Is It A Mirage?

Ansel Adams WildernessIt all started that morning at the Mammoth Mountain Adventure Center as our group waited to board the bus that would take us to the trailhead. I saw a nice ranger standing by and asked her to verify some information on the hike I wanted to do, which was slightly different from the group’s goals. I told the lady that I was going to Thousand Island Lake and inquired about the River Trail, which was the route recommended in my guidebook, “50 Classic Day Hikes of the Eastern Sierra,” by Devon Fredericksen and Reed Harvey. I wasn’t quite prepared for her response.

Oh, you’re going to Thousand Lake? That’s a tough one. You shouldn’t take the River Trail, that’s steep. You need to take the High Trail. It will be more gradual.

I was perplexed.

But the guidebook I have suggests taking the River Trail. It’s supposed to be 14 miles round trip and can be done as a day hike.

She remained adamant.

I don’t know what guidebook you’re reading. That’s going to be really tough.

She then took out a map and showed me the trail from Agnew Meadows, which was the starting point, all the while trying to encourage me to take the High Trail, which was about two miles longer, but supposedly more scenic. I didn’t have my own map of the area and the store where I could have purchased one wasn’t open yet, so I stuck with my original intent to follow the advice of the guidebook and take the River Trail. I admit, after the ranger’s reaction, I felt some apprehension.

The sign at the trailhead.

The sign at the trailhead.

About a mile or so into the hike, I was off and on my way to Thousand Island Lake. Since the guidebook stated that this was a popular trail and that the lake had been nicknamed “Thousand People Lake,” I figured I wouldn’t be alone. Yet, for the most part, I was. It didn’t bother me much, though. I often prefer solitude when trekking in the backcountry, although it is nice to have a partner sometimes.

The trail gradually ascended, never straying far front the San Joaquin River tumbling down below. At one point, the trail got really close to the river and I took a slight detour to check out a cascading waterfall.

San Joaquin River waterfall

San Joaquin River waterfall cascade.

Shortly after I returned to the trail, I met a group of backpackers coming toward me, each carrying packs that appeared to weigh at least 50 pounds apiece. We greeted each other and, of course, they asked where I was headed.

I’m going to Thousand Island Lake.

I braced for the reaction.

Oh, wow. That’s quite a slog. You’ve got a ways to go and it’s a trudge from here.

I tried my best to appear unfazed.

Well, I’m used to long day hikes. I’ve hiked twenty-two miles in a day before.

Their eyes widened.

Wow, you must be a serious mountain woman!

I bid the backpackers a good day and they sent me off with well-wishes as I was on my way again. Shortly after that, the same thing happened. Backpackers coming down the trail were once again astounded that I was going to Thousand Island Lake as a day hike, as if they didn’t believe it could be done. I assumed that they were on their way back from the lake.

Is that where you guys are coming from?

The backpackers looked amazed.

No, we were at Garnet Lake. That’s a little bit closer.

As we parted ways, I began to question the path I was on and thought that maybe I should change my goal to Garnet Lake, which, as the backpackers said, was closer. I reasoned that a lake is a lake and they all probably look the same anyway. Maybe I didn’t fully understand the description in the guidebook, although I studied it at least 100 times before setting out. Maybe the book was wrong.

I set a time and decided that no matter where I was at when that time came upon me, I would turn around. This was an unfamiliar trail to me and I didn’t want to get so far in that I couldn’t make it out at a reasonable hour. I also didn’t want to miss the group who were hiking the same mileage on a different trail, but at a faster pace than me. I wanted to make it back to the Adventure Center around the same time because we were to have dinner that evening in town.

No end in sight.

No end in sight.

The trail continued to climb and I found myself in a forest. Not too long before that, I had emerged from a short section of forest and reached a clearing that I thought would finally provide clear views of my goal. But it just led me to another forest. While I was grateful for the shade, the trail became a constant uphill slog and I realized that what one of the backpackers said was right. I took a break to snap a few shots of flowers just off the trail. It was hard to silence the doubts as they consumed me like a giant wave.

