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.