The ranger stood up and centered herself in the middle of the trail as I bounded up the pass towards her.
“Permit.” She asked.
It was somewhere between a demand and a curious question. She looked like she had just stepped out a patrol car on a city beat. Crisp, clean, she was in a word, completely unlike all of the handfuls of through-hikers that I had seen since I departed Tuolumne that morning. We were a half a day’s hike from the nearest trailhead, at best, but nevertheless, there she was like a pristine sentinel, guarding the pass.
“Here’s the thing,” I started, having rehearsed this conversation for the past few miles on the rare chance I would see a ranger. “I looked online for permits and it said I didn’t need a permit. But if I was wrong, I have money, I am happy to pay.”
“The permit is free.” She responded. “You could have gotten one at Tuolumne.”
“I was going to ask but they weren’t open when I took off this morning. I didn’t think I would need one for day use.”
“Wait, what?” She looked a bit confused.
“Yeah, I looked online and thought the quota was just for through-hikers overnight!”
She started to laugh. “Are you running?!? Are you one of those…what do you call them?” She paused looking for the word. “Ultrarunners? Where are you finishing?”
“Wow, that is a long ways. How long will that take you?” I relaxed a bit, sensing that she wasn’t going to turn me back and reduce to shambles my perfectly orchestrated point-to-point run.
“Some guy friends of mine did it in just under 9 hours, so faster than that.”
“Right on! You trail runners are crazy. Next time just make sure you get a permit. Ok?”
“Ok! No problem. Absolutely. Really sorry about that!” I took off down the trail at a faster than usual clip, my heart racing, in case she changed her mind. I’m not a rule breaker or even a rule bender, so even the appearance of wrongdoing makes me uncomfortable.
I had been running since dawn; leaving Tuolumne camp while my husband, Nathan, was still in his pajamas, sipping coffee in our bright red hammock, enjoying the warmth of a morning fire. It was hard to tear myself away, leaving behind warmth, comfort and the promise of a second cup of coffee. And it was more than just the physical comforts of camp that made it hard to take the few first few steps; I had never done an adventure of this magnitude solo. I had done plenty of ultra-distance races and had run many adventures, but those always involved other people, either as fellow racers or race volunteers or as company for a full day’s epic adventure. My husband and I had traversed the Rae Lakes Loop together (40+ miles), we’d done crazy things like running point-to-point in Yosemite and hitchhiking back to our car, we’d run the entire High Sierra Camp loop (over 50 miles) in the light of one day. I’d done plenty of adventures, but this one pressed the limit of my comfort zone and belief in my own capabilities.
When I hatched this plan to run from Tuolumne to Devils Postpile, I did look into permits. I had scoured the Yosemite website looking for information on day use, but found nothing. I suspected this was mostly because Donohue Pass is more than 15 miles from the nearest trailhead, a good day’s hike on the John Muir Trail (JMT) over such rugged terrain. But I tucked a few dollars in my hydration pack and worked on my excuses anyway, just in case. I had enough to worry about, such as carrying enough food, finding drinkable water, and staying on the trail, that I didn’t want getting turned away at the pass to be one of them.
When I had descended a few thousand meters down the mountain, I settled back into a more reasonable pace and munched the edge of a stroopwafle. I thought about how strange a sight it must be to see a girl come running up an 11,056 foot mountain pass in the remote wilderness. Clad in a trucker cap, long sleeve t-shirt and running shorts, I was traveling light and fast, carrying a simple hydration pack with a few hundred calories, coat, hat, gloves, emergency blanket, knife, and cellphone- not that it would do me any good out there. For a moment, I started to fixate on the idea of what could happen to me if I fell, if I got hurt, if I got lost, if I met a family of hungry bears. I was, after all, alone out there in the wilderness. I’d already had one major blunder when we realized after our arrival that our steripen’s batteries had died, leaving me without a way to purify water on the trail. I had decided to plow forward with the plan, hoping the high alpine rivers and streams would bring me no harm.
All of these were risks I was willing to take. This wasn’t my first rodeo. Heck, I told myself, I’m not even running that far, it’s barely over 35 miles.
I couldn’t change my mind now anyway. My husband had probably long since de-camped and begun the long drive around to Mammoth and onwards to Red’s Meadow where we would camp that night. Also, he was going to run in a few miles and meet me. There is an ample number of things that can go wrong during a wilderness adventure run, but thinking about them is highly unproductive. Too late now!
I was too captivated by the mountains, sharp and craggy in the distance, to worry anyways; too focused on watching my step over the technical rocky terrain that made my running seem more like a samba than a sprint. Occasionally, I stopped to dip my whole body into a snow-fed lake or take photos to try and capture even a small piece of the majesty that surrounded me. Sometimes, I hurried along after a rustle or crash in the bushes reminded me that I was in bear and cougar country. I passed small groups of through-hikers with heavy packs, many of whom had been hiking for days and even weeks already.
“Oh my, aren't you the frisky biscuit!”
“Whoa, rock on!”
The words encouraged me as I passed. Sometimes when I needed a break or to hear a voice other than my own, I would stop and chat with them and let them weave tales of the journeys they had been on, the miles, the missteps, the trail magic. I particularly delighted in the tale by two hikers, who after hiking for two weeks, dreaming of all the things they couldn’t obtain while on the trail, like french fries and candy bars, had run into a ranger who’d given them each a handful of fun-sized candy bars. It gave me renewed enthusiasm for running into rangers and I made a mental note to ask the next one I saw for a candy bar.
