It was mid-August, 4:45am, and I was lost. Sort of.
Two miles from the trailhead on a path I’d tread more times than I could recollect, I was standing in the middle of a shrub, its brittle twigs snapping against my bare arms and legs as I fought to see beyond the illumination of my headlamp. I squinted in the darkness, as if that’d help. I sighed, let out a little chuckle at myself and pulled out my phone. GPS doesn’t work well in the Kings Canyon, but if I could figure out whether or not I was even facing east, I could maybe backtrack and figure out an easier path.
The crossing at Bubbs Creek boasts several footbridges, but the nearly 200% snowpack of last winter flooded creeks and rivers so that even small rock-hops were transformed into raging rivers, too deep and too swift to even consider. Earlier in the season seventeen backpackers got stranded on the other side for four days when a few hot afternoons rushed along snow melt in the high country. Overnight, Bubbs swelled nearly two feet higher, violently hurling logs into the Kings River downstream—the current so strong it even moved boulders.
It had retreated significantly over that month, but a safe crossing still involved a walk on a log, a bit of bushwacking through and over a lot of debris and a knee-deep ford through swift water. And while I’d crossed multiple times in these conditions, the darkness of pre-dawn removed all context from my trek and I couldn’t see more than 10’ ahead of me. A crossing that would’ve taken four minutes in daylight ate up 20 minutes of crashing through the underbrush before I finally caught a glimpse of the footbridge in the swinging light of my headlamp. I sighed, finally, and stepped into the creek, the cold water flooding my shoes as I sought purchase among the rocks I couldn’t see.
Armed only with what I could fit in the 6-liter runner’s pack strapped snugly to my back, I was fast-packing the Rae Lakes Loop in a single day. One of the most popular hikes in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, the 43-mile loop gains nearly 7,000′ of elevation over the first seventeen miles along Bubbs Creek and the John Muir Trail, topping out at Glen Pass (11,926′) before rolling along the pristine alpine Rae Lakes, Woods Creek, and descending to Paradise Valley and the Kings River.
Living in Kings Canyon National Park’s little village of Cedar Grove put me at the trailheads for some of the most spectacular hikes in the Sierra. Apart from my park ranger wilderness patrol duties, a personal goal of putting 1,000 hiking miles under my trail shoes during the season pushed me out the door even on the days that the thermostat inched above 90-degrees, or the mosquitos were so bad they looked like clouds against the clear blue skies, or the smoke rising from wildfires in the Central Valley or Yosemite caught in my throat and colored the air orange and brown.
Any seasonal worker will tell you that the lifestyle isn’t always easy. You give up a lot for what you gain. Park Rangers are paid in sunsets, as the saying goes. Crap pay, no job security, no benefits, often hazardous working conditions, and the job only lasts five months a year.
But those sunsets, turning the granite walls of the canyon yellow and orange. Those tiny pink wildflowers that blanket the hillsides under the Giant Sequoia. Those rugged granite peaks still covered in ice and snow. Those black bears and western tanagers and rainbow trout and angry stellar’s jays hopping after crickets in the cheatgrass. Those clear, perfect alpine lakes and wide open meadows. That silence. That wild space.
The last year has been one under construction for me. One of building my own peace, my own closures and beginnings; fostering my own community and creating spaces for myself and for others; one of assembling a person I want to be—often messing up a lot along the way, praying my better angels to shout down the demons in my mind.
And somehow, in some quiet way, I realized I was ok. The burden of old decisions and the way I grew up and floundered relationships gripped my mind with less force and some of the walls I’d built around myself crumbled.
Something about those still, parched afternoons, sun charring the brown grasses, their dry stalks tinkling lightly together like a wind chime at the slightest breeze; boxed wine and cheap beer on the communal porch, the arguments of bickering mules emerging from the darkness, mingling with our conversation about everything and nothing at all, chasing the dying days to the edges of the earth.