Central California: Tuolumne Meadows to Sonora Pass

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June 22, 2003.
One of the beauties of hiking 936.8 official trail miles in 44 days is that a day off becomes a pleasure unknown to sedentary folk. "A day off" isn't quite the right term, as it is hard to take a break from a vacation. So, perhaps a better phrase is the traditional one, "A Zero Day." No hiking, no sweating, only eating and resting. The cold morning and the proximity of the Tuolumne Meadows restaurant meant not sleeping in quite as long as I thought I would, but there was plenty of time for a nap later. I was hoping that there might be some all-you-can-eat component to breakfast, as there was to dinner the night before. Perhaps unlimited toast and fruit cocktail. Too much to hope for. I had the bacon and eggs special, followed by the pancake special, and washed down with several cups of bad coffee and rotten orange juice. All for the low price of $22. I left still hungry and rather upset at myself for having gotten up early for such a bad breakfast. This was not an auspicious start to a zero day.

The five of us hopped the free shuttle bus to take us the mile and a half or so from the lodge to the post office. It being a Sunday, there was nothing to do at the post office, but the PO was in the same circus tent as the store, and there was plenty at the store to buy and eat. The kind workers at the store were the same ones who normally worked the PO and they allowed us to pick up our mail, even if we couldn't send it out until the following morning. I sat down with my bounce box, several letters from my mother, and the new guidebook to the trail for the remaining part of California, along with a quart of chocolate milk and some other snacks. Because of publishing delays, the guidebook had only recently become available and I had asked my mother to order me a copy as soon as it was. Sharon and Will had older versions of the guidebook, but Glory was stuck without one.

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I promptly tore up my guidebook into sections, taking only those sections necessary to get between here and Sierra City, eight or nine days ahead. I rummaged about in my bounce box, getting the supplies I thought I needed and putting in exposed film and other things that I no longer needed. My sorting done, I was almost a quarter of the way done with my chores, and it wasn't even ten in the morning yet. I still had to shower and do laundry, buy supplies, and make a couple of phone calls. The parking lot began to fill with tourists and, mostly, people out to do something in the outdoors. Various buses from the valley arrived and departed, their occupants seemingly impressed enough with a soda from the store and the view from the bus. People in wildly colored cycling clothing and flashy mountain bikes came riding into the parking lot, having ridden the road from Tioga Pass down to Tuolumne Meadows. They were looking for a lift back up now. A platoon of British reserve soldiers came in as well, with large packs and their eyes on the John Muir Trail. They had come over for joint exercises with their ROTC counterparts and were now doing a bit of trekking around the wilds of America.

Deciding that other chores could wait, I bought another quart of chocolate milk and began to buy supplies for the leg to South Lake Tahoe, roughly 150 miles to the north. The store was remarkably well stocked and I had no problem buying enough food. I had walked into VVR and then into Tuolumne Meadows with enough spare food to last two days, and I was determined to choose a proper amount of food for this leg. Snickers Bars came off the shelves in droves, joined by the companion Milky Way. King Size are two of the best words a thruhiker can here, perhaps only beaten by being asked, "Would you like to super size that?" The Oats and Honey Granola bars that I'd been enjoying so much found their way into my food bag as well, along with cheese and crackers, ramen noodles and macaroni and cheese. I finished my quart of chocolate milk while browsing, and so tossed another one into my basket along with the previous day's San Francisco Chronicle, paid, and found another patch of sun in the parking lot.

Sorting food takes longer than one might think. Everything has to get taken out of its outer wrapper and put into bags. There is quite a bit of extra packaging in boxed-up foods and none of that had a place in my pack. Ziplock bags have to be found to hold the instant potatoes, trail mix has to be blended and stored. Deciding that I really didn't have to do all this at once, I turned to my chocolate milk and newspaper. Nothing had happened in the world, it seemed, since I was last able to read a paper in Mojave. The Palestinians and the Israelis were playing nice for now under new "Roadmap for Peace" that the US was sponsoring. Saddam Hussein had not been found, nor had any weapons of mass destruction. A few murders here and there. I don't know why I bother reading the newspaper sometimes. I know that things are going on in the world, but the large newspapers just don't seem to report them. Are the Maoists in Nepal still fighting, or are they at the peace table again? What about the Christian militias in southern Uganda? What about the most recent developments on preventing the spread of AIDS in southern Africa?

Disgusted with the newspaper, I turned it over to Will and finished repacking my food. Sharon had tracked down a campsite in the Tuolumne Meadows campground, behind the PO, despite it being closed. It was really very pleasant and quite free. She had been told by someone in a uniform to stay wherever we wanted, as long as it was behind the PO and out of sight. Pat was back in town with several new hikers. There was a Japanese couple, a short, skinny, almost not-there Japanese man named Mr. Tea, and a loud, blond American named DNA, wearing the oddest collection of clothing I had seen yet. No Patagonia or Columbia for DNA. He had a pea green jacket with the liner torn out. Yellow sweat pants. A purple shirt. Nothing seemed to match, which I liked right away. DNA also didn't have the guidebook to northern California, though he and Mr. Tea were going to search for it in the valley. In spite of his somewhat disheveled appearance, DNA was very worried about not having the guidebook.

The day unfolded and more junk food was bought from the store. A plan was hatched to have a cook out of some sort for dinner. Because the campground was still closed to the public, there was plenty of wood to scavenge and there were hot dogs and sausages and things for smores in the store. Will, Glory, and I headed over to the Tuolumne Lodge to use their shower for only $2, including a towel, running into DNA on the way. Unfortunately, the water was only sort of warm, and you have to press the water button every thirty seconds or the flow would stop. I washed my clothes in the shower as well, because there was a sign on the wash tub that said it was for guests only. Somewhat refreshed, we all returned to the campsite to hang up our laundry and rest from our trying day.

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Tyson and Sharon were lounging about, and Tyson and I struck up a conversation about Nepal. We had both been there on longer treks, although in different parts of the country and separated by a few months. He had hiked around the Annapurna area and I in the Khumbu (Mt. Everest) region. We spun various stories for each other and for Sharon, delighting in having something new to talk about. After an hour of swapping stories about where the best dal bhaat was to be found, I went off to use the phone. A swift call to REI netted me a new pair of trail runners (the Sierras had chewed the current pair), some socks, and a brand new, 3/4 length Z-rest.

