At 6:30 pm, we found ourselves still hiking. Seven hours earlier we had crested Pinchot Pass to hit a long section of downhill trail that bordered Woods Creek. The air was warm with a cool breeze and dark clouds, once again, were forming where we had just come from, chasing us down the JMT with a daily urgency.
The downhill ended at a 100 foot long suspension bridge, hanging 25 feet over Woods Creek. The bridge swayed intimidatingly, underscoring the sign that warned hikers to travel the bridge one-at-a-time.
Safely across, we had our final words with Fernando and his group: Rod, Danny, and Mike. Friendly banter had passed between our two groups off and on for days. Fernando was easy to find as his pack glistened in the sun with a large solar panel affixed snuggly on the top. At a river crossing, I finally asked him, “are you solar powered?”.
“Kind of. I couldn’t be out here with out my Ipod or Iphone. The panels keep them charged,” he explained. “oh yeah, and I watched Star Trek last night.” Cade’s eyes grew large at the mention of such an option. This guy hiked in style. Just not our style.
Fernando’s friendly manner made us smile each time we met. An electrical enginner with the Department of Defense, Fernando had not only served oversees, he had also served time with search and rescue crews. Consequently, he had witnessed every kind of emergency possible and each time, he’d add more equipment to his pack, ensuring he was prepared for anything. “Yeah, I promised these grumpy old men’s wives I’d get them home safely,” he joked. In turn, Rod ribbed back, “We have no idea why he lugs all this stuff out here. He’s nuts”.
Fernando’s gang of grumpy old men were all retired from the military, one an ex-Navy Seal. All carried large, military style packs, various bodily ailments, and memories overseas combat. They might have ribbed Fernando’s excessive pack, but in reality, they all succumbed to their military training to come prepared, at all costs. And despite their continual jabs at each other, it was clear they had each other’s backs. It’s why Fernando lugged items like a heavy 2 pound climbing rope, bear spray, and two large sheathed knives – so he’d be able to get his buddies to the trailhead alive.
Turns out, they almost needed that rope. As Fernando met up with us at a watering stream, he began to recount a frightening moment, “Mike, the Navy Seal, has bad knees, one worse than the other. In order to momentarily reduce pressure on one of his knees, he decided to use his good leg to push off a boulder, lining the trail. The boulder gave way and he fell over the edge, about a 6 foot drop. Thankfully, he landed on a ledge or his fall might have been fatal as he would have dropped 30 feet or so into the shallow creek below.”
Woah. That was a sobering moment. Fernando hiked past us and then stopped and turned back, lightening the mood he gently ribbed us light weight packers as he pointed out, “See, I almost needed that rope!”
"You want a bear canister? I brought 2. You can have one, seriously."
"Hey thanks, but we're fine."
"are you sure? Really, you can have it!"
Unfortunately the notion that we could hike near them didn't pan out as their gear-heavy pace was more of a leisurely stroll so after the bridge, we never saw them again. If they are still out there, I know they are comfortable, safe, and perfectly prepared. They are probably grilling hamburgers and drinking a cold beer. With their solar panels and iphones, they are able to text home everyday, assuring worried wives that alls well. And they don't even have to miss an episode of The Office. Bonus!