Mapping Possibilities

Maps are an important part of my life. As a former graphic designer, I have a special place in my heart for a good map. Metro maps, letter press world maps, topographic maps, all crafted from beautiful lines and symbols forming irregular patterns that at the same time are an abstraction of something real. When my life became intertwined with Menso’s, maps took on a whole new meaning.





6 days


73 miles
Menso owns every map sold at REI. When we go into the store now, he goes to the map section to check and comes back somehow both sheepishly and proudly saying that he has all of the maps. He can stare at maps for hours, he can stare at maps he has looked at dozens of times before. He’ll come to bed with a map in his hand, turn on his bedside lamp, and pore over the map as I drift off to sleep in his lap. I think the thing that intrigues me the most about all this is that with the amount of time he looks at them, he has to have the map memorized by now. What new is there left to discover on each map?

What I realized on this trip is that he sees something else when he looks at maps than what I see. He sees the terrain jump off the page, the creek canyon with waterfalls bounding down the rocks, the views from the mountain tops, and the endless possible adventures through the vast wilderness. And so with that eye for possibilities he planned our route.

It was easier to get permits for trailheads in Inyo National Forest and, knowing my unwavering love for and devotion to hot springs, Menso thought it to his benefit to plan a route taking some inspiration from a friend’s Kern Hot Springs hike. The last requirement was to create a loop, both ensuring we maximized the wilderness we experienced and to not be reliant on getting a ride to back to where we left our car. And with that, our route was set. With fears of our route being too ambitious in the back of our minds, put there by well meaning friends and colleagues, we set out to the Eastern Sierras anxious to no longer be backpacking newbies.

I was excited to spend time in the solitude of the outdoors, but as the trip went on, I realized that what threatened to define our trip more than the vistas we crossed were the people we encountered, or at times the absence of people, and how our journey compared to theirs.

Day 1: Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead to Soldier Lake

The backpacker on the last day, the backpacker on the first, and the day hiker

As with any 10 or so mile range from a trailhead, we encountered day hikers, grungy backpackers on the last leg of their journey, and fresh, bright-eyed, clean-clothed backpackers like ourselves just setting out. The day hikers bounded up the trail with so much energy, just as happy to be in the outdoors, anticipating the beauty and cold water of the lakes ahead, unladen with the food and shelter we carried in our packs. We used to be them: the day hikers who hiked 10+ and often 20+ miles in a day, getting to experience a taste of the backcountry without our gear slowing us down and making every step a little harder. We always said backpackers must hate us and now I can speak from experience: they did, at least a little bit.

At camp we met a woman and her daughter on their final night of camping, looking forward to real food, a real bed, and a shower. The woman inquired about our trip, assuming we were out there to summit Mt. Whitney. We weren’t. Mt. Whitney will always be there. We didn’t feel an urgent need to climb it. There is so much out there to experience. Upon hearing our intended route, she informed us we wouldn’t see a soul past the hot springs. The hot springs was our halfway point. I wasn’t sure what to think of this information. Was this good? Was this bad?

Day 2: Soldier Lake to Wallace Creek

The JMT, the PCT, and High Sierra Trail hikers

Day 1 was ambitious. Day 2 was 4 miles over ambitious. The woman from camp’s reaction to the distance we planned to travel on Day 2 was ringing in my ears as we set out, walking along a creek that seemed to be saying everything was going to be ok. Everything was ok for a while. Some time after attending to the small beginnings of blisters and stopping for snack breaks in the middle of endless trees, I cracked. As I collapsed for a break and a foot rub, Menso knew what to say to motivate me—"The further we make it past Crabtree Meadow, the less walking we have to do tomorrow and the earlier in the day we will reach the hot spring". I couldn’t argue with that logic. In the end, the ominous clouds and distant drum-roll of thunder were a much stronger motivator. We welcomed the sight of all the tents already pitched by the creek as they came into view while we finished the last downhill mile.

For the last 5 miles of the day we were concurrently on the John Muir Trail (JMT), the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and the High Sierra Trail. All trails with well recognized names, trails on people’s bucket lists, and trails that some people refer to as highways. We didn’t talk to many people in camp, but it was clear from the gear people had and even the presence of some ultralight backpackers that these folks were in it for the long haul. Our camp neighbors were a father and son duo from Connecticut and Kalispell, MT respectively. They were on Day 6 of their JMT hike, having started well south of the beginning of the trail in order to acclimate to the altitude and had already climbed Mt. Whitney. They still had two days before their first re-supply and were letting their “load of laundry” dry.