The sun began to dip and the store was set to close. Sharon and I made a pass through the store, buying supplies for the cookout, not forgetting to buy some Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, my official beer of the summer. Or, at least, my official beer until I got to Oregon. I should have tried to get sponsorship from them, if not in money, then at least in kind. Back at the campsite, a ranger in a massive SUV pulled up and waddled over to us, his pistol jammed tightly against his thigh, and his belt almost swallowed up into his clothing and body. No no, you cannot camp here. The campground is closed. Yes, but we were told...No no, the campground is closed, you see. You'll have to go elsewhere. Well, where can we go, this person told us that...Yes, well, that was what they said. But, the campground is closed and you'll have to move on. Where to? Oh, just over there in section A. Looking dubious, I spotted the section A sign about three hundred yards off. Apparently the ranger thought we could be seen from the road and he didn't want us attracting non-hikers. The campground, at least section A, was open to foot travelers only, but the rangers were worried some people in cars might just park in the lot and walk in. I thought that I would do the same if I were driving through.

We collected our belongings and walked over to section A, finding the British soldiers well established, though looking tired. Tyson and I pitched our tarps far apart, after he warned that he snored rather loudly. I set out looking for firewood and began to collect a rather large stack of it by the time Will and Glory moved over. Sharon strolled up with a man on a bike; she had found a stray and was taking it in for the night. David was a late 40s Brit who was cycling around the western US. He had already been through the Mojave and Joshua Tree and Death Valley and was now moving up the eastern edge of the Sierra, before backtracking and heading the Grand Canyon, if time permitted. He had no food and was counting on the store being open and Sharon found him by the side of the store looking forlorn and forsaken. Perhaps you would like to come to a cook out?

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The fire was started and hot dogs went on sticks over the wood. Cans of beans were opened and set on the edge of the fire and beers opened (mostly just by myself). Tales were shared, with David playing the time-honored role of story-teller-for-food. It was a role that thruhikers were usually supposed to play in exchange for a ride or a soda or some bit of kindness. But, here we were, a group of five hikers who had walked more than 900 miles through the wilderness, and we were being entertained my a man from England with stories about him and his bike and the places that they had been. The soldiers next door felt the barb of his wit as he played to the audience, re-enforcing stereotypes that Americans have of the stick-up-the-ass Brit. David was in his element, and it was clear that he had done this before, and not just in America. It was a beautiful night and, stumbling back to my tarp after finishing off the beer, the image of David riding over a Mojave Green rattlesnake just stuck in my head, prompting little fits of laughter as sleep overcame me on this most zero of days.

"Jesus Christ, Will! Wake up", a voice called through woods. Will woke with a snort. Admonishing cries from Glory and Sharon followed quickly. Everyone seemed to be mad, but I didn't care much. I had been listening to Will snore (more of a clucking sound) on and off through the night, and I wanted to get some sleep. It was 6 am and there was no reason to get up early, for the PO didn't open for a while and I had to send my bounce box on to Sierra City before leaving. More barbs of criticism came from the ladies. I had tried to disturb Will my tossing small twigs at him. Then small pine cones. A few rocks had found their way over to him. But, with no success. I went back to sleep to wait for a little more warmth.

I awoke with the sun shining cheerfully through the pines, quite alone. The others, minus Tyson in his further off tarp, and David in his tent a ways back, had already packed up, apparently after my shout. It would turn out that they thought I was trying to warn Will of a immediate bear attack and could not fall back asleep. Glancing at my watch, I saw that the grill next to the PO was going to be opening in a few minutes. This was its first morning open, and I was hoping for something better than at the Tuolumne Lodge. My pack found its way to my back, and my bottom to the outhouses near the PO, and I strolled into the grill to find it packed with outdoorsy types. You know, the kind that haven't showered in a while and would look homeless if they were transported to a city. I recognized Mr. Tea loitering near the door and Will was working over a stack of buckwheat pancakes as I joined DNA in line. A coffee, a stack of pancakes, and a ham, egg, and cheese English muffin sandwich filled me up right and proper and only cost $8.

After breakfast I moved outside for a quart of chocolate milk and to call home to my mother. I hadn't spoken with her since Mojave and I wanted to make sure that she wasn't worrying. I didn't know when I would next have a chance to call. Maybe not for a few hundred more miles, as I was not planning on taking a zero day for quite a while. I had, roughly, 60 days left to hike this summer before I had to go back to Indiana and start teaching again. Could I finish the trail in that time? It would require getting to Ashland, about 700 miles north, in a month, and then hiking across both Oregon and Washington, more than 900 miles, in a month as well. When I set out from Mexico, I thought that I had about 1 chance in 5 to finish. Now, I thought the odds better; maybe 1 in 3. It didn't really matter too much if I finished the trail or not. Sure, it would be nice to have a sense of completion, and I really wanted to see Washington, particularly the Glacier Peak area. But, mostly I just wanted to be out here, doing what I had been doing for the next two months.

I spoke, somewhat incoherently, with my mother for almost an hour, chatting about what life was like on the trail, how much snow there was, what I was expecting on this next leg, etc, etc. It was warm this morning and clear, I told her. The worst of the snow is over and the trail was supposed to ease up a bit. I wasn't sure if this was true or not, but I thought it was a good thing to say. It was nice talking with someone back home, but I had to constantly remind that she was back home. That is, she just could not understand certain facets of the experience out here. Not because my mother is not swift, in fact, she is decidedly intelligent. But, because the experience was something that had to be lived, and I did not have the ability or the time to put it into coherent words.

