The Experience – Hiking the JMT, in Reverse

The article was written for the Horticultural Media Association of Victoria, who were keen supporters of me in achieving the challenge.

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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!’

10 Practices for Successfully Hiking Long Distances

This article describes what I perceived to be the top 10 most important things to successfully hike an extended distance. It’s not finite, and there are many other lists like it online. Additionally, if you’re planning your own trip, you’ll inevitably discover things which are more important to you than my top 10. Let’s start with a little bit of love.

1 – ‘Foot Love’.  Your feet are what will make or break you. You have to look after them, or as my friend ‘Yeti’ says, give them ‘foot love’ each day. This involves any combination of remedies, depending on what you find works for you. For me, it involved spray-on second skin, moleskin patches, Compeed patches, a pin to pop the blisters, a needle and thread to drain fluid and an emu oil based cream to prevent my feet, and particularly my heels from cracking. Good foot care starts though with the right shoes, and most importantly a sock combination to boot! I wore Icebreaker merino wool socks which worked pretty well for me.  Others wear double layers, a thin liner sock under a thicker sock. I did find though, the further I walked each day though, the more the sweat built up causing heat spots and rubbing to occur, which ultimately led to blisters. Taking the shoes off every few hours and allowing the feet, and the socks to dry out completely certainly also helps.

Yeti and his poor feet. Bring in the Foot Love.

2 – Select the Best Gear you can Afford. Preparing to undertake a long distance walk is an expensive exercise, and you can do everything in your power to go as light weight as possible, but there will come a point in your preparation where you need to choose between weight and how much you are willing to spend. At the end of the day, as I say here, you can really only do one thing, and that is select the best lightweight gear that you can afford. Just remember that others before you will have done it tougher than you will and survived, so suck it up, and go forth with a positive attitude.

3 – Watch Your Calorie Count . One area in which you shouldn’t sacrifice weight is on food. However, you will inevitably either over pack or under pack at least once. In doing the latter, be aware when resupplying and purchasing food not to sacrifice too much on your calorie intake per day. When you’re out there, you’re burning ridiculous levels of energy, and the food that you’ll be eating is unlikely to meet your bodies needs, so keeping that in mind, purchase with weight to calorie intake return in mind. While it’s seemingly heavy, olive oil is one of your best hiking condiments for the trail – it’s literally liquid gold for your health. Thank the Greek gods for this little gem!

Inside the bear box. Mmmm, calories..!

4 – Water Equals Weight – however, it’s a necessary evil. There are some simple things I learnt when it comes to keeping up your fluids. I left Horseshoe Meadows like I was taking on thousands of miles in the outback. In short, I was packing more than 5 litres of water in various forms. At the end of the day, the rule is KISS. Keep it simple, stupid! By the end of the trip I was packing no more than 2L at a time, often really needing only 1L. This was carried in Gatorade bottles which are lightweight, durable and available at any service station along the track. Nalgenes are heavy, and Camelbaks as good as an idea as they seem, are simply deceptive. I found I was never drinking enough with the Camelbaks, as I was conserving in fear of running out given I couldn’t see the bladder which was tucked safely away in my pack. After ditching both the Camelbak and the Nalgenes, there’s a few hundred grams that were instantly saved.

5 – Only Cary What you Actually Need. Sounds like an obvious point, right? You’d be surprised how industrious you will become if you give up just a few luxury items. What you call luxury, compared to what I call luxury will invariably differ. For example, I made a huge call just a few days in by ditching my rain jacket. The mountain weather is unpredictable, but I had heard that if the skies open in the Sierras, it’s hard and fast and then over. I decided that in the unlikely chance of the heavens opening up, I would pitch my tent and see it out from the inside. It was a decision that saved me from carrying close to half a kilo, but one which could have caused some serious discomfort had it actually rained. I had many other layers, so I feel I was at no risk of further possible complications like hypothermia – and it was Summer.

6 – Keep Your Loved Ones Happy. This ties in with above, in that when it comes to weight I believe that you should carry mobile phones and/or other communication devices which can not only act as risk management equipment for you, but also eases your families minds who may be sitting at home, anxious about your ventures.

Spot Connect and iPhone provides me with internet in towns, basic Facebook, Twitter & Email communications, plus acts as my emergency beacon if required.

