Luke and I were slowly hiking to the top of a steep incline. The trees and shrubs were dense on both sides of the trail, guiding us deeper into the Kings Peak Mountain Range in the Lost Coast of northern California. The sun was setting – quickly – and the trail climbing upward in front of us was gradually becoming a dark tunnel. As I clicked my shiny new headlamp into action, I remember assuming the campsites must be just around the corner.
They were not.
Let me back it up a bit. It was 2013, and Luke and I were in the midst of our first ever backpacking experience. The idea of backpacking was first planted in my mind in 2011 after reading the classic book “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson. I had randomly picked it up off the shelf at a local bookstore while browsing the travel biographies. I read it quickly and with enthusiastic snorts of laughter. Luke read it immediately after me. *
Luke and I had never heard of the Appalachian Trail (AT) before. After learning about the AT, we discovered that there are networks of backpacking trails all over the country – most of them free to enjoy, minus a small permit fee. Once you purchase backpacks and supplies, your investment is made, and a world of new places to explore become available to you. You just have to walk there.
We’d read about the Lost Coast in an article discussing some of the United States most beautiful hiking areas. The Lost Coast runs some 80-miles along the Pacific Ocean shoreline in northern California. The terrain here is so steep and rugged that the construction of California’s famous coastal Highway One was shifted inland, leaving a beautiful 60,000+ acre reserve of natural and wild landscape. From this enticing description and the beautiful photos, Luke and I selected the Kings Peak Mountain Range as our chosen destination for our first ever backpacking trip.
So, here we were. Finally on a trail, backpacking! Except, we hadn’t invested in backpacks. I had confidently reasoned that we should give backpacking a trial run before buying all the equipment. We had a big North Face duffel bag with backpack straps, which Luke hitched on his back, and a large North Face backpack, which I hitched on mine. I don’t know how the hell these packs were so full, but they were.
We did invest in a few things – a lightweight tent and lightweight sleeping bags were the biggest dollar items. Beyond a few other necessary and standard backpacking supplies, our packs were stuffed with bulky sleeping pads and a ridiculous amount of food and snacks. We had Starbucks Double Shot espresso drinks for the morning. We had thought that it may be nice to watch the sunset and share a bottle of wine, so yup, we had a bottle of wine in there, too. We were comically over-packed, which I could feel with every wobbly step I made forward, the pack rubbing on my low back and my body protesting the weight with sharp little twinges of pain in my knees.
So there we were, hiking, the sun was setting, the trail was getting steeper, and we were looking for the campsites. On backcountry trails, campsites are basically pre-cleared flat spots on the Earth, which may or may not be marked by something like a wooden stake in the ground with a tent symbol on it. They’re nothing fancy. For the current trail, we’d learned we should look for a wooden stake.
We had a map, but no clear way of figuring out how far we had gone, or how much farther it would be. We weren’t used to hiking slopes of this size and were going a bit slow, so we couldn’t figure out how far we’d gone based on how much time had passed. We hadn’t seen a soul since leaving the town of Garberville, so there wasn’t anyone to ask. During the hour and a half drive to the trailhead we saw maybe one or two cars, and as we’d pulled on our bags at the car, an empty parking area had surrounded us. A trailhead sign creaked back and forth in the wind.
There were many sections of trail that routed us through forest that had recently burned in wildfires. The silhouettes of the bare branches were in sharp contrast against the darkening sky. As night began to close in, the whole thing had a seriously eerie effect. It was beginning to remind me of the beginning of every horror movie involving hikers ever invented.
On top of that, it was very quiet.
It is amazing, the things that we can hear when we are really listening. We spend a lot of our time tuning out background noise and hyper focusing on very specific sounds – humans, a pet, or any number of the machines/technologies that beep at us all day long. But when you are in unfamiliar woods in the dark, totally alone, not sure where you are (or what it will look like when you get where you’re supposed to be going), you listen like you’ve never listened before. And other than Luke’s deep breathing behind me, I couldn’t hear anything. I couldn’t even hear any night bugs. Where the hell were all the bugs?!
Let me pause here and recognize that this may all sound super dramatic.
But, as I hiked along the trail, all the warnings of bears, getting lost, and the fact that there were very green farmers in the area who don’t want you on their land (…I’m talking find yourself at the end of a rifle level of not wanting you on their land) – they all came rushing back to me. Imagination can really go wild when you let it. In all reality, yes, we were on a trail and it was clearly directing us which way to go. We had only hit one or two forks in the path, and we were pretty confident we’d gone the right way. Even if it was way harder than we’d expected, we were physically capable to keep going. We weren’t injured. Lord knows we had enough food. And really, we could have turned around at any point. We did discuss it. But, since we would be faced with a long drive back on narrow, steep roads in the dark, there wasn’t really an “easy out” option.
So, we decided to keep on going.
Somewhat abruptly, the trail leveled out. We’d emerged to the top of the slope, and the trees thinned out enough for us to get a clear view of the stars, full and magnificent above. It was like walking past an invisible wall into a world of sounds, and the soft hum of cicadas and night bugs buzzed in the air. I felt a sense of calm come over me with the comfort of the familiar. Unfortunately not that much comfort though, because there were still no campsites. We reluctantly began to descend down the slope, and the stars were absorbed back into the canopy of trees.
