At 50, Hiking the John Muir trail Was my Midlife Marker
A 220 mile hike by yourself will change you. It certainly changed me. Unwisely, I didn’t start getting into shape until I was 47 years old (I don’t recommend waiting as long as I did). I started hiking a lot in the local Southern California mountains and pushing myself out of my comfort zone as much as possible. I did the High Sierra Trail with my kids along with a few other memorable trails. I loved it. But as I got closer to turning 50, I started to crave a more ambitious adventure. A solo hike on the iconic 220-mile long John Muir Trail was the perfect adventure.
Day 1 – Horseshow Meadows to Rock Creek (Mile 14)
Bec dropped me off at the Cottonwood Pass Trailhead and I got on trail by 10 a.m. It was an emotional moment for her as I walked off into the wilderness. It was a strange moment for me too. I started thinking about the 220 miles I had in front of me, and I started to feel overwhelmed. But the nervous energy faded away once I got about a mile into the trail. It was a beautiful 65-degree day with cobalt blue skies and a gentle breeze.
As the day went on and I gained elevation, I couldn’t stop thinking about how heavy my pack felt on my back. It weighed 56 pounds – more than I was used to. I decided not to resupply at Onion Valley because I did not want to leave the trail. That meant that my first resupply was 125 miles in, and I was carrying a lot more food than I wanted to. By the time I reached camp, I was wiped out. I went to bed early and slept a full 12 hours, which almost never happens when I’m on trail. Day one on the John Muir Trail was pretty tough.
Day 2 – Rock Creek to Tyndall Creek (Mile 29)
I slept hard and felt a lot better in the morning. My body was wrecked from slogging that heavy pack up an +11,000-foot pass on day one without any acclimatization. After putting in another solid mileage day, my body hurt pretty bad again. I had big bruises on my hips from the weight of the pack. The next day, I planned to push over Forrester Pass (13,500′) which is the highest pass on the JMT. I wanted to get an early start to avoid crossing it during the heat of the day.
Day 3 – Tyndall Creek to Bullfrog Lake (Mile 40) via Forrester Pass
I didn’t go into this adventure expecting a transcendent spiritual experience. But there was a moment that I’ll never forget. I felt God’s great presence in the landscape on Day three.
An Unexpected Encounter with God
As watched the sun rise over a meadow, framed by a huge granite peak as a backdrop, I almost heard His audible voice reciting a proverb I had read many times before, “The path of the righteous man is like the dawn, shining brighter and brighter until the full day.”
The path of the righteous man is like the dawn, shining brighter and brighter until the full day.Proverbs 4:18
At that moment, I watched three decades of my life pass through my mind like a movie. I saw the guy I was in my 20’s – angry, controlling, self-centered, porn-addicted, dysfunctional – I was a mess. I saw the grace of God that transformed my life and the people the Lord brought into my life to fix me. I felt deep gratitude. I knew this proverb described my life.
For thirty years, I’ve been anticipating something wonderful and purposeful for my life, like the first light before the dawn. I could feel it coming; it just didn’t feel like it had arrived yet. But in that moment I felt the dawn break. I heard God telling me that this was the season in which I will make my greatest impact in the world. I was overwhelmed with a sense of mission.
The Almighty does not need my help, and yet He chooses to allow me to be part of His plans. I felt His presence. I had the sense He was saying, as a loving Father, “Good job so far. This is the part where we are really going to have some fun together.”
I left that meadow feeling like the course of my life had just shifted. I had a powerful sense of purpose for this season of life. I felt a mix of confidence, humility, and hope for what is waiting for me in the next 30 years.
I felt surprisingly strong hiking that day. In fact, when I got to Forester Pass I decided to scramble up 300 feet of the class 3 ridge line that leads to Junction Peak to get a better view. I thought about going all the way to Junction Peak itself, but it was extremely steep and exposed – an adventure for another day.
The descent from Forester Pass was beautiful. I ate salami and crackers for lunch which didn’t settle well. I figured I needed a lot of fat in my diet because I was burning through calories like crazy; salami is certainly full of fat. While my logic was sound, I didn’t think of the fact that salami is not part of my regular diet. My digestive system revolted, and twenty minutes after lunch I had a terrible stomachache. It was so bad I found myself by a creek in a fetal position trying to manage the pain – praying for it to end.
Fortunately, it passed in a little less than an hour and I continued on. During the ordeal I realized for the first time how isolated I really was. Self evacuation would require at least 35 miles of walking over steep terrain. What would happen if I really got hurt?
I got to a great campsite along a creek by early afternoon, but I pressed on so that I could get a head start on the next big pass in the morning. This was a mistake. It was three miles to my next campsite and after two miles I found myself on steep switchbacks completely out of energy. I took an Excedrin for the caffeine, just to keep moving.
