I Feared the JMT to be Courageous in Life

Thru-hiking the JMT led me to where I live now – in the foothills of the Andes mountains in Cusco, Peru.

This past summer, I hiked the John Muir Trail northbound starting at Whitney and ending in Yosemite. It was a 24-day ordeal, 22 days of which were dedicated to walking and 2 days for rest. 

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Who hasn’t heard of the JMT?  As a backpacker, it’s one of the most beloved trails in the world.  Of course, rightfully so because of its world class beauty.  My first encounter with JMT, albeit for a short time, was when I hiked the Rae Lakes Loop in 2017.  I did it solo but met some people from Japan and Switzerland whose mission then was to complete the JMT. 

“It’s over 200 miles,” they tell me.

“Over 200 miles? And how heavy is your backpack?”

“About 50 pounds.  You should do it,” exclaimed the hiker from Switzerland.

Even then, JMT had the power to make me speechless.  

So, we moved on to talking about a totally different topic thanks to the Japanese hiker who began to share his journey in Tibet where he met a group of monks who gave him a ride in the remote part of the region.

Since that moment of unintended discovery of the long distance JMT hike, I couldn’t shrug off the idea of doing it.  After all, I’ve been backpacking for over 10 years.  I have backpacked solo extensively three years back for a year in Asia and Europe.  I thought, at best, doing the JMT thru hike would be a natural advancement in my hiking life. 

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Once my Rae Lakes Loop hike was over, however, I set aside the idea of hiking the JMT and didn’t think of it for a while.  I was preoccupied the follow months with my trip to Asia to scout new trails for my social enterprise.  During my stop in the Philippines in February of 2018, I witnessed the eruption of the active volcano, Mayon.  It was an ashy situation to say the least.  And it was my first time being in the foothills of a spewing volcano.  The sight before me was frightening.  By the minute, the air color turned darker.  To see a looming cloud of ash falling from the sky can jolt anyone to run for her life.  But I didn’t run.   The locals standing next to me handed me a mask to put over my nose and mouth.  We then proceeded towards this restaurant next to the lake where a work-related gathering was already underway. The locals were unconventionally calm and carried on with their festivities undisturbed by what I deemed as a calamity.

In any event, I survived the frightening ordeal with the volcano.  When I returned to my guesthouse that evening, the idea of hiking the JMT came back to life.  Perhaps the fear-inducing moment with the volcano prompted me to gather more courage to entertain the idea of hiking the JMT.  That night I completed the permit application for a southbound JMT itinerary.   

“I can think more about this tomorrow morning,” I told myself after filling out the form.

The next day, I didn’t think about it. Instead, I faxed the form. 

“It’s a lottery and the chances are quite slim,” I assured myself.

The truth is I dreaded the idea of doing a thru hike of the JMT.  The notion triggered many of my hidden insecurities, most of which finally came out into the open for my conscious self to recognize.  Until the thought of a JMT thru-hike came to the surface, I successfully tucked away my insecurities by reliving the prior experiences I had of trekking solo including my one-year trekking mountains in 21 countries.  To me, these memories serve a vital purpose in my psyche.  It was the response to any interrogation of my hiking ability that goes on inside my head.

“Do you feel you are a strong hiker?”

“Yes, of course. You trekked solo in the Dolomites, remember? Or what about hiking in China for 3 months all by yourself?”

Such conversations have effectively satisfied my ego.  That’s until, of course, a higher level of challenge came to mind.  And JMT was it.

But there’s more to this than just merely capabilities.  In the past 24 months of my life, I’ve seen major changes.   I sold my 10-year old house in 2016. My mother passed away in May of 2017. Then, I officially left my fifteen-year career as a lawyer five months after that.  I have managed to be courageous enough to face one impactful change after another.  And all of these happening as I begin to venture into my 40s.  Some argue it’s the most pivotal moment of one’s life.  It has been for me, no doubt. 

But, why am I scared of JMT?

