I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Solo backpacking

This picture was taken of me in 1985, 25 years ago. I'm in one of my favorite places in the Rocky Mountains, the Indian Peaks Wilderness. I volunteered for more than a decade for the Forest Service in what was then known as the Indian Peaks Working Group. I started as a volunteer trail host and eventually ended up training the volunteers.

My solo backpacking didn't start until the early 1970s, when I was in my early thirties, after three failed marriages and my 12-year-old son had gone to live with his father. Being completely at loose ends, I decided to drive to Bear Valley, an hour or so away from Sacramento (where I was living and working at the time). My friends thought I was crazy, and I was completely unskilled at what I was attempting, but I kept saying it was only men who said women can't do this, and besides, what could go wrong?

I bought a backpack and a sleeping bag. No tent, no stove, I don't even think I had a water bottle. Someone had told me about this place that winds down from the trailhead to the river below and, while beautiful and inspiring, was not well traveled, so I would be able to be by myself. I went on a three-day weekend. As you might imagine, I learned a great deal on that hike. First, I got lost, once I reached the river below and walked along the bank, I saw no other people and was quite alone. No map, no compass, none of the things I now know are essential when hiking, alone or otherwise.

I spent the first night sleeping on the sand near the water, and I learned quickly that snakes are attracted to your body heat! I didn't get much sleep that night and I would have left if I knew where the trail back up was. I didn't. So I just hoped I would see someone else. I remember climbing over rocks thinking I saw the trail and almost stepping on a huge rattler that was sunning on a rock. I backed off and went right back down to the river. I wandered around for miles in the riverbed looking for the trail back up, and finally I did find another hiker who told me where it was.

Not knowing how hard it was to hike uphill for such a long time with a pack on my back, I remember being so thirsty on the trail back up that I thought I would die, when I saw a stream. Burying my face in the water and slurping it up, not thinking of anything except how good it tasted, is a memory burned into my brain.

You might think that, having made such a terrible blunder, I would have been turned off to hiking, and you would have been right. I didn't attempt such a thing again for a long time. But after I had moved to Boulder and met new friends who loved to camp in the mountains, I began going on trips with them. We went for as long as a week, and I learned to love it. Once I joined the Indian Peaks Working Group and went on two- and three-day-long hikes in the wilderness, I found that I was addicted. Nothing is as wonderful as packing everything you need and going for a long trip away from everything into the beauty of the mountains.

After I knew the wilderness very well, I decided to start solo backpacking again. Now I knew the trails, had a tent, everything that I needed. In the picture above I see the water bottle and the part of my backpacking stove that contains fuel. One favorite trip was starting at one end of the wilderness area and hiking over Pawnee Pass at 12,000 feet and then down to a beautiful lake below. That was where I would spent the first night. The trail then took me back up into the High Lonesome area, and down to Caribou Lake. I would spend my last night in the wilderness at that lake before heading back up over the Fourth of July trail and down to the parking area. The trip was about 40 miles in total. Since I got a ride to the first trailhead, I hitchhiked home to Boulder from this parking lot. I never had a problem getting a ride, because this area is very well used on the weekends and I always made sure I arrived on a Sunday.

I found this entry from one of my journals, dated August 16, 1984, after my first night in the wilderness:
I slept well last night, even though I was on a slant, and woke up to rain on the tent twice during the night. And again the moonlight slid through the tent as I got up to pee in the early morning before dawn. There were a few light clouds, the waning moon still very bright, and the stars so bright the moon hardly dimmed them. Everything was wet, however, when I packed it up. I had a fine slow day, walking through breathtaking fields of wildflowers, pink, blue, violet, magenta, red, yellow -- sometimes it was almost too much. The wet foliage and flowers put the most incredible fragrances out in the air. At one point I got a whiff of pine trees, and I had to stand there and just smell for a while. So clean, so pure, so alpine! But now I have descended to about 8,500 feet, and there are more bugs, fewer flowers. But it's still so lovely.
Every time I read in my journals about those days, I remember so well how much I gained from these trips. I also would camp with others, because by then I had become an expert in the wilderness. One very important thing I learned: always tell at least one or two people what your route will be, when you will return, and stay on the trail! I saw at least a few other hikers every day, but after a while I felt so peaceful that I swear it was communicated to others. We were all there for the same reason: we loved the wilderness.

Those days are gone now, and since I am much older these days, I enjoy day hikes but haven't gone on any overnight trips for a decade. I of course got caught up in skydiving in the early 1990s, and that pretty much kept my weekends and vacations elsewhere. The Pacific Northwest where I live now is so different from the high country I grew to love in Colorado.  I'm happy to re-create my spirit with like-minded friends, and come home to Smart Guy and sleep in my own bed.


CiCi said...

I did some backpacking and hiking trips years ago and loved it. You are so right, hiking uphill with the pack on is a grueling walk, but when you get to the top there is so much to be thankful for. Good for you that you still do some day hikes. You have experienced nature in so many ways and it is fun to read about your travels and your learning experiences.

Anonymous said...

DJan, I clicked on this blog from your other site and love it! Looking at your banner, I have to say you still have the same wonderful smile. That will never change.

You have led a very interesting life -- lots of pain but also lots of joy. I'll be back to read more.

Lucy said...

No hiking or back packing for this girl! Must have been the farm in me or something. (We drove to the mailbox!) We did spend a whack of time in the woods next to our house when I was a girl and I've always driven country roads for miles and miles. (Even on the bike.) Our peace and solace now always comes from staring at the water and we've found if we're away from it for long, we feel the need to rush headlong back!
I also have the need to be by myself and can travel by myself with relish! (I feel entirely at home in a motel room by myself.) About every other month, I 'run away' for a day. Dick encourages me because he knows that I come back a nicer person.

Whitney Lee said...

I cannot imagine. You have had so many adventures! I know these posts are just snippets...

We enjoy camping though we haven't gone in a couple of years. I've never done a solo trip. I've barely had nights alone in a house, much less out of doors! I'm sure that there is an indescribable serenity to be found in trips such as these. Back then I'm sure you needed it. These days, of course, it doesn't seem terribly safe to go wandering the wilderness alone, not to mention hitchhiking! The worrywart in me cringed during portions of your tale.

It's great that you have all these journals that you can go back to. I know that I enjoy what you share from them.

The Retired One said...

There really isn't anything better than wilderness and nature...although we go by truck now, we often take rides wayyyy out where we see no other people all day..we stop and have a picnic together and see animals and birds and I take photographs of it all....Often we park the truck and take some side hikes and come back to the truck and travel on to the next spot. The air is so pure and it really connects you with the earth.

Far Side of Fifty said...

We used to camp all the time. We liked to go to Wyoming where there was no one else..nothing like the mountains ..they are good for your soul.

You were very brave to try it by yourself..the snakes would have discouraged me..heck I would have been in the river. Good thing you didn't get Giardia from drinking the water..:)

Marla said...

What a brave thing to do. I was never that brave when I was younger.

Linda Reeder said...

I love the out of doors, but have never done wilderness hiking, only day hikes on well traveled trails.
But my son has done a lot of back country hiking, often solo, and has climbed the volcanic peaks here in Washington as well as several in California. Our daughter went along for some of these when she lived here and they were both members of The Mountainiers.
We shopped frequently at REI, outfitting them.

Stella Jones said...

An interesting account of a world so alien to me. I would love to see the fields full of wildflowers and smell the piney trees, but I can do without the bugs and the snakes, thank you very much.
Blessings, Star

Historical sites with charmine said...

D-Jan,your a brave lady.Imagine being lost for 3 days!I love the outdoors,but,I'm not so brave.