A few weeks ago, I set off on another solo, Bay Area hiking adventure. This time, having recently rounded out my camping gear with a cook pot and a tent, I decided to make it into an overnight backpacking trip in Big
Basin State Park (beta at the bottom of this post). I had a wonderful time hiking along 3 beautiful waterfalls, leaning intently into the sound of a wood thrush, even content to suit up in rain gear to bedevil the mosquitoes as I settled in with a cup of tea at camp. Everything seemed to go off without a hitch and I could sigh in sudden appreciation of my competency and the years of accumulated knowledge I had until then taken for granted. Naturally, after I returned, I posted a few pictures on Facebook, anticipating at least one comment about the risk I’d taken. Sure enough, someone replied, smugly, that the number one rule of camping was never to go alone. And yet…some of our best known American naturalists, like John Muir, spent days alone in the woods to write their musings on nature and spirituality. Note–they are mostly white guys. Why is that do you think…?
[As an interesting aside, Henry David Thoreau is commonly thought of as a solitary figure, alone with his thoughts on Walden Pond; he was in fact joined by a community of outcasts, many of them freed slaves or Irish immigrants.]
So what is it that people fear about being alone in the woods, especially when it comes to young women of color? I’ll admit, the idea of just being alone out there used to scare me, and not because I was afraid of psycho killers lurking in the bushes—that’s like being too afraid of a tsunami to go to the beach. Example: my dad once did a solo trip in Colorado when I was in high school and I remember being superficially happy for his excursion but quietly terrified that he would fall ill or off of a cliff and lie stranded for days without rescue. (And, in fact, he did get serious altitude sickness…but really, it’s all good, just keep reading.) Something changed after hiking the John Muir Trail (JMT), my first long distance trail of 220 miles in the Sierra Mountain Range from Yosemite Valley to the Mt. Whitney summit. It didn’t challenge me physically so much as it did mentally and spiritually. Mainly, I learned how to trust–how to have faith in my body, mind, and the earth that held me. What’s more, the idea of true self-sufficiency is a dangerous fallacy, a myth of meritocracy that has merely facilitated the invisibilizaiton of white privilege. Can we learn to rest instead in the small but growing community of POC hikers, backpackers and climbers? Can we learn how to tell them “We trust and support you” rather than cling to the fear that kept us or forced us out of (so-called) wild spaces to begin with?
Trust: Building a New Personal and Community Structure
In yoga class a few weeks ago, our teacher reminded us that it’s much easier to have faith when we have structure. And that even when structure and order falls away, we have what remains of our practice–a sense of peace. There were indeed many times on the JMT when I felt panicky and full of apprehension, but at very odd moments. When we got lost and walked 8 extra miles the wrong way on the first day, I was ok—I trusted my instinct as we headed unexpectedly downhill that this wasn’t right, and trusted the godsend of an old lady who kindly directed us back the way we had come. When my dad got so sick just a few days later that we had to bail at Tuolumne Meadows, I was perfectly clear minded. I knew we had to get off the trail, I trusted that my dad was ok enough to get safely out of the woods, and was calm enough as we looked up bus routes, fetched nurses in Yosemite Valley, took a very long ambulance ride with a cranky medic, and waited in the ER for results. After that it really felt as if the worst had happened—all that was left was to finish the trail. The micro-structure, the plan for the trip, was shaken—my sense of direction wasn’t as clear as I had thought and our bodies were not as strong as I had hoped. So, when we returned to the trail and headed off along a fairly straightforward, N-S trail, for hours all I could think about was “Are we going the right way? What if this is a side trail and we have to backtrack? Then we’ll have to make up X miles tomorrow, or hike extra today in order to get our food on time. We should check the guidebook. Shouldn’t we have passed that landmark by now?” I’d have to catch myself, tell myself to breathe, and trust that we would be ok. Breathe. And Trust. This was my mantra for much of the latter half of the trip.
What I learned is that it is sometimes necessary to shift the structure of faith that I had build around myself. I had been resting on the fragile plan we had laid out for the our hike. Once I realized how easily that could be broken, I was able to see the larger structure that held us–practice, experience, and intergenerational knowledge. This is what enabled me to plan well enough to be aware of how to handle emergency procedures, to feel confident in my ability to plan and ship our food, to purchase supplies. This solidification of trust in myself and larger community was huge, and would eventually be what allowed me to go on my solo-backpacking mini-adventure without a doubt as to my abilities. In sharing these posts, I hope to transmit some of this knowledge–this structure–for other POC folks to build and sustain trust in ourselves, that which has been buried in our bones for generations beneath the sediments of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
Real Talk – Race, Class and the Environment
Sexism and racism underpins the kind of doubt said anonymous commenter conveyed about my ability to camp alone for one night in a very well-populated park. In whom and what structures we choose to put our trust is very much determined by larger social structures that hinge on self-perpetuating inequalities. So why don’t we see more people of color and women leading outdoor excursions, making trips like mine the norm?
