Mammoth was a great time and much needed seeing as it had been a hundred and fifty mile stretch from the last real town. My first night in I caught Red Riding Hood as she was heading out at the Davidson Guest House where i stayed the first night. Fedex, a section hiker I met between Walker Pass and Lone Pine runs the hostel so it was nice to see him again as well. Oakley and St. Nick ended up making it to town at the same time I did and Shepard showed up again before long. Sadly on our second day Shepard headed home, but in return Rocco and Wonder Woman caught up to us. We stay at Great White Turtles new apartment in town, he somehow ended up with a job as a welder for the ski resort and is posting up for a few months.On the third day I head back to the trail while everyone else takes another zero day. I have plans to meet my parents in another 115 miles at Sonora Pass, the end of the Sierra’s, and need to put in some miles to make it on time. For the first time since week one I’m solo on the trail and it feels strange. I miss Shepard, the one who was always down to get out of town at a minutes notice. After stopping at a lake to gain my thoughts, I do what I must and carry on. The trail begins to change as it winds through areas filled with volcanic rock before leading me into a disgusting burn area right before Red’s Meadow. After walking through such pristine forests for so long the reminder of humanities impact on our world is upsetting. After ten miles I stop for lunch and while looking over my maps realize that the trail crosses another road with a bus stop to back to town in 6 miles. I miss my friends, and a sixteen mile day is about all I had planned anyways so I make it my plan and before I know it I’m back at the hostel drinking beer and eating ribs. The next day I head back to where I left off and wait for St. Nick, Wonder Woman, and Oakley to catch up. I’ll have to really push myself to make it to Sonora Pass on time but it’s worth it to hike with my friends as long as possible.
The next day we finally head north again, welcomed back warmly with a long uphill to loosen up our stiff muscles. The terrain begins to change ever so slightly, once we top out the trail follows a grassy ridge filled with shrubs and wildflowers. It almost feels like we’re back in the desert due to how exposed the area was but before long we drop back down into the forest where water is abundant and mosquitos even more so. Soon enough we make it to the majestic Thousand Island Lakes surrounded by snow. As the name suggests hundreds of tiny islands were scattered throughout the water. Strangely enough a lone seagull cruised above, likely to captivated by the beauty to continue on too the ocean. After climbing through snowfields to the top of Island Pass and then descending back to the bottom we stop to stuff our faces and make a plan. It’s nearly 9 pm but the moon is full and we itch to make up some lost time, so it’s decided to night hike over the 11,000 foot Donahue Pass. Oakley hangs back wanting to try camping alone for the first time but we plan to meet back up the next day at Tuolumne Meadows. The novelty of hiking at night is nice seeing as I haven’t done it since entering the Sierras. The air is cool as we head uphill, once above tree line the snowfields and clouds glow by the moonlight and the stars aren’t too shabby either. The night is quiet and it seems as if the three of us are the only ones in the world. At the top of the pass we enter into Yosemite National Park. The mile descent to our campsite takes over an hour due to difficulty navigating the snow in the dark. We cowboy camp at ten thousand feet, not closing our eyes until around midnight.
When Wonder Woman and I wake up St. Nick is already packed up and ready to go.
We take our time while he heads off, Tioga Road and the Tuolumne Meadows Store is only 9 miles away. From the snow filled canyon we slept in we quickly descended into a grassy meadow with the Tuolumne River winding calmly through it, seemingly endless. It’s not long before we take our first swimming break. The water is ice cold but the sun is hot enough that it’s refreshing rather than immobilizing. When we take off again we honor the summer solstice by hiking naked as many thru hikers past have done. It felt so good I’ve vowed that it won’t be the last time I do it, but after almost two miles the secluded Meadow we’ve enjoyed all morning becomes filled with day hikers as we near the road. We catch up with with Climb High just as we’re about to go for another dip and he joins us for a little while. Wonder Woman and I hang around for a while longer after he leaves waiting for Oakley and talking about our pasts, futures and present. Wonder Woman continues to amaze me as I learn more about her. Never have I met a girl as determined, adventurous, strong, and independent as her. Despite all the setbacks she’s faced on this trail she pushes on no matter what; she reminds me of myself on the Appalachian Trail.
