Looking forward to beginning the new year with a hike and a slideshow at Lake Fort Smith State Park in Mountainburg, Arkansas. Hiking Shepherd Springs Loop at 10 a.m. and then sharing the Ozarks and John Muir Trail at 3 p.m. in the Visitor Center. If you’re in the area, come join us!
These lights and windows shaped my thoughts of the sacred. I’d stare at the arches pointing upward and think of space without end. Infinite distances and time. God.
I’m thankful for those early encounters with the sacred, but later God became more boxed and packaged by the society around me. It seemed that “God” was used for adding credibility to opinions or as a way of excusing the mistreatment of others. I came close to rejecting the sacred as irrelevant. I felt a sense of loss, even though I continued to sit each week within walls similar to those of my childhood.
Creation became the place I could sense the sacred. In the outdoor world my thoughts could explore the infinite pointing ever upwards and into distances over the horizon. My cathedral expanded, and the walls of my childhood came down.
Walking is like praying. Traveling a trail is my place of worship, and I feel intense gratitude as I walk.
The sacraments might also appear along the paths. Stopping to drink from a mountain stream can be like sipping the finest communion wine, and the dry tortilla in my pack is unleavened bread.
The campfire is a place of contemplation. Brought together by its warmth and light, our community shares in the celebration of creation and the sacred we find there.
I’m excited to share the Ozarks of Arkansas and Missouri and the High Sierras of California. Both very different environments but both stunning! Please share this poster with hiking friends.
We began our twenty-one days on the trail from Tuolumne Meadows with a stroll through Lyell Canyon. We were excited to finally take steps on the trail after months of planning. At our first campsite, Mark Fincher, with 25 years experience as a park ranger, gave us some good advice about bears. Anything hanging from a tree signals food to a bear. Hanging your pack up could cause a bear to tamper with something they’d ignore if it were sitting on the ground and lacking a scent. From then on all packs sat unzipped next to tents and we stored scented items and food inside bear canisters. We never had a bear problem.
A first low:
My second day was most difficult. It was warm. I felt weak and allowed myself to become a little dehydrated. I forced dinner down and slept. This was going to be more difficult than I’d expected!
Felt much better for day 3 and fell into a rhythm that sustained. We breezed into Reds Meadow and had a wonderful lunch. During the afternoon, I felt guilty watching a hailstorm and rain through the grill’s window while enjoying blueberry pie and four scoops of ice cream. For the remaining twenty days on the trail, I thought of that blueberry pie every time I looked up at sunny blue skies.
Plumber Joe or Plunger?:
While in the restroom, a neighboring toilet became stopped up. The hiker calmly walked out and returned to the stall with a plunger and quickly cleared the problem. His buddy said, “Your trail name should be Plummer Joe.” I could tell he didn’t care for the name and suggested Plunger as a possible name. He liked Plunger because it was open to many interpretations. They were hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. I wonder if the name stuck?
Falling into the rhythm of the trail:
Part of the rhythm of the JMT is thinking in terms of seven miles of up or down rather than lots of shorter ups and downs as we often see in the Ozarks. Bookmarking the patterns of the trail were high passes and stair-stepped glacier-formed lakes. Each pass was an adventure and held unknown challenges of snow, water, boulders, and climbs. Each series of lakes continued to surprise as we ascended only to learn that the map was correct, and another lake was draining into the one we just passed. Each glacial lake was a visual ornament that sparkled and reflected its surrounding beauty.
Way, way down to the Muir Trail Ranch:
We descended a series of switchbacks, and the isolation of Muir Trail Ranch (MTR) became a reality to me. I expected to see a large sign at the junction marking the spur to the ranch, but this modest sign marked the way.
We had reservations for two cabins. Thus began a true zero-day that was a delight. The outdoor shower was wonderful, and it was a pleasure to wash and hang clothes to dry. The dining hall served baked salmon and salad, an amazing feast considering our remote location.
