“I’m completely embarrassed to know you. Seriously. If you ever admit this to anyone we meet on the trail…I can’t even believe you.’
This is my husband, Paul, talking. To me.
We are 6 days and 102 miles into the John Muir Trail, a 218-mile High Sierra trek considered by many to be America’s most spectacular distance hike – considered by Paul to be “exactly what heaven would be like.” Alongside a sparkling stream, surrounded by foxtail pines, glaciated mountains in the distance, I have just confessed to perhaps the most disgraceful behavior ever exhibited by a JMT backpacker.
No, I have not been shampooing my hair in a lake or peeing within 100 feet of a water source. What I have been doing, since the day our trip began, is singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”
In my head, I’ve gone from 99 bottles down to zero over and over and over again – up every pass, across every meadow, down every bone-crunching, tendon-inflaming, marriage-testing slope.
“Man,’ Paul says. “Can’t you just enjoy the scenery?”
I’ve tried that approach, honest I have, but it doesn’t seem to be in my constitution. The reality is, besides my grandfather – who is 93, confined to a wheelchair, and obsessed with the NASDAQ – there are few people less suited to hiking the John Muir Trail than me.
I was raised by Schlosbergs. These are a common subspecies of Southern Californian for whom “the great outdoors” means a condominium patio with a potted ficus. Though I evolved into a bike racer and have twice pedaled across the United States, what leaves me blissfully breathless are hammerfests with my cycling club, not alpine vistas. When it comes to appreciating my natural surroundings, consider me akin to the colorblind or tone-deaf. As Paul likes to put it, “That part of your brain just never developed. But that’s OK – you have really good taste in television.”
And yet here I am, hauling around an Osprey Ariel 60 backpack; starting my days with toilet paper in one hand, a shovel and Ziploc bag in the other; gnawing on dehydrated yogurt bites that have stuck together in a giant, frozen, purple clump. And wondering: Will this marriage survive?
IF YOU’RE WONDERING HOW I GOT HERE, it essentially comes down to this: The temporary insanity that comes on during the throes of falling in love makes you say things that you eventually live to regret.
About 3 months after I met Paul – when I already knew we’d get married and was waiting for him to come around – I said something along the lines of, “Sure, I’ve always wanted to try backpacking! The John Muir Trail? Sounds great!” Of course, at that moment, I would have also thought it sounded great to sit in a laundromat with my sweet, redheaded future husband and watch our clothes go through the spin cycle.
A year later, Paul and I were married. It was shortly afterward that he said, “So, the JMT – August?”
I couldn’t exactly renege on my campaign promise. Besides, in the scheme of things, going 2 weeks without a shower didn’t seem like such a sacrifice.
That was then.
This is now, somewhere around mile 105.
“What the hell do you think this is, the San Diego Freeway? You can write your congressman if you want, but they’re not going to post mile markers on the John Muir Trail.”
Paul is reacting to the top item on my list of grievances: The mileage on the JMT is almost never indicated. Not that I expected neon signs flashing, “Congratulations! You’ve just knocked out 2 more miles!” but given the trail’s daunting distance, I’ve found the lack of information utterly demoralizing. As a result, I’ve sunk to the level of a 6-year-old on a car trip, compulsively asking: “How much longer? Are we there yet?”
Actually, that was my mantra the first couple of days, but now I’ve settled into sporadic grousing. That’s because I have developed my own remarkably accurate system for calculating mileage along the JMT. By singing “99 Bottles” to myself and scrupulously tracking the few mileage indicators that do exist, I have established an unwavering fact: at my stride, one mile equals between 140 and 150 bottles of beer.
My method is marvelously self-adjusting. When I climb, I’m so breathless that the song slows like a warped record. When my pace quickens, the lyrics speed up accordingly. Whether it takes 20 minutes or an hour to cover a mile, the bottle count remains the same.
“Gee,” Paul says, “I’m sure John Muir would have wished he had a system like that.”
