I fancy myself an experienced backpacker. I have been on many trips over the last 12 years since I graduated from high school—to the deserts of southern California and Arizona, Utah, and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I acquired all the necessary equipment and learned how to live comfortably in the outdoors. But I never went alone. Nevertheless, the idea of solo backpacking began to appeal to me after my first few outings. I imagined that if I walked alone in the wilderness, I would have time to quietly and carefully observe my surroundings, as well as have time for introspection. I could move at my own pace. Sometimes I progress very slowly along a trail because I frequently stop to look at bugs, plants, birds, fungi, chipmunks, streams, rocks, etc. My laggard style doesn’t always jive with those of the people I hike with. So I looked forward to heading out by myself and having all the time I needed to do my thang. I made plans to go solo many times, but always found some weak excuse not to. It’s gonna be too cold. I’m too busy this weekend. I’ll wait until the moon is full. I don’t want to miss American Idol.
The real reason I never went backpacking alone is that I was afraid. I feared getting injured; I feared being attacked by bears or psychopaths while I was prone and helpless in my sleeping bag. Even though such unlikely events might still occur when I was camping with friends, the fear of them never paralyzed me the way I suspected it would if I were alone. I knew I was being silly— thousands of men and women venture alone into the woods all the time and, to my knowledge, very few get shredded by bears or crazy hillbillies. So it was only a matter of time before I finally screwed up my courage and stepped into the world of the solo backpacker.
The day came and it was Cinco de Mayo, 2006.
I woke up late that day and decided to go for a day hike. Then I thought, what the hell, I’ll do an overnighter! The weather forecast looked good: sunny, with a chance of some rain the following day. I couldn’t delay. I printed out my gear list and assembled everything in my kitchen. As usual, I got on the road later than I should have. Drinking chocolatey coffee, singing along with Modest Mouse, and brimming with excitement, I drove through the Coast Range Mountains along the sinuous highway to Drift Creek Wilderness. Though I didn’t get on the trail until 5 PM, I had only a few miles to hike (downhill) before reaching my intended campsite.
Drift Creek Wilderness shelters within its boundaries the largest remaining old-growth rainforest in the Coast Range. Once I passed the sign indicating that I was entering the wilderness, I was swallowed up by the shady, cool, greenness of the ancient forest. Damn, it was so beautiful… and so pleasantly silent. Besides the sweet twitterings of birds high above me, I could hear only my own breath and footfalls. Everywhere beneath the western hemlocks (Tsuga heterophylla) and western redcedars (Thuja plicata) were ferns, mosses, and lichens. I had to watch my step for fear of squishing the many banana slugs (Ariolimax columbianus) on the trail. These big mollusks look like animated dollops of vanilla pudding. They kick ass!
I set up my Tarptent in the shelter of some western hemlocks near Drift Creek. I spent what seems like hours skipping stones across the water. The small cobbles on the shore were so flat, round, and smooth that there was an endless supply of excellent stones for skipping—I couldn’t help myself. (What’s the world record for number of skips? My mad rock-skipping skills are so x-treme that I bet I could break the record, no problem.)
Sitting on the shore, I looked up at the hillside rising up from the opposite bank. It was covered with large trees, which rose into the mists above and loomed in such a way as to seem like they were leaning toward me. Big leaf maples—draped with orange-green moss—grew near the water’s edge; conifers dominated everywhere else.
I had a lovely evening. I explored the forest around my campsite, wrote in my journal, and read from my Field Guide to Old-Growth Forests, and had a totally nutritious and delicious dinner of Instant Lunch and a Snickers bar. I got in my tent a short while after dark, read a bit more, and dozed off. This is where I had expected irrational fear to overwhelm me. But I just fell asleep. I did have some bizarre dreams about bears and people harassing me in my tent, but when these thoughts troubled me I would simply stir to consciousness, realize I was having a dream, and fall right back asleep. It was a surprisingly peaceful night.
The next day was spent lolling by the stream and leisurely making my way up and out of the canyon. Clouds came in from the ocean and everything was dripping with moisture. I spent lots of time turning over logs and mucking around, looking for critters. The highlight of the trip was when I crawled up a tiny, steep-gradient stream searching for salamanders and finding multiple individuals of two species: the southern torrent salamander (Rhyacotriton variegatus) and the Pacific giant salamander (Dicamptodon tenebrosus). I have wanted to see a torrent salamander for many years and was delighted to find exactly was I looking for. They are so cool, cute, and delicate. Torrent salamanders live only in the cold headwater streams of the Pacific Northwest. Pacific giant salamanders also live in streams and are major predators there. I saw only larvae of both species, often in the same tiny pool. I also saw Rough-skinned newts (Taricha granulosa) and an Ensatina (Ensatina escholtzii).
When I emerged from the wilderness I heard the guttural squawking of a lone raven high in the trees behind me. I was struck by how human its voice was—so expressive and insistent. It struck me that this quality of voice might be one reason the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest revered Raven the Trickster.
It is hard to believe that every forest in the region was once “old-growth” and that so little now remains. What a total rip-off. Those who decided to hack down all the trees fucked up big time. We will never regain what we have lost.
Thankfully, I saw no other humans—insane hillbillies or otherwise—on the trail. I was utterly alone and it was delightful. So I passed the test. I am now a hardcore solo backpacker, right? Has one night alone in the wilderness changed me into some better kind of person? Nah… it was just a groovy time and I look forward to getting away again.
Some photos of the trip are HERE!