5:30am – The alarm on my iPhone ricochets against the dark womb of my 2015 Ford Transit. I lift my head a few inches to groggily peer outside at the tall, black spires of towering pines all around, dizzied by the carpet of stars surrounding them. Is it too early? Should I go back to sleep? My boyfriend, Brian, stirs in bed next to me, burrowing his warmth into my legs. I yawn and spread my toes as far apart as I can muster like a cat napping on a sofa in the sun, grumbling like an eighty year old man. Leaving this isn’t going to be easy.
6:33am – I hunch over a bowl of overnight oats as I go over the last few details with Brian before heading out. “My goal is to finish in 11 or 12 hours, but it could take as many as 15, if something goes wrong.” We make a plan for where to hide the car key and what to do if I’m not back in time. The sun begins to lift over the high country of Yosemite, seasoning Tioga Road with a characteristic lilac glow. Bathed in periwinkle, I set off for the bathroom one last time before I say my goodbyes. I kiss my lover on the cheek with a casual, “See you tonight, I guess!”
7:02am – I feel solid. Strong. Like a feral child let loose upon the world. I run the first 7 miles of trail no problem, dodging fallen trees and leaping over twigs that dared get in my way. As I run, the sun rises over Yosemite Valley, which is just barely obscured behind a veil of old growth pines. I laugh at the fact that I am literally running towards the light. I am wild and bathed in oblivion. I giggle at everything.
7:46am – Holy shit, I’m at the top of the falls! But there’s no waterfall, just a menacing, dry cliff preceded by the world’s most dangerous infinity pool. I rock hop down towards Yosemite Valley itself, awed by the sudden shock of a panoramic view of Glacier Point and Half Dome beyond it. I am filled with flutters of the immediate soulfulness that only Yosemite can offer, and I am ready to push hard.
7:49am – Skrrrrrr Yowch! I slip on a patch of gravel on a granite slab that I underestimated. Fuck. My knee stings, and there’s a gnarled hole at the center of my hiking pant leg with blood oozing out of it. I shake out my joints like a drunk doing a bad version of the hokey pokey. Is this what it’s all about? I make dad jokes inside my head when things get scary or out of control. It quells any anxiety I might have about silly things like the possibility of spraining an ankle or falling off a cliff alone in a National Park. I continue to hike a little slower down the slabs to the west of the falls, limping along in a grim denial of my subtle injury. Eventually the pain fades, and I am skipping down narrow granite stairs.
8:25am – I nearly forgot what it’s like to hike on a trail with people, and I begin encountering every kind of tourist and Yosemite aficionado imaginable. Soon, I am passing the incredibly sweet and in shape 68 year old woman with hiking poles and a bug net, the fitness influencer couple who somehow made it up the entire falls trail carrying only a paper coffee cup and a bottle of Dasani, and the German family who doesn’t seem to know what they’ve gotten themselves into just yet. I run every bit of trail that isn’t stairs, and people start making comments and asking where I’m going. “Across the valley and back again!” I shout with the kind of enthusiasm that only exists when bolstered by naïveté. I get recognized by someone who reads my work and sprint past her, giving a chipper high five. I am prancing on air.
9:26am – Camp 4. Hallelujah. I run towards the bathroom and the boulder bearing Midnight Lightning. Bed-headed climbers of all ages are bleary-eyed, stumbling out of their tents, and brushing their teeth to begin the day in glorious dirtbag fashion. As I fill my Camelbak at the communal sink in the center of camp, I’m approached by a 24 year old French kid with devilishly curly hair and a puckish grin. He introduces himself as Max and asks what I’m doing today. “Yosemite Rim to Rim to Rim,” I answer, eyes agape. “That is a good activity for the day, no? Well, whatever you do, enjoy it.” He answered back with the zen-like demeanor of a Buddhist monk. When I asked him what he was doing today, he calmly replied, “Oh, we are going to go and climb the first 10 pitches of the El Cap, you know? Freerider.” Casual. I am suddenly reminded why I do what I do and how much I fucking love this heart-explodingly magical place.
9:58am – I run a mile across the marigold glow of the valley meadow to the base of the Four Mile Trail and get ready to push uphill for the next couple of hours, inhaling a blueberry Clif Bar and taking a moment to check my phone and text Brian that I’m ok and in the valley. I made myself wait all morning to listen to music so that it would feel like a special treat for my first uphill slog. I have never been more spot on in my assessment. I crank the volume to eleven on a mix of female grunge-rock and start moving.
