By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Norman resident Jim Robinson said the day he started hiking, he understood John Denver’s famous lyrics about coming home to a place he’d never been before.
“The home I found is a trail … almost any trail,” Robinson said.
Robinson started hiking four years ago at age 64.
“I had been walking,” he said. “I could walk six or eight miles.”
An early riser, Robinson started walking local neighborhoods and Sutton Wilderness with his dog. A neighbor told him about day hikes that Backwoods Norman in Robinson Crossing Shopping Center hosts monthly. He signed up and started making friends and learning hiking basics.
Coming to something late in life was not new to Robinson. He started law school at age 42 and launched a second career as a patent attorney. His academic background in chemistry allowed for that specialized application, but his choice of indoor, cerebral careers did not prepare him for the thrill of exertion and the exhilaration of outdoor explorations.
Robinson’s first major adventure was hiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim. He had only been hiking for five months and had never spent the night out backpacking prior to that trip.
“I prepared for that by walking every morning with my pack on,” he said.
He used a guide service for the Grand Canyon trip, which he recommends for newbie hikers. However, that was the last time he used a guide service. Shortly after the Grand Canyon trip, he retired from law practice.
“I didn’t retire from something,” he said. “I retired to something. I looked at it as just another transition.”
Now he had time to explore his newfound hobby. He took a part-time job at Backwoods, where he got paid to learn more about his outdoor passion.
Fascinated by the writings of John Muir, Robinson became interested in hiking the John Muir Trail, which runs through the Sierra Nevada mountain range and passes from Yosemite National Park to the summit of Mount Whitney.
Altogether, the JMT is about 211 miles long, but Robinson added on treks to spend 26 days hiking 286 miles last August. His hike included about 60,000 feet of elevation change.
Originally, Robinson had anticipated being one of a group of four. One by one, his companions opted out for various reasons, so Robinson decided to hike it on his own.
However, Robinson said he was only alone about one-third of the time he was on the trail. He met and hiked with various people along the way, gathering their stories into a journal he kept of his adventure.
He is combining those notes and those stories into a book that he plans to call “Unexpected Treasures.”
Robinson camped the first two nights at a rowdy site frequented by climbers, he said. While there, he also hiked the Yosemite trail.
“When you get your permit, you have to tell them where you’re going to camp the first night. After that, you can camp anywhere you want,” he said.
Robinson took out with a 35-pound backpack, but the John Muir Trail has plenty of water along the way, and he had arranged for food cache pickups along the trail.
Portions of the 286-mile trek were broad and easy walking, despite some elevation or grade changes. Other portions were rugged, challenging terrain.
After Yosemite, he headed to Half Dome, with jutting rocks and challenging climbs along cabled trails.
“Peanut M&Ms were my reward for getting to the top,” he said.
He wore leather gloves to protect his hands as he gripped metal cables to make his way up and down the Half Dome climb. There were other challenging climbs to come.
“I’m up on top of Clouds Rest, and the book says you go right across that and down the other side, and I’m looking and thinking I don’t see a trail,” he said.
Then people appeared, crossing from the other side, so he decided to risk it.
“I was the first one up there, and I’m glad other people showed up so I could find the trail,” he said.
Beside people, Robinson encountered interesting critters including grouse, jays, squirrels, marmot and deer.
“One of the nice things about this trail is every hour or hour and a half, you have really nice fresh clear water,” he said.
He also saw many pretty flowers along the way. Between the peaks were the valleys. A long flat walk led to a steep mountain. He scrabbled over big slabs of rock and looked over ledges.
“I got lost a couple of times,” he said. “I didn’t get lost, lost. I just went further than I meant to.”
Stopping at the wrong place or reaching a destination ahead of time can affect things like resupply.
At one point, he followed a crystal clear creek for miles. The National Parks Service maintains the trails, which were mostly very nice. One day, he hiked 21 miles.
“By doing it the way I did, I really didn’t hit the high altitudes until the fifth or sixth day,” he said. He had to skip one peak because it requires ice axes, which are beyond his skill at this point.
Coming down from a glacier he saw cold, crystal clear creeks bubbling over rock and cascading down the mountain.
Hiking up mountains, he stopped often to rest. He experienced thunder, lightning, hail and fire danger. Getting rained on at 11,000 feet is cold, he said.
“One of the last things I bought was one of those microfiber towels, and I sure needed it,” he said.
Not all of the stream crossings along the trail had bridges. Some had logs, and some only had rocks. He learned how to cross them all.
He met college kids, retired folks, sons and fathers, mothers and daughters and others while hiking. He met the author of his favorite hiking guide and asked her to sign the book.
Another day, he hiked with three teachers who had chosen jobs close to the High Sierras so they could hike.
He learned something new every day.
“I took a lot of naps,” he said. “I found the days I made a lot of mileage, I got an early start, took a nap in the middle of the day and then hiked later in the cool. The radiant heat is pretty high.”
Signs of previous forest fires were apparent in places. Beautiful undergrowth and wildflowers rose from the charred ashes of destruction and flourished. He tasted wild currant berries but didn’t care for them.
In another area, he saw trees that were uprooted from high straight-line winds from a previous year. He also saw volcanic cones. He sniffed a ponderosa pine and found its vanilla scent to be very strong.
“Sunrises and sunsets are the great photo opportunities,” Robinson said.
Elevation along the trail creates unusual challenges from cold temperatures to solid rock that make it difficult to stake a tent. Robinson wore layers trying to stay warm in the higher altitudes.
“I ended up camping at lake 12250,” he said. “That was its elevation.”
There are ranger stations along the way, and stories of the rangers of the High Sierras, including one of an experienced ranger who was lost and found dead five years later.
“Sometimes you come up on a place, and it’s just you, and you think, ‘God and I are the only two to ever see this,’ and you know intellectually it’s not true, but it feels like it is, at least at that moment,” he said.
Following in Muir’s steps was a spiritual journey as much as a physical one, Robinson told a crowd who gathered recently at Backwoods to see photo slides and hear about the backpacking trip.
“I thought I was going to take a walk, and it was so much more,” he said.
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