It is twilight and the sun slips behind the mountain at the head of Lyell Canyon as the aliens come out. They look just like us from the shoulders down: long sleeved shirts, hiking pants, and boots. But their faces, well they don’t have faces – only featureless masses of green or black. I huddle in our tent as one silently comes closer and closer. It reaches out to zip down the tent door.
And I realize it’s Ed, my hiking partner, coming back from brushing his teeth. The featureless masses are faces of other backpackers covered by mosquito netting. The netting is just a small pillowcase that fits over head and hat to keep the mosquitoes from attacking ears, neck and face. It’s handy, but a pain to live within. On the trail the netting makes it hard to see minor undulations and obstacles. Ever try to eat soup with a pillowcase on your head? Brush your teeth? As obnoxious as the netting is, it does guard against our greatest hurdle: swarms of mosquitoes, especially at dawn or dusk, in a meadow or near water. Only wind keeps these blood-sucking monsters at bay – and mosquito netting. (Tony Brown took this picture of his wife Starla.)
The other wildlife we met on the trail was benign: individual deer and deer in small herds; ground squirrels; butterflies; fish and marmots. We must have done a good job at protecting ourselves from bears because we never saw one. (Perhaps the aliens got them.) Domesticated animals appeared occasionally: dogs, horses and mules belonging to pack outfits bringing in horse campers. No freeze-dried food for these guys.
Other backpackers and these creatures were all we saw for five days. Our hiking schedule:
Day 1. Hiked a little over four miles to a camp in the rocks at the fringe of lush Lyell Canyon. This trail begins at Tuolumne Meadows in the backcountry of Yosemite. Other than the beauty of the canyon and surrounding mountains, the outstanding feature here was two huge piles of marmot droppings. Apparently someone loved sitting and watching the meadow, too.
Day 2. Hiked about five miles up. Not straight up, but the flat trail along the Tuolumne River is gone as the trail begins the climb up Donohue Pass. We started at about 8,800 feet and stopped at about 9,600 feet. We could look up at snow-hugged Mt. Lyell and the peaks around it – the headwaters of the Tuolumne River.
Day 3. Hiked a little over two and a half miles, climbing 1496 feet to the pass at 11,003. That’s like climbing up 4.1 football fields. Day two and three I practiced a pace I haven’t needed to do in 40 years – hike 100 steps, rest 20 seconds – ad infinitum. I need conditioning! We then dropped down about five miles. I had a delightful interview with a marmot. We camped on Rush Creek.
Day 5. Hiked over six miles, some of it up to a ridge near Agnew Pass, and the rest DOWN to where we had a car parked at Silver Lake, one of the Lakes in the June Lake area. Some people think going up is hard, and it can be. Lungs fight for air and thighs scream, “I can’t go any farther.” But down is the hardest for me. First, think of your toes. All my weight and the weight of my pack crammed my toes against my boots. Cramping, blistering, aching – all possibilities. Then there are the ankles delicately balancing over rocks with gravity pulling down. (At least climbing, gravity holds me in place.) Knees – OUCH! Those brakes be smokin’. We dropped almost 3000 feet (8.3 football fields or 300 stories) in two miles. Here’s where being able to have an outer body experience is useful. One foot in front of the other.
And what sparked us once we reached the car – the thought of an iced cold beer for Tony, Starla and me and two root beer floats for Ed. Beyond that – dinner without mosquitoes, in a comfortable booth, with clean hands.