About the Author: Deborah Peel is a writer, blogger, marketer, mother, lover of big trees and isolated mountain tops. Her passion is writing to build a better world and sharing her backpacking and hiking adventures, one step at a time.
Aspiring thru-hikers and aspiring authors have something major in common: rejection! You hear about writers receiving one, ten, or even 100 rejections for a manuscript soaked in sweat before that life-changing acceptance letter arrives. Stephen King collected 30 rejections before Carrie was published. The Help by Kathryn Stockett was rejected 60 times and Robert M. Pirsig got 121 rejections for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Well, the same is true for hikers pursuing a wilderness permit to put boot to dirt on the world-renowned John Muir Trail. This is my experience of JMT rejection, perseverance, and listening more carefully so that I could hear the JMT whispering “Go north, woman, go north!”
The John Muir Trail is 211 miles of intense natural beauty, an epic backpacking journey through California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. It traverses America’s jewel Yosemite National Park, the Ansel Adams Wilderness, and Sequoia National Park. It’s a formidable trail that challenges hikers with extreme changes in altitude, tricky-to-dangerous stream crossings, and breathtaking (literally) ascents and descents over ten mountain passes with a bonus climb to the 14,500’ top of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. Up there, the air is thin, the wind is icy, and the phenomenal views make it well worth the physical and mental endurance it can take to make it to the top. Or, so I’ve heard.
Gearing up for a cool visit to Mt. Whitney.
This August, I’m going to find out for myself when I hike not just 211 miles but 220-ish miles on the JMT. Why the extra miles? I’m going Northbound or “NOBO,” starting at Cottonwood Pass near little ‘ole Lone Pine, CA. This will require me to hike in to reach the JMT and begin at high altitude with a fully loaded pack containing enough food for 5-7 days. I’ll ship resupplies of food ahead and pick them up at key points along the trail – you know, when my food supply is running thin and my waistline is getting thinner!
As a novice middle-aged female backpacker, I never planned to go NOBO. My trusted mentor Mike Guardino (hereby dubbed Hiking Hero) advised against it and he should know – he’s completed the JMT 9 times! Hiker accounts that I devoured online and on YouTube cautioned against it, the increased level of difficulty decreasing my chances of success. In fact, I applied for a JMT Southbound permit on nps.gov precisely 24 weeks in advance of my intended start, following application rules to a T. I was excited, upbeat, and optimistic that I would be one of the lucky ones awarded a SOBO permit in the JMT lottery. I was so smug that I’d even plotted the traditional route that most JMT hikers take starting at the Happy Isles trailhead in Yosemite Valley and exiting at Whitney Portal. Start low, end high. It was going to be great!
That’s when I began navigating an unrelenting course of rejection. My SOBO application garnered nothing more than emails stating denied, denied, denied. I applied a second time, pushing out my possible start dates. After 12 more denials, the window was darkening on my 2019 JMT dream. My heart had adopted the JMT as my 2nd Annual Hike for Harvey, honoring my dad, Harvey Wallace (1935-2017), and all those we have loved and lost to Alzheimer’s Disease [editor’s note: read about Deb’s first Hike for Harvey here]. But my head was committed to hiking smart and safe. That meant not pressing my luck hiking too late into September when the first snowfall often hits the Sierra.
I bemoaned my JMT rejection over cold beers with my other backpacking mentor straight-up Sara. I should have known she’d set me straight! After hearing my plight, she asked why I didn’t hike NOBO? I grimaced, pointing out the start at high altitude with a heavy load. She shrugged. “You could do it!” she encouraged. She asked, “Why does it have to be the JMT? Why don’t you hike somewhere else?” She reminded me of all the beautiful, wild backpacking treks through the Trinity Alps, the Russian Wilderness, or the mostly over-looked Warner Mountains in upper Northern California, practically in my backyard. She had a point.
That’s when emotion spilled over and I reminded her, through my sniffles and tears, that my dad was a Wallace, a Scotsman, and I’d been born a Wallace just as the trail’s namesake and esteemed naturalist John Muir had been a Scotsman. Taking the Hike for Harvey to the JMT felt like a physical and spiritual calling. I didn’t just want to take a big hike, I wanted to take THIS hike. I’d been toying with the idea of the JMT for years! After sleeping on it, I knew there was only one thing to do. I heard the trail calling and it said, “Go north, woman, go north!”
Hiking rain or shine to prepare for weather conditions on the JMT.
The very next day I sat down at my computer, studied the Northbound route and developed a new plan complete with guesstimated mileage per day and target campsites. This was going to be a very different trip, starting with the Inyo National Forest application process on recreation.gov, the keepers of the NOBO wilderness permits. It required the applicant to input all information including a full itinerary while the clock was ticking. Yes, it was a timed application! I blew it the first time and had to start over. But there was no more rejection, no more messages of denial. I quickly became the proud recipient of a JMT NOBO permit starting at Cottonwood Pass!
Somewhere I read that hiking the JMT will sharpen your perspective on life. I wonder, does my perspective really need this much sharpening? Apparently so! In the application process alone, I’ve learned to be more flexible. This won’t be the last twist in the trail and each day of my journey may play out a little bit different than the day I planned. As I prepare to backpack one of the premier trails in the world, I’ve become a gear junkie seeking to lighten my pack, stay comfortable yet stinky with trail sweat, and keep my sights set on completing the entire trail. I’ve immersed in physical conditioning, hiking weekly with a full pack, venturing out rain or shine, reminding my legs that they are trail legs. On super rainy days, I still put on my pack and clomp up and down the spiral staircase in my house to work out my legs and joints. My sweet black lab Taylor hides under the stairs concerned about Mom’s mental health.
I may have been denied a SOBO permit, but I couldn’t deny the call of the mountains and the whisper of the JMT saying, “Go north, woman, go north.” I hit the trail August 27th and I am at once fearful and ecstatic.
Conditioning hikes every week are my new normal.