Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Stretching out along the spine of the Sierra Nevadas, the John Muir Trail unwinds like a languorous serpent sunning itself on a lazy afternoon. Those who have completed its entire length have navigated a narrow, winding dreamscape that roller coasters over 14,000-foot mountain peaks only to tumble into 5,000-foot prehistoric canyons. In certain parts of the trail, the very path itself disappears and hikers must resort to landmarks, compasses and dead reckoning to regain their bearings. Stitched together between 1864 and 1938 by multiple generations of surveyors, naturalists and conservationists, the 211-mile trail is a finely woven tapestry of glacier-fed streams, alpine vistas, glittering waterfalls, crystalline lakes and primeval forests. As the trail ascends to the higher elevations, hikers must deal with altitude sickness and lunar-like terrain that is littered underfoot with broken, loose shale rock and shifting gravel. In addition, trekkers must adapt to temperatures that can range from the 70s to near freezing in one day. Separated from hunters and human development, however, the trail has also become a rare sanctuary for a wide assortment of wildlife that now thrive because of their protected habitat.
“Hiking the John Muir Trail was my dream since I was a young man in my 20s,” says 67-year-old Keiri Kanbayashi. “I had hiked a small part of the trail when I lived in Berkeley, but I always promised myself that I would hike the entire trail at some point in my life.”
Born in Hayama, Japan, a little coastal village 30 miles south of Tökyö, Kanbayashi spent his childhood on the seashore —swimming, fishing and diving in the Inland Sea. In order to eat, Kanbayashi and his brothers often turned to the ocean to survive, supplementing the family table with the bounty of fish, crabs and lobsters that lay outside their door. “Japan was still suffering from food shortages even until the early ’50s because of the war, so we had no choice but to go to the ocean for food.”
At the age of 22, Kanbayashi left Japan and headed for California, where he hitchhiked across America, slept under highway bypasses at night and lived the wanderer’s life before finally ending up managing a Japanese-owned produce market in Oakland for eight years.
When a good friend invited him to come to Hawai’i to open a small produce store in Kaimukï, Kanbayashi leapt at the chance. The market that Kanbayashi operated on Wai‘alae Avenue is still remembered fondly by old-timers for its quality produce, reasonable prices, easy credit and nontraditional approach to running a business.
“We had a huge bulletin board that was filled with IOUs and promissory notes from our customers. We knew most of our regulars were living on fixed incomes and we had to be flexible and take care of them.” The market quickly became a fixture in the life of Kaimukï town for locals to drop in and talk story as they shopped. Kanbayashi would even reserve part of his day to deliver groceries to many of his customers who were housebound. The conversations that arose from those visits were precious and heart-rendering.
“The best part of my day was delivering the groceries to my customers, because I got to talk to them and really get to know them. They were all remarkable people. All my friends told me this was no way to run a business, but they didn’t understand how much joy it brought me.”
When the market died a natural death after 10 years and the arrival of the big box stores, Kanbayashi’s bilingual skills landed him a job as a reporter at the Japanese-language newspaper, Hawaii Hochi, where he eventually became the editor in chief for six years. When he retired from the newspaper, he began looking for his next challenge, but instead fell into an unexpected rut. “To tell you the truth, I was bored. I’m semiretired, and I do a job that requires just a few hours a day in the morning. My life is lukewarm, and I found myself getting more inactive. I was walking four miles a day, but I had no goal other than to live a few more good years, which is no fun. And then I saw a movie that reminded me of the promise I had made to myself as a young man.”
The film, titled “Mile . . . Mile and a Half,” was a documentary crafted together by sound photographers, videographers and mixed media artists who had trekked from Happy Valley Isle in Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney, over 200 miles away, in 25 days. “After I saw this video, I thought this would be impossible for me at my age. These people were in their 30s. At that age, you can do anything because of your mental and physical strength,” says Kanbayashi. “I went to bed wishing I could do it, but accepting that it was impractical. But then I saw a video of high school kids who did it without training. They kept saying that they got stronger as they went on. They did it in 19 days and I started thinking that if I took my time, maybe I could do it, too.”
Over the past century, the John Muir Trail’s siren song has attracted adventurers from around the world. To protect the land, rangers limit access to the trail to only 45 hikers at any one time, although 500 permit applications arrive each day. Some believe the hardest part of hiking the John Muir Trail is gaining a permit, because the chances of receiving one are less than 10 to one.
Somehow, the universe aligned in Kanbayashi’s favor and he received his permit almost immediately, despite the slim odds. “As soon as I got it, I began training five to six days a week. I started hiking up to Diamond Head from my home on Sierra Drive, and then straight up Wilhelmina Rise to the top of Maunalani Heights, which is 11 miles. I did this for five months, and the more I did it, the more confident I became.”
