SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK, Calif. -- Not all vacations should involve high thread-count sheets, gourmet meals served on fine china or soapy baths.
This one sure didn’t.
Six of us traded such luxuries for sleeping bags, tents, dehydrated meals and hours spent plodding the High Sierra Trail in central California with 25 pounds on our backs.
Everything got distilled to the basics: Walk. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.
No smartphone. No Internet. No deodorant. The same set of filthy clothes worn hard, six days in a row.
Backpacking lets you see the land up close, in slow motion. The owls hoot at night. Storms brew and rain falls. You get wet. And smelly. Blisters form. Muscles ache. Toes get dipped in icy streams. Freeze-dried food never tasted so good.
It’s the most magical way to travel.
Day 1: 12.7 miles
At Crescent Meadow in Sequoia National Park, nearly 75 miles of trail, more than 17,000 feet of climbing and a slew of mountains lie ahead of us.
In the charmed grove where we start, trees stretch 250 feet into the sky. Pine cones the size of hoagie sandwiches litter the ground. It is breathtaking. It would take 10 people to encircle a single tree. I pause to hug one.
Our packs are heavy with food early on. We move along as fast as we can, covering about two miles per hour. We zigzag through woods, cross streams and eventually break out along a ridge line.
When we roll into Bearpaw Meadow seven hours later we set up our tents, heat water over tiny camp stoves and pour it into pouches of dehydrated pasta. Afterward, we walk a few hundred yards farther to check out the 80-year-old High Sierra Camp, where hikers who don’t want to lug their own supplies pay as much as $400 a night to sleep on a real bed in a canvas tent, enjoy a hot shower and nosh on meals cooked by a chef.
The place perches atop a granite saddle overlooking the Great Western Divide, and the view is spectacular. The cook sells us a tiny carton of red wine and we flop onto a huge boulder, marvel at the scenery and admire a bright blue lizard basking in the sun.
Then it’s back to our humble tents, where we snuggle into sleeping bags and fall asleep instantly.
Day 2: 11.1 miles
The trail unspools through a forest of evergreens. We roll along with it, past chattering birds and curious chipmunks. Pretty soon we’re traipsing along sheer drop-offs that turn my knees to jelly. But I forge on. If I’m going to make this hike I’ll have to focus on the trail ahead of me, not the swirling vortex of death a few inches away.
We cross a timber bridge over a deep gorge, then chug up a mountain. Before noon we arrive at Hamilton Lake, where we strip off our clothes and wade into sparkling, icy water. Nobody’s here to care, although we’ve been warned about a bear in the area. The furry guy doesn’t show, and our dip is glorious.
We draw and filter water, then press on. The trail winds up — and up and up. Soon we’re clinging to the side of an eye-popping cliff. But the trail is wide, and I scuttle along, refusing to look over the edge. At one point, the drop-off is so sheer the Civilian Conservation Corps blasted a tunnel through the mountainside. I make it through without dropping to my knees and crawling — a huge personal victory.
Near the top of the pass we admire Precipice Lake, which glints against a moss-stained granite backdrop. Ansel Adams made it famous when he photographed it in 1932. It’s not easily forgotten.
It all makes me so happy I could cry.
Day 3: 7.2 miles.
Today we get a break. Although the first few miles are uphill, the trail smooths out as we mosey along a plateau.
Sometimes we pad through spongy sections of trail carpeted in pine needles; other times we clatter on rock. My favorite stretches, though, are those that run alongside huge golden meadows or wind beneath widely scattered Ponderosa pines.
We arrive at Moraine Lake early in the afternoon, and take advantage of the short day by leaping into the water and chatting with a few other hikers camping here. I never want to leave.
Day 4: 15 miles.
Early in the day, we lose all the elevation we’ve spent the last three days gaining. We spiral off the plateau and into a valley, passing through a part of trail that was closed just a few days earlier due to a small lightning-sparked fire.
Stumps are still smoking and one huge fallen log still spits out flames. It’s eerie and quiet and smells like the fire pit at Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas.
