Alone in the Wilderness?

15 August 2013 in Hiking, Memories, Tioga Road, Trails/Hiking, Traveling, Yosemite National Park

 
I awoke later than I had wished to with a slight hangover marching through my skull and the rumbling regret of one too many echoing in my weathered gut. I had really not had that much to drink, but I think time is catching up with me. I had done my best to keep it at a distance all these years, but I’m three decades old and for half that time I’ve been enjoying a drink now and again.

But with stubborn ambition I willed myself upright and after releasing the poison that still resided within me I was soon making and consuming a heavy breakfast. With this and green tea the fog began to lift and before I knew it I was out the door and chugging up the grade, once again on my way to the high country.

While I felt a light blanket of guilt still shrouded me for the time I had spent wallowing in self-inflicted misery I was now more determined than ever to make up for this lapse of judgement and of time upon the long trail to Ten Lakes. It would be a lengthy, and fairly steep, six and a half mile hike out. I was going it alone—with Lindsay working the final day of her four day week and myself still on the fluctuating schedule of a newbie.

The high country is amazing, but it comes at a cost. Specifically the high cost of gas in the state of California. It’s a long drive up to many of these places, but it’s the only way to experience true wilderness within the boundaries of Yosemite National Park. The further north or south of the valley you can get the wilder. There are places in the northern portion that can only be reached upon two or four legs, human or equine and require two to three days to do so.

As I finally reached the parking lot I was amped up and ready to hit the trail hard. But as soon as I exited the truck it seemed a fellow hiker was more interested in sharing random facts about his life with me. As soon as I step out I was approached by an older gentleman who promptly engaged in the standard conversation among strangers out here, but neglected to make any proper connections or to expound.

“So you’re from Wisconsin.”

“Ah, yeah.”

“I’m from Colorado.”

“Cool.”

I had not initiated this exchange and so I felt a little awkward as I was left to carry it forward or stand in a locked gaze with a stranger who obviously just wanted someone to talk to, but had no clue about what or why. So I carried it as best as I could asking where in Colorado, mentioning where I had been, proceeding to briefly explain my current situation and pulled out of him a few mundane details about his. It would have been your standard introvert conversing with introvert uncomfortably, but he seemed eager to impress me and keep me there. But again in a very reserved way. Between bits of mundane chit chat he’d throw in things like “The first time I was here was 1955. And my dad knew Ansel Adams and he played the piano and sang at dinner.” Or “My wife and I were the first people to base jump off of Half Dome.”

Those are all very interesting things, but the manner in which he doled them out was sporadic and brief and it was hard to know how to respond. Plus I was very eager to get on the trail. So I kept my responses brief and slowly made my way around him and to the trailhead. Edging a few steps around and away between every burst of his bio he blasted clumsily at me.

I was soon free. I felt a little guilt for brushing the guy off, but I was really not in the mood to talk. I wanted the wilderness and the peaceful solitude of the lonesome trail. As I hiked up through boulder laden passes and over domes of glacier rounded rocks a little mantra fell into beat with my steps.

I’ve never been much of a jet-setter
I’ve always believed my feet were a little better
Form of transportation.

I wander the trail at a slow pace
In hopes I can find just a little bit of grace
Along that long and lonesome path

This looped in my head as I pondered other things. My feet and careful steps sometimes cleared my mind of all, but this little chorus or whatever portion of song popped into my head. Other times my subconscious would take over the navigation of my legs upon flatter trails and my active thoughts would pursue whatever prey gave way to chase. My mind much like a city dog that’s been taken to the country for the day. The smells, sights, sounds and possibilities are simply too many to concentrate on just one.

Most of this hike was spent deep in thought. A meandering path through a thick forest provided little distraction from the myriad of ideas parading through my mind, but rather served as a pleasant backdrop. Through the woods I went and then a large open meadow. It was not until just after this meadow that I was torn from my introspection and forced to do battle, both mental and physical, with the route presenting itself before me.

The trail abruptly ascended up a dizzying swath of switchbacks that required all of my fortitude and concentration. This was almost four miles into my hike and pulled me out of the pleasant gait I had previously enjoyed and into the hard-fought march of a man on a mission. I was determined to make my way to the top without stopping, without allowing my mind or body a break in which to ponder my decision. I would conquer this ascent—as I had others in the past—by simply continuing to put one foot ahead—and above—the other.

With sweat dripping from my brow and my lungs heaving for more oxygen than the high altitude air could provide the ground finally gave way and flattened. It now stretched out across a long expanse of treeless terrace, dry and wind swept. A trail sign acknowledged my struggle by stating that a mere mile and a half lay between me and my destination. With a portion of that short distance being this level stretch I was once again in high spirits.

