The article was written for the Horticultural Media Association of Victoria, who were keen supporters of me in achieving the challenge.
In 2012, Anthony Curnow (Support and Development Manager at Plants Management Australia Pty. Ltd.) walked the John Muir Trail. This is a snapshot into the rigors of long distance walking amongst remote wilderness.
The air is sharp and with each breath in I can feel the invisible gas invading every corner of exhausted lungs. I’ve never smoked a cigarette, but being an asthmatic and having inhaled litres of powder like dust from the trail, I’m not feeling my best. As I exhale through my nose I cough and splutter some unsightly excreta from my sinuses. I’m wondering right now what on earth my girlfriend is going to think of me, by the time I meet up with her in Yosemite Valley in 17 days time. It’s day 5 and I’m only just breaking into life on the John Muir Trail.
The John Muir Trail (JMT) is a long distance walking trail named in commemoration of the naturalist, who advocated for and thus founded the environmental movement and the preservation of wilderness in the United States of America. The trail passes through magnificent scenery snaking its way through Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. Overlaying this route is America’s longest path, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) which takes hikers from the Mexican border through to Canada along the west coast over the period of six months, with hikers having to keep abreast of the seasons as they change. Most PCTers walk south to north, and JMTers the opposite direction. My mate Greg and I walked an additional few days, beginning in the south at the fringe of the Sierras – if we didn’t make it through the first week, it would become clear pretty quickly that we’d be completely out of luck.
It’s May 27th and I’m sitting on the floor of a seedy hotel room near LAX with Greg, we are surrounded by and sorting through a shopping carts’ worth of dehydrated food, high in calories. It’s Memorial Day and I can hear gangster rap and African Americans cursing each other in nearby concrete caves that they call their homes. Greg and I are attempting to minimize the amount of weight that commercial packaging accumulates. We unwrap and decant every food item we’ve purchased. We’re rationing everything into zip lock bags and preparing our ‘resupply boxes’ in preparation for our pending ‘walk’. I say walk because we are in fact doing just that. We’re not running, but walking, or more appropriately termed, hiking across the wild and harsh Sierras. This is certainly not a mere stroll to the shops for a carton of milk. It’s much greater than that, and will challenge you to your physical and mental core.
The food which we have rationed into two white plastic builders tubs, are taped up firmly with official ‘USPS’ branded packing tape. The tubs are addressed to a hole in the wall post office in the centre of Independence, a small town in the middle of nowhere on US Route 295 in the Owen Valley, California. This is where we will walk to, hiking off trail for a day each way to get additional food supplies before carrying on until the next resupply point at Mammoth Lakes. Developing a sound strategy and hoping that you’ve left yourself enough food to last, without carrying too much additional weight is a common concern in hiking the spine of the Sierras.
Walking long distances is challenging due to the severe pressure that it places on your body, and your feet in particular. Walking each day we ran into other hikers, or lightweight PCTers with trail names like ‘Train’ (wearing a bridal gown in an effort to raise money to fund his adventure) or ‘Yeti’ (redundant engineer proving himself to the world, and who had grown so grizzly he looked like a Yeti). The variety of characters would glide effortlessly past, carrying water and the bare minimum of survival items, having discarded the comforts of glamping (glamorous camping) many miles before.
The PCTers are a breed of their own, masquerading as long distance hikers, these formidable beings often hold a deeper story. Many of whom you could only tell was the case, from the wrinkles on their face of sheer experience. They endured self-punishment, and seemingly thrived on it. Some surviving solely on the 450 calories a day that an energy bar provides, they would consume them at the top of the highest passes, ripping them from their packaging without thought of enjoyment, nor disgust at the same time. They ate them because that’s all they had, and it was a necessity more than anything else. Others with a degree of arrogance, proving not only to themselves but the rest of the world, that they had potential to be brilliant in many regards, and in doing so had toenails hanging from blackened and bloodied, dry stubs, and blisters the size of 50 cent coins underfoot. It’s ok, they’re walking the PCT.
The JMTers are a far more grounded bunch of ‘average Joe’s’, like you and I, seeking to do something that in their spheres is extraordinary. My mum often tells me that I’ve achieved more in my 30 years than she has in her near on 60 years. I put it down simply to a difference in generations and subsequent accessibility. I want more. I’ve walked the John Muir Trail and endured the difficulties and emotions just like the thousands of others – hunger, fear, loneliness, concern, surprise, frustration and pure unadulterated elation. The feeling is of greatness, where there’s a spring beneath your footsteps and you feel untouchable. That’s why I hike great distances, to experience all emotion in its rawest of means, undiluted or confused by modern day interruptions and complications.
The John Muir Trail like many great long distance walks, is one of contrast. To be one day walking amongst the greatest mountains of America like Mt. Whitney at 4,421m, a poignant feeling washes over you with that crisp evening air tickling the back of your neck. Then the next day trekking through dusty alpine deserts, inhaling the path beneath you with every breath, while coating the plants nearby in an ominous deathly blanket of grey nothingness. And on the third day, finding yourself swimming in crystal blue waters of a river that carves its way down the mountain by the path of least resistance. Stepping out of these waters of ice melt with nothing but droplets adorning your body, you become cleansed not only from the accumulated grime build up on your body, but the sins and misfortunes of your life. It sounds incredulous to say such things, but seriously, to be this close to nature, amongst the waters that brown bears bath in as well, is something very special.
On the 24 June 2012, we concluded the hike across some of America’s most challenging terrain as we entered into the periphery of Yosemite Valley, where the tourist numbers seemingly increased from nowhere. As we re-entered civilization, eyes of all ages were cast upon us. Were they thinking similar things that I thought each time I met a PCTer? ‘I wonder where they’ve been, and the things that they must have seen!’