“Absolutely sweetie, it’s twenty-five bucks per resupply package, and I promise not to eat all of your food unless things get really crazy out here!” exclaimed the employee at Parcher’s Rainbow “Resort” at South Lake on the East Side of the Sierras. Strangely, that was one of the most reassuring statements I had heard in a while, and with that pledge one of the final puzzle pieces of our John Muir Trail family thru-hike was in place. After months of planning and preparation, while simultaneously trying to survive and stay sane during a pandemic, we were nearing the launch of our trip.
The seeds for this adventure started twelve years ago in August of 2008. Maureen and I were spending our last night in the Northern Yosemite backcountry, about to finish the final section of Roper’s High Route, when we were hit with the realization that we would likely soon be having kids. I remember swimming at Young Lakes and sitting along the shoreline, staring up at the granite walls, pondering what this really meant. We hadn’t specifically discussed it yet, but we both wanted to start a family, and I was adamant that I wanted more than one kid (being a fairly well-adapted only child myself!) While we could never foresee the exact path and challenges that kids would bring, we did know that starting a family meant no more backpacking like that for a long time. Yes, we were going to do our best to get our kids out, but we had just finished the final leg of a 35 day off-trail journey through the high country of the Sierra – could you do things like that with kids? While some parts of our pre-parental brains were yelling “why not?”, other parts were suggesting that we were crazy. As we hiked back down to Tuolumne Meadows on our final day, we vowed to return to those mountains with our children as soon as we could.
We did have kids and start a family, of course, and we were blessed with a smooth start to our parenting career. One kid seemed quite manageable for exploration and expeditions – right before Sage turned two years old we thru-hiked the GR-5 through the French Alps, me carrying him on my back in a Deuter Kid Comfort, and Maureen carrying a ton of stuff to keep us going. While it was kind of “thru-hiking light” – we could stop in villages, refuges, and towns along the way – it was a journey for sure, and it gave us the confidence that we could still get out there in the mountains and have some epic adventures. It was different, of course, but still ridiculously fun – and most importantly we had another little human to share our experiences with. What could be better than that?
Our beloved little Devin joined the family in the Summer of 2012, and we wasted no time showing this little guy what the mountains were about. He was camping in Tuolumne Meadows, at 8,600 feet, before he even turned one month old, “sitting” around a campfire with his cousins and taking his first bath in Tenaya Lake. We wanted to instill the spirit of these headwaters in his very soul (Sage was “hippie baptized” in Fern Spring, just down the watershed in Yosemite Valley at the same age) and set him up for a lifetime of adventure as well.
Two kids proved to be a little harder on the backpacking front, and truth be told we were stumped for a while on how to get out. Carrying one kid was manageable, but carrying two, plus the required gear, was a whole different ballgame. We tried to make the best of our years with extended car camping trips to Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier, and kept returning to France when we could to make use of their easy access to mountains and formidable tourist infrastructure. As the kids got older we made it our mission to get them some backcountry experience, realizing that they could at least learn the other skills of an extended trip into the wilderness, even if their legs couldn’t yet hike that far. We floated the Green River in Utah on a giant raft through Canyonlands one summer, and kayaked Desolation Sound in the far reaches of the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia another. We tried a short backpack (and burly off-trail connection) through Sequoia National Park in 2018, and hiked a strenuous loop through the Alps, carrying packs, but sleeping in refuges on our Tour des Fiz trip in 2019. Heading into 2020 we knew that our skills and resilience were in place, and we started setting our sights on a long trip through the Range of Light.
And then the coronavirus pandemic hit, with more severity and a longer duration than many experts even predicted. I had been following whatever news I could get as it trickled out of China, and tend to fall on the pessimistic side of situations like this anyway. A viral pandemic has long been my answer to the question “What do you think will bring the end of the human species?”, which I actually get asked quite a bit as a high school science teacher. While I understood the potential ramifications of months and months of viral load across the country, I could also imagine a way in which a trip could unfold and the family could still be safe. It would look different this year – no hopping on YARTS buses or shuttles to get around the East Side, no camping with new friends while sharing food and drink. It would have to be more self-sufficient, as there would probably be less people to help out, or folks less willing to lend a hand. Yosemite shut its doors in May, and then opened again with some restrictions in June, and we began to wrangle permits and start the planning process. We started prepping and packing food, bulk ordering organic vegetables from our CSA farm so that we could keep the dehydrator running around the clock. We started collecting, and testing out gear, trying to find that sweet intersection of family backpacking between light weight and low volume. With 15 days before our launch date we hit a “golden ticket” last minute permit that allowed us to leave from Yosemite proper and exit out Whitney Portal at the end of the trip (previously we had secured permits leaving from Mammoth and ending south of Whitney at Horseshoe Meadow).