A change of plans:
After our zero-day, one of our partners spent the night throwing up and felt very ill the following morning. We suggested camping an additional night for recovery time, but Nick wisely decided to leave the trail. He also took his two sons, so our group of five was now two. His departure from the trail was not easy. It involved a 9:00 a.m. horseback ride lasting over two hours, then taking a ferry across Florence Lake and a shuttle on a narrow hazardous road before finally arriving in Fresno, California at 6:00 p.m.
For a couple of days, there seemed to be a sense of gloom over the trail because our three friends were not with us. The beauty of the wilderness was still stunning, and acceptance took hold as we continued our trek, knowing they’d made the right decision for health and safety.
We camped close to McClure Meadows and walked through Evolution Valley before finally arriving a Wanda Lake and camping at 11,434 feet. I took a quick dip in the lake to wash off the trail grunge. I felt revived by the cold water but was unaware of the beauty that Wanda Lake had planned for us the next morning in 32-degree temperatures. Bob was the first to notice the glassy mirror in the early morning stillness.
Though minor, my Sawyer squeeze bag sprang a leak. Bob’s water filter was functioning, so pure water wasn’t a problem, but I didn’t like depending on someone else for water. I carefully dried my bag and repaired it with seam seal and Tenacious Tape. The bag worked the following day but soon failed again. More repairs followed, but it was obvious that they did not work.
An unlikely trail angel:
The next two days we shared Bob’s filter while crossing Mather Pass and Pinchot Pass. We then had a seven-mile trudge upward, camping at Woods Creek next to a masterfully-built suspended bridge.
While taking down my tent the next morning, a neighboring hiker learned that my Sawyer bladder had failed. A few minutes later, he walked up and held out a 16 oz. bladder that was in new condition. I thanked him and immediately began to enjoy water independence as I proceeded down the trail. I learned his name was Joe. Each time I filtered water, I wondered if he had any idea how much I appreciated his gift. Bob reminded me to pass the good deed forward when the opportunity presented itself. That opportunity would come soon.
Our next resupply was Onion Valley near the mall town of Independence. Topping out at Kearsarge Pass and seeing automobiles in the distance felt surreal. The sun’s reflection on the windshields in the distance seemed out of place. We enjoyed visiting with a couple who worked in California’s wine industry. We later met another couple camping in a van that was several years old but appeared to be in new condition.
News from the outside world:
I noticed the campground host’s US Flag was a half-mast and asked a camper why. She looked surprised and said, “You must have been on the trail for several days.” Police officers in Dallas had been killed by a sniper. This news jarred me because I’d been immersed in a world that contained such beauty but was now reminded that it could also hold meanness and disregard for the lives of innocent law enforcement officers doing their duty.
The trail provides us with a new friend:
The next morning while waiting for Bob’s wife to shuttle us to Independence, a hiker sat down at the end of the parking lot. We learned he was injured and needed a lift, so Bob asked him to join us. We spent three hours visiting over breakfast at the Food Coop in Independence. Keith, our new friend, was able to get a room at the Mount Williamson Motel where we had reservations. We enjoyed getting to know he and his wife who arrived later that evening.
I thought about the kindness of Joe in replacing my damaged water filter bladder and Bob’s offer of a ride to Keith, thus beginning a friendship. Goodwill seems to float around and expand on the John Muir Trail. In every case, we receive much more than we give when sharing that goodwill.
Below are a few scenes from the small town of Independence. When Chris Chater (trail name Strider) purchased the Mt. Williamson Motel three years ago, those who knew her thought she’d lost of mind. She’d say it was one of the best decisions of her life. Her trail name is a result of her fast hiking pace and her 21 consecutive years of hiking the John Muir Trail.
Back to the trail for the final push:
We hiked back across Kearsarge Pass and by early afternoon I was exhausted. Bob could tell by the way I ducked into my tent that I wasn’t feeling well. While filtering water that evening, he spotted a bear clawing at a dead tree for grubs. The bear continued through the woods oblivious to campers in the area. I missed the bear but was pleased that he’d seen it.
