Stories

My Worst Hike: Maggots, Food Poisoning, and a Missing Tent on the John Muir Trail

The John Muir Trail was my dream hike—until a bout of food poisoning turned it into a nightmare.

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I won’t tell you what else was in the hole, but I will tell you that there was a fly in it, and it was drowning. I lay on my side with my cheek in the dirt, counting the seconds between waves of pain the way you might count seconds between claps of thunder to gauge the progress of a storm. One. Two. Three. Four. My belly writhed. I pushed myself up onto shaking elbows and filled up the hole a little more. This storm wasn’t passing.

Nearby, two friends lay beside holes of their own, while a third ran between us like a Red Cross aid worker, passing out Nalgenes of filtered water.

The sun was setting over Tuolumne Meadows. From where I lay, I could see a sliver of the violet fire that licked the bellies of the clouds. Except for the fly, the meadow was quiet, serene. Maybe I’ll die here, I thought. It was almost a prayer.

Hiking the John Muir Trail was John’s idea. A college friend, he was living in Irvine, California, in 2018 when he somehow won four southbound spots in the JMT’s permit lottery (the loophole he used isn’t important). So, he called up a few of the college crew, including myself and our friends Henry and Bradley. We immediately agreed.

John and Bradley had a different trailhead on their permits, so Henry and I started alone from the valley floor. We passed Vernal Falls around sunrise and tagged Half Dome before noon. But on the final climb to Sunrise Camp, Henry and I hit a burn zone in the heat of the day. Charred trees striped the sky, an endless barcode.

We were more than 16 miles and 8,000 feet of elevation gain in at that point, and Henry’s North Carolina lungs had had enough. He stopped, sat down, and cried.

That was just the first hiccup. When we got to Sunrise Camp, we expected to find John and Bradley waiting for us. They were nowhere to be found, and we had no way of contacting them.  I tried not to imagine the worst.

“We’re not going to die here,” I croaked, as firmly as I could muster.

John and Bradley had the tent, so I lay down between two rocks. I tried to fall asleep as mosquitos bit me through my head net.

Our missing friends arrived well past dark. I could tell by the loud bird calls—not from the birds, from them. The two were late not because of a fatal accident, but because they’d taken a leisurely pace, identified jays, caught a garter snake, jumped in streams, and not paid attention to the time. I was relieved, but also irritated. It’s OK, I tried to soothe myself. Tomorrow will be better.

The next morning we hiked together from Sunrise Camp to Tuolumne Meadows. A few miles from camp, Henry grew pale. He was sure it was just the altitude. We didn’t start to worry until he started vomiting.

We set up camp at the next site we found. Henry rolled out his sleeping pad and lay down. Within minutes, I started to feel nauseous. I told myself I just hadn’t eaten in a while. I sat down and pulled out a granola bar—and screamed. Maggots crawled under the transparent wrapper.

I threw the bar into our trash bag and drank water instead. Twenty minutes later, I was digging a hole to vomit into. Twenty minutes after that, Bradley was doing the same.

Was it the water at Sunrise, where signs promised that the persistent E. coli problem had been recently fixed? Was it the granola bars we’d pulled from John’s ancient and suspect bin of camping food? Was it the hole-in-the-wall Ecuadorian restaurant we’d eaten at the night before driving to Yosemite? At one point, we all crawled to a central point equidistant from our respective holes.

“I’m scared,” Henry said.

“We’re not going to die here,” I croaked, as firmly as I could muster. “This is the most trafficked trail in the whole state, and it’s just a stomach bug.”

Henry hinted that we should consider calling for rescue. I shook my head. It was about all I could do.

After about 48 hours, the three of us had moved back into the tent. We drank water and ramen broth, listened to the rain ticking against the fly, and watched thru-hikers make their way, a line of dirty ants marching up and down Donohue Pass. The sickness was passing, and we felt giddy with relief. We took turns reading poetry and talking about our lives.

The next day we packed up and hiked out, overjoyed to be moving again. It didn’t last long.

On the south side of Donohue Pass, John, our last man standing, started to slow down. The timing was bad; we’d just entered serious mosquito territory, and the insects were so dense on our skin that we were killing six or seven with a single slap.

A few more miles, and the last man standing was standing no more. We set up camp and arranged the tent so John could puke downhill.

I wandered off to watch the sun set over the granite hills and the fields of Indian paintbrush. I’d set out on this trip hoping to pound out miles. Now, all I could do was walk off my frustration, but the trail always has its own plans.

I watched the rocks turn gold and took a deep breath. Easy trips let you breeze through without thinking, I realized. It’s the hard ones that force you to slow down and appreciate the little things. Ramen broth. Old friends. A well-loved book of poetry. Besides, today, it’s not the smooth, easy trips I find myself remembering, or talking about at dinners and reunions. It’s not the easy trips I’m most grateful for. It’s the hard trips, like this one.