As you might be able to tell, I’ve been in love with hiking and backpacking all summer. In reality though, I’m not super athletic. I spend most days at sitting at a desk, letting my muscles atrophy. On our last few backpacking trips I’ve found myself rather exhausted when we arrive at camp. Hiking with a backpack is so much more difficult than just regular hiking. I’ve known for awhile that I need to start pushing myself if I want to go on longer expeditions.
A few weeks ago I got it stuck in my head that we should hike up Mt. Baldy, the highest peak in the San Gabriel Mountains. It would be a long hike (the loop trail is just over 11 miles) and also one that would challenge my fears about elevations as the peak rises above 10,000 feet. Shawn was shocked that I wanted to do the hike, particularly because he has been asking me for years to go up to the ski hut in the winter. I always firmly decline. It always sounded terribly strenuous, even though he often assured me the hut wasn’t even at the top.
We started bright and early, trying to avoid hiking in the afternoon heat. Even at 7am there were numerous other hikers there, heading out onto the trail. I was nervous when we started but I psyched myself up for the day of hiking. As we started heading upward I saw the ski hut above us. I wasn’t totally sure If I could make it to the top but I made it a goal to at least make it that far. It wasn’t long before we had made it to the hut. There were lots of other hikers at this point. We stopped and had some snacks, then headed up the mountain. I still felt great and this propelled me forward up the mountain.
In the beginning of the hike, I had let others pass us since I am fairly slow. After leaving the hut, I felt energized and raced over the rocky path past groups. Though we were surrounded by people as we left the hut, everyone seemed to disperse as we made our way up. I kept repeating to myself onward and upward as a sort of incantation. We reached a section where people seemed to have cut trails in every direction. At one fork, we veered to the left and found ourselves curving around the side of the mountain. There was suddenly no one around.
We walked on but didn’t seem to be going any higher. So of course, I was convinced we had gone the wrong way, knowing there are other trails in the area. My legs were starting to get seriously tired and the elevation was beginning to have an effect on me. I ate a fruit snack but it was so intensely sweet I couldn’t eat more. It’s strange how elevation can make things taste different. After walking for awhile more, we came upon the remains of an airplane crash. Finally we caught a glimpse of some hikers on a ridge above us and we cut up to meet them on the main trail.
Then it was just up and up and up. The trail was steep and I slowed down to a turtle’s pace. Yet I pushed forward. At once point, we passed a few hikers coming down and a woman, I’m sure seeing how I was struggling, told me that we were only five minutes from the top. I couldn’t even imagine the top at this point. My muscles felt like jello and my head like mush. I figured it was probably another 15 minutes and sure enough, five minutes later, another hiker heading down told us ten minutes more. The last five minutes felt like forever.
At the point where I could finally see the top, I sincerely felt like I could not make it that far. I also knew I had no choice so I just kept shuffling forward. Onward and upward. I wanted to cry (I didn’t cry).
When we finally arrived at the peak I drifted around until I found a spot to sit. Everyone was relaxing, eating lunches, taking photos. I felt miserable. The elevation was hitting me hard. I wish I could say I felt triumphant at this point but I mostly felt like melting into the ground.
Not long after arriving we started our descent. I started to feel better as soon as we made it to a lower elevation. Unfortunately, the rocky trail down from the top was murder on my knee, particularly when my legs were already so exhausted. After awhile we stopped off to the side of the trail and ate burritos that we had brought with us. We were lucky in that the sky remained overcast so it was fairly cool for most of the day.
The descent over the devil’s backbone trail was a beautiful one. In one section we walked along the ridge with views down to either side of us. Though my knee hurt significantly on the way down, my enthusiasm rose as we walked downhill. At one point, we saw the ski lodge off in the distance and it seemed so far away. Eventually the trail led us straight to it. We wandered around for awhile and I thought about previous visits to the lodge. I’d only ever been when everything was covered in snow and it was curious to be there in the dry summer. The restaurant was still full and many people were riding the ski lifts.
From there, we still had about another three miles to go. Three miles is nothing on a normal day, particularly walking on the wide flat fire road. Space seemed to expand, drifting on and on, and still I was ecstatic to be nearing the end. We sang songs that I could not remember the words to (singing in front of anyone, even just Shawn, is not something I do often, which just shows how elated I must have been) and walked and walked and walked. Luckily the smooth road was much easier on my poor aching knee.
As we closed in the on the end of the trail, we came upon a few hikers coming down from the other side playing Kraftwerk from a tiny speaker. We picked up our pace to catch them and then in no time we were at the bottom, the whole hike completed. I ran the last hundred feet to make it back to the start in under 8 hours (so slow!).
Afterwards I was quite tired and my knee hurt like hell, but I was also super excited to have completed something I wasn’t sure I could finish. Despite being difficult and painful, I would do it again in a heartbeat. I know that besides the physical struggles, the hardest part for me is often in my own head. Knowing that I could accomplish something like this hike helps me combat some of the the things I often worry about. I did not feel well at the top, but I’ve certainly felt worse. I was able to climb nearly 4000′ in just 4.5 miles. I’m pretty happy with that alone.