The rest of my trip in the Philippines was spent with family and a few more side trips to explore the tourism industry of the country for the purpose of creating itineraries for my social enterprise, Peak Explorations.  I’m a solopreneur running this enterprise for one sole mission: To normalize the roles of women and members of indigenous communities in the trekking tourism industry.  Being a founder and CEO of an enterprise with such a lofty mission requires stamina, determination, persistence and an awful lot of optimism.  No matter what else I pursue in my lifetime, the creation of this enterprise would have to be the most ambitious endeavor that I have ever undertaken.  There was no template for it.  I created it as I went along.  In many ways, the enterprise is unfolding and taking shape by virtue of my own sheer will and innate capacity to leave an impact in this world.

Hiking JMT isn’t far off from the ambitions of my enterprise. After all, as a CEO, there are days I prefer to rest my mind and hit the trails for long periods of time.

To wander to an unfamiliar trail.

To gather inspiration from the embrace of nature.  

To nurture my creative ideas that are in their infancy stages awaiting to bloom into fruition.  

JMT can be that much needed vacation from running my enterprise. So, why would I not welcome it with open arms?

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The rest of my trip in Asia was productive. After the Philippines, I ventured into the mountain trails of the Indian Himalayas. I crossed out the Kanchenchunga base camp trek off my bucket list and indulged in the culture and warm hospitality that I experienced in Darjeeling and Sikkim.  The last leg of the trip was a once in a lifetime trip to Bhutan where I discovered a unique approach to tourism that’s strongly controlled by the local government and the Bhutanese.  There, I also came face to face with Jomolhari, a holy peak that I witnessed first-hand by hiking. 

I returned to Washington, DC in the spring.  By April, I remained without a permit for JMT.  As a JMT applicant, you’ll learn sooner than later that the chance to get the southbound JMT permit is slim.  I was running out of hope for hiking the JMT but at the same time I didn’t mind because even then I was still skeptical about the entire idea of thru-hiking it.

Eventually, a friend who wanted to do the JMT convinced me to explore the notion of trekking the JMT northbound beginning at Whitney Portal.  JMT Northbound via Whitney Portal was a much more difficult endeavor.  Most JMT applicants prefer southbound for one reason: the gradual acclimatization with the altitude.  JMT northbound means tackling Mt. Whitney on the second day.  And then Forester pass the day after.  And then the rest of the 9 passes, from highest to lowest in altitude.  I knew what a person is signing up for when she does the northbound JMT from Whitney Portal.  There would be no easing into the hiking routine.  It’s all about giving your 100% from the moment you step onto the trail.   Northbound is meant for those who are looking for a more challenging version of JMT.  I wasn’t looking for a challenge per se. I was simply wanting to enjoy JMT to satisfy my spirit rather than the ego.  Nonetheless, I found myself asking, “can I really do this?”

At that point, I felt I was left without much choice.  I let my friend orchestrate the pursuit and came May 1st when unclaimed permits for Whitney overnight were released, my friend successfully secured the permits we had been waiting for. 

Northbound JMT beginning at Whitney Portal became a reality with a start date of July 29, 2018.   I spent the rest of May researching the itinerary for the JMT and creating a daily schedule that fit my hiking ability.  I learned from this process that the preparation for the JMT can be grueling and time consuming.  The food preparation for one was no small task.  Every ounce mattered.  And by the time I finished planning my food and resupply points, it was time to train for the most challenging outdoor journey of my life.

June and July were spent hiking and backpacking in Shenandoah and eventually in Colorado before taking the flight to Los Angeles.  My first thru hike training of five days in Shenandoah was filled with revelations.  I learned to dislike certain foods that I brought on the trail. I discovered whether my tent, sleeping system and the rest of my gear were up to par with nature’s changing climate.  I familiarized myself with the aches and pains all over my body, my food and water intake and preferred hiking schedule.  I faced my fears and anxiety as my way to mentally prepare for JMT, believing that the only way to pacify them is to just do it.

By the time I was in Colorado, I was prepared for JMT.  In Colorado, I stepped up the challenge personally by leading a group of hikers and backpackers from my outdoor groups in Washington, DC.  I led my group of hikers on the trails of Indian Peaks Wilderness and San Juan Mountains.

Soon enough, I was on a plane en route to L.A. 

“This is it.” I told myself.

The truth is JMT was much bigger than the simple notion of it being a long-distance hike. 

JMT was the opening to the next chapter in my life. 