And so, after months of preparation, in early July I dropped off resupply buckets up and down the East Side, and even got a chance to meet the very nice aforementioned woman at Parcher’s. On July 7th, we launched as a family of four from Tuolumne Meadows heading southbound (SOBO!) for what would become a 210 mile, 34 day extended trip through the mountains. We had no idea what to expect really, besides that our car was at the end and our house was rented to a family from New York, so we really had no other place to go. It felt committing, like launching up the first pitches of a big wall climb, or dropping into the Grand Canyon on a Rim to Rim attempt – the only way out was to keep moving forward and problem solve along the way. We knew that our adventure would not be easy, but we also knew after months of failed distance-learning and distance-teaching that we needed to unplug and go off the grid more than ever. Our family needed something that only our beloved Sierra mountains could provide.
The first leg from Tuolumne Meadows to Red’s Meadow near Mammoth went smoothly, with kids hammering out big days of 8-10 miles and even dropping us on the way up to Donahue Pass on Day 2. This wouldn’t be the last time they beat us to the high point of the day, and we were filled with smiles as they left encouraging messages scrawled into the trail with their walking sticks (“Go! Almost there!”). The fishing was great, and it quickly became apparent that the 3 ounce Tenkara fly rod that we brought along would become one of our most essential pieces of gear, providing hours of entertainment for the boys, as well as some fresh trout dinners. Collectively we got a bit caught up in the excitement and adrenaline of the first leg, and the kids were hurting on our fifth day descent into Devil’s Postpile. Sage had tweaked his ankle a bit, and Dev was just plain tired out. We took a zero day to re-group at the Campground, soaked liberally in the hot springs, and decided that we needed to pace ourselves a bit more on the daily routine. We implemented some simple adjustments: No fishing until camp was built, mandatory shade and journal time in the afternoon, and a more constant stream of food and snacks as the day went on. We relieved ourselves of a bunch of extra weight as well (extra headlights, socks, fishing lures, inflatable pillows, and an Ursack) and charged on south for Leg 2.
The honeymoon period wore off quickly as our journey headed south through the pumice and volcanic land of Mammoth and down to Muir Trail Ranch. On Day 11 our Steripen got dropped onto a rock and shattered while Maureen and Sage were purifying water down by Bear Creek. I made the mistake of telling Sage that “it wasn’t his fault”, and he went ballistic, both perceiving the reality of having no way to clean our water, and feeling blamed for the mistake. At this point we switched into full expedition mode and literally made our code for the trip explicit – no fault was to be handed out for anything that went wrong from that point forward, as the truth was that it didn’t matter at all. In an expedition, if the water purifying device is broken, it matters not who broke it, but what the team is going to do about it. We gathered and met as a family and decided to boil water for that morning, then ask everyone we saw on the trail if they had an extra filter or pump until we found a solution. The second tenet of our expedition rules was that only one person at a time could be suffering, hurting, or having a bad day. This meant that we were all constantly monitoring each other’s emotional, physical, and mental states. Sage was having a rough morning, still hurt and ashamed after the loss of the filter, and we let him have that for a moment while the rest of us stayed positive and tried to lift him up. We marched on southbound knowing that whatever else was going on, we had to keep moving and make progress to our next food drop.
People often ask Maureen and I about the division of labor on trips like this, and how we work and sort it out. The truth is that this is one of the biggest strengths in our relationship. Since very early on we have had an intuitive sense of whom should be doing what tasks and when, and we don’t waste a lot of time arguing over who is better at it or even training the other person in those skills. We have invested a lot in the concept of us each being good at different and diverse skills. Back in our early days of rock climbing, Maureen proved that she could send the splitter cracks, and I proved that I could bring along the necessary gear and build the bomber anchors to keep us safe. Together we were an unstoppable team, and apart we would not have made it very far at all.
On this trip the labor was organically divided as well. Maureen was in charge of all things food – she actually earned herself the name of CRO (Chief Rationing Officer) on our previous trip down the Green River in Utah. No one on the team was allowed to eat or help themselves to any food without her expressed permission. Period. This policy kept hungry boys away from the snacks, and without her guidance and expert meal planning we would have eaten all of our food by Day 4 and been hiking out of the mountains hungry. I was in charge of the route planning and making sure that our daily progress was keeping us sufficiently moving toward our next resupply. Additionally, I succumbed to the convenience of the Guthook GPS app on my phone, which became crucial in delivering updates on when the next water source would be, and how much farther we had until a possible camp spot. Thanks to this, an altimeter on my watch, and good old fashioned paper maps, I could provide an on-trail status update at a moment’s notice – how much vert we had left until the pass, or when we could fill up our bottles next.
