Afterword: This I Know for Sure

It's been two weeks, and I still think about the trail constantly. These thoughts, and the absurd amount of love I have for my BCM experience, has me asking a lot of questions. While I don’t have too many answers, I do know a few things for sure:

I'm my best self when I'm out on a trail. 
The longer away from civilization, the better. For a while now, I've known I'm a better version of myself when I meditate, or exercise, or go on a hike, but this trip was the pinnacle. The best I've ever been. Outdoors 24/7 for days on end, with inspiring young people and uplifting co-leaders, I tapped into depths I didn't think possible: more patience, more resilience, more strength (physical and emotional), more humor, more energy, more playfulness than I have on any day in the city. Prior to the trip, I fretted whether my introvert self could handle being around people all day, much less people I didn't really know yet. Would I crash? Snap? Retreat? Nope. None of those things happened. 

I love being on the trail. 
I mean LOVE. It felt like home. In a way I'm not sure if I've ever felt in San Francisco. When I search for someplace that feels like home these days, I'm striking out. 

Back in Texas, where I'm from, my mom has sold the childhood home we grew up in, moved to a different suburb, and settled down with a man who I haven't gotten a chance to truly know. When I visit their house, it feels foreign. Something I have no claim over. I feel like a stranger, not a former resident. Strike. 

Here in SF, where I live, the city holds weird memories and I find myself fighting against what the city is and what it is becoming. Strike. 

Amongst my peers, I have a hard time finding others who operate on my wavelength: an interest in improving ourselves and the world around us, exploring constantly (for the sake of the adventure and not the 'gram), and prioritizing health and nature over socialization or partying. Strike. 

Strike strike strike. 

Out on the trail though, all this falls away. 

We all live on the trail. It doesn’t matter, at least temporarily, what our permanent homes are like or where they are. It doesn’t matter what we do with our free time when we’re at home. The trail attracts like-minded people. We’re all out on the trail, actually enjoying nature—not just saying we enjoy it. We all have an interest in appreciating and preserving the bounty around us. We all dabble in journaling and meditation and reflection, for the trail and nature’s bounty reminds us that we must show gratitude, soak this in, enjoy it while it lasts.

How is it that a trail brings all of us together, forms such strong friendships, bonds us so closely in such a short amount of time? 

I need to leave SF. 
I don’t like living in a tech Mecca. I don’t even like tech these days! The people I see on the street and encounter outside of work constantly annoy me. I know this is partly a fixable mental state, but I also know being annoyed more days than not isn’t a good thing for my quality of life. It’s not sustainable, and it creates a lot of unnecessary frustration in my life. 

I no longer care what start up someone is working on, which giant tech company they’re employed by, or how many coding languages they know. Perhaps I have blinders on, and can’t see the cool, good people amongst the tech bros, but the people I meet and see annoy me. Almost a daily basis. I have a large pent-up frustration towards San Francisco and the elite nature of engineering and the tech community, and its lack of diversity. In fact, there was more diversity in my home town in Texas than in the purported tech capital of the world in which I now live. 

I need to backpack more. 
This experience was incredible. Plain and simple. I would do it every week, if I could. I want to find ways to weave backpacking into my life more often. Perhaps doing more weekend backpacking trips, rather than just car camping? 

I’m healthier in the wilderness. 
For the past three years, I’ve been battling a hip injury and the chronic pain that dogged me during recorvery. Most days, it left me aching in pain, weak, and hesitant about what my body can do. After a few years of doctors appointments and physical therapy, I finally reached the correct diagnosis and learned to manage the pain somewhat. Then I discovered the anti-inflammatory diet. Slowly, month by month, the pain that had been anywhere from a 6 to an 8 on a 10-point scale faded to a 1 or a 2. Earlier this year, my PT suggested acupuncture to flush out the last of my residual pain. It is the most zen, revelatory experience I’ve ever had. It takes me outside my body and my own mind. Finally, on a day hike a week before I left for the BCM expedition, I realized I no longer felt any pain in my hip. Tightness, sure. A bit of muscle atrophy, yep. But no pain. A weight was lifted. Tension literally left my shoulders. Releasing the idea that I was in pain allowed my brain to recognize I truly, actually wasn’t in pain. Pain had become my second skin. We wear pain like a threadbare coat, using it to keep ourselves warm but not fending off all the chills. 

Something about being in the wilderness amplifies this pain-free feeling for me. At work, the constant standing or sitting (but lack of real, natural movement), the unhealthy food temptations, the indoor air and unnatural light, the stress of constant emails, and the negative energy of commiserating with coworkers all serve to wear down my body. Sometimes, after a long day or week of work, the pain sneaks back in. Not just to my hip, but to my back and my shoulders and my feet too. 

In the woods, I don’t have this pain. Sure, I have soreness or tightness or weariness, but it was earned, not given. Despite hiking miles each day, sometimes carrying 30-40 pounds, my body is okay.  It revels in its own strength. It heals itself. It soaks in the sun and the wind and the green green green plants, and fuels itself. 

This was a revelation to me. For the past three years, my expectations of what my body can do have slowly shrunk. First I cut out one soccer team. Then lunges and certain exercises. Then I let go of soccer completely. Finally I stopped running. I let the label athlete, a lifelong moniker, slip from my grasp. I tried to accept that walking and ellipticals and gym workouts were my boundaries. My future. I took up hiking with fervor, thinking that if the only thing I can do is walk, at least I can make it a damn hard walk. But I didn’t let myself contemplate a long trail. Or even strenuous backpacking trips. I didn’t think my body could handle it. But, it can

When I’m outside, I consistently feel less pain, my muscles don’t get as tight, I don’t slip into mis-alignments as easily. Each time I come back from a week or weekend away, my PT and my acupuncturist, the people I think of as my team, exclaim how good my energy is, how loose my muscles feel given the work I put them through, how much less pain I feel in our ‘problem’ areas. 

Being outside is good for me, and my body knows it. 

I want to try a long trail. 
I’m not sure if I knew what the Pacific Crest Trail was before I read Wild. I’m not sure if I knew it was possible to hike for weeks, let alone months, at a time. I am sure, though, ever since I read Cheryl Strayed’s book, that I’ve wanted to hike. The PCT has been a gnawing itch in the back of my mind, waking to scratch at my consciousness at least once a year. 

The thought of doing the PCT both excites and terrifies me. Can I do it? Can I make it from Mexico to Canada? Maybe. Can my body handle it? I think so. My body feels great in the wilderness, as I’ve been discovering. Can my mind handle it? I think so. I spent eight years running cross country competitively. Cross country is as much of a mental sport as it is a physical one. A big part of running boils down to you and your mind. You’re alone with your thoughts for miles at a time. I like to think this has given me a good foundation for handling the boredom and brutality that come with hiking long miles, day in and day out. However, the thought has crossed my mind that my biggest obstacle on this hypothetical PCT journey may be my own disappointment. What if the trail isn’t everything I think it will be? What if it doesn’t speak to my hopes and dreams, the ache I have inside of myself for adventure and exploration and pushing boundaries? What if trail life is actually stressful, and I don’t have the freedom or time to write and take pictures and meditate, like I hope I will? What if I don’t even want to eat paleo-esque on the trail or write a lot or share my photographs with the world? What if this creative person inside of myself I’ve spent the last few years acknowledging isn’t actually there? What if I’m not actually who I think I am?

I know the only way to truly explore these hopes and fears is to dive in, so I want to do a long trail next summer. Summer 2018. But, do I really want to do the PCT? Or do I just want to say I’ve done the PCT? Do I merely want to be part of that club? Is the PCT the trail I should start with? I know your first long trail imprints on your heart in a way no subsequent trails can, so I want to choose carefully. 

Perhaps I’ll start with a “shorter” trail, like the 486-mile Colorado Trail. Or the 1,200 mile Pacific Northwest Trail. Something I can spend a month or two doing, rather than five. A way to dip my toe into thru-hiking, rather than diving in head-first. And, if I’m honest, something that isn’t as cliche as doing the PCT, alone, as a woman. Wild kind of ruined that idea for the lot of us. 

The outdoor community is largely privileged, myself included. 
We can afford to buy special gear, to travel far from home, to take time off work, to spend our leisure time exercising because our bodies aren't broken down by manual labor. We don't build cars or fences or roadways for a living, so when we have free time, we want to spend it outside. Mostly, we work in offices, or have remote computer-oriented jobs we invented for ourselves, or work menial jobs that give us freedom because "who needs money". 

I know this privilege needs to change. 

I know the outdoor community needs to become more accessible and welcoming and vocal. It needs to become a lot younger and a lot less white. 

I'm just not sure how. Where to start. How to make a noticeable difference. 

There are quite a few admirable non-profits that have popped up in the last few decades, focusing on getting kids or under-resourced communities outside. I'm so glad they're doing this work, and happy to volunteer with them, but when I think about the long term, what I really want to do, I want to figure out a way to get kids outside without sacrificing the efficiency, culture, and livelihood that comes with being part of a for-profit company.

Isn't there a way to do something rewarding and enjoyable without making less money than a teacher?! Is doing what you love at odds with making money? Is this honestly a zero-sum game?

Can we re-invent the non-profit model? 

What I Ate (or didn't)

 All smiles while sorting food in backpacker camp. 

All smiles while sorting food in backpacker camp. 

I wanted to avoid the usual hiker foods loaded with gluten, MSG, and highly processed carbohydrates, and wanted to stick to my anti-inflammatory diet as much as possible. 

This means no gluten, no grains (other than white rice, which I can tolerate in moderation), no sugar (honey and maple syrup are okay), no dairy, no soy products, and no nightshades (sometimes I cheat and include tomatoes because I love them). I also don’t like chocolate (never have), so that eliminates another hiker favorite. I also also can’t handle very many cashews at one time, if any, which eliminates a lot of bars (cashews are cheap and creamy, perfect for bar-making). Browse the health bar aisle at any grocery store, I dare you. You’ll be surprised how many contain chocolate, sugar, cashews, or gluten, if not all four! 

All of the above meant I needed to get creative for food! I wouldn't be able to survive on typical hiker-junk-food. Instead, I packed all my own meals, using dehydrated food ordered in bulk online, and tried to match them as best as possible to the food the rest of the group would be eating, per BCM’s menu.

Surprisingly, I loved all the meals I made. I'd heard a lot about the monotony of backpacking meals, especially the make-your-own kind. I made sure to add lots of dried butter, salt, and spices to each one. It worked! They were delicious. 

Food was probably my biggest expense leading up to the trip. I tried to find the highest quality ingredients I could, ones that didn't have any weird oils or preservatives or additives, and the cost really added up. I probably spent $200+ for the week, but did end up with a lot of leftover ingredients I can use again. Hopefully they'll keep until the next time I do a big backpacking trip! 

Breakfast
At home, I make my own version of Bulletproof Coffee every morning. I knew I'd be hurting for fat and calories while in the backcountry, so I scoured the internets for a portable, easy version. Just add water. So simple. So delicious. 

Afterward, I used leftover hot water from making coffee to hydrate one of the below: 

- homemade Honey Vanilla Cinnamon paleo granola (I’d eat this dry with almond butter or mix dried coconut milk to make cereal, sometimes with rehydrated chia seeds) 
- breakfast fried rice (instant rice, dried eggs, spices, dried vegetables, dried chives, dried onion
- breakfast scramble (instant potatoes, dried eggs, dried vegetables, dried butter, spices, dehydrated chicken) 

Lunch
No real meals, just miscellaneous combinations of whatever sounded good that day. I even loved piling a few of the below together with avocado in my Talenti jar for a weird, interesting lunch combo. It kept me on my toes and I could eat it with a spoon (a plus if your hands are disgustingly dirty).

A good formula is: crunchy + salty + meat/protein + avo (healthy fat) + carrots (provide much needed water content) 

- Lara bars (apple pie, blueberry, pecan pie) 
- Jerky (The New Primal) 
- Jerky sticks (The New Primal) 
- Assorted Trader Joe’s snacks 

  • Plantain chips (delicious with almond butter as dessert) 
  • Sweet potato chips
  • Parsnip chips
  • Baked mochi rice crisps (these are crack, I finished them before my trip even started and stopped myself from buying more) 
  • RX Bars (blueberry was yummy, but the cashews in these made my stomach hurt) 
  • Dried fruit (I didn’t eat any of this plain, even though I packed it, but was good torn up in my paleo granola) 
  • Truffle marcona almonds (YUM! Good boost of salt. Almost too salty.) 

- Epic Bars (Siracha Chicken is currently my favorite) 
- Squeezable almond butter packets (the kind I had contained probiotics, which gave me diarrhea. Need to find a new brand.)
- Leftover Casa Sanchez tortilla chips from home
- 2x avocados (highly recommend! well worth the weight, would pack in more if I had to do it again. 1x per day?!) 
- Baby carrots (again, well worth the weight)
- Zora Bars (kind of getting bored of these, need to stock up on the Mediterranean beef flavor, my favorite)
- Bearded Brother’s Bars (beginning to get bored of these too, although they are good torn up into my paleo granola in the morning. I also weirdly craved the Maca Chocolate flavor, even though I don’t like chocolate) 
- Occasionally supplemented with summer sausage or tuna from the group’s food. I don’t recommend either. Summer sausage contains weird “corn solids” that started messing with my digestion, and something in the canned tuna gave us all really bad farts. 

Dinner
Using BCM's menu as a guide, I created the meals below...