10:53am – 2 miles in, and I’m already breathing hard. The heat of the day is starting to creep into my bones, and I remind myself to swallow two giant horse pills containing electrolytes so that it doesn’t worsen. Somehow, I’m still passing day hikers on their way up, though I can feel my legs start to wobble. For the first time all day, I realize that this is going to be harder than I thought.
11:41am – I am so close to the top of Glacier Point, but something feels off. I’m inexplicably dizzy, considering how much water I’ve been drinking, and my mood is quickly deteriorating. I make myself stop and eat a turkey stick, an energy gel, and another electrolyte pill. Nutrition is a tricky and dangerous game on sufferfest days, I remind myself. Best to be careful.
12:18pm – I pass a woman with an impossibly clean tote bag, bearing a screen-printed logo that simply says GLACIER POINT in red and blue across its midsection. I do not understand how good-smelling most people are as I crest the final few steps towards Glacier Point and her massive gift shop and even more massive parking lot. “What would John Muir think?” I whisper to myself as I slump onto a rock overlooking Half Dome and the vacant cliff where Yosemite Falls should be. Swarms of people descend from their tour buses and bustle around me as I slovenly try to throw some more calories into my face. My resting heart rate is spiking, even though I’ve been sitting still for 20 minutes. That’s not a great sign. I buy three packs of energy chews from the gift store and am grateful for its bizarre convenience. Once again, I fill my Camelbak to the brim, and then I’m off.
12:43pm – The midday sun is pounding across my forehead and shoulder blades as I descend the switchbacks, a surreal panorama of nearly every iconic Yosemite landmark strewn about the valley below me. I stop to catch my breath on one of the trail’s many turns and gaze out at the vista, my eyes catching on El Capitan and the imposing 3,000 vertical feet of granite that it boasts. “That’s the trail Brian was going to take,” I mumble to myself as my head sinks heavy against my chest. “What the fuck am I doing all the way over here when a man who loves me is miles away on a completely opposite cliff?” I felt absurd. Poetic. Ridiculous. Like I had to smother my body in the chaos of wilderness just to appreciate what was right in front of me all along.
2:17pm – I speed walk across the valley, desperately trying to find a nice campground restroom to take a dump in. My quads are toast. My resting heart rate isn’t much better. I chug water like it’s my job and hustle back to Camp 4 to rest in the shade and formulate a game plan. “I can wait out the heat and hike back up when the sun’s a bit lower, if push came to shove,” I whisper to myself, determined.
2:49pm – Things are not great. I feel better, but still dizzy. Hydrated, but still hot. Rested, but still floppy. Plus, that thing Max said is tirelessly bouncing around my brain like a pinball in a machine. “Whatever you do, enjoy it.” BOOM. Revelation time. Everything hits me like a ton of boulders. Sure, I could strugglebus my way back up the Falls Trail in the life-shattering afternoon heat, or I could be happy with my burly, 24-mile day (and the fact that I accomplished Yosemite R2R and then some) and hitchhike back to the van to cook dinner and watch the sunset with Brian. I take a deep breath and stare longingly at the road. This new plan sure sounded a lot more fun.
3:12pm – Screech! I get picked up pretty quickly by two 20-somethings from Bulgaria, Sylvie and Teddy. They smoke cigarettes with the windows down and the AC running and ask me how to get to Vegas. I hop in and direct them up and across to Tioga Road, hip hop and electronica gently massaging the undertone of the 45 minute car ride. They talk quickly and tell me all about their California road trip and their long summer spent working in Alaska. I feel safe. My hip flexors are screaming at me, and my body is exhausted, but I’m going to be ok.
4:01pm – I point to the Porcupine Flat trailhead and tell the girls to pull over, thanking them for seriously making my day (I still don’t think they quite understood how I got so far from my vehicle). I stumble over to my van, a sweaty mess of tears and red hair. I slowly click and slide the side door open. Brian is napping and naked and I carefully crawl across the tangled web of blankets to kiss his groggy face and rest my heartsick body against his. I’m sweaty, gross, disappointed in myself for bailing, and limping a little, but I feel like I am finally home. The prodigal girlfriend returns.
“It may be that the satisfaction I need depends on my going away, so that when I’ve gone and come back, I’ll find it at home.” -Rumi
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