The world is at our doorstep

Dick Cowgill, left, and Mike Falvey flank a U.S. Forest Service field ranger, near Devils Postpile National Monument

Part 1 of 2

The John Muir Trail, for those of you who aren’t familiar, runs from Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower 48 states, to the Yosemite Valley, not too far from here. It covers the most beautiful, breathtaking, awe-inspiring mountains, valleys, rivers and meadows one could ever see. And it is basically right at our doorsteps. That is if one makes the commitment to backpack 215 miles.

Last summer I took the trek for the third time and was accompanied by Dick Cowgill of Mokelumne Hill. It was his first attempt at this trip, my fourth. My first attempt was denied due to, in a nutshell, a 25-year weather event that hit the Mt. Whitney area in 2005 while I was camping at its base. I have since returned in 2007, ’09, and ’11 and completed the trip. Twice solo, and as mentioned last year with Dick “lead dog” Cowgill.

Coincidentally Dick’s daughter and her partner were the young couple the Enterprise previously profiled riding their bicycles across the southern part of these United States.

So I would like to explain the allure of the JMT, and if a person is willing to train for, give up a three-week period of their life for, and do a little suffering along the way, could be rewarded with a very fulfilling, gratifying, and enjoyable trip. And as opposed to traveling half way around the world, it is also very economical. The northern-most trail head is only about three hours away from here. If you have the equipment, or most of it already, all it takes is a $15 permit, a ride to the trail head, and a pack full of food.

I have always gone south to north on the JMT and I have quite a few reasons. One of the main ones is that the sun is mostly at your back as you head north on the trail, and believe me when you are pulling a 12,000-foot pass, not having the blazing sun blast you in the face is a big deal. I don’t know how many people I have run into headed south that are just burnt to a crisp on their nose and face just because they have spent the past two weeks walking into the sun!

In 2007 I kept a journal on my trip and jotted down nationalities of people I met along the trail. On my other trips I have run into additional nationalities I am sure, but here is just a partial listing of the home countries of folks I have run into: Germany, England, Switzerland, Norway, France, Israel, Scotland, Russia, East India, Australia, South Africa, Canada, and Japan. Of course many Americans, and yes one Tasmanian!

The interaction you have with people along that trail is actually one of the highlights of the trip. I have had people take my picture for their hometown newspaper, had one lady from Japan applaud me and bow up and down as I completed my last leg into Yosemite Valley, and had people buy me dinner at the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge as a “reward” for doing the trail. I have met very proper Englishmen, and some wild and crazy Aussies.

Actually, meeting people runs a close second to the scenery as far as the most memorable experiences along the JMT. I met an American Airlines pilot and his son the first time I did the trip solo in 2007 and he has become a real friend who has since hiked other trails, including the Grand Canyon, with me.

Hiking along that trail makes one realize what is really important in life. It’s not the size of your house, what kind of car or truck you drive, how much money you have in the bank. When you are spending four weeks on the trail with all of the possessions you need to survive tucked into a backpack that you lug day after grueling day you begin to realize what really counts. That is the people around you, your family, and out there along the JMT, the people you meet. With that in mind I would like to thank my wife Norah for always supporting me when I start planning for, and take this wild and crazy adventure.

I’ll never forget meeting two young Israeli men along the JMT. One had just gotten out of the Israeli Army after spending the time in the military required of all young Israeli males. He and his relative had decided to visit the Yosemite High Country and I had the privilege of running into them and camping with them one night before they scaled Half Dome. We sat around the campfire that evening and listened to Israeli folk music being broadcast by some new electronic device the younger set always seems to have with them. As I looked across at him, his face lit up by the fire, Israeli folk music filling the air, I’ll never forget the question he asked me.”What is it with your President Buuuush?” Quite a moment for sure. And by the way, I couldn’t answer that particular question.

Hiking south to north you will run into quite a few people as the vast majority of JMT hikers go north to south. So if you do in fact want to run into less people do go north to south. But if you immediately want to get into the High Sierra with its soaring peaks, rugged passes, and majestic sky go south to north and take off from the Whitney Portal just out of Lone Pine along Highway 395. Your first day you will be at the base of Mt. Whitney, then go over Trail Crest at roughly 13,000 feet. You will then proceed to basically hit a pass a day for the next six to seven days that average around 12,000-13,000 feet each. Forrester Pass, the highest pass along the Pacific Crest Trail/JMT is an engineering marvel cut into the side of a rock face, that until the l930s was thought impassable. It was conquered during major work that joined many different trails developed by explorers, Basque sheep herders, and local residents, that turned into the JMT that we know today.

You will in fact be tracing steps that John Muir himself took back in his days of exploring the Range of Light. Many explorers, mountain climbers, surveyors, and curious hikers proceeded and followed him into some of the most beautiful country on this planet and together they inspired the creation and building of this trail that is, again, right out our back window.

Why am I telling you this? Because I want you to know that you do not have to trek globally to see some of the most beautiful landscapes that exist on this strange granite planet. And if you do in fact like granite, the JMT is the place to go.

The thrill of reaching l4,000-plus-foot Forrester Pass is hard to describe. Looking both north and south and as far as the eye can see, gaze upon magnificent granite peaks, knowing that in the next few days you will be traveling on foot to that far mountain, is beyond me putting into words. You just have to do it yourself. It is a fact that the JMT is one of the most traveled trails in the world. It is more “doable” than say the PCT, of which it is a part of, and does in fact contain some of the most beautiful scenery on this earth. It is a mecca to some backpackers, and John Muir is a God to many people and cultures.

Back to the scenery though, the main reason to take the JMT. Again crossing the highest passes this country has to offer. Crossing numerous streams and rivers, walking along the banks of dozens and dozens of High Sierra lakes, the thrill of catching golden trout, and sleeping under the stars, too many to imagine, is a reward that is hard to beat – and one that is within reach of the majority of we residents of Calaveras County, no matter what your monetary standing.

If you are lucky you will experience the backpackers “high.” It comes out of nowhere, unannounced as you descend off of some pass you have just conquered. It is a feeling you may have never had before, and may never have again. It is one, though, that every human should be able to enjoy at least once in their lifetime. And one of the ways to experience it is to do the JMT.

Michael F. Falvey, a retired land surveyor, lives in Mountain Ranch. Contact him at forfalv@wildblue.net.

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