Sometimes when I talk about backpacking, I pretend I’ve got it figured out. Yep, that’s me: expert backpacker. Ask me anything.
But I’m a huge fake, and the knowledge burns in my throat. Because for all the backpacking I’ve done over the years, I’ve never once in my life spent a night in the woods alone.
Nearly all of my trips to the backcountry have been with my partner. Who is, you know, a certified Wilderness First Responder and a Yosemite ranger. He literally teaches people—including me—how to backpack.
When we’ve backpacked, he tends to pick the route, figure out the resupply plan, consult maps and the weather forecast. He even looks up and identifies flowers and trees we’ll see on the trail, and he’ll provide little anecdotes about how John Muir felt about such-and-such type of pine tree and explain why these flowers don’t grow at lower elevations.
Basically, I’ve coasted along as the less experienced half of a backpacking couple. And it’s been lovely but I know I’m missing something huge. I want to learn what backpacking means to me when I’m totally on my own, when I wake up in the middle of the night in the woods or I’m looking down a stretch of trail I don’t recognize and I know to my bones that there’s nobody around to save me but me.
This summer, I’m leading an all-women crew on a three night backpacking trip in the Yosemite High Sierras which will include—with some luck—ascents up Half Dome and Clouds Rest. I planned to do a quick training trip with a friend last weekend, but a sudden bout of springtime flu meant she had to cancel.
So this was my chance: my first solo backpacking trip.
I picked a route I’ve day-hiked before: Snow Creek. Snow Creek is my favorite climb out of Yosemite Valley. The views are spectatular, and few Yosemite visitors venture up this path. When the Mist Trail and Yosemite Falls are choked with tourists, Snow Creek remains practically empty.
It’s also the steepest route out of the valley. The trail climbs 2,700 feet over 2.5 miles, and has over 100 switchbacks and sparse shade. It’s an exposed, sunny trail, which means it’s quite warm in the winter and brutal in the summer. I started a few miles away from the trailhead and planned to go a couple miles beyond the top of the switchbacks before I camped, so altogether I was going to hike 6 or 7 miles one direction, spend the night, then retrace my steps in the morning.
Hiking up Snow Creek was fun in a totally masochistic way. Even at 9 AM when I hit the switchbacks, it was hot as a Russian banya and incredibly steep. I’ve lightened my backpacking gear a lot since last year, but with water and a bear cannister and food, I was still hauling over 20 lbs.
The bugs were ferocious. Whenever I found even an inch of shade on the switchbacks, they swarmed in front of my face, divebombing my eyes and ears. I coated my legs and arms with DEET, dabbed it on my neck and ears, but I hate putting it on my face. So instead I twirled a bandana in front of my face occassionally, wishing I brought a head net (even though every time I’ve ever had a head net, I didn’t wear it). I bumped into a baby rattlesnake who found my bandana twirling scary, and we had a bit of a staring contest before he slithered off the side of the trail.
There’s something almost calming about climbing Snow Creek. My body fell into a steady rhythm and I zoned out. I don’t even remember what I was thinking about for most of the trip, only that I was just a couple hundred feet from the top when I suddenly needed to stop and rest for a moment, drink water, look around and feel amazement at the beauty of Half Dome staring back at me from across the Valley.
I ate lunch at the top of the switchbacks, watching the rushing creek and stretching out in the shade. My shirt was so soaked with sweat that sitting in the shade made me shiver, even though it was over 80 degrees out. Somehow, there were no mosquitoes by this rushing stream, and I stayed in that perfect cozy stretch of dirt by the creek for over an hour.
I finally scooted on a couple more miles until I got to the snowline, and then I set up camp next to a thundering waterfall. Last winter was one of the biggest snowfalls ever recorded in California, and that’s why the high elevation trails are still blanketed by snow. Meltwater has turned Yosemite streams and waterfalls into violent torrents. I found one flat campsite that wasn’t underwater, and set up even though I knew I was too close to the trail. I heated water, ate dinner out of a ziplock bag, and lay on a rock to read by the waterfall.
Years ago, I camped with my dog for a month. Not backpacking, just car camping. And even though I had a brave and somewhat ferocious-looking pit mix to cuddle next to me at night, I occassionally found myself freaked out by rustling outside of the tent at night, by being so far from anyone who knew me. It didn’t help that my mother had told me repeatedly while I was planning the trip that camping for a month was a sure fire way to get raped. (Thanks Mom.) And even though I’m more comfortable in the woods at night now, there have been plenty of times when I’ve backpacked with my partner and stepped out of my tent into the darkness and felt a sudden tension in my belly, a sharp moment of unreasonable and illogical fear.
I set up the tent and crawled in to read around 7 PM, and without realizing it I dozed off and didn’t wake up until almost 9 PM. I crawled out of my tent in the blue and grey twilight to snack and brush my teeth. I wedged my bear cannister tight under a log because the local Snow Creek bear is known for throwing cannisters off cliff edges to break them open. Then I slipped back into my tent and zipped away the outside world.
I wondered if I’d feel that twinge of fear, if the thought of being completely alone and miles from home in the dark with a curious bear wandering around would make me feel vulnerable. But it didn’t come, and I felt relieved that I wasn’t afraid. Mostly I felt very sleepy, and calm the way I only feel when I’ve been away from my work email long enough for the worries about work to loosen their stranglehold on me.
I slept through the night, and didn’t scramble out into the cold morning until 6 AM when sun was hitting the edge of the tent. I ate quickly, packed up, and hiked down the mountain.
I’ve spent so much time on relationships with other people—with coworkers, with my family, with my partner. I will drop everything I’m doing to help a stranger who calls me on the phone at work. I’m in the process of wedding planning now, and I spend hours wondering how to make dozens of far-flung relations and friends feel comfortable and welcome. But I don’t really spend any time on the relationship with myself.
And honestly, that relationship has always been a little rocky. Somewhat strained and judgemental on a better day, neglectful and resentful on worse days.
Solo backpacking is like couple’s therapy for the relationship with the self. It’s a way to walk quietly in the woods and practice just being okay. To practice every part of being okay. Not panicked, not anxious, not threatened. Not fearless, determined, generous, or impressive. Just quiet, plaid-shirt, baseball-cap, mud-coated sneakers okay. To find a little piece of my brain that isn’t anything other than fine, and let it stretch out and fill every part of me, and then walk and feel that for a few hours.
And also itchy, because the bugs are so bad this year.
I left my first solo backpacking trip without any great insights or adventures. No emotional highs or lows. Just a few hours with myself and no one else, aware of my own brain and body without any sense of needing to fix or justify anything.
Oh, and here are some photos from the Valley when I got back down, just because.