Day 1: Chicken Burritos -> Burrito-less burritos: instant rice, dehydrated chicken, Mexican spices (cumin, paprika, cayenne pepper, chili powder, salt), butter, dehydrated sweet potatoes and zucchini 

Day 2: Mac n’ Cheese -> No real AIP substitute for this, so I did cheese-less potatoes: Instant garlic potatoes (Whole Foods has a yummy clean variety that doesn't have an ingredient list 50 items long, like the Idahoan kinds), dried chives, spinach flakes, dried broccoli, dehydrated chicken, salt

Day 3: Loaded Potatoes -> More potatoes! Instant garlic potatoes, dried chives, spinach flakes, rosemary, more garlic, Italian spices, dehydrated chicken, dehydrated zucchini, carrots, and sweet potato, salt 

Day 4: Rice and beans -> Rice, no beans: Instant rice, dehydrated chicken, spicier Mexican spices (varying the level of spice and flavor can really mix up your meals!), butter, dehydrated tomatoes, dried onions

Day 5: Couscous Chili -> Fried rice concoction: Instant rice, dehydrated chicken, dried chives, butter, dried eggs, dehydrated sweet potato, carrots, and zucchini, salt

Day 6: Celebration Pasta Dinner -> Rice pasta: Rice noodles (Whole Foods again), dehydrated chicken, Italian spices, butter, dehydrated tomatoes and zucchini, salt (sadly, didn’t get to eat this one :() 

Day 7: Fin

July 25, 2017
Groveland campground to Oakland
Mileage: 0
Elevation Gain/Loss: N/A

Last night, I fell asleep on top of my sleeping bag. It was hot and muggy so I didn’t even bother to unzip it. This comes to haunt me in the middle of the night when I wake, cold, and have to squirm around to find the zipper and un-do it while lying on top of the bag. 

Too soon, morning comes. Maybe it’s just me, but tension still seems to hang in the air. I hope the girls can’t feel it. I hope this isn’t the memory we’re leaving them with. Everything we do still seems backwards. We don’t eat breakfast here, we don’t boil water, we don’t do any camp chores. We simply pack up and leave. On the road, we stop at a coffee shop for pastries and bagels, but Cherub and I can’t eat anything here. Small towns don’t have much in the way of GF options. In the car, I eat the last breakfast I packed for myself and hope Cherub wasn’t lying when she said she had food. 

Driving out of town, inching closer and closer to the Bay Area, we pass so much fire traffic. Dozens of white pickup trucks, a mix of the “suits” behind this operation and wildland firefighters taking a day off or driving into the belly of this beast. A line of wildland firefighting trucks, which look boxy like ambulances, only with all the fixings of a firetruck. In the front seat of one, we spy a female firefighter as we drive by. Yay! Cheers to a woman in a man’s world! They’re a line of ants, crawling in the opposite direction as we drive away towards civilization and clear skies. We pass the Detwiler Fire command center, a sprawling temporary complex on top of some burned out fields. Did they intentionally burn these fields to set up camp? I wonder why? So no sparks will start a new fire near HQ?

We stop only once, at a gas station, and I pour tortilla chips into my Talenti jar. We won’t be stopping for lunch and I seem to be the only one that’s hungry. Why am I always the only one that’s hungry? 

 Sweet sweet Ponderosa.

Sweet sweet Ponderosa.

The hills and golden grass cedes to suburban sprawl then the highway spits us out into Oakland, sooner than I would like. We have paperwork and wrap-up things to do, so we go to the youth organization's campus where we can sit in the cool of their boxing gym or in the quiet of their garden. We eat plums straight off the tree, letting the juice run down our hands and stain the paper evaluations we’re filling out. Last night’s argument/weirdness still hangs over my head, unresolved, so I mention it on the evaluations when it asks about issues in the group, hoping not to throw anyone under the bus. When we're all finished, we mill around, waiting for the girls’ parents to pick them up. Cherub brings us each a lemon, fat and citrusy, a peace offering of sorts. MJ peels hers open right there, eating it plain, slice by slice like an orange. Her and Laughs school us on all the things lemons are good for, all the ways they can be used. Deodorant, stomach soother. Again, I'm reminded...they are so smart. 

Laughs gets picked up first. It’s weird hugging someone goodbye after spending five days in the woods together, not knowing when or if you’ll see them again. Twenty-four hours a day, for seven days in a row, then nothing. 

MJ's mom is running late, so I take advantage of the hot Oakland sun to dry out my hiking boots and soak up some Vitamin D. Everyone else sits in the shade but I stand around in the sunshine. I know it won’t be this nice in the city. 

Her mom walks through the gate, thanking all of us many times. We hug goodbye, then watch them walk away, hand-in-hand. I love seeing how much they look like each other. 

Cherub backs her car out of the gate, then we follow. This is it. It’s weird how suddenly our little cat pack disbanded. 

We’re supposed to have a reunion dinner in a month or so. I hope it happens. 

 Bye bye, Half Dome.

Bye bye, Half Dome.

Day 6: Ash, Civilization, Australians

July 24, 2017
Hidden campsite to Porcupine Flats Trailhead
Mileage: 3.75
Elevation Gain/Loss: +1,189' / -412'

A high pitched buzzing. Directly above me. Moving around my head. There is a mosquito in the tent. This wakes me. I don’t want any more damn mosquito bites after getting attacked at the creek last night. I almost made it out of this trip with no mosquito hell. So close, alas. 

Open my eyes. Look around. Search for the buzzing. Ahh. A bee. But not inside the tent. Relief. Instead, it’s between the tent fly and inner mesh. Cherub somehow senses what is happening and comes over from where she’s been perched on my ground tarp. I left it out last night after moving my things and myself inside the tent in the rain. She’s been up for hours. She lifts the fly to let out the bee. 

As soon as I fall asleep, the buzzing is back. What the hell? Another bee, also trapped. What are they doing? I try hitting the inner mesh, hoping to move the mesh or fly just so and let the bee escape. It kind of works, but soon the bee works itself back into a weird air pocket. Seriously, what are they doing? It goes on like this for an hour or two as I doze. I’m exhausted from my middle-of-the-night rendezvous and do not feel rested at all

I don’t want to be the slacker adult who is sleeping in, and I'm self-conscious since Cherub is already up being a productive human, but I don’t see BadAss so I decide to doze until it’s clear she’s up and moving. 

Too soon, I see her walk up to Cherub and start chatting. How are all of these people functional morning beings? Coffee. Need Coffee. And a cathole. And teeth brushed. Life is so simple out here. 

 Morning meditation. 

Morning meditation. 

 We're so zen.

We're so zen.

It’s funny to observe the different daily habits people have: 

Cherub is a fellow morning-mind-worshipper, taking time to write and draw and “be in her own mind” as she calls it. I haven't written or taken my usual morning "me time" at all this trip. Comparing myself to her, I start to beat up on my sleepy self and feel bad, like she’s the real deal and I’m not. Do I get up in the morning just because I feel like I should? Why do I have such a hard time waking up? Or being productive? Why aren’t I as good as she is? Shhhh, mind. Shhhh. 

A couple folks don’t brush their teeth until after coffee and talking and breakfast, sometimes lingering with unbrushed teeth for hours, which I just DON’T understand. How do they not want to gag at the feel and thought of being in the company of their own unbrushed teeth for so long?! Bleh! 

Some need to eat right when they wake up, whereas BadAss and I nurse coffee for a while, wake up slowly over time, and then eat a real breakfast a few hours later. My ideal day is the Hobbit life: breakfast, followed by second breakfast. Breakfast is the best. And backpacking makes all food taste so damn GOOD. Mmm. 

 Lingering around camp + Cherub's zen creation. 

Lingering around camp + Cherub's zen creation. 

We’d talked of getting an early start today, being packed up and on the trail by 8am, but none of us want to leave. We dawdle in camp, knowing this is our last day away from it all. We’ll hike out today and then it will be a steady progression back to civilization. First, cars and more people, then flush toilets and running water, then electric lights and cell service, and finally real life will all come rushing back in. 

Finally, around 10am, BadAss looks at her watch and makes the call. Time to get going. 

Bye, campsite. Bye, creek, you watery mosquito hell. Bye, old growth trees and hidden fire ring. Thank you all for appearing just when we needed you. Thank you, trail, for providing yet again. 

As soon as we hit the dirt track through the woods, it’s hill, BAM, in our face. Three hundred feet straight up, right away. 

I was worried my hiker strength from the day before would be a fluke, my hiking boner gone, but I’m strong again today. I love being strong. Uphills, I can take you. I got cho! Up, up, up. I love hills, I love hills, I love hills. An old high school cross country trick. Say it enough times and it will be true. 

MJ, surprisingly, is also flying today. Once we’re past the steep uphill, she is charging up the trail. At times, I have to call out “Simmer!”, asking her to slow her pace so we can keep her in view around the bends of the trail. Is she racing for the comforts of home, or is she also feeling her hiker legs? 

At one point, we turn the We Are the Titans song into We are the Amazons...

"We are the Amazons, the mighty might Amazons. Everywhere we go, people wanna know, where we come from, so we tell them…"

It seems to help. Anything on the hills seems to help. Anything other than just trudging in silence.

We pass a huge group of teenage boys heading deeper into the woods. They're from a camp and have only one adult leader. Concerning? When we ask where they're from, the leader says "Camp Towanga" with authority and smugness, as if we'll know it and be impressed. Um no? 

We're cleaner than them (they leave at least 3 pieces of litter on the trail, which we then pick up) and faster than them and more prepared and it gives the girls a huge confidence boost. I can almost see their shoulders grow taller, their backs grow stronger, the weight of their packs diminish as they realize they're good at this hiking stuff. BadAss tells us stories of how tough girls are on the trail, compared to boys. She's worked with youth of both genders and sometimes mixed groups, and boys consistently complain more and get grossed out more and just generally can't hang with trail life. Women thrive out here. For about the eleventy billionth time this trip, I am so proud of our girls and of us and of this awesome female power we've built up. #pussypower 

Last night, as we were sitting around the campfire, BadAss asked us what we'd like to leave in the backcountry (figuratively, of course, we're LNT pros) and what we'd like to take home with us. 

I hope I can take with me this awesome girl-centric attitude: building each other up instead of tearing each other down, casting aside vanity to get a little dirty, defying gender expectations in the process, openly talking about poop or burping or weird "taboo" stuff boys typically own. I hope I can leave behind this idea that being a woman is a burden, a cross to bear, a setback and an obstacle, especially in today's political climate. I realize that I've had a dark (and perhaps pragmatic) outlook on how it is to be a woman in this world. Laughs and MJ have shown me an alternative. Reminded me that there is a no-limits, anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better approach. A return to my youth, when Mia Hamm ruled the airwaves and I loved playing soccer with the boys just to shock and school them and I did things purely because people told me I couldn't. 

I mostly walk with BadAss today, leading the cat pack up the trail, and I hear stories on stories. Stories of gang members dropped into the woods for 290 days. Stories of drug-addled kids showing off or pooping in their sleeping bags for revenge or getting terribly messed up by manipulative, ignorant parents. Stories of huge successes and soul-shaking losses. Stories of corruption at the highest levels and regular everyday people just trying to do good. 

I am fascinated. 

This is what I live for. Stories. A glimpse into other people's lives. A window into how they think. I was raised on this, and it's one of my deepest curiosities. The trail flies under our feet. All too soon, we're at our final stream crossing. There's no good way to cross, no stepping stones or downed logs or skinny section I can jump across, so I finally get my boots wet. I immediately hate it. Squelch squelch squelch. Up the trail. Except the trail has turned to road. An old, old road, crumbling a bit more as the forest slowly takes over. 

Ugh. We all hate road walking. Every seasoned hiker does. It's so hard under your feet compared to a soft and loamy trail. It radiates up your shoes into your bones. 

But I am also intrigued. My brain is humming. Why is this road here? What was it used for? Did the Army Corps of Engineers build this? There was also a weird skinny cable buried under the trail for at least a half mile earlier in the day, popping up here and there where the ground eroded. What was that for? Electricity? Telegraphs? Weird experiments? There’s so much unspoken history all around us, especially in places like Yosemite where people have been visiting and living off the land for hundreds of years. Before a bunch of white men showed up on horseback, American Indians lived off this land, setting fires in the Valley to keep trees away and creating wide grassy meadows for easy hunting. What has this trail seen? Was it an old footpath to get water? A game trail? How old is it? Questions we will never have answers to. 

We’re getting closer and closer to the parking lot, the end of the trail. I’m ready to get off this hard crumbly road, but I’m not ready for the trail to end. I don’t want to go home. I’m just getting my hiker legs, coming into my own. This feels like my home. Can’t I just live out here, in the woods? 

Our momentum carries us forward though. I can feel the girls’ excitement. The collective energy of the group lifts and buoys us. The pace picks up. Soon we can hear cars, a road. All too soon, we’re spat out into a dusty parking lot. It’s a weird mix of sadness and nostalgia and accomplishment. I already miss our homes amongst the wild things. 

 Celebratory sorority squat. Lolz. 

Celebratory sorority squat. Lolz. 

We celebrate for a moment, whooping and hollering, making sure MJ and Laughs know how proud we are of them. We take pictures in all our sweat and grime, climbing on things and striking victory poses and jumping a lot. Somehow my pack falls over in the dirt and it’s the dustiest it’s been all trip. I take off my soggy hiking boots and pour out puddles of nasty water. I wring my socks out, watching brown water mix into the dust, forming weird Rorschach patterns. Five days and somehow I don’t become a mess until the very end. 

 Made it!

Made it!