I thought that after we finished the hike, we might relax for the rest of the weekend, lounge around and watch movies. Instead, we went on another, albeit much shorter and easier, hike the next day and it was great. If I could be hiking every day, I think that would be just fine with me.
photos by Shawn Bannon
Well here we are, creeping further into the year. Summer burns on but suddenly I can see Autumn on the horizon. I’m not quite ready to to give up the excitement of weekend adventures playing outdoors but I’m starting to look forward to the cooler months. Luckily, with California’s varied climate zones we’ll be able to keep exploring into the winter. I am looking forward to visiting the deserts that are too warm for the summer months. But I’m getting ahead of myself here; it is still August and there are many sweltering days ahead.
There have been a few, brief, glorious rainy and overcast days here in Los Angeles. Having spent most of my summers on the East Coast, it’s something I miss greatly. I remember one year, leaving the Newark airport on a bus, the grey skies unleashed a wondrous downpour and I thought to myself I am home. I remember lightning storms and fat rain drops falling on me. These are some of my favorite summer memories. Yet here, the drought continues, forests turning into wildfire tinder and lakes drying up completely.
It was always so hard to return home at the end of summer, sometime in August, when the valley would still be devastatingly hot and all my friends still in the East. I have so many memories of plane rides where I couldn’t breath, the air just evaporating from lungs as I held back sobs. The loneliness would form a pit in my stomach that I would carry for weeks. I would try to make grand plans to keep myself occupied: this year I would pour myself into school work or another I might try to see every movie possible. Mostly I would just end up listening to sad songs on repeat until I felt nothing as teenagers are wont to do.
We visited New York this weekend for what felt like only a moment, spending time with family and not having time for too much exploring. While we were there, time moved slowly, as it can when away from every day realities. We walked the streets of the bustling city, celebrated the love between two people and got to meet our new nephew and it was so nice. My heart was full and upon leaving I felt that small pebble in my stomach, the sadness of going home, back to real life. I wish I could have stayed, seen the friends I missed and spent more time with those close to my heart.
I’m not so great with long term plans. I have no idea what my life will look like at the end of the year (probably much the same as it does now) let alone five years from now. It seems so silly to make plans when things are always changing regardless of my intentions. This post from Liz, posted the day I started writing this, coincidentally touches on exactly this. I do believe in goals though and deadlines.
Today the kids in Los Angeles went back to school, earlier than I ever did as a child. There was always so much hope a the beginning of a school year, excitement mixed with dread. Adulthood rarely has these sort of reoccurring punctuation marks. A chance to start fresh or be let down again. Now we just trudge forward waiting for a break in the clouds.
I listened to a report on the radio about the death of Lauren Bacall and though she lived a long life, full of success, I couldn’t escape that feeling that everything comes to an end. Death is inescapable. I couldn’t help but think of her later years when she was no longer acting and imagine what it must have felt like to look back and see that her achievements were all in her past. Perhaps it was a comfort, to know you could just drift forward. Perhaps it was like a dull aching loss with no grand schemes in front of you.
In theory my accomplishments are still in my future. It’s best I get started making them happen. I was going to make a list here for some sort of accountability purposes but I’ve gone over it so many times in my head it’s burned there like a mantra. Summer may be coming to a close but creative times are ahead.
Being the cool older brother that he is, Shawn wanted to plan something fun for Kyle’s birthday. Unlike many of the Batman themed events we’ve done in the past, we settled on a little backpacking trip in Big Sur, specifically a spot called Vicente Flats. We drove up early on Saturday morning and made it to Big Sur around noon.
On the way, we stopped to check out the Elephant Seals on the beach. I honestly had no idea how awesome these animals were until we arrived on the beach to see them laying about and fighting in the water. All their blubber would ripple as they glided across the sand. And the noises! The beach was filled with mostly males and they sounded like crazy garbage disposals. In short, they were amazing. Summer is when there are the least seals on the beach, so now I’m really looking forward to coming back during pup season.
We had tofu salad sandwiches on a rocky beach before heading up the trail. There was still a little bit of cloud cover as we started hiking up, giving us a little relief from the blazing summer sun. The trail made its way up along the hillside, giving us a spectacular view of the coast. It was nice to have a cool sea breeze since there was about 1800′ elevation gain. I loved seeing how the terrain changed as we moved through the hills, starting out with dense, varied bushes and flowers (and poison oak) to a field of dried grasses. The path was clear the whole time though and we passed a handful of day hikers on the way up.
