Day 1: Monday August 13th - 4.5 miles
Cottonwood Pass to Chicken Spring Lake
My name is Jillian. I’m a thru hiker! And also a musician, as you can probably tell from this band website where you’re reading this blog (Check out my music! It’s great, I promise!). For the first 27 years of my life I never thought of myself as athletic or the ‘”outdoorsy type” (even though I had always secretly wished to be) but after hiking the John Muir Trail this August I honestly feel like I can do anything and be anything I put my mind to. I’m going to do my best to remember and write about our trip here and go through the journey a couple days at a time.
The JMT was originally my husband (and band mate) Logan’s dream that I opted onto out of support. I also wanted to do it to push myself in new ways. Plus, I knew I would miss him if he went without me. He joined my band The Mailboxes to support my dream and so I wanted to support his dreams by doing this with him. I never would have done anything like this if it weren’t for Logan, but I’m so glad I did!
Logan watched the documentary “Mile, Mile and a Half” a few years ago, which is what sparked his interest in the hike. Ever since then, it has been his goal to hike the JMT before thirty. Our JMT plans were finally set into motion last year after Logan broke his right wrist and left elbow in a crazy and serious accident. The accident made him want to do the hike even more and to do it as soon as possible before he broke any other body parts. We started prepping and buying a ton of outdoor gear, which is really fun (especially if you get an REI membership because you can try things and return them if they don’t work out!). We consider going to REI our version of a “date night” now. To hike the JMT you need a permit and you have to apply for a lottery because so many people want to hike it each year. We had to apply several times, but eventually we got a permit to hike southbound (SOBO) starting August 14th from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney. Most people who apply for a permit get denied and SOBO JMT permits are in high demand, so we were so excited when we finally got ours!
Logan meticulously planned the trip for us (much like I do for our tours) and he was the one doing pretty much all the work and research to prepare. In my head, this was HIS thing and I was just here for the ride (and the cool gear and outdoor clothing). As the hike got closer we got more and more excited (and Logan got more and more ultra light gear because he was afraid of me not being able to enjoy the trip while carrying a super heavy pack. I think he wanted to lighten his own load, too). We planned to drive out to California starting August 8th and take a scenic 5-day road trip out to Yosemite through other national parks and cities we wanted to explore. Much to our dismay, a few days before we were supposed to leave on our road trip to CA we started hearing about the Ferguson Fires, which closed Yosemite and made us worry that our trip would be cancelled. Even though the fires hadn’t stopped by our departure date we still decided to start the drive to California all the way from Tennessee in hopes that the fires would die down over the next week and that we would still be able to use our permit to go SOBO. If that failed, our plan was to try and get a NOBO permit starting at Whitney as soon as we could.
As we got closer to California, it seemed like we would still be able to use our original permit since Yosemite was opening on our start date, but then we got an email saying our permit for Glacier Point was null because firefighters and responders were still posted there and that we would have to “reschedule” our trip. In other words “try again next year.” Still hopeful (and also a little nervous), we drove to Lone Pine on Sunday the 12th (Logan’s 29th birthday by the way!) and hoped to get a NOBO permit as soon as we could. We woke up super early and got in line with the other hikers and got a NOBO permit right away! We couldn’t believe how easy it was compared to the hassle of getting our SOBO permit earlier this year. We got a permit to start at Cottonwood Pass instead of Whitney Portal because Logan figured it would be a less popular permit and therefore easier to acquire (and it really was so easy!). That meant, however, that the first 20 miles of our hike we weren’t even going to be technically on the JMT, but rather the PCT and then we would meet up with the JMT at Crabtree Meadow in a couple days. I’m somewhat thankful for the extra miles, however, because it gave us a chance warm up and get our hiking legs ready before hitting the biggest mountain in the contiguous US, Mt. Whitney, and all the passes to come.
After we got our permit, we went to breakfast at Alabama Hills Café in Lone Pine for one last big meal before the trail and then headed up in our car to the Cottonwood Pass trailhead. As soon as we started driving up the mountain we lost phone service, which was only upsetting because I had forgotten to text Logan’s mom that we had gotten our permit and were starting a day early! (Sorry Wendy! She was really worried because we didn’t gain service until Thursday and had no idea what had happened to us!) After the 45 minute drive to the trailhead, we locked up our car, got our packs on, and started on the trail – it felt surreal. I had no idea what I was getting myself into! I’d never done anything like this – neither had Logan. All I knew was that this would be my life for the next 18 or so days.
The first day was easy looking back – although Logan will tell you I immediately started whining and questioning everything as soon as we started going uphill for a good stretch. We only hiked 4.5 miles that day because Logan was worried about me getting elevation sickness and wanted to give us a chance to acclimate to the higher elevation. We ended the day fairly early at our campsite at Chicken Spring Lake, which was beautiful and (again) surreal. The whole walk up to the campsite was beautiful, too. Heck I saw so much beauty I don’t think I could really take it all in. The scenery was so different from what we were used to in the Tennessee mountains and everything felt so open and dramatic. Once we arrived at Chicken Spring Lake we set up camp and hung out on our sleeping pads down by the lake where it was cool and sunny. There were some other campers there who were mule supported, which means they had mules carry out a lot of their gear to the site. You have to walk over a lot of mule poop on the trail. This fun element lasted pretty much the entire trip and is something they don’t mention in the brochures. We passed by some real life cowboys several times who were guiding the mules to the different sites. After setting up camp, Logan and I relaxed the rest of the day and played a card game with a deck of cards we bought at the Grand Canyon on our road trip the week before (it was the only time we used that deck of cards on the whole trip by the way). It was by far the easiest most relaxing day we had the whole trip and I was feeling really excited for what was to come.