Approaching the PO window, I found Will in conversation with a portly German tourist who had just stepped off a tour bus with a crowd of other Germans. Will, being an Army brat, had lived for a short time in Germany and was trying out his German again. The tourist seemed immensely thrilled to meet someone as exotic as an American that spoke German, and rewarded Will with a pen as a souvenir. I sent my bounce box ahead to Sierra City, bought yet another quart of chocolate milk, and retired to the picnic tables in the sun to relax for a little while before setting out on the trail again. It had been a good stop in Tuolumne, but I was anxious to start north again. I was determined to get some solitude, even if I could not leave Glory for her lack of maps. Besides, she was fun to be around during town stops. She had the guidebook coming to her somewhere around Lake Tahoe, but wasn't quite sure where which town she had it sent to. Will was planning to speed up and start pushing 30 miles a day. Sharon was planning to try to keep up with Will to South Lake Tahoe, and then slow down. While I might not see them as much as I had been, there would be enough separation to give us all the solitude we were looking for and enough companionship on our chance meetings over lunch or in camp to sustain us in the wild. Sharon was nowhere to be seen when the shuttle bus pulled up. Assuming she was going to the bathroom and would be along shortly, Will, Glory, and I piled in for the long 400 yard haul to the Lembert Dome parking lot, across the highway from where I left the trail a day and a half ago.

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From the parking lot, the three of us were quickly overtaken by Tyson, mostly because Will and I slowed down to talk with a pretty day hiker. This stretch of trail runs partially along a circuit of camps, called the High Sierra Camps. These are large, established campgrounds in the park with some extra, built up features. Very popular and their use is rationed through a lottery system. Today, the third day of summer, was their first day open. Day hikers abounded through the region, taking advantage of the beautiful day and the easy, wondrous terrain, to see a bit of their land. Yosemite is a land of granite, and the PCT runs past some of the best. Over long granite benches, with tight spires in the distance, and past glacially smoothed formations and tumbling waterfalls, the area just north of Tuolumne Meadows might make the best family hiking area that I had yet encountered along the trail. The proximity to the front country even bought us a few bridges over rivers, some of which would have been easy fords or rock hops while others, like the Tuolumne, would have been dangerous.

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Will and I stopped off at one of the High Sierra camps to see what made them so popular, while Glory cruised on along. The camps seemed to offer little that I found attractive, although it was easy to see what made them popular for others. It was a way to get out into the outdoors without making the full commitment of being self-sufficient. Sort of a wilderness-lite that was good for those starting out, or those who wanted to see a bit of the land overnight while not having to worry about the problems that might follow with a night in the wild.

Down trail was gathered the largest collection of hikers I had seen since VVR: Glory, Will, and I stopped for a break before beginning the trek to Miller Lake, and were joined by Tyson, Mr. Tea, and DNA. Tea and DNA had not been able to score a guidebook in the valley and were hiking blind, so to speak. The trail was generally marked well enough to follow, although without a map it might prove difficult to get over some of the passes if the snow ahead was bad. Moreover, some of the trail junctions were not marked, or were marked with place names, rather than with trail names. DNA had the data book, which listed place names along with mileage, but occasionally the place names on the trail junction markers did not correspond with the trail names in the data book. DNA was obsessed with my guidebook, trying his best to memorize maps and descriptions during the short break. Then he came out with it. Asserting that the Tuolumne Lodge was a far, far better place than VVR, my mind thought back to Roy, and pictured DNA's body flying over the edge of the trail, down into a ravine, with me standing above, with the grin of the righteous upon my face. Nobody went over the trail, but Will and I got as nasty as we could with another thruhiker. DNA set out to follow us and our maps along the trail, but when I asked him not to follow 3 feet behind me (the clacking of his trekking poles on the rocks annoyed me), he powered on ahead, fording the now unbridged rivers like a long legged moose, with the diminutive Tea on his heels.

At Miller Lake we lost Tyson, who was planning to camp just as Will and I were thinking about where to cook a meal. Glory was some ways back and Sharon had not yet show up. While scenic, the wind had started to blow and the temperature was dropping. A sheltered spot would surely appear soon, we thought. Climbing up and around, down and along, no sheltered spot with water was apparent. Our growling stomachs didn't matter at this point. We were walking through God's country now. The trail through northern Yosemite runs along ridges, then down to valleys and up the other side, where another ridge is run, then back down, etc. The first, and most glorious of these valleys was Matterhorn Canyon. The steep, U-shaped valley spread below us, towering mountains ringing it and heavily forested with pine below. An alpinist's Eden, it was only ours from a far. What a joy it would be to live in Mammoth or Bishop and have a place like this to play in.

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Just as Providence had wanted us to see this grand sight before the lethargy of a full belly might diminish it, so too did Providence provide a small stream and a wind-sheltered sight, paradoxically on the edge of a cliff with a view. Ominous portents were clearly visible in the distance of Matterhorn canyon. A storm was brewing, clearly and visibly in the mountains of the canyon. I hoped that, like the Ritter range before, the mountains would again protect me and hold the storm fast. Tea came rumbling by, apparently separated from DNA, who was certainly still ahead. We all knew that my prayer for the mountains was not going to work: We were heading toward the storm. Benson pass was ahead, an 11,000 ft. gap in the mountains that would not be pleasant in a gale or with limited visibility.

Glory showed up and quickly pounded down a dinner in order to stay with Will and I during the coming storm. Dropping down into the valley, the storm rolled over the mountains, dropping the ceiling to only a few feet above my head.

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Moving faster to keep up the body heat and to try to get over Benson pass as quickly as possible, the three of us charged forth, racing across the valley and up the switchbacks on the other side. Snow began to fall, first in little, minute pinpoints that disintegrated into a small dot of water upon contact with my body, then morphing into large flakes, sticking to the ground and to me. Lightning flashed in the distance, followed by the boom of its thunder ten seconds later. No worries, the storm is still far off. Faster and faster we raced up the mountain side, and faster and larger came down the snow. The only thing lessening was the time between the lightning and the thunder. It was down to four seconds. We began to pick up tracks in the now snow covered trail: DNA was somewhere out here.

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As the snow kept coming down and the lightning kept coming closer, I began to question the wisdom of moving forward. On the one hand, going over Benson Pass tonight meant going above 11,000 feet and being exposed to a potential lightning strike. If it was like the other Sierran passes, there would be no trees close by and we would be the tallest things in the area, save for the slightly higher shoulders of the pass. Lightning flashed, and thunder crashed 2 seconds later. But, the snow kept coming. If this was going to be a large snowfall, I wanted to get up and over Benson pass today, before conditions made the pass untenable. I did not want to return to Tuolumne, nor did I want to sit and wait for the snow to melt out, nor deal with a snow bound pass. Up we went. Plunging into an icy stream and back out into the snow, hiking conditions were becoming uncomfortable. Another stream ford. Will and I looked at each other and asked, "So, what are you thinking?" Both of us were thinking the same thing. We both wanted to get over the pass before the snow make things rough, but neither of us wanted to over the pass in the lightning. Glory stood by, ready to deal with what came and left the decision to Will and I and our collective mountain experience. We decided quickly that if the lightning-thunder delay dropped to one second, we would stop.

