By Greg Mulder
Around 4:30 p.m., on the John Muir Trail near the town of Mammoth Lakes, California, the sky opened up. Lightning exposed the forest understory, shadowed by a heavy thunder-clap, accelerating my heart like a defibrillator machine. My mind increased its attention on finding a camping spot, willing to take anything that would work. To the left of the trail, I noticed a square pad set between large underground rocks. It seemed like it would fit our two-person tent.
“Let’s stop right here!” Megan, my spouse, turned and pulled over to where I pointed. “Alright, we’ll have to be quick. Set down your pack under a tree, take off the trash bag, and grab the rain-fly. I’ll grab the tent and poles. Once we get the poles in, just thrown on the rain-fly before we stake it down.”
Megan nodded, her arms already clutching her chest. I could see the goosebumps rising on her bare legs. We jumped into action. I rolled out the tent onto the ground. As if on queue, dime-sized hail began to pellet my shoulders and head.
“Shit, there isn’t enough room to stake the rain-fly or the tent with these rocks in the way.”
I raced around the area looking for a flat spot that would hold the size of our tent. An area underneath a tree caught my eye. I flew back to the tent, drug it across the ground, and shoved the poles into their hooks. The tent erected, I noticed a half inch basin of water sloshing around the bottom. My mind pushed that information aside, focusing on the need to get the rain-fly on.
“Get in the tent,” I hollered once we dangled the fly over the tent poles. Megan ducked underneath its sagging vestibules, while I staked down the rain-fly. Water and mud encased my boots, legs, and hands. The hail produced a dull ache in my head and shoulders.
Once the stakes were in, I flung my bag and myself into the tent, landing in the puddle of water I ignored earlier. Megan sat in the puddle with her bare knees close to her chest. Her wide eyes quivered with worry, asking me to tell her what to do. I turned away and watched a small stream of brown water run down the hill and puddle right at the doorway of our tent.
“I really messed this up. We’re drenched in water, the tent is soaked, and our gear is completely wet.” We sat quietly, letting these words sink to the bottom of the puddle underneath us. I broke one of the central tenets of wilderness travel: avoid getting your gear, your clothes, and your body wet at all costs, especially right before dark. We were done. If I couldn’t fix this and we spend the night cold and wet, then I knew we wouldn’t continue on with our thru-hike.
After thirty minutes, the hail ceased and a light rain tapped on the tent.
“Since the rain is slowing down, let’s try and move the tent to a better area. I’ll go look for a new spot while you get our packs under a tree. Then we can carry the tent to the new spot and begin drying the inside with the micro-towel and some shirts.”
“Okay,” Megan muttered.
We shot out of the tent. Much of the ground was mud with pyramids of pebble-sized hail strewn throughout the forest. Tiny streams sped down the hillside, creating mini canyons in the earth. I decided to look for a spot on the other side of the trail so I went there first. Since much of the area was on a slope, there wasn’t a great spot for camping and I was concerned about water flowing downhill into the tent.
I eventually found a relatively flat space and began scraping off the top two to three inches of hail-soaked soil. I used part of the cleared soil to make a six foot long barrier to deter any flowing water away from our tent. Our dry tent pad completed, I ran back to Megan who, finished stowing the packs, now yanked at the tent stakes.
“I found a good spot over there. Let’s move quickly before it gets too wet,” I said, grabbing the standing tent by its poles. We lifted the tent and shuffled across the trail towards the new spot. The tent’s bloated bottom shimmied as we walked.
After a few steps, something smacked me on the bridge of my nose. My eyes began to water as the pain scattered from my nose towards my eye sockets. I continued walking backward with the tent, scanning the sky for the culprit.
Megan, who’d been so focused on not tripping or tearing the tent, eventually looked at my face. “Greg, you’re bleeding! What happened?”
“Yes, it’s running down your face.”
I felt my cheeks and pulled away my fingers to see a bright red stain. “Something hit me
in the nose. I think it was a pine cone.”
“A pine cone!” Megan’s face lit up as if she had a secret that was too good to keep.
I couldn’t help but start laughing. She did too, holding her muddy hand to her mouth.
We stood there laughing in the rain, soaked and covered in mud. Blood ran down my face, starting to discolor the lime green of my rain jacket.
That evening we did our usual routine of making dinner, washing dishes, and planning our next day. But we spent most of the evening bundled in our sleeping bags, wearing whatever dry clothes we had in an attempt to regain body heat. The rain still tapped the outside of the tent, but we remained warm and dry inside. We laughed at the awkward white butterfly-bandage on my nose. We joked about the mountain lion scat we found near our new site. And we scoffed at my decision to make us set-up camp in a hailstorm.
“I thought I had ruined our trip. We could’ve just found cover under a tree and waited out the storm. We probably would’ve been just fine.”
“I know,” Megan said and we sat in silence for a moment. Then she added, “And a pine cone wouldn’t have attacked your nose!”
To see more adventures around the Mammoth Lakes area check out Bivy App