I squeeze back into my wet boots, grateful that it’s hot out so I'm not standing around with wet feet in the cold. I grab my food bag, throw a bottle of water in, make sure I have the car keys, and set out. It’s time to hitch. 

Since our expedition group ended up much smaller than anticipated, we opted to squeeze into one big rental car, rather than wasting the time, gas, and money to drive two cars out here and set up a shuttle between trailheads. We’ve been intending to hitch since the beginning and now the moment is here. I’ve picked up the most hitchhikers, so I’m deemed to have the most hitching karma floating around in the universe. I’ve never hitched before, but I’m kind of excited. It makes me feel like real hiker trash!

This morning, as we were packing up camp, we took a moment to draw an “Angel Card” from a non-denominational deck of cards that each have a word written on them with a representational drawing of a little angel. It’s become our habit to draw a card each morning, going around the circle saying what that word means to us. It’s a nice way to get insight into what’s going on inside someone else’s head, and it brings us all a little closer by being vulnerable and sharing our true thoughts. 

This morning, it was my turn. I drew “Discernment”. The card had a drawing of an angel in a car driven by a friendly-looking ghost. Cherub and BadAss got the spooks that I drew this card of all cards, on this day, the day that I’ll be hitching. They were spooked that a ghost is driving the car, and that the word doesn’t have automatic positive connotations, like “adventure” or "explore". I didn't think much of it. On the trail, their concern floats through my mind a few times, but I don’t really feel worried, down in my gut where it counts. I know hitching could go wrong, but I don’t feel like it will today. Trust. Good thoughts. There are so many good people in the world, and being away from the city reminds me of this. Just trust, sweet pea. 

BadAss and I go scope out the parking lot and the road, trying to find a good spot for me to hitch from. She plans to stay here with me until I find a ride. She wants to see the car I get into, which both reassures and scares me. As we’re looking around, we see a tall blonde young guy walk up to a car. BadAss, with her amazing ability to talk to anyone, strikes up a conversation with him. I immediately detect an Australian accent, and therefore like him immediately. I’ve never met an Aussie I didn’t like! He mentions his mum a few times. He’s with his family! Brandon straight up asks him if they’ll drive me to our car, which is parked a few miles down the road. Of course they’ll drive me! Thank you, Aussie friends! 

In the car, we all talk too fast, trying to hear each others stories in the few minutes we have until the next trailhead where the BCM car is. He’s traveling with his mum and his sister, touring the US while they’re on their uni holidays, coming to the US to escape winter in Australia. They’re from Sydney, which was unexpectedly my favorite city in Australia when we went a few years ago, and they’re flattered when I tell them this. So far, they've visited Texas, which makes me like them even more, and Santa Fe, and are headed to San Francisco next. They heard our shouts when we were celebrating. They’re impressed that we’ve been living in the woods for five days without access to a “lodge”, as they call it. They’re even more impressed to learn two thirteen year old girls did this as their first backpacking trip, and ask me to pass their congratulations along to MJ and Laughs. Later, when I tell the girls this, they’ll grin, shy and embarrassed but secretly proud to have attracted the attention and praise of complete strangers. Australian strangers, no less. In the car, I catch glimpses of myself in the rearview mirror. This is weird, after entire days of not seeing your own face. Sitting in the back seat next to the blonde well-dressed sister, I’m aware of how dirty I am, and sweaty, and probably smelly. It’s weird how fast the transition happens…one moment we’re in the woods with no electricity or running water and now I’m in a car driven by showered, clean, friendly people, with air conditioning and gas and we're traveling faster than a few miles an hour! 

I worry I’ll miss the trailhead, or not be able to find it, or not recognize the rental car, but so soon we’re pulling into the right parking lot and our car is there waiting! After pulling our food from the bear box (which was sitting unattended for a week, yet no one stole it - oh good people of the parks!), slipping into Birkenstocks warmed by the sun (Oh life! Heavenly small comforts!), and reacquainting myself to technology and driving, I’m off. I revel in the few moments of driving by myself, windows down, winding along tree-lined roads. It reminds me of my solo trips, and reminds me how fun they can be, why I take them. I laugh, imagining myself pulling up to the group with rap music blaring, bass bumping. But I don’t, not here in this wild place. 

 Obsessed with these rock wastelands.

Obsessed with these rock wastelands.

 Tiny people. 

Tiny people. 

In the parking lot, it’s back to business, loading up the car and playing tetris to make the gear fit just-so. BadAss offers to drive so I can play gawking tourist. I’ve never seen this part of Yosemite before and I’m so grateful. She and Cherub take over as adults and I loll in the backseat with the girls. I’m in a sun-warmed, golden daze. We stop at an overlook to gawk at Half Dome one last time, although it seems underwhelming and small compared to the views on our hike a few days ago. At the gas station, I blatantly ignore the “No Bathing” sign posted above the bathroom sink, dousing my face, rinsing my bandana, and beginning to rub the grime from my body. The girls fill up on Flaming Hot Cheetos (I can’t believe I used to eat that stuff) and I opt for coffee ice cream and bubbly water. YUM. I meticulously pick the chocolate coating off my ice cream bar. The whole car good-naturedly makes fun of me, but I am in heaven when I have pure coffee ice cream to enjoy. I sink into a sugar-haze and rest my face against the car, letting the wind blow in my face as we drive. 

 Look what we found!

Look what we found!

 Miniature Half Dome + real Half Dome, both so tiny compared to the view yesterday.

Miniature Half Dome + real Half Dome, both so tiny compared to the view yesterday.

We’ve planned to camp outside the park, cutting a little drive time off our trek tomorrow, and the park campsites we drive by are full anyways. Outside the park the sky immediately turns hazy, and we’re reminded that while we’ve been frolicking in the woods, a fire has been raging. A sign at the gas station said it’d grown to 80,000 acres, doubling in size while we were in the backcountry. The area we’re driving through was too smoke-choked to see anything on our way in, and I’m amazed at how dry it is down here at lower elevations. This was a wet year in the Sierras, the most snow we’ve had in 45 years, yet it’s still so dry here. The earth is parched. No wonder the world is burning. 

We start seeing Forest Service campgrounds, but they’re hot and flat and dry, exposed to the sun and the highway. We keep driving. BadAss assures us there’s a better one up ahead. 

As we pull in, it looks a little deserted, but at least has a few trees and is set back a ways from the highway. Ash starts to float down from the sky, landing in our hair, making our gear even more dirty as we unload. Then the air traffic starts. Helicopters flying so low we can look in their windows, see the numbers painted on their bellies. A tanker flies over with its deep drone. It’s LOUD here, especially after the quiet of the woods, and a bit unsettling. How close is the fire? Where are we? What is all this traffic for? 

BadAss gathers intel from a few folks hunkered down in what I assumed were deserted camp sites, and we wander around half-heartedly doing camp chores. The other campers here have talked to some of the firefighters, who assured them we’re safe. If the fire were too close, this campground would be closed. Hot Shots are staying at the Forest Service headquarters just down the road, hence all the air traffic. Okay. That makes sense. It’ll be a hot, possibly loud night, but we’re safe. 

Cherub doesn’t quite trust this, she wants some reassurance from the firefighters too, which is okay, so she takes the car and drives off to headquarters. 

 Turkey mom + babies around camp. 

Turkey mom + babies around camp. 

While she’s gone, a few campground workers come by to empty the trash, so we quiz them about the fire. It’s 4 miles away, which sounds close, but would actually take the fire 2-3 days to reach us. Huh! I had no idea fire traveled so slowly. They live nearby and reassure us that this campground would be closed ASAP if we were in fire danger. Okay. My confidence in this spot is growing. I don’t love the heat or the ash or the weird deserted feeling, but it’ll do. That’ll do, pig, that’ll do. 

Suddenly Cherub pulls up, driving fast, flushed with whatever she’s learned, and there's a tumble of words and somehow things escalate and voices are raised and then the magic phrase is uttered: “I don’t feel safe here.” That’s it. That pulls the plug on us camping here, and possibly even camping at all tonight. We’re supposed to cook a celebration dinner for the girls, congratulating them on their accomplishments, but now that’s in jeopardy too. This breaks my heart. 

Egos were bruised and tempers flared and there’s a tension around camp now. We went six days in perfect bliss, getting along swimmingly, but things are unraveling right at the end. No, no, no. I’m grasping at straws. This isn’t the impression we want to leave the girls with. This isn’t how things are supposed to end. 

At first it sounds like we’re leaving immediately, food or rationale be damned, but then a little sense seeps in. We’re supposed to make flags for each other, a personal, commemorative flag for each person. The girls make ours and we make the girls' flags. Cooler heads decide to stay here for a little bit, to use the picnic tables and decorate the pennants now. We spread out across the campground so we can talk and laugh without overhearing each other, grateful now for the empty space. 

I lose track of time, but after thirty minutes or an hour or some unknown stretch, we realize how hungry we are. A quiet has settled over the campground. The wind shifted, so ash no longer rains down. The helicopters and tankers are gone. It must have been a shift change, new firefighters dropping in, a temporary spike in activity. The sun sunk a little and now there’s a pretty, hazy sunset beginning. I’m tempted to stay here after all, but it’s tainted now by the tension that’s seeped under everything. The car has been packed, gear put away, we can’t simply undo what was said. 

Everyone is happier when they’re well-fed, so we drive to a nearby town and attempt to find a restaurant. A cafe on the side of the highway. Everyone is too polite now, double-checking with everyone else that this spot is okay, we can go somewhere else, no no, this place is fine. It’s not the same as a homemade spaghetti dinner with S’mores around a campfire, but it’s food. 

With full bellies, we realize how tired we are. We will not drive back to Oakland, the program director says firmly over the phone. Driving is the most dangerous thing we do, and we’re not well-rested. We'll have one more night of camping after all. 

Finding the private campground, which is supposedly nearby, proves to be the hardest thing we do all week. None of us have cell signal once we leave the highway, and it’s dark and this community seems built to keep campers out, not welcome them in. Finally, there’s a campground entrance. But this isn’t where we pay? And there’s a code to get into the bathrooms, which can only be obtained by paying? There’s a confusing conversation on a pay phone (hello, 1998), with backwards directions to reach the camp office? Life in civilization is hard.

Looking at the map on my phone, I reverse the directions, hoping hard I’m right. None of us have the patience or energy to drive up and down this road yet again. Finally, finally, the camp office! It takes an unusually long time and I’m worried they won’t let us in, but at last we’re on our way back to the entrance and find our way to a campsite. 

Between the running water and bright lights of the bathroom and paved roads and lack of bear boxes, everything we taught the girls in the woods doesn’t apply here and life is backwards and confusing. We set up tents quickly, practically on top of each other, not even bothering to stake them into the rocky, hard site, then fall into our beds on the ground one last time. It’s too hot, so I lie on top of my sleeping bag, not even bothering to unzip it.  

 Sunset driving into Groveland. 

Sunset driving into Groveland. 

Day 5: Realtalk

July 23, 2017
Yosemite Creek to hidden campsite
Mileage: 5.21
Elevation Gain/Loss: +1,843' / -1,158'

I sleep so hard, cocooned in my puffy little bag on a few slim inches of air on top of my thin groundsheet. Last night, I set up on the slightest of downhills, then stuffed my pack under my knees and my bag o' clothes under my feet and it is comfortable AF. 

I want to sleep like this every night. 

As crazy as it sounds, I prefer hammock or cowboy camping. I hate the feeling of lying in my tent, sleeping bag clutched to my chin, wondering and waiting for whatever is making that noise outside, with a solid tent wall blocking my view. If something is coming for me, I want to stare it in the face!

I love looking at the big deep sky above me, forcing myself to stay awake for just a few more glimpses of the Milky Way. I love the cool air on my face and its contrast to the extreme toastiness of my toesies down at the bottom of my bag. (When I get home, I will miss this toastiness. When I get home, my bed won't seem so cozy. I used to love my bed, but now I love my bag. 😍)  I love playing roulette with the weather, knowing that I might wake to a few sprinkles, or have to scramble into a tent if it really starts to rain. I love looking up from a little clearing amongst the trees and seeing their tops outlined against the inky blue sky. I love seeing the world outside my headlamp go from total darkness to ink to indigo as my eyes adjust. I love reading a few pages on my phone with the vast sky twinkling behind it. I love letting myself be one with the night creatures, trusting they'll respect me and keep me safe. I love waking up to flashes of cloud lightning or the morning's sun or the moon's full rays. I love arranging my meager belongings around me on my tarp, water, bandana turned hankie, boots and socks inside out to dry, layers in case I get cold. 

Have I mentioned that I LOVE cowboy camping?

I'm sleeping better each night that we're on the trail, but I've still had a few nights of weird, fitful sleep, so I feel amazing when I wake up this morning. Clean and strong and all there. A person transformed.  

Today, we need to begin our hike out of the backcountry. If we make good time, we can do a second summit, this time to North Dome. If we don't move fast enough, we'll need to improvise and find a rough campground along the trail to Porcupine Creek trailhead. 

The first mile or two are a gentle, lazy downhill to the end of the Yosemite Creek drainage where we end up on top of Yosemite Falls. At first it doesn't look familiar. I'm all turned around. I have no recollection of this spot.

Then the memories come back. 

The only other time I've ever been in the park, we hiked up to this spot from the Valley floor. Thousands of feet, up up up. It was hard and now I can't believe there was another way to get here. An easy way to get here. If you consider backpacking for a few days easy. Which I do. 

This moment also makes me realize how long it's been since I've been to this spot (2.5 years), which in turn makes me realize how long it's been since I moved to the Bay Area (3.5 years), and all the things that have happened in between. 