Up we went for another minute, and the 1-second barrier was broken. The hunt for a campsite with a little shelter had begun, although nothing was found and it was too cold to stop and make a thorough, off-trail search. We kept heading upward and the snow kept coming down. We spotted a solitary tent off in the woods, nestled in a cove of trees just large enough for one. Higher we climbed, with the time between thunder and lightning dropping to well under a second. The storm was directly over us and we needed to stop going higher. A third stream appeared, although this one was bridged by a downed tree. A downed tree five feet above the surface of the water and covered in snow. As if to taunt the cold and wet world around us, and in disregard for our quite soaked feet, we crossed the snowy tree and reached a field. On the edge of the field, was a clump of trees with enough wind protection to provide reasonable shelter for the night.

The snow kept coming and visibility was thirty feet. Will and I got our tarps up in a hurry and Glory pitched her tent with amazing speed, all crammed into the small clump. I got out of my wet clothes as quickly as possible and put on everything I had and jammed into my sleeping bag. I thought about how pleasantly mild it was, even with all the snow, only partially in jest. Eating cookies from the safety of my tarp, I was dry and reasonably comfortable, but the temperature was still dropping, the lightning still flashing (though now the thunder was rolling further out), and the snow still coming. Every five minutes I knocked the snow off my tarp. And then, it stopped.

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A white, still world was out, a fact that I joyously announced to Glory in her tarp. Wishing everyone a happy third day of summer, I used the bathroom one last time, and then burrowed into my sleeping bag, hoping that the temperature would stabilize soon and I would be able to sleep through most of the night. I didn't believe it would happen, though, and thoughts centered not on the glories of the wilderness, but rather on my much warmer, 20 degree sleeping bag sitting in its storage sack back in Indiana. It was probably seventy degrees there right now, I guessed. The cold descended.

It is 1 am, and I am cold. On previous cold nights in the Sierra I would usually wake at 3 am and be able to sleep fitfully until the sun came up. It was 1 am, and I was not going back to sleep. The moonshine off the fresh snow made it almost bright enough to read by. Everything was coated with 2 or 3 inches of powder and was stunning, really. If I was warm and toasty, perhaps I could have made some sort of artistic connection. As it was, I could only seek ways of keeping warmth inside my sleeping bag. Why didn't I bring my warmer sleeping bag? Was carrying six ounces less really worth this one night? Not to mention the other nights that I had been cold. I fussed about, trying roll over onto a magical side of my body that might give me a little more warmth. I scrunched up into a fetal position, the rolled over onto my stomach. Then onto my back and again to a fetal position. At some point I must have been successful. An hour had passed and it was now two in the morning. The fits of sleeping were brief, but felt seemed long. Seven in the morning came around all too slowly, bringing with it a powerful sun.

I didn't need much convincing to start moving again, although my shoes did. The three fords of Wilson's creek the night before had drenched my shoes and they promptly froze over night. I could not get them on and had to work them over with my hands, bending them back and forth, until I could barely jam my foot inside. The laces were hopelessly frozen solid and it took me five minutes just to force them into some sort of tangle than one, on a generous day, might call a knot. On advantage of trail runners is that they thaw quickly, even if they don't keep your feet warm. Glory and Will were making signs of leaving their bags when I started down the snowy meadow, hoping that I was on the trail.
Even with the land covered and no tracks to follow, it was possible to spot where the trail should go by following the slight depression in the snow that marked the trailbed. More and more sun poured down, bringing a bit of hope to my heart that Benson Pass would not be too bad. A mile and a half out of camp, I picked up DNAs tracks, leading fairly directly to Benson Pass. Even without maps, DNA was going geodesically perfect toward the pass, upon which I topped out not forty minutes after leaving camp in the midst of a howling wind. Although the land below the pass was pleasant and beginning to warm, the pass itself was utterly inhospitable.

I followed DNAs tracks for as long as I could make them out, eventually losing them at a sequence of creek fords. Will, as it turned out, was right on my tracks and caught me as I was milling about, looking for the trail after leaping over a creek. Spotting DNAs yellow pants, we dropped down through some brush and came upon him cooking up a hot breakfast in the sun. Pleasant weather, eh? He was worried about Mr. Tea, but seemed relieved when we told him we thought Tea was camped in the valley well below Benson pass. Will and I pushed on, eventually taking a break a mile or two past DNA. We were still both sore about the comments DNA had made about VVR. Roy was something of a hero to us and we would not tolerate his kitchen being besmirched.

The sun was melting the snow off quickly, and I stripped off the thermal underwear I had been wearing and managed to tie a respectable knot in my runners just as Glory, and then Sharon, got to our break spot. Sharon had run into Tin Cup just as we were leaving Tuolumne and stopped to talk with him, precipitating a several hour delay in leaving the meadows. Tin Cup was a good talker, after all. Climbing up and down on the fresh snow, following the trail when it was there, going cross country otherwise, we flowed north through, continuing our sojourn in the promised land. Northern Yosemite continued to tempt us with her charms: An alpine lake here, a rocky ridge there. Powerful mountains looming in the near distance and spring flowers popping out of the ground. Even though it was late June, it was still springtime here in the mountains. One o'clock came around and no one else was around. Here was a large granite bench, full in the sun, overlooking one of the myriad lakes of the area. Yes, this is a perfect lunch spot, I thought. How could the others pass this one by? There was even a stream flowing down the mountainside, carrying away the melted snow, to serve as a water source.

