Life on the
John Muir Trail

15-day backpacking trip takes hikers over some of the most scenic — and rugged — terrain in America.

The final pancake, served up at a diner in Mammoth, Calif., goes down a little like an inmate’s last meal.

I lick the last of the syrup off my fork and try to imagine what awaits. In the next 15 days, I’ll lug my backpack nearly 200 miles over rugged mountains, into glacier-carved valleys, past golden meadows and through swaying pine forests on what’s been described as America’s most beautiful trail, the John Muir.

Sure, challenges will crop up along the way. But I’m fit for my age, I tell myself, and prepared for a few weeks without flushing toilets, soft mattresses and clean clothes.

We’ll cover an average of about 12 miles a day, which doesn’t sound all that tough. Besides, I’ve knocked out weeklong trips in the backcountry of Glacier National Park and along the High Sierra Trail in California, and shorter jaunts through Yellowstone National Park and the Desolation Wilderness near Lake Tahoe.

I’m ready. This will be the biggest adventure of my life — so far, anyway — and what is life if it’s not a series of grand adventures?

And we're off ...

And so here we are.

It’s nearly impossible to get a permit to start in Yosemite National Park, the official beginning of the JMT, as backpackers call it. My husband, Chris, along with our ultralight-backpacking friend Rich Colfack, couldn’t get one, so we’re starting at the Rush Creek trailhead instead. We’ll merge onto the JMT tonight, at Thousand Island Lake, trading our alternative route for the first 25 or so miles of the official one.

We sling our packs over our shoulders, adjust our hiking sticks and take our first steps down a crunchy gravel trail that will carry us all the way to Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states.

Within 15 minutes, we’re climbing. Before the day ends, we’ve slogged up 3,000 feet of switchbacks over 10 miles. I slip easily into nature’s trance. I’m happiest amid pine cones and chipmunks, and all I’ve got on my agenda is walking from one mountain to the next.

But as I stumble into our first campsite, a glorious spot at the edge of a lake that reflects hunch-backed Banner Peak, my toes already feel like someone took a hammer to them. This isn’t going to be easy, and the cumulative effect of hauling a 28-pound backpack up and over eight quad-scorching mountain passes, at high elevations, is going to result in blackened toenails, sore muscles and lost weight.

I peel off my sweaty clothes and ease my body into the ice-cold lake. When my husband hands me my first dehydrated meal (a “burger” in a tortilla wrap!) and I watch the sky turn pink, then orange, then purple, I’m blissfully, giddily happy. I inflate my 14-ounce air mattress, unfurl my good-to-15-degrees sleeping bag, climb into our Big Agnes Copper Spur two-person tent and fall asleep before 8 p.m., utterly exhausted.

Banner Peak is reflected in a lake along the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada mountains. (Pam LeBlanc / American-Statesman)

Pain in the toe

Before I roll over, it’s morning and time to get up and go.

We’re on the trail by 7:15 a.m. We pass a string of beautiful lakes — Emerald, Ruby, Garnet — the mountains reflected in the mirror of their surfaces. I wish I could stop and swim in every one, but we’ve got miles to cover. Towering pines stretch their arms to the heavens. Marmots sun themselves on warm rocks.

And again, we climb. And descend. And climb again. There are very few stretches of flat on this trail.

Chris and I take it slow, trying to soak in every fragrant meadow and chattering stream. We gaze across canyons at rubble-strewn hillsides. We march through a stretch of burned-out forest. We sleep next to creeks, rinsing our socks in nature’s washing machine.

And suddenly, at the end of Day Three, my feet are ruined. I hobble the last two hours into camp as a storm hits. My toes are trashed, bashed against the front of my shoes. I crawl inside my tent, curl up and nap as raindrops pelt my shelter. I’m sure I can’t finish this trek.

But the storm passes, I stagger outside to soak my feet in a creek, and something clicks in my mind. The inserts I’d tucked into my shoes to ease the pain of plantar fasciitis were tilting my feet forward, causing my toes to smash against the front of my shoes. I take the inserts out and wrap each toe with Leukotape.

It saves my trip.

Chris LeBlanc samples oatmeal during the backpacking trip on the John Muir Trail. (Pam LeBlanc / American-Statesman)

Just another day in the wilderness

As the days tick past, we fall into a routine: wake up with the sun, change into hiking clothes while still tucked inside sleeping bag, shake anti-blister powder into Injinji toe socks, deflate air mattresses, take down tent, load backpacks, eat breakfast, start walking. We hike with Rich for an hour or two, until he gets twitchy and surges ahead.

We walk, on average, 2 miles an hour, pausing frequently. We nibble nuts and dried mangoes, PayDay candy bars, peanut M&Ms and beef jerky. It’s dusty and dry in places, but streams splice the baked, lunar surface. We draw water, filtering it as we go. Time evaporates on the trail.

We wear gaiters over the tops of our shoes — trail runners, not bulky hiking boots — to keep out dirt, but it’s impossible. It darkens our ankles, cakes our fingers and coats our necks. You can’t use soap in streams or lakes in the backcountry; we stink.

More days. More gorgeous meadows and glimmering lakes — Silver Lake, Victoria Lake, Purple Lake, Helen Lake, Heart Lake. Huge boulders. Deer munching leaves. Furry pikas playing hopscotch. The blue sky, the puffy clouds, the spice of plants on the air. And, at the end of the day, stripping off clothes — one set for the entire 15 days — and plopping in a lake or creek.

I can’t believe I’m really here. And with every step, my appreciation of John Muir — co-founder of the Sierra Club, father of the conservation movement and a big reason we have national parks today — grows.

