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.