After a good night’s sleep, I felt much stronger. My little episode of weakness made me appreciate all of the other days that I felt strong.
John Muir was one tough dude and his trail was, too:
My little time of weakness on the trail was embarrassing when I thought of John Muir exploring this area before there were trails. He was known to grab a loaf of dry bread and take off to explore for a week or so. Muir wrote more than 300 articles and several books about his favorite natural areas. He was co-founder of the Sierra Club and served as president of the organization until his death.
Construction on this trail that carries Muir’s name began in 1915, the year after his death. The trail was completed in 1938. It is a marvel to walk, especially if you’ve ever done any trail maintenance and realize the difficulty of this work. In some places the trail is blasted from solid rock and in other places, the path is easy and clear. The construction of stairs impressed me. They could be a challenge when the itinerary called for a multi-mile downhill walk.
Approaching the summit of Mt. Whitney:
After crossing Forester Pass, we camped at 12,200 feet. The next day was a shorter mileage day, and we rested to gain energy for the approaching Mount Whitney. We camped at Guitar Lake above tree line in the shadow of Mount Whitney. During the night we could see the headlamps of hikers approaching the mountain from the other side.
The hike up Mount Whitney went well, and it felt good to drop the pack at the junction and take the spur to the summit. I was relieved to see the roof of that little Survey Hut and trail register. We were now standing at 14,494 feet.
While returning from the summit, a couple of young ladies asked, “Are you Jim?” They then said they’d shared a campsite with Dana, Bob’s wife. They raved about how much they liked Dana and how helpful she was. For a second I wondered how they’d recognized Bob and then thought of his one-of-a-kind beard.
We camped at the Outpost Camp where the approaching departure from the trail began to feel real. We agreed to take our time the next morning before breaking camp. I was looking forward to some early morning camera time.
Endings and the walk to Whitney Portal:
As we hiked the final four miles to complete the JMT, Bob said, “If you see a tear in my eye, it’s just dust from the trail.” We felt a sense of sadness to be leaving the John Muir Trail but knew that our 210-miles of steps in paradise were drawing to an end.
Bob and Dana offered rides to the two young ladies Dana had shared a campsite with earlier in the week as well as a young man from Romania living in Dallas who had completed a large section of the John Muir Trail. He began his hike carrying a small cast iron pan because he enjoyed cooking. The pan was dropped off at a resupply, and he joked that there wasn’t time to be a creative chef on the John Muir Trail.
Energy and enthusiasm filled the van as we made the drive toward Bishop. As the senior member of the group, I felt thankfulness that I was able to complete the journey without injury or illness.
After dropping the young people at a local hostel, we drove to the home of the California host family who had stored my Jeep during our hike and would prepare an evening meal for us before we began our drives back to Arkansas. The Wilders’ hospitality was overwhelming and provided important support for the ending of this wonderful adventure. Their kindness was another example of the trail providing just what was needed when it was needed. Our little walk through paradise was over, but the memories would last a lifetime.
More photos from the trail: Slideshow #1
If you want to see more photos of the trail: Slideshow #2
While studying the JMT Take/Leave Survey, I noticed a pattern. Some hikers who indicated that they took too much food would post comments like, “Didn’t feel like eating.” Then, the percent of trip completed might be 20-30%.
I’ve seen the effect of elevation changes on the appetite. Not eating enough can cause the early end to a trip. I’ve been fortunate that I stay pretty hungry on the trail, but keeping food interesting, nutritional and light, is a challenge.
There is also a danger in packing too much food (and weight) so measuring and estimating needs can be challenging. Finding foods that are calorie-dense, lightweight, and low in bulk, is the task. Finding veggies for the trail is important, too.
I do better if my trail menus contain “real food” I might eat at home. Going with natural foods where possible also helps in the taste department. Some might thrive on nothing but commercially available freeze-dried meals, but I find that home-dehydrated food is tastier and less expensive.
