The fifth in Charles Hodgkins’ “I Become a Better Citizen” series.
Late this past summer, Charles spent the better part of a week hiking through particularly remote areas of Yosemite National Park’s wilderness. He thought he’d be a pioneer by leaving his car at home and riding transit between San Francisco and Yosemite, but no, it turned out he wasn’t much of a pioneer in that way at all. Part V chronicles the final day of his 48-mile trek along the Merced River into Yosemite Valley. Click here to go back to where it all began.
I have the final 11 miles of my trek to knock out before catching my 3:45 p.m. bus at Curry Village, and since this is no kind of landscape to rush through, I set my alarm for 6:00 a.m. Even though I find it pretty easy to awake early when I’m backpacking, I compromise with myself by languishing for a few additional minutes. When I finally stumble out of my tent around 6:15, I realize that I really smell like campfire.
After my usual morning camping routine, I pack up my tent and everything else for the last time this week. My pack’s noticeably lighter than it was on Thursday morning, the direct result of eating a pound-and-a-half or so of food each day. I’ve planned well. In fact, I’m happily surprised that nothing’s gone wrong yet — no missed transit connections; no injuries or major foot blisters; no gruesome run-ins with large, man-hating mammals; no campfire-turned-wildfire catastrophes; no river-crossing snafus; no toilet paper shortages.
The walk down this stretch of the Merced River Canyon is as beautiful as expected, but I’m gently nagged by the feeling that something’s not where it should be. It could simply be the level of the river itself, which on my last visit out here 14 months earlier was epic in its crash and flow. But I contemplate it a bit more, soon coming to the conclusion that I’m simply on my last day of what a lot of people probably consider a very strenuous hike. I suppose I’m loath to admit it, but I’m kind of knackered.
I react by upping the pace in late morning once I reach Little Yosemite Valley, a major waypoint for both Half Dome day-hikers and backcountry visitors on the first day of their trips. Another mile down the trail, I make a full stop at Nevada Falls, where a posse of squirrels brazenly tries to hijack my pack, surely for the M&M’s inside.
From Nevada Falls, I sidestep the crowds of the Vernal Falls-adjacent Mist Trail (which probably isn’t so misty on the last day of August anyway) and route the last few miles of my journey down the rocky and switchback-happy John Muir Trail, this section of which I’ve never hiked. It’s utilitarian and nothing remarkable, and the only moment of real interest occurs when a young boy decked out in camouflage fatigues, probably eight or nine years old, passes me on the way down, a minute or two ahead of the rest of his family. One of my favorite things about hiking is the uncompetitive nature of it all — how a third-grader in unfortunate clothes can haul by me on the trail without leaving me feeling like a complete codger in his wake. We all hike our own hike; we all win.
Less than an hour later, after dealing with the sharply undulating paved trail that connects the popular Vernal Falls observation area with Happy Isles trailhead, I’m back on the floor of Yosemite Valley. My 48-mile trek is in the rear view mirror.
But when I hit Happy Isles around 2:00 p.m., I’m not processing what I’ve just spent the last 99 hours doing. Rather, I’m just looking for the next shuttle bus to Curry Village. And when I reach Curry Village not much later, I’m looking for a restroom, and after that, maybe an ice cream. But mostly, I just want a place to sit.
Later on, a particularly outgoing and mustachioed man in his 50s sees me languishing at the bus stop — boots off, feet propped up, generally living the high life.
“How far’d you go?”
I tell him.
“That’s pretty good.”
It’s no world record or anything. But it’s OK with me.