Sonora Pass Sunset

Today we’re going to combine aspects of both new post themes as Photo Friday comes to you with a twist of Trail Talk Tuesday. The photo seen here was taken along the Pacific Crest Trail in the summer of 2007 near Sonora Pass, California. With the exception of a beautiful sunset, there is really nothing spectacular about this image; yet for me it remains amongst the most meaningful of the thousands captured during that five month journey.

I’d spent the day racing along 10,000 foot ridgelines beneath the threat of a looming electrical storm. If the skies broke loose, I knew I’d have no choice but to drop off of the exposed ridge and take shelter at lower elevation, but pushed hard in the hope of avoiding such delays. About five days prior I had separated from my hiking partners Cole and Moose, guys I had shared over seven hundred miles of trail with since coming up from Southern California. We’d split up when I decided to take a detour; veering off the PCT for a few days to follow the route of the John Muir Trail and hike down to Yosemite Valley. It turned out to be a great experience, but after leaving the valley and spending several days in the wilderness barely seeing a soul, I was ready to catch up with my friends again. Fighting to average twenty five miles a day over the Northern Sierra’s washboard like terrain, I clung to the hope that I might close in on them after another week.

Fortunately the weather held and I made good progress, slipping across Highway 108 at Sonora Pass just before nightfall. Continuing on to put some distance between myself and the road before settling on a camp for the night, I began to see fresh footprints in the dirt; and soon a pair of hikers ahead. They were stopped in discussion, and as the figures drew closer, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was Moose and Cole! I hadn’t expected to see them, at least for days, if ever again at all. Sometimes that’s how it goes when you’re hiking a long trail. You fall in with little packs, match each other’s pace for a spell, and then go your separate ways. When we’d parted at the trail junction in Tuolumne Meadows, we shook hands and wished each other well, just in case. Yet somehow, here we were. The guys were just as surprised and happy to see me as I was them. They told of how they’d been halted by an impromptu visit to the town of Bridgeport, which along with a host of other misadventures had slowed them enough to allow my return.

We walked for awhile but progress was slowed in the excitement of telling each of the others days in their absence. It was a joyful reunion, and after half a mile the walking was abandoned all together. We continued to talk while seeking flat spots amongst the crags to throw out our tents for the night. While setting up camp, the sky began to turn and cast the surrounding mountains in a magical glow. It was one of those sunsets that you didn’t even have to be looking at to see; you could just feel it coming on, and knew it was going to be something special. I momentarily neglected my camp chores to step away, snap a few shots, and savor the scene.

When I returned, I noticed a lone figure walking up the trail toward us. The man was in his mid-thirties. He didn’t carry a pack, a flashlight, or anything to speak of. It was obvious he was out for a quick evening hike, and coming around the bend he greeted us sheepishly.

We introduced ourselves and briefly exchanged the usual pleasantries. He explained that he’d just gotten off work at an area factory, a job he didn’t hesitate to say how much he hated, and had come as he often does to unwind before going home for the night. We talked for a few minutes. He asked of our travels, and though impressed by our efforts didn’t reveal the sense of enthusiasm that was common in such conversations. There was a certain sorrow in his tone, a hollowness in his eyes. He was familiar with the concept of thru hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, but said his life held many circumstances that wouldn’t allow it.  He wished us luck and excused himself, asking if we’d mind him watching the lingering sunset from a nearby boulder.

Moose, Cole and I returned to our campsite, approximately thirty yards away, and went about gathering water, cooking meals, and settling in for the evening. All the while, though, we couldn’t help but be aware of the man’s continued presence. There was just something slightly awry, just a little bit off, and from the corner of my eye I could see he was turned toward us; back to the western horizon. It became a little awkward, maybe borderline creepy, as darkness fell but he didn’t move on. He just sat there, knees pulled to his chest, watching and listening to our conversation. The man emanated a sense of envy, but not in a manner that was remotely confrontational. He seemed deeply depressed and his demeanor revealed nothing more than a longing to be in our position. It seemed he was content to absorb himself in our experience simply to escape his own for a little while. He sat there for close to an hour, then without a word, stood and disappeared into the night.

Through my travels I have met countless people, coming from all walks of life. Few have haunted me as much as the sight of that man at Sonora Pass. For as much as it seemed he wanted to be in our shoes, I also knew what it felt like to be in his. I’ve known what it feels like to live in abject misery, to hold a job that is so horrible it dictates your free time be spent dreading the arrival of another working day. As high as we were out there having the adventure of a lifetime, I realized his existence left him feeling every bit as low.

This photo brings back thoughts of that night; not so much for the gorgeous sunset but as a reminder that we should never take our experiences for granted. Out on the trail or through life in general, things aren’t always easy. Some days are flat out struggles. But if we’re doing something we’re passionate about, it’s important to cherish each moment we have. If we’ve found fulfillment in life we must consider ourselves fortunate; for there are many others that would give anything to be walking in our shoes.

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