I must have been desperate for some final human contact when I picked up a hitch-hiker at the Crane Flat gas station. He was a retired professor of economics from Bristol, England, out on a tour of the Western United States. We drove up the Tioga Road into the parking lot a half-mile past the Tuolumne Meadows wilderness center. The professor left north toward Lembert Dome, and I left south along the John Muir Trail toward Rafferty Creek. The river was flowing high, the crowds were still at home, and I was alone in the wilderness.
I took my time, especially at the steep beginning of the climb up to Tuolumne Pass. There was no one to rush me, no big meal to cook, no agenda for the day at all other than to get to camp. Mount Dana and Mammoth Peak loomed over the mouth of Lyell Canyon, and I took plenty of pictures. For all the fear that loneliness can create, it also instills a sense of freedom of which I took full advantage.
After the first mile of uphill, the incline grows more gradual, the valley grows narrower, and the trees become more sparse. The trail here was mostly dry with patches of snow and mud here or there. Behind me, to the north, Saddlebag Lake area peaks come into view, Conness, North Peak, and White Mountain. This was the sort of view that inspires one to pore over maps and plan trips into new places.
I reached Tuolumne Pass, where the trail crosses over into the Merced River drainage. I continued hiking toward the High Sierra Camp. The snow on this part of the trail got deeper, and I spent a decent amount of time slipping down hard-packed snow and digging my legs out of surprise postholes. I reached camp, though, to find myself alone. Here, knowing that night was coming, I wondered how strong my imagination could be, how much my mind, which knows there’s nothing out there, could resist my heart, which skipped a beat at the rustle of a few leaves.
By nightfall I was still by myself. As I fell asleep, a deep fog rose out of the canyons below. It came over me on little cat feet, on silent haunches, as it veiled the peaks and trees around me. It entirely concealed the slopes and buttresses of Fletcher Peak, only a few hundred feet away from me. As I slipped in and out of sleep through the night, I’d find the fog had ebbed, and that a frost had settled on my sleeping bag.