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Photograph by Eric Leifer

Hiking the John Muir Trail: Going Out to Go In

“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” ~ John Muir

Drawing wild-eyed wanderers and scruffy-haired men from around the world, the 211-mile John Muir Trail has a reputation of immeasurable proportions. Making its way onto the proverbial bucket list of nearly every serious outdoorsman, it is not only a showcase of the sheer perfection that the natural world can attain but highlights some of the best wilderness in the United States.

The trail has become an incredibly popular destination in recent years with the permit office in Yosemite National Park reporting a record number of applications for 2013. For those who fail to draw a permit, or for the individual who lacks enough foresight into their schedules to apply in advance, there is still hope; a limited number of permits are available the day before a departure date.

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Photograph by Eric Leifer

Since I fall into the latter category I choose to test my luck and head to the backcountry office to join other chaotic and confused comrades in grabbing a walk-up permit. I arrived at a somewhat respectable time of 5:30 a.m., two hours before they open, and find myself the 11th person in line. A trio of Germans representing the front of the pack had been waiting there since midnight.

I get lucky with my solo status and after sorting through the paperwork I hit the trail. The first week quickly turns into a fight for survival. The trail is dusty, busy, and excessively steep. My pack is heavy, and I begin to curse every single piece of equipment in my bag. Unnecessary straps are cut off, frivolous gear thrown in the trash, the end of my toothbrush sawed down to a nearly unusable knob.

By the time I reach Tuolumne Meadows, mile 27 and the third day of the trip, I have mumbled nearly every unmentionable word in the English language. Hordes of tourists and gas guzzling motor homes dominate Tuolumne, with backpackers grabbing a burger or ice cream and other supplies before quickly escaping back into the wild. I follow suit.

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Photograph by Eric Leifer

Things change rather quickly as the crowds suddenly vanish and the hills rise to unimaginable heights. Both the trail and those who walk upon it become increasingly wild with every mile. It becomes a social experiment as people from all walks of life are thrown together in the wilderness on the same trail. Some are running away from their woes, many are on a meticulously planned dream trip, while others are simply killing time (again I fall in the latter category). I soon cross paths with a Frenchman named Pascal heading northbound with two mules, taking the scenic route to Puerto Montt, near the southern tip of Chile. It’s an unfathomable 14,000 miles away. I shake the man’s hand in wonder, and for the next two days I contemplate the sheer immensity of his journey.

As I enter my second week on the trail, the days begin to blur together as it becomes increasingly more difficult to segregate one day from the next. The standards of society slowly vanish. Tooth brushing becomes less common, and my stench grows stronger with every mountain pass. My feet have begun to resemble a Superfund site while my beard becomes increasingly erratic.

I soon meet two other solo hikers, Nick and Kim, who are in similar mental and physical condition. We join forces in a nomadic trio of dirt and sweat and glory. Both are locals, recently graduated from the world of academia and are on a victory march or sorts. We ramble onwards and push past the 100-mile mark with ease. Gorgeous alpine lakes become commonplace, sweeping granite vistas are expected, and 2,000-foot-climbs are eaten for breakfast.

Mile 107 marks a huge milestone in the journey as Muir Trail Ranch, commonly regarded as the halfway point of the trail, is reached. For most people this is the final resupply until Mount Whitney and the town of Lone Pine, awaiting your distant arrival some 114 miles away. We overload our packs with food and head into the wild once more.

This is truly where the John Muir Trail begins. The terrain increases in magnitude and difficulty as the passes become bigger than the next and the route consistently hangs above the 10,000-foot elevation mark.

We begin to personify each climb, vilifying them like dictators or high school teachers or DMV workers. This is rather easy considering they all have been named after prominent wilderness men of the early 1900s. Muir Pass (11,955 feet) comes up first at mile 128 and is patient but rather blunt at times. Mather Pass (12,080 feet) is an inconsiderate bastard looming over mile 150. Pinchot Pass (12,100 feet) is a short and stocky bald man at mile 159. Glen Pass (11,980 feet) is a cold and quiet stockbroker from Manhattan, standing at mile 179. Forester Pass (13,200 feet) ends up being all hype and actually quite the pleasant conversationalist near mile 187.

By this point we have turned into climbing machines as we breeze past mile number 200. The reality and realization that we have been walking for nearly three weeks finally kicks in as we pitch our final base camp beneath the northern shadow of Mount Whitney. In attempt to lighten our packs we feast on our remaining food and slowly fade away with the setting sun.

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Photograph by Eric Leifer

I briefly awake from my slumber, startled at first by the sheer magnitude of my surroundings. The stars seem strangely close on this particular night and the darkness deeper than usual. For a moment my thoughts seem to come from a child’s wandering mind more than my own, convinced that if I reach out my hands far enough then perhaps I could touch them, even bring a few of those distant jewels into my arms and hold them even closer.

After 19 days my sanity seems to waiver as I begin to understand how all those famous poets can write all those beautiful things with seemingly effortless grace, such timeless combinations of words that are so infinitely relative. For when you are surrounded by such an inspiration you simply reflect it back onto a piece of paper. I can’t help but think of Mr. Muir. I slowly close my eyes and fade back into the night, the stars still churning high above.

We round off the final climb in the morning with ease, floating to Whitney’s 14,500-foot summit by 10 a.m. Yet somehow it feels rather anti-climatic. The hordes of weekend warriors who are surmounting Whitney from the south side flood the trail, updating their Facebook statuses, and fiddling on their cell phones upon completion. The shock and thought of leaving the wilderness suddenly begins to sink in. After that long in the wild it can be incredibly difficult to leave.

Alas we shuffle down the final 9 miles to the Whitney Portal, drink a beer, hitch a ride into the sleepy town of Lone Pine and before long we are off the trail; and back to reality. I certainly was not ready. I don’t think any of us were.

The following day we all say our good-byes and quickly scatter, taking nearly every mode of transportation to make it home. Some resort to hitch hiking while others unite with their vehicles. I opt for the bus, the pinnacle of public transportation, full of mostly shady locals but a few JMT hikers are aboard. I notice two Korean men in particular who we had camping by nearly every day are among the motley crew. And though they speak only broken English they don’t need to say a word. You can see the same shock and bewilderment in their eyes that the rest of us have. They get off in Los Angeles and catch a direct flight to Seoul. Reality sinks in even deeper, for some more quickly than others.

So where am I going with this story? Nowhere at all really. Often it is not about the destination but instead the journey to it and the lessons learned along the way. Whether your journey is 3 days, 12 hours, and 41 minutes—like the men who just set the speed record for the John Muir Trail—or three years—like Pascal’s epic timetable—it is entirely irrelevant in my opinion. You can learn more in a single moment of inspiration than an entire lifetime of contemplation. I for one prefer to wander.