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I took out all of my gear and spread it out in the sun, reveling in the warm rock and the sunshine upon my face. Most my gear was at least a little damp from the previous night, and some of it was soaked, like my tarp and groundcloth. A pot of Lipton's Noodles and Sauce was bubbling away on my alcohol stove (Alfredo flavor, I believe). The birds and other deziens of the land were going about their business, their little sounds and chirps completely audible, if not yet decipherable. Everything was perfect, here in the land.. I didn't have an unlimited amount of food, nor did I know how to catch fish without a line and hook. I would have to leave eventually, but there was at least no good reason to race through. I wasn't going to try to keep up with anyone from now on, nor set distance goals for each day. I wasn't going to try to make it to point X on the map before camping, nor to point Y for lunch. I was going to walk until hungry, then eat. I was going to walk until I felt like stopping or the sun went down, and then stop. In short, I would have no goals except existing in time; I'd let the rest play itself out and see what happened.

Encouraged by these thoughts and refreshed by an hour spent on the rock, I packed up and moved down the trail, only to discover the others having lunch in a meadow about five minutes past my rock. Will was moving quickly today, hoping to reach near Dorothy lake and the northern boundary of Yosemite. Sharon was determined to keep up with him until South Lake Tahoe. I was just walking today until 8 or so, then I'd stop wherever I was and leave the rest for tomorrow. Up and down the trail ran, moving up to a ridge and then plunging down to a valley on the other side. Repeat several times. Then, I reached Kerrick Canyon.

Descending toward Kerrick Canyon, the ice axe came out almost immediately. The steeply banked trail was buried under hard packed snow, surviving in consolidated form due to the seemingly permanent shadow cast on this side of the valley. The snow ran right down to raging Kerrick Creek, a powerful snow fed river. A slip would mean a bath, unless the faller was lucky enough to grab a tree on the way down. The snow was too hard for a self arrest, though the ice axe would provide some stability and a belay point. Moving parallel to the river, progress was slow, but safe. Until the line I was following terminated in the river. I had climbed down too low and was now forced to ford a small stretch of water to get to manageable snow. The initially buried trail eventually gave out to the sun,revealing bits and pieces of clear sailing, though never longer for twenty yards. Looking in the distance, I could see a blue hat moving slowly across the river on a log. I actually could not see the log from here, but assumed that they were not waterwalkers and so must be on a log. I did not like the idea that the log was narrower than the blue hat's legs, which I could make out distinctly.

I found Will and Glory standing at the ford of the creek, looking puzzled. We scouted about, finding nothing. No rock hop, no free and clear ford, and no tree to us. Perhaps the Blue Hat was able to walk on water. There were a few down trees, but they were high above the water and as narrow as my arm. No, this was going to be a tough ford. Out I went into the stream, Will and Sharon trying to ford above, Glory below. Moving slowly and with sure feet, I moved out into the white, powerful river. The water was soon up to my mid thigh and getting faster. At the middle of the creek, I hit the fastest part. An almost irresistible force seemed pulling at my legs and I strained with every muscle to stay upright. Unseen rocks at my feet made this even more difficult. Was I going in? I thought so, but managed to regain control and retreat to the shore to find a better spot. I saw Will and Sharon on the other side, and they seemed a little puzzled that I was having so much difficulty with the ford. My long and stout legs usually make fords for me easy and I am frequently the first to the other side. Glory was in up to her ribcage, but emerged on the other side safe and sound. I repeated my fording attempt, this time taking a slightly different line. Again, the first steps were fine. I reached the middle of the creek, and it felt as if my legs were being yanked on my hitch of mules. Wobbling and swaying, I was again out of control. Fighting hard to stay out of the water, my body tensed and squeezed and gripped anything on the ground to get some stability. This time I had tried to ford just below a downed tree, and was able to reach out for it, barely, and stabilize myself. I retreated again to the shore. I went to where Glory had gotten across, which had the benefit of several large rocks, upstream, that served to calm the waters a bit and provide hand holds. I went into the water slowly again, threading my way along the rocks, inching toward the dreaded middle of the creek. Again, I was turned back after a battle for survival. Back on the bank after my third unsuccessful attempt, I was much disheartened. Why was this so difficult. Everytime things started smoothly, then when I reached the middle my legs were shook as if they had a sail attached to them. A sail, I thought. Looking down at my pants, I saw them split nearly in two. From the crotch almost to the ankles, the seams on both legs had split during the first attempt. When I got to the middle of the creek on each ford, the water had filled the pants legs up with water and billowed them outward like a sail. This was the force I was being hit with each time. I took my pants off and crossed the creek rather easily in the cycling underwear that I wore. The others had been waiting a while, and took off once they safe I had made it safely across. The shorts I had carried for nearly 1000 trail miles made their first appearance on the trail, and I set off after the others, my soaking, shredded pants hanging off my pack.

Glory and I found Will and Sharon atop another a minor pass, after an 800 foot climb along the flanks of a sundrenched and flower strewn mountain. They had been there for twenty minutes and wanted to push forth. It was clear that I was in no rush and that Glory wasn't in one either. They looked serious and forlorn, perhaps a tad sheepish. They wanted to say goodbye. They wanted to push for 30 miles today and thought that they would not see us again. It was almost comical, I thought. There were more than 1600 miles left before making Canada, and they didn't want to leave us without saying one last goodbye. I tried hard not to laugh at their seriousness and intent. It was a good one, even if I thought it a bit misplaced. We all shook hands, although I tried to remind them that I was going to hike till around 8 and would probably be somewhere near by that night. That the trail was long and the chances of them achieving complete separation almost instantly was unlikely. While Will had to be off the trail five days before I did, Sharon had no time constraint and was planning to slow down after South Lake Tahoe anyways. Still, I waved goodbye to them as they set off down the other side of the pass and sat down to drink some water and eat a granola bar.

Ten minutes on the other side of the pass, I came across them wandering about, slightly lost, trying to navigate some blow downs. I introduced myself formally. Was their hike going well so far? A few chuckles were heard and we set off again as a gang of four. Our separation had not been long. A long, calm, and easy ford of a river took us past a remote backcountry ranger station. We met one of the rangers, apparently, in the middle of the ford and saw another near the cabin moving bundles of wood around. Glory went off to investigate, while the three of us moved off along the first bit of truly flat trail that we had come across since leaving Tuolumne Meadows. With easy terrain, we cruised along at 3.5 miles per hour, jumping boggy sections of trail and minor snowmelt trickles, taking to the rock benches when the trail became too muddy. This land must have been buried in snow recently and was making its best preparations for the coming summer season of hikers and backpackers.

