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.