“What is hiking but walking? I can walk” – Cheryl Strayed, Wild.
I like this quote because without any connotation, it can seem like a mantra that can keep one going. However, in the space of the book she uses it to reflect on her own naiveté when she realizes just how brutal and challenging hiking the PCT is. Cheryl Strayed wrote about her solo trip hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, but also as a deeper reflection and almost confession of her life. On my small, tiny sliver of a trip compared to hers, I kept thinking about her journey. Which, I know is kind of ridiculous to compare my overnight 9.2 mile backpacking adventure to her 1,100 mile trip, but I still couldn’t help myself.
I’ve been to the Trinity Alps once before, but this was my first time this far north. I have to give credit where credit is due, specifically to my friend Travis who works at the local outdoor shop Sports Ltd. He had recently done the hike I was about to do, so he gave me tips and suggestions on the Trail Gulch Loop. Essentially, I was going to drive up to the trailhead of Long Gulch Lake, and hike straight south the the lake. The trail cuts east, over a ridge, then drops down to Trail Gulch Lake. Then, I could hike almost due north and hit the trailhead. Simple loop.
Simple, if I had adequately prepared. What I found was a small series of mishaps that… added color to my backpacking trip. Nothing too strenuous, but just enough to make me realize how nice this shorter undertaking was.
Where are my hiking shoes? The Merrell hiking boots I have are tall to protect my ankles, breathe well, and fit my weird shaped feet, and they were nowhere to be found. This was the first snag I encountered. I was eager to get on the road, since my morning had been going kind of slow. So, I grabbed my backup shoes and packed everything in my car and headed out. Although Google Maps estimated around a two and a half hour drive to the trailhead, the drive felt an eternity longer. I didn’t end up arriving until around 4:45 pm. So I began my hike at the time most people would be getting off work. Still, I knew I had plenty of sunlight and energy, so I put on my large red and blue backpack named “The Jankmeister” and headed south.
I started a slow ascent in elevation, and the most noticeable feature of the trail was how heavy the use was from horses. Anywhere the ground was wet, the semi-circle of hoof prints were visible, and every so often I’d come upon a pile of horse poop. It made me a little jealous they could relieve themselves while walking and I pondered how good the soil was here, because there seemed to be ample natural fertilizer. I should also note that I tried to vlog with my girlfriend’s GoPro, but what I found is that the waterproof case has a way of muffling sound, so a lot of my interviews with myself are almost comical as they are basically a silent film of me talking. The point being, some of these photos in this blog are just screenshots of the GoPro footage.
From my trail notes, at 5:40 pm “Losing sunlight fast. The high granite wall to my west is costing me daylight. The negative part of me wishes it weren’t there. The positive part of me realizes that without that wall, it wouldn’t really be the Trinity Alps.” I could see the dip in the landscape where I knew Long Gulch Lake must be, but I didn’t know how long it would take me to get there.”
Around this time was when I had my first wilderness encounter. I was breathing heavily and filming myself, when I heard a strange noise off to the left of the path. I stopped and froze as I saw, maybe 30 feet from me, a large, black-furred butt of a beast. In a moment the thought flashed in my mind like lightning “A black bear. My first solo trip and I’m going to die from a black bear.” In another moment, as I took a second for the rational side of my brain to take over, the next thought came just as quickly “It’s just a cow… a black cow.” As if the heifer knew my thoughts, it turned and I could see over the butt and to it’s black head, now turned towards me as nonchalant as can be. It was mildly curious about me, but more curious as to the field of edible plants ahead of it. I almost laughed at myself, mistaking a bovine for a black bear. I more laughed at the sense of panic I had. Still aware of the waning sunlight, I continued hiking and it continued eating, no longer even aware of my presence.
I thought about Cheryl Strayed’s encounter with a cow. She had brought a whistle to both scare off any animals she encountered and to alert other hikers. I had no such whistle, just my voice. However, from year’s of lifeguarding I feel confident in my authoritative voice; it is a weapon I could call upon at a moments notice. Again, I realized it seemed almost trite to compare my journey to hers, mine was just the tiniest sliver in similarity. But thinking of her spirit and steadfast courage helped encourage me.
Finally, around 6:00 pm I made it to Long Gulch Lake. The trail is along the north edge, and this is where all the prime campsites are. I passed by several occupied spots, with families and one grandfather and grandson replete with fishing gear and big smiles. The sun had officially gone behind the mountain, however there was still plenty of light. I considered continuing and trying to make it to the other lake, but in the end decided it would be wiser to camp here.
