I have been going out into the wilderness alone since I was a kid. I would walk into the woods behind my parents’ house, and get myself lost, so I could find my way back. When I am in the forest alone, parts of me wake up that are often sleeping during those stretches where I spend most of my days in a chair typing or talking on the phone. The wilderness is always calling me. When I am there it asks me to explore deeper, to see what is around that corner or over that hill. There is much for me to discover walking into these wild places. Much of it is inside me.
I woke up in the Curly Redwood Lodge Motel, and outside it was still raining. I took my time in my 1960s style room. I was taking my time as a spiritual practice over this trip, and it felt good to do normal, getting ready type things with more thoughtfulness and patience. Plus, I didn’t want to start a backpacking trip in a downpour.
Around noon I made it to one of the park offices of the Redwood National Park system. I was there to get my backcountry pass, find out about trail conditions, and get recommendations for a route that would fit my time frame. I wanted something remote, something quiet, something that would get me among some big trees. My friend at the information desk suggested a trail that sounded right in line–it would be an afternoon hike about 7-8 miles to the first camp site. The next day would be a 5-6 mile hike to the more remote camp site. It would give me decent hikes, but afford time to stop and enjoy scenery. He called to reserve the spots for me. The first site was already filled. The most remote site was my only choice. I would have a 13 mile hike to my camp site. I still had not had lunch, and the trail head was about a 45 minute drive. I would have to haul ass to make it to my site before dark.
I could tell the information desk was a little worried about me. He asked if I had done this before. I assure him I knew what I was doing. I was flying by the seat of my pants, but I was going in totally prepared–except for one important thing I would discover later I had forgotten. I was not concerned. When backpacking, at a good clip I will travel 2.5-3.0 miles an hour with breaks. That meant I had about 5 hours of hiking to do. If I started by 2pm, I should get to my site before sunset at about 7:30pm. Parking for the trail head was in a field next to rodeo grounds in Orick, California. There was a green pasture with cows. A path along Redwood Creek lead into the forest. I felt a calm as I strapped everything I would use for the next 2 days to my back and traverse the first few hundreds yards. I found a rhythm. I began the work or re-tuning my senses.
It wasn’t long before I was walking beneath giant, ancient redwoods. My body remembered things I didn’t realize it knew so well–the smell of the tree’s pitch, the unique way light comes through the canopy of these tall, wide trunks. I often walked with my head craning straight up or turning to the side as I passed to take in the sight of these trees as much as possible. I found myself commenting on them, saying things like, “you are big boy,” or the less sophisticated, “whoa.” As I walked longer and made my way deeper into the forest, I found myself speaking more directly to them in a more conversational tone. I found myself asking them questions, complimenting them. I began to conversate more with myself as well, and I remembered that it is common for me to talk to myself on these solo backpacking trips. In fact, I used to talk to myself in plenty of other places outside of solo wilderness trips. Making my way deeper into the forest, I became more comfortable with this and rediscovered that talking to myself is a practice that helps me process my situation. It is a very soothing thing for me. I had not done this in months, maybe a few years.
I hit a snag in my plan about 8 miles in when I realized I had taken a wrong turn. I looked closely at my map, my compass, the sign in front of me and realized the trail I need to be on was running parallel, directly east of me. If I could bushwhack through the woods down a hill keeping east, it would spit me right out onto the trail. But, this was a steep hill with lots of overturned, giant tree trunks. I was careful, because I knew I did not need to be off trail for very long. I ducked under trees, climbed and walked over others, slide sometimes down piles of leaves and needles. I finally came out on the proper trail, thankful to be finished bushwhacking, but feeling some blisters developing on my heel and big toe. That’s when I realized what I had forgotten: moleskin. I would pay for that later in the trip.
Taking the wrong trail and fixing the mistake set my back to tune of about 45 minutes. I arrived at camp just before 8pm with just a little daylight remaining. I set up camp in the dark, put the rest of my gear in the bear proof metal cabinet and settled into my sleeping bag. I would sleep good that night and wake up to drizzle on my thin roof the next morning. The next day was more leisurely. I spent a lot of time soaking my aching feet in the waters of Redwood Creek. I wandered the trails just to do a little walking and see a few more sites. I skipped rocks for about an hour until my elbow started to hurt. I had not seen another human in about 24 hours.
