us a round of drinks in the sunken bar where an impersonator of an Elvis impersonator was setting up, his gig about to begin.

He was the age of the 1950s Presley but the weight of the 1970s one. As soon as the show started, his legs vibrated as if Tased. Unlike Elvis, his hips are as immobile as stone. He came on at 7 p.m. By 7:30 p.m., he was into a 12-minute version of “Love Me Tender,” which he delivered while strolling the casino floor with a wireless mic, serenading those few women who permit his proximity. The bandmates for Elvis affirmed the feel of this place. They are elderly animatrons, able to play the entire Elvis catalog in somnolent synchronicity. There was a Guitar George who knew all the chords on bass. He was skeletal, with preternaturally long fingers, a hatchet face, and the grin of death. On lead, a funeral director of a man sung harmony with all the enthusiasm of postal clerk saying, “Next.”

They were scheduled to sing until 1 a.m.  By 9 p.m., we read ready for bed, which would require a walk back across the casino.

The night before, over dinner and drinks at an Atlantis in restaurant that was nicely removed from the casino floor, we reflected on the JMT experience. It had been harder than any of us thought it would be – mostly because of the elevation and the climbs. But there was a sense of accomplishment to it all. We knew that to see what we had seen, we had to do what we did. It was worth every bus ride, every pound of gear, every mosquito bite, every foot of elevation gain. It was worth Reno.

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I am, upon reflection, taken back to Donahue Pass. There I met a man who was hiking with staff onto which he had carved the 123rd Psalm. Walking with it across this mountain made him look a like a latter day Moses. This was his second such staff. The first he used, then gave to a lady friend who was dying of cancer. Her death, he thought, was a blessing because her pain had become unbearable.  He had not forgotten her. Or her pain.

Before we came up the pass, we’d passed that series of mountain lakes, beginning with Rosalie, that were emerald green except at their edges, which were golden because the stones along the shore were that color when hit by sunlight, which in brilliant ricochet shone back out of the water. Yes, the sun was shining from the ground up.

Just past our stop for lunch, a fiddle lightened the air with a jig vaguely Irish or maybe bluegrass. A family of three was by the shore. The son sat with the fiddle. The father stood, fishing. The mother sat, too, a few yards from her son.

 “There are no bad days on the trail,” she said as I parted, and maybe she was right. Did she mean that the trail absorbed bad things – a death from cancer or some other tribulation or horror from the other places, where we all came from and would go back to soon? Did she mean we all needed the trail in our lives, as Muir said: “Earth has no sorrow that earth cannot heal.”

Il faut aller voir. It was time to go home.