Day 3 - Wallace Creek to Kern Hot Springs

The High Sierra Trail hikers and the “crowds” warranting an outdoor pooper

As we set out on day 3 we quickly left the JMT and the PCT behind. The High Sierra Trail may not be as famous as the other two, but it is the only established route to traverse the Southern Sierras from west to east, starting in Sequoia National Park and ending at Mt. Whitney. True to our nature to not conform, we were hiking the High Sierra Trail in the opposite direction of the popular flow. I wonder if we would have noticed, admired, and appreciated the scenery as much as we did if we had hiked the trail in the other direction. As we were hiking down into the river valley, we came around a corner, crossed a stream, and were assaulted by the most gorgeous view: sheer granite mountains with the most textbook glacial valley. There is so much beauty in the middle of the vast high country, beauty that makes you feel insignificant, beauty that you could never come close to replicating in the human world.

Reaching the valley floor, we cooled off in the river and relished in the relatively flat, downward sloping trail through trees and ferns. A group of pitched tents and dispersed voices announced our arrival at the hot springs. After mistaking a low fence sequestering the only pit toilet we would see (with one hell of a view) for the hot spring, we found a riverside campsite and the correct path to the hot spring. The river was a tad bit warmer downstream and, after rinsing our clothes, taking a dip, and waiting our turn, I enjoyed the glory of the hot spring water in the middle of the backcountry, the reward for continuing to put one foot in front of the other for the past three days.

Camp was different here. Children tiredly shuffled around camp, an extended family of 10 camped next to us and, as we ate dinner, a family arrived near dusk with a child as young as 8. Also, camp chairs were scattered around the campsites. Up until now, presumably no one deemed bringing a camp chair worth the weight when a bear canister makes a great stool. The popularity of this spot must have been what warranted digging out a pit toilet in the middle of the wilderness.

Day 4: Kern Hot Springs to Kern Canyon Ranger Station

The National Parks Service employees and the hired mule train

After a lazy morning—we had to go in the hot spring one more time to total 3 dips in our time there—we set out. We had a couple of miles to go before we were off the High Sierra trail and “wouldn’t see anyone”. It was getting hotter, the river was getting wider, and the ferns were getting more dense. We crossed paths with a few motivated groups heading towards the hot springs, with one hiker asking us if we were doing ok. I don’t know if it was our late start or the fact that we were going the “wrong” way that sparked his concern. With one of my blisters not settling into the routine of hiking that day, I switched to sandals in order to navigate the trail over talus piles and sand created by the mule trains.

South of the High Sierra Trail junction we saw no one, heard nothing, until a faint chainsaw-like noise echoed through the valley. It was in fact a chainsaw. We came across a NPS 3-person trail crew, and then stumbled upon a NPS employee (likely a biologist) taking a break in the shade across the river from where we stopped to take a cooling swim as the river snaked around a horseshoe bend. Later, a mule train came up on us and the leader remarked that we were the first people he had seen all day. They were followed minutes later by a family enjoying the luxury of being on horseback. When we thought we had almost made it to where we planned to camp, a NPS biologist caught us on the trail. We were obviously the odd ones out. The biologist was out there for the summer on a multiyear project to remove an invasive grass species. She was staying at the Kern Canyon Ranger Station, which is one of the most remote ranger stations and hasn’t been staffed with a ranger in years. She only gets one resupply over the summer which was due to be delivered the next day and she was greatly looking forward to fresh veggies and cheese.

Her presence both reassured and motivated me to finish the longest hike I’ve done in sandals. She pointed us to a nearby soda spring and sure enough, after we filtered some unappetizing looking water, we enjoyed crisp, cold, bubbly water in the backcountry. Maybe it was its refreshing taste or maybe it was the novelty of it, but I think it was a better treat than the beer we were wistfully hoping someone at the ranger station might offer us. That night down by the river we camped by ourselves for the first time on this trip. It was warm enough to leave the rain fly off and we fell asleep under the stars.

