June 19th, Thursday
912ish to 933ish
We had a hard time waking up the next morning, but we managed to get packed up and back on the trail by 8:00, before the sun had cleared the mountain slope to our right.
The mosquitoes were still swarming around us, and we kept our head nets on and sprayed our clothes with bug spray. We were hiking into a series of marshy valleys, which meant that the skeeters were out in full force. Honestly, since I’d heard some horror stories about the Yosemite area (which we were drawing near to), it wasn’t as bad as I expected.
We passed through a wide meadow, then switchbacked up a mountain in the hot sun. We had been at high elevation for so long that it was strange to think we were only 8,000 or so feet up at the moment.
I felt hot and cranky, and began taking it out on Zach as usual. I whined and complained about what a horrible person I was. “No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try to hold it together, I end up saying something really dumb or mean,” I said. It was true. I thought back to all the points on trail when we’d been under pressure. I had always been the one to vent spleen— complaining, whining, sobbing, blaming, freaking out, throwing a fit. I had worn him down with accusations, bursts of anger, negative comments, and downright whining. Zach had lashed out a few times, but never at me.
When you’re at home and comfortable and don’t have friction on your life, you can pretend that you’re a basically good person. But when push comes to shove, and you’re trapped in the crucible of a difficult, uncomfortable trail when you’re always hot or thirsty or exhausted or in pain, those layers of niceness are stripped away, and all you’re left with is your raw emotions. Coming face to face with those emotions every day was unbearable. I had written in my diary, “I am a horrible human being, and being out in the wilderness with Zach really highlights that.”
I wailed about all this to Zach, who was pretty much at the end of his rope, too, but still not losing it. He listened for a while and then told me that I should try to do better instead of complaining about how bad I was.
I fell silent, feeling huffy. I stared out to our left at the massive range of mountains, peppered with snow, marked by glacial lakes and picturesque waterfalls. All I could think of was how those mountains had shown my true colors. They had found me out. They had worn down my veneer and revealed all the rottenness underneath.
“I’m sorry,” I told Zach, and I was, but I felt cynical as I said it. I was prey to my emotions. I was never going to change.
“I forgive you,” Zach said.
“How can you forgive me?!” I practically yelled. “I’m just going to yell and whine and cry and be a baby all over again! I’m probably driving you insane! I’m never going to change!”
Zach turned around and looked at me, his face serious. “How many times should I forgive you?” he asked. “Up to seven times?”
He was referencing a story in the Bible where one of Jesus’ disciples asked how many times he should forgive his brother— “Up to seven times?” Jesus’ reply was, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.”
“I forgive you,” Zach said again, and then turned and kept walking.
Half in tears, but silent, I followed him. I stared at the beautiful grass and purple wildflowers lining the trail. I looked out to the gorgeous mountains to my left. I wondered, in despair, “Can I really change? Can I have another chance?” Of course, I knew the theological answer: Yes. God always forgives, so we should always forgive. God always gives us another chance. But that is a strangely hard reality to accept. It seems somehow wrong to accept forgiveness and get off scot-free. I always feel like I should continue to punish myself. But that’s not what I actually believe, and as a Christian, I know that’s not the way that God deals with us.
I can’t pretend that after that day, I was the paragon of cheerfulness and self-control. But something did change in my heart that day, something pivotal. It affected my attitude and my mindset the entire rest of the trail: I was forgiven, and I began to act like it.
We wound through the alpine landscape, still swatting away mosquitoes. We scrambled past the tree line to cross Donahue Pass, and at the top, we saw a view that really did take our breath away. The mountains all plunged down into a wide, green valley with a river snaking through it. We were getting very close to Yosemite Valley.
Two JMT women, headed toward us, stopped to admire the view along with us. “Would you like some M&Ms?” one of them asked.
“I would love some M&Ms!” I said, and she poured me a handful. We snacked on them and talked about how amazing the scenery was. It was nice to have someone remind me to slow down and take everything in.
After wishing them well, we started down into the valley, cutting a set of switchbacks across a steep slope. We caught a glimpse of an animal we thought might be a pika, and another one that looked like a skinny prairie dog which we later learned as a type of ground squirrel nicknamed a “picket pin.”
Swatting mosquitoes and looking out at the gorgeous valley spread out before us, Zach said, “I wonder if it’d be worth it to kill a few endangered animals if we burned Yosemite Valley to the ground.”
“To get rid of the mosquitoes?”
“That’s probably not the best way of handling the problem.”
Zach swatted at his arms, which were swollen with huge welts from the bites. “It sounds like a great idea to me!”
After 21 miles of hiking, we were walking along the valley floor, with the river winding through a wide green meadow to our right. We decided to camp on a stretch of flat rock, and set up camp. A lot of hikers had chosen similar options, setting up tents in the groves of trees between the slopes of the mountain and the meadow.
As we were setting up, another hiker on the trail looked over at us and waved urgently. We left our gear and joined him on the trail. “Look,” he said, pointing out into the meadow. We looked, and we saw.
A bear. A beautiful, full-grown black bear, its fur colored cinnamon with blond tips. It was heading toward the river (away from our campsite), about a hundred yards away, loping along with great, weighty strides. His mouth was open in what looked like a smile. As we watched, he paused and sniffed the air. Then he took off into a gait that can only be described as a “frolic.” He bounded around, bouncing up and down, running in huge circles, his tongue lolling out like a dog’s. We stood and watched in awe. I had never seen a bear in the wild before, much less a bear who was managing to be so majestic and so cute at the same time!
After running in a few huge circles, the bear paused, looked from side to side like a dog eager to do some exploring, and then bounded off toward the river. The three of us stared after him in wonder.
At that moment, gaping in awe, I felt like the entire trip had been worth it, if only to see this one bear.
After the bear had been gone for several minutes, and showed no signs of returning, we shook ourselves out of the dream and returned to camp to make dinner. Zach used some newly-acquired bullion cubes to cook our mashed potatoes with chicken broth, which tasted unreasonably good. Then we crawled into our sleeping bag. Warm and content (and, surprisingly, not worried at all about bears), we fell asleep.