To dehydrate frozen veggies, just place them on the rack and let your dehydrator run for several hours until they’re crispy. You can go for chewy if your trip is soon, but I prefer crispy-dry to avoid spoilage and reduce weight.
I like to dehydrate fresh vegetables when possible. It’s important to blanch them by placing in boiling water for 2-3 minutes. I cut them then, blanch them, and then place them on the rack. Some veggies do better if I spray the rack lightly with Pam to avoid sticking. Blanching is important if you want to hold the natural color in your veggies. I even blanched two green bell peppers before placing on wax paper in my dehydrator. They were a thing of beauty and will add some flavor to several meals on the trail.
For some veggies like carrots, broccoli, and green beans, I purchase Mother Earth Products freeze dried vegetables. Powdered cheese and butter from Hoosier Hill Farm also add some flavor. These products area a little pricey, but good!
Dehydrated fruit is a real treat and good energy on the trail. My favorites are bananas, apples, strawberries, and pineapple. I slice thin and dip in instant lemonade, so the fruit holds its color. Dry until crispy to avoid spoilage and reduce weight.
Home dehydrated fruit is much better than what you can buy in the store. The flavor is amazing. It’s difficult not to eat the dry fruit before ever arriving on the trail!
Protein for backpacking tends to be heavy. Tuna, chicken, or salmon in foil packs are delicious but heavy. Carrying a few of these for lunch or dinner is an option, but I purchased a can of Mountain House dehydrated beef and chicken for weight and convenience. Meat added to breakfast or even $1.00 Knoll side dishes make a tasty and easy-prep meal.
Dinners with a view: Having just a few simple recipes that can be varied is the way to go when backpacking. Below are my foundational breakfast, lunch, and dinner recipes. With planning and preparation, food on the trail can be the source of enjoyment and energy. Enjoy your outdoor restaurants and dinner with a view where ever the trails may lead!
JMT Egg Scramble
Problem: We need an easy-to-prepare hearty breakfast that includes much-needed protein. Solution: JMT Egg Scramble.
Ingredients: (I include some brand names because of the variations in products and taste.)
At home: Place the following in a ziplock bag. Measure the amount needed for each breakfast on your itinerary:
4 tbs Hoosier Hill Farm Whole Egg Powder (equivalent to 2 eggs)
1 teaspoon Hoosier Hill Farm cheddar cheese powder
1 teaspoon Hoosier Hill Farm butter powder
Pinch of salt & pepper
Pack a medicine measuring cup which includes tsp marks (3 teaspoons = 1 tablespoon)
In a separate bag, place the following:
1 tbs Mountain House freeze dried ground beef
1 tsp dehydrated onions (add dehydrated bell pepper and zucchini squash if you like)
In a small pan or cup, place 1 tablespoon of beef and 4 slices of potato (and any other dry veggies) broken up
Barely cover with some of the water heated for coffee and soak for 15 minutes or more
After re-hydrating, add mixture from your small pan or cup to your cookpot and bring to a boil (add a little water if needed)
Add powder egg from bag prepared at home (includes salt, pepper, cheddar cheese powder and a pinch of butter powder). If mix is runny, you can add more egg mix.
Heat for just a minute and then eat out of the pot or in a breakfast burrito
Camper’s Choice Dinner
Problem: Commercial freeze dried meals are very high in sodium and boring.
Solution: Home prepared meals with varied ingredients to keep the appetite interested.
Ziplock bag with ½ cup (or more) dry powder soup – I like Bear Creek Cheddar Broccoli or Creamy Potato / Alternate: Romine Noodles, Knoll side dishes, etc.
If the soup you choose requires milk, include Carnation instant milk in the bag with soup. Usually, a tablespoon is all that’s needed.
