Just like sport brings people together, so does the trail.
On the trail, especially in the backcountry, I find that everyone just loves life and welcomes every interaction. Maybe it is because everyone is dressed similarly so there isn’t that trap to prematurely judge someone based on what they are wearing. Or because we find ourselves all on the trail so we know that we must be similar-minded at least in that regard, removing some of the wariness we feel when we meet someone we feel we do not know anything about. Maybe it is because we are not in a hurry and so we have all the time in the world to learn about each other’s stories. Either way, I found that the trail is abundant with warm smiles and enthusiastic greetings.
In Yosemite, we met the most courageous and spirited people of all ages, from all walks of life. I had had the idea to photograph portraits of those that I met on the trail. But once there, I didn’t feel like I was ready for that yet. I still struggle to express what I do, or at least what I hope to do, and so I didn’t know how to approach it. I am normally quite brave so I don’t feel too bad for having failed this one time – though I do regret it, as it would have made a beautiful story. I hope that my words are enough.
The understated climbing instructor
Our last day in Yosemite was spent rock climbing in the Valley with Yosemite Mountaineering School. There were two teenage brothers with us who would bicker, as brothers do, throughout the day. Over seven hours, we did about five climbs including some crack and slab climbing. The climbs were rated about 5.6 to 5.8 (5.0 is the “easiest”) and were about 15 to 20 metres in height; they were each different, challenging in their own ways, but all incredibly fun. My favourite was definitely the slab; it was like a delicate dance across the rock, with your heart in your throat because the slightest err of a foot or hand could scrape you off.
Our climbing instructor was understated and wiry-framed with long brown hair and bright eyes. As we climbed, he would recline on a sun-bathed boulder with his arms behind his head and yell out tips and encouragement. On one particular crack, one of the boys was seriously struggling and he would slip off and swing out, almost colliding with his brother who was belaying. He was getting frustrated but each time, our instructor would just calmly untangle him and set him straight back on the wall, not even asking him if he wanted to have a break or to stop entirely. Eventually, the brother successfully navigated the crack. Luke and I think that will be a lesson that sticks with him for his life; that persistence pays off.
Throughout our trip, I was very intrigued by those who work in National Parks. I would watch them finish their shift and walk and cycle off to their home in the Park. I wondered about what their lives must be like, so I had no hesitation in prying into our climbing instructor’s life! It turns out that he had climbed El Capitan twice; one route took him eight hours whilst another took him EIGHT DAYS. For eight days, he was alone on the wall. When he told me this, I couldn’t help but exclaim, “that is CRAZY”, and after a brief pause, he nodded and agreed, “yes, it was”. He said he just loves it in Yosemite; he had spent the last thirteen seasons as a climbing instructor and in the winter, he works as a skiing instructor. We enquired as to how many days a week he works and he said that at this time of the year, he works five days a week and before we could say anything else, he said, “but I don’t take the other two days off. Like last week, my girlfriend and I did two peaks and two climbs in just over 10 hours”. We were lost for words.
The 33-year old taking his first ever paid vacation
There are two things that definitely place Australia above the US and that is healthcare and four weeks of paid annual leave. I can never believe that Americans only get two weeks. I suppose it would stem back to the industrial age when governments and businesses placed highest value on production – but surely, attitudes have changed. Maybe one day, the laws and norms will catch up. We often generalise and patronise Americans for being so insular but I wonder if we would be, more or less, the same if we too only got two weeks of leave!
I met a 33-year old American man who said that this was the first time in his life that he was able to take paid vacation leave. He had left his wife back home in New Orleans and was setting out for fourteen days of solitude on the John Muir Trail. He was looking forward to having so much time to contemplate and reflect but admitted that he is prone to overthinking; luckily, he had a couple of friends who would meet him for parts of the trail to interrupt this.
We marveled at the culture in Yosemite; at how inspiring it is to meet people who make the wilderness their priority. He said that in his experience, outside of the west coast, people generally do not appreciate the value of backpacking. His manager and colleagues had been surprised to hear how he was spending his precious leave.
I wonder how his hike went and how he feels being back at home and back at work…we had spoken about how addictive the trail is so I have no doubt that once back in the confines of his apartment and office, he felt slightly lost and out of place. But the outdoors teaches you to be present and to be grateful, so I’m sure he would’ve pulled himself out of any wallowing.
The 65-year olds who put us to shame
Can you imagine your parents (or even grandparents) spending twenty-three days backpacking, sleeping on the ground in tents and taking care of their bodily needs in the open air, in the wilderness? I know people my age who would not be able to handle this and yet, on the YARTS bus from Yosemite Valley to Sunrise Lakes, Luke spent the entire ride chatting to an older American couple, both in their mid-sixties, who had done just that.
Twenty-three days on the John Muir Trail and they still looked fresh as daisies! In fact, they even said to Luke that they just wanted to get back on the trail again and Luke overheard the man saying to his wife, “I can’t wait to work out tomorrow. I’m going to work out like I’ve never worked out before!”, as if twenty-three days backpacking hadn’t been enough!
They actually recommended the Cathedral Lakes hike to us, which ended up being absolutely sublime and one of the highlights of our outdoor adventures in the US.
Their vigor for life was impressive and instilled in me a determination that that is how I want to live my life in my sixties too. In fact, for the man's 60th birthday, he had climbed Half Dome! It is always uplifting to meet people who really grasp life by the reins, especially older people. I sometimes work myself into a panic, thinking about how many adventures there are to have in this world, and how little time I have. Hearing these sixty-something year olds’ stories comforted me in a way; hopefully, I still have a long life of adventure ahead of me.
We had countless encounters with many backpackers and hikers but these three left the biggest marks on me. I hope I remember their stories for when I need a little boost of courage and I hope that you have found some inspiration in them as well. I've always been intrigued by others and their stories (seriously, I have journals dating back 5+ years that recount interesting interactions in almost tiring detail and I am involved in this Maitree project, celebrating local community workers and volunteers). I would love to do this in a more organised capacity when I next visit a big National Park so would love to know how you, as a reader, felt about this post.