The Wilderness Experience

There doesn't seem to be a single explanation for what draws us to the wilderness. For many of us, there is a visceral response to the overwhelming beauty we experience. We take many different paths to experience wilderness and enjoy it. Some of us are compelled to see as much of it as we can. Some of us are motivated to visit as many places as we can so we can cross conquered trails, passes, and peaks off our lists. The challenge of reaching a remote area or climbing a difficult peak inspires many of us. Others are nourished by returning to the same spot year after year. We bring to our experiences different abilities; physical, mental, emotional. Our abilities change through time and that allows us to experience bolder adventures as we grow.

The wilderness experience is covered by a broad spectrum of activities. The experience often evolves from peripheral to more intense. Reading an adventure story set in the great outdoors or seeing a picture of the wilderness are remote experiences. Outdoor experiences range in intensity and include; a drive through the mountains, a cabin or hotel stay, a campground stay, a day hike, an overnight hike, a multiday hike on trail, off trail hiking, peak bagging. At the extreme are activities including through hiking, trail running, wall climbing, and other activities that require exceptional levels of endurance.

My Journey

Having returned to CA at age 42, I soon adopted an aggressive plan for exploring the Sierra Nevada. I hadn't hiked there since my late 20's, and I wanted to make up for lost time. One of my goals was to complete some of the classic trips described in guidebooks, such as the John Muir Trail, the High Sierra Trail, and the Rae Lakes Loop. An exploration plan didn't occur to me overnight. The first step was a return visit to the mountains that I loved so much.

As soon as we returned to Fresno, I HAD to take a hike. Subconsciously, I chose to return to an area which inspired my interest in exploring the Sierra Nevada. Some thirty years earlier on a hike from YMCA Camp Tulequoia, I had seen a view that was forever etched in my memory. It was the deep blue ponds with surrounding emerald turf of lower Granite Basin. Having completed the Boston Marathon earlier in the year, I was in excellent shape. The overnight trip to Volcanic Lakes simply whetted my appetite for more.

Reality intruded. I had a job, albeit one with a couple of months off in the summer. I had a wife and young children that I wanted to be near. I decided I would have to section hike the John Muir Trail (JMT). On hikes with Scout Troop 152, I had already completed the 32 miles of JMT between Vidette Meadows and Mt Whitney. Completing the second leg was inadvertent. On an overnight trip up Woods Creek, I changed my itinerary. A planned visit to the lakes above Castle Domes turned into a two day trip around the Rae Lakes Loop (RLL). I now had accumulated the southernmost 45 miles of the 200+ mile trail with the addition of the 13 miles of JMT on the RLL. I continued northward with a hike that added the 28 mile section of JMT between Woods Creek crossing and Grouse Meadow. At almost 80 miles, that hike convinced me section hiking was not the way to go.

I have the great fortune of being married to a great wife. With her support and encouragement, I managed to hike most of the JMT, from Tuolumne Meadows to Mt Whitney later that summer. The JMT hike helped crystallize my philosophy of hiking. The hike turned into what I call a classic sampler trip. It's a trip that left me with ideas for dozens of further trips along its course. It also helped me focus on the areas I thought were most appealing to me. Since then, I have not gone on any hikes north of Mono Creek. Not that the Sierra north of Mono Creek isn't beautiful, we only have so much time, so I focus on the south, the area I find most appealing.

As well as the JMT trip, that gave inspiration for many of the trips I have taken since, any trail free area on a map has prompted many others.

Planning Trips

I am an aggressive planner. I pick a challenging route, one that will require a lot of effort. I plan for plenty of extra activities in case the trip turns out to be easier than I thought. I plan escape routes in case things go wrong. Hardly ever do I kick back and read a book on a trip. It has been years since I have gone fishing. To me, there is no better feeling than the satisfaction of reaching the day's goal and the fatigue that goes with it. "More miles, more smiles," as friend Dan Braun says. No pain no gain. Yes, I expect discomfort and the blood, sweat, and tears that are all a part of a great hike. Over the past few years, I have taken a lot more photos of flowers. Maybe this is because my conditioning is not what it used to be and I need to take more breaks.

People I have met on the trail and visitors to my website have told me many times that I hike too fast. As I mentioned earlier, the wilderness experience covers a broad spectrum of activities - a night's stay at the Ahwahnee, a 12.5 hour hike of the Rae Lakes Loop, a day hike of Black Kaweah, a four day hike of the entire John Muir Trail, 800 wilderness trips documented with 50,000 photos. I say, "One man's death march is another man's walk in the park." If I have to shorten the trip or abort it, that's part of the game. I've always been willing to adapt.

Bill Finch
March 2013