Soon after our break we arrive at the Tuolumne Meadows Store and my plans of hiking out fade away with each beer I drink. I know that this is the point where I’ll have to break away from the group and blaze some trail to catch my parents, but I can’t pass up one more night with this random assortment of people who I’ve somehow come to love with all my heart. One more night, then Young Blood must fly solo for a little while.
I wake up feeling less than ready to hike but I know I must. I eat breakfast with everyone before saying my goodbyes, leaving my friends is the hardest thing I’ve done on this trail, harder than hiking twenty miles between water sources, harder than post holing through miles of snow fields, harder than fording even the swiftest of rivers. I pack my bag and without any more words, looks, or hugs walk away from the store, down the highway, and back onto the trail. I’m scarred with memories from the AT of leaving behind friends never to see them again. I’m hungover, dehydrated, and truly depressed as I walk through the final stretch of Tuolumne Meadows, perhaps the most picturesque landscape I’ve ever been in. Tears drop from my eyes, not for the first time on this trail but for the first time they were due to sadness. I think more about the AT, a journey I completed mainly solo and happy to be that way. It goes further than the AT though, my whole life I’ve pushed away the people close to me, I’ve gone out of my way to seek solitude, I’ve shadowed myself from the world. I drop to my knees and look at the massive granite domes surrounding me, the tears streaming rather than dropping at this point. For the first time in my life, I don’t want to be alone anymore.
Despite a headache and roller coaster of emotions I somehow manage to make it 19 and a half miles before reaching a ford that I couldn’t be bothered with. I set up camp and begin to cook my dinner before noticing the buck grazing not more than ten feet from my tent. Happy to be joined by another soul, even if it was an animal, I smile and look back down to finish preparing my meal. At my next glance, I see not a deer but a big old golden bear no further than my friend from before. A loud “HOLY SHIT” and the banging of my pot was enough to make him look at me like an idiot and stroll along, completely uninterested in me or the 5 days resupply right next to me. I spend the rest of the night banging together my pot and spoon in twenty minute intervals before drifting into a deep and much needed sleep. Thus ends solo day number one since the first week.
The river is much shallower in the morning when I cross it but bone chilling in the early morning temperatures. I emerge into a grassy meadow with the sun shining directly on it, restoring the life into me as I begin a grueling uphill climb to Benson Pass. The terrain is much like the day before with the ground being mostly rock slabs but the grade is steep and the trail is covered in rotten snow as I near the top. I lose the trail as usual and spend thirty minutes slogging my way back to it. I descend to Smedberg Lake and spend two hours sitting by the water eating, charging, and letting my gear dry out after much condensation the night before. The lake is surrounded by sheer walls of granite, snow still circling the shore. I hear nothing but the splash of the lake washing up on the shore and the occasional flop of a fish. I try to embrace the solitude as it seems that I’m completely isolated from civilization even though I was just at Tioga Road the day before. Immediately upon starting up again I’m faced with another steep and snowy climb up to Rogers Lake before being given a break with a four mile downhill to yet another lake, Benson Lake. The mosquitos grow worse with each day, here they were absolutely horrendous. Pants and my bug headnet were effective in solving this but they make me feel suffocated, a prisoner to these blood sucking pests. Still the forest is beautiful, thick with pine and dotted with pristine woodland lakes. High elevations are a thing of the past, the trail winds through forested valleys never rising above 10,000 feet. As I walk I can’t help but to reminisce on my time in Maine, except the landscape I walk through far surpasses its beauty. A third and final 1000 foot climb brings me to a third and final descent into the valley where I camp amongst towering old growth trees five times the width of myself. I hear rustling outside, when I finally gather the courage to peek out I find myself surrounded by at least 15 deer foraging around my tent. “Where there’s deer, there’s bear”, I think as I put my bear canister a ridiculously far distance away from me.
