Rocky view from the John Muir Trail

words and photos by Karen Looney-Patterson ::

Would I be able to hear an approaching cougar?

What about a coyote?

A bear? Yosemite Valley is renowned for its over-eager bears. What would I do if a bear came after me?

My thoughts get interrupted as the muted grey sky breaks open, and rain begins to fall.

I’m hiking on a high, dry ridge with sparse vegetation. The first boom of thunder echoing through the valley made me nervous. Lightning storms are a daily occurrence on the John Muir Trail (JMT), almost like clockwork.

First comes the rain, then the lightning, and then the hail pellets. Usually, they passed within 20 minutes. But at a higher elevation with meager tree cover, I feel unsafe.

The tree canopy seems to attract more lightning than hide me from a strike. Likewise, the prickly under brush would probably burst into flames with the slightest spark. I may as well be standing on a matchstick.

Lake view with trees in the foreground and snowy sharp mountains in the background, part of the John Muir Trail

The John Muir Trail solo-hiking dream

Prior to starting the John Muir Trail, I dreamed wistfully of life in the backcountry.

I imagined climbing bravely to majestic mountain vistas, totally removed from digital technology, well fed and well rested with my minimalist gear.

I did not imagine dodging daily lightning storms on the super-conductive granite mountains or waking randomly through the night to strange noises, wondering if animals stole my food. Further, I also did not imagine how lonely and vulnerable I would feel out in the woods. 

But I’m solo hiking the John Muir Trail and I’m not leaving it any time soon. I’ve committed to three weeks out here.

I need to be brave.

Solo hiking the John Muir Trail: reality

This is a solo hike — my first one actually — so vulnerability is inevitable.

There is no one else to encourage me when there’s no other option but to cross a raging river. There is no one to turn to when I hear strange noises crack, snap, and crunch in the night.

I’m the only one who can push myself to the end of the trail. I’m the only one to push through my fear and awareness of how exposed I feel when traversing a narrow ridge at 10,000 feet or coming across fresh bear prints.

Back on the trail, the sky grows darker. I quicken my pace so I can get to a lower elevation as fast as I can. An intense thunderclap and white light flash in the sky.

The lightning is getting closer.

My throat tightens. I clench my fists and dig my trekking poles harder into the dusty ground to propel myself forward. The trail keeps winding, but I’m not getting lower. I look around for better cover.

More flashes streak across the sky.

The wind rises, rustling the scant young trees. Hair on my arms begin to prickle at the chill.

Hail is coming soon.

Lake with the reflection of mountains and trees.

The words of a young man in passing

Just ahead, a young man no older than 20-years-old hikes toward me. It’s reassuring to see another face. Unfortunately, we are heading opposite directions. I wave hello. He waves back.

“Hey,” I say. “What do you think of this storm?”

The young man shrugs. His oversized T-shirt flows like a tunic in the wind. I continue, “Do you think we should get on our backpacks?”

Earlier in my hike, one of the Park Rangers told me about lightning. He said that if I was trapped in a lightning storm, I could crouch down on top of my backpack and wait.

Since the Sierra Nevada mountain range is made primarily of granite, which conducts electricity extremely well, I wanted to get my body off the ground before lightning hit. So, at that moment, I wondered if this might be one of those desperate times.

However, the young man seems indifferent. He shrugs again.

“Well, you can stop or you can keep moving. Your chance of getting struck is about the same either way,” he says.

“Yeah.” I hoped for more reassurance, but the young man offered none. We nod to each other and continue our separate ways.

Pine trees, mountains, and blue skyJust keep hiking

I grit my teeth and plow forward. The encounter did nothing to ease my nerves. But the more I think about it, the more I realize the young man was right: This is the situation I’m in and I can’t change it. I just have to face it head on, be smart, and hope for the best.

As quick as my thoughts came, for a split second, the sky turns pure white. A bolt of lightning smashes into the side of the mountain where I was standing. Then a deafening boom shakes the ground.

I shriek, drop my trekking poles, and crouch on top of my backpack, panting hard. My heart is throwing a mosh pit in my chest as tiny pieces of hail start pelting me from above.

This could be it.

I could actually die out here. Alone, in the woods, with no way to contact my friends and family.

A gift on the trail

Just then, a woman appears. As I would learn, she’s a 60-year-old nurse, and we share the same name: Karen. She is also going the opposite direction, rushing to get through the hail. I call out to her, and she turns to find me trembling on my backpack. Karen comes over and asks how I am doing.

“That lightning’s really close. I don’t know what to do,” I gibber.

Karen puts her hands on her hips and looks up at the sky. “Well, when it would get really bad on the Appalachian, my friends and I would pop up the tent and make lunch,” she says cheerfully. She glances out at the valley, now shrouded in mist. “I think now’s a good time for lunch.”

Karen sits down, pulls out her camp stove, and makes us some powdered chai tea. I offer up some macaroons to share. We chat about where we are from and about our experiences on the trail. As we talk, I feel my body relax. And as I relax, so does Mother Nature. The rain and hail slow. The thunder grows quiet. The sky brightens. And nothing was on fire.

“Looks like we’re clear,” Karen smiles. I thank her heartily for spending time with me. Then we each pack up our gear and start back on our individual paths.

I did it. I survived the storm.

Experiencing inevitable fear

On I went following the trail until I successfully summit Mount Whitney, the end point to my solo hike of the JMT. All I can think about is a hot meal and a hot shower.

I head to Lone Pine, a California desert town popular with JMT hikers due to its access to Mount Whitney. After a good rest at the hostel, I reflect on my hike.

By doing things that scare me, I grew to trust my instincts and my resourcefulness a little bit more. More than that, I realize that fear is inevitable and even useful. My fears are there to help me survive in the wilderness.

It would not be wise to plunge onto the John Muir Trail without staying conscious of all its potential dangers. I do not advise pretending that there are none. But I do advise sitting with your fears in the outdoors, understanding them, and using them as a springboard for growth.

Your fears may never entirely go away, but they do remind you how amazing it is to climb those mountains, cross those waterfalls, and face that lightning. Adventure comes from going out in spite of your fears.

As that one hiker told me, I could either stand still or keep moving.

The lightning will come either way.

. . .

A woman, Karen Looney-Patterson, taking a selfie on the John Muir Trail.About the author
Karen Looney-Patterson grew up exploring the woods, creeks, and lakes. Most of her adult life was spent in Chicago, Portland, and Seattle. She finds solace in hiking and naturalist activities. She runs the blog Evergreen Awakening.

Karen has solo hiked the John Muir Trail, performed volunteer forest surveys, boat camped in the San Juan and Gulf Islands, worked trail maintenance for the Anacortes Community Forest Lands, and explored the natural wonders of Australia.

Find her online