I found a small secluded spot on the east edge of the lake, and set out to make camp. the first thing I learned when setting up camp- My tent had no tent poles…
This was my Kelty Dart 2, a great one-person, lightweight and snug little tent that I had used reliably in the past then put in storage. Somewhere along the way, the tent poles had disappeared (as of this writing, they are still missing in action). So, basically my tent looked nothing more than a deflated balloon, much like my spirits.
At first, the idea was to sleep in it as if it were a glorified burrito/sleeping bag. Eventually, after gathering firewood, I found a few pieces of wood that I could use to prop up my sad little thing, and make it less of a pouch and more of a tent.
I liked my little campsite. Despite the fact water access was a little marshy (which I think is why everyone camped on the other shore), I had my own private space. I did go swimming and the water was cool but not cold, and the lake was full of logs that had just the tip poking out of the water with small patches of green grass, making them look like miniature islands. I changed to dry clothes after my dip, and began to make my dinner.
My home for the night, along with before and after pictures of the flat tent and my fix of the ‘stick’-y situation.
There was ample firewood in this area, and I had a small little fire ring surrounded by large rocks (side note- generally speaking, there is a ban on campfires due to our extremely hot summer making wild fires more likely; that being said for certain National Forest areas you can pick up campfire permits at ranger stations. Plus, you can just be smart about it). The wood burned quickly and easily, no doubt dried from the summer sun baking it all day. Soon, it roared with life and had to be fed only every now and then.
I dined on a little meal of pasta primavera and camp snacks, with a fig bar for dessert. I had found the perfect flat-topped rock, perfect for lounging on and watching as the last of the sun’s light disappeared from our little mountain valley and one by one the stars poked through the fading blanket of light. Although it grew cooler in temperature, my indefatigable fire kept me warm. Every now and then it seemed to waver, like a puppy who has just eaten but pretends it is starving, and I would give it a large log that would ignite in an instant to be consumed by the flame. Sitting on the rock, I was unbothered by bugs, my blisters, or worries of rent or bills or anything of the outside world. That night it was just me, my little excuse for a tent, the fire and the stars. After the fire had finally died down, and I snuffed it with some lake water, I retired to my tent and the coziness of my sleeping bag.
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"What is hiking but walking? I can walk" – Cheryl Strayed, Wild . Survived my first solo camping trip! Saw a bear that turned out to be a cow, backpacked around 9.2 miles, swam in alpine lakes, met some new folks, saw a dog (didn't get to pet it), lost the trail, found the trail, scared a deer, and got to watch the the stars slowly appear while sitting by a roaring fire. Shout out to @saztraviskwa for helping me plan the trip. Definitely won't be my last. Blog coming, stay tuned. ✌️ . . . #backpacking #blisters #trinityalps #onlyinredding #visitredding #campfire #mountainlakes #keepitwild #optoutside #travelstoke #campvibes #letsgetlost #mountains #strayed #pnw #writer #solo #gopro #camping #teamcanon
My sleep came in bursts. Due to the nature of my tent-pole-less tent, the part over my legs drooped and rubbed against my sleeping bag. When the cold dew of morning came, it eventually transferred onto my sleeping bag and then me. Due to my spot near large bushes, animals would come nearby, no doubt curious to this foreign object in their landscape, and the rustling would wake me. This isn’t to say it was a wholly unpleasant sleep, my body was tired and just being on the soft ground was gratifying. When I awoke, the first task was to get warm. I put on the few layers I had, and was surprised to find that the morning was cold – a stark contrast to the heat that I experienced perhaps 10 hours before. I then took down my tent, and used my flat, perching rock as a place to lay out my damp sleeping bag and tent. They sprawled across and over it, like lizards absorbing heat for energy.
I then treated myself to breakfast. Oatmeal and coffee. I know, I was really roughing it. I felt like a diva, opening my coffee pouch and pouring the boiling water into my camp mug. (Something I doubt Cheryl Strayed ever had the luxury of doing). It hit the spot though, the oatmeal was filling and the coffee helped to perk me up. I realized that I awoke when the first rays of light entered our little canyon, around 6 am. I felt the urge to pack up and go, as I do on mornings when I am in a new place, but I wanted to wait for my things to dry and to enjoy the morning. I am not sure why I always have the impulse to continue on, maybe some subconscious part of me views my life like a stream – when I am moving and have direction I am happy, healthy, and content. When something blocks my path or I am stagnant, I feel oppressed and unlike myself. Although I don’t feel the urge to continue marching forward with time as a bad impulse, I have learned the importance of stopping, observing, contemplating, and enjoying the present moment. Learning to appreciate the little aspects, for example I felt cold; how many people back home would be envious and gladly switch me positions after such a brutally hot summer? Or the fact that being removed from the comforts I have grown accustomed to (warm bed, cellphone to distract me, a car to move distances) helps me to appreciate all of those comforts and also appreciate the simpler desire of being fed, being safe, and travelling by foot like so many of my primeval ancestors.
