Walking in the wake of John Muir
Do chickens get sweaty armpits?
I puzzle as I hold my jacket open in poultryesque fashion letting the hot air flutter deliciously round my arms and back. I flap my wings a few times to change the direction of the air currents snaking up my neck and think about sunbathing chickens. In hot weather they will sit in the grass and gleam in the sunshine holding their wings out like princesses letting the air in and cooling them off. But do the have underarm odour I wonder? I phrase the question to Jamie through the intercom. He tells me I’m odd and so I am quiet for a moment.
The landscape is like a giant, hot tiramisu isn’t it?
I exclaim, looking at the creamy white, softly undulating rocks peppered with cocoa brown across their tops. Here and there, long dried streams have created the effect of rivulets of melting cream. It’s like someone put tiramisu under a heat lamp for too long.
Yep…a tiramisu, dear
Says Jamie quietly. He clearly has no imagination. Or perhaps he’s not hungry.
In my imagination, Death Valley, Monument Valley, same same right? Red rocks and shapes and roadkill. I imagine it very likely we will die out there calling hoarsely for our mothers and scrabbling rocks in to our mouths. It turns out I was wrong. Death Valley, the largest of the USA’s national parks is not red and we aren’t going to die out there. It looks like a big Italian pudding and there is a campsite and gas station surrounded by palm trees in the middle. It’s also like motorcycling in a preheated oven and we are the Sunday roast. Where are we going to get the brussels though? All that grows here is scrubby, woody twiglets and I doubt the petrol station sells Bisto.
The heat wobbles off the baking ground and a large crow hanging about in a carpark hops about with its beak open trying to cool down. We follow the snake of tourists walking slowly up a hill to a vista point and look out over the remains of an old borax mine and squint our eyes. There is pink in the rocks too I notice. Must be strawberries. Off piste but it could work.
Its hard to believe that the Sierra Nevada mountain range, supposedly replete with icy lakes, meadows and snowy caps, lies just to the east of us. Its hard to believe anything damp exists at all. That’s where we are headed so we shuffle back down the path with some French tourists flapping our tshirts in the still air back towards the carpark. The long drop visitors toilets in the car park offer no respite, the shade as hot as the blinding sunshine and the unholy funk of the place driving me back to the motorbike in haste.
I wonder just how bad the sunburn and gravel rash could be if I didn’t wear any clothes at all but within 3 hours we have popped out the devil’s backside and have discovered we have made it all the way to California where there are some trees and petrol costs a fortune. We learn that ‘The Golden State’ truly is living up to it’s moniker having experienced a 4 year drought. The snow levels on the peaks are at 7% of their usual volume and the rolling, grassy hills, presumably once verdant and leaping with yoga teachers, are now shimmering fields of gold. Ragged, black trees and ruined houses stand undiluted again by man made Lake Isabella which looks to be at half its normal level. I wonder if the people who lived in those buildings, once submerged, and sat under those trees have been back to visit but perhaps they would be dead by now.
Nestling in the hills are swanky looking pads with jewelly green lawns. Sprinklers run for hours maintaining the neat strips of grass and bougainvillea and the words ‘in the middle of’ keep coming up when locals speak of the drought. We wonder if they have considered the possibility that this is it? There is no end of this drought but global warming are bad words here so I daren’t ask.
A warden at Mono Lake approaches us to feed us alkaline fly larvae and tell us about the ecology of the place which is being quietly devastated by Los Angeles who have purchased all the land in the area and are siphoning off the salty water to feed the great, greedy metropolis to the south of us. I ask him about the lawns and he philosophically says that he supposes that once people get thirsty, they’ll not mind a brown patch or two in their gardens. But it seems the great British institution of ‘hosepipe bans’ is not in force here. Keep your lawns sparkling until your lakes are gone and you’ve nothing but dust in your cup.
We reach Lone Pine a few days later. Jamie pulls the bike over in to a carpark and pauses a moment before announcing a plan. Since we are already where we intended to begin a 150 mile hike through the mountains, why not start two weeks early rather than aimlessly driving about in national parks? I burble some misshapen protests quietly in to my helmet and try to quietly escape but am hemmed in by panniers and lack of plan. Five minutes later I am dismayed to find I have agreed to the plan. Two days after that I am looking back forlornly at the bike as the carpark recedes behind lumps of rock and pine trees.
