Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Adventures in permit reservation land.

One of the things that I enjoy about backpacking is planning the trip. In the present case, it is the plan I am putting together for my John Muir Trail trip this summer. One of the helpful planning tools I use is Excel. I use it to put together my itinerary and schedule.

A plan should always have a clear mission statement. To hike the John Muir Trail in ten days this summer. Technically though I will be hiking eleven days. I am not at all sure that this is even possible so I am doing everything I can do to make it possible. At two hundred and twenty three miles in length, my average miles per day will need to be over twenty miles. I am hoping to keep my pace above three miles per hour, assuming I can keep up that pace I will be hiking around seven hours per day. On the positive side, there are over fourteen hours of daylight during the time I am planning. I think it would be cool to summit Mt Whitney in time to see the sun rise. I also think it would be cool to hike under a full moon in the pre-dawn darkness. My plan is to summit on Saturday, July 12, 2014.

In order to turn my plan into reality I needed to submit a reservation for a permit. These can be made up to one hundred and sixty eight days in advance. Since I know that Yosemite Valley is one of the prime vacation destinations for people looking for a wilderness experience, I expected that people would be eager to get their permit reserved. I just didn't realize how eager.

I was filled with anticipation when I faxed my Wilderness Permit Application. I filled it out weeks ago in eager excitement for this day. I envision the trip, I picture myself getting the permit. I can see myself starting on my hike. My application was faxed within fifteen minutes of the official moment when you can request an application. The official moment is five pm on the day before the day that is one hundred and sixty eight days before the day you want to start your trip. At five fifteen the Wilderness Center had my application and I had butterflies in my stomach.The application instructions make it clear that they will reply back via your supplied email address within one or two days.

The next day at ten am I checked my email. My heart leaped within when I saw an email from Yosemite with a subject of Yosemite Wilderness Permit Reservation. "This is it!," I thought. "Thank you for your reservation request. We are sorry to inform you..." Sorry for what?? How can this be? "...has been rejected..." Ouch, such strong words. Do they not like me? Have they confused me with some dangerous felon? "Your requested trailhead is full..." Full? Within fifteen minutes of five pm on the day before the day one hundred and sixty eight days before the day I want to start, which so happens to be a Wednesday, in the middle of the week, probably the slowest day of the week? And I have been told that it is FULL. I had visions of stacks of hikers crowding the trailhead. Standing room only!

"...we do not have space for a group your size..." for one? Really? "...rejected  due to insufficient space..." for ONE PERSON??? "

"...if you requested a reservation for two or more people and there is only space for one, you were rejected." Ouch again, 'rejected' is such a strong emotionally-charged word! Did they even read my application?? It was clear that I was requesting a permit for ONE person. This is obviously a form letter. Did a human being even look at my application? Could they read? What am I to do? "You may wish to apply again..." Really? what are my chances? Do I really want to go through the process of REJECTION again?

The whole process was a very deflating, spirit sapping, experience. No matter what other good things happened, I had an underlying feeling of loss and confusion. There was a phone number on the bottom of the email that you could call, that I tried to call. Every time I called, the line was busy. What is the problem? Why is the phone busy? I wasn't sure what I was going to do. I have spent a lot of time planning this trip.

I went back to the web site and found a page called Trailhead Information. It lists all of the trailheads and the reservable quota for each. The trailhead I selected only had six open reservable spots. I imagine the guy who put in a reservation for a six person trip is pretty happy with his email.

Late in the day I thought I would give the phone number one more try... It's ringing! Who was I calling? Did I call the wrong number? "Yosemite Conservancy, can I help you?" I was so flustered by the fact that the phone rang. That I didn't even know what to say. I felt like Ralphie in A Christmas Story. "Ho, Ho, Ho, and what do you want for Christmas little boy?" I couldn't think, I stuttered, I tried to remember why I was calling.

I have to say, Martin was so patient and helpful. He explained to me that it really doesn't matter if you fax your application at 5:00 pm the night before or 6:50 am the day of. All of the applications are collected and randomly shuffled. I asked him if there were any days or trail-heads that were not full. He said, "Oh sure, there are lots of openings, are you flexible on your start day?" Why, sure I am, but what day is open, do I have to guess? Martin helpfully looked for openings, he recommended alternate trail-heads and provided customer service par excellence. It became obvious to me why the phone was busy all day. 

By the end of the call, I had my reservation completed. I understood the process a whole lot better and I am back to preparing for an epic trip through some really cool country. Bottom line, I now have my permit reserved. I will have to modify my plan slightly, but the extra miles will be spectacular. Did I mention that Yosemite is a prime vacation destination for those wanting a wilderness experience? It is and I am.

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