Long Winding Road
Father-and-son pair take on John Muir Trail.
Thursday, August 12, 2004
To travel 222 miles by plane, it would take exactly 42 minutes and 12 seconds; by car averaging 60 miles per hour, three hours and 42 minutes; and running at a constant five miles per hour, 44 hours and 24 minutes. However, for a group of adventurous hikers following the footsteps of the legendary environmentalist, John Muir, and braving a midnight avalanche, an evening bear encounter,and freeze-dried food, it took 20 demanding days.
Father-and-son team Steve and Nathan Benoit, along with two friends, departed mid-July to undertake the task of hiking the John Muir Trail in its entirety. Steve’s a Del Rey Oaks resident who works as a local firefighter and is a volunteer diver at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Nathan’s an engineering major at the University of California at Davis. The trail they braved stretches from Yosemite Valley all the way to the highest mountain in the continental United States: Mount Whitney.
The Benoits began their journey in Yosemite, bags packed with camping supplies, enough food to last nine days, and an iron will to succeed. Nathan says the most daunting part was the thought of just how long 222 miles is toactually walk.
“I kept thinking about how far it was, comparing it to walking from home to Davis then on to Sacramento,” Nathan says.
Despite second thoughts, the group embarked, making three stops in relative civilization and then bearing down for 11 days in pure wilderness. The first three days were spent hiking through Yosemite to the first stop at civilization, Tuolumne Meadows, to restock on supplies and pick up some equipment at a small general store. From there it was off to relatively unexciting Red’s Meadows campgrounds on the sixth day, and then finally onto Lake Edison to pick up a shipment of food that the group had sent ahead of time. There was also finally the chance to eat a good meal, served by a local restaurant as a reward for making it through the first half of the journey and dealing with the bland freeze-dried food.
“I ate like I was a bottomless pit when we were there; I actually was finishing off other people’s food,” Nathan says. His final tally of devoured food included a hamburger, French fries, a salad, pasta, some pie, and ice cream.
The next eleven days were an adventure into a different world. Averaging 11 miles per day, the group crossed the trail running into other hikers, snow-covered mountain passes, and incomparable views.
While the days were filled with physical exertion, the evenings usually served as down time to enjoy dinner, albeit of the freeze-dried variety, and catch up on some reading. But even this down time was not without someextra entertainment.
One night, as Nathan slept in his tent, he heard a large rustling nearby and then felt something pushing its nose into the side of the tent. Instead of panicking, Nathan ordered the brown bear to go away. The bear obliged, and Nathan rolled over and went backto sleep.
But what really made the experience meaningful to Nathan was the feeling that he was seeing something that most people never will. He describes the scenery of the area surrounding the trail as “breathtaking,” even though he is a regular on the outdoor scene.
“It made me appreciate how many amazing places there are that you can’t get to by road that most people will simply never see,” he says. This awe became the defining tone for the entire trip. For the travelers, the more rousing hiking came when they crossed the snow-covered passes, providing a dramatic change from the hot dirt trail.
Another obstacle was the omnipresence of voracious mosquitoes, which only dispersed upon rainfall. The first portion of the hike had been blessed with seven straight days of afternoon drizzle, keeping the pests at a tolerable number. However, during the second portion of the hike, mosquitoeswere everywhere.
On day nineteen, the group reached the foot of Mount Whitney, where they eagerly bragged about their trip to hikers making smaller 11-mile hikes from nearby areas. But the joy didn’t last into the night. The weather turned, and the skies let down rain, hail, and snow, soaking most of the group’s belongings, and making for an uneasy night filled with lightning and thunder.
The weather also brought on the scariest occurrence of the trip, when an avalanche of boulders let loose at midnight right above the group’s campsite. Nathan says that he first mistook the enormous sound of flowing rocks for really bad thunder and then foran airplane.
The next day, the unharmed group strapped on soggy packs and began their final accent up the mountain and then to their awaiting car.
The journey completed and two weeks removed, Nathan still refers to it with a level of awe. It seems obvious that this hike was not only a physical experience but also an emotional one. He says the whole event provided an opportunity to bond with his father and also gave him a new look into himself.
“It changed my whole perception about what I can do,” he says.
Being such an amazing experience, I had to inquire if it would be a journey he would soon retrace. As a testament to the challenge involved in completing the hike, he responded, in no apparent rush, “Yeah, but only in a few years.”