When one of my best friends signed up for a summer backpacking out West when we were like 15, she used her few precious minutes at a pay phone to call me and explain, “Julia, I am not a f*cking kumbaya kind of girl! GET ME OUT OF HERE!” I remember her being so miserable and me so amused—sure that if I were in her shoes, I would love it. Campfires, marshmallows, beautiful views, and deep friendships born out of shared experience… it all sounded wonderful to me.
On Wednesday we pick up Matt’s uncle’s car and on Thursday we drive south. We know we want to go to Big Sur, but it is Memorial Day Weekend and every camp site and motel looks booked online. Matt’s uncle’s car is big enough to sleep in, but when we arrive at Pfieffer Big Sur State Park around dusk a park ranger takes pity on us. He gives us one of the last campsites saved for late arrivals like ourselves and makes it clear that they absolutely do not have any space for us the next night.
We set up camp among the redwoods and head back out to explore. When we return it is already dark so we make dinner and curl up for the night. The next morning we visit the ranger station to get a map and find a place to sleep for the night. The ranger looks skeptical but tells us our only option: we can park for $5 and then hike at least 4 miles to the first campground. Matt is thrilled and surprised when I say yes, as long as I can bring my camera.
Because this is my first hiking trip and because we only have one pack (and because we want to be careful on my knee), Matt carries most of our stuff. For this I am grateful. I bound on ahead, setting the pace. The first two hours are the most grueling, steep at times and in the direct sun. We wind up and around the mountain. The mountains remind me of Corsica, much of which I accidentally slept through (even with my best friend nudging me awake every few minutes)! I send a quick prayer of relief that I am surrounded by such beauty again and I find myself missing her. I take photos and try to send silly texts, but they don’t go through. That’s wilderness for you!!
I follow our curves on our map until I lose track of where we are. I try to convince myself “I AM this kind of girl! I love this!!” But I am really not. I was an outdoor leader in Maine where I participated and led the water-based canoe trips. I’d much rather explore the world from a boat than carry 50 pounds on my back up and over and along mountain cliffs. But Matt loves this and I love him.
Although I have my camera (which can make me happy just about anywhere), I agree to keep it away until we reach camp because we want to get there before dark. We look for this place called VENTANA campground, the first on the trail to a popular destination: Sykes Hot Springs. I am unsure of how far we have gone, but I am positive we should have been there by now. However, I am new at this. We keep going. And going. And going. As the sun gets lower and golden light slips through the trees, my fingers itch and I bite my lip so as to not complain.
When we finally arrive at a creek with campsites, I drop my backpack, take out my camera, and loosen my shoes. I am ready to settle in for the night but Matt tells me to wait, he has to check where we are—maybe we are not there yet. (!!!!!) He says this with the implication that we might actually keep going and I laugh, ready to explain that no, this is it whether it is what we were looking for or not. With towering redwoods, a running creek, and open land for our tent—this is as far as I am going. But before I can turn around to tell him as much, he is already gone to find a sign.
When he returns he explains that we actually missed our campsite that had been 4 miles in (Ventana) and we are now at Terrace Creek, a few miles past our original destination. I am relieved my instinct had been right. I am happy we don’t have to keep going & I am proud I made it this far. After setting up camp, we head out again to explore further up the trail. I do not know how Matt convinces me to put back on my boots, but I do.
Every few bends around the mountain, I sit in the dirt and tell Matt I’ll wait for him here. But he continues on, and after a few minutes I miss him and get up and keep walking. We return to camp and as twilight fades I am reminded, I believe in this. I believe in the trees and the creek and the night in which Matt holds me tight.
The next morning we sleep in and pack up camp. I want to linger in this refuge and I am frustrated that my crop-sensor camera cannot capture even one full tree. The hike back is easy and we keep our eyes open for Ventana, the campsite we had missed the day before. We never find it.
We’ll just have to come back.0