 Don't fall. 

Don't fall. 

It makes me think about how I got into backpacking and hiking and being outside. I've been trying to piece together whether my interest spiked for the first time a few years ago, around the time I hiked up to these falls, or simply revived an existing hobby. For the life of me, I can't remember how all this started. It feels like something that's always been a part of me, an innate knowledge, but this can't be right. I'm not one of those people who has been backpacking since 8 or 12 years old. I'm not one of those people who grew up knowing how to row a canoe or read the woods or skin an animal. Cognitively, I know my family was not one of those families, and yet I feel I am of that mind. Who would have taught me these things otherwise? Myself? Surely not. 

Back at the waterfall, we inch out on the trail along the edge and I have never been so nervous. The "edge" is a 2,000+ foot cliff that plummets to the valley floor. I can't stop having visions of one of us tripping and accidentally tumbling over the edge, freefalling. My brain has gotten very good at seeing a situation and visualizing all the problems, all the scenarios that might go wrong. 

I have at least one hand on the wall at all times. Sometimes, for double-security, my other hand grips the sun-warmed iron railing that leads us down granite-hewn steps. 

VSCO Cam-1.jpg

On a small stone landing, we pause and I remember how sketchy the next portion is. Foggy memories of rainbow-scattered mist from the falls pouring over the hand rail, making everything sparkly but slick. Memories of having to lean wayyy out to see anything at all, and even then not seeing much. Memories of feeling too-strong wind in my face, whipping around the exposed corner of the cliff, ready to knock over unsteady feet. 

No thanks. We opt not to take the girls down to that sketchy section from my memory, despite the know-it-all comments of some women behind us who insist it is "so cool" and we "must" take the girls down there. Do you have the lives of two 13-year-olds in your hands? No? Okay then. We'll make our own decisions, thanks. 

After snapping a few pictures of the girls in front of the creek-falls, we cautiously make our way back up. I remind myself so much of my mom, moving slowly and always clinging to something and worrying (probably too much). An impressive woman in a bright pink hiking shirt and a neck brace, visiting from Utah, takes some okay pictures of us at the top, then we're off. Packs are re-hoisted (only to be set down again far too soon, when we grab water from the creek as it rushes towards the falls) and we cross the creek on a quaint wooden bridge and then it's up up up almost immediately. 

 Safely back on top. Lolz at the glamour shots behind us.  

Safely back on top. Lolz at the glamour shots behind us.  

 Bridge over the River Kwai. 

Bridge over the River Kwai. 

By now, it's a little after noon. We're exposed on an alternately dusty and granite-y trail switching back up the side of this ridge, and it's only getting hotter. But, I feel strong today oh so strong. Is this what getting your hiking legs feels like? Is this what growing stronger day by day feels like? Would I feel like this times infinity if I did the PCT? Oh, long distance hiking, I am dreaming of you! 

 Pretty colors. 

Pretty colors. 

However, the girls are fading fast in the heat and the direct sun and the uphill. They want to stop after almost every switchback. It reminds me of a funny animal I can't put my finger on, or tourists on the streets of San Francisco, the way they come to a halt with no warning at all, at random spots on the trail. They haven't yet learned that it's much cooler to stop in the shade (again, Bay Area kids...it doesn't get hot like this in Oakland) or that sometimes it's easier to keep going on the uphills, slow and steady, rest stepping, one foot in front of the other. 

I want to run run run and skip and jump up these uphills, I feel that strong. Best. Uphills. Ever.

Instead, I channel my energy into being the group cheerleader. A few days ago when I was dragging and Cherub was high energy, she kept us going. Now it is my turn. We sing songs (although it's amazing how few songs, in the same language, a couple of 13-year-olds, two twenty-somethings from different upbringings, and a Gen X-er all know the lyrics to), play word association games that have no goal, turn sports cheers into Wonder Woman cheers...anything to distract these girls from the upward slope of the trail and keep them moving. 

Finally, at the end of one particularly long slog, we get to a granite landing, a big flat open midway point. Laughs, who'd been looking particularly dire on the hill, quietly begs to eat lunch here. It seems early still, and we just stopped for snacks not that long ago, but okay. If you insist. If it will get us through this day.  

We sit in the gritty shade under sweet sweet ponderosa pines. I recently discovered they smell like butterscotch, if you're willing to smell the tree cracks, and hey, who isn't willing to stick their nose in a tree butt crack. They're quickly becoming my favorite tree. Such an easy, simple way to take in the pleasures of daily life. Treat yo self. Every time I sniff their buttery sugary scent I'm reminded to pay, pay attention, sweet pea, to the infinite small details around you. 

I'm not really hungry, on account of the snacks, but I force myself to eat anyways. Lunch today is jerky, topped with some avocado, the remainder of my sweet potato chips, and a few truffle Marcona almonds. Shaken and stirred in my handy Talenti jar, this is a weirdly tasty meal that lets me eat with my titanium spork so I don't have to lick food off my grubby possibly giardia-y hands. Oh, plus plantain chips covered in almond butter for dessert. NOMZ. 

In the past, when I've read blogs from thru-hikers on the PCT, I haven't quiet understood their food choices. Fritos...in a tortilla...with crumbled Lara bar?! Can that really taste good?! 

Yes. It can. This trip, I feel like I'm getting in on the thru-hiker food game. The combination of A) shopping at Trader Joe's, aka snack heaven B) being paleo/anti-inflammatory and wanting to continue that as much as possible on the trail  C) seriously upping my chip game and D) planning to compose lunch from various snack foods instead of eating real meals, made it so I had dozens of delicious, accessible, appealing snacks to choose from. And why not use my handy Talenti jar to combine a few snacks?! Good things + good things = more good things. Right? Usually. 

I'm so so glad I packed in a couple avocados. And carrots. They're worth their weight in gold and even out the salty dry chips I've packed in. I love having chips on the trail too. It feels like such a luxury and I love having the crunch to break up the monotony of weird bars and almond butter. 

Might I want to be a thru-hiker? Perhaps. It seems to be bewitching my brain lately. 

 Creepin'. 

Creepin'. 

Our lunch spot is off the charts. Half Dome is in our faces, and I go crazy taking pictures before I even sit down to lunch. There's a lone figure on a ledge a few hundred feet away and I take at least a dozen pictures of him framed against Half Dome, providing scale. Later, he will walk up to us and ask us to take his picture on that ledge, and I will openly admit I already took pictures of him up there and it looked rad. Not creepy at all, Christina. Good job. 

I think the girls think we're done with the uphills, but immediately after lunch we're back on an exposed, hot, granite, uphill slog. Hiking uphill with a full stomach is hard. My hip belt presses right into all that food I ate. I need to have the belt cinched tight to keep my pack from sliding down my hips, but my stomach protests. BadAss and I fart our way uphill and hope the girls and Cherub behind us don't notice or the slight breeze carries away any smells before they reach their noses. 

Note to self: eat less at lunch, and stay away from the canned tuna. 

I still feel strong, just farty, although I wish we hadn't stopped for lunch. I was so ready to keep hiking. I felt I could have crammed in at least two more miles before stopping, and now I worry that my hiking boner has gone away, or that sitting down and taking my pack off, both of which I'm loath to do, will have somehow sapped the magical hiking powers I have today. 

Everyone else is tired from El Cap yesterday, so we go slow slow, plodding along. I don't want to leave the group in the dust, and know that wouldn't be very leaderly or hikerly of me, so I don't, but I inch ahead with BadAss, refusing to stop in sunny or uphill spots like the girls. Slowly our lead grows. Slowly we reach the top, to be spit out into the dappled, cushy understory of an old forest. The trees are BIG here and a few times they block our path, blown over in some long ago storm. I wonder at the stories these trees could tell, all they've seen, how long they've lain here on the forest floor. The paths around them are gently worn in the duff. Humans have had time to make their mark. 

 Storybook stream crossing.

Storybook stream crossing.

A little while later, we let the girls play in a stream we're meant to cross until two hikers eventually arrive and need to gather water, so we pack up and move on. 

I'm strangely anxious while we loiter at this stream crossing, thinking of all the things that could go wrong...why are we hanging out at a creek where the ferns and water make it so we can't see/hear a bear and it can't see or hear us? Where will we camp tonight? When will we get to camp? Why are we moving so slow? BadAss's knee is hurting her, and I think it makes me feel extra responsibility to step up, be an adult, be a leader and a co-decision maker. More than ever, I'm cognizant on this trip that being the "responsible one" is a role I've put myself into, one that I'm familiar with, so I fall into it out of comfort or routine rather than enjoyment. 

I again remind myself of my mom. 

A few times growing up, she expressed how she hated having to be the nag or the responsible one when my dad got to be the fun one who played with us. "I hate being the bitch.

The same feelings wash over me as I watch Cherub play with girls or run off into the woods, blazing a trail for a "nature break". I know the differences between she and I may simply be our base personalities. I remind myself not to fight my inner nature, but I can't help assigning values to the roles we've taken...she's so good, she's fun. Why do I have to be so uptight? Why do I have to be such a rule-follower out here? Can't I just let go and forget about plans or organizing things or what needs to be done?! Why can't you be more like Cherub?! Or like Laughs, with her creativity and child-eyes? Why do you have to be so serious? Are you really even creative? Do you even have any talent? 

It all comes down to this, I suppose: Being creative. Being innately talented. I'm scared I'm not creative enough to be talented...that the organized, type-A side of my personality crushes good ideas before I'm even aware of them...that I don't have anything original or interesting to say...

Perhaps the greatest fear in all of us: Are we good enough? 

Somehow, we eventually get to the trail junction, our next marker. The junction is at the very edge of a burn that looks recent and stark. A prescribed burn? It's eerie + fun walking through burned out sections, especially one where the char looks so fresh. There are big holes in the ground where stumps used to be. I imagine these stumps caught fire with the undergrowth, trapping heat inside their hulking shapes, burning hotter and smoldering until there was nothing left. Is this true? I knock my trekking poles on burned trunks, just to see what it feels like. 

At the trail junction, we must decide where we're camping tonight. No one else seems to have the energy for a summit of North Dome  in the morning, much less today, plus the camp just past the junction is full. This makes our decision for us. We veer onto the trail that will take us out of the backcountry tomorrow.

Tomorrow. Don't think about it.  

Our last night in the backcountry. Don't think about it. 

Even though the trail continues up with some hard, in-your-face uphills, Laughs and MJ have more energy. They seem more empowered. Maybe choosing their own adventure (literally) and knowing they're making the trek easier on their future tomorrow-selves, enables them to finally tackle uphills with gusto? 

Twice we stop to check out potential camp sites across the creek, BadAss bushwhacking through trees to a potential flat spot scouted using maps and intuition. The second time, a hollered "Score!". Success. 

A beautiful, "already impacted" site a few hundred yards from the trail, over a creek and up an incline. Sleeps 5, infinite bathrooms, scenic views, fire pit and white noise machine included...all yours for the low price of free! 

All trip, things have worked out just so for the Amazon women of BCM. The trail provides, and it has provided tonight indeed. 

After setting up camp, we head back down to the creek to "wash up for dinner” (is this 1850?) and the skeeters attack us in droves. I miss our old campsite dearly. There, the creek was wide and open, more like a river, hemmed in only by granite. Here it is shallow and pebbly and surrounded on all sides by damp ferns and rotting logs and moss. It is a perfect mosquito breeding ground and we are their favorite hosts. 

 Laughs hams it up in her mosquito gear. 

Laughs hams it up in her mosquito gear. 

We wash up as quickly as possible then run back up the hill to camp, but they seem to follow us. For the first time all trip, I wear my rain gear as bug gear, then throw my bug headnet over the hood of my rain jacket. My hands are the only exposed skin left, so I  spray my hands with bug spray. Until I realize the spray has DEET in it. I resign myself to finger mosquito bites. I'll take finger bites over weird cancer-y DEET. 

Dammit, it's really hard to see through these bug head nets. What genius decided to make them olive green? I'm cooking dinner tonight, for the first time this trip, and I'm stressed. It's nerve wracking when multiple people are depending on you for their food. There are no other options. We can't grab takeout if this dinner burns or spills into the dirt. It's even more nervewracking when you can't taste-test the food because you're body can't eat what they're eating. I toss aside my head net, but the skeeters immediately swarm the exposed skin on my face. We’re all constantly smacking ourselves and flailing limbs. A weird wilderness version of Tourettes has infected our camp. 

I love our mix of people from different backgrounds and upbringings. I love the unpredictable surprise of a word or food or thing never encountered before by someone in the group.

Earlier today, while we were stopped for lunch, I made a fool of myself by asking the girls, in my most innocent, serious Spanish, “Que es un pendejo?”. Sometimes I get words stuck in my head, repeating over and over, and I couldn’t remember for the life of me what pendejo meant. I figured it was a random kitchen word from my time working for a Mexican chef. The immediate peals of laughter from everyone in the group let me know I’d stumbled on some sort of curse word or dirty slang. Oops. It was like one of those times your teacher accidentally cusses in class. MJ and Laughs were ready to pee from laughing so hard, gasping for breath, eyes watering. Their reactions had all of us shaking with deep, contagious belly laughs. Everyone knew what it meant. Everyone but me. I was still in the dark. 

Turns out I’d asked “What is a dumbass?”. 

I still chuckle when I think of it. 

 The girls dying at my gringa-ness. 

The girls dying at my gringa-ness. 

