“I never want to go home!”
Sarah and I turned to laugh at the 50-something guy and his buddy, a few yards down the shore from us at Wanda Lake, nestled below Muir Pass in Kings Canyon National Park. There was a festive feeling in the air during this snack break, and I dunked my head in the water with extra zeal. Gloriously freezing – just what I needed!
And we understood why he said it: it was spectacularly beautiful, and peaceful, and sunny – warm, in fact. Those deep blue, high elevation lakes are the stuff of daydreams, and when you arrive at one, it’s almost impossible not to exclaim to anyone who will listen how amazing it is.
This was Day Six of our 12 day John Muir Trail thru-hike. The halfway point. The afternoon before, we had picked up our final resupply, and the climb out of Muir Trail Ranch had been too hot and dusty, with packs that felt too heavy. Spirits hadn’t been high.
But this morning we had gotten up and out early, climbed for several hours and thousands of feet to reach a beautiful lunch spot, and finally had arrived at this last big lake before the mountain pass, with only a few fellow hikers – one of whom never wanted to go home.
I thought about that comment for the rest of the trip. And as I did, it occurred to me that in fact, I really, really wanted to go home.
The JMT hike was a challenge, and a gift. So few people can take two weeks away from work to backpack the most scenic trail in California, and I’m privileged to be one of them. Yes, there was hardship: blisters, nights that were colder than anticipated, and the fairly grueling routine of 5:30 wake ups and 18-20 mile days, back to back to back to…you get the idea.
But the payoff, the moments on those passes, looking down at where we had come from and where we were heading, tracking our steady progress across the land toward our goal at the summit of Mt. Whitney, are hard to express in words. There is a feeling of exhilaration, of humility, and of tremendous perspective and space that is hard to find anywhere else.
The curriculum doesn’t stop when you get down the mountain. The lessons are still there for you to keep unpacking and bringing forth.
And yet – I definitely wanted to go home. Terry Tempest Williams wrote “wildness reminds us what it means to be human, what we are connected to rather than what we are separate from.” For me, these moments of exhilaration in nature connect me to some of my core drives. It is my reverence for unspoiled landscapes that has defined my career path. It is nature’s sense of quiet that I seek to integrate more into my life in a bustling, tech-driven city. It is backpacking’s streamlined simplicity that I always want to extend further into the values of my “real” life at home.
Outdoor adventures can illuminate your brightest self. They can uncover qualities in you that very few other contexts coax out. But I think they come with a unique mandate, too. Take those gifts – the realizations, the growth, that feeling of sufficiency – and give them life at home, in your community, and with the people you love. The curriculum doesn’t stop when you get down the mountain. The lessons are still there for you to keep unpacking and bringing forth.
I want to keep getting out to the lonesome, stark beauty of wild places like Wanda Lake. And I always want to come home.
A San Francisco native, Alison grew up in a family that enjoyed the privilege of outdoor access – many memories were made in California’s iconic mountain and coastal landscapes. Alison has spent her career in the philanthropic sector, advancing initiatives for justice and empowerment internationally and closer to home. In addition to her leadership at The Cairn Project, she directs the Environmental Defenders Collaborative at Global Greengrants Fund, channeling support to frontline environmental activists around the world.