At the bottom we’re rewarded with a long amble along the tumbling Kern River. Around noon we pull off the trail where someone has dammed up the trickle coming out of a natural hot spring. It’s like someone plopped a steamy bathtub into the middle of the backcountry. We take turns easing in for a soak. It’s heaven.
When we roll into our next camp, nestled under towering trees, I gather 100 huge pine cones and arrange them a circle around our tent. We dub it the Pine Cone Chalet.
Day 5: 11.2 miles.
It’s another long day, with lots of climbing.
After four days of nonstop walking, though, I feel like a mountain goat. It amazes me how quickly the body adapts to the trail. And how hungry backpacking makes me. I’m an eating machine, but my pants are starting to sag on my hips and all I can think about is the burger I’ll wolf down when I get off the trail.
By early afternoon we’re above tree level again, and the terrain looks spartan, with naked boulders and stark, bony ribs of cliffs. It’s eerie but beautiful.
We make camp at Guitar Lake, where we scramble to find a spot big and flat enough to hold a tent. It’s exposed, and storm clouds are gathering. I’m nervous; exactly a year ago a backpacker from Austin, Texas, was struck by lightning while camping at this very lake.
We end up squeezing in next to a father and daughter duo, finishing up three weeks on the trail, and a young marine biologist. We just get our tents up when the wind begins to blast. I huddle inside, taking care not to touch the metal poles.
Between cloudbursts we mill around outside, chatting. This section of trail is inside what’s called the Whitney Zone, which means we can’t dig cat holes to do our business. This is “wagbag” country, and everyone is carrying a special pouch for human waste. We laugh about it, and when someone finally sneaks off to use one, she comes back holding it high and proud.
Just before we retreat into our tents for good, the sky clears.
Huge mountains loom above us. Conditions look perfect for summiting Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48, in the morning.
Day 6: 17.1 miles (reduced to 15).
I sleep in all my clothes. It’s cold, for one, but mainly I want to save time. We wake at 4 a.m., break camp and strap headlamps to our head. We’re on the trail quickly, crunching toward a series of dizzying switchbacks. Ahead, I can see a half-dozen headlamps of the hikers who started ahead of us flickering up the mountainside.
An hour into the climb, a soft glow of light spills over the ridge. Guitar Lake shines like a penny far below. Layers of purple, then blue and finally pink smudge the sky. But the wind blows hard, and even though I’m wearing an insulated jacket and gloves, I’m cold. And jittery.
Before 7 a.m. we’ve climbed more than 2,000 feet. A two-mile spur trail juts off to the summit, another 1,000 feet up. We drop our backpacks, taking only water. We set out on a narrow, rocky trail studded with tippy rocks. I scurry along, keeping my center of gravity low.“One foot in front of the other,” I chant.
Things go well until suddenly they don’t. At first the trail spills off into a slide of brick- and bowling ball-sized rocks. It gets steeper as we go, and in stretches plummets straight down like an elevator shaft.
I round a bend and something snaps. I can’t go on. All I can do is sit on the edge of the trail and weep because it’s so scary. I have to turn back. (We learn later that a 60-year-old California man fell off the trail and died near the same spot, just three days prior.) My sweet husband turns back, too, so I don’t have to walk alone. We retrieve our packs, scramble over the pass and don’t look back.
From here it’s all downhill, with so many switchbacks it’s impossible to keep track. As tough as it is slogging up a mountain, it’s more painful to go down. My panic has subsided, but it’s left me exhausted. My knees creak and feet throb as we waddle along, dropping 5,000 feet in 10 miles. I vow to hug the first tree I see, which I do, gratefully, two hours later.
Nine hours after I set out that morning, I stroll into the Whitney Portal store, order a cheeseburger, fries and a cold beer. When I’ve tossed all that back, I eat some fries off my husband’s plate, then gobble a king-size ice cream sandwich.
I’m spent, bedraggled and smell like a locker room. But already I’m dreaming about my next backpacking trip.
• High Sierra Trail: www.nps.gov/seki/planyourvisit/high-sierra-trail.htm