We hiked on.
The silence came back.
I was just beginning to contemplate whether I would be relieved or freaked out to see someone else at the campsites when the light of my headlamp caught site of the wooden stake. It had a tent and an arrow, pointing into a dark hollow further down the slope. There was no one there. I walked down into the camping area and spun around in a circle, straining to see as far into the surrounding woods as the beam of light from my headlamp would show me. It was incredibly dark.
Yea, wanna-be-backpacker or not, I wasn’t sleeping in the dark hollow of death. It was the next scene of the scary movie that I had been envisioning, the scene where crap starts to hit the fan. I was really tired though, and I also didn’t want to go all the way back to the car.
We decided to hike back to the top of the slope, where we could see the stars and hear the bugs. We thought about pitching the tent on the trail since there wasn’t anyone around anyway, but we ended up finding a spot off the trail. There was a small area in the middle of some tangled dead branches where we could just barely fit our tent. We didn’t have to trample any plants and we would be incognito. Nobody would even know we were there- slight emotional comfort level increase! Major physical comfort level decrease though, because this small tent spot was on a pretty steep angle.
And so it came to be that on our first night backpacking we slept on the side slope of a mountain. All night long we slid down the slope to find ourselves in tangled sleeping bag balls at the base of the tent. It was pretty much the opposite of the glamorous first night that I had envisioned lying in my bed at home, reading stories of other backpacking adventures and picturing myself as a regular mountain woman.
When we woke up the next day, I hesitantly unzipped the tent and poked my head out. Just my head. I looked left and looked right, scanning the area. I saw woods.
The sun was slowly rising, and shining through the trees in bright beams of light. Through the canopy of the trees I could see a clear blue sky. Small beads of dew clung to the tips of leaves and fell in glimmering patterns toward the earth.
I pulled my head back in, situated myself so I wouldn’t fall face first down the slope after unzipping the tent, and then Luke and I sat in the entrance for a few minutes. After packing up camp, we sat on the trail drinking our Starbucks and eating a Cliff Bar. We were both totally burned out and discussed if we would keep going or call it a bust and go back to the car. We had come so far, so we decided we would hike for a few hours and see what we could. Then we would head back to the car.
We stashed our bags in the brush and began to retrace our steps along the trail toward the campsites, free of our packs. The earth sloped up in all directions, a small quiet creek ran through the middle, and the sites were flat and covered in a thin layer of soft leaves. I laughed at myself at this point. It felt incredibly different with the sun shining. All the sudden, I loved it that there was no one else around. The quiet felt peaceful.
While Luke filtered water from the creek, I wandered around and found a log to sit on. I remember thinking that it was a pretty nice log, looking at the patterns on the wood and the little fungi on its surface. I remember closing my eyes and letting the bright morning send colorful shapes and patterns behind my eyelids.
From here, the trail climbed up again. When we emerged above the tree line, we were awarded with breathtaking views in all directions. To the east were rolling hills of green, to west the huge expanse of the Pacific Ocean. To the north and south, a deep plummet of land met the sea in a shocking contrast of colors.
Here we were, on the top of a mountain, all if it to ourselves.
It is this moment, I think, that solidified my draw to backpacking. As we took it in, the incredible beauty I was standing among absorbed the fear from the night before.
Doing new things is scary. Going out of my comfort zone is scary. But I was alive, and I was on a mountain with far-reaching views of the natural world all around me.
Nothing had tried to kill me in the middle of the night other than my own imagination.
We continued hiking throughout the day, going all the way up to Kings Peak (the very tip) and sitting on a wooden platform that had been built there. We ate some more food on the platform, the wind strong and whipping my hair around my face. The smell of the sea and the sweet honey scent of the flowers swirled around us.
After a few hours, we hiked back along the trail and hitched our packs onto our backs once more. The untouched wine and food still a heavy load.
As we hiked out, the feel of the woods had changed since the night before. The burned landscape looked different in the sun. The branches were still eerie, but I noticed the forest floor was packed with baby plants growing up from the burnt earth. The cycle of life beginning again.
When we arrive back at the trailhead, Luke and I gave each other a hand numbingly enthusiastic high-five. It had been less than smooth sailing and my knees were reminding me of the hike from the night before, but we’d climbed a mountain and slept in the wilderness. We’d filtered our own water and peed in the woods, no problem. I was starting to think that maybe I could embody that mountain woman after all. I’d definitely need to buy a legit backpack first, though.
Since this first excursion we’ve backpacked a lot, sometimes taking on trips 100-miles at a time. I am still not a big fan of finding camp in the dark, though it happens more often than I care to admit. The comfort I find from knowing my surroundings still holds on. In retrospect though, it is these moments in life that remind me of the freedom that comes from surrendering and trusting that many of our fears are self-created. Even if you can’t see where you’re headed, you may well be going in exactly the right direction.
Once you choose a path, let it lead you forward.
*If you haven’t read A Walk in the Woods, you totally should! The movie is no substitute! If you have read it and enjoyed it, you should read “Where’s the Next Shelter” by Gary Sizer, which has since become my very favorite book about the Appalachian Trail.