1-2 tablespoons Mountain House freeze dried beef or chicken (from separate ziplock bags)
1-3 tablespoons (or just a fist-full) of the dehydrated veggies of your choice (potatoes, broccoli, spinach, etc.)
1 ½ cup water (or more)
In a small pan or cup, let meat and veggies soak for 15 mins. or longer
Add meat and veggies to the 1 ½ cup of boiling water in cookpot
Add ziplock bag of soup mix and stir constantly until the soup thickens (5-10 min.)
Eat out of the pot.
Lunch Crunch Roll-Up
Meat – tuna, salmon, or other
Mustard packet or Taco Bell-type sauce
Crushed Fritos or other calorie and fat-loaded chips
Place ingredients on tortilla and form into a roll-up.
Peanut & “Jelly” Sandwich
PB2 Powdered Peanut Butter
Hilltop Garden Honey-Cinnamon Sprinkles
Put a small amount of water (approx. tablespoon) in a cup and add powdered peanut butter until the desired thickness. Spread peanut butter on a tortilla and sprinkle honey-cinnamon crystals lightly on the peanut butter. Roll up and enjoy.
It’s nice to have a little flavor (not sweet) in your water on the trail or in camp. A little lemon or lime seems to calm the stomach at times. Add a pinch of True Lemon Crystalized Lemon to your class of water. A 2.85 oz container is the equivalent of 15 lemons so repackage in a smaller container. True Lime and True Orange are good, too.
There is something beautiful about a fully loaded backpack. I can almost hear it whisper, “Where are we going and what shall we see?”
This pack will soon travel the John Muir Trail (JMT) and may have some stories and photos to share when it returns. I’ve purposely avoided posting anything about our John Muir Trail plans. Maybe it’s my fear of failure, but successful or not, there will be new learning to share.
Many variables work for or against a successful trip. Present physical condition, preparation, weather, and elevation changes are the most significant variables to me. Here in the Ozarks we hike at anywhere from 600 to 2,700 feet. On the JMT we’ll be between 4,000 and 14,000 feet in elevation. Preparation can impact our conditioning but not those areas involving Mother Nature. I hope she’s kind to us.
As often happens, the beginning of our JMT planning can be traced to a book. Elizabeth Wenk’s John Muir Trail: The Essential Guide to Hiking America’s Most Famous Trail gave me the confidence to say “Yes!” when asked if I wanted to join some friends on this trip.
A significant task (and possible deal-breaker) is getting a JMT permit. Nick, Bob, and I faxed a different application itinerary each day for five days, receiving courteous “Thanks for trying” emails the next day. I remember where I was when I received an email forwarded from Nick that was different. I stared at the text for several seconds before realizing this message was granting us a permit! We’d “won” the lottery! Our planning was no longer theoretical but for real!
For this post, I’ll share some of the equipment changes made in preparation for this trip. I hope to share some food preparation ideas and recipes in a later post.
The John Muir Trail (JMT) came along at a good time because some of my equipment was due for an update. I’ll mention brand names and sources, but have no financial arrangements with these businesses. Some links are to online sources, but when possible, I purchase from area outfitters because they invest in local trails and stand behind their products. They’re also good people to know when you need advice. I’ll list links at the end of this post.
Backpack: Replaced my Equinox Katahdin pack (that I loved) with the Granite Gear Crown 60 pictured at the beginning of this post. It is light, strong, and large enough to accommodate a bear canister. It was on sale, too! When you say 40% off, you have my attention (a good reason to frequent local vendors).
My Equinox ultralight pack was old, and I feared it might fail on a long trip. It will still make overnighter trips in the Ozarks with me. I can’t imagine throwing it away. We have traveled many miles together. I don’t usually form emotional bonds with things, but some items become icons that hold special memories.
Sleeping System: I replaced my down sleeping bag with an Enigma 20-degree down quilt by Enlightened Equipment. The workmanship is excellent, but allow 8-12 weeks for delivery because they produce the quilt after you place your order. I’ve been using sleeping bags like quilts for several years. Now I’m not sleeping on top of a zipper, and the quilt is much lighter.
