Chapter One – The Sunny Side
I had been married for nearly four years, and I was about to embark on my first long-distance backpacking adventure with my wife, Beth. We had planned to trek across the spine of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California on the John Muir Trail. It was no easy feat convincing Beth—a woman raised with the belief that vacation meant flush toilets, sleeping in a bed, soaking up the rays on a beach, and eating out—to throw on a pack and live in the woods for the better part of a month. This was our first visit to California. After months of planning, we had crammed our backpacks full of gear, food, and supplies. After flying into Los Angeles from our home in Cincinnati, Ohio, we had visited a few much-talked-about California wineries before arriving by shuttle bus in Yosemite National Park. Beth and I had positioned ourselves in Yosemite Valley, near Happy Isles, the northern terminus of the John Muir Trail, and had planned to walk the trail’s entire 221-mile length.
The John Muir Trail, or the JMT, is named after one of the world’s most noted naturalists. You have to do something on a grand scale to have an entire trail named after you, and Muir’s advocacy and appreciation for the wild earned him the distinction of being named the father of our national parks. One of his favorite areas was the present-day Yosemite National Park. Muir once hosted President Theodore Roosevelt on a camping trip in the park, which seemed to convince the president to save the Sierra from development—not long after Roosevelt camped out with Muir, Yosemite was protected as a national park.
I had walked the Appalachian Trail five years earlier and had been itching to take another long-distance hike. Although the JMT is only a tenth of the Appalachian Trail, it is considered a world-class hiking path. The trail stretches from its northern terminus in Yosemite Valley to its southern terminus high atop Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States. It passes through three national parks, two national forests, and a string of mountain peaks with rocky surfaces as jagged as saw blades and as high as 14,491 feet. By comparison, the Appalachian Mountains on the East Coast top out at 6,643 feet. The John Muir Trail is speckled with glacial lakes and wilderness that are untouched by roads and most other civilized amenities. It’s hard to find trails unblemished by roads in today’s world. It joins with the Pacific Crest Trail for much of its length, and it is the most rugged and arguably some of the prettiest terrain of the entire West Coast.
We were scheduled, according to our wilderness permit, to begin our expedition of the John Muir Trail on Tuesday July 29, 2003. Our trek was expected to last two to three weeks. We spent a last night of civilized comfort in Yosemite National Park, in a canvas tent cabin built on a wooden platform. Our abode was anonymous among 628 identical bungalows in Curry Village, a cozy little camping area with no vacancies. People were everywhere. A massive, rustic wooden commissary located in the center of the tent village provided showers, a buffet-style cafeteria, an outfitter, a convenience store, a food stand, and even an outdoor bar with a featured beer—Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, of course. Adjacent to the main building stood an old log structure that served as a sitting room, game room, and even a U.S. post office. It was the most disparate combination of modern amenities and rugged outdoors I had ever seen.
Along the parking lot next to the commissary, tourists were gathered around trunk-size steel containers. They were stuffing food, snacks, and toiletries into these bear-proof chests under strict direction from the park service. Warnings were posted everywhere advising against consuming food in the tent cabins or keeping any scented toiletries.
Stunning views beckoned from every direction. With the commissary to our backs, our left field of vision was filled with the famous Yosemite Falls cascading off an immense sheer cliff, taller than most city skyscrapers. To our right was Half Dome, a mountain sliced in half during the Ice Age which has become the park’s symbol. Beth and I wandered out to the field just in time to see the sunset. A woman standing nearby looked dazed and dreamy and exclaimed, “This is what the Garden of Eden must have been like.”
John Muir, a Scottish immigrant, came to America, fell in love with Yosemite and its surrounding wildlands, and advocated for its preservation. We were smack-dab in the middle of the valley where Muir had spent quite a bit of time. While most early settlers to California were busy tending farms, searching for gold, or building cities, Muir was taking in the natural beauty of the wildlands. He had the foresight to realize the land was in jeopardy of succumbing to the loggers’ axes and the developers’ shovels. He had in fact lived for some time in the valley not far from where we now stood. None of the coffee-table books could replicate the raw beauty we were witnessing. It really brought home Muir’s passion about preserving the park.
We weren’t the only ones awed by the view. Each year, millions of tourists flock to the park Muir loved. According to Yosemite National Park records, in 2002 alone, more than 3 million people visited the park by foot, car, and horseback. As we watched the sunset, the mountains were changing colors almost as if a slide projector was clicking to the next frame every few seconds. Various shades of orange, red, purple, and blue emerged and faded almost as quickly as they appeared, with a darkening sky creeping over the peaks. The tops looked glowing hot, a phenomenon known as alpenglow.
Later that night, Beth and I tucked ourselves into bed with the false sense of security one feels after zipping shut the door of a thin-walled tent. As we were fading off to sleep, terrified shrieks and the loud, metallic banging of pots and pans shattered the night. Someone had apparently ignored the warnings of keeping food out of the tents and now was trying to scare away a bear using the recommended procedure of making lots of noise and hurling objects toward the animal. We both lay awake, excited about the adventure we would begin the next morning and thankful the bear was bothering someone else.