We reached a view point and stopped to take a look at ocean expanse in front of us. In the distance we saw something in the water and realized it was a whale. From so high up, it was hard to comprehend the scale of the tiny tail fin in the water. Up and up we went on the trail until finally the trail turned away from the water and we started heading into the valley. We passed the Espinosa Camp and the tiny spring right after it but kept on going. Soon we were surrounded by coastal redwoods and heading steadily down. Finally we found ourselves in a clearing at the Vicente Flat camp.
The first campsite is quite large with room enough for all three of our tents and even featured a picnic table. The river by the site was dry but there was water running about a quarter mile beyond. There were several other people camping in the area but far enough away that we didn’t hear them or really see them beyond passing by when collecting water or hiking out in the morning.
For dinner we grilled some veggie cheese burgers and baked beans. Daiya cheese is not my favorite but it is the absolute best on a veggie burger or breakfast sandwich. I was excited that the burgers fit perfectly in the fry lid of my snow peak trek 900.
Shawn thought it would be awesome to bring a cake for Kyle so I cooked one up the day before we left and froze it along with a bag of frosting. We divided the elements between us in our backpacks so the cakes weren’t terribly crushed and the frosting was still cold when we arrived. Shawn did the honors of frosting the cake when we arrived and we ate almost all of it (some nearby campers took the last pieces off our hands). It was super tasty and we were all pretty stuffed.
We just relaxed for the rest of the evening and goofed off with some glow sticks. I watched some bats circle one of the nearby redwoods as the light faded. We had picked up a new light weight tent before this trip and it was awesome. Super cozy but not claustrophobic. I was pretty sure I heard some animals in the night and in the morning we saw a baby skunk running down the riverbed. So adorable! In the morning we had breakfast, packed up and headed back. The hike out was just as stunningly beautiful as in the way in.
photos by Shawn Bannon
We had big ideas about going on a longer trip over the 4th of July weekend but delayed planning until the last minute. Amazingly, we found an opening at housekeeping camp in Yosemite. Though we’ve visited the park several times this year, we have yet to stay in the valley together. After our recent Ojai bike ride we really wanted to bring our bikes to Yosemite. There are about 12 miles of bike trails around the valley which means you get to explore more without getting in a car. This was amazing on a crowded weekend like the one we visited where the notorious traffic jams clogged up the loop around the valley floor. While visitors in cars sat waiting, we were able to fly by.
On previous visits we sought to avoid crowded spaces in search of more secluded trails. Summer is different though. There is a distinctly camp vibe around the whole place: families gathered around campfires, everyone playing in the rivers. It didn’t feel as touristy, I’m sure in part because we were edging around particular view points on our bikes, but also because people were really enjoying the nature around them. Visitors seemed settled, rather than just stopping in. In housekeeping camp, large groups set up compounds at their rental sites, stringing lights together and setting up rings of chairs around fire pits. I imagine it must be great to spend a whole week with friends, biking around, grilling and swimming.
The following day we drove over Tioga Pass, the road to the Eastern Sierras. This road is closed for a good portion of the year due to snow, so it was exciting to finally get to drive across. We passed through Tuolumne Meadows and enjoyed the beautiful mountain scenery.
Once on the other side, we made a stop at Mono Lake. I had wanted to go swimming because it had been so warm out and Mono Lake seemed like an ideal spot with its high salinity. I dreamed of floating in the lake until we arrived. Unfortunately I forgot to bring sandals and the floor of the lake was too rough to walk on without them. I’ll know for next time. It’s a beautiful and surreal place. The tufa towers you see were only exposed in the 80′s when the water level dropped due to tributary water being redirected to Los Angeles. The lake only became protected in 1992 and it has been rising since, though not to previous levels entirely.
We also made a stop at Devil’s Postpile near Mammoth Lakes. I wish we had more time to explore, but it was still cool to see. I personally enjoyed the bus ride to the site, where I got to listen to various backpackers talk about their travels.
As the sun set and we made our way back home, I asked Shawn to pull over so I could try to take a photo of Mt. Whitney. Though my photo was questionable, we decided that there was no time like the present to make some dinner. We dug out our stoves and made some ramen on the side of the road. It was perfect, particularly since there wasn’t anywhere else for us to stop to get food. Some cows came to see what we were up to, then just went about their business.
most photos by Shawn Bannon, except the oddly shaped ones
A few weeks ago we headed up to Farm Sanctuary Animal Acres to hang out with some of the rescued farm animals there. It was cool to give belly rubs to some enormous pigs and pet some massive cows. All the animals were super friendly. One of the goats just wanted to follow me around. I seriously love goats. There was baby lamb that had just come to the rescue who was just getting used to people and the other animals. She was very curious and bahhed at all the visitors. I could probably spend all day with these animals given the chance. I was glad to hear many of the animals stories of how they came to the rescue even though they were often sad. It’s crazy to think that the animals they have are only just a tiny fraction of the animals that are tortured and slaughtered every day in factory farms. I’m glad there are organizations like Farm Sanctuary that are doing something to help these animals that are thought of merely commodities rather than living beings.