Each day, we’d been offering cous cous as one of our dinner options. “We could have cous cous and pinto beans with veggies?” The secret finally came out yesterday. MJ burst out: "What IS cous cous?!” 

Oh right. Growing up in Mexican families that honor traditional cooking, they’ve never encountered cous cous. Never even heard the word. We try to explain that it’s a funny-yummy mix between pasta and rice, but they can’t quiet conceptualize. 

Finally, tonight, we will eat cous cous. At long last.

I’m cooking a soupy version with rehydrated beans and vegetables and canned chicken and tomato past. I worry it will be weird, but the girls LOVE it. Laughs goes back for thirds. Everyone has seconds. They can’t stop exclaiming how good the meal is, which makes me smile. They were so apprehensive of this foreign mystery food. Instead of sticking their noses up or proclaiming they hate it before even trying it, MJ and Laughs showed their poise and lack of attitudes yet again. Cous cous has become their favorite meal of the trip. I’m so grateful for their open minds. 

The meal looks warming and comforting and well-seasoned. There is a ton leftover, so the gluten-eaters will likely be eating some for breakfast in the morning before our hike out. 

Laughs volunteers willingly. I will be sure to give her total gnar points. 

Later, as we’re siting around our first campfire of the trip (the girls pleaded in their sweet sweet way and convinced BadAss to make one), going over the Leave No Trace (LNT), there are more epic memories. 

We’ve been practicing LNT all week, the girls just don’t know it. They'd never been backpacking before, so they'd obviously never encountered the ethics of the backcountry. We gently quiz them on how our behavior over the week lines up with the seven LNT principles. 

Why have we been digging catholes and burying our poop?
Why did we have to scatter the WOMEN POWER rocks on the top of La Capitana? 
Why do we keep our food in bear canisters or within arm’s reach? 

Laughs is reading the principles out loud to the group, and makes a few self-implicating admissions that make us all laugh.

“Leave, ummm…ummm, rocks, plants and other natural objects as you find them,” as she jingles the rocks in her pocket she carried from our last campsite. 

"Use only sticks from the…ummm, ground that can be broken by hand.” Once the fire was going, she'd asked BadAss if she could break off a small branch from a living pine tree because it smelled “like Christmas” and she wanted to turn the scent into air freshener. 

We’d allowed them these small concessions, even though it gnaws at the Edward Abbey side of me, the purist in me. 

A small voice at the back of my head piped up each time: “If every kid took rocks home, would there be any left?” Yes, actually. I think there would be. How many kids really come out here, braving a week of backpacking food, no cell phones, and sleeping on the ground? Not very many. 

We’d allowed them these small concessions, a rock here, a branch there, because it’s their first time on a trip like this and who are we to deny them these small pleasures?! In this land of granite, will a few small “dinosaur egg” river stones really make a difference? If they’re willing to carry the rocks as pack weight, more power to ‘em. 

And yet, Laughs completely owns up to her mistakes, with zero prodding from us. The goodness and kindness and humor and open-mindedness shines out of these young humans. I am so grateful to them. I can’t imagine spending this trip with a better group of explorers. 

Another principle of LNT mentions depositing solid waste away from water, trails, or camp. MJ asks earnestly, “What about pee?” and we all laugh. No, she urges firmly. “Realtalk.” More laughs, more memories. 

The amount of time you spend in the backcountry talking about farts or poop or weird socially unacceptable stuff grows exponentially each day, and the girls have just rolled with it. They’ve been so game for everything this whole trip. My awe increases by the day.

Around 2am, I wake sweaty and needing to pee. After extricating myself from my bag and finally getting myself back into it, it starts to rain. Just a light sprinkle, but I’m a little nervous. I’m cowboy camping and want answers: will it keep raining? We’re not supposed to have summer rain in the Sierras. It's dark, I can’t see the clouds, so I can’t read them for clues as we’ve been learning. 

The sprinkles stop after two quick minutes, but the lightning starts. At first I think my eyes are playing tricks on me. Weird faint flashes of light in the dark. Nope. Real lightning, I eventually discern. Shit. But no thunder. Okay, that’s better. That means it’s far away. Right? We’ve been doing a few lightning lessons with MJ and Laughs, so the dangers of lightning and strikes hang in my mind more than usual. 

I get back out of my bag and stand around, in case I need to move quickly. 

The pitter patter of rain on her tent has woken BadAss, and she sees the red glow of my headlamp hanging in the dark. She walks over to make sure I’m okay, and it’s like a parent coming to check on you after a nightmare. My heart surges with gratitude. It’s so nice to not be all alone out here, to know there are other humans who can help you and look out for you. Backpacking with other people lifts a weight from my shoulders I didn’t know I was carrying. I didn’t realize how much pressure I put on myself when I camp and backpack solo: You, and you alone, are responsible for your safety and wellbeing. You must be prepared. You must be vigilant. 

We both decide the lightning isn’t a big deal and go back to bed, but shortly after I fall asleep, a deer noses too close to my groundcloth, my little island in the forest, and I have to scare it off. The deer is after the salt in my urine. Dammit. I knew I shouldn’t have peed that close to my camp, but I didn’t want to wander in the dark. After a few more minutes or maybe an hour or maybe infinity, enough time for me to fall back asleep, there is more rain, a little harder now. I give up on cowboy camping and crawl inside the tent with Cherub. It stops raining as soon as I’m settled in the tent. No water falls from the sky for the rest of the night.

Of course. Oh well. So it goes. 

 Lunch views.

Lunch views.

Day 4: La Capitana, or Summit Day, or Women Power

July 22, 2017
El Capitan
Mileage: 7.46
Elevation Gain/Loss: +1,731' / -1,748'

Today is the day. We’re going to summit. We’re going to bag a peak. We’re going to do it. 

We will be strong. We will be powerful. We are the Amazons. 

A few weeks before the trip, we did an introductory, get-to-know-these-people-you'll-spend-a-week-with, test-out-carrying-a-backpack-and-walking hike in Oakland. It was my first taste of Laughs' silliness and the incredible creativity of thirteen-year-olds who haven’t shut themselves down. Over lunch, we discussed the awesome empowering conversations happening around the Wonder Woman movie, and Laughs dubbed us the Amazons. A group of women hiking through an unknown world. We are Wonder Women. 

From the first day of the trip, Laughs reminds us of this. She dubs us the Amazons, and the group name grows from there. The Amazons. The Amazon Wonder Women. The Amazon Wonder Women of BCM. The Amazon Wonder Women of BCM of Yosemite. 

During that same introductory hike, a group of mountain bikers rode by us, shouting “gnash the tread” or some other mountain biker-y slang to each other. Laughs immediately wanted to know some backpacking slang. The first thing that came to mind, even though it's not limited just to backpackers, was bagging peaks.  

Peak Bagging: verb; present: bag; past tense: bagged

  1. To climb a mountain or other tall point and reach the summit, thereby putting it “in the bag”
    1. “We’re going to bag that peak today” 

Peak Baggers: noun

  1. Those who climb tall mountains or peaks in an attempt to reach the summit
    1. “A renowned peak bagger” 

The phrase becomes an integral part of our trip, woven into our group lexicon. 
“We bagged that hill.” 
“That trail is in the bag!” 

Today, we’re going to bag El Capitan. Or at least attempt to. 

 Half Dome in all its glory.

Half Dome in all its glory.

We move a bit slower in the morning than expected, so we set a “turn-around time” just in case, teaching MJ and Laughs and reminding ourselves that no peak is worth one’s life. We briefly touch on lightning and electrical storms, since we’ll be on top of a large, exposed granite slab in the sky. We weave peak bagging into the lesson, blowing the girls’ minds when we tell them that bagging alpine peaks is a sport, an obsession, that people get up in the wee hours of the morning to summit 14’ers in places like Colorado. We tell them if we were in Colorado, where Cherub is from, we’d never be setting out for a summit at the leisurely hour of 10am, because we’d be “shut down” by weather and stranded on unsafe spots on the mountain. 

I’m not sure if these girls have ever left the state, other than MJ who visited Mexico when she was a baby and doesn’t count it since she can’t remember it, so we try to frame our conversations and lessons in terms they can relate to.

Cherub is from Colorado, that makes it Real.
She and BadAss have both woken at 3, 4, or 5am to bag peaks, so that’s also Real.
BadAss lived in Colorado and saw summer electrical storms roll in every day around 2pm. Real Real Real.
She knows mountaineers who’ve been shut down by weather, hunkered down in shallow caves on a mountainside, and narrowly avoided splash lightning strikes. Real. 

Living in the Bay Area, it’s hard for us to remember what Real Weather is. We have fog and summer. Sunshine and weird snow-not-snow clouds. The “Storm of the Century” is really just some rain. The girls have never lived anywhere else, so they see thunder and lightning maybe once a year. We try to convey the eerie feelings of Real Weather, of a green sky, of huge thunderclouds looming on the horizon, of driving into pure black clouds, without terrifying them. Even in this part of the Sierras, weather doesn’t happen like it should. Clouds that portend rain in normal mountain ranges form in the Sierra but dissipate without ever dropping rain. Fitting that even California's mountains get special land-of-palm-trees-and-sunshine treatment. 

MJ and Laughs struggle to conceptualize being on top of the huge granite wall that is El Cap, and to be honest it's hard for me too. We gawked at it from the Valley floor a few days ago. We swapped stories of Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, and others climbing the wall in huge feats of strength, endurance, and mind power. But still, I can’t imagine what the summit is like. Isn’t it just a tiny point, a knife’s edge, a rock barely big enough for two to stand on? 

 Cherub and her honey during our snack break. Her other trail name is Baloo, of  Jungle Book  fame. 

Cherub and her honey during our snack break. Her other trail name is Baloo, of Jungle Book fame. 

On the trail, a 300-meter climb hits us in the face immediately. BAM. Switchbacks, sucking for air. Laughs and MJ are so strong, probably stronger than us, physically, but hills really seem to beat them down. Another quirk of Bay Area children. There are no hills in Oakland or the eastern suburbs. If you want to climb a hill, find topography, you must seek it out - something these girls don’t have the time or resources to do. They've also never lived anywhere but sea level. The altitude in the Bay Area is anywhere from 20 feet to a few hundred feet above sea level. A joke to anyone who has lived away from the coast. Now we’re at 7,500 feet. The thought that air here might have less oxygen blows their minds, but they can feel it. 

Today we don’t have full packs, just day supplies, which helps. We feel lighter and stronger. Aside from the hills, we are fast. We take a leisurely snack break at the top of the second hill, a trail junction for three different paths, and see more people than we’ve seen all week. It’s blinding. So many voices. So many people to talk to. 

Laughs and MJ take turns anxiously asking us if there are more hills to climb. Last night and again this morning, we pored over the topo map with them, pointing out switchbacks that signified a steep climb and reading the contour lines to predict overall ascents and descents. Despite the preparation, they seem terrified of hills. It will be the most common question of the trip: “Are there more uphills?” They want us to peer into our magic crystal balls and portend the grade of trail ahead. I feel for them, and am both touched and worried they think we have this all-knowing, omniscient power. 

 MJ, Laughs, and BadAss scouting the way. Photo by Cherub. 

MJ, Laughs, and BadAss scouting the way. Photo by Cherub. 

But, we are done with the uphills, at least for now. We’re traversing the face of a sloping granite mound, the type of terrain where a trail gets lost and everything looks the same. The hills, the obvious obstacles, are gone, yet the trail still finds a way to challenge. MJ, our leader of the day, turns hesitant. Which way is the right way? Oh climbing, hiking, being outside. So many metaphors for life, all. 

Then the hard parts are done or far away, so we play. Cherub finds a giant pinecone on the ground, the largest I’ve ever seen, and brands it our Wonder Woman sword. 

 Cherub and our Wonder Woman sword. 

Cherub and our Wonder Woman sword. 

Suddenly we’re on the flat granite tabletop that is El Capitan and I have to peeeeee. Bad. But it’s so flat up here. I can’t find anywhere to hide. Trees bent from years of wind, but they're too far off the path and too close to the edge. I’m a scaredy cat when it comes to heights and edges. Maybe I can squat behind these small manzanita bushes, cousins to the beautiful smooth madrone tree. I try to shout to the group that I’m stopping to pee, but they’re either too far away to hear me or don’t care or I can’t make my voice loud enough. All of these options make me momentarily mad, mad that my absence isn’t immediately noticed or that my voice or personality isn’t big enough. Then I get over myself and pee and I immediately feel better.

We eat a windy lunch, which feels oh so glorious after the dead heat of our climb. One of our plastic bags goes skittering dangerously close to the edge of the granite, and we all almost run after it but then catch ourselves, instinctively shying away from a 3,000 foot drop down down down, and BadAss is the voice of reason and tells us all to sit down and calmly walks over and steps on the bag so she can pocket it up a few feet from the edge. I morbidly envision a headline: LNT Principals Taken Too Far, 3 Hikers Fall Off El Cap. A plastic bag, while a travesty, is not worth our lives, I remind myself. 

The students rename El Capitan La Capitana, to make it feminine, because why should guys get to have all the fun? Who says women can't be captains? Why shouldn't a massive rock face be female?

Somehow we waste an hour or so on the summit, playing and taking pictures and exploring and climbing over things and feeling the wind in our faces. Right before we leave, the girls begin to spell out WOMEN POWER in rocks, and it makes my heart feel so happy and full. MJ and Laughs have fully embraced femaleness, strength, wisdom, tenacity. We all join in, gathering rocks and forming the letters. It looks beautiful on camera, with Half Dome in the background, and I want to snap endless pictures here.