In the meantime, Kanbayashi began to assemble the complicated array of gear he would need to complete the trek. It included a small all-weather tent, a portable gas stove, durable hiking boots and food. “Everything you carry in must be carried out, so portability and durability are the highest priorities. I chose food like mixed nuts, Cliff bars, M&M’s candies, granola and freeze-dried chili and spaghetti because they were light and carried a lot of calories and nutrients.
In addition, Kanbayashi was required to carry a bear canister in which he was to pack all of his food and toiletries every evening and store it separately from his campsite. The John Muir Trail has suffered only a few bear interactions over the years, but hikers are constantly warned to take this precaution seriously. “My friend gave me a bear bell, which I wore from the very start. Theoretically, it is supposed to scare the bears away, but some hikers think it works more like a dinner bell.”
Kanbayashi’s pilgrimage through the High Sierras began in San Francisco. From there, he took a train to the tiny farming town of Merced before finally catching a shuttle to the floor of Yosemite Valley. “I started on the trail the next morning at 7 a.m. and as soon as I began, I thought, what have I gotten myself into,” chuckles Kanbayashi. “There were endless switchbacks, and the higher you climb, your breathing becomes harder. I was very discouraged to say the least.” The only thing that kept Kanbayashi going was the scenery, which was unforgettable. “I was surrounded by valleys, forests, mountains and waterfalls that were surreal in their beauty, but at every turn I had to stop and rest on my hiking poles. People who saw me told me later they thought I was praying. In fact, I was just trying to breathe.”
By the end of his first day, Kanbayashi had covered only five miles in six hours, which was far slower than he had anticipated. “My first mistake was my conditioning. At the time, I thought I did enough training, which reflected my total misunderstanding of the trail. In fact, I wasn’t even close to being in the condition I needed to be in.”
As Kanbayashi continued to push forward, his second mistake became apparent. “I didn’t bring enough food. You burn 500 calories an hour up there, and I was burning 4,000 calories a day.” As Kanbayashi quickly exhausted his food supply, he also began to lose weight at an alarming rate, even though he was eating constantly. “By the third night, I seriously began to doubt if I could really finish this thing, because I would soon have to climb over Donohue Pass, which was 11,000 feet, and every day after that I would have to climb other passes. All that confidence and smugness that I had before drifted away. I was so humbled in the first three days and I wondered how all those other people did it who didn’t appear to be struggling at all.”
The next day, Kanbayashi hiked from Tuolomne Meadows to Lyell Canyon and then towards the entrance of Donahue Pass, where he found a sheltered campsite under a forest moon. “Instead of looking at the whole trip, I began focusing on one day at a time, even one step at a time, and that became my mantra,” says Kanbayashi. “It was so hard every day that this became the only way I could do the trail.” After resting for one night, Kanbayashi began climbing Donahue Pass, which is adorned with a necklace of Alpine lakes upon a blank canvas of white granite. The trail begins on bucolic wooded land, but soon shape-shifts into a lonely chorus of shale rock and loose gravel.
“After an hour, I thought I had reached the top, until I met a hiker coming down who said I had another 700 feet to go. The trail was just a stumble of broken and shattered granite and there were times I had to get down on my hands and knees to look for the trail because it would just disappear.”
Somehow, Kanbayashi made it to the snow-dusted summit of the jagged pass, where he enjoyed a panoramic view of the flat shimmering plateaus, glimmering streams and expansive forests below him. “I started descending down the backside and when I looked back, I saw a huge white mountain in the afternoon light that was so beautiful. I was so moved by the sight, I could hardly go on.”
Kanbayashi eventually reached a small stream where he met an Asian couple in their 60s who was doing the trail in 21 days. Unhurried and relaxed, they sometimes spent 11 hours on the trail per day. “They told me to never give up, that I had just completed the hardest part of the journey and that I would finish.” Kanbayashi would meet countless other total strangers who offered him the same encouragement and kindness. “People told me how proud they were of me and to go for it. I don’t know if I would have finished the trail without their support.” Among the strangers was Kevin, a police officer from Indiana, who shared crucial backcountry hiking tips with Kanbayashi that included using Krazy Glue to bind the severe cracks and fissures in his hands that erupted because of the high altitude. “It hurt like hell, but it worked,” he said.
Kanbayashi also met a trio of twenty-somethings who took him under their wings and waited for him at the end of each hiking day to make sure he was safe.
“The best part of the trail may have been the people I met along the way. There is a feeling of camaraderie and community up there that is hard to describe. Everything is about paying it forward and helping the next guy rather than just looking out for yourself.”
