Virginia Lakes Day Hike, onto the Reno Airport, then back to Bellingham
Miles hiked — Approximately 9
This is it, there is no way around it. At the end of this day, I will be on a plane flying home to Bellingham and my JMT adventure will be over. I am sad to know this when I wake up on this last day in Bishop, but I’m ready to face it. Ready for one more day of adventure and hiking, and ready to return home and back to “normal life”….whatever that means at this point.
I make another egg scramble for breakfast, just like the previous day. Today over breakfast, I pick up Dave’s Book, The Sierra High Route: Traversing Timberline Country, by Steve Roper. It’s the same route the guy from the rental car place was talking about, and the same route that I encountered backpackers doing when they would drop down from the high route to the JMT. The route is about the same distance as JMT, 195 miles, but at higher elevation and mostly off trail, and with many more passes to cross, lakes to encounter, and much, much more seclusion. It’s an intriguing idea, doing this route, and the idea again enters my mind for future consideration.
But for this day, I will pack up my stuff, and head up Highway 395 North towards Reno. I have one stop planned along the way. Just past Lee Vining is a turn off to the Virginia Lakes Road, and there I will go to find my last day hike in the California Sierras. I know nothing of Virginia Lakes except how to get there, and I have no real agenda except to hike for as long as seems reasonable before I have to turn around to get to the airport in time for my 7 pm flight. It’s an easy and straightforward adventure.
After goodbyes and heart felt thank you’s to Dave and Michelle, I am on my way by 8 am. I stop at the corner market for fresh fruit, and I hop back in the Prius rental. I am liking the car, and the gas gauge hasn’t moved despite yesterday’s trip to Bishop Pass! It’s under two hours to the trailhead, and, even with all my putzing around, I am on the trail by 10:15. The trailhead is just under 10,000 feet, and the day is mostly clear, but cool and windy. It’s a day for extra clothes, headphones and an audiobook, lunch, and more great scenery.
The trail is advertised as popular and crowded, but there is hardly anyone there on this late August weekday. It starts at Big Virginia Lake, with Little Virginia Lake just beyond. The trail is easy and straightforward, passing five lakes in a mile and a half. The others are Trumbull, Red, and Blue Lakes. I am not sure what the colors mean. I pass a few folks, but not many. The colors of the surrounding hills and peaks are fantastic, reminding me of the North Cascades in early Autumn. Views open up as I go. It’s another great day hike, and I am super happy to be here.
Eventually the trail crosses between Frog Lakes and steepens to ascend Burro Pass. The pass is 11,120 feet and a pretty typical pass — barren, dry, semi-steep switchbacks over loose rock and boulders. I will miss these California Sierra Passes, and it makes me sad to be doing my last one. Everything about this day has a “last” attached to it — last day hike, last pass, last stream to cross, last lake to traverse, last peaks in the distance to gaze at. I try to appreciate all of this and not let the “lastness” get to me.
On the other side of Burro Pass, the trail drops back down. I am in the Hoover wilderness headed for Hoover Lake. I wonder if a vacuum cleaner aficionado discovered the area…? Regardless, it’s beautiful, and I follow the path down into Green Creek Basin for about a mile and a half. I don’t know exactly where I am going, but run into a couple with a dog coming up. I ask them what’s ahead, and they tell me the trail will split to head up to Summit Lake, or drop down to Hoover and another Lake. I wish I could keep going. I want to do Summit Lake. But I know I have to catch a plane, and I don’t want to risk being rushed. I think on another backpack trip where we did “one last hike” and very nearly missed the plane, and another that was so incredibly stressful getting to the airport that I couldn’t even sit with my hiking partner on the plane. Such stress is definitely NOT what I need or want on this day.
So I stop on the steep switchbacks, find a large rock to sit on, and eat my leftover chicken (cold, from last night’s dinner), fruit, and an energy bar. It’s another last…my last lunch on the trail. I want to make all this last forever, and I try my best to burn the image of Hoover Lake and Green Basin into my head and heart. While it’s not as mystically magical as some other spots I have recently been, I know it is the last such view for awhile. I stay 20 minutes and take it all in.
Reluctant but resigned , I turn around and head back. I keep telling myself to relax, this isn’t the end of my hiking career. It IS, unfortunately, the end of a fun, successful, and hugely meaningful trip. The mile plus back up the pass flies by, and it’s all downhill from there. Back to the car, step by step, analyzing each rock and foot placement, being extra careful that I don’t turn an ankle or have a slip or fall so close to the end. I am amazed that I have done this whole trip, all 250 plus miles in total, with no real physical mishaps. I want to get back to the car unscathed and whole, both physically and mentally.