Once it’s time to go, BadAss picks up a piece from our rock-word and throws it behind her. She does this before she explains that we need to scatter the rocks in order to Leave No Trace. MJ has a look of complete and utter betrayal on her face that is priceless. Why is our fearless leader destroying her wonderful badass female creation? So we all join in, throwing rocks away from ourselves, and then it is time to go go go, back the way we came, down the uphills and up the downhills. Oh, the wilderness.

We get back to our home sweet home and burst in the non-existent front door and race to the creek just in time to catch the last of the warm afternoon light. We replay the scene from yesterday, dunking ourselves under the water, washing ourselves, shivering and then sunning ourselves dry, until we’re too hungry and trudge back up the hill to make dinner. 

Food tastes so delicious when you’ve hiked miles for it, and I delight in dinner every single time this trip. I’m impressed that throwing together random freeze-dried ingredients can taste this good. I just need to work on my portion sizes. Tonight’s dinner is a quart freezer bag more than half full - and that’s before I hydrate it. BadAss calls me on it, asking “Are you really able to eat all that?”, but I don’t think much of it and add hot water to the bag exactly how it is. Once I go to check on my food and stir it around, I realize just how BIG this dinner is. It’s swelled to take up all the space in the quart size bag. This is real, heavy food like chicken and rice and vegetables, not just chips. Still, it’s so good. As we sit in the blackened dirt around the old fire pit that is our living room, I think I’ll just eat half and pull a “gnar points” move and eat the leftovers for breakfast. But it’s too good. I can't stop. The spices make my lips tingle and leave my tongue craving more food, even though my stomach is already full. After a breathing break, I end up finishing the rest of the bag. I am truly, uncomfortably, full. 

We pour over maps, as we’re wont to do, going over the options and plans for tomorrow. We spend a long time making plans, but come away confident than we can either summit North Dome and camp near there, or hike a bit further up a different trail to give ourselves an easier time the next day. 

It will all be for naught. 

 Photo by BadAss.

Photo by BadAss.

 Photo by Cherub.

Photo by Cherub.

 Walking into the sunset (summit).

Walking into the sunset (summit).

 'Nuff said. 

'Nuff said. 

 Our creek. 

Our creek. 

Day 3: Cold Creeks and Rocket Ships

July 21, 2017
Misc. campsite along Yosemite Creek tributary to original site on Yosemite Creek
Mileage: 3.59
Elevation Gain/Loss: +281' / -641'

After waking up at dawn and ensuring that no bear bears had gotten our food, I decide I'm up for the count and begin our new daily routine.

Life is so simple here: Wake up, get water, boil water, make coffee, sip coffee, let your body and mind warm up with the sun, wake up the girls, serve breakfast, clean up breakfast, pack up camp, stretch, walk all day, take breaks when you're tired or hungry, find a camp spot, set up camp, cook dinner, clean up, look at the stars, make a plan for tomorrow, go to bed. Repeat. 

We've traded in the stress of bills and busy schedules for the constant mindfullness the wilderness requires. As living breathing humans, the thing we must be most mindful of is water.

 A buck stares me in the face during my morning Nature Break.

A buck stares me in the face during my morning Nature Break.

I love the act of gathering water—at least in Sierra country, during wet years, where water is plentiful and flowing. I love knowing where my water comes from. I can see and touch the creeks we gather from (even if I can't see the true true source) rather than water flowing mindlessly out of a tap. I love being able to see if the water has floaties, if it has those weird oily films on top I can't figure out, or if it's silty at the bottom. I love being able to feel if it's ice cold or heated by sun-warmed rocks. I'm grateful to have abundant water, to be cognizant this is a task generally left to women in the developing world, something they spend backbreaking hours gathering and carting back to their homes or villages, and to be spared that burden. 

After breakfast, Laughs and I gather water at the creek one last time. We are the "watermasters" today. We sit on a flat rock in the middle of the creek, letting our hands go numb as they hold bottles beneath the water and the creek's flow replaces air with water. I bask in Laugh's creativity, letting it drive my own.

Short ferns surround us, bright green in the early light...

Doesn't this look like Jurrasic Park? 
Couldn't you imagine a T-Rex crashing through the ferns over there, trees aswaying?
What's your favorite dinosaur? 
A pterodactyl. 

I show her the crazy pterodactyl impression my friend Caitlyn taught me to make in high school. 

"It's so beautiful here."
 "It's so beautiful here," she repeats. 

I love these moments. Letting a kid's guard unfurl, seeing what happens when they have a moment to sit and soak it all in. 

 Laughs teaches us about the whirls, swirls, and patterns of our fingertips. 

Laughs teaches us about the whirls, swirls, and patterns of our fingertips. 

Today's hike is hard for me, even though it's supposed to be easy. The trail is simply flat, along Yosemite Creek as it roars through granite drainages and mellows out into a gentle flow once again. No crazy ups or downs, but still I'm dying, lagging behind the group, slowing them down and sapping their mental energy. I know I'm dragging down everyone, including myself, but I can't snap out of it. Last night's fitful sleep must have really gotten to me. 

 The granite pools of Yosemite Creek. 

The granite pools of Yosemite Creek. 

I've been reading Carrott Quinn's book about doing the PCT in 2013, Thru-Hiking will Break Your Heart. I was surprised how fast I fell in love with her book, and it's the one thing I miss from home while I'm on the trail. Today's landscape helps me visualize what she's talking about when she describes the perfect swimming holes of the Sierras: water flowing from granite pool to granite pool, beautiful bathtubs made of stone. 

In the afternoon we stop near the creek and I gather water, bumming instant coffee off Cherub in hopes of picking myself up with a caffeine boost. I'm crushed when I realize I must wait 30 minutes for the iodine treatment. Dammit. The alternative is filtering my water right here, but it's too complicated to fish out my water bladder from my stuffed pack and unclip my filter from where it hangs in-line. I give up and just wait. 

This is another thing the trail demands of you - waiting. There are no "hacks" or gimmicks out here, no twenty-first-century inventions to make life easier. We walk and work and eat at the pace of nature, the pace of pre-industrial humans. 

Before the iodine timer is even done, we're at our campsite, an awesome granite dome with a scattering of trees and blow downs. Another group is there, trying to claim the whole dome for themselves, but BadAss fights them off like a momma bear, pushing them to pick one side of the dome and let us camp on the other half. 

We never stopped for lunch, so we're all hungry and hot and tired. BadAss apologizes to me for how she talked to the squatter group, which cracks me up. I don't give a rat's ass. We're a family out here and we protect each other and stand up for each other and don't let anyone mansplain that this giant clearing in the wilderness isn't big enough for a group of 8 people and a group of 5. 

Dust dust everywhere. Our side of the mound is damn dusty. Hecka dusty, according to the MJ and Laughs. I secretly love that someone along the way trained them not to say "hella", lest they curse despite their birthright as Oakland residents to say the word. 

Two or three ancient, huge downed trees separate our half of the mound into cozy quadrants, all the proper distance away from our kitchen. They will be the perfect sleeping area. We each pick a quadrant, letting the blowdowns provide a bedroom for each of us, a semblance of privacy. As humans, we're constantly doing this: separating the big wide world into rooms, as if all the world was our house. Over there is the kitchen, here on some logs is our sitting room, this is my bedroom, the creek our backyard. 

I want to cowboy camp tonight, but also don't want to offend Cherub, accidentally suggesting "I don't want to share a tent with you tonight". I wait, thinking I'll set up my sleep stuff later. 

We bushwhack down to the creek, and it is glorious. We pass a ponderosa pine that has lost its top half, bark chips scattered around the base like debris left on a launch pad. We dub it The Rocket Ship. 

The water is coooold, brr brr, and the sun has already started to slink down the sky. It will dip beyond the trees in the next hour or so, but we don't care. We are so dusty from flopping ourselves in the dirt during lunch. When we met Catch Em at the backpackers' campground yesterday morning, he said we looked like PCT hikers (probably the highest compliment I've received while backpacking - my ego inflated) except we were too clean. If only he could see us now. We were officially dirty. 

All this dirt means we will submerge ourselves in the hip-deep water, shrieking and clenching teeth against the cold. We will take bandanas and scrub the caked dirt from our calves, splash icy liquid cupped in hands, over faces and necks and arms. I will attempt to wash my shorts as I'm still wearing them, flapping the material under the water and swishing them around. Toes grip sandy patches amongst the smooth granite boulders. We give the current in the middle of the creek a wide berth. 

A few guys set up camp across the creek, stringing a complicated layer of hammocks over each other. Where will they poop? Or sleep? Hemmed in between the creek and another granite mound, they surely can't get 100 Leave-No-Trace-yards away from the water. Oh, bro bros. 

Laughs and MJ wave at the guys and squeal with delight when one waves back and shouts hello. I'm in awe of the way they're easily entertained. On the first day, we stopped on a rural highway for a "nature break" (as the girls have taken to calling peeing/pooping in the woods), and they delighted in waving out the window to cars going by, similarly squealing and cheering each time they got a wave of acknowledgment. 

Time seems suspended here, away from technology and any real responsibilities beyond surviving.

How can responsibilities be more real than that, anyway? 

We wash ourselves in the creek until we can't stand the cold, then scramble up the slick rocks, out of wet shirts, into down jackets, leaving our clothes to dry on sun-warmed granite and lying down on a trio of flat rocks to bask in the last of the sun's rays. 

Later, the broken-off branches of the blowdowns in our bedrooms will form the perfect hangers for our half-dry clothes. A magical backcountry closet that I will long for once we leave this campsite.

 Backcountry closet at its finest. 

Backcountry closet at its finest. 

Laughs dubs her rock The Ariel Rock, mermaid-ing herself in imitation of the movie's iconic rock-singing scene. 

My awe of them is constant. That Disney movies are still appealing to 13-year old girls, that they haven't gotten too old for them or started to pretend they don't like them, in favor of more scandalous movies. That they get along with each other so perfectly, with patience and kindness and humor, and I hope for their sakes that this is the beginning of a long, meaningful friendship. That they can entertain themselves in the creek for hours, with no complaints of "I'm bored" or "what can I do now?"

Throughout the trip, MJ and Laughs are gracious, accepting, composed. Wise beyond their years. They bear burdens with little complaining and push themselves beyond what they thought themselves capable. Perhaps it helps that neither one owns a phone, but not once do I overhear them pine for texting or Instagram or YouTube videos. Not even TV or music. The girls seem to transition seamlessly to the backcountry. Are they simply used to going without? Are they in awe of what they're experiencing? I still don't know. 

Despite not speaking English at home, their English is better than my Spanish, and they're half my age. I've had double their lifetimes to practice. Rarely do they not know what an English word means.

I begin to recognize the verbal crutch Laughs uses when she can't remember an English word, stalling for time as her brain translates and strings together words. What I thought was a product of Valley Girl talk or immaturity has a purpose and I empathize, while also chastising myself for wanting a child to talk in the way I think they should talk. By the end of the week, I don't even notice it. 

Once everyone is cold and tired and hungry, we wish the creek goodnight and trudge back up the hill to camp. Slightly less bushwhacking this time. 

Earlier, during lunch, Cherub took on the monumental task of rearranging and repackaging food to try and fit as much as possible in our bear cans. We don't want another fitful night spent with food hung from a tree, especially after seeing a pair of Rangers armed with bear-scare air soft guns earlier in the day. There must be bear sightings around here recently. 

Miraculously, Cherub fit everything into the cans. In a genius move, she cut the excess plastic off our big group food bags. This frees us to eat whatever we want for dinner tonight, not constrained to the meal with the most ingredients to use up and make space. 

Prior to the trip, I pre-packaged breakfasts and dinners for myself using freeze dried ingredients ordered off Amazon. I threw together potato flakes and spices, rice and vegetables, all topped with a hearty portion of dried butter and chicken. I'm pleasantly surprised by how delicious, filling, and comforting my meals are. 

 Laughs cracks us up by wearing her 'Neo' glasses at night.

Laughs cracks us up by wearing her 'Neo' glasses at night.

We eat and eat. Eventually night falls and we migrate to our couches, logs around a charred fire pit. We look at the sky, trading sketchy bits of information about constellations we vaguely remember. There is no google out here. We go off of facts or figures someone has tucked away in a long-forgotten corner of their brain. I wouldn't be surprised if at least a quarter of what we talk about in the backcountry is made up or wrong. We are all wafting between educator and bullshitter. 

We begin to catch glimpses of shooting stars, two or three of us seeing the same one and oohing in awe while the others whip their heads around and miss it just barely. At a magical moment, four of us happen to see a big shooting star, probably a meteor, pass lazily across a low corner of the sky. It's moving slowly enough that BadAss has time to turn around and see it too. It is cartoon-ish in its perfectness, a bright orange glow followed by two parallel streaking trails of light. Just like in the cartoons. We bask in the wonder of this sighting: all of us sharing a common corner of the universe for a second or two. 

Immediately, Laughs wants to see another. For the rest of the trip, she'll clamor at the sky to get dark, beg the sun to set so we can try to see another shooting star like this one. 

This is one of those moments we'll play over and over until it becomes a well-worn stone in our minds. 

After the girls go to their tent, we take a few minutes to have “adult meetings”, which isn’t really necessary since we’ve been together all-day every-day for three days now, but we oblige and do it anyways. 

Tomorrow is our “Summit Day”, a challenge day the girls have picked out for themselves. We’ve been working towards this, and it will be a highlight of the trip, a feat of accomplishment. 

We’re going to bag El Cap. 

