Monday evening, the week we are due to leave for the John Muir Trail on Thursday:
Pack has been packed and repacked and is now perfect, resupply bucket has been mailed to our halfway point: the Muir Trail Ranch, toenails are trimmed super short, there’s no rain in the immediate forecast, the water crossings are low, and I have a box with pajamas, bikini, and clean clothes to send ahead to the hotel for after; we couldn’t be more ready. I woke up at 6pm for my last shift at work before the trip and glanced at my notifications when I hit the snooze button: 19 texts?? 4 or 5 I can understand but 19? Something’s wrong. My heart sank. I clicked, and held my breath. The first message I see is a news article about California and the wildfires. Then I see one from my hiking partner that starts “I’m devastated.” And from friends asking if this meant the trip was cancelled.
Yes, that’s what it meant.
They needed to use all the resources they have to fight the fires threatening the Sequoias, so they’re closing all national forest land from the following day until the day we were due to fly home.
Poof! Just like that, the dream is gone.
I stared at my backpack, my guidebook, my countdown on the calendar, the floor. Mourning, shocked but not. I grew up in California, I know what it does. I knew September was a risky time, and I said all along that I was less worried about our fitness or preparedness than I was about the fires. Somewhere in the back of my mind the trip was an “if” until we were sitting in the hot tub in Lone Pine after finishing the trek, going through pictures and eating all the food we could find.
But that wouldn’t be happening.
But here’s the thing: when you spend this much time in the mountains, the weather is going to disrupt your itinerary from time to time. And you become accepting over the years, you become adaptable, good at not getting too attached to a specific plan, ready to change gears or stay home or whip up an alternate adventure. I could hear Ross’s voice in my head from the Friends episode where they’re moving the couch up the stairs: PIVOT!
Weather is fickle, mountain weather even more so. The higher the altitude the more chance for extremes and unpleasantness. The day I was shivering in seven top layers and three bottom layers on the summit of Rainier, it was 80 and sunny in town. I’ve been caught in rain that didn’t exist on the drive home, only on the mad dash to the parking lot. We get sunburned in blinding bright sky above the clouds while the city folk enjoy a quiet gloomy day. Countless times we cancel climbs, change locations, change from rain to snow gear, pull over to check conditions in other areas when the intended one is wet and blustery. I believe that being able to roll with nature’s changes is one of the key characteristics of a mountain person, and have noticed the people who are the least happy hikers are the ones who get all pouty when nature doesn’t cooperate with their “plans.” Nature cares not of our plans. She has bigger fish to fry than to worry about who’s out getting what Insta shot.
So we pivot. PIVOT! No time to mope around, it’s September and winter is just around the corner.
We took a short moment to grieve, then after a brief deliberation, we knew our Plan B. It was something we had both had our eye on for years, and had tried to get permits for, but always wondered when (or if) we’d ever get lucky enough to win that lottery, or when we’d have the time to try for a walk-up permit. Now. We have the time now. The window is wide open, work, kids, prep, fitness, gear, weather, obligations, our slates were clean and everything was pointing to YES. And so it was decided: we’d shoot for the rare and elusive walk-up permit to do the 93-mile Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier.
Thursday at 4 in the morning:
I drove the couple hours to the ranger station in the dark, wanting to be first in line. I had six different itineraries with me, as I’d heard the rangers don’t help plan, you have to arrive with a plan. I stood in the cold at the Longmire ranger station with three other hikers, flipping through the camp reservation binder, looking at the map, looking at my itineraries, making adjustments, checking the time every few minutes. I stared through the window as the ranger got ready to open the doors.
After a bit of finagling–she was more helpful than I heard they were supposed to be–we had a full loop, counterclockwise, eight days, starting the following morning. I walked to my truck holding the permit and trying not to skip, or sing. I had butterflies in my stomach and a huge grin on my face.
Another dream was coming true instead of the one I thought was going to, and it was one I’ve had for a long time and never thought it would happen, but it’s about to: starting the next day, with a few of the most popular camps, good distances between camps, and with a full week of no precipitation (some of you will get how rare just that part is). It fell into place, in that uncanny and perfect way things that are meant to be do.
Wendy Harrington is a California native who has lived in a small town at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington state since 2001. Her love of trail running and peakbagging has led her to summit all five Washington volcanoes, climb to the high points of three states, and put nearly a thousand miles a year on her boots. Her loves include ridgelines, saddles, granite, one-day pushes on big mountains, anything volcanic, long solo days, and objectives that push limits and test endurance.