I finally got to camp, completely spent, but with enough daylight left to enjoy a beautiful sunset on East Vidette Peak. The camp did not have a bear box. Another hiker asked if he could store some food in a small cave near my tent. Innocently, I said yes. At 2 a.m., I woke up to the sound of a bear pulling out the pile of rocks placed at the mouth of the cave to keep the food safe.
I didn’t want to come out of my tent, but the bear was six feet away and I felt like I needed to do something, so I yelled, “Get out of here!” Sure enough, he left. I saw his shadow as he walked past my tent in the moonlight. Wow. Bryan – 1. Bear – 0. I was starting to feel confident in my wilderness prowess – sort of.
Day 4 – Bullfrog Lake to Sawmill Pass Trail (Mile 54) via Glen Pass
I got on the JMT at first light. There was no warm-up; the trail was steep immediately. I made it to Glen Pass by late morning and the view was incredible. I made my descent into the Rae Lakes. My pack was finally starting to feel lighter and I thought I was finally getting my “trail legs.” Most JMTers say the first few days of the trail is pretty miserable. But they describe a transition around days four or five where you start feeling good. On day four, I passed through that wall. I felt much better than the previous days.
Day 5 – Sawmill Pass Trail to Upper Palisade Lake (Mile 69) via Pinchot and Mather Passes
I was up early again on a steep trail on Day Five. The scenery just got better and better. I had to pinch myself sometimes. I couldn’t believe I really got to be here.
I planned to stay in Upper Basin, but when I reached it the winds were too strong for my tent. I had made it over Pinchot Pass in the morning and I didn’t think I had another pass in me, but I had little choice. I pushed over Mather Pass and finally made it to Upper Palisade Lake as the sun began to set. I barely had the energy to put my tent up.
Day 6 – Upper Palisade Lake to Helen Lake (Mile 89)
I woke up pretty tired on the morning of Day Six. I started thinking about the connection between beauty and suffering. It seemed like most of the time I was suffering. I was in pain. I was at my limit, and in those moments I forced myself to say, “I get to be here.” And every time I did that, it all seemed worth it. It reminded me how much beauty is tied to suffering. We want to experience beauty, but we don’t want to suffer. This applies to everything, even relationships. We want a great marriage, but we don’t want to suffer. Sometimes the most meaningful moments in a relationship include an element of suffering.
I passed a group on a guided trip of the JMT with a bunch of pack animals that were carrying their food and all their gear. All they had to do was walk. I couldn’t help but envy them. The guides were cooking pancakes and bacon – with coffee! The smell of it was unbelievable. I don’t think I have ever had a craving for food like I did that morning. I ate a cold, awful-tasting protein bar as I passed by and thought, “The first thing I’m going to eat when I get off this trail is pancakes and bacon!”
As I made my way down the Golden Staircase, I met a guy on the trail, named Alan. Alan and I ended up hiking together for a few days and I appreciated the company. He left the trail early, but we had some great conversations. He had this fantastic illustration that framed up my experience on the JMT. He called it “The Donut.”
“Think of life like a donut,” he said to me. The hole in the middle is your Comfort Zone. This is where life is comfortable and predictable. For most, the pursuit of happiness is about trying to get there. The problem with living in the Comfort Zone is that it’s boring and meaningless if you stay there too long. It’s not until you get out of your Comfort Zone that life really gets great. But if you go too far things can go really wrong. Moving too far outside of your comfort zone puts you into real danger. “That’s the Death Zone,” said Alan. The moral of the story for adventurers like Alan is that we should all be trying to live our lives in that sweet spot in the middle of the donut.
On the map, Helen Lake seemed like a great place to camp, The lake was huge and it was only 1/4 mile from Muir Pass. Unfortunately, the whole area is a massive boulder field with almost no places to set up a tent. Nevertheless, we were able to find a tiny spot next to some other hikers. I gave them a brick of gouda in return for letting us invade their space. They seemed happy with the deal. When I got up to pee in the middle of the night, the cloud of the Milky Way was so bright I didn’t need a headlamp – even though the moon had not yet risen. I ended up walking around for a while that night, just taking it all in.
Day 7 – Helen Lake to Muir Trail Ranch (Mile 112) via Muir Pass
Alan and I got up before dawn so we could catch the sunrise at Muir Pass. We were not disappointed. The moon was still high when the alpine glow slowly spread across all of the peaks. We made some coffee and enjoyed the views for a while before heading down into Evolution Basin.
As I followed the creek into Evolution Basin, I was filming myself with a Gopro attached to the end of my trekking pole. Then it happened. I tripped on a rock and the weight of my pack drove me into the ground. It was a hard fall that put a big gash in my thumb. The photo above is a screengrab of the moment I caught on video. We reached Muir Trail Ranch by later afternoon where I got my re-supply. Alan had his admin make reservations for us via his sat phone, so I got a shower, a great night’s sleep in a cabin, and an incredible home-cooked dinner with dessert!