Bringing kids on a thru-hike like this raises the managing expectation game considerably, and we soon realized that this was a much bigger undertaking than just worrying about the two of us out there in the mountains. We had to describe the days and information with an impeccable level of finesse and dexterity – setting the kids up with enough information about the coming miles so that they wouldn’t feel blind-sided, but at times sheltering them from the harsh reality that it was going to be a slog up and over that next pass. We had family meetings at least once a day, where we often looked at maps and the overall route together, studying our progerss. Communication was key, and we wanted everyone in the party to feel ownership over the trip, not that they were being dragged along on some masochistic family vacation. Additionally, I did a lot of personal reflection on my experience in the mountains as a 40 year old father vs. my time as a twenty year old decades ago. One thing my ultra-running has taught me is that when the going gets tough, it’s never a good idea to square up and face off with the mountains. They embody infinite strength and power – that’s a battle that you will never win. Rather, I have learned to focus on moving forward in a graceful and efficient manner, coexisting with the environment along the way. Where I used to curse and get angry as a younger man, now I simply breathe and ask the mountains for safe guidance and passage (okay, there was some cursing on this trip). This became the guiding mentality for our family as well, and by the end of the second leg we really were moving smoothly as a unit through the wilderness.
Not only were we starting to move smoothly, but our boys were crushing it, while growing into outdoorsmen right before our very eyes. Devin the 8 year old was turning into a tenacious hiker as he honed his mental toughness with every step. After weeks of using distraction as our primary method to get him up the big passes (trail Scattergories, pirate jokes, endless Magic the Gathering talk), as he was struggling on the Dusy Basin switchbacks out of Leconte Canyon he yelled at us “LEAVE ME ALONE! I just want to hike and feel bad at the same time”. There aren’t many words that would make an ultra-running Dad more proud, because we all know that sometimes you just need to endure, keep moving, and it will eventually get better. At the same time, Sage was morphing into a zen fly-fishing trout-whispering master, and he could seemingly climb up anything if he had a few hours to spend in a pool with his piscine friends at the end of every day. Who knew that infinite patience and the ability to think like a fish could catch dinner on so many nights.
It’s no secret that the Spring of online distance learning (and teaching) was a bit of a failure for us. Sage developed chronic migraine headaches, that left him debilitiated and laying in bed for weeks at a time. Devin was simply overwhelmed with the multitiude of Zoom classes, homework links, and busy work, and began to mutiny early on. Meanwhile I was trying to “teach” Physics after having evacuated the school months before. One of the goals of this trip, and really most of our summers, was to educate or “Geo School” the kids – teach them real life lessons in the great outdoors. One of my favorite examples of this was our night spent in Leconte Canyon.
Sage was having a particularly good afternoon with the fly rod and landed a beautiful, fat Golden that he took home for dinner. He had been wanting to try smoking a trout over the fire for a while now, but we were under the impression that campfires were not allowed. He wasn’t so sure, and went off to find the ranger that was stationed there to inquire about the current regulations. The ranger told him that in King’s Canyon it was actually okay under 10,000 feet, so he grabbed the topo map and confirmed that we were low enough to legally cowboy cook. Then the boys started gathering wood – dry wood of all sizes, from quite a distance away from camp deep in the forest. Dev fastidiously separated and arranged it into piles by size before they both laid the fire in the fire pit. After lighting it and getting it going, Sage fetched the Kindle to read the preparation tips that were given in our Tenkara fishing guide. He realized that a sharpened, forked, green stick was needed for a spit – and so they began searching everywhere for a stick of that description (while I had the pleasure of cleaning the fish). Finally the time had come, and they skewered the trout before placing it over the hot coals and embers. The result was one of the best trout on our trip – not just for the wonderfully smokey taste, but for the interdisciplinary learning that occurred on the way to dinner.
