Grandma taught her kids and grandkids to loathe the predictable. “I’ve had it,” she scolded her four children. “You aren’t a bit grateful. I’m leaving to climb Mount Everest.” But she didn’t. She rode a camel across the Sahara in nylons, high heels and a polka dot dress instead.
When Mum was aged 10, my grandpa led her brothers’ Boy Scout troop up Mount Whitney (4,418 metres), while my aunt and she sipped milkshakes down at Bono Bonanza’s in Lone Pine, California. The two sisters envied the boys with their backpacks and ragged jeans and t-shirts – the afterglow of adventure imprinted on their dirty, sunburnt faces
John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra, published in 1911, was Mum’s second bible. Muir is best known for leading Teddy Roosevelt on a three-day wilderness expedition in 1903, which inspired the US president to establish five national parks. Mum’s teacher scrawled on an essay she wrote about Muir: Was he running away? Was it an over-glamorised perception of nature and an inability to get along with society? Mum stormed out of class, wondering what the professor could possibly know in his coat and tie and shiny shoes.
Muir’s words filled her with yearning, beckoning her into the great outdoors:
“Few places in this world are more dangerous than home. Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain-passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free…” – John Muir, The Mountains of California
And so, aged 18 and 16 respectively, my Mum and my aunt set out to hike the 339 kilometre John Muir Trail (JMT). They could feel, with every molecule of their being, an unmistakable memory pulling them outside of their rooms, away from the stagnant seasons inside. They would live off bread and hot tea like Muir, plus chocolate, dried fruit, and onion soup over rice. They would travel without a tent like Muir who slept on “pine-tassels” or a wool blanket.
I remember Mum’s stories by heart. How my aunt and she set off wearing halter tops and cutoff denim shorts, their long braided hair tied back with bandannas, ankle-high Red Wing construction boots rubbing their blistered feet. How they took 25 days to hike from Yosemite to Whitney Portal instead of the 15 days they had planned for, and how, when they ran out of food, they hitchhiked to resupply. The night they didn’t hang their food because they thought bears didn’t roam above the treeline. A bear sniffing at, then heaving their packs; the half dozen brown bears wading in the lake nearby; and the full moon rising over the peaks, flooding the meadow with light – spooking the bears – saving the sisters.
“Storm clouds gathered over gothic, razor-edged peaks. Thunder threatened near Mounts Banner and Ritter. Started to feel only human, the magnificence of landscape overwhelming. Nothing will ever be the same.” – Mum’s journal entry, 27 June 1972
The sisters grew strong, their legs and arms taut, their long hair sun-bleached and their eyes keen – watching, gathering.
“The last day – so strange to think we wouldn’t be sleeping outdoors tonight. Gulped down M&Ms purchased from the supply store at the trailhead. Hitched into Lone Pine. Suddenly nauseous from the bombardment to the senses. Everything moving too fast: cars, people coming and going, doors slamming, traffic lights, radios, fumes from sizzling burgers, silverware clanking on a Formica counter. We wanted to turn back.” – Mum’s journal entry, 7 July 1972
The sisters took their packs off and walked around light as feathers, feeling superhuman. Knowing that they would never want anything more than this: the mountains, the trees.
Following in her footsteps
Aged nine, I earned a Squirrel Card for hiking up Taquitz Peak, and I was hooked. At age 13, Mum and I hiked up Half Dome. From a perspective of limitless possibility, atop the glaciated crest, we surveyed the achingly beautiful Yosemite Valley below. When I was 26 years old, Mum’s cancer came back after two decades in remission, and she asked me to hike the JMT in her honour. “Tell the squirrels that you’re a Muir,” she said, in a morphine-induced haze. I shouldered the weight of Mum’s terminal illness, her tattered Starr’s Guide, my 23 kilogram pack, and set out on my own.
My footsteps became a walking meditation as I worked through anger – desperate to understand why? Up and over 3,500 metre passes, and down through desolate valleys of grief. I swam in lakes of inspiration, where boulders the size of VW vans reassured me of the continuity of life. My heart softened and the wind whipped away my tears as I coyote-called from mountaintops. I felt myself melting, then crystallising like granite, ready to stand sentinel at Mum’s bedside until it was time for her to return to ashes and dust.