Day 5: Kern Canyon Ranger Station to Big Whitney Meadow

The lingering signs of past hikers and the couple with the dog

Day 5 was all uphill. We had to climb out of the river valley that we had so enjoyed hiking downhill into, so we got an “early” start to try to hike the steepest 4 miles in the shade. From camp, we crossed a bridge and immediately were aware of the difference between the National Park on the side we came from and the Inyo National Forest that we had crossed the river into. One side had metal signs listing the trail destination and mileage. The other had worn, carved, wooden signs with the mileage notably missing. I took very deliberate steps, trying to save my feet as I secretly wanted to make it 15 miles as opposed to the 11 we had planned. Maybe I wanted to make it to Big Whitney Meadow because it was likely a more beautiful place to camp or maybe it was because we would be closer to the front country in case anything happened, as we weren’t expecting to see a soul today either. And we didn’t. All we saw was one set of footprints walking in the opposite direction as us. We wondered what had brought that hiker here, where were they going, did they find what they were looking for?

The day dragged on, the climb out of the valley was beautiful and steep, and Little Whitney Meadow was an idyllic place for a break to filter water, soak our feet, and eat a snack. Then the trail seemed like an endless path through mule train-churned granite, each step in the sand absorbing the energy we put into it, barely moving us forward. No trail signs reassured us that we were on the right path. I began to wonder “is this why everyone only hikes the JMT, the PCT, the High Sierra trail?” Were we wrong to venture out into the National Forest? Is this why no one comes here? Eventually we made it to the only creek we had to remove our shoes and wade through. It was only barely ankle deep and was slow and smooth, but it signified a change in the journey. We quickly reached trail signs, an old weather/snow tracking station, and the creek we would walk up to Big Whitney Meadow.

Watching the creek as we continued to hike, trying my best to meditate on each step and not think about the number of miles left, I knew we had made the right decision to hike here. The water tumbling over the rocks was peaceful, the trout swimming in plain site idyllic. As we soaked in our surroundings and listened to the water as the days journey was slowly coming to a close, we were startled by a voice giving us a greeting. We had come across a couple and their dog camping on the other side of the river. They were just as surprised to see us as we were to see them. This was who hikes in the National Forest. The casual hiker with the appropriate gear, but not the high-end technical gear of the thru-hikers, and a dog that the National Parks shun, out enjoying the great outdoors with no agenda. They were the only people we saw that day.

Sure enough, it was the right decision to camp at Big Whitney Meadow. It was more amazing that I had even imagined. So vast, so gorgeous, so peaceful. No photo can capture it in its entirety. We snaked around the western edge of it, eventually going straight into it to find a burbling brook I could have sat by for days. On the top of a knoll nearby we pitched our tent, no one in sight, but from the fire ring, someone had camped there before.

Day 6 - Big Whitney Meadow to Horseshoe Meadow

The hiker on the last day, the hiker on the first, and the day hiker once again

I woke up at 5 am, couldn’t go back to sleep, and at 6 got out of the tent, brought my sleeping bag as a blanket and watched the sunrise while reading a book I had carried all this way. The meadow had not lost its appeal overnight. Neither of us wanted to leave, but a “short” mileage day propelled us onward and upward over our last mountain pass. The day, as all days, was a test in living in the moment and not thinking about the mileage yet to come. We passed more groups with dogs heading out for a few days in the wilderness, we passed two men 3 hours into their JMT adventure, we passed fresh backpackers who commented on my (unbeknownst to me) affinity for blue backpacking gear and, of course, those unladen day hikers searching for a taste of the backcountry and a view from Cottonwood Pass. The pass was unsurprisingly gorgeous and we sat there reluctant to the leave the beauty of the wilderness behind and return to reality, but we gave in and suffered through the last miles, only grueling because of where we had come from, not what was left to hike.

The trails, regardless of their names, took us through multiple beautiful ecosystems every day, telling stories of how life adapted to the unique hardships of the terrain. The mountains, regardless of the number of people whose goal it is to reach the top, humbled us, reminding us of our insignificance. The streams and rivers, regardless of whether they are homes to the novelty of hot spring water or a swift bend or small waterfall, brought us peace and quieted our minds. The meadows, regardless of whether we approached them from the “right” direction, inspired us to return.

The beauty of Menso’s affinity for maps and the intimate way he interacts with them is that our trips don’t rely on whether the route is well known, a box to be checked, or a name to be recognized. He sees the possibilities as they are meant to be seen. The map, absent of the notion of people, speaks only to the wilderness to be explored.

The wilderness doesn’t care who you are or who has come before you. Whether you take the path worn by thousands of pairs of shoes or the path with a single set of footprints, you define your journey, your journey is your own, and it is always one worth taking.