How everything fell apart and came back together again.

By: Jules Davies & Sarah Lewis

Lessons from the Trailhead


Three days earlier, driving down I-5 having left Portland that morning with only a queue of podcasts and the newest Beyoncé album, we had been listening to a story of a young Rwandan debate team and its members’ motivational mantra as they prepared to take the stage in face of the odds placed against them. Later, I would find myself yelling it into a vast canyon deep in the backcountry of the High Sierras. And meaning it.

Jules and I had met for the first time over drinks with shared friends and questionable karaoke choices in the late spring. The next time we would see each other would be to elaborate on a whim I had in response to a hectic work week, one that Jules jumped at without (almost) any hesitation: ten days backpacking in a place neither had been. Just the two of us, without knowing anything about each other except for whiskey preferences and a shared craving for experiences and honest interactions. Trusting our initial instincts about each other, we embarked on a quest that led us on a journey that left our bodies a little broken, but our new bond united.

Lesson #1: You always have a choice (even when it’s not the one you thought you wanted).

In life, and on the trail, we are often confronted with obstacles. This trek presented us with many – sleeping pads with holes, injuries, stubbornness, weather – but with some deep breaths, communication, Coors Light, and mutual understanding, we discovered that we had all the tools and strength, mentally and physically, needed.

We took on the challenges carrying new knowledge in our back pockets: eventually, you have to move… because standing still gets tiring, and frankly, quite boring. In those moments, if you look closely enough, many directions other than the way you’re heading will appear for you – a few unexpected paths, too. One might lead you into a snow storm, the other might lead you into hot springs. If you have the choice, go to the hot springs.

That’s the choice we made. Our second day in Yosemite found us on the trail heading south. The sky was blanketed with dark, ominous clouds. A mere few miles away, a blizzard loomed. We looked out towards the distance, then at each other, and said “NOPE” and headed east to the closest warm relief.

It took us some time and some frustration to find Wild Willy’s hot springs. (Is it the second cow gate? The third? What do they actually mean by cow gate? HAS it been three miles?) Future hot springs inhabitants, have it be known that it IS the second gate, it IS exactly as the online directions tell you, and yes, it IS obvious. Laughing, and blaming our blindness on exhaustion and excitement, Jules and I followed the winding dirt road to our personal heaven and camp for the night.

Walking down a long, wooden path through an open valley hugged by mountains on all sides, we were greeted with open smiles and tales from the backcountry as we dipped into the local haven for Yosemite backpackers, guides, and wanderers. We were all there for a reason, to escape from and ease our physical and mental tension. As a storm was rolling in in the distance, we shared laughter, beers, and glimpses of our true (and mostly naked) selves. While cheers-ing to the present, our new companionship, and the adventures to come, a rainbow appeared – a metaphor for the beauty found in the chaos we were about to experience.

Lesson #2: Take the time to listen – to yourself, your body, and the sounds of nature surrounding you. There are stories to be heard.

Out of the hot springs and back on the trail, the air was crisp and our legs were burning. The transition of seasons lined our path as we headed down the trail towards Vogelsang, our first established High Sierra Camp. Bursts of yellows blurred with vibrant oranges and reds as the summer greens held stories of the months prior. The rhythm of our steps lulled us into a trance, leading us to acknowledge the unpredictability of the future and to appreciate the majesty of the present.

The conversation of “needs vs. wants” came up often between Jules and me. Living in the city, we often get weighed down with “things” … our computers and the many tabs kept opened, clothes, choices for restaurants, your recycling bin that reflects more about you than perhaps wanted. Out here, everything one needs is carried or can be found from the earth’s natural offerings – a reminder of our ability to find happiness with that simplicity.

The sounds of the wind passing through the trees and the distant flow of water circled around us, carrying us forward as stark cliffs began to reveal their beauty and power above the timberline. And then we saw them… BATHROOMS?! I ran, as Jules laughed at my new burst of energy. She laughed even more when I came back defeated. The Vogelsang High Sierra Camp had been shut down, and so we proceeded to ours. Next to a clear alpine lake, centered beneath Fletcher Peak, we set up our tent, shared our reward (a lone can of rosé), and bundled up in our sleeping bags watching the moon rise above us and the stars dance in the darkness, talking about the days ahead.

Another lesson from those days? The power of handwarmers.

Lesson #3: The trail gives you what you need.

It was our last day in Yosemite. Feeling defeated, sore, and our (okay, MY) feet taped up and blistered, we headed back down the trail, the heat on our backs, and saw it. In the middle of Tenaya Lake, smooth, flat rocks called to us. A shared look, and our shoes were off, our packs dropped, and we stepped into the water without hesitation. Instant, natural caffeine.

And that’s where we stayed.

Lesson #4: Stay open.

As a native Texan, some assume that I grew up riding horses, but they would be wrong. Some would also assume that my first time on a horse would be a gentle ride in a corral learning the ropes and moving very slowly, but they would also be wrong.

To end our trip, Jules and I stopped at every hot springs in Eastern Oregon along the way and found ourselves at the home of boisterous rancher and prankster, Tim, in hopes of a short trail ride. Quick introductions and a bowl of cereal later, we were thrown on to our horses (Little Britches and Stoney, respectively) with just a few words of advice and the sudden knowledge that we were about to spend eight hours wrangling hundreds of cattle and moving them up a canyon through Kiger Gorge. That morning and afternoon, we caught a glimpse of a hardworking life completely foreign to us and walked away with a new appreciation for our bodies, our capability, and the people who inhabit this beautiful, connected earth from all walks of life. And a limp.

These boundaries we feel are invisible on this shared land. We all work together without always realizing it.

Lesson #93: When cleaning your Diva Cup, double check that the water you are using to clean it is NOT from the bottle with electrolyte-filled flavored water.

Lesson learned.

Jules Davies is an outdoor lifestyle and fashion photographer based in Portland OR. You can see more of her work atvisitjulesville.com and on Instagram at @julesville.

Based in Portland, Sarah Lewis is a writer who is almost never there. Follow her travels and experiences on Instagram at  @sarleww.