Anderson's Thistle

Anderson’s Thistle

I began to think in my heart that I had failed and was going to have to go back as my turnaround time closed in on me. I thought to myself that if I could just see where I was going, I would have hope and be motivated to stay the course. But the arduous climb continued and the scenery around me wasn’t changing. All I saw were trees. I never saw a lake, not even Garnet Lake, which was supposed to be closer. The climb seemed no longer worth it, so I just wanted to stop and go back the way I had come, back to what was familiar.

After this clearing the path became dim.

Beyond this clearing the path grew dim.

A little less than an hour before my turnaround time, I saw what appeared to be two day hikers coming down the trail toward me. They weren’t carrying big heavy packs. At this point, I just wanted confirmation that I should turn back because I had already prepared myself for the disappointment. I greeted the couple and asked if I was getting close to Thousand Island Lake. They gave me the most encouraging news I had heard all day. I was about a couple of miles away from a pass and once I reached the pass, the lake would be right there, just on the other side of it. I thanked the couple and pressed on.

Even with the affirmation, I still had doubts as I trekked through the somewhat dense forest. I contemplated turning around for fear that it was getting too late. For some reason, the altitude really affected me on this hike and I was troubled that I didn’t seem to be getting any closer to the pass. I couldn’t see beyond the trees.

Twenty minutes before my turnaround time, I was about to throw in the towel. Then, I realized that I owed it to myself to at least continue until 1pm, which was the time I had set. Certainly, I could hang in there for twenty more minutes, despite the seemingly endless slog.

The first views of Mt. Banner.

The first views of Mt. Banner.

Exactly twenty minutes later, I was blessed with one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen. Mt. Banner came into view just beyond a small pass, and shortly after that, the most beautiful, sparkling lake glistened before me. It wasn’t a mirage. It was real. I could finally see it, touch it, taste it. All of the doubts that tried to kill my dream, my vision of this wonder, were at once silenced for good. My goal had been validated by what my faith and action produced.

What sort of tale did I find myself in?

Just because the circumstances conflict with your inner vision, what you know to be true, it doesn’t mean that you’re on the wrong path. You may have naysayers telling you what can’t be done, but you have to realize that people often speak from what they know based on their own experiences and background.

Those backpackers who provided their input, the ones who almost discouraged me from going on–they were carrying 50-pound packs and they may not have been regular hikers, so of course they were going to see my goal as a slog and an impossible feat. I hike consistently and am used to long day hikes, so I’m well-acquainted with my strengths and abilities. I’m also aware of my limitations. However, I knew in my heart that I could do this.

Thousand Island Lake.

Thousand Island Lake

Had I given up, I would have missed out on one of the most beautiful treasures of the Sierra. I would have done all of that work for nothing. It was a nice hike and there were some really cool sights along the way, but the money shot was the lake, and also the return route as I decided to take the scenic High Trail on the way back.

Don’t get me wrong, there are times where it’s in your best interest to turn around, such as when you’re in imminent danger as I was on a previous hike to Cloudripper Peak. Sometimes in life there is danger on the path and you have to turn around, not to give up, but to reconfigure the approach to your goal and try again.

Even if that is the case, the theme remains the same: Never Give Up. Never let anyone or anything talk you out of your goal. Never let yourself or your own doubts talk you out of your goal. You can either be your own worst enemy or your biggest cheerleader.

Maybe you’ve been praying for something over the years and nothing is changing, as if you’re in that forest I was in where I couldn’t see where my path was leading me to. Perhaps everything around you contradicts the very thing you’ve been praying, hoping, wishing endlessly for. Don’t stop because even though it may not feel like it, you are ever closer to your dream come true.

Never give up then, for that is just the place and time when the tide will turn.

~Harriet Beecher Stowe

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