Three is a crowd
In the summer of 2008, a few months after Mum died, my cousin suggested that we hike the JMT in memoriam. I invited my childhood friend Carly along. Our trio was doomed from the start: my cousin was recovering from knee surgery, Carly had altitude sickness and I was unaccustomed to the time zone. Carly and my cousin each felt like a third wheel, and I was too overwhelmed by grief to build a bridge between the two.
After a week in the woods, we were guided off the trail by a park ranger. Our heavy resupply boxes – filled with additional maps, squeeze tubes of peanut butter, chocolate, trail mix and socks – were still waiting for us at Muir Trail Ranch and at Red’s Meadow Resort. Defeat weighed heavy as I flew back to Australia, leaving my family 13,000 kilometres in rear view.
In memoriam, take two
In 2014, I took an ultra-lightweight approach to the JMT. My pack had a base-weight of 8 kilograms, including a bear canister, and I had enough food to last me until my resupply on day eight. This time, I had trained for months. The only hitch: a hiker had gone missing on the Whitney Trail the week before.
On day three, as I headed north towards Forester Pass (4,009 metres), I met a man with fuzzy grey hair down to his shoulders and a machete belted at his hip. He said that he lived in the mountains and had run out of food. I offloaded precious dehydrated meals into his outstretched hands as I nervously eyed his knife. When he asked if he could follow me over the pass, I was too afraid to say no. He kept up with me until we met thigh-deep snow on the backside of the pass, then I put some distance between us. I hiked by the light of my headlamp until 10 pm, then camped on my sleeping pad and tarp, hidden amongst boulders. The next few days I constantly looked behind me, and my pilfered food rations wore thin.
On the seventh day, my muscles burned with lactic acid and I cinched my pack tight around my shrinking waistline. As the sun nodded off behind Muir Pass, a couple of hikers asked if I was okay, and offered granola bars to help me over the pass. The next day, when I picked up my resupply at Muir Trail Ranch, I learned that the body of the missing hiker had been recovered from the Mount Whitney Trail; when he took a shortcut on descent, he fell into a chute and died from traumatic injuries. I felt chagrined for suspecting the man with the machete. That fatal accident reminded of the power of nature and the impermanence of life. When I emerged in Yosemite Valley on day 14, I finally felt at peace, grateful that Mum lived long enough to become my hero.
Hiking plus one
The next year, my relationship broke down due to family violence. When I was two months pregnant, I sought answers on the JMT, again. Forest fires raged across California – the worst in a decade – mirroring my emotional unrest. This time it took me three days to hike to Trail Camp from Whitney Portal, a distance of only 10 kilometres. I was completely debilitated by altitude sickness, unable to move at more than a crawl. “You’ve got a long way to go,” said one hiker as he sped past. I surrendered to my snail’s pace, humbled by the trail.
Descending from Whitney towards Guitar Lake, my ankle collapsed under the burden of worry; thoughts of my soon-to-be ex, plus pregnancy hormones, triggered my misstep. I hobbled over to a clear, icy tarn and soaked my sprain. I wrapped my ankle and strode on through the haze of smoke and raining ash, in spite of the pain, becoming more sure-footed with every step. By the time I reached Yosemite, I was forged like steel, ready to battle for a better life – free from abuse – for my baby and me.
When my son was two months old, I felt the mountains calling me. Most people would have said I was crazy to hike with a baby, but I knew that Carly would be down for adventure. We set out from Idyllwild, California, where I earned my Squirrel Card so many years ago, to hike Mount San Jacinto (3,302 metres). I strapped my baby boy to me with a soft wrap so that I could still wear my pack. The familiar pattern of my heartbeat and the gentle rhythm of my footsteps soothed him to sleep for much of our three-day trek. When he awoke, it was in wide-eyed amazement at the wind rippling through 100-year-old pines. I placed each footstep deliberately and planted my poles for balance, determined to keep my baby hiker safe. When we reached the summit, I felt once more that anything was possible.
In a dozen years or so, my son will heft his own pack. I will tell him stories of his grandma, who had his same strawberry hair, and my own tales of perseverance. Together, we will follow in the perpetual footsteps of our heroes, enjoying the flicker of sunlight dancing through tall trees and the unadulterated pleasure of wild spaces which are the legacy of conservationists – like Muir – and the inheritance of future generations.