Next step that morning – fire. Like a Neolithic caveman searching for heat and the meaning of life, I felt it imperative to have a campfire. I had to do a little searching for suitable sticks and branches. What I mainly found was that fire was elusive today. No doubt the dew that coated my tent also coated all of the exposed branches that had been so dry a day before. I had to use (unused) toilet paper as a kind of kindling, until eventually I had a small flame going. Unlike the night before, I had to constantly feed the fire.
From my camp notes: “Yesterday, I was the master of fire. After one match, it burned hot and true; I couldn’t have put it out if I tried. This morning, it is like a newborn – it needs constant attention and feeding. Today, the fire is master of me.”
After I had finally packed up all of my gear and made sure the fire was completely out, I began my trek towards Trail Gulch Lake. After following the sparse signs, I was on the trail and heading on a series of switchbacks and climbing elevation fast. I would like to think I am in pretty good shape, but this hike was a bit rough. Although it was still early in the morning, I was sweating and breathing heavily, and reminded that my lungs still had traces of asthma that liked to show up whenever it would be the least convenient. On the plus side, though, I was able to get higher and higher and better and better views of Long Gulch Lake as I climbed. Finally, I summited the ridge and followed the trail that was generally level.
That is, until I lost the trail. I could tell that where I was, not many hikers had gone. Most probably came in, visited the lake, and went out the same way. Not that there was anything wrong with that, but the conventional wisdom of following the heaviest use path didn’t really work. I found that I was following some deer’s path, and wondered what deer scene I would no doubt eventually stumble on. However, I knew that the path generally followed the ridge until it turned downhill, so I simply stayed on the ridge top. Plus, I was able to glimpse a view of the deep blue lake below, and that was the best landmark I could have asked for.
Finally, after what seemed like too long, I stumbled onto the trail. I debated following it backwards to see where I had gone wrong, but ultimately opted to keep heading forward.
As I hiked, my mind wandered to Cheryl Strayed. How long she had gone, how brutally the miles terrorized her feet, how in the absence of anything but walking her mind wandered and meandered. How much her work, Wild, seemed to be a confession to the world. In a strange way, it helped encourage me. Sure, my legs might be a little tired, but at the end of the weekend I will go to bed in my comfortable little apartment and go back to routine. Her routine was shattered. If she could do it, and come away from it stronger, then of course I could do this little hike. Sure, I would allow myself breaks, but I wouldn’t allow myself to complain. I wouldn’t stand for it.
At 10:15 in the morning, I arrived at the northern edge of Trail Gulch Lake. I could see a few people had set up hammocks and tents, but what I noticed was how peaceful and enticing the water looked. As I approached, I saw a two girls about my age and one of them was wearing an SOU shirt – the same university I attended! We made some small talk, and found out we had some mutual friends. They were going off to do some hiking, but said I could use their campsite in return for watching their things. I agreed, but really all I used it for was a base to leave my things while I went swimming. The water was cool but not cold like I had expected, and the lake was in a beautiful bowl lined with grey rock.
It was nice to be cleaned of all the sweat that had accumulated. The water was amazingly clear, and I could hear across the lake the sounds of hikers. The area must have had a strange way of amplifying acoustics, and I wondered how loud the splash of my dive must have been.
Afterwards, I changed into dry clothes (knowing full well I was going to sweat in them), and packed up the snacks I had brought out for a kind of brunch, and I headed on the trail home.
There were only a few items of note on the way back. The first was that after a day hiking through a good amount of horse poo, I actually encountered horses! There was a small line of them, ridden by a group of older folks headed up trail. We exchanged pleasantries, and the gang rode on. It did seem to be the perfect trail for horses. The only other item to note was the two or three small creek crossings. In the summer, it was fine as the water was low and even with my ungainly backpack I could hop from rock to rock, or if the water was shallow enough, literally just walk on through.
Around 12:30, I got to my car. I was tired, but the good kind. I had survived my first solo trip! I had gotten a few blisters on the back of my heels, but the boots did better than I expected. The lakes had been beautiful and cool, offering the perfect respite to a day of hiking. Although my tent didn’t exactly function as advertised, I still love it and it kept me warm. Don’t get me wrong, I love travelling everywhere with my girlfriend, but forced to be alone with my thoughts encourages introspection, something I don’t do enough. I loved the simpleness and tranquility of solo backpacking. I would definitely recommend it, and maybe next time I’ll have the confidence to go somewhere more remote (and be more prepared, naturally).
Until next time, never stop adventuring.