A tale from the John Muir Trail: La Jolla adventurer authors her first book
Retirement for Lorraine Stiles meant seeking new challenges: hiking the John Muir Trail and writing her first book detailing the adventure.
Stiles, a 20-year resident of the Country Club neighborhood in La Jolla, retired from her career as a high-risk obstetrics physician in 2010. She and her husband, Geoffrey, a physician who retired this year, “both grew up with a great love of the outdoors,” she said.
Their careers often hampered their ability to travel, but the couple nonetheless have pursued smaller hiking trips throughout their marriage.
“I decided I wanted to backpack the John Muir Trail,” Stiles said, which is “not an uncommon trip” but a long-distance one she felt would truly challenge her. The 211-mile trail winds south from Yosemite National Park through the Sierra Nevada mountains, ending at the summit of Mount Whitney. It includes 10 passes of 10,000-foot elevation or higher.
Taking on the John Muir Trail is a “heavy commitment,” Stiles said. “It’s a lot of up-down, up-down.”
She and Geoffrey embarked on the 28-day trip Aug. 14 last year. They opted for a small-group, mule-supported hike, which meant “we only carried what we wanted to have access to on the trail” — a 25-pound pack for Stiles and 40 pounds for her husband. The mules carried the rest for the six-hiker group, and the couple were able to focus on their surroundings and enjoy recovery in the nightly camps.
The trip was “harder than I thought it would be,” Stiles said. “It turned out to be a heavy snow year” and the routes were modified extensively, leading to much back-and-forth from the same points. The mules needed to feed in meadows, the opening of which is dictated by the Forest Service according to frost and other conditions, which also complicated the journey.
Additionally, the heavier-than-normal snow and ice made traversing the trail “a little scary,” Stiles said.
Stiles also was plagued by foot injuries suffered before the trip. “A normal person would have postponed the trip by a year,” she said. “I did not.”
Given their age, Stiles felt she and Geoffrey “had to do it right away.”
All told, the trip was “spectacular [and] lived up to everything I wanted visually,” Stiles said. The heavy snow year meant more greenery than expected, along with a super bloom of wildflowers. “We were rewarded in that,” she said.
Stiles took pleasure in being in “this beautiful, fantastic part of California that is hard for people to see because it’s so remote.”
Having the mules, she said, was “a totally pleasant surprise. The mules would roam around in the camps, follow you to the lake ... it ended up being a lovely experience. They were very friendly.”
Stiles, who said she’s “never been a ‘Dear Diary’ person,” felt compelled to keep a journal. After erecting tents and tending to laundry, she was left with a “couple of hours every day to relax and enjoy where we were. We came to call that ‘happy hour,’ and I took out [my journal] and started writing about how hard that day had been.”
After the trip, Stiles took time to recover and then began looking through her journal. “I didn’t think I was going to write a book,” she said.
The idea to “try to put this down and relate my experience” came together quickly, however. She began turning her journal entries into a book “just for practice,” tuning into writing skills she hadn’t used since college.
“I always thought I’d try to write when I retired,” Stiles said, though her writing interests lie more in historical fiction. “It was a good process for me.”
Using a writing program called Scribner that Stiles said was “really hard to get used to,” she self-published “The JMT and Me: Backpacking the John Muir Trail with Mules” within six months on Amazon.
“I made a lot of mistakes” in the process, she said. “But I’ve got it down now.”
Stiles is now turning her recently cultivated writing skills to her next book, a family history focusing on her maternal grandmother’s side.
Writing is the perfect fit following retirement, Stiles said. “After a career taking care of 40 to 60 patients a day, to sit alone in my office looking out at the water and just write, that has a lot of appeal to me right now.”
“The JMT and Me: Backpacking the John Muir Trail with Mules” is available for $9.95 at bit.ly/StilesJMT. ◆
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