 One of the huge downed trees around camp.

One of the huge downed trees around camp.

Day 2: The Edge of the World

July 20, 2017
Yosemite Backpacker’s Camp to Misc. Campsite along tributary of Yosemite Creek
Mileage: 4.16
Elevation Gain/Loss: +529'/-861'

The adults wake early. Fueled by coffee, we attempt to sort through the group food so we don't have to carry all of it. BCM gave us food for 7 people, already reduced from the standard 10x, but we only have 5 humans on our expedition and two of us are gluten free, myself included. I've packed all my own meals, attempting to adhere to my anti-inflammatory diet as best I can in the wilderness. Not only am I not going to help eat any group food, I’m bringing along additional food. This spells trouble.

In Yosemite, we're required to fit all food and "smellables" (anything that may smell like food to a bear, from toothpaste to face wipes) in a bear canister. Bear canisters are hard plastic drums that seal with a special lid only humans can open. The idea is even if a bear can smell your food, they won't be able to get at it and eat it for a "calorie reward". Calorie rewards are what train bears to see humans as food sources and to start pestering hiker campsites. Each person gets a bear can. You must carry this bulky plastic drum with you everywhere you go.

As it is, there's no way we'll be able to fit food for 7 people in only 5 bear cans, hence the early morning sorting party. We throw un-needed food into bags and bins we'll leave in the permanent bear boxes at the trailhead later. Once we have a "keep" pile that looks reasonable, we start setting up breakfast. We don't do a test run with the bear cans, but it looks fine, right? 

We establish what will become our morning routine: Wake early, boil water, sip coffee as the day warms and the sun rises above the trees, take a few minutes for ourselves, then wake the girls and let them build experimental breakfasts using the oatmeal and toppings we’ve laid out.

After breakfast, BadAss gives lessons on how to pack a backpack with a bear can. Heads up: They're a pain in the ass.

Here's how it goes: Clothes or sleeping bag stuffed at the bottom of your pack, protected in a waterproof sack (aka trash bag pack-liner), ready to cushion the bear can. Bear can slides in upright if you have a small 55L pack like mine, or sideways if you have a larger 70L pack like the rest of the group. Your tent is not packed in its manufacturer-issue sack, like my type-A personality prefers, but is hand-stuffed around the bear can, filling the loose space around the outer edges in the torso of your pack. Sleeping pad, if it’s a foam pad, is rolled and strapped to the outside of your pack, cushioning the tent poles that are wrapped up inside it. Or, an inflatable pad like mine is flattened, all the air squished out of it, then curled around the bear can, filling any remaining space along the outer edges that the tent didn’t take up. On top, easily accessible for lunch and setting up camp, is your food sack, your stove, a raincoat if necessary, and misc. smellables that need to be set aside with the food when we get to camp. Emergency and must-not-lose-this items go into the brain. 

Such is life in bear country. 

I also pick up a handy acronym, the ABCs of Backpacking:

A - Accessibility Is what you need easy to get to in your pack?
B - Balance Is your pack balanced, left-to-right, and with the heaviest items close to your spine/center of gravity?
C - Compression Are things exploding/falling off your pack, do items shift around as you move?

Laughs and MJ are such fast learners. We will only have to show them how to set up/take down a tent and pack a backpack once. They won't ask more than one or two questions about it the rest of the trip. This morning, on the first try, their packs look awesome. Naturals! 

 Laughs and MJ help each other pack up. Photo by Cherub. 

Laughs and MJ help each other pack up. Photo by Cherub. 

After a soon-to-become-routine camp sweep, we Sherpa our gear back to the car, load up, and are on the road. On the road again! I drive again, sticking to my responsible-adult comfort zone.

The day had dawned clear, a welcome relief from the smoke of last night. We could finally see the granite walls we'd camped beneath! A ranger told us the smoke seems to blow in during mid-afternoon, then settle in the valleys and low spots as the day ends, and we will find this to be true. Taking advantage of the good air, we stop to look at El Capitan and Yosemite Falls.

Shockingly, this is my first good look at El Cap. I've been to the Valley before, once, on a rushed how-did-we-manage-that day trip, and somehow never really looked at this massive giant rising from the earth. It shoots up up up. We hurt our necks looking at it. I get nauseous, thinking of Alex Honnold climbing this impossible skyscraper of granite with no ropes, no life-support. 

We describe to the girls how we’ll hike all the way to the top of El Cap and cross over the falls after following Yosemite Creek for a few days. Understandably, the girls are a bit confused how we’ll get on top of a 3,000-foot vertical wall and cross a thundering waterfall, all with full packs, without killing ourselves. It is hard for me to comprehend, too.

 We are warriors. Photo by Cherub. 

We are warriors. Photo by Cherub. 

As we drive out of the valley and follow Tioga Road, I realize this will be my first experience of the “true” Yosemite. My first glimpse of anything outside the crowd-choked valley. The first real chunk of time I’ll spend in the park.

Before leaving the backpacker’s camp this morning, we met Ketchum/Catch Em, a PCT hiker. Amazingly, his real name is also his trail name. A wonderful play on words. He'd hitch hiked down into the valley from Tuolumne Meadows, spent the night after being unable to hitch back, and was half-heartedly packing his stuff up to try and hitch back again. He stopped every few minutes to come talk to us. 

This time of year, for the past few years, I get hiker fever. I obsessively dive into PCT hiker blogs and Instagrams, living vicariously as they walk the blistering Los Angeles Aqueduct, reach Kennedy Meadows, summit Forester Pass. I nod along as they struggle through a historic high-snow year in the Sierras, in awe of those who persevered through the entire range with ice axe and crampons. It was awesome to meet a real live PCT hiker, and the beginning of many PCT mentions this trip. By the end of the week, the PCT desire I've flirted with ever since reading Wild in 2013 will be burning strong. 

 Dabbing El Cap. Photo by BadAss. 

Dabbing El Cap. Photo by BadAss. 

We descend on Crane Flat gas station for our last gasp of real bathrooms, real coffee, “real” everything, for the next week. Random snacks here, going into/coming out of the backcountry, will be the only money I spend all week. Less than $10 total. A welcome escape from the consumerist cycles of capitalism I find myself trapped within in San Francisco.

We were supposed to drive to and camp at Yosemite Creek Campground last night, but since it's still closed, we're forced to start our trek at the Yosemite Creek trailhead along Tioga Road. This adds about 1.5 miles to our hike. Not usually a big deal, but a definite hurdle when helping two 13-year-old girls do their first-ever day of backpacking.

I never knew bears would attack cars with food in them. Most parks even encourage you to leave food in hard-sided vehicles. In Sequoia & King's Canyon, parks just south of Yosemite, they only caution not to leave food in plain sight. Are Yosemite bears extra humanized? Or are humans extra dumb here? The thought of coming back to a car shattered and flattened by a hungry bear is terrifying.

We scour the car like mad people, looking for any food, wrappers, trash, or smellables we're leaving behind, then dump them all in plastic storage bins we're leaving in the bear boxes at the trailhead. Thankfully, people seem to be their best selves in national parks. Is this because national parks only attract a certain type of people? Or because we transform as soon as we cross over the park boundary? Whatever the reason, no one steals. No one will take the items we leave unattended for a week. 

Not 15 minutes into our hike, we come to a creek crossing. Not just any creek crossing. A waist-deep crossing through frigid snow melt. We're in one of my favorite childhood books, We're Going on a Bear Hunt.

"We can't go under it, we can't go over it, we can't go around it, gotta go through it!"


We have no choice, we gotta go through it. BadAss tells a gnarly story from a past life about slipping and slicing a 4-inch deep gash in the soft part of her hamstring while using a downed log to cross a gully. This confirms: we need to suck it up and cross the creek. No log-balancing shortcuts.

BadAss is the only one of us hiking in pants. She strips down to her skivvies, not wanting the cold or the chafe that comes with hiking in wet pants. A few days from now, we will discuss a documentary in which silly skiers play a real-life video game called Gnar and try to collect "gnar points". The girls will retroactively give her "total gnar points" for doing this creek crossing in her undies. 

MJ, Laughs, and I change into water shoes, while BadAss and Cherub keep their boots on to cross. I am so squeamish about wet feet/shoes. You'd think years of cross country and running in soggy, muddy fields would have cured me of this, but it only deepened my hatred of wet squishy feet. I despise the oozing of unseen liquid around my toes, the way it soaks my socks, gets stuck in my waterproof boots, refuses to drain, and creates a puddle-y water (foot)bed.

At the end of the trip, in our last half mile of trail, there will be another creek crossing. I’ll do it in my boots and immediately regret it. Writing this, days after the fact, I still won't be sure if my boots have dried. I'll also realize I've left them on my porch to dry for days on end. Whoops.

 The creek crossing of my dreams. Photo by Cherub. 

The creek crossing of my dreams. Photo by Cherub. 

Crossing this first creek feels shockingly good. Like a giant ice bath. Brought to you by: Nature, in partnership with La Niña. I didn’t realize how hot it was or how warm I’d already gotten.

For the rest of the trip, I will pine for the feeling of this creek crossing. The sharp sting as the water touches the sensitive skin on my stomach, the soothing coolness on my leg and hip sore from driving, the delicious numbness that sets in on my toes and feet. I will daydream I can cross this creek over and over, plunging in whenever I’m hot and sweaty and tired from the trail. We will see dozens of creeks, and even dunk ourselves in icy granite pools near one epic campsite, but something about this creek crossing is unique. We don't have a choice whether or not to cross it. We have to ford it if we want to continue on the trail. We also want to stay semi-dry this time, which means our upper bodies are toasty in the afternoon sun and warm air while our lower halves are wading through the crisp water. 

A metaphor for life, really: You don’t have a choice about which obstacles you encounter, but face them and you may find surprising joy in the overcoming.

Up until this creek crossing, we leapfrog a young girl and her grandfather on the trail. About 7, she is literally bursting with energy, hopping and skipping down the trail, running ahead then circling back, bubbling over with questions.

Who are you guys?
Who is the woman at the front leading you?
My grandmother got mad and didn't come on this hike. I picked this flower for her!
Where are you going?
Is your group only girls? 
You look very fashionable, I like your outfit. 

Seeing ourselves through her eyes, my heart overflows. A literal swelling of pride and happiness throughout my body. We are living breathing examples, walking down the path right in front over her, of “Women Power”, of striking out and doing something people tell you isn’t possible or a good idea, of being strong and forming a community together. Talking to this young girl helps me realize that despite our small group, our mere presence has an impact. Our positive impact isn’t limited to the 5 people of our group. We can positively impact the lives of every path we cross. 

As we're drying ourselves off and shoveling snacks, safe on the opposite side of the creek, a group approaches from farther down the trail. Two women and a guy, all curious about the creek crossing. We tell them the water was a bit past our waists, and BadAss warns them against crossing on downed logs, lest they slip and fall. The women take our advice and begin to scout a crossing route, but the guy insists, in typical guy fashion (sorry bro bros!), on walking across the logs. A few minutes later, his friends call out: “We found a crossing point!" He responds with a sassy, frustrated “I’m crossing it!”, with a high-pitched emphasis on the “it”, sending us all into unstoppable peals of laughter. The backpacking giggles have begun. 

While gasping for breath between laughs, I'm reminded this is the biggest group I've ever backpacked with, and nothing like the brutality I endured with strangers for snow camping.

I usually adventure solo, purely due to impatience. I hate waiting for people to get their lives together and align plans. To me, it represents too many years of wasted time, missed opportunities. Most people I know who express a desire to go on a backpacking/camping trip never actually go. Years ago, after a few months of living in NY, I realized I was sitting around in a cramped, dingy, pseudo-dorm room, waiting for others to be available and do things with me, while the entire city twisted into the night outside my window. I started doing things solo. The first time eating at a restaurant alone was scary, no doubt, but aloneness is a muscle you exercise and strengthen. There are too many adventures I want to have in this life. I can't sit around and wait for people! 

Solo trips are tranquil and soul-searching and healing, but usually don’t involve too many side-splitting peals of laughter. It’s damn rare for you or someone you encounter briefly on the trail to make you laugh hard, plain and simple. This euphoric joy is a new, unexpected element of backpacking. 

The rest of the afternoon proceeds slowly, with MJ and Laughs understandably adjusting to hiking and new boots and carrying heavy packs for the first time. Every ten minutes, we stop, adjust packs, shift weight, do our best. At one point, BadAss looks them in the eye and says gently, "It's going to be uncomfortable." I'm finally forced to accept that I can't take away their discomfort. We’ve taken as much weight from the girls as possible, not wanting to damage still-growing bodies, but I realize I can't shoulder their aches and pains for them. I'm staring my desire to heal and protect in the face, reckoning with it. No matter what, today is going to be slightly uncomfortable as we all adjust to the trail. I can't soothe it all away. Another apt metaphor for life. 

We take a long break for lunch, another thing I'm not used to. On solo trips, my Type A / slightly masochistic personality lends to pushing myself until I’m absolutely starved. I scarf snacks from my hip belt instead of taking off my pack, instead of realizing how sweaty my back is, instead of letting my muscles feel their tiredness. All that jazz. 

Around 5pm, we make it to a deserted car camping area. Ah ha. This is where we’d planned to sleep last night, before we realized it was closed. We do what will become rhythm on the trail: we walk. Obstacle in your way? Walk. Tired? Walk. Hungry? Eat, then walk some more. Out here, on our own power with no support but each other, there is no way out of a situation other than to walk.