Eight o'clock came and went and I still felt like hiking. A bright orange tent was passed, DNA's home for the night, no doubt. We had made remarkable progress since leaving the pass above Kerrick Canyon and at 8:30 we found a dry patch of grassy ground, within eyesight of Grace Meadow, and called it a night. The temperature was dropping and it was becoming less and less pleasant of a stroll. We had covered 28 miles today, the longest day since the nearly 30 miles the day before reaching VVR. Both days, surprisingly, had involved difficult river fords. As the last bit of light was leaving the land, Glory arrived and joined us on the dry island of land in the otherwise swampy bog we were passing through. Tomorrow we would leave Yosemite and certainly pass the 1000 mile mark for the trip at a stream near Kennedy Canyon. Most likely we would get to Sonora Pass, which historically is the last difficult pass in the High Sierra. It also seemed to be the last place in the guidebook where phrases like "potentially fatal" and "death causing" appeared. If we put in a monster day, we could make it past Wolf Creek saddle, which was the last place on the trail above 10,000 feet in elevation. I had driven across Sonora Pass on a twisty highway the summer before, and that passing gave the place a special meaning, it seemed. The cold came again, and my thoughts drifted away from place names and logistics and back to my warm sleeping bag back in Indiana. They drifted to warmer places, and I buried myself in my sleeping bag, hoping to trap all the warmth I could.

The morning broke pink. The meadows and mountains, pines and rocks were lit up with the beautiful first rays of the new day. Today was, on paper, going to be momentous, and I spent a large part of the morning thinking about how my trip has evolved, and what was still to come. As we approached Dorothy lake, I was lost in thought, noticing the mountain rimmed tarn as a motorist does a sign for a fast food place. Yes, there is some object, how nice.

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I was ignoring the land, consumed with my own thoughts and my own being. Only the long trudge up toward the snowy pass that marked the boundary of Yosemite brought me out of slumber. It was time for a break, anyways, and the open, snowy pass was split by a perfect strip of rock. All four of us were sitting together and I recalled the scene of parting from yesterday. While it was comical then, now I was not so sure. I was going to have to get out on my own soon. That would mean not seeing my friends for, perhaps, days at a time. The solitude to find out what I wanted from life, and what I had to return to it, was something very important to me. But when could I make a break?

The others were out in front, as I had lingered at the pass for one last look back toward Yosemite. The north side of the pass was, as always, buried in snow. There was no outlet stream of a lake to guidebook: The land just sloped gently downward, trees and brush and streams abundant. I followed the others tracks for a while, then struck out on my own, following a large river down the slope, sure that it was going in the right direction. After twenty minutes of hiking, I spotted the others, though they were on the other side and standing on the trail. The river, small up high, was now somewhat formidable. I continued to follow it, noting that the trail paralleled it for sometime, and hoping for an easy crossing somewhere ahead. A mile later, the river narrowed enough for me to very carefully, pick my way across on boulders. Glancing at my data book, the 1000 mile mark was not far a head. A large, bridged river, a small creeklet, and then the 1000 mile mark, denoted by an unnamed creek. Yes, that would do as a break point.

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I was alone again, wandering through the sweet pines, when I heard a shout from Will not far ahead. A few moments later, a call from Sharon. I caught up to Glory, and we left the luxury of the forest to descend a gorge, at the base of which we found Will, Sharon, and the mark. No sign or cairn or other human marking denoted this place as being 1000 miles from Mexico. Only four friends with some maps and some gear, indicated that it was some special place. None of us had known the others, nor even heard of them, when we began. Glory had started on the afternoon of the 8th, I on the morning of the 9th, Sharon on the afternoon of the 9th, and Will on the morning of the 10th. 1000 miles had done little to string us out, a fact whose unbelievability was not lost on me. Photos were taken and candy bars eaten. Yes, there are only 1650 miles left to hike. Enjoy them while they last.

Lunchtime was rapidly approaching and we all had gear to dry. The start of the Sonora Pass area was marked by the climb out of Kennedy Canyon, and it was important to get water out of Kennedy Creek, eat, and dry before beginning. The guidebook had numerous and repeated warnings about the danger of this area when snow was on the ground. It even suggested various routes around some of the more problematical areas. We found Kennedy Creek and cooked lunch in silence. Will, Sharon, and myself were studying the guidebooks, and the same sickly feeling in my stomach was apparent on Sharon's face. Fear was taking hold of the two of us. I could not read Will, and was unsure how he was feeling. Glory, without a guidebook, seemed relaxed and unafraid. I wanted to introduce her to Holden Caulfield, but thought that this would not serve any purpose other than my amusement.

Sonora Pass was distant and actually breached by a highway that I drove last summer between Mammoth and the Bay Area. The land before it and the land after it was where the difficulties were. The land had been here for several thousand years before, and would be here for several thousand years after we passed. There was no use trying to wait it out. Up we must go, so up we went. Tree line was left almost immediately and we were out in the open, with clear views of the next three miles of so. The trail switch backed up above the surrounding valleys, climbing steadily the flanks of a ridge. We had another half mile before the snow came in force, although bits of clear trail could be seen throughout. The higher we went,the less rock we had to work with and the more snow we had to deal with. The snow was very firm, but in most places with just enough give to allow for good traction. Even with the constant incline, this was good walking. There were views for almost 270 degrees; views back to the high country of Yosemite; Ansel Adams, John Muir, Clarence King. Men who had made an impression upon the consciousness of this country by their very experiences in this land. And, I was leaving it at moment. It was sad. This land of granite was to be replaced with a transition zone to the volcanic, to the Cascades. If the night at Kennedy Meadows was like the night before Christmas, then surely this was the day before leaving summer camp.