The mountain passes are inconceivably long; sometimes we trudge upward for 5 hours and still can’t see a summit. But it’s the steep, rocky descents that are really killing me. Under the weight of a 35-pound pack and the force of gravity, my inflamed arches are near collapse. With each step, I wince. With each day, I rely more on my hiking poles to brace me as I inch down the mountains.
Did I mention that I’m so ravenous I could eat my left forearm? We’ve allotted ourselves a measly 2,600 calories per day, the maximum we could stuff into our bear canisters – but only half the calories we’re burning. Inexplicably, Paul is managing fine on our rations. He even finds the turkey jerky “really tasty.’ But all I can think about, as I chomp on Balance Bars and trail mix, are cheese enchiladas smothered in guacamole.
You might think that given my exhausted state, I’d at least be enjoying restful slumber each night. Alas, I toss and turn for hours, at war with my V-shaped mummy bag. Sometimes my grumbling stomach keeps me awake. Sometimes it’s the dread of my twice-nightly pee trips, and all the unzipping and zipping involved. But the main reason I’m not sleeping is that I feel filthy. At night, I’m just too cold and wiped out to join Paul for a sponge bath in a frigid stream. (“Spectacular!” he always says upon returning to camp, wide-eyed and freshly scrubbed.) The more dirt caked on my skin, the less I sleep.
Paul? He’s peacefully bundled up in his sleeping bag, his red hair poking out the top. I gaze at him with a mix of emotions – envy, amazement…and remorse for my whining and incompetence.
Exasperation, too, though it’s not directed at him. That’s because the person responsible for getting me into this predicament is me. Paul had planned for us to complete the JMT in 15 days, averaging an aggressive but not unreasonable 15 miles a day. If we’d stuck to plan, we’d be reaching camp midafternoon, with ample time to recover and scour ourselves clean under the warm spray of our sun showers. There would actually still be sun.
Instead, at my insistence, we’re hiking every day until it’s nearly dark and freezing. This little exercise in insanity dates back to the first day of our trip, when our legs were fresh and our stomachs full, and we managed, despite the 5,000-foot climb out of Yosemite Valley, to hike 18.8 miles (according to our cryptic map). I was so jazzed to be ahead of schedule that I did some calculations; at this pace, I figured, we could finish 3 days early. This was better than finding lost money!
At first, my idea seemed to appeal to Paul’s competitive juices, but within a few days he had other reasons for agreeing to my harebrained idea. “The sooner we get out of here,’ he pointed out, “the sooner I might be able to remember why I married you.”
Even though most JMT hikers we’ve met are on pace to complete the trail in 20 to 30 days, averaging a leisurely 8 to 12 miles, I have not relented. The only thing that seems more arduous to me than backpacking 19 miles a day is backpacking 15 and delaying our arrival at the Siena Day Spa in Reno, where I fully intend to book the massage-facial-hydrotherapy package.
As a method of nurturing a new marriage, backpacking at a relentless pace is not especially effective. Because I’m so wrecked at the end of each day, I can’t help with our chores. The instant Paul announces, “This looks like a good campsite,” I dump my pack, flop onto the dirt, yank off my shoes, and say something like, “So, do you think we went 19.2 miles today – or 19.4?”
Paul ignores me as he rummages through his pack searching for his camera. “I can’t believe we get to spend the night in such a glorious spot!” he says, marveling at the aquamarine lake in front of us. “I think I’ll go down to the creek and take some pictures.’
It’s for the best. There’s no need for him to stick around here and have me spoil his good mood. Eventually, I muster the energy to do my one designated task: erect the tent. That leaves Paul to cook dinner, clean the dishes, wash our clothes, and filter the drinking water. Initially, the filtering was my job, but Paul took it away from me on Day 3 when he realized I wasn’t necessarily the best person to protect us against giardia. “Look,” he said, “THIS is the inlet hose. THIS is the outlet hose. Think of it as surgical equipment that is going inside your body…Actually, you know what? I’ll do it myself.”