I closed out the day eating my dinner at Redwood Creek. I kept my feet in the cold water as long as I could stand it, because they were swollen and blistered in multiple places. It was becoming more painful to walk and my knees were beginning to swell too. The wind began to pick up. I felt a rush of warm air, then a rush of cool air. I knew some nasty weather could be coming my way, and if I didn’t get under some shelter I might have rain dumped on me pretty soon.
I walked the half mile back to camp barefoot, because of all the blisters from my shoes. Back at camp, the wind had picked up more intensely, howling, tossing the tree tops back and forth. I was in the middle of something. It was thrilling in multiple ways witnessing this wind in these giant trees. Small branches were falling all around, and I kept hoping they would remain small. I felt the need to do engage in some sort of calming practice, and to also really be present with this moment as it was happening. I prayed aloud. I began to do some yoga poses. I put myself into a balance pose where I bring the sole of my foot up to the side of my other leg and let it rest against it, balancing on one leg, holding it as long as possible as I breathed in and out. I realized that the pose I was in is called “tree pose.” I wanted to join the trees in that wind storm, to toss off a lot of the worry, the overthinking that would do me no good in the morning. Just to root myself and sway, hoping the wind doesn’t break me.
I woke at 5am. The storm had died down just after dark, but I had not slept well. My knees and feet ached, and I could not shake the dread of hiking 13 miles in such discomfort. I got up and packed up my camp, having a difficult time bending. I would need to start slow and warm up my joints to be able to do this. I doubled up my socks, hoping the added cushion might not be as punishing on my blisters. I began my hike needing a head lamp to keep sight of the trail when it turned a corner. Pretty soon, though, the sun began to rise and I saw beautiful oranges and purples beaming through the branches of the redwoods. The birds woke up and began to sing. I felt like it was entirely mine, and for the moment it was.
I began to take myself to task for allowing myself slip into self pity and resentfulness while I was doing something I love so much among some of my favorite living things on the planet. Here I was with this peaceful solitude exploring this beautiful setting, and I was only letting myself think about soreness and fatigue. I had done much more painful hiking and never complained to myself that much. I had been thirsting for this for months and years. I had been saying I needed this. Now I was in danger of squandering it, because of some blisters and swollen knees. Where was the version of me who couldn’t get enough of the adventure? Why had I resigned myself to complaining? I had some harsh words with myself and from then on, I attack the steep hills, I encouraged myself to keep pushing. My legs, truth be told, were starved for this. My will and my mind wanted to give up before they did. I was tired of feeling that way. I wanted to give my body what it was thirsting for. It wanted sore. It wanted blisters and callouses. It was underused. I needed to give this to myself and quit my freaking whining. I needed to remember this is something I love.
I felt triumphant and wiser when I reemerged in that cow field and made my way to the field by the rodeo. I had not seen another human in about 48 hours. It’s tough not to come back from a trip like that unchanged. You go in carrying many things. You leave some of it in the forest along the way. You pick other things up as you go. You come back both an old soul and one who has been born again. I took my hiking boots and socks off. I swapped them for my adidas slides. My knees and feet were stiffening already. I would hobble to the diner where I’d eat lunch. It would begin raining pretty quickly. I got out of the woods just in time to stay somewhat dry. I would make my way to Ashland, Oregon that evening and find another vintage roadside motel to stay in at a great rate. At this point, I could hardly bend my knees. I would catch Henry IV part one at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and I loved it, but my travels had taken their toll. I was getting passed on the stairs by senior citizens. I would shiver and have a tough time warming up. I had thought I might try to see Crater Lake the next day as a one hour out of the way pit stop during the 6 hour drive home. Sitting in the theater watching Prince Hal turn into Henry V, I knew tomorrow needed to be an easy day on the body.
Arriving home I felt lighter, I felt more patient. I was excited to see everyone at home. Allyson met me at the car. I hugged her and put my hand under her belly where our daughter was continuing to grow. I hobbled in. I would soak my feet that night. It would take many days for my feet to heal. This was the medicine, though. My body had gone too long without. It was certainly used up for the next few days. But, it had given me something back I had lost. It had made me new again. My eyes had been opened. My ears were hearing fresh. I had been to the mountain top and had come home to share what I had found.