Day 8 – Muir Trail Ranch to Bear Creek Trail (Mile 123) via Selden Pass
We had an amazing home-cooked breakfast at Muir Trail Ranch – with bacon! I think it was the best food I have ever tasted. I logged 20+ miles the previous day, and I was pretty slow when I got to camp. I wasn’t sure I could get up and hike in the morning, but surprisingly, I felt great the next day. Alan and I climbed the 3,500 feet of elevation gain to Selden Pass without much difficulty. Alan decided to get off the trail at Vermilion Resort, so we said our goodbyes and I kept going.
After making good mileage for the day, I found a beautiful place to camp along a large creek. It was a perfect breezy summer day on the John Muir Trail. The weather was gorgeous. I played in the water for a while and cleaned my wounds, then made a campfire. I missed Bec. I felt like I was Adam in the Garden of Eden without Eve. This beautiful place was beyond description. I loved being there and I loved the adventure, but I was a little lovesick for my soulmate.
It’s been almost 31 years and we have something really special. I made the decision that I was going to push a little harder and get off trail a little sooner than I had planned.
Day 9 – Bear Creek Trail to Fish Creek Trail (Mile 140) via Silver Pass
I got a pre-dawn start on Day Nine. I had a creepy feeling that I was going to walk up on a bear in the dark. Happily, I didn’t. Once again the scenery was mind-blowing. Every day, I went over a big pass and hoped it would be easier than the last one, but they were all hard. This is the price of admission to the most magical place in America.
Day 10 – Fish Creek Trail to Minaret Creek Trail (Mile 162)
Once again, I got a pre-dawn start and caught an incredible sunrise. This is my favorite time of day. As I descended toward Red’s Meadow, I was sad to see that the forest had been completely destroyed by fire.
After getting my re-supply, I headed out of Red’s Meadow past the Devil’s Post Pile. I took a wrong turn and lost three hours in the afternoon on the wrong trail. Frustrating. When I got back on the trail I found myself in the middle of nowhere with no water nearby. I don’t know why, but this area felt creepy at night. Eventually, I got past my jitters and went to sleep. I was excited to see Garnet Lake and Thousand Island Lake the following day. This is one of the most scenic stretches of the John Muir Trail.
Day 11 – Minaret Creek Trail to Rush Creek Trail (179) via Island Pass
Day Eleven’s trek was all I had hoped it would be. I put down 17 miles and saw the most beautiful lakes I’ve ever seen. I passed one, and then another just mile beyond the first. It was an amazing day. It was also a hard day. I started feeling pain in my left Achilles tendon a few days before. This was the day that the pain became severe. I was favoring my right leg for the last 60 miles to reduce the left side Achilles pain. Now my right quadricep began to hurt badly as a result.
I took a break at Garnet Lake, soaked in the cold water, and took a bunch of Advil. I felt good enough to get to camp, but I worried that the pain would become unbearable if I kept going.
Day 12 – Rush Creek Trail to Tuolumne Meadows (Mile 200)
It was another beautiful day on the John Muir Trail. On Day Twelve I planned to make it to Tuolumne Meadows, grab a hot lunch, then push off the trail the next day in Yosemite Valley. Lyell Canyon was the only flat stretch of trail I saw that day, but I was in such pain I didn’t appreciate it. It was hot, dry, and long.
When I got to Tuolumne Meadows I could barely walk. My left Achilles and right quad pain were unbearable. I knew I was done. I called Bec and asked her if she could get me early. Five hours later, she picked me up and we headed home.
This was an incredible adventure, probably the greatest adventure I’ve had in my life. Seeing the beauty of the High Sierras for twelve days was like seeing it in time-lapse photography – huge vistas, big granite walls, huge trees, alpine lakes, green meadows, and roaring rivers. It left me feeling small and vulnerable, and I loved it.
The Power of Creating a Life Marker Event
Life marker events are incredibly powerful. In the Old Testament, the patriarchs of Israel would build altars at various times in their lives when they had an encounter with God. In the life of Abraham, for example, there were long periods of his life where nothing extraordinary happened, punctuated by a life marker event, where he would commemorate it by building an altar and making a sacrifice.
For me, that’s what this trip was. My question for you is this: If you haven’t had a life marker event in a while, or if you’ve never had one, what might that look like for you? Mine was truly life-changing. In fact, I am dreaming about what that next life marker might be. Maybe Denali.
Denali scares me a little, which is confirmation that it’s probably the next big adventure I need to take. I’ve got to push my fitness up quite a bit for this one. I’m not sure if I’ve got what it takes. We’ll see.