As Kanbayashi continued the hike, his conditioning began to improve and he began to grow stronger the longer he was on the trail. “In the beginning, you think the trail is so hard to climb, and then the surroundings start to change because you see less trees and, suddenly, it looks like the moon and all you have are the lakes and the cold and your environment becomes even more simple. But, for some reason, you are so glad to be there, and you forget about how hard it is and all you think is that you’re here. You don’t think about the day before or the day ahead. You just think about now.”
The hardest part of the trail, however, came in the final two days as Kanbayashi crossed over Forester Pass, the final gateway before reaching the base of 14,000-foot-high Mt. Whitney.
“It had been raining and thundering all day and you had to hunker down because lightning is attracted to the hiking poles, but I couldn’t wait because the temperature was dropping and it started snowing. As I approached Whitney, the snow stopped, but then it began to hail, so I hid under a tree.”
By then, Kanbayashi’s hands were so cold he couldn’t grasp his hiking poles, so he just dragged them along behind him as he walked. By the time Kanbayashi reached his campsite at Guitar Lake, he was cold, wet and miserable. Luckily, waiting for him, was the trio of young hikers who had befriended him earlier on the journey. “Nathan, Nick and Maegan came out of their tents and helped me make camp although they were just as tired as I was.” The foursome ended up eating dinner together in silence, all of them exhausted and lost in their own thoughts.
That night, it rained continuously and the temperature started to drop. Kanbayashi slept no more than four hours. At 2 a.m., he rose with the others and began to break camp in preparation for the final leg of the trail: the 3,000-foot ascent to the top of Mt. Whitney.
“My fingers were so cracked I couldn’t operate the zipper on my tent, so Maegan and Nick came over and helped me break camp and stuff my belongings into my bag.” By 3:20 that morning, the group began their climb under a becalmed night sky, but soon became separated along the long trail.
“I had told them not to wait for me, but I could see them far ahead because Nathan would stop and shine a light to let me know where they were. I still have the memory of the small lights from the hikers’ headlamps slowly moving up the mountain wall in the total darkness. They looked like fireflies.”
Mt. Whitney would prove to be the most treacherous part of the entire journey because of its long ascent on unstable ground bordered on one side by a sheer drop of several thousand feet.
“At the beginning, I underestimated the trail and overestimated my strength. In the second half, I began to understand the trail, and something within me started to emerge. I found I could walk two miles in the hail, dragging my hiking poles behind me, and I was surrounded by people who had more confidence in me than I had in myself. Eventually, their confidence in me became my strength, as well.”
As he approached the top, Kanbayashi met a woman coming down who said she was quitting because of altitude sickness, although she was just a few hundred feet from the summit. “I sat down because I started feeling the same way, but I knew people were waiting for me at the top, so I had to keep going.”
When Kanbayashi finally reached the summit, he was greeted by Maegan, Nathan and Nick, who, indeed, had waited over an hour for him to arrive. “It’s funny, but I didn’t feel any elation because I knew I had to hike 11 more miles down the backside of Whitney, which also was filled with loose rocks and gravel.” It was not until Kanbayashi reached Whitney Portal, the main staging station at the southern end of the trail, that he finally felt a sense of completion.
“Even today, I don’t think I’ve done anything special,” concludes Kanbayashi. “I was expecting more of a sense of accomplishment, but, instead, I was filled with a sort of emptiness and a feeling of what now?”
Even though Kanbayashi’s trek ended over a month ago, he still dreams almost every night about his days in the mountains and the people he met along the way. As time passes, he continues to process what he went through during his long walk in the clouds of the High Sierras.
“Being on the trail transported me back to a more simple life away from all the noise and static of the modern world. Once you begin walking, you get into a rhythm and fall into a Zen-like trance. You begin to appreciate even the simplest things. That’s why a lot of people go back there, because they miss that. You get away from all the stupid news and all you have is the trail to walk, the air to breathe and the water to drink. You find comfort in the simplicity and your whole being becomes so peaceful. This is what I do and that is good enough.”
The simplicity that Kanbayashi discovered is what naturalist John Muir espoused in his eloquent journals about the backcountry, and it is the clarity that essayist Henry David Thoreau basked in during his retreat at Walden Pond. Asked whether he would ever return to the mountains to follow the trail again, Kanbayashi turns pensive and answers slowly.
“At the end of my hike, a lot of people told me that I would return and do it again, and I told them, ‘No way.’ But they said once you do it, you are never the same. There’s something about this trail that calls you back over and over again. You can never leave it, and it will never leave you, no matter how long you live.”
Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai‘i Herald staff writer.