I feel supremely guilty for not protesting. Under ordinary circumstances, I’m sure the device would be easier to master than the semiautomatic espresso maker we received as a wedding gift. But the trail has severely impeded my brain function.
I should probably mention that there’s one other reason I’m feeling so destroyed: I didn’t train. In truth, I barely even knew what the John Muir Trail was before we set foot on it.
Sure, I mentioned our plans to my friends and family, but when I said, “We’re doing the John Muir Trail – it’s 220 miles from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney,” I said it by rote, with the same comprehension level as a third-grader saying, “…and to the republic for which it stands.” I had no idea how far 220 miles was on foot or that we’d be climbing 16 mountain passes or even that Mt. Whitney is, at 14,497 feet, the highest peak in the Lower 48. Amazingly, I never even Googled “John Muir Trail.” Obviously, I was in the advanced stages of denial.
In the months leading up to our trip, Paul compiled detailed gear lists, pored over trail guides and topographical maps, and generated spreadsheets to calculate the calories in our food supply. I had a vague sense that something unusual was going on in our home – the dining room seemed awfully cluttered, and Paul seemed even cheerier than usual – but mostly I hid out in my office.
It barely registered when Paul brought home a food dehydrator and devoted a week to spreading blueberry yogurt on Teflon sheets. I did notice the Post-it note and pen on the ledge in the bathroom – Paul was tracking our weekly toilet-paper usage – but it was only when he presented me with a thimble-sized plastic container and said, “This is for your hair conditioner or detangler or whatever you call it,” that reality remotely began to sink in.
Well, that and the arrival of our credit-card bill, which featured a $1,538.06 purchase from REI.com. “It’s all for you,” Paul insisted. “I didn’t buy anything for myself, even though all my stuff is heavy and outdated and is really going to weigh me down. You know, we should really buy the ultralight titanium cookware set.”
I also tuned Paul out when he made helpful comments like, “You know, you might want to get off your bike and start training on your feet.’
Prior to the JMT, Paul did plenty of trail running and hiking with friends, but the extent of my training on the trail was a total of five hikes we took together, all of them near our new home in Bend, OR. To Paul, the most amazing thing about these hikes was the scenery – the lava flows, the volcanic terrain, the 100-foot waterfalls. To me, it was the fact that there were always so many cars parked at the trailhead.
“Who are all these people?” I’d ask.
On our drives to the mountains Paul would hand me the Sunday New York Times, and it worked like a pacifier. But once we’d start hiking, I required constant distraction.
“How about a kiss?” I’d say.
“What, you think Lewis asked Clark for kisses?” he’d reply, offering a perfunctory peck on the cheek.
At no point during our training hikes did Paul mention that Oregon is as flat as Kansas compared to the John Muir Trail. (Since I’d spent almost my entire life in California, he apparently figured I knew.) So when we finally took off on the trip, I didn’t feel all that daunted. I had no idea what I was in for.
YOU MIGHT THINK THAT SPENDING 24 HOURS A DAY with your new spouse on a remote trail in the wilderness would generate some intense dialogues about life and love, dreams and aspirations. Here we are at mile 146:
Me: “So, how have you been eating your trail mix?”
Me: “I eat the almonds first, then the M&Ms. I can’t eat the raisins anymore.”
Paul: “Seriously? I eat the raisins first.”
We seem to have arrived at the same unspoken conclusion: better to avoid big issues. Better, in fact, to avoid each other. By this point, we’re spending much of our days hiking 100 yards apart – Paul alone with nature, me with my bottles of beer on the wall.
Which brings me to another realization about the JMT: It’s not just mile markers I’m pining for; it’s human contact. Given the crowded parking lots back in Oregon, I expected a steady stream of backpackers to chat with. But every night we camp alone, and each day, the trail is virtually deserted. On some days we cross paths with a dozen people; on others, we see no more than three.