7 – You are What You Eat and Drink.  I met plenty of people on the trail who would carry a few beers out of resupply destinations, or get hammered as they exited a town.  Alcohol and hiking don’t really go hand in hand.  For safety’s sake you need to keep your senses sharp and this can be impaired by any drug. Keep off the booze at least while on the trail and enjoy the experience in its unadulterated beauty!

8 – Write & Document. Hiking, surprisingly can become boring, so to ensure that your sanity is maintained, make sure you exercise your brain and creativity by taking as many photos as you feel comfortable with, and write a journal. Journals are not teenage “dear diary’s”, they’re whatever they need to be for you. Write about your day, create a collage, sketch, purge your feelings and tell stories of people you meet. Your journal will quickly become one of your most treasured items in your sack. It’s worth the extra weight too.

9 – Engage. This means totally. Engage in the scenery, engage in others you meet, engage in yourself. Walking any distance is challenging not only on the body, but the mind too. Speak to yourself, figure out the way you tick and build inner strength. Make an effort to speak to others as you go forth, as others on the trail are a wealth of information, and a source of motivation.  Engage with others – everyone has a story, and walking for a distance should not be just all about you. The scenery, regardless of how bland or contrasting should be admired. Take it all in and appreciate it for what it is. Life is balanced by immersing yourself in different surroundings.

10 – Listen to your Gut.When you’re researching for your trip, you will come across a wealth of useful, yet conflicting information online. My last piece of advice is simply to listen to your gut. Don’t take advice from others who are in the same (inexperienced) position as you, and trust those that have done what you’re about to do. The whole thing about walking long distances is that it’s a learning experience, and that regardless of how well you have planned, I can tell you that things can go pear shaped and need to be reassessed.

Prepare, and then prepare to be unprepared.

Have fun, and happy hiking!

 

Literature of the Trail

In this first of a series of articles, I present a list of some books which both inspire and educate, and that personally relate to my journey on the John Muir Trail.

Various John Muir Writings

Firstly, let’s take a look at some of the writings by the man himself, John Muir. John Muir was a Scottish born naturalist that emigrated to America and who was a primary advocate

for protecting wilderness regions. His activism in this area assisted in the preservation of Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park and many other regions. He was an avid writer, documenting his time in the mountains through letters, essays and books that described his explorations and connections with the wilderness.

Written in an old English style, there are literally hundreds of books which draw on the collective writings of John Muir during his time spent exploring the Sierras during the late 1800’s. He is a man that saw and described the beauty of the outdoors unlike anyone else at the time. Here’s just a few of my favourite quotes :


“A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease. Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fiber thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from
“Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.” ― John Muir

the balsam bells and leaves. No wonder the hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.” ― John Muir

“And after ten years spent in the heart of it, bathing in its glorious floods of light, seeing the sunbursts of morning among the icy peaks, the flush of alpenglow, and a thousand dashing waterfalls with their marvelous abundance of irised spray, it still seems to me above all others the Range of Light?” ― John Muir

And a few mini quotes, of why are also my favourites:

“God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.” ― John Muir

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” ― John Muir

“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” ― John Muir
Now, a list of other books of integrity:

“Take a course in good water and air; and in the eternal youth of Nature you may renew your own. Go quietly, alone; no harm will befall you.” ― John Muir

The Mountains of California
By John Muir

National Geographic: Guide to National Parks of the United States
By National Geographic

Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada
By John Muir Laws

An Illustrated Flora of Yosemite National Park
By Steph Botti & Walter Sydoriak

Ishmael: An Adventure of Mind & Spirit
By Daniel Quinn

Tree: A natural History of what trees are, how they live, and why they matter
By Colin Tudge

The Wild Trees: A story of Passion & Daring
By Richard Preston

The John Muir Trail: Through the Californian Sierra Nevada (Cicerone Guide)
By Alan Castle

John Muir Trail Map Pack: Shaded Relief Topo Maps
By Tom Harrison

Your Camino
By Sylvia Nilsen with Greg Dedman

Well there you have it. A collection of books I would recommend to those who might be seeking inspiration for walking. On that note, and mirroring the sentiments of John Muir himself…

“The mountains are calling and I must go.”

* Thanks amazon.com for your images, you’re awesome.