A CAUTIONARY TALE FOR SOLO BACKPACKING
Back in March of 2016, I had attempted my first solo backpacking trip. I wrote this email to my friends right after I got home…
I just wanted to share this, because honestly I probably couldn’t have gone through the whole thing without you guys.
I thought it would be nice to get out in nature and recharge. I did a few hikes, but they didn’t quite satiate my hunger for the outdoors. I needed to go camping. My original plan was to go to Point Reyes to be on a beach, or Yosemite so I could go to waterfalls or lakes. I didn’t wake up in time to be at Yosemite and Point Reyes was all booked, so I searched around and found the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park near Santa Cruz.
I called immediately and the nice old lady on the phone informed me that they had a trail camp that was a 6 mile hike-in. And that I would be the only one there. I booked right away and packed up my car. It was already afternoon, and I still needed to stop at REI for a stove and Safeway for some water. The water on the trail couldn’t be filtered because of the rain and it was polluted.
It took a while to get going, but I was so pumped. I was excited to be doing the trip on my own. I brought a few books along that I was reading. I wanted to do a bunch of hiking and meditation to clear my head and recharge. There’s supposed to be a really cool waterfall.
I strapped on my heavy ass backpack filled with over two gallons of water and finally got started at 5:30 pm. I knew I was pushing it close on time and precious sunlight, but I knew if I kept a 2.5 mph to 3 mph pace I would be able to get there at a reasonable time. I ran into a few people on my way in who were on their way out of the park. I chatted with a few of them…but none of them warned me about the muddy trails!
The first few miles went off without a hitch. It was nice and peaceful, and I was already starting to feel a lot better and excited for the next two days. I checked my pacing, and was roughly going at about 2.5 mph. Each sign and marker I passed, I referenced on the picture I took of the park map. (The nice old lady said there would be paper maps at the front gate, but there weren’t any, so I snapped a photo of their map on display.)
I reached a point where the trail wasn’t marked well. The path went up, but there was no sign indicating it was the trail that I needed. I knew I had to go higher because the campsite was on a ridge, but the sign indicated that the current trail I was on was part of the Loma Prieta Grade that I needed. I did the calculations and double checked them, and according to the photos I’d taken of the signs, I was still .2 miles away from the actual fork I needed. So I kept going straight, even though my gut instinct kept telling me to go up.
I kept going and told myself that if I didn’t see the path I needed, I would turn back. But the path got muddier, and the woods got darker and more dense. I couldn’t tell what my pacing was anymore because I had slowed down a lot trying to be careful not to slip down the slope. I eventually got into a redwood grove where I fell into near black. I had to put my headlamp on now. I kept following the path, and I ended up down by the river. There was no bridge or rocks to hop across, but there were logs. I used my hiking stick and traversed carefully. The hiking stick helped a lot to keep me from wobbling off and tumbling into the river. As soon as I stepped onto the last pile of logs, my left leg broke through and I slammed down onto another log and got the wind knocked out of me. (My right ribs are currently bruised and my legs are scratched, but nothing bad.) I crawled myself out onto the mud. My hiking stick had broken in half.
I tried to reorient myself and found a sign nearby indicating I was at a site for some historic bridge. I looked at the map to reference my location. I saw that I could keep taking the path along the river to go back around. I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me anymore because it was too dark down there, but I kept going. The fall had disoriented me pretty badly, and somehow I ended up right back at the sign. I doubled back and ended up in circles. I was freaking out because I ended up back at the sign…again. It was like a scene from some Blair Witch type horror movie where the witch is luring its prey into a trap.
I tried again to follow the path, but it was cold and I was breathing heavy. It was getting hard to see because all I could see in front of me was my breath. And then I slipped down. The path had collapsed into a muddy landslide during the heavy rain last week and I was sinking knee deep in it. I tried climbing my way back up, but my backpack was too heavy. I thought about releasing it before it took me down into the dark depths of the gorge. Luckily, there were some exposed roots. I grabbed on and fought hard to climb my way back up. I had to keep telling myself….you can do this. I was able to climb back up onto the path. I was relieved thinking the worse was behind me. I was wrong.
I followed the path, but it was hard to see and I kept slipping. I fell and slipped down on my back a few times. I was wet and covered in mud. I kept imagining I saw paw prints in the mud and that some wild animal would come out of nowhere to attack. Eventually the path came back to the river, and I couldn’t tell where it continued. I went up and down the river going in circles, finding a path and following it only to find out it led to a dead end. I almost fell all the way into the river once. I was hopelessly lost. I kept backtracking and retaking old paths to see if I missed anything. It was like living through a nightmare. I was beginning to panic. Real fear was kicking in. My feet were probably cold from the water I was wading through, but adrenaline had kicked in.
I can’t believe I’m in this mess, I thought. But I knew I had to focus, or I would never find my way out. I thought about this past year a lot. And although it was a pretty shit year for luck, I’ve had some of the best memories. Reflecting back on it all, it was an awesome year, filled with really good memories with really good people. And it made me realize that for all the bad things that happen in this world, there is a lot of good in it, and those good memories are the ones we remember with more clarity.
Thinking those good thoughts helped to keep the bad ones away. And the more I thought about them, the more calm and collected I became. Spending New Year’s and getting into fun sometimes crazy shenanigans with some of my best friends. Hiking the Lost Coast or rafting down the White Salmon River. All of it. The big moments and the quiet moments with friends and family were helping to keep me grounded. It’s been nice to know how supportive you’ve been as friends, and honestly, it kept me going. I could hear you guys saying, you can do this, just keep going. Your’e almost there.
Calming down, I was able to find the path continue on the other side of the river. But I still wasn’t in the clear. There were still some parts I had to be extremely careful because it was extremely narrow and muddy and I didn’t want to fall down the hill. I could feel my weight giving into the slide at some points so I had to dig my hand into the hillside to keep from falling. I had to climb over some logs and then more rocks and cross a small waterfall. I reached the path where I could go back and try to reach the campsite, but I didn’t want to take any more risks so I kept straight.
I finally reached the main path and made my way back to my car. I could finally see the moon and the stars. It was such a beautiful and clear night. I played some songs on my phone and sang along. I probably belted out Fire and the Flood by Vance Joy at least six times. I reached my car, drove home, and took a nice hot shower.
I definitely got more adventure than I bargained for that night. I also probably won’t ever try going backpacking alone ever again. Also wouldn’t try it after it’s rained a whole week. And I wouldn’t start so late in the day. But I did learn a lot about myself in those 5 seemingly long hours and almost 8 miles. That I’m braver and stronger than I think I am, and that I have really good friends.