We are following a 15 mile trail which will take us 12,000 feet up in to the snow of Bishop’s Pass to join the John Muir Trail which runs 220 miles through wilderness and finishes in the cheerful sounding Happy Isles in Yosemite National Park. This seemed like a wonderful plan from the warmth of our little London flat watching Reese Witherspoon conquering her demons and pulling off toenails. The parts I had carefully overlooked were uphill climbs of 10 miles, gasping for breath at high altitude for ten miles, blistered feet, noodles EVERY DAY, constant fear of bears, dreaming of bears, noises outside the tent possibly being bears, how uncomfortable wearing a hat in bed is, how uncomfortable mummy sleeping bags are, bears, being cold at night even with the discomfort of a hat, walking through deep snow which has frozen on top and plummeting through it on each step up to ones thighs, resulting snow in boots and bears.
The next few days are a journey of self discovery for me. Jamie a true Victorian gent, shoulders way more weight than is fair, encourages me calmly up the cold bits and graciously overlooks my snivelling tears when, despite my best effort’s we are overtaken by two 9 year olds. I rather devastatingly learn that I am not a woodsman. No, I am a comfyman. I look up from my stumbling journey at times and guiltily try to enjoy the scenery; the gorgeous, ice crusted, lakes, the lush meadows filled with flowers and the swooping mountain walls above. Sometimes I point out a vista and say
thas nice innit
to Jamie but most of the time I think mountain schmountain and trip over a rock. Sometimes I snivel a bit more.
After the second day, Jamie makes a confession.
that hiking is a bit boring….
My thoughts exactly. I spend every hour scissoring uncontrollably down hill, hiking poles akimbo wishing it was just the end of the day and that there was something sensible like a pub to go to and not just MORE mountains. A Scottish pub we agree. Some nice brass covered indoors with a cat and a dog and a Whiskey Mac. Then home to bed with some tea and a story. Instead we finish our day with some more fucking noodles and a tent that smells like Jamie’s socks and it’s just not…that..interesting.
We agree though, this musn’t get in the way of completing our task. We bought a book! We laminated the map! We watched a documentary! We learnt all about bears being clever and the light reflecting qualities of the rocks here. We learnt about John Muir, the passionate hiker and outdoorsy type for whom the path is named. We must continue! We must be woodsmen!
And then it rains.
It starts as Jamie is cooking the rice (what a nice change!) and continues as we flavour it with Asian style sweet and sour sauce powder, eat the rice in disgust and get into our sleeping bags after a few brain numbing swigs of tequila. It continues all night, waking me intermittently pretending to be bears and only stops in the morning when instead, I am woken by Jamie patting me weirdly. Releasing my head which has become caught in the elastic tightening cord I look up a drip lands on my head.
The sleeping bags are soaked
Jamie announces grimly. The whole tent is dripping and our duck down sleeping bags are wet too. Bad news. Clumpy, damp feathers do not a night’s sleep make. We look at one another. That’s enough we agree. No more pub based fantasies, no more pruney feet, no more bears and no more noodles. There’s a weeks worth of thunderstorms forecast and we are getting out of here.
Three days later, John Muir has acquired a new nickname which has been shouted from a number of misty nooks and high gradient paths but we are out. We have walked and stumbled and noodled. We have been sunburnt, waded through rivers and clambered up passes and finally, finally we are out! We flurbl inelegantly down the last of the path, feet like boiled liver after 60 miles walking and in to the campground at North Lake collapsing on to the picnic table. We stink unbelievably badly. A sort of filthy Weetabix smell. A feral smell but one that skunks wouldn’t like. Jamie limps to the long drop toilets clutching a bottle of water to ‘have a wash’ and returns many minutes later with a far away look in his eyes muttering about a found bottle of sanitising hand gel, chafed parts and unimaginable pain.
Well…..you smell better at least
He sits down wincing and mutely holds out a saucepan to me. I take the pan and weave down to the water tap filling it and marvelling at the tarmac for a bit before noticing a sign across the road. At the top of the signboard I spot a familiar face staring out. It’s John Muir, he’s looking at me with an annoying gleam in his eye.
Underneath the photo is a quote which says
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
Bollocks it is.
I mutter. And walk back to tent for some more fucking noodles.
John Muir Sweet & Sour Rice
Boil water. Add instant rice and cover. Leave for five minutes until the water is absorbed.
Open packet of Asian style sweet and sour stir fry sauce powder. Add to rice and stir.
Eat in disgust with a spork preferably in a damp tent.