We eventually solved our filtration problem with help from a friendly group of younger hikers and teachers from Virigina that gave us an extra Sawyer filter they had, but the obstacles didn’t stop there. I hiked out solo to get the re-supplies at both Bishop and Kearsarge Pass, leaving before sunrise and hauling four people’s food back up and over the climbs. Bishop Pass felt much bigger than Kearsarge, but thanks to the one and only “Crazy” Lucas Horan the 19 mile day went quickly and smoothly. Lucas also potentially saved our trip by bringing in a new silicone X-pot to replace the one eaten by rodents in LeConte Canyon (we were learning valuable lessons about redundancy in gear on this trip). On Day 21, after sharing dinner with Lucas, we got thrown the biggest curveball of the trip. While we were enjoying dessert on a large granite slab when Maureen took a silly fall, tripping over her Crocs at camp. It was the biggest fall I’ve ever seen her take, and I winced as I saw her right hand bend fully under her body in a way that looked far from natural. Her hand swelled up and she went into a bit of shock, but remained extremely calm while soaking it in the icy lake, placing a splint on it, and heading to bed.
We woke up the next morning with another expedition meeting; how was the status of her hand, and would we continue on our southern push? It really was the last feasible time for an easy exit, especially with Lucas and a car on the other side of Bishop Pass. Maureen woke up unable to use or bend her right hand and it was extremely swollen and bruised. I can’t say what I would have done (probably hit the SOS button on the Garmin!), or what would have happened on a “normal” year, but Maureen was adamant that she did not want to head out of the wilderness to Bishop, and that she did not want to bail. I will never know whether it was her internal drive and determination, or the sight of Devin crying in the tent the night before the first time the word “bail” was mentioned, or the fear in leaving the peaceful wilderness for the madness of an East Side hospital during a global pandemic that convinced her to stay. But we pushed on, not only heading south, but continuing with our plan to traverse two days of Roper’s Sierra High Route, the same off-trail section that we had completed heading northbound in 2007. It took a lot to get this group to backtrack (“No Backtracking” has always been part of our creed), and two broken fingers was apparently not enough. If you’re wondering why she goes by the trail name of “Nails”, it’s because she is tough as…
SAM Splinted and determined, we pushed on over Knapsack pass and into the beautiful Barrett Lakes basin. The off-trail section seemed much harder than we remembered decades ago, this time with heavy family packs and two kids careening down the loose scree. We took our time and moved slowly, the class 3 descents taking a toll on Maureen’s hand, even with a splint. Our salvation for the first night was the largest of the Barrett Lakes – a glistening infinity pool of peace and serenity with North Palisade watching over us like a godfather from above. Sage landed his biggest trout of the trip the next morning, and we began our traverse aiming for Palisade Lakes. The second day of off-trail travel was the legitimate business, with a nearly 2000 foot descent through a complex system of ledges and shelves that would take us back to the JMT. We moved slowly and steadily, racking up our longest hiking day of the trip thus far. I channeled the high country gods and somehow found safe passage through the ledge system, often scouting 20-30 feet ahead before calling for the rest of the group to come down slowly and carefully. We were fully committed with about 100 vertical feet to go when I had to scout three different times before finding the connection and calling back up “It’s sketchy, but it goes!!” We kissed the trail when we were reunited, eager to keep trudging along and to turn our brains off for a bit.
During the final legs in the Southern Sierra we really hit our stride, as the path emerged well above tree-line and stayed there for a while. While some groups value the shade of the low country, we live for the exposure and vistas up top. The trail life came alive down south as well, as SOBO’ers were getting stoked on their near completion, and NOBO’ers getting pumped on what lay ahead. There was a bunch of people on the top of Forester Pass, and the boys arrived to a standing ovation as they crested the final major climb of the trip before Whitney and put their packs down at 13,200 feet. We were settling into the social scene a bit more at this point as well, taking longer to talk to folks and hanging out when we could. At this point the thought and threat of COVID seemed incredibly distant. All the thru-hikers had been “trail quarantined” for weeks, and if we kept our social distance in the open mountain air we felt very safe. It was more refreshing than I knew at the time to be able to let our guard down a bit as we moved along. We chatted with “The Salami Boys”, a group of high school friends that were in the middle of their 28th annual backpacking trip together, handing out slices of salami to all those hungry crossing the pass. And we reconnected with two folks from earlier in our trip, Hilani and Neel, that were also nearing the end of their SOBO journey and were moving at a relaxed pace like us. They took a liking to the boys and as we discussed summit dates they pledged to spend the night on the Whitney Summit and wait for us on top.