I updated to the Sea to Summit Comfort Light sleeping pad and silk bag liner to use on top of the air pad. I’d just about destroyed my old silk liner with all my squirming around over the last ten years or so.
Tent: I studied this purchase for several months and considered some very technical (and expensive) ultralight tents. I decided to go with something familiar (and freestanding) in the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL 2. I’ve enjoyed my earlier Big Agnes 2-person for several years and will still use it for overnighters. Using a 2-person tent is my nod to backpacking extravagance. I like the extra space for my pack, well worth the 9-ounce difference in weight.
Water bottles: Added a couple of Vapur 1-liter water bladders instead of bottles. They fold up when not in use and are light at 1.5 ounce compared to 6.3 oz. for a Nalgene bottle.
Shoes: Loved my Oboz, but was ready for a larger toe box and went with the Keen waterproof Koven (pictured at the beginning of this post). I’m not brand and model conscious because I had to look up these shoes to remember the name. I will not purchase shoes online or by brand. The shoes’ fit is the most important factor. I’d prefer trail running shoes, but for extended backpacking, I need something a little beefier without being a heavy boot. For camp shoes, I’m using Crocks. They’re good for creek crossings and comfortable camp shoes.
Electronics…. I have a love/hate relationship with electronics on the trail. My preference is to leave the stuff at home (or in the car). Since we’ll be out of cell range most of the trip, I’ll carry my inReach and a cell phone that allows me to text using satellite. The downside of electronics is weight! I have a solar panel for backpacking but opted to leave it at home due to weight. I’ll carry a small battery pack and a dual USB wall charger to speed things along with the limited outlets at JMT resupply points. Everything stays turned off until needed.
My camera must always travel with me. I don’t think of it as part of “electronics.” since it’s for capturing memories, not communicating with civilization. I’m not very brand-conscious, as long as the camera has manual settings if needed and is small and light. Right now I use a Canon G7x. It is fragile so I try to handle with care. The lens cover malfunctioned in my first one, but the fine folks at Bedford Camera exceeded expectations and replaced the camera. I carry three fully charged camera batteries in hopes they’ll last between resupply stops. A small flex tripod is a light-weight addition but more often a tree or rock serve the role of a tripod.
Maybe/maybe not items…
Yaktrax ICEtrekkers: These are great because they grip in snow and ice, but allow you to walk easily over patches of bare ground or rock. I’m taking them so I can decide whether to carry them or not once I’m on location.
Gators: I don’t like my gators, but they are nice to have when snow gets deeper than three inches. They’re heavy if not used, so I’m taking them and deciding once on location.
2015 John Muir Trail Survey Take/Leave Report: A resource for gear decisions unique to the JMT. It can also inform decisions about backpacking in general. John Ladd and George Greely collect and compile this annual survey of JMT hikers asking two questions. “What type of item did you leave at home, that you would bring on the next similar trip? And why?” and “What type of item did you bring but would leave at home on the next similar trip? And why?” John Ladd provides a nice narrative at the beginning sharing general impressions from the survey results. The John Muir Trail Hiker Survey Facebook page provides updates on snow levels, etc. Good reading!
Outdoor outfitters that I frequent on a regular basis: All good people here!
Pack Rat Outdoor Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas: This business began in a garage in the 1970s. They have a strong history of supporting trails of Arkansas! Owners Carolyn and Scott are charter members of the Ozark Highlands Trail Association and long-time trail volunteers. Employee owner and store manager, Rick Spicer, is a hardcore outdoorsman with great experience and knowledge.
Lewis and Clark Outfitters in Springdale, Arkansas
The Woodsman in Fort Smith, Arkansas
Ozark Outdoor in Little Rock
Bedford Camera and Video in Fort Smith and other towns in Arkansas: They’re not outfitters, but Bedford’s is my camera store due to the way they’ve stood behind their products.