Bring Less - A Backpacking Strategy

I brought my boots to a sudden stop. I wanted to take in the redwoods – their silence and stature and perspective inducing persistence. The trail had been flying by underfoot and while I was certainly ready to be done hiking, I wasn’t ready to leave. I wasn’t done soaking in the wilderness.

Russ and I stood together for a moment, breathing heavily and enjoying the shade. Pellets of sweat continued down my back and I allowed myself to notice how thirsty I was. We were on our third and final day of a backpacking trip on the Pine Ridge Trail in Big Sur and between our strict water rations and the speed of our hike, dehydration was expected.

“I’m having a hallucination,” I panted. “When you look at those trees, does it look like they’re moving backward?” The stand of redwoods fell perpetually away from me. The harder I blinked, the harder I stared, the further they retreated. Like a vertigo GIF, my view zoomed out on repeat.

Pine Ridge Trail01

Two days ago, we trekked this same trail in the other direction – up the ridge in an endless ascent that nearly brought me to tears. I spent the first day of this wedding anniversary adventure trudging uphill, listening to the creak my pack made with each step, and wondering why the hell I thought this would be fun. “I don’t want to do this anymore,” I whined to Russ with a lump in my throat. My brain told me that surely this pack would suffocate me if the trail didn’t level out soon. It didn’t.

After three hours of relentless climbing, we descended into a densely forested valley housing our first water resupply. I wobbled aimlessly as we searched for the right place to spend the night. Settling on a creekside site, we set up camp quickly - two years into marriage, Russ and I boast a pretty speedy tent assembly time – and got to work filtering water from the creek. After rehydrating ourselves and our dinner, it didn’t take long before we were ready to crawl into our sleeping bags for the night.

At 11:30 p.m. I awoke, drooling and startled that I had been asleep at all. Running wild with fear, my mind worked hard to stay awake. It was too dark, too quiet, and too far away from cell phone service to sleep. But, despite my best efforts to listen for signs of danger all night, the steeply graded miles we covered that day and the consistent trickle of the stream sent me back to sleep. The kind of sleep you only get in the wilderness – when your mind is not rushing to process the sounds of freeway or anticipation of the alarm clock, when the exhaustion overcomes the discomfort of laying on the ground, when the air cleanses the pollution resting in your lungs, when the trees take from you the grief and stress and anger and fear that have commandeered your mind. You sleep.

Slowly, our forest floor campsite became illuminated with a new day and after an unsatisfying breakfast of oatmeal mush, we set out to our next destination. Two miles up the trail, our second campsite greeted us with river access and deep seclusion. Following behind Russ, I tiptoed across the river, jumping from wobbly log to protruding rock, and high stepping it through poison oak, until we found a suitable site. We dropped our gear, gathered our snacks, and headed back up the trail. In another three miles, we would reach Sykes hot springs.

“These hot springs better be the f***ing greatest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” I grumbled as we pushed up the endless ridge. The pitch of the trail beat back my enthusiasm and I just wanted it to be over. I wanted to quit and go back to camp just to feel the sensation of walking downhill. Instead, I looped the words, “You’ve done harder things,” in my mind and pushed myself forward. I hiked as quickly as I could and worked hard to put the hill behind me. I walked fast and stomped probably harder than I should in the wilderness and I told myself it wasn’t that difficult and I walked and walked and walked...and then stopped with a jolt.

I had never heard the sound in person, but when it filled the space to my right, my body instinctively froze. Encountering a rattlesnake is a Californian’s right of passage – one I had somehow avoided until this moment. Hidden in the bushes and vigorously shaking its tail, the venomous native slammed my mind back into the wilderness. The rattle forced me to stop my anger-fueled movement toward the finish line, to observe the wild all around me, to respect the journey. There was no way around it – the narrow path led us daintily between the rattlesnake and a thicket of poison oak – so, we waited.

Finally, the smell of sulfur led us to the hot springs and we got to work soaking our aching bodies. A small explosion had taken place inside one of my boots during our trek and my right heel revealed a burst blister the size of a silver dollar. We spent the afternoon switching between the cold river and the warm springs, eating cashews and dried pineapple, and trying to forget we had nine miles still to go before our anniversary adventure ended in an air-conditioned drive back up Highway 1.

Despite a mostly sleepless night and the knowledge that In-n-Out was in my future, our final day in the Ventana Wilderness made me sad. We would pack up this morning and be back in civilization by lunchtime. I wasn't ready.

I wanted to take in the redwoods, just one last time before our adventure came to a close - before we spilled out into a parking lot and into the world of freeways and alarm clocks. As I watched them in my dehydrated state push away from me – back and back and back on repeat – I did not beg them to sit still or come closer or stay with me. I watched them dance through the forest and evade my comprehension. I stood in panting, sweating silence and despite the dirt, the blisters, the constant hunger, and the moments of defeat, I vowed to dance with them, every chance I got.

Pine Ridge Trail 02
Happy anniversary adventure!

Happy anniversary adventure!

Pine Ridge Trail 04
Pine Ridge Trail 02
The drive through Big Sur.

The drive through Big Sur.