My musings were shook from me with a slip. The slip was not bad and only one knee touched the ground, my axe jammed in the snow as an anchor. I recovered easily, but the view down the mountainside and the recollection of the printed warnings shook the thoughts from my head. The snow had turned to ice, and I could see that the others were at the top of the climb. There was a last snow field to negotiate, and it was a steep one. Small pockets gave minor footholds on the snow, just enough to convince me not to cut steps, but not enough to inspire any confidence. At times, there were no pockets, and I was simply climbing on faith that the rubber of my soles would prove enough. My fear did nothing to undermine physics, and I got to the top and the safety of rock without incident. I found the others in the sun, with grins on their faces, and joy in their hearts. We had made it past the first real danger and were still here. The world opened around us, with nothing but ridgelines and mountains and the deep, U-shaped valleys of the Sierra. This was perfection writ large. Nature had millenia to create this and seemingly unlimited resources to us. How could something man made ever compete with this? In 1000 miles of hiking, this was the pinnacle of experience. Scanning the horizon, the trail ran a ridge, high and open, for the next several miles. The snow looked to be only a minor inconvenience and the weather was as clear as possible. The emerald green of the valleys below, opened only by the preternatural blue of alpine lakes, thousands of feet below our shoes.

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Setting forth, I was still in a state of unbelieving: A place like this could only exist in the mind of an artist, or the words of a poet. The strokes of a painter could not render such a landscape. It was not so much the individual features, but the sheer size and expanse of it all. I had stood on top of high peaks before and gazed out over expanses of land. But I had never been able to walk for miles and miles out in the open, with the same immense views. When a bird flies, this must be what it is like. No, today was not like the last day of summer camp. Today was Christmas Day. Around every little bend a new present was to be had. A scramble up even the most minor of rocks yielded some new toy to play with. Off in the distance, the White Mountains roared up.

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I had driven around the White Mountains last summer on my way to Mammoth and remembered well their freakish appearance. I was sad that Will, standing to my left, could not see their particular qualities. The Whites are east of the Sierra, across the valley that holds the towns of Bishop, Lone Pine, and Independence, and further south, the Owens Valley itself. The run along the border with Nevada and are in a complete rainshadow: All the storms that blow off the Pacific are trapped by the Sierra Nevada: Barely a drop of precipitation gets past them to water the Whites. Fourteen thousand foot mountains with barely a drop of water become a spectacle so unnatural that the human eye, and mind, are forever drawn their way. Some day I would spend some time in them; to get their good tidings, as Muir once advised us.

The ridge eventually gave out and the trail tossed us onto the other side of the mountain, to navigate our way through the highsides of snowy bowls. As if in recognition that this day was to be perfect, the snow was firm, yet pliant. Walking was easy and safe, despite the dropoffs to our right.

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Even though we were no longer on a ridge, the trail for the next three miles was clear: Run along the bowl, work over to the next. Repeat. Air for the gunsight pass in the distance. Perhaps two miles ahead, two small dots could be spotted moving slowly toward the gunsight. Who they were was somewhat of a mystery. DNA and Mr. Tea were behind us. It could be the Japanese Couple, who had left Tuolumne the day before we had. It could be someone new. Snow came and snow went, but with always the same quality. My legs were beginning to burn with all the reflected light. After my pants had exploded in Kerrick Canyon yesterday, I switched to wearing shorts and my legs, untouched by the scorching sun of Southern California, were turning a bright pink already. Sunscreen might be advisable in the near future. The gunsight drew closer, its craggy lava formations stunning after so much pure, smooth granite.

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The pass itself was barely ten feet wide and was really just a small crack in lava itself. Below it could be seen the clear path of lava, broken up occasionally by caves and other odd formations. We rested after more than three hours of hiking, the first since leaving Kennedy Creek at lunch time. We had gone through most of the dangerous parts without difficulty, and the fear that had gripped Sharon and I had long since fled in disgrace. Joy was the only emotion that had traveled with us since topping out on the crest so far back. Here at the pass, the joy of life flooded me, warming my soul and lifting my heart and my eyes to the skyline. Rather than thinking that, somewhere out there, life was floating on the horizon, I instead knew that life was here. I was in that state of grace which makes every second of life worth living, that makes each and every moment a burst of pure joy. People say "Live for day" with little thought to what it might actually mean. I had said it myself in the past. But here, now, on this crack in the upthrust of the earth, I had it. I had it all.

Descending down and around through snow, we met two hikers out skylarking for a few days. The snow ran out ahead, they said, you'll have no problems at all. At this point, the good news didn't seem to matter too much. All was golden and I was invincible. Continuing down, the trail wound its way through, over, and along the various ridges that led other hikers up to the paradise that we had just left. The land was still open and the views still glorious, but it was clear that we were leaving the best part.

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The last ridge ran out and a cliff. The highway through the pass was not far and easily seen. I could even spot the trail running through the valley floor below to the highway. What I could not see, nor Will either, was the trail down the cliffside. All was buried in snow. Far down the slopes, where the dropoff from the cliff lessened, I could see the two figures from before, in the midst of a glissade. How did they get off the cliff? Sharon went off to scout another direction and Will and I began to ponder. The snow here, in the shade, was quite hard. It looked like it might be possible to climb down a bit, then along a very steep, very snow bound flank and get far enough out to start a glissade. But, the glissade would be very fast and a bit dangerous. There seemed to be little other choice, and slowly we picked out way out onto the snow, with Glory following. I had gotten five feet out from the rock when it became clear that this was not a good idea. The snow was too hard and the incline of the slope too much. Even if I could get far enough out on the flank to start a glissade, it would be too fast to be controllable. And, in the mountains, being out of control is equatable with being in danger. I looked around for options and saw Glory climbing past me, just above. I really hoped that she did not fall then, both for her sake and for mine: It she came down, she'd take me with her. Her ice axe was still strapped to her pack.

Ten feet lower down was some more rock and that seemed, at the time, to have the most potential for a safe descent. Working my way slowly down the steep, icy snow, I reached the temporary safety of the rock. While it did indeed descend quite a ways, it was steep and in many places was not more than a choss pile: Lots of small rocks that collectively make up scree. Scree is provides very bad footing and a slip here would not be good. I was able to pick my way down on some larger boulders, keeping an eye out for Will and Glory. They were getting further and further out on the snow, yet not yet far enough from the rock. Presented with a twenty foot, steeply dropping field of scree, it seemed natural to take advantage of the loose footing: I would glissade the rock. Crouching down as if to go to the bathroom, I started slowly sliding down the rock just as if I would have on snow. Although I toppled over at the end and scraped my hands trying to control my speed, I made it through the scree in good order. I glanced over at Will, and thought I saw a smile on his face. Another glissade and some careful rock work brought me down the steepest part of the cliff face, from which a safe snow glissade was now possible. Glory was still above me and was looking like she was going to try to glissade the snow slope. Her path would take her straight to the rock. If she came down too fast, someone would have to fetch an ambulance to carry her broken body to a hospital. I called out a warning, and moved out onto the snow.

