Lower Cathedral Lake to Lyell Canyon
Day: 11.6 Miles
Trip: 34.5 Miles
I wake up at 4:30am and prepare my breakfast beside Lower Cathedral Lake. Farther down the shoreline, I can see that Ladd and Derek aren’t awake yet. I won’t be hiking with them this morning, but we have plans to meet up in Tuolumne Meadows for a second breakfast before making our way down Lyell Canyon.
I hike four miles to Highway 120, excited by the prospect of hot food and a cold beer at Tuolumne Meadows. The Junction near the highway is confusing. The JMT, PCT, and an assortment of side trails either merge or divide every time I turn a corner, reminding me of a pile of spaghetti noodles that has fallen to the kitchen floor. I look over my maps, walk in a few circles, and review the maps again. Fuck it. I charge towards the sound of Highway 120. I’ll figure out where to go from there.
I find a wooden structure that resembles a touristy-looking help center. Standing next to the building are a couple muscly men in white t-shirts, who are happy to inform me that “backpackers always get mixed up and lost when they come through here.” They point towards a dirt road that leads to the highway and tell me to walk east for about a mile, until I see a sign for the JMT again.
Tuolumne Meadows, hosting a small post office, market, and restaurant, is a no-brainer as far as resupplies along the JMT and PCT are concerned. Both trails, which coincide at this point, pass within feet of the convenient service area. It’s 8:30am, when I walk up to the resupply point that will provide me with my first cold beer on the JMT. Outside of the store, there is a backpacker with “All you need is love” written on the back of his sweat-stained t-shirt. To my right, a girl with a slightly torn skirt sets down a faded blue backpack and limps towards the post office. A sunburned man, sitting at a picnic table, opens a box of frosted donuts and exclaims “4000 calories for four bucks! That’s one-thousand calories a dollar!” This place is crawling with northbound PCT hikers, who have been on the trail for over 900 miles. I am bemused and humbled by their company.
Inside the market, I quickly locate a 24-ounce Coors Light and turn my attention to the bright red sunburn that has been growing on the back of my neck for the past three days. Gently passing my hand from one shoulder to the other, I can feel the heat radiating from my skin. I feel foolish for underestimating the absolute necessity of a sun hat in these mountains. I wander from aisle to aisle, desperately searching for a display of beautiful wide-brimmed hats, but find nothing. Cradling my ice-cold beer, I begin to mope my way towards the register at the front of the store. How on earth can the owner of this store not realize that idiots from the east coast are going to come out here without adequate sun protection and potentially die from sunburns on their necks? At the last possible moment, with a heart riddled with worry and impending despair, I spot the most glorious green polyester object that I have ever seen in my entire life. I lunge towards the lone sun hat that is hanging precariously from a shelf full of cliff bars and potato chips, and take it into my hands. It seems to be the only sun hat left, and somehow the price tag has been removed. This is irrelevant though, because this hat is worth ten times it’s weight in gold right now. This hat is going to save me from the most painful sunburn on earth. Proudly, I bring the hat and can of Coors Light to the old wrinkly gentleman working behind the register. “How much for the hat?” I ask. “We don’t sell no hats here,” the wrinkly man replies. I ponder this for a moment, as he rings up my beer. “A dollar and eighty-nine cents,” he tells me. “For the hat and the beer?” I wonder aloud. “Well, we don’t sell hats here, so yes.” I leave the store and walk to the side of the road, wearing my new green sun hat, crack open my Coors Light, and bask in the glory of my self-proclaimed awesomeness. It’s 8:45am.
By the time Ladd and Derek arrive to Tuolumne Meadows, I’ve done my resupply, reorganized my pack, recharged my cell phone, written in my journal, and talked with a dozen or so different PCT hikers. I’ve also eaten a large breakfast sandwich, a bag of potato chips, a snickers bar, and a frosted donut. I washed all of this down with two cold Gatorades. It’s only noon, and I feel as though I’ve been living in this day for a lifetime. Ladd and Derek tell me that they plan on doing lots of fishing, while hiking down Lyell Canyon, and invite me to partake in their leisurely afternoon. They have extra gear for me to use and are eager to teach me how to fly fish, as long as I acquire a day permit to do so from inside the general store. I eagerly accept their proposal and return to the wrinkly man inside the store to purchase a fishing permit. “Don’t need to pay for one,” he says. “It’s free fishing day in California.” Twice a year, on the sixth of July and the seventh of September, anyone in California can legally fish for the price of zero dollars. I’m having a pretty good day, as far as acquiring free stuff is concerned.
We spend our afternoon hiking the relatively flat section of trail through Lyell Canyon, stopping every mile or two to cast our lines into the shallow creek that it follows. The sky is nearly cloudless, the sun seems relatively mild from beneath my new hat, and my keenness for the Sierra Nevada Mountains grows stronger by the hour.
Late in the day, I begin to lag behind Ladd and Derek. A blister that began to form on the bottom of my left foot two days ago has popped, and I can feel the moisture of serum pouring out beneath my toes. I’ve been anticipating this moment all day, but I’m surprised by the sudden accumulation of discomfort that I’m experiencing in both of my feet right now. Every time I take a step, it feels like someone is smashing the outside of my right foot with a sledgehammer. Despite my effort to transcend the pain, by thinking of it as a burning sensation that is somehow massage-oriented and enjoyable, I continue to lag farther and farther behind my friends. For nearly half an hour, I hike alone, alternating a cumbersome fishing rod between my right and left hands. I’m beginning to grow frustrated and annoyed by the lanky object, when I turn a corner and find myself standing behind a group of five hikers that has congregated in the middle of the trail. Ladd and Derek have reunited with Ruby and her two new trail-friends, Sarah and Christine. I smile and greet everyone as politely as possible, despite feeling like Chuck Norris is kickboxing the shit out of my feet right now. I learn that Ruby met Sarah and Christine in Tuolumne Meadows earlier this afternoon, when they were setting out on a four-day section-hike to Reds Meadow and Mammoth Lakes. The girls took an immediate liking to Ruby and the three of them decided to hike together for and indefinite amount of time. Along with Ladd and Derek, the six of us proceed to hike and fish our way through Lyell Canyon.
At dusk, our small group stops and makes camp. Tents are pitched, dinner is made, and a fresh bottle of bourbon is passed around the new circle of friends. These people are as intriguing to me as the foreign landscape that I’ve been walking through for the past three days.