Day 3 Miles: 14
Day 4 Miles: 3.6 + 1 to Curry Village
Total Miles: 49.8
I wake at 1am, just me and my little tarp in the dark forested depths of Yosemite. Laying in my sleeping bag, I run through possible contenders for times I have been more alone than the past two days. More lonely, yes (living in rural Japan) but a longer time without seeing or hearing another person? Nope. I realize that two days is pretty paltry in the grand scheme of things, but also how rarely most of us are away from other humans for days at a time. Then I realize that in my rush to set up camp I forgot to send my daily ‘OK’ check in message. I feel terrible that I might have made others worry and am not even sure I will have satellite service under such tall trees in this narrow canyon. But lights flash green and the message sends. It’s 2am now. But better late than never.
By daylight I still do not see the packer camp. Not here and not at the second bridge where deadfall covers the forest floor. My guidebook seems to need an update. The river grows in its descent, trickling tributaries adding up to a constant flow. The trail follows gently alongside small but lively cascades and calm reflecting pools, to the still expanse of Washburn lake.
Bear footprints in many sizes are imprinted in the marshy south shore. I hear flapping duck wings, splashing fish, buzzing insects. But still no people. What did everyone do with all those permits they had reserved? Is every single person in the backcountry on Half Dome right now? I stop for a snack on the warm sand, again amazed that I can have such a place all to myself.Though there are a few large pools and falls, the river is less exciting in the stretch that follows. The path widens and flattens, sand loosened by horse feet. No one at all is at the ranger station or even at Merced Lake where the High Sierra camp has been dismantled for the season, only bare concrete pads and piled up tent frames. Still I am surprised to not have passed a single hiker on a sunny long weekend.
I eat lunch under pines on the grassy shore of the lake, gleefully remembering the now ripe avocado in my bear can. The sun is warm, but fall is all around. Nearby, a large stand of aspens has already lost its leaves, though trees on the far shore stand a bright orange-yellow against the dark pines and steely granite. Onward, downward. 12 miles back to the valley, but why rush? It’s unlikely I would make the last bus today even of I did. As I turn toward Yosemite Valley I see smoke in the air, the smoke I could smell last night. Smoke coming from the direction I am headed. What, I suddenly think, if the reason I have been so alone is that there is a fire and the trail is closed? What if my fire was not cold yesterday and I am the cause of the smoke? Or, less dramatically, it could be a proscribed burn, of drifting from afar. I know not, but am most definitely concerned. Enough that I feel silly taking photos of aspens and the river when I might be in danger.
I keep heading toward the smoke hoping for a view of its origins or even better, to see an actual person who knows what is up. I cross a bridge through a deep smooth granite canyon, headed directly to where the smoke seems thickest. And then, when I am for real worried, the trail provides. A hiker coming for the valley. The first human I have seem in over two days. His name is Peter and he says not to worry. That I just missed a team of rangers and they bore no warnings of new fires. Peter tells me that the rangers had just closed the station and Merced Lake high sierra camp only hours before I passed through. How narrow the window for company vs solitude. As I continue, with much less angst, toward Little Yosemite Valley there are still more hikers. A woman with a tiny pack who lives in Yosemite just finishing an ambitious overnight solo peak bagging trip keeps me company for a mile. Then more pairs of backpackers, some looking futilely for the camping area that used to be below Moraine Dome. I traverse the charred black and ashy remnants of the fire that swept through this area only days after I passed through last year. Clumps of green and yellow vegetation push through the grey powdery remains.
Then, the Little Yosemite Valley campground looking just as I left it. A village of empty tents, most occupants still out hiking Half Dome or Cloud’s Rest. It was here that I spent my first solo backpacking night just over a year ago, first day out on the JMT, wide-eyed and skittish.
As it gets dark I join a group at one of the communal fire pits. Six friends from work out on a weekend adventure hiking Half Dome. I share tales of the PCT and they share whisky. Then word goes round the circle that there’s beer left to drink. “I only drink Sierra Nevada in the Sierra Nevada,” I joke, not wanting to consume such a hard won beverage carried uphill from the valley. But there is a Sierra Nevada, green can conjured from some forgotten pack pocket. And I drink it while explaining the concept of trail magic. I sleep peacefully, beer as my earplugs (beerplugs?) against noises in the night.
In the morning I spend a few minutes siting alongside the Merced river, before tackling the Mist Trail in all its steepness. Perhaps not the best idea in the morning with holiday hoards of day hikers headed up to Vernal and Nevada Falls, modest but still running enough to draw crowds. Waiting for so many other to pass on the steep steps takes far too long. Lesson learned, stick to the JMT when backpacking during Happy Isles day hiker rush hour. I take lots of breaks as consolation, and spend some time making friends with a ground squirrel. Before remembering that they are bushy-tailed plague rats.
Back in the Valley, I accidentally steal a hot shower at Curry Village, despite wandering around looking for someone to pay. I make lunch and wander through the Visitor Center’s displays until the late afternoon bus arrives to take me home, feeling accomplish and reinvigorated, with all kinds of new stories to tell.