Returning to California for the first time since I was 2 years old, to find out what it really means to be a US citizen – and whether I want to keep it – by hiking the John Muir Trail across the state.
Permits approved for 21st June NOBO on the John Muir Trail, arriving in Yosemite on my 30th birthday if all goes to plan!
What’s this about?
In July 1993, I was born in California in the United States of America. My parents aren’t American, they were just visiting for a few years. But, by the laws of the US, by being born in the country I was automatically a US citizen: my birth right. We left when I was two years old and I have never been back.
Being American is something that was always lurking around in my childhood but it never had any real meaning. It was just a cool thing I could whip out to surprise people. I’ve got British citizenship too, so I always travelled on a UK passport and had no connection with the US. Just home videos, family photos and my parents’ memories. Needless to say, I had more than one friend tell me with certainty that I wasn’t American because I look English and I sound English and spent most of my childhood here.
The Nightmares of US Expats
But then, as I graduated university and got my first proper job, I discovered what my citizenship really meant. The US is one of two countries in the world to tax its citizens internationally. That means, despite spending only the first two years of my life in their country, I have to file yearly tax returns to the IRS and an FBAR form – giving details of the values in all of my bank accounts. As well as being an expensive nightmare, it also means many banks will not give me an account (to avoid all the excess reporting), I can’t have a standard workplace pension (considered to be PFIC and Foreign Mutual Funds) without a heck tonne more forms and if I ever earn more than £80k or sell a house, I’ll have to pay taxes in America. What a great deal, for a country I can’t even remember.
(Here’s a visual explanation of all the madness, if you’re interested)
Just renounce your citizenship then? Well actually it’s £2k for the privilege, plus you need to book an appointment at the embassy. And they were years behind schedule thanks to Covid. It’s also irrevocable – I cannot change my mind or ever get it back once it’s gone.
Am I really American?
So, my plan was simple: go back to California, hike across the state on one of the long distance trails and find out if I feel American. Or even what it means to be American at all. To to that I have to get a US passport, because as a citizen I have to enter on one. It also means I can’t stay longer than 35 days or completely change the tax forms I have to file (and lose some of my Foreign Earned Income Exclusion). So that ruled out the Pacific Coast Trail or any really long, classic US trails…
That’s when I hit on the John Muir Trail. It seemed perfect. At 200 miles it could be done in under 30 days, leaving some breathing room either side to travel. When done north bound (unusual, but PCT direction), I would finish in Yosemite – a place I’ve heard so much about all my life but can’t remember being in. We used to spend many holidays there when I was small. They are most probably the first mountains I ever saw – perhaps in part to blame for the direction the rest of my life has gone.
As for the timing, I turn 30 in July 2023. Doing something dramatic for my 30th seemed appropriate – but then it hit me: why don’t I have my birthday in America, on trail? Going back to where I started, 28 years since I left. If I timed it right, I could also experience Independence Day (presumably a big deal in US culture?). And so the plan was set. All I needed now was a US passport…
How are you preparing?
This will be the most consecutive days hiking in my life. Am I phased? Not at all. I’ve spent so much time hauling my life across the world on my back that I’m confident I can do the distance and deal with the altitude. I’m no stranger to sleeping on the floor either. All in all, I’m hoping it’ll be a homecoming to the mountains I loved as a toddler.
The main challenges in prep will be:
- the citizenship admin – aka getting my passport renewed without my original one (DONE!)
- permits for the JMT – less competitive going north-bound but still need to get right (DONE!)
- logistics of food drop offs/resupply
- booking the travel
- funding the whole thing in the first place.
I can barely believe this is happening, but I’m very excited!
An Intro to the John Muir Trail
The John Muir Trail is a 200 mile hike (that’s about 320km) across the High Sierra mountains of California. It can be hiked in either direction, but I’ll be going northbound: from Mount Whitney – well, Cottonwood Lakes – to Yosemite. That means starting at altitude and rolling downhill (yeah, sure) to the finish. It also means walking with the sun mostly behind me and going in the same direction as all the fine folks walking the Pacific Crest Trail this year.
As for what it’ll be like, the High Sierras are big mountain country. I’ll be surrounded by 13000ft and 14000ft peaks – that’s peaks over 4000m to the rest of us. Mount Whitney is 4421m and I hope to climb it at the start of my trail. There is a high chance I’ll be walking in snow at the start too. Definitely on the passes and possibly more, depending on the snow levels and thaw speed. There are a few towns along the way that I can detour off route to visit, allowing me to stock up on food and comfort. This is an area where you have to carry a bear cannister too…
And it’s namesake…
It’s very fitting that I’m using this particular trail to rediscover my American past. John Muir was born in Scotland and moved out to the US as a child. Yes he was older than two, but we have the same problem in opposite directions. He first arrived in the High Sierras aged 29 – oh look, just like I am – and proceeded to devote the next years to his life to exploring and protecting the area. He’s considered the founder of the National Parks in the US and wrote widely about the importance of nature and wilderness. In fact, he’s the guy that wrote:
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.”
And he wrote that in the 1800s…! Looks like we still haven’t learnt.
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In Friendship With…
This is going to be an expensive trip – in the region of £5000. I am currently seeking sponsorship and would love to hear from you. Click here to drop me a line and/or request the sponsorship pack.