While at the outset, it might have appeared I was merely planning my JMT thru-hike, in the long run, I was also planning for my new life in the Andes mountains.  At the time I made a decision to hike the JMT, I also made the decision to move to Cusco, Peru.  And during the time I was preparing and training for JMT, I was also mentally and logistically preparing myself for the inevitable move to South America.

Since leaving my legal career, I have become a full-time digital nomad.  As such, I quickly learned that America isn’t a sophisticated enough place for a nomad like myself.  The nomadic lifestyle has its unique set of challenges especially when you choose to remain in America.  Many of these challenges involve trying to fit into the mold of a typical 9 to 5 while being a nomad.  I knew it’s just not possible. 

For one, the typical American health care doesn’t apply to my kind of lifestyle where I spend at least half of the year traveling in other countries.  The cost of living is relatively higher for a solopreneur whose assets are mainly allotted towards the growth and expansion of her social enterprise.  And truly, the main draw is my drive to run my enterprise as authentically as possible even if it means living in the Andes to understand fully the nuances of the trekking tourism industry.

Deciding to do the JMT served as a symbolic decision for me.  In my mind, JMT resembled the bridge between my life in America and the upcoming new life in another part of the world.  That part of the world happens to be Peru.  I’ll be living alone in a new city and recreating a new life there.  I’ll need to work on my Spanish, for real this time.  There’s the adjustment to the food, weather and culture.  And many more changes in my everyday life to come as a result of the move.

Hiking JMT was also my last chance in a long while to immerse myself in what I loved about America – it’s notion of freedom and undeniable beauty.  To hike the JMT is to come face to face with the most beautiful parts to America, one that I predict I’ll long for one day as an American living abroad.  Hiking 13 passes symbolizes the many hurdles that my immigrant parents endured to give their children a better life. The challenge started with a steep climb up the highest point only to discover more and more passes to climb until the end.  But at the same time, JMT is filled with so much beauty and joy along the way - a life that I indeed had the privilege of living as a lawyer and now deciding to discard in pursuit of the true American dream – the freedom to live my life on my own terms.

In my case, freedom encapsulates being in another place other than America to appreciate the struggles and successes inherent in my being part of this country.  As an immigrant and a Filipina by ethnicity, I have been grappling with my American identity lately considering America’s current political state.  Thru-hiking the JMT allowed me to discard the issue completely and just walk my walk.

When August 21, 2018 came, I found myself amidst the tourist crowd in the Yosemite Valley.  I completed the JMT thru-hike northbound.  The journey happened without incident.  The initial challenge of carrying a 40 pound pack became a normal state of my existence by the time I reached the finish line.  The 13 passes I conquered, leaving my ego satisfied. Apart from a sprained toe, I didn’t sustain anything else externally.  Internally, however, the JMT experience left me with 24 days-worth of living in the moment that are bound to follow me the rest of my life.

What scared me the most about JMT wasn’t the question of whether I was going to complete it.  To me, success wasn’t defined narrowly by the completion of a trek. The more pivotal question was whether I was strong enough for my new life after JMT.  And as life intended, JMT wasn’t the actual journey. It was merely the preparation for the bigger one beyond it. It was the training ground and the means for me to overcome any mental persuasions that could lure me away from my decision to move to Peru.

Enjoying the view of Cusco atop a surrounding hill.

Enjoying the view of Cusco atop a surrounding hill.

A month later, I have settled nicely in the city of Cusco.  I’m no near carrying a 40-pound pack like I did on JMT when I go on day hikes or backpacking trips in the nearby trails of Cusco.  Most days I come home to my apartment five minutes from Plaza de Armas where I keep warm at night under layers and layers of Alpaca blankets.  I write about my hiking adventures from long time ago or recently, including the JMT experience.  The coffee shop options in Cusco happen to be rather overwhelming.  I can caffeinate myself to my heart’s content, guilt-free thanks to the demands of writing.

And that fear? As I sit in my favorite spot around San Blas, I barely remember it; rather, I’m asking myself only one thing, “how about thru-hiking the Jordan trail next year?”

With a smile, I whispered to myself, “why not?”

At the sun gate (Inti Punku) in Ollantaytambo, Sacred Valley.

At the sun gate (Inti Punku) in Ollantaytambo, Sacred Valley.

If you wish to do the JMT yourself, read Brown Gal Trekker’s JMT Thru Hike Guide Northbound (NOBO).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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