We pass mule trains carrying supplies to seasonal trail workers and to hikers on luxury excursions. While breaking for lunch one day, I’m convinced I hear the roar of a bear. It turns out to be one of those mules, parked at a nearby camp, bellowing a hello.

I breathe a sigh of relief and push on. But bears are out here. Backpackers are required to carry their food and other scented items in bear vaults, 3-pound plastic canisters that the animals can’t breach. They’re bulky and cumbersome, and we curse them.

My air mattress springs a leak. Chris and Rich dunk it in a creek and find a pinprick hole, which they patch. Later in the trip, Chris and I accidentally leave our stove, pot and gas by a creek. It’s a day’s hike back, and we don’t have time to retrieve it. Thankfully, a couple of fishermen camped nearby give us their spare gas. We share Rich’s stove and pot the rest of the way.

Every night, we press a button on our DeLorme inReach satellite tracker, which sends out a message so people back home know we’re OK and are making progress.

Midway through our trip, we hit the Muir Trail Ranch, a remote resupply point serviced by mules. We’ve paid $75 each to ship a supply bucket packed with enough food to last us our final nine days. Convinced we’ve overpacked, we cast some of it off, adding our surplus energy bars, candy and toothpaste to the “free” bins for others to take if they want.

Then we head to the nearby hot springs, where a dozen others have stripped down to their underwear and are soaking in a pit of murky water that’s the closest thing we’ve had to a hot bath in a week.

Pam LeBlanc, left, and Rich Colfack, right, cross a stream while backpacking the John Muir Trail. (Chris LeBlanc / For American-Statesman)

Longer, higher, harder

As the trip goes on, we build into it. Higher mountains. Steeper climbs. More time above the treeline, longer hours spent scurrying back and forth on zigzagging trails through heaps of cracked rock and boulders dropped like misguided bowling balls.

Evolution Valley, with its tumbling creeks. McClure Meadow, where a narrow creek meanders through a grassy field like a blue scarf dropped to the ground. The steep, never-ending switchbacks of the Golden Staircase. The gin-clear, trout-dappled waters of Rae Lakes.

We see about 20 other backpackers a day, and one guy I meet on the top of a pass tells me, as he fires up his camp stove and pours water over a bag of dehydrated spaghetti right there at 13,000 feet, that the John Muir Trail is “a beautiful hell.” I look down at a lake, thousands of feet below, and know exactly what he means.

It’s glorious and humbling and the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Most of all it’s beautiful: pine forests where the rush of wind in the treetops sounds like ocean waves. Hillsides composed entirely of blocky rock and steps so high I’m not sure I can lift my leg over them. Pocket-sized meadows the color of limes, so fresh and soothing you’d lay down for a long nap if you didn’t have a schedule to keep.

But there’s another troublesome thing I’ve noticed: wads of toilet paper, uncovered, behind trees and rocks. This trail has become so popular, on the heels of recent movies such as “Wild” and “A Walk in the Woods,” that it’s showing the stress of overuse. Backpackers are supposed to bury their waste and haul out the trash, but not all do. It makes me sad.

The last five days we cover the four toughest passes of the trip. My back and shoulders ache. Even the “easy” climbs are hard, just not as hard as the monsters like Mather, Glen, Forester and Whitney, where we ascend as much as 3,200 feet, then drop 2,000 feet in a single day. The four-hour uphill grinds leave us gasping like guppies, but the downhills hurt more.

For days I dread Forester. Sheer drop-offs make my knees quake. But we make it up, and, from the top, the land rolls out in front of us like a crumpled carpet and alpine lakes glint like dropped coins in the distance.

“So exhausted I can barely think,” I scratch into my journal. “Goodnight.”

Three days from the end, we cross paths with a backpacker from Austin named Bill Horton. We don’t know each other, but friends have told us we might meet on the trail. He is northbound while we are southbound. We hug like long-lost friends, and then I ask if he or his friends have any spare food. They look at me quizzically.

“No, really,” I say. I’ve discovered that the hunger builds as the days pass. I’ve been running a calorie deficit for two weeks, and right now I feel like I could gnaw my arm off. And I left too much food at Muir Trail Ranch.

They hand over an assortment of energy bars. I nearly cry with happiness right there.

We march on, and the highlight reel keeps rolling — stark, golden and indescribably beautiful Bighorn Plateau, studded with the occasional windswept tree; conversation with a pair of hikers wearing hiking kilts as they retrace the steps of Muir, a fellow Scotsman; laughs shared with the other backpackers we’ve gotten to know as we leapfrog our way toward Mount Whitney.

Pam LeBlanc walks across the Woods Creek Suspension Bridge on the John Muir Trail. (Chris LeBlanc / For American-Statesman)

Trail lessons

That last night at Guitar Lake, as we anticipate our re-entry into civilization the next day, I sip three cups of hot mint tea, then crawl into my tent and write my last journal entry: “I crave soap, hot water, booze, a cheeseburger and flush toilets.”

We’ll start that final day early, using headlamps to light our way as we hike up Mount Whitney and cross our last mountain, then make our way the final 11 miles to a trailhead where dear friends, armed with Epsom salts and margarita fixings, will pick us up.

I can’t believe how far I’ve come, and I know this trip will stick to my ribs forever.

No matter what happens next, I can fall back on what 15 days on the John Muir Trail taught me — that even when I’m dead tired and my toes feel like a hippopotamus danced on them, as long as I keep moving forward, I’ll get to where I’m going. And the scenery along the way will make every step a joy.

Get outside, everyone. Forget the city for a while and embrace the woods, the dirt, the clouds and the pine-scented air.