She walked in search of solitude and food to feed her happy-camper soul — what she found was both of these and a few other perks of hiking the John Muir Trail (JMT).
Cal Poly alumna Cauri Hammer, a 2015 environmental management and protection graduate, had only been backpacking once before in Big Sur, California.
“I knew I really wanted to do something adventurous and out of my comfort zone after I graduated,” Hammer said. “A really big backpacking trip seemed like a big challenge physically and mentally.”
Like something out of the book “Wild: From lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail” by Cheryl Strayed, Hammer was going the distance alone.
“I think it was the only way to do it for me,” Hammer said. “I was kind of anxious, camping alone. And it was kind of terrifying, but that wore off.”
She set out on the trek of a lifetime, intending to find solitude in hiking alone, but Hammer didn’t realize the community and friendships that would form along the way.
“The first couple of days were kind of hard,” she said, referring to hiking by herself. “But I met two girls from Canada and became super close with them. I also spent a couple of days with them on the trail.”
She found friendship with others as well.
“I met so many incredible people,” Hammer said. “That was the most surprising part about it.”
Hammer hiked a total of 215 miles in 18 days, starting in Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park and ending her journey on top of Mount Whitney.
“It was a really big challenge in the best way possible,” she said. “Within the first 20 minutes I started walking, I saw a bear and it was like, ‘Welcome to the JMT!’”
Hammer said the hike was partly a fundraiser for the Ecological Farming Association. She is passionate about locally grown food so she was pleased she was able to incorporate her passion for food into something like backpacking, where everything you need to survive is being carried on your back.
“I raised about $1,500 to help raise awareness about local food and farming systems,” Hammer said. “I highlighted that I used local produce to make dehydrated meals for the trail.”
Along with fundraising and finding solitude, Hammer’s intention of hiking the JMT was also a family affair.
“I hiked the JMT specifically because of my grandfather,” she said. “I really wanted to go to all the places he went along the trail.”
She even took pictures in the same spots her grandfather had.
“I felt a really strong connection to him even though I never got to meet him,” Hammer said.
While following in her grandfather’s footsteps, Hammer recalls the incredible feeling of standing where he had once stood.
“It was seriously amazing,” she said. “Especially being in specific places he had been.”
Hammer learned a lot about herself on the trail — feeling more connected to her grandfather was only one experience.
The two Canadian girls Hammer met on the trail had an impact on Hammer and her learning experience.
“Both of them had painted three dots next to their eyes along their temples,” she said. “Each dot represented an intention for the trip and prompted them to talk about their goals.”
Hammer also received three dots painted next to her eyes.
“I came up with some goals for each dot, too,” Hammer said. “One dot stood for being present and cherishing each moment. The second dot stood for not second guessing myself and making a decision without dwelling on it. The third dot represented being confident to be on my own.”
These dots proved to be great points of learning and reflection for Hammer, so much that at the end of her trip, she had the three dots tattooed on her wrist as a reminder of her goals.
“The trail taught me to be less competitive and to be present,” she said. “It was the perfect place to practice being present.”
With those goals in mind, the scenery and raw beauty of the high country captivated Hammer.
“The scenery was majestic,” Hammer said. “It was kind of crazy because many areas are barren toward the south end of the trail and you are completely exposed.”
Thinking back on everywhere she trekked, it was hard for her to pick out a single spot that was her favorite.
“There’s super lush pine trees and alpine lakes and crystal blue water,” she said. “One of my favorite places was Thousand Island Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness.”
One of the most memorable parts of the trip for Hammer was being atop Mount Whitney. When asked about how it felt to stand on top of the mountain, she grew a little quiet before replying.
“It was pretty surreal,” she said. “There was a huge meteor shower as we were hiking up to the summit, shooting stars everywhere. It was also the coldest I had ever been in my life and it was pretty special.”
As as a recent graduate of Cal Poly, Hammer encourages others to follow their passions when it comes to embarking on the next chapter in their life, whether it is moving somewhere completely new or, in her case, hiking 215 miles on the John Muir Trail.
“Don’t think too much into it,” she said. “If you have some sort of goal or challenge to take on, then go for it.”