After an hour and a half of hiking I spotted the first homo sapiens of the day who informed me that they had gotten hit by hail the previous evening while attempting to backpack to Ten Lakes. This was good to know as I surveyed the horizon spanning north to east in a dark and stormy to gray and rainy gradient. Where I stood, in the sunshine all was well. And all was well in the west and to the south, but things could change quickly and it’s always best to plan for the worst.

Continuing on I would encounter a second set of backpackers on their way back, but these four souls would be all I would see over the course of 13 miles and six hours. And this is why I spend more time up in the high sierra and less in the valley. The beauty that revealed more of itself with every step was mine to enjoy and I could enjoy it as if it were mine and mine alone. As I made my way up a saddle trail and atop a mass of crumbling rock my jaw slackened, my eyes protruded from their socket and my mind was once again forced to re-categorize the possibilities of nature and her astonishing splendor.

To my immediate right was the partially expected—given the name of the area— but more striking than could be imagined cluster of lakes. I could count and clearly see four of the ten. Tiered like they had been planned, lake one was situated highest and surrounded by slanted walls of granite. Lake two was set slightly further down and surrounded by forest. As was lake three. The fourth lake was set higher up behind lake three and almost on the same plane as lake one, but separated. Their locations formed a shallow bowl shape when viewed from my high perch.

This alpine wonderland of water competed for my awe with the massive gash of stone cut into the abyss ahead of me. I had read about briefly and partially dismissed the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River assuming it to be a canyon of sorts, but nothing compared to those I had seen in the deserts, particularly the Grand Canyon. But I was mistaken. While carved from granite and not from sandstone it is different, this canyon is every bit as striking and from my current perch seemingly every bit as deep. It was hard to say because I couldn’t see the bottom. But diving head first before me was a steep chasm of empty space leading down to what could be the very core of the earth. It was impossibly, indiscernibly deep and to add to the drama of the scene a range of peaks shot skyward from the depths.

It was here that I wanted to take my lunch, but I could not sit still. I’d find a rock and immediately be tempted by the height or location of another. I was in search of the perfect perch from which to view the lakes and the canyon, but each spot robbed me of one or the other. I ended up bouncing back and forth and all around, taking a bite here and a bite there, but never sitting for more than a few moments. This went on for a half an hour, until my sandwich was gone and my mind was eager for more exploration.

So I climbed back down to the trail and then made my way down to lake three. The trail dissipated and then disappeared among the needle ridden ground, fallen trees and boulders. But the ground slopped steadily down towards something and that something just had to be a lake. Soon I was at its edge and while it was a placid bit of high country wonder the edges were green and mucky and I was soon on the path—albeit one I had to blaze myself—to lake number two.

I knew from reading my hiking book that the trails were connected by streams and that if I followed the edge to the right I would find the stream and the next lake. And I did. The second lake was even clearer, but still the shore line was shallow and muddy. I had considered a swim when I had looked down upon these lakes from above, but now I was reconsidering. I spent a little more time at lake two and then I got the itch to work my way up to lake one. Being set highest in the chain it was likely the clearest and the deepest.

Again there was not a clear trail to lead me, but just the knowledge of the linkage and of how water and gravity work. I followed the stream up from lake two. The stretch between the two was longer than that between three and two and this section was covered in boulders of varying sizes from basketball to Volkswagen Bug. I hopped, jumped and climbed over these weaving back and forth over the stream. There were small cascades and reasonably sized waterfalls. It seemed this went on for some time longer than I had assumed it would, but eventually I was at the edge of a clear, blue lake.

As I had hoped the water was more visually inviting, but unfortunately it was much colder. It made sense as I listened to the trickle of water that melted from snow packs still lining the opposite side of the lake. I didn’t end up swimming, but I did sit and take it in for a while. That is until I heard the distant, but distinct roll of thunder.

Down in the lake basin, far below the tops of trees and the tips of peaks I could not visually track the weather. But the wind had picked up a little and the temperature had dropped a touch. These signs paired with the thunder, the weather I had seen on the horizon and the report of the previous day’s hail got me off my seat alongside the lake and stumbling through the woods. Again there was not much of a trail, but I knew I could follow the water down to lake three and back out. Hiking through the dense woods surrounding the less visited lake one I was all but waiting, my heart pounding at an accelerated rate, to come across a bear. I wouldn’t be able to see him or her, nor them me. It would be a dangerous situation and this paired with my aloofness regarding the weather had me in a mild state of panic. Not to mention I was not upon a trail, but navigating my way via water and assumptions.

These assumptions didn’t lead me astray, but when I did make my way to lake three I still had no idea how to make my way up to the well trodden trail. But I knew it was up and so I went up. I scrambled and climbed on what was clearly not a trail. I was hopeful that I was climbing in the right section, but not 100 percent sure. Thankfully I finally caught sight of the trail and could breath easy once I got high enough on it to survey the bad weather and see it was not already upon me.

After that it was just five, hard miles on my aching knee that had began to act up, as it usually does after a long day. But I never got hit by the weather and I made it back.

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