Alive and in the Woods

This post was originally featured on Plymouth Rock Outdoor's Base Camp blog

There is something magical about living in the woods for weeks at a time.  Your senses become piqued; you notice every movement in your surroundings, you can hear people from a mile away, and you can smell their deodorant from even further. You know exactly when you need to eat. Most conversations somehow digress into talks of food or poop.  You walk around camp barefoot and you lay in the dirt. You are calm, relaxed, and joyful.

I first got to experience this in 2012, when I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail with my girlfriend, Pauline, and two best friends, David and Ryan. We spent 6 months in the woods and it was the most challenging and rewarding experience of my life. Early this year, Pauline and her friend, Bethany, decided they wanted to plan a big trip: something grand, something incredible. 

After a little research, they decided to thru-hike the 210 mile John Muir Trail in California, which Backpacker Mag called “America’s most beautiful trail. Period.”  At the time, it seemed unlikely that the rest of the AT team would be able to join. David and I both had full time jobs, and Ryan was still in school and on a limited budget. But David and I both quit our jobs this summer, and we commanded Ryan that he was coming too.  We were getting the team back together. We were going to hike the JMT.

Due to the trail’s popularity, getting a permit to thru-hike it is almost as difficult as actually hiking it.  Approximately 70% of applications are rejected. Reservations can be made 6 months in advance, but a percentage of permits are available on a first come, first served basis.  Since we didn’t have 6 months lead time before our trip, we were going to have to try to get one of the walk-up permits.  We had heard horror stories of people waiting around in Yosemite for weeks to obtain a permit.  We didn’t have that flexibility; we had already purchased flights home and we only had a few flex days built into our schedule. We knew we were taking a serious gamble, especially with a group of our size. But we set our sights on thru-hiking the JMT, so we were going to do it.  

Journal Entry, 7/29:

“We got to Yosemite around noon, realizing it was so late in the day already that we definitely wouldn’t get a JMT permit for tomorrow, and we may not even get a campsite permit for tonight. The park was hazed with smoke from the impending forest fire. Ryan dropped me at the wilderness permit office and I walked in and waited in line. I started speaking to a ranger named Maya and told her our game plan.  We had come from across the US and we were here to do the JMT. When and where can we start from?

She immediately seemed skeptical. We couldn’t start at the official start, Happy Isles, until September. That won’t work. Perhaps we could start at Glacier Point? Not until late August. That also won’t work. She began to shake her head. We were screwed.

The team walked in and I relayed the depressing news that we may not be hiking the JMT after all. Immediately, Maya surprised us all. A reservation had just opened. And we could start. From Happy Isles. Tomorrow. And we could have a Half Dome cables permit. The best possible opportunity. Unreal. The trail provides.”

The remainder of the trip was just as unbelievable. We hiked over 250 total miles, including sunrise summits of Half Dome and Mount Whitney (the tallest point in the contiguous U.S.).  We had midnight bear encounters, ate meals next to marmots, and regularly saw packs of deer. We got hailed on for 5 consecutive days. I got a bad case of food poisoning and my body rejected all sustenance for 24 hours. Three days later, I ate 12 Snickers in 1 hour. We climbed 10,000’ mountain passes in the middle of the night under a full moon. We made new friends and drank way too many Coors with them on our days off.  We traveled incredible terrain every day and we witnessed unreal displays of light every night.  There were definitely challenges along the way and we got into situations that were far from ideal. There were tears and smiles, shouts and laughs. We had everything we needed, or we learned to do without. Not everything was perfect, but we were alive and in the woods.

              Journal Entry, 8/11:

“Immediately after dinner it hailed. Again. But only for a brief 10 minutes this time. When we emerged from the tent, the light show had begun.

Rainbows; Swirling clouds of reds, yellows, violets;  Mountains lit red with the final light of the day; Valleys we had just climbed from now receiving the hail storm; Orange glow on alpine waters, dark night sky, speckled and reflected.”

Journal Entry, 8/22 (Final Day):  

“Every trip’s end comes with nostalgia. I think we were all ready to go home, back to the comforts of warm beds and showers, real food and toilets, internet and cars.  I came out here without a job, hoping to gain some insight on my next step. I’m not sure if I did, but I certainly know I’m coming back much more mentally clear.

Yesterday Ryan made the statement that out here you don’t really relax and get the clarity until you’ve been beaten up, exhausted, hungry, rained and hailed on, bruised and battered, nearly defeated; then you take your first, much-deserved, day off and you return to the trail a different person, like shedding a layer. Refreshed, full, clean, and ready for more adventures, more stories.

Although I’m ready to find my next step, I’m extremely sad this adventure is coming to a close. I will miss it. I will miss the trees, the scents, the deer, marmots, chipmunks; the sage, cloud shows, sunrises, sunsets, lightning concerts, rock faces; the smiles and the miles. Camp time in the evening, groans in the frosty tent to a 4 a.m. alarm. Stars, oh the stars. Campfires.  Beers and tequila on the off days. Amazing, endless views. The goofy and kind characters we met every day. And my team. I will really miss being in the woods with my team.


I'm in the process of publishing a photo book account of our journey. Stay tuned for updates. You can find more shots and stories from the trip here. Happy trails.