In My First Summer in the Sierra, John Muir, who had landed a job as a sort of back-up shepherd, described his emotions as the flock began its ascent toward the high country thusly: “Now away we go toward the topmost mountains. Many still, small voices, as well as the noon thunder, are calling, “Come higher.” This, sans wilderness harmony, approximates my own urge to wander in the High Sierra.
I started the trail in Yosemite Valley. Many hikers eschew the first two days of the hike, partly because it is difficult to reserve permits in advance (I bought mine at the Park Permit Office after waking up at 5:30 AM to get a good place in line—it turned out that several backpackers had slept on the office porch), but also because starting two days late in Tuolumne Meadows means avoiding the 6,000 foot ascent out of Yosemite Valley. I found the first couple of days to be brutal but manageable, made far more enjoyable by a Albertan doctor named Joe whom I fell in with. The effort convinced me to cull a number of non-essential items from my supplies while at the Tuolumne backpackers’ campground.
On the third day, I made it to within a mile and half of Donahue Pass, by which the JMT exits the national park. I camped by a sapphire lake at the base of a magnificent glacial cirque, with a panorama of 13,000 foot snowy peaks behind it. But the bugs were astonishingly bad, and not for the first time on the trip. Even with long sleeves, DEET, and a mosquito net over my head, it was astonishingly uncomfortable to be outside. Mosquitoes mixed into my pasta as I was cooking. I worked out a system of backing and rolling into my tent to minimize the amount of time the zipper was open, but I still spent several minutes killing the five or ten mosquitoes that flew in whenever I went in.
In the morning, I got up before the sun crept over the pass so that the mosquitoes, dulled by the nocturnal chill, wouldn’t bother me, and waited to eat breakfast until I reached the pass itself. At 11,000 feet, the winds were too strong for the bugs, and the view stretched north along the valley up which I had hiked and south into the High Sierras. Here indeed was Muir’s “Divine, enduring, unwastable wealth.”
Once out of the felsenmeer, however, the mosquitoes returned, and I never encountered another spot along the trail free of them. Dinner that night, despite a solid day of hiking and good companions, was again rushed, and I couldn’t even find a place to cook breakfast the next day after another dawn rise. On July 19th, 1869, exactly 141 years before, John Muir wrote of “Everything awakening alert and joyful; the birds begin to stir and innumerable insect people.” How he could refer so charitably to the mosquitoes, even while observing “The pale rose and purple sky changing softly to daffodil yellow and white, sunbeams pouring through the passes between the peaks and over the Yosemite doms…” is beyond me. He did at least go on, several days later, to wonder “if any island in mid-ocean is flyless,” also noting that the bugs are “sensitive to cold, and fond of domestic ease.” He was an unconscionable anthropomorphizer: “The whole landscape,” he continued, “glows like a human face in a glory of enthusiasm…” Such was not my visage on the morning of July 19th.
Henceforth the hiking itself was steady, but practically every time I stopped my tormentors descended, preventing me from enjoying the lakes, peaks, meadows, and open pine forests through which the trail wound. So on day five, after notching sixty miles, I stopped at Red’s Meadow Resort for a double cheeseburger and took the bus out to Mammoth Lake. I hate giving up on things, but it seems senseless to continue when relaxation and enjoyment are so elusive. Muir would have been disappointed, but then he reveled in finding a joyful God infusing the landscape—“Divine, enduring unwastable wealth—whereas I was only in search of a pleasant summer vacation.
Nevada Falls at the head of the Yosemite Valley.
My first campsite, near the Clouds Rest junction. Mount Starr King is in the distance.
Near Donahue Pass.
The pass itself.
Mount Banner, past Thousand Island Lake.