Day Zero: Big Tuolumne Meadows

Day 0: Reno to Tuolumne Meadows. 2 miles.

We wake up early and move around the house, making breakfast and collecting gear. It’s the big day! I have a list of last-minute things that I need to do: make sure my phone is charged, fill my water bottles, turn off my computer… I didn’t pack completely yesterday, and now I carefully stuff my sleeping clothes and jackets around my bear can in my pack so it won’t poke into my back. I put my bright yellow stuffsack on top and close my pack. Everything seems in limbo- Mom and I doing our last-minute-nothings, I fidgeting and tidying my room. Finally we reach escape velocity. I take a picture of my finished pack sitting against my bed, and then I shoulder it, grab the plastic bag with my shoes and extra snacks, and squeeze through the front door.


As we start getting into the car I joke that we could just stay home and photoshop ourselves into JMT pictures off the internet. We throw our packs and trekking poles in the back of the car, and pile into my dad’s blue Prius, named Sirius Blue. My dad and mom in the front with the dog, and me in the back with my brother. I feel a muted thrill of excitement in my stomach as we drive through our neighborhood and get on the highway. We pass through Reno and Sparks in the mid-morning dearth of traffic, through Washoe Valley looking up at the mountain ridges that we walked across on the Tahoe Rim Trail, through road construction in Carson, the sky a pale, stratified shade of blue. It’s a familiar road trip to me; although I haven’t been this way often, the landscape has been seared into my memory. It’s beautiful, with streaks of bright-green aspen and purple willow following springs up into the brown folds of the hills, the sagebrush, and of course the mountains always on the right. Eventually you can see the crown of pale granite peaks that is the Sierra towering behind the hills. Above Mono Lake we pass a section of road where the hill is seared black from fire.


Then, finally, we are in Lee Vining. We stop at the visitor center and ask them if they know where the YARTS bus stop is. It’s a half mile back. We get there, a big parking lot filled with RVs, and wait, watching the highway for the bus. I kiss our dog as he sits in my shade, mussing his soft schnauzer ears and telling him incessantly that I love him. The bus finally comes, and my mom and I say goodbye to my dad and brother. And, of course, many kisses for the dog.



Our packs are stashed and we find seats by the front of the bus. My stomach aches, tense from expectation, but I know that all of the stress will go away once we’re there. I barely pay attention to the view outside of the window as the bus turns into Lee Vining and begins its drive up into the mountains. Mom talks to the other people on the bus and I listen. There are two women from Texas, Vicki and Barb, who ended their JMT hike early to have a staycation at home. When we get to Tuolumne we end up getting off the bus together. I’m surprised to see a bunch of PCTers in front of the Tuolumne Grill. A few come over to talk to us. They’re holding beers and wearing the usual grubby trucker hats. They’re lean and starting to wear that hungry expression that becomes prominent in northern California. They’re happy to have food. One of the PCTers says we all look “legit” and I puff up a little bit inside.


We go with Vicki and Barb to find the Backpacker’s Campground. It’s behind the regular campgrounds and up a hill. We set up next to each other and then walk back together to the grill to get late lunch. I’ve been trying to be vegetarian but I get a burger.img_5097

To kill the afternoon, we hang out at some spaghetti trail-magic (an act of random kindness given to thruhikers). It’s being put together by a family that lives nearby. Someone leaves a bottle of wine at the table and we carry it up to the backpacker’s campground to pawn off on people. We give most of it to a table of thruhikers who have a neon green bong that they’re passing around. We talk for a while, the air heady and strong with a smell like burning rabbitbrush. I feel like I’m suffocating and wonder if I could get high from just the smell.


We go to a campfire program led by a ranger, who sings a song about “Big Tuolumne Meadows” to the tune of Big Rock Candy Mountain, and then stumble back to our tents in the dark. People are talking loudly and walking around, their headlights shining through the thin wall of my tarp tent and throwing shadows of pine needles onto my sleeping bag. Someone hums Big Rock Candy Mountain. I get up once to get my earplugs from the bear box and fall asleep to the muffled sound of someone setting up their tent nearby.