“Turn left and the trail will lead you to one of the most luxurious mountain spas you’ll ever visit. Turn right if you want to head down some of the most grueling trails you’ll ever climb,” Papa Smurf advised me when I asked him which direction to turn at a particularly confusing intersection of trails on the John Muir Trail.
Smurf is his trail name. I never learned his real name -- like many other thruhikers I encountered during my trek, he preferred to be known by his trail moniker. Smurf was just completing a 300-mile second of the Pacific Crest Trail when our paths crossed a couple of weeks ago, and he lived up to his name, sashaying up and down the trail like an animated character, and dispensing advice freely when asked.
When we first encountered Smurf, we had paused and were trying to figure out how to cross some frigid rapids that were flowing from the source of a glacier high atop Donahue Pass. The water was cold, moving fast and cascading down the side of a mountain and there didn’t seem any way to get around -- or to go over -- it. As we debated whether to remove our boots and socks, Smurf emerged, and without hesitating, marched waist-deep through the frigid water, emerging from the other side. We followed his cue.
Later that day, while approaching another high mountain pass, Smurf observed how the birds had ceased chirping and that the silence was an ominous indication of a storm approaching. It was ominous, because you don’t want to be caught in an exposed mountain pass during a lightning storm, for the obvious reasons. The birds began chirping again, so we proceeded. And just as we reached the summit, the bird banter died again. “Do you feel that rush of air at your back,” Smurf inquired? “That means the storm is circling back in this direction. I want everyone to spread out 40 paces apart. That way if lightning strikes, we won’t all go together.”
I knew these things from my own years of mountaineering experience, but it had been some time since I was on a long trail, and when I was it was far more desolate and a rarely encountered other hikers, much less characters like Smurf, Atlas, or Ben, who prefered to use his real name. What struck me most about this trek was how much people communicated along the trail, passing vital data -- how to avoid storms or bears, find good campsites, abundant sources of water -- the old-fashioned way: By simply talking to each other.
One of the things I looked most forward to about taking this three-week wilderness adventure with my daughter and two friends was the ability to disconnect. What I discovered was how to reconnect -- to other people, in the most human ways possible.
That’s not to say we didn’t encounter any media along the way. Unlike the last time I hiked the JMT in 1977, electronic media was abundant. It seemed like every other crew had at least one solar charger strapped to the top of their backpack. We had one, but it was solely for the purpose of recharging the batteries on our camera so we could take pictures along the way. The camera was a state-of-the-art Olympus that actually had a GPS in it, but we didn’t use it to find coordinates. We stuck to map, compass and asking seasoned hikers like Smurf which way to turn.
But some used theirs to power their mobile devices, which ironically, only seemed to work in the most desolate locations -- high atop mountain passes like Donahue, where cellular signals could be found. I had my phone tucked inside my pack, but I never tried to get a signal, make a call, send a text. It was part of the reason I was out there.Don’t get me wrong. I love media, and I am as much a media junkie as anyone, but I also think it’s important for us to disconnect from it -- at least once in awhile. I’ve been thinking about it for some time, but the thought really struck me following Hurricane Sandy, when my community was knocked off the grid for a week, and we were all forced to disconnect. In retrospect, I thought it was a good thing. And I think everyone should try it once in awhile. Even if it’s just one day. Put your gadgets aside, turn on your away-from-mail auto responder, and turn off your phone. Just disconnect. Do it, and you’ll reconnect to something good. I guarantee it.