Cory and I have spent the last year meticulously planning our thru hike of the John Muir Trail through the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, but we’ve been dreaming and talking about this journey for the better part of six years.
It’s been a whole month since we successfully trekked 200+ miles over the course of 20 days on the famed JMT, which has given my body ample time to recover from the physical difficulties and allowed me to reflect on the experience that I can pretty much guarantee will only be a once-in-a-lifetime journey for me (after all, there are lots of multi-day backpacking excursions worthy of our time, effort and energy).
With that in mind, here are a handful of things I’ve learned both about myself, the experience of hiking the JMT and the trail in general.
1. The very best views should take work.
Based on my brief foray into Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks several years ago, I already knew this part of the country was stunning, but I had no idea how beautiful until I climbed over mountain passes, endured rain and hail storms, traversed a ridiculous number of miles and did all of these things with a 40-pound pack on my back.
I’ve never seen water so blue, skies so vast, shadows that played so perfectly off the textured landscape, scenes torn straight from the pages of a fairy tale. And the only people I had to share these places with were other backpackers who also had to work to appreciate and enjoy these scenes. I’m all about sharing this world’s most beautiful corners with everyone … to a certain extent. I think there’s a direct correlation between ease of reaching a place and how quickly it loses its natural beauty due to degradation, over-visitation and an overwhelming sense of entitlement.
2. I am perfectly okay without internet connection.
With downtime comes the tendency to reach for my smartphone. On the trail, the only thing I used it for was photography and an audio book, which I listened to while climbing up and over mountain passes. It was incredibly refreshing to know that anything could happen in the world and I didn’t have any way of knowing. It was liberating being free of technology when I rafted the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon last year, and this was no different though a bit longer (12 days versus seven during our longest stretch of trail time).
I also learned that, after a few days, teenagers do not do well when they don’t have a connection to the outside world, which both surprises and concerns me.
3. Don’t let anyone else tell you what to carry.
There are countless packing lists out there detailing specific gear to carry on the JMT. I used these as a guide, then hiked my own hike. My bag was (apparently) a bit heavier than those carried by other women, but I don’t care. I don’t regret anything I carried, including an REI camp chair and tablet for evening reading.
4. I am strong.
I can put one foot in front of the other for a long, long time. I can carry a heavy backpack even though I don’t have much extra bulk or height to help. Even when my feet are sore, my hips ache, I can smell myself, the weather is uncooperative and every single step takes effort, I can still move forward. Many people would quit soon after starting, but a vast majority would never, ever consider starting this hike in the first place.