There are more cars at the trailhead when I return, and it’s still wickedly windy. I want to organize everything for airport readiness, so when I drop off my car it will be a simple process. Everything I put outside the car to organize inside either blows over or blows away. I find myself chasing empty water bottles and even clothing that flies away with each wind gust. It’s humorous, my determination to do it all here. Change clothes, get everything packed back up. But I would much rather do it here in the wind than in the chaos and finality of the rental car lot. It’s another way to prolong my stay in the beauty of the mountains for as long as possible.
Finally I am dressed in the only airline clothes I have (a lightweight skirt that I carried all the way on the JMT so that I would have something to wear besides my preferred hiking shorts, which are running shorts that are too short for comfort in real life!) And I have clean upper layers thanks to Dave’s washing machine, so I feel moderately put together and ready for the trip home. It’s about 2.5 hours of driving to the airport, and I will be one step closer to of the end of my journey.
My previous audiobook conveniently finished at trails end, so I start John Grisham’s “Gray Mountain” for my drive to the airport. It’s fitting in that it’s about a young corporate lawyer who ends up trying to find herself and make a difference deep in Appalachia. I can relate, as I sometimes feel like the mountains are my home and I have to struggle to fit in back in my real life. It’s the opposite problem she has, but it helps me put into perspective that who and how we are in our environment is a matter of choice. Always. And while the mountains has been my environment for weeks, I must make the adjustment now to my other life back at home.
Everything goes smoothly at the rental car place and I arrive at the airport in plenty of time. A totally lame salad from some coffee shop serves as dinner. It actually makes me miss my backpacker meals! I have a layover in Portland, and my plane won’t arrive in Bellingham until 10:50. Thankfully, my daughter Shannon has agreed to pick me up so it’s an easy ending. I survive both flights, and Shannon is there to meet me curb side after I’ve claimed my bag. It’s great to see her, and I give her a big hug…even though she doesn’t much like hugs. It’s cold outside, and Shannon tells me summer has abruptly disappeared in the last day or so. Back to 50 degrees and cloudy, and I know I am really back on my home soil now.
Shannon has driven my car to pick me up, so I only have to drop her off and then it’s 20 minutes back to my house. The place is dark and quiet when I arrive just before midnight. The welcoming committee is my cats, who have been without me for almost a month. Thankfully they remember me, and seem moderately excited to see me. It’s weird to be back, and I remember similarly how weird it was to be back from JMT 1. I assure myself that I will readjust, and that all will be well in time. It’s nice to stand in front of my own sink, look at my deeply tanned and newly washed face, and welcome myself home! I am proud of my accomplishment, and tell my reflection just that before heading for bed. As I climb in to my blessedly queen size bed, I realize that it’s an anticlimactic and fittingly simple end to this whole adventure. I am safely home in bed after my fantastic event, and, somehow I know, life will go on.
Highlights of the Day
The last hike to Virginia Lakes
I could have just driven straight to the airport and hung out in Reno, or any of a number of other options for this last day. But I did what fit ME the most, and that was to take a hike. I am not a gambler, never have even been to Vegas except to fly in and out of. And the idea of crowds and people overwhelms me. So I chose wilderness, high elevation lakes and peaks, and as much solitude as I could get on the last day. I could have saved myself $100 bucks by taking the bus to the airport, which is what we did on JMT 1. But six hours on a bus and missing out on a hike just wasn’t going to work for me. I am grateful to Dave for the suggestion of Virginia Lakes, and grateful to the trail for being so close to the highway! It made for a fantastic diversion as I wrestled with my thoughts about coming home, and gave me something tangible to hang onto for my last day in the Sierras.
Paradoxically, the other highlight of the day was getting home. It was great to walk in my door, see that the cats were still alive and thriving, dump all my backpack stuff on the floor, and sleep in my own bed. In theory, I could stay on the trails forever. In actuality, it was a relief to be back to the comforts of my own living space.
Lessons of the Day
All good things must come to an end…
It had to happen, and it happened with ease. My JMT trip ended as it started — with everything falling into place. I am not sure why everything went so smoothly for me on this trip. Sure there were a few glitches, but all in all, things fell remarkably into place. I felt blessed and watched over each and every step of the way. I don’t mean that in a religious sense, but definitely in a spiritual way: I knew I was intended to do this trip. And even though I was alone for much of it, I never felt lonely. I always had the sense that I was just where I needed to be, and knew that things would work out. And they did. Going to bed on the last night, I similarly knew I would be OK with moving ahead.
Or do they?
All that day and in the days following, I kept thinking about how I would share my trip with others. I came up with this plan, a day by day recounting which you have just finished reading. And the next step of sharing my trip is already in progress. I am currently taking a 9 month writing class, with the trip as the basis of an upcoming memoir. So while I will leave the JMT for awhile in my blogs to come, inevitably, I will circle back. Stay tuned for more information on the book as it develops. And I will keep you abreast of plans for my next big trip…maybe the High Sierra Route, back in the Sierras which I have come to love so much, and now call my second home.