Around mile 75, we run into a bearded 30ish guy and his bearded dad. They’re not doing the JMT – “already done it twice,” the son says, dismissing our trek like it’s a 5K charity walkathon. They’re doing something called the High Sierra Trail. Except it’s not really a trail. It’s an extremely remote, largely uncharted route that requires a GPS gizmo and a machete. Since there’s nowhere along this route to mail yourself food, these men had previously hiked in at four different spots to hide their caches. This last part stuns me: Not only are these guys backpacking on a trail that doesn’t even exist, but they did 2 weeks’ worth of backpacking just to be able to…go backpacking.
“See?” Paul says, after the bearded guys split. “You don’t even know how good you have it.”
A couple of days later, we run into two fat guys doing a 4-day, 32-mile loop. The heftier of the two, his gut spilling over his pants, gives us the once-over, shakes his head in disapproval, and says, “You know, my pack only weighs 19.2 pounds. My sleeping bag – it’s a GoLite Feather-Lite – is only 1 pound, 6 ounces, and I stopped carrying a tent years ago. You guys could be so much lighter.”
Paul and I glance at his belly, glance at each other crosseyed, and keep hiking.
It isn’t until Day 10 that we run into backpackers I can relate to: three disheveled political-science professors deeply involved in an argument about the merits of TiVo versus DVR systems. These are my people! They seem to have done no planning or training, and can’t even answer the simplest of questions, such as, “How many days are you guys out for?” (Apparently, somewhere between 2 and 5.) Paul has to practically tear me away from the TiVo conversation, reminding me that we have no mileage cushion whatsoever. I reluctantly wave goodbye and carry on.
Oh, I should add: I’m waving goodbye with Paul’s convertible pant legs wrapped around my hands. A couple of days back, another hiker gave me some antibacterial wipes, and I promptly erupted into a sun-induced allergic reaction that turned my hands swollen and blistered. To spare them further sun damage, Paul gave up his pant legs.
The final indignity occurs later on Day 10, when my pants get caught on a rock and split wide open at the butt. Heading into the homestretch, I’m not exactly REI-catalog cover girl material: a limping, wincing, dirt-caked mess with cracked lips, mummified claws, and an exposed bottom.
I would love to report that the last few days of the JMT were a transformative experience, that I hiked with newfound vigor and enthusiasm, that I finally experienced the sense of wonder and serenity that Paul feels when he’s in the mountains. In truth, all I could think about were cheese enchiladas and guacamole. With a day and a half to go, I got so hungry that I burst into tears and insisted we stop immediately and cook our emergency stash, a packet of dehydrated chili.
Since we’d already spent several days at high altitude, our trek to the peak of Mt. Whitney – the official end of the JMT – turned out to be relatively easy. For a short while, as I passed dozens of weary, wheezing dayhikers, I even felt a tiny bit of exhilaration.
That quickly faded when I grasped that Whitney Portal, where our Subaru awaited us, was still 11 steep miles – some 6,000 feet – down the mountain.
“What kind of trail ‘finishes’ 7 hours from the nearest parking lot?” I said, as we posed for a picture at the summit, the Great Basin Desert miles below us.
Paul just shook his head. “Could you maybe take a second to look at the most amazing view in North America?”
To the final 100 yards – my inflamed arches throbbing, my empty stomach grumbling – I was counting bottles of beer. But here’s the great part: the moment we reached the general store at the trail’s end, my agony – along with the tension between Paul and me – vanished.
We hugged and high-fived, gorged on cheeseburgers and fries, then drove to a gas station for soda and the New York Times. I inhaled the news as I overheard Paul on his cell phone telling his dad, “It was the most amazing trip ever, except that Suzanne never stopped complaining, but mostly I tuned her out.”
I was immensely relieved. I hadn’t ruined Paul’s trip, and it appeared that our marriage had actually endured. I may have been a failure as an outdoorswoman, but I was pretty good at shrugging and moving on. So, it turns out, was my husband.
As we headed off toward the spa in Reno, Paul – still on a high – mentioned that he was considering hiking the JMT again next year. In the reverse direction. With his friend Phil.
That sounded like an excellent idea to me.
Her inflamed arches long healed, Suzanne Schlosberg remains happily married in Bend, Oregon.