My wife’s courage ran too deep for a bear to scare her. Beth was embarking on a journey completely outside of her comfort zone for a cause greater than herself. This was more than an adventurous vacation. We were walking with a purpose.
Chapter Two – My Hiking Spouse
Five years ago, I walked the 2,160-mile Appalachian Trail, an adventure chronicled in my first book, A Walk For Sunshine. In this book I mention my pursuit of a relationship with my friend Beth. I attended graduate school with Beth, and from the first day I met her, I knew she was the one. She was the first woman who stopped me in my tracks and made me go to great extremes to appear to be a gentleman—the perfect gentleman for her.
Beth was an athletic, petite, brunette with a soft, warm personality. Being friends with her was easy. The more I got to know her, the more time I wanted to spend with her, but all through graduate school, Beth wasn’t ready to establish a relationship beyond friendship with me. After all, she was seven years younger than I, and she lived in a flat midwestern suburb of Chicago, which she knew did not appeal to me at all. But we both were very fond of each other, so much so that all of our close friends were always telling us that we should be more than friends. Some even speculated that we were secretly more than friends.
Beth met me on my Appalachian Trail journey for a weekend. I thought for sure that she had deeper feelings for me. Unfortunately, we departed that weekend still just friends. It wasn’t until recently that she confessed, “Jeff, you really stunk.” Well, I was showering only once a week. I was wearing synthetic clothing, which has an awful tendency to retain the body odors we normally try to eliminate in order to maintain relationships. I wasn’t wearing deodorant so that I wouldn’t attract bugs, and I had been living among the animals for more than 800 miles since I had left Georgia. My patchy, shady-looking beard made me look more like a fugitive on the run than an attractive, eligible bachelor. After that weekend, I continued walking toward Maine, another 1,300 miles from where I left Beth in Virginia. This gave me time to get used to the possibility that she and I might never be more than friends. After all, we had known each other for almost three years, and she still hadn’t fallen for me.
What I didn’t know was that while I was walking in the woods, Beth had come to the realization that I was the one for her. According to legend, several of Beth’s family members—after hearing Beth talk about me—would say to her, “It sounds like you really like Jeff as more than just a friend.” The Oprah Winfrey Show caught Beth’s attention one day with an episode on relationships. It left her with this advice: “Look under your nose for that special person.”
The problem with this tip was that I was right under Beth’s nose, and I stunk. Eventually, Beth got around to developing a relationship with me. After returning from my journey, the Sunshine hosted a dinner party and slide show in my honor. I had dedicated my journey to my brother, a Sunshine resident, and had raised money for the home, which is a haven for developmentally disabled youngsters. Beth was one of a few hundred in attendance. We spent that entire weekend together, and at one point I asked her, “If you aren’t married in five years, would you marry me?” She said, “Yes.”
This was a long-shot question, and she gave me a long-shot answer. She had told me of another friend of hers that she had a similar pact with. I think the fact that I was now showered, shaven, and separated from my smelly hiking gear had a lot to do with her response, especially with Oprah’s olfactory advice. I was determined to follow through on our pact. Our relationship developed quickly because we already were great friends and we knew each other very well. We were engaged four months later, and we married in August 1999.
We stepped from the church on our wedding day wearing backpacks bearing “Just Married” signs. I had to spend quite some time convincing Beth that she would still look beautiful in her white wedding gown even wearing a backpack. I also figured that this would send a clear message to everyone that Beth had now become a hiking outdoorswoman. This didn’t exactly turn out to be true. Beth is very athletic, having run three marathons, so physical fitness wasn’t an issue. Also, she had joined me on dozens of day hikes, so enjoying the great outdoors wasn’t an issue. The issue was her appreciation for domestic amenities. Beth would avoid staying overnight in the woods at all costs.
Hiking had become a lifestyle for me, so we made a premarital pact that if Beth would do an overnight hike with me, I would run a marathon with her. This resulted in an insane honeymoon that included several long runs, including one 18-mile cataclysm in preparation for the Chicago Marathon. In turn, Beth donned a backpack with supplies for “a, one, uno” night in the woods—hardly a fair deal considering the determined training regimen to run a marathon. On our honeymoon, Beth turned what was meant to be a two-night backpacking excursion into a one-night affair. She flew down the trail so fast that we covered double the miles we planned for one day, ending up back at our car a day earlier than expected. Beth knew that if we finished early, she would be able to stay in a hotel. In spite of her hasty hiking experience, I filled my end of the deal by running the 1999 Chicago Marathon with Beth.
I figured Beth would think back and romanticize our overnight adventure in the woods—like I tend to do after every hike—and crave more overnight hikes. But after our adventurous honeymoon, Beth declined all my offers to come along on extended hiking trips. She liked her hot showers and warm bed. To her credit, she has a disorder in which her fingers and toes turn purple and become excruciatingly painful in even moderately cold temperatures.
In spite of our opposing preferences for vacations, we were happily married. Our marital journey had embarked from the trailhead full stride. Then, like a hike in rugged country, we descended into a valley of unanticipated tragedy, which forever changed Beth’s attitude toward hiking.