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Long Trails

PCT Week Nine: High Sierra Passes

Some highlights from my time on the trail in the high Sierra.

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Backcountry Mule Trail

Rangers and campers alike hire mule trails to haul in food and out trash. Instead of hiring a mule, I was my own beast of burden.

Sierra Glacial Lakes

Superb protections allow the high Sierra’s lakes to retain their untouched splendor. Almost every pass allowed for panoramic views of lakes like this one.

John Muir Pass

High atop John Muir Pass sits a hut dedicated to this great man. This is the ceiling — incredibly constructed out of high Sierra rock.

Dinner with a Ranger

One benefit of hiking solo is the friends you meet along the way. The ranger at McClure Meadow invited me for a homemade meal — complete with handmade bread!

The Sierras are made up of a long chain of tall passes. Ups and ups followed by downs and downs. Water surrounds me, nestled in and always carving through the breathtakingly beautiful granite monsters that make up this region. I feel supremely powerful when I climb and immensely inconsequential when I look out at the tops of each pass.

My favorite pass thus far has been Muir Pass, named after that famous nature lover who has given so much to all of us that came after. I was confused making my way up the twists and turns of the almost completely stone path, only the sparse cairns showing me the way. But nearing the top, I almost jumped for joy at the sight of the hut coming into view, slowly with each upward step.

The hut was built in memory of the great man, and stunning stonework made the whole thing — floor straight up to roof. I thought that “hut” was not quite the right name for the place, as it the work was so intricate and the inside so spacious that I could have happily passed the rest of my days inside (as long as there was a good coffee shop nearby and WiFi — I am a product of this century).

During the descent into the splendor of high altitude lake after lake, I listened to The Secret Garden. There was one quote too beautiful to ignore:

“Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of Magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us.”

Magic: the special thing that causes joy and happiness and sparks of insatiable passions, the thing that draws me forward on this journey, even as the going gets tough.

Early in the evening I flopped down on a rock (now just as comfortable as a couch for me) to text via my amazing GPS device. Before long an older ranger strode up the trail. We talked about all the other backcountry rangers I had met along the way (I am fascinated by them!) and I had a dinner invitation before I knew it.

What resulted was one of the most pleasant visits I have experienced, and in the woods too!

The ranger is named Dario, and is the oldest of the backcountry rangers in the region. He has worked for the park for an incredible 31 years. As he heated up homemade minestrone soup and bread, found me an orange, and grated cheese, he answered all of my inane (and possibly intrusive) questions about his life as a ranger. After we ate his delectable meal and I forced him to let me do the dishes (without running water), we spoke about everything from his sweet wife to the draft for the Vietnam War. Although at least 30 years apart in age, we got along as well as anyone who loves the backcountry can. Common ground is easy to find when adoration of granite is your starting place.

Finally it was about to be too dark to get home without my headlamp (rookie move), and I had to leave. Dario gave me a big hug, called me precious, and fidgeted with his oversized sweatpants while I took his picture, thick white hair standing electric on his head.

I told him I was planning on hiking the John Muir Trail in two summers and I planned on seeing him. He said he hoped he would.

As I walked home, I could help but think about the magic — of the granite spires, of the glacial lakes, of the people out here.

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