After I had successfully navigated my turn to stay on the JMT where it diverged from the PCT, I suddenly found myself off trail while traversing around Garnet Lake. I hopped a few boulders and found myself at a dead end on a cliff and I was not alone in my plight. A married couple, probably 20 years my senior, who appeared to be hiking novices, given their straight-from-REI matching new equipment and the palpable confusion and discomfort on their faces.
“Oops, guess this isn’t the right way!” I said, laughing easily, unworried since I had been on trail no less than 2 minutes ago. They studied the map and without looking up said, “We’ve been looking at the map and can’t figure out where to go.”
I whipped out my cell phone and opened up my Strava app which had my route all set up. I prayed for a cell signal so I could geolocate myself and them.
“I have a blue dot!” I exclaimed. “Follow me! We were just a bit off trail.” They finally looked up from the map to take me in. Their mouths fell open.
“Where did you come from? Where’s your pack?”
“I’m running. I came from Yosemite. How about you guys?”
The wife answered as I walked them back on trail. “Oh we’ve just been going a few miles. Started from Devil’s Postpone two days ago. Where are you going?”
“In one day? Are you alone?” She had a growing look of concern on her face.
“Yes and yes! My husband is meeting me there.”
“And he let you do this by yourself?” She was aghast.
A deep fiery streak ignited in me, indignant. But I held myself together, resisted the urge to respond rudely and joked instead, “He would be here, but he can’t keep up.”
I pointed them in the right direction, said a hasty goodbye and took off with renewed energy down the trail.
Let me? Let me! As if my husband needed to give me permission. Why would you say that to someone who has not only clearly already run 30 miles but also just helped you and your husband find your way. I fumed for a minute, pushing hard up what I hoped was going to be my second to last pass. I lost a few miles in a frustrated stupor. Instead of taking in the sharp relief of lakes sparkling below me as I climbed or the jagged mountain edges mingling with the clouds, I was staring at the dirt and the rocks on the ground two feet in front of me. My irrational head spun out, blinding me to the natural splendor around me.
I crested the pass, I ran by two slow-moving female hikers.
“Great job” I said as I crept up behind them. Greeting hikers also served to alert them to my presence lest my soft footsteps completely terrify them. No matter how much I think I thunder along the trail like a baby elephant with asthma, no one ever hears me coming.
“Wow!” One exclaimed. “You are amazing. Go girl!”
“Seriously, so inspiring.” Said the other.
My frustration dissolved. I wasn’t going to let one person’s ignorance interrupt my adventure. I had climbed, for what felt like forever, reaching false summit after false summit to get to the top of passes. Passes from which I could see for a hundred miles in every direction and still not see back to civilization. Just layers upon layers of green foliage, deep blue lakes, grey slate mountains against a light blue summer sky.
Eventually, many miles later than expected, I found my husband on the trail. I was out of water and had built a fantasy that he would come bounding down the trail with a still ice-cold Coke in his pack. I could taste each sugary drop. Unfortunately, instead, he too was out of water, and most definitely was not carrying any ice-cold Coke. I had told him to meet me 5 or 6 miles up the trail from Devils Postpile and it had literally turned out to be uphill the whole way for him under a hot August mid-afternoon sun. We cautiously waded into a lake, which was must less ideal than a river or stream, and prayed to our lucky stars that we wouldn’t have giardia a few days hence.
We descended down to Devils Postpile together, my energy waning. My emotions began to flow freely and wildly. One minute I had to stop and sit down on a rock, nearly inconsolable because we were not there yet and I just didn’t want to run anymore. And a minute later, I was flying down a dirt single track like it was my first mile, giddy and rambunctious. Running that far through the wilderness is physically tough and draining, but it is also for the emotions. It feels like you can experience every emotion on the spectrum in just a few miles on the trail. Nowhere do my emotions feel as raw as they do when I’ve pushed myself physically.
I was nearing that point at which I wanted to just stop and sit down and not move again much like the proverbial stubborn donkey. We’d passed through Devils Postpile and dodged around busloads of tourists, many of whom commented on us running, and continued down the trail. I had naively assumed that Devils Postpile would be my southern terminus, but the campsite had been further down the road. Nathan assured me repeatedly, it is just a little bit farther, although I thought that may just be a lie to get me to keep going. He dragged me off the trail and onto a road, which made my feet feel like they were being pounded by tiny little ball-peen hammers. Abruptly, my husband dove into the bushes that lined the road and I followed, thankfully arriving at our already set up campsite, the trek ending unceremoniously 8 hours and 24 minutes after it had begun.
I beelined for the camp chair.
“I am so done. So, so done.” Exhaustion and soreness permeated every part of my body as I shoved handfuls of potato chips in my mouth between gulps of lukewarm coke.
“I can’t believe I did that.” But I did. Until that moment, I had doubted I could do this on my own, but I did it. I had questioned my own strength, my own will, my own courage, but now I saw that I had the power to conquer any adventure I set in front of me.
I thought back to the moments on the trail; the feeling of powering up mountains, the sensation of joy as I picked up speed on a perfect piece of dirt single track downhill, the power I felt every time a hearty through-hiker marveled at my endeavor. It turns out, I really am one frisky biscuit.