Overconfidence got the better of me, although not until I was safely away from the rock. I only wanted to get another step or two further, when I promptly fell on my rear and began my glissade just a little early. Speeding rapidly down the slope, with my ice axe across my body acting as both a break and a rudder, I tried my best not to fear those rocks ahead, getting closer and closer. They were after the slope hit a flat, and I would surely stop before reaching them. My speed increased until I hit the flat, though my momentum continued to carry me forward. I slowed, ending with an abrupt halt with my right foot resting against one of the rocks poking out of the snow. I was safe, for now. Above me Glory had moved further out onto the snow and started her own glissade, coming down at a terrible rate. Will, well out onto the snow, was coming down as well. Turning, I walked across the flat, then began a nice, gentle boot ski down the rest of the mountain, taking advantage of the long troughs made by the two hikers in front. In ten minutes, I was down completely and back on trail. The trail was appreciated, but I particularly liked the aesthetics of the route that I had come down. A large, flailing man with a safety orange external frame pack was mired in the snow, evidently on his first day out. I gingerly danced around him with a passing hello, and then beat a hasty path to the highway and the pass itself.

The highway was all that I had remembered it to be: A sign and a historical marker, with a parking lot for hikers off an access road. I sat underneath a tree to rest and wait for my friends. It was nearing 6, and Wolf Creek Saddle was in reach. This was the last place that the trail broke 10,000 feet, and the last place that the words fatal and death were mentioned in the guidebook. I wanted it. After 10 minutes, Will found his way to the pass, followed by Glory after another 5. The two hikes we had been following appeared: It was the Japanese Couple, and they were surprised that we had caught them already. They were staying the night here, exhausted after traversing 20 miles of difficult, though glorious, mountain terrain. Sharon showed up just as I was thinking of leaving, looking tired. I kept my position under the tree, wanting to make sure she had enough left to get to Wolf Creek.

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The sun was starting to drift downward, and I knew it was time to go. Sharon needed more rest, and could take it if she wanted to. I knew that she would be along eventually and that we would meet again, if not tonight, then tomorrow. Will and I led forth, with Glory not far behind. I was moving slowly and the desire to be hiking was manifest not in my body, but only in my heart and mind: My body was an unwilling companion on this evening's jaunt. Up we went, winding in and out of small gullies on the climb to the pass above. Each gully was snow bound to some extent. Usually, it just meant a careful stride or two to cross. Other times, a long climb up the rock slope to reach a safe crossing, then across the safer snow, then back down the rock. The body was done well before cresting out. I was not in death-march mode, but I would be soon if I was not careful. My mind was still solid and my soul was leaping for the world around me, but if I did not move slowly and surely, my body would eventually drown the other two components to my being. At the top, I stopped with Will and waited for the others. Glory showed, with her usual perkiness, even at the end of a long day, and Sharon reached shortly after, joyed to find out that we were further along that she thought.

The trail ran along the mountain on the other side of the pass, climbing imperceptibly to another pass, at which we halted. Below us was the trail. It would never be this high again and, even with the cold wind blowing, this required a rest.

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I ate a few bits of food to give myself a last bit of fuel for the upcoming descent. The temperature was dropping and the trail had been in the shade for the last few hours: The snow would be hard and icy. Leading forth, I moved slowly down the trail, cutting out steps where I thought necessary, and trying to keep and eye on the trail where it bobbed and weaved through groves of trees. It was no use after an hour. Coming out of last grove, we found ourselves at the top of a long, snow covered slope. Below us was a valley with forest at the bottom. Will, with his superior navigational abilities, took the lead. Down we went, boot skiing or walking where the terrain demanded it, until we had reached the start of the flat valley. It was 8 o'clock and the trail was nowhere to be seen. Even if enough dry land for a campsite could be found, I did not want to stop until I was back on the trail. Will and I began to study the maps, plotting a course. Glory and Sharon were blown and would not be able to help tonight. Will and I formulated our best guess: The trail was probably somewhere in the snowy forest to our right. But, that would mean some bushwacking. Perhaps we should keep to the valley, where it looked like the trail was sure to cross in a few miles. Looking back at Sharon and Glory, the valley-floor route was not an option. I set out for the trees to see if I could find the trail somewhere close by.

Even getting into the forest proved to be difficult, as the only easy transition into the forest was across rock, with big, thick pine trees on the other side. It took me four tries before I got enough momentum up to get over the rock and through the trees. Five minutes of walking through the forest yielded the trail. I called out, repeating my howls every few seconds, to guide the others to my position. The others came up through the forest on a different route than I came in; of course, it was clear and easy.

Nestling into my sleeping bag that night in a grove of trees perhaps five more minutes down the trail, I thought about how fortunate I was to be out here. There was nowhere else in the world that I would rather have been, no activity could have matched the day's walk. We had covered more than 30 miles of the world's best terrain. I thought about all the places that I had been this summer and could find nothing to equal today. My past floated by me in a similar search. I could find a moment here or a moment there that had views as grand. The Spectrum Range in northern British Columbia came to mind. But, nowhere could match today for duration. While a single moment of today could be matched, nothing could equal the day as a whole. Even the ridge walk in the Spectrum range was over after two hours. Today was fourteen hours of sheer joy and marvel and wonder. People asked me before I left what I was hoping to get out of this hike. I had been asked a few times by store owners or tourists why I was doing this thing. I had no easy reply. Today was why, I thought. How could I ever encapsulate, encode, if you will, today into a few sound bites appropriate for a short discussion by the side of a road somewhere? How could I ever reduce this day into words understandable to non-hikers, to people who had not experienced something similar? It could not be done, I thought. Unless I was able to develop some poetic talent, latent in my soul, today could only be recorded, but never represented.