As we approached the end of the trip we began to mourn the end of the simple things and the daily routine. Every single day in the mountains started and ended the same, with the only difference being what lakes you stopped at and what passes you crossed along the way. I would wake up first, usually a bit after sunrise, and exit the tent, collect water, and boil a large pot for morning drinks and oatmeal. Then when the water was ready we would all sit together and share breakfast, waiting for the warmth to hit us so we could begin to shed the layers of the night. It took us remarkably close to two hours to pack up camp every single morning, whether we were rushing or not – every single piece of gear had a specific spot in someone’s bag, and the adult packs became a bit lighter with every passing dinner. And then we would start walking, trying to cover 4 or 5 miles before breaking for lunch, which hopefully consisted of a fishing hole or idyllic lake at which to drop our packs and take a breather. We all ate lunch together, before making our daily miles in the afternoon, and selecting a campsite when we were comfortably within range. Maureen was a master at this nomadic lifestyle, always pressing us to be a bit more patient and to explore a bit more before dropping our packs. She developed a true sense of exactly where to stop and found us some of our most peaceful and serene spots to spend the night. And then once we took our hiking shoes off, we installed ourselves and set-up camp, finding geographic locations for each segment of our life. Where would the kitchen be? What about the tent? Heads up or down? Where’s the best fishing, and where’s the cleanest source to collect water? It was these daily rituals that were soothing our souls, in only the way that a long thru-hike can.
Day 33 brought us to a peaceful tarn just above Guitar Lake, with Whitney right above us, as we took a leisurely afternoon to ponder what we had just accomplished. The boys were both excited to finish and lamenting the end of the trip – when I asked Devin if he thought he would be able to hike this far, he answered with a straight face “I didn’t think I had another option”. Sage was in dual realities, dreaming of a hotel bed and a cheeseburger, while literally spending his last hours in the mountain trying to catch a few more trout (I caught dinner that night, actually, but Sage would land a bunch on the way down the next day). We held a bit of a court at our campsite ten feet from the trail, interviewing folks about their day trips up to the peak, and getting northbound hikers stoked on what lay ahead.
The final day of the trip brought a true alpine start as we woke up at 3:45AM to break camp and sip hot drinks together for one last time. We began the climb up to Trail Crest in the dark, following a string of headlights from people that had gotten an earlier start than us, and eventually turned our lights off to welcome the rising sun. The view kept getting better and better as we could see more of the terrain from which we came and could think about all the magic of the past five weeks. We dropped our packs at Trail Crest and nimbly made our way through the last bit of trail to the lunar looking summit plateau. As we neared the top, our kids literally dropped us yet again, powering ahead up the trail, with Devin exclaiming that he was “more excited than Christmas”. Maureen and I stopped to hug and soak in the moment, contemplating that the journey was about to be over, and that we would indeed be successful. Then we heard the cheers and yells of our friends up top and we knew that our boys had just completed the John Muir Trail, and climbed Mount Whitney, in pure style the entire way. Tears streamed down our face as we walked up to the summit plateau and the mountain in all of her glory, only to see our friends making a cup of hot chocolate for the boys at 14,500 feet. I’m not sure it’s possible for parents to be any prouder.
Re-entry has and will be rough as we come back to a world that hasn’t really changed that much. What we can say is this: for five weeks we squeezed every ounce of peace and serenity out of the mountains. We disconnected with the outside world and reconnected with ourselves, each other, and the amazing Sierra. We laughed, sang, cried, met new friends, saw old ones, ate trout 10 feet from where they were caught, and watched shooting stars and comets from our bed. We recharged our hearts and souls in the deepest way imaginable. For me it rekindled my love of the Sierra, and overall my love of being in nature, far from the stress and technology of modern life. As a family, it proved that we really can do anything that we put our mind to. I know that the next months, years, and decades will bring tough parts – but I also know that we know how to talk, communicate, lift each other up, and support each other in a way that is so authentic and real. I know that we have empowered our kids with a sense of strength and independence that cannot really be found through other channels. I know that they learned real life skills – how to walk all day over mountain passes, how to forage for wild onions and miner’s lettuce for dinner, how to catch and cook a trout. It’s the best gift we could ever give them, but the real beauty of it is that it feels like a gift to us as well.
There’s more writing to come, as I juggle my moments of creative inspiration with teaching online Zoom classes for 9th graders. I’ve got so many thoughts, lessons, and ideas from this trip, so stay tuned and I will try to put some more down on paper. I also intend to put together gear lists, food lists, etc. that might be helpful with another family or group completing a trip like this. My main advice would be to go for it – kids are so much stronger than we give them credit for, and follow in the steps of their parents and mentors. If you can remain calm and strong out in the wilderness, then they can too.
May the spirit of the Sierra be with you in all of your future journeys, may the mountains always grant you safe passage wherever you go, and may you always find the burger you are craving at the end of every trip.