DAY 19: Happy 100th birthday to the National Parks! I woke up on the solid ground in Yosemite and stared at the bright cloudless sky while I thought about my upbringing in National Parks. They've always held great importance in my life and this day was no exception. This was also a day I was looking forward to since the beginning of our trip. The plan was to hike the 5 miles to the Cathedral Lakes and spend the day there. It was our JMT play day. On the National Park Centennial. In Yosemite. Cheers to the beauty of that situation.
We hurried down to the store for breakfast sandwiches (which are DEFINITELY worth the stop) and bought a few more snacks, including peaches! I was eager to lose the crowds as we joined back to the trail but there were massive day-hiking groups in every direction, making my sought after solitude impossible. The climb from Tuolumne was not an easy one. I think the combination of people dodging at a steep incline and my strong desire to begin a leisurely day at the lake was making it more difficult than it actually was.
I arrived at the lake around noon, where I stumbled upon a note from Jason with a sprite. Lucky me! He had wandered to the far side of the lake, in hopes of finding a secluded camping spot. We found an exposed site in Lower Cathedral Lake to setup our cowboy camp, because...stars. As the afternoon went on, the lake became deserted and we had the natural playground all to ourselves. We did laundry, went swimming, and ate too much food. Jason even taught us how to fly fish, which I was obviously quite unsuccessful in doing.
We watched the sunset over the gorgeous granite bowl below and drank whiskey under the stars. This day was one of my happiest on the trail. It was a reward for our near completion and I was finally starting to recognize my feelings as pride. Longer mileage days have their own kind of magic but Lower Cathedral Lake was full to the brim with something else. Best said by the late, great John Muir, "This [Cathedral Peak] I may say is the first time I have been to church in California." I was successfully living in divine nature and at this point didn't know anything else beyond it.
DAY 20: I woke up with frost on my sleeping bag and a smile on my face. Falling asleep to the stars the previous night had drifted me into a deep sleep. At this point, I was having so many dreams each night and figured it could be from my lack of interactions with people.
Jason made us pancakes in the morning while we watched two fawns play with each other. Their gawky bodies were dancing around the lake and I just wanted to join them. Eventually, we took off and began our day towards Half Dome. We walked up to Cathedral Pass and down through the vast meadow, where I ate peanut m&ms on an unusually comfortable rock. We toyed with the idea of continuing via Cloud's Rest, which is not on the trail but a famous side trip in the same direction. With tired bodies and knees we chose to save it for another time; the ascent/descent is pretty severe in the short distance it covers.
The more gradual section on the JMT turned out to be fascinating. We walked miles through a burnt forest that was rebuilding itself from the ground up. Surrounded by charred tree skeletons and stumps, the floor was a dichotomous view of bright green foliage and colorful flowers. I was seeing the environment recover from its decimation firsthand, which was surprisingly relatable and empowering.
We pitched our camp near the base of Half Dome where we met some rangers and learned about the area. Over the last few weeks, bears had been roaming lingering around too frequently, making hiking hazardous for the popular Half Dome and Cloud's Rest trails. The rangers were sent with paintball guns to scare off the bears from the frequented camping area -- a middle-schoolers dream. Spooking bears that get too close to humans is meant to instill the behavior of avoiding human interaction altogether.
Sitting around the fire with our ranger friends, we heard a loud scratching sound nearby. First, we were told it was a tree falling, but we swiftly changed our minds and wandered toward the sound. And...you guessed it, we ran into bears! At a reasonably safe distance, we watched a mother and baby scrape the bark off a tree for bugs. The rangers said it was unusual to see bears in popular areas actually ACT like bears. They generally adapt to scouring through trashcans and campsites, losing their animalistic survival instincts. Anna and I were over the moon. We had seen the bears we were looking for for the last 20 days, nearly completing my JMT bucket list.
With mixed feelings, I went to bed accepting that it was my last night on the trail. We decided to hit Half Dome for sunrise and were getting up at 3AM. I said goodnight to the bears around me and turned to my dreams for comfort.
DAY 21: I don't know how and I don't know why, but by the end of this day I had finished my 250 mile journey. Waking up in complete darkness, we took off towards Half Dome to get an early start. It was eerie walking through the woods with my painfully dull headlamp but also somewhat calming. I couldn't see anything, but I didn't need to. I knew where the trail was and I trusted it.
We stashed our packs at the base of Half Dome and began our descent towards the rocky stairs. After an arduous journey from lack of light, we made it to the rock face lined with cables. In the darkness, nothing looked possible. The cables were lying flat on a vertical mountain freaking the hell out of us. A few other hikers were sitting and staring at the cables, too. We sat down to wait for more light but it never came. Anna snapped up and told us to get a move on. She was right. We just had to do it.
This moment is home to the most adrenaline-filled excitement I have EVER experienced. With a pile of gloves below the cables, we dressed our hands for the odd workout they were about to go through. I used all my strength to pull myself up with caution, marveling at the 8000 foot drop on either side of me. With John Muir's presence pushing me along, I somehow made it up there in one piece. The granite was extremely slick along the cable pathway, forcing my arms to do all the work to keep myself upright.
I felt such accomplishment at the top, a kind I'd never felt. The three of us were the only ones up there, marveling at Yosemite Valley below and the glow of the upcoming sun in the distance. We awaited the light and Anna finally ate her peach. My JMT bucket list was officially complete, but more importantly, the company I was keeping was incomparable.
The journey down was equally exciting. With actual light in the sky, it changed the entire climb. High on adrenaline, we flew down the rest of the way back to our packs and snacks. From there, we only had 6ish miles left of the John Muir Trail.
We wandered past the weary hikers making their way towards Half Dome in the heat and skipped down to the bottom. The last mile of the JMT is along a decrepit paved road. It was deserted and oddly built. It couldn't have been more different from the previous 249 miles. I met three hikers heading up that asked me if I was finishing the JMT. They were just starting their first mile. They congratulated me and I purged all my wisdom on them. I felt like I was passing the JMT torch, eager for them to carry it back to my starting point. I needed some part of me to remain on the trail.
Because of the National Park Centennial, park entrance was free the day we finished. This brought visitors of all kinds to its depths, which were now covering the final 1/4 mile of the trail. Anna and I made it to the bottom and we we're utterly speechless. We had done something huge, unfathomable; and now it was over. I felt like I was floating and it was only 10:30AM.
We danced down the road and found ourselves on a bus towards the closest backpackers camp. I saw so many backpackers gearing up for their big journey and felt a prick of jealousy. We washed ourselves in the creek and got on a shuttle bus for the "Yosemite Pub Crawl" consisting of the three bars in the park. We spent the evening drinking margaritas, eating pizzas and donut holes, and not being admitted into one bar because we were too smelly and gross. Embracing our stench-ridden bodies, we returned to our campsite and spent the evening reliving our memories of the trail over strawberries and stars.
The JMT was over, but my new life was forging. Stepping back into the world from 21 days in the woods felt like a clean slate opportunity and a new beginning. After 250 miles...I was ready to discover it.