Meandering down an asphalt road, I finally understand the hatred all thru-hikers have for road walks. After a soft, cushy trail, road walking is b-o-r-i-n-g and it HURTS! Feet under heavy packs do not like pavement. 

We pass eerily empty camping spots, picnic tables upturned against long-melted winter snow; a few blowdowns here and there, but no obvious damage. Have all the other humans been abducted by space monsters?  Why oh why is this campground closed? Are we the last survivors on earth, running from the cannibalistic marauders in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

A half-mile or so of road walking and we're back on the cushy trail. Praise! Oh glorious trail! Is it normal to love a trail this much so quickly? I see a lizard and stop to point it out to the girls, our first wildlife of the trip. This earns us "real talk" from BadAss, who is understandably worried about us making it to our campsite 4 miles away before dark. We’re moving at a snail’s pace, stopping every few minutes for water or snacks or self-induced distractions like lizards. I’ve completely lost track of what time it is, just as I did yesterday and will do for the whole trip. It will get dark in a few hours and we’ve got miles to go before we sleep. 

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep

The tone BadAss uses lights a fire under all of us, and for the next hour or so we hustle down the trail, trying to A) escape the mosquitos that attack us anytime we stop and B) figure out where the hell we’ll camp tonight. We’re moving fast, comparatively, but we definitely won’t make it to our goal 4x miles away. Even if we did, there probably wouldn’t be space for us at this late hour. 

Up, across, and over a big granite mound, the first climbing we’ve done all trip. Gaining elevation earns us our first real views on the trail, and the hazy smoke-air is a beautiful orange that filters the light of the lowering sun and makes us look all alone at the edge of the world. I snap pictures and long for a real camera, then do a 180 in my mind and doubt if I’m even good enough to take real pictures, smart enough to master a real camera, creative enough to make pictures that are actually good, not just pretty compared to the yuppie lattes and basic flower bouquets on Instagram. 

The trail meanders and skitters along the granite slabs, and I get my first real taste of trail-finding in a land of granite. When all the world is covered in rock, do you know where the trail is? 

 

Before we've even finished huffing and puffing over the top, we’re going down down down. Suddenly we're in a land of lush ferns. It smell of sage or wild mint, a delightfully refreshing scent compared to the smoke we’d grown accustomed to inhaling all day. BadAss goes ahead to scout the trail. We can hear a burbling creek - a sure sign of a good camping spot. 

A young boy about the same age as MJ and Laughs has just crossed the creek with his family and they're still hanging out on the opposite bank. He scampers back across and tries to point out a complicated route to use if we don’t want to get wet. After Brandon’s horror story, we’re all perfectly fine to cross without balancing on any logs, thank you. By this time, the second or third creek crossing of the day, the girls are old pros and cross in their boots, but my boots happen to also be my camp shoes. I don’t want to tramp around camp in sodden boots so I jump from rock to rock, playing leap frog. 

This creek will merge into Yosemite Creek in a mile or so, flow down down the drainage to meet with all its other tributary friends, then team up into the cheering, roaring, 2,425 foot Yosemite Falls we'll cross in a day or two. 

Just past the creek, at the edge of a burn from a year or two past, there is a wide gravely campsite. Its open arms welcome us with at least a dozen tent spots. Ahhh. This is our home for the night. The first of many auspicious happenings for the Amazon Women of BCM during this trip. The first of many things that will work out just fine, and appear when we need them, and happen for a reason. The trail provides. 

The boy and his family move on down the trail and we're left with the big spot to ourselves. We gather "wild" water for the first time, leading to the first of many wilderness lessons: how and where to fetch water, how to treat it, how not to end up with a gazillion tiny parasites in your gut.

Cherub and I are both gluten free. She mistakenly ate the group oats this morning, assuming they were GF. She crawls into our tent, gassy and disoriented. She won't reappear for the rest of the night. 

One adult down, BadAss and I are left to talk about poop. Hooray! It's time for the "pooping in the woods" lesson! Helping MJ and Laughs get over their understandable hesitancy of pooping in the woods is our key to a happy and successful trip. We need to make this sound like a great idea. We emphasize how much we love pooping out here, how clean and pretty it is, how freeing it is, how great that squatting position is for you. We don’t need expensive Squatty Potties, we have trowels and the woods! If one of them chooses not to poop in the woods this week, their only options are some nasty shit: fecal impact, dehydration, malnutrition, laxatives, etcetera. 

I learn a few things alongside the girls, like marking your cathole with an X of sticks after you’re all done, so no human comes along after you thinking, “this looks like a delightful poop spot,” digs and discovers a terrible surprise. Or the fact that hand sanitizer doesn’t remove fecal particles from our hands. Only water, soap, and scrubbing for 20+ seconds will do that. EW. I have been living a LIE. 

After dinner, BadAss and I stand around staring at our food stores, spread out in the dirt of our backcountry kitchen. Between our GF snacks, my homemade meals, and our smaller-than-usual group, we packed in WAY too much food. In bear country. No bueno. 

We cram as much into the bear cans as we can in the rapidly fading light, but all of our smellables are still out, as is my drybag full of snacks and lunches for the week. Bear hangs are illegal in the park, so we have two options: critter hangs (close to the tree trunk but off the ground, usually on a dead branch jutting out a foot from the tree) or leave it on the ground. We gamble with the bears and place our money on the critters. Vegas ain't got nothing on us. 

Bear behavior varies by area, and I've heard the bear population here are hang-trained but skittish of people and not aggressive....i.e., they'll shimmy up a tree and get your food in no time but won't attack you or go after your tent for food. Besides, this wasn't grizzly country, these are just little black bears. What could go wrong?

I was prepared to sleep with my extra food as a pillow, but BadAss insists I can't. Seeing a wilderness expert visibly worried about leaving food out and hearing her say "This had never happened before!" has me more on edge than I usually am. 

Normally, I'm at ease with bears and the wild things. I generally believe if you go into the woods with good intentions and a healthy respect for what could hurt or kill you, nature recognizes you're just visiting. Nature will take care of you. I feel that outside, things will be okay. I can't explain how or why I know this, other than that I just do. Living outside, we wrap ourselves in the big cozy blanket of the universe and surrender to it. The universe will do with us what it wants. Being outside reinforces this. If they wanted to, so many things could kill us humans out here, us ill-suited upright walkers. From the tiny parasites we can't even see, to the apex predators, to the dead trees waiting to fall...anything could snuff out our flame, and yet they don't. It's incredible. 

Instead, I absorb some of BadAss's anxiety tonight. Before bed, we're both spooked by a few deer. We realize we're camped in a very "deer-y" spot. Nothing like going pee a few yards from the edge of camp and seeing multiple pairs of eyes glowing back at you, frozen in the darkness. They don't scare until we yell at them harshly. 

Go on! Git! Be gone, deer!

I sleep fitfully, waking every few hours. Deer pace through our camp all night. Around dawn, I wake to the sound of tiny jaws crunching. Convinced it is a critter who's finally gotten into our food hangs, I burst out of the tent and stared intently at the tree across the way. Green food stuff sack still hanging? Check. Two grey bags of smellys still hanging? Check check. But those tiny jaws...? I look up. It's just a bird, breaking into a nut he's scavenged. 

Day 1: Fires & Drives

July 19, 2017
Richmond Storage Facility to Yosemite Backpacker’s Camp
Mileage: 0
Elevation Gain/Loss: N/A

Where to begin? How did it start?

For some reason, on this trip, the days blurred together. On my solo trips, or perhaps my Tetons + Wyoming trip specifically, every moment seemed etched in memory. Each day hung in my mind for weeks afterward.

Here, they didn't. I didn't journal on the trip, but then again I didn't for the Tetons either. I'll chalk it up to being focused on the girls and their experience, not worrying about pictures or what time it was or where to go next.

Hours slid into each other, noted only by the passage of the sun across the sky.

If I really, really focus and tell the story sequentially in my mind, I can remember what happened on the trip. It begins to come back. 

---

The day begins at home, early. Each day, in fact, would begin early. I'm already packed and ready to go. No last minute rushing around gathering small things. Lightweight backpacking (or at least the attempt) brings a simple organization to my trip. Bring only the bare minimum. There is no weight or space to spare for extraneous items.

We meet outside a BART station in Oakland. I will be coming face-to-face with the privilege that surrounds the outdoor community. I am a white woman with plenty of privilege. Our students, at least on this expedition, are Latina and come from historically underserved communities in East Oakland. They do not have the money or time or access needed to participate in the outdoor community, with it's specialized gear and fancy clothes and expensive investments.

The car is already packed, full of gear and people. Once inside, I see our students' fear, their hesitation, their nervousness at launching themselves into the unknown world of backpacking.

Valentín sits next to me, a veteran amongst novices. A male representative from the youth boxing organization our female students belong to, he's been on a BCM trip in the past and is coming back for more. It will be California's first alumni trip in years! He speaks of his time in the backcountry with fondness and provides a much-needed boost of confidence for our new students. 

Twisting around, I see Laughs (who I met on an introductory hike recently) and a friend calmly squashed amongst the gear overflowing from the trunk. Introducing myself, I meet MJ, the second young lady I'll be spending the coming week with. Already, I'm struck by their composure amongst chaos and lack of attitudes. 

As we drive, I'm consistently impressed by Valentín's maturity and ambition. He has a summer job, and responsibly opted to not take off any extra days for his group's day hike or prep day. He speaks articulately and thoughtfully, something most males my age can't manage, let alone 17-year-olds.

Hip joins the crowded car, in her flurry of white earnestness, eager to help and to not blatantly show any privilege. Listening to her talk on our adult conference call a few days prior was a comedy sketch waiting to be written - earnest white woman strives to work with inner-city kids and uses all of the "appropriate" words to distance herself from her privilege or oblivion or naivete. Words like “visibility” of “vulnerable” populations, the inequality "expressed" in San Francisco, and lots more I can't even remember.

I know she means well, but do we really have to use all these words in order to work with kids? Is wanting to get kids outside no longer enough? 

I liked Hip during the in-person training we did a few weeks ago, but hearing her on our conference call wore me out. Could I really handle a week of her earnest white hip-ness, septum ring dangling from her nose?

In a few hours, I'll learn that she was reassigned to a different expedition at the last minute, and it will secretly be a relief.

Gear and people explode out of the over-stuffed car at the storage facility where we'll get our things organized and sort into proper groups for the trip. The morning passes amongst a shuffle of storage bins and boot fittings and backpack try-ons. A flurry of adult volunteers help outfit youth for the two expeditions leaving that day. Our girls stand out from the alumni students, wide-eyed but quiet with expectations, nerves, what-have-I-done-signing-up-for-this thoughts.

Towards the end of packing, I sit on the concrete ground in the morning’s bright sunshine, trying to talk to the 13-year-old young women I’ve only recently met about whether they’ve had their periods yet. We were making our fem kits (god, that name), soon to be re-dubbed our “poopy kits” with the matter-of-fact humor of pre-teens, and I need to encourage them to bring along tampons and such if there's any chance whatsoever they'll have their periods. I try to approach this convo with a straightforward dialogue that betrays none of the disdain for periods I had at their age, or my own discomfort that still strikes at times. I strive to be like the brave hiker women whose blogs I read, openly talking about periods and bleeding, squashing our culture’s ban on taboo period-talk through their words.

This will be the first of many instances throughout the week when I'm conscious of how I might pass on my own biases, my own hangups, my own internalized gender constructions, onto these wonderful young humans. I want with all my heart for them to be bright beautiful butterflies, flying high above the constraints our society, especially the ones put on women. I know I can’t protect them from the extra barriers that come with being minorities, or young, or under-resourced, but I so hope we can save them from ever feeling the burden of being a woman in a patriarchal society.

Soon enough we're on our way, having ditched the extraneous second vehicle for a large suburban in which we can cram ourselves and all our gear. Having a small expedition of only five people has its advantages! It constantly amuses me that this is a "small" group to BCM, yet it's the biggest group I've ever backpacked with. 

I quickly find myself falling into my well-worn role of “the responsible one”, the “co-parent”, settling into the patterns I know. They make me feel useful or safe, even if I don’t like being the “mom”, the “nag”, the “adult”. Case in point: I drive so BadAss, our Wilderness Instructor, can complete paperwork and send as many rushed emails as she could cram in before heading back to the backcountry.

With a car full of precious souls, I don't take any pictures all day, but pine for a camera to capture the post-apocalyptic landscape as we drive into the park.

The Detweiler Fire burns a few miles south of the park, in Mariposa, and its smoke chokes the air. What first seems to be clouds or fog in the distance soon becomes a smothering haze, shrinking our view to a few hundred feet in front of us. The sky is a pinkish-orange, the smell of wood smoke seeps into the car despite use of the “recycle air” feature that’s not supposed to let in any outside air, and ash falls on the windshield like snow.

Our anticipated campground for the night is still closed for winter repairs (will these roads and campgrounds open at all this year?!), so the don’t-betray-your-worry-we-don't-want-to-scare-the-girls frantic search for a campground in Yosemite Valley sets in. No-reservations camping. In Yosemite Valley. At 5pm. In summertime. I don’t recommend it.

We finally find a backpacker’s campground, unmarked on any maps, reserved just for those who have a wilderness permit and are either going into the backcountry tomorrow or have just exited.

While BadAss stashes the car far away, Cherub, the youth agency leader, and I give the girls brief lessons on how to choose a tent site and set up shelter, and make sure they know how to use their sleep systems. 

What seems new and foreign - picking tent sites, setting up camp, sorting food, cooking dinner, falling exhaustedly into bed - will soon become routine.