(Gulp!) “You signed up to trek into the uncharted wilderness with perfect strangers to be hacked to pieces with a machete and left for vulture food?” I shouted at myself. I must admit that my fear muscle flexed a few times, but my attitude, in short, is “Its a good day to die so let’s go out with guns a blazin’!” I’ve been itching to sling a pack on my back and hike away into the wilderness. To that end I joined an online Meetup Group of local backpackers. They posted an overnight trip and the mister agreed to stay home with the kids so I signed up to go.
At 7:00 am Saturday morning I met the other hikers at the trailhead. They didn’t look much like villains. They all had the appropriate technical gear and attire and several seemed to know each other already. The leaders had walkie talkies and seemed concerned not to leave any latecomers behind. Conscientious folks they were. I figured the whole group couldn’t be in on the plot to maim and torture me, and heck, perhaps the criminals amongst them had already set their sights on another member of the Meetup and I was just there as a decoy. I felt very good about my odds so I used the pit toilet at the trailhead and fastened on my pack.
We spent a wonderful afternoon hiking alongside a river to The Bridge To Nowhere in The San Gabriel Mountains. Historical aside: The Bridge To Nowhere is a beautiful construction erected in 1936 as part of a road building project that was never completed. As the result, deep in the wilderness stands an astonishing modern structure wherefrom scores of people gather every weekend to bungee jump. The Bridge To Nowhere, which is 4.5 miles from the trailhead, is the terminus for most day hikers. After stopping to laugh at the bungee jumpers hurling themselves screaming off the bridge we hiked on another mile to a sandy bar that seemed big enough to accommodate 14 hikers overnight and staked out our sleeping spots.
Being a single hiker, I found a private sleeping spot alongside a fallen log and under a shade tree. I felt pretty pleased with my selection and spent a bit of time nesting in my roost. We all passed a lazy day lounging by a swimming hole, reading, eating, chatting, and later eating again and imbibing in a wee bit of adult beverage. Darkness fell and it was time for all good hikers to tuck in for some wanted sleep.
Sometimes sleeping in the great outdoors is serene; a few crickets here and an owl hooting there are all that punctuate the soothing whisper of the wind tickling the trees. Other times the world you’ve chosen to visit is so full of boisterous nocturnal animals that you feel if you opened your eyes you’d be standing on the playing field of a packed stadium, filled with cheering animals. This night was the latter. It seems that the loudest animals usually hang out near water. Frogs are probably the worst offenders, but who can say, they all scream at the top of their lungs all night. This night was a cacophony which was at first exhilarating, then as sleep started to overtake me, blended into a high pitched white noise.
I’m a light sleeper at the best of times, (I think this is a natural byproduct of becoming a mother) but out in unfamiliar surroundings I become even more wakeful. At midnight was awakened by the scritching sound of boots on gravel making their way ever closer to my tent. Scritch scritch scritch scrunch scrunch crunch crunch went the footsteps as they came closer and closer. “This is it,” my fear told me. My mace was close at hand as well as my Coghlan’s mega whistle. I don’t know what the product name of this whistle actually is, but regardless, I’m fairly certain that when I choose to blow into this thing they will hear me in Hong Kong. It is L-O-U-D. Soon about 5 pairs of hiking boots clomp down the trail at the foot of my tent. Five backpackers crunched on past muttering something to each other about not being certain of the way. I was safe.
My mind relaxed into musings of what the heck they were doing hiking at midnight. Perhaps they worked all day then had to drive far to the trailhead? Maybe this backpacking trip was the brainchild of too much beer by the pool all afternoon? Pretty soon here they come back again. It was a hot night and I’d opted to sleep with the rain fly off, so naturally my fear told me, “They saw you in there and now they are back to ravage your female frame and nobody out here will hear you scream.” Drivel and nonsense of course because I was making this trip with fourteen people, seven of whom were women, one of whom was sleeping at a remote spot from our main group and far more vulnerable than I. But being awakened from sleep by approaching footsteps doesn’t engender rational thought. This time they crunched past the head of my tent and hiked on up a higher trail. I felt satisfied that they were indeed harmless hikers looking for a good place to sleep and even felt a little sorry for them knowing the boulders they had ahead of them this night on that trail. I fell back to sleep.
Scritch scritch. “What time is it?!” I look at my watch. 2:00 a.m. An animal was somewhere in my very immediate vicinity and it was thirsty for blood. I just knew it was a psychotic bear. I look in all directions and not a foot away from the head of my tent was a raccoon pawing at my cookpot. I gave my tent window a few insistent taps. The raccoon looked me in the eyes, telegraphed “Where the hell did you come from?”, then turned tail to find some less vigilant campers to steal from. Again, sleep.
I awoke in the morning far too early and lay there, staring at the dawn. I was trying to guess if I’d be the early bird disturbing everybody if I got up now to make coffee, or if I’d be the last one up, trying to pack up quick and leave camp with the other hikers half cocked if I slept in more. I reflected that I’d made it through the night alive and healthy and the worst attack I’d suffered was anxiety of my own making. In actuality, by taking a calculated risk to experience the wilderness with a few strangers I’d made new friends with unlikely people with whom I’m sure I’d never have bonded in any other context.
When we hiked out I complained of a slight knee injury and explained that I was going to take an alternate trail around a small part of our trek to avoid a particularly unnerving piece of cliff climbing. The event organizer said that he would accompanying me on this short alternate route to ensure my safety. I insisted it wasn’t necessary, that I would meet up with the group a short distance up the trail, but he was determined. He made a friendly joke and would hear no more objection, he just started leading the way. I was humbled and grateful for this show of generosity. And more, that the two event organizers, a husband and wife, enjoy the wilderness so much that they wanted to share it with anyone at all who wished to sign up and join them. They planned a trip, and posted to an internet site in essence, “We’re going out to have some wholesome fun, would anyone else out there in this big lonely world like to be included?” That kind of generosity is rare and to be the recipient of it for a weekend was fortifying and life affirming.