My day starts with another river crossing, this one chest deep and powerful. I spend nearly thirty minutes getting across, wishing I had someone else to spot me even though there’s not much they could’ve done should it have swept me away. The rest of the day is much more relaxed than the one before, a steady elevation gain of 1500 feet over 10 miles, essentially flat walking. The scenery is a mix of wooded lakes and open meadows. The mountains ahead of me are foothills in comparison to where I’ve come from but at the top of Dorothy Lake Pass I still face miles of snowfields on each side. On my descent I’m the happiest I’ve been since leaving Tuolumne when I hear my name being shouted from far below. It’s Cookie, I race down to her sliding with every step but not letting it slow me until I have her in a big bear hug. It feels so good to talk to someone, and I’m even more ecstatic when she tells me that Nothing Yet, Ella, Scrapbook, Short Shorts, and Lowkey are only an hour or two ahead. I make it my mission to catch them, I refuse to camp alone again tonight. I race my way down but am obligated to stop when I reach the 1000 mile mark. 700 miles of desert and 300 miles of snow, I’ve made so many friends and tried my hardest to learn at least one thing from each and every one of them. I feel a change in me that I never felt on the Appalachian Trail. Last year I was still just a child, this year I can feel myself turning into a man. A man who is respected and admired by his peers. A man who endures even when all odds are against him. A man who lives by his terms and his alone. It’s the kind of man I’ve always wanted to be.
I end up camping alone again after searching high and low for the group. Around 7 I rise above tree line and know that pushing further would be silly, I had already hiked 23 miles and campsites from here to Sonora Pass were sure to be scarce. The wind whipped through the air at intense speeds at 10,000 feet but I managed to find a small grove of trees where someone had piled up logs to make a wind block. The sunset is outstanding, my last in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. For the first time I enjoy my time alone, knowing I have friends both in front and behind me. I realize I let myself get so bummed out about losing one group of people that I forgot about all the other incredible friends I have. Still I miss Wonder Woman, St. Nick, and Oakley, the ones I endured the toughest of miles with. I feel those three have really been the ones to take me out of my shell, with them I’m completely comfortable to be myself and I truly enjoy their presence. I close my eyes, telling myself this would be my last night alone. In hindsight I knew this was far from the truth.
The wind has calmed when I wake up but the air is chilly at the high altitude I’ve camped at. I let the sun dominate the land before packing up, it’s only twelve miles to Sonora Pass where my parents will pick me up the next day. As I make my way up to the ridge, my surroundings change completely from glaciated granite domes to volcanic remains that make me feel like I’m on Mars. Snow continues to cover everything making me wish I hadn’t sold my microspikes at Tuolumne, the going is slow as I focus on each step, one slip means at least a 100 foot slide all the way back down to the bottom. I make it up with no issues though and soon embark on the most epic ridge walk I’ve ever hiked. To one side of me the snow covered Sierra glistens in the light while on the other side the mountains seem to all but vanish leaving a green and hilly area which I’m sure I’ll be heading into next. Volcanic formations give the novelty back to this hike just when I was starting to need it most. Cookie and Fresh Legs catch up and we enjoy the change together while congratulating each other on conquering the Sierra. On the way down to the pass snow still covers much of the trail giving me opportunity for some of the best glissades I’ve had. I get in contact with Ella and we plan to meet in the town of Walker where I’ll wait for my parents to arrive. It feels so good to reconnect with old friends, more so just to be with other people in general. The next day Wonder Woman calls me to tell me she’s at Kennedy Meadows North, the other option for Sonora Pass that lies in the opposite direction of Walker. Without having to think much about it I’m sitting on the side of the road with my thumb out, anxious to see her and hopefully Oakley and St. Nick as well. I get a ride easily and can’t let any of them go when I get there, it’s only been four days without these people but it seems an eternity. St. Nick and Oakley head to St. Nicks grandmas house for a few days while I sit on the porch with Wonder Woman waiting for my folks. They make it at six and all too quickly I’m saying goodbye to this girl again, not knowing when I’ll see her next. It crushes me to think about but the next four days with my parents are more than enjoyable. They stuff me silly, clean my clothes, and provide trail magic for Ella’s group. Tomorrow I’ll head back on trail, once again I’ll be alone. The only constant in life is that it’s always changing.