- Access to backcountry spaces requires extensive travel, money, and leisure time
- Rewind: backcountry spaces have been created and defined by white men who killed and exiled a lot of native people from “pristine wilderness”.
- Rewind some more: the entire idea of and idealized “pristine wilderness” and even “nature” as distinct from the places we live is entirely constructed around both European Romanticism and capitalism, which required increasing concentration of the production of goods and poorly paid laborers to “urban” areas. This has resulted in our alienation from the natural resources from which our livelihoods and goods are derived. Sigh.
- The skills and equipment needed to essentially be homeless in the mountains (which is almost beyond comprehension many POC families that have struggled not to be seen as dirty, manual laborers or migrants) for extended periods of time is ridiculously expensive to obtain. It has taken me many years of saving, birthday gift cards, and research to acquire my own set of gear. Hence why I have been backpacking for nearly 15 years and only just recently went on my first solo trip.
- The fact that we rarely see POC women leading outdoor excursions and climbing mountains means that POC girls have very few role models they can identify with to inspire them to do anything of the kind. Ergo: POC women are seen to not have the skills to survive alone in the wilderness and are therefore, not to be trusted with their own lives. [This assumption of course belies historical examples, like that of Harriet Tubman who took care of not only her own life in a much more hostile wilderness, but dozens of other escaping slaves under her guidance; as well as contemporary role models like National Park Ranger, Betty Soskin.]
Real talk #2 – Confronting my privilege
Confessions of a mixed kid: I have to say that having a white guy—with a beard to rival John Muir himself at that—as your dad really helps with all of this trusting yourself in the outdoors crap. True, my mom was also a total badass and, legend has it, was likely among the first black woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail in the 80s (that’s 2000 miles of walking, folks + the extra 1000 from when she did half of it again). But by the time I came around, she had hung up her hiking boots and was never again to be seen so much as hopping stones in a pond save tromping around the woods. Like Sasquatch, I have always hoped that I get a glimpse of the legendary figure in real life.
[Also Sasquatch-like legendary figures: other black women on the JMT. I counted one, ONE, who only appeared at the very end of our trip. We shared a very large camp area for an afternoon. I was too excited and nervous after counting literally every POC I had seen up until that point to do anything but stare helplessly at her from upstream as I filtered water.]
Nevertheless, I’m lucky enough to have both parents as role models in my outdoor adventures, and my family as a support base. My dad introduced me to the birds and Chinese herbal flowers in the tropical mountains around his cottage home in Hawai’i. He took me on my first backpacking trip in the Appalachian Mountains when I was still young enough to need the accompaniment of not one, but TWO bulky, stuffed bears. We have since explored the bluffs, valleys and rivers of the Ozarks, Rockies and Sierras. And although we never hiked together, it was my mom who (surely not knowing what she was getting into) signed me up for my first rock climbing class in a tiny basement in downtown Chicago when I was just 13. Even my (black) grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, who don’t understand my desire to walk around in the dirt for weeks at a time or to tempt fate by climbing hundreds of feet up sheer rock faces, support me with the occasional REI gift card. Here are elements of racial privilege–being able to enter outdoor spaces with my dad’s whiteness as an all-access parks pass–as well as class privilege, which put my black family within the orbit of weird white pastimes like this as well as the means to support it if they chose to.
It is this rare combination of circumstances that puts me in a position of trusting my own black feet on the rock wall, in the sand, on the earth (but maybe, ok definitely not in Confederate-flag waving backcountry parts of places like the Ozarks, Arkansas).
Trusting the Community – The Black and Brown Beta
How we can hold and trust one another while holding white supremacist structures accountable–a list of just a few of the articles, books, videos, and organizations that have crossed my path over the years that are bringing POC and representation in natural spaces together:
- “Being Outdoorsy When You’re Black or Brown“- Codeswitch Podcast, NPR
- Woman of Color in Wide Open Spaces – Minda Honey
- Brown People Camping – Instagram account of South Asian/Muslim couple
- Outdoor Afro – Meet up with other outdoorsy black folks
- “The strange alienation of being a Latina who loves hiking” – Amanda Machado
- Resources shared by the above author:
- Brown Girls Climb – Facebook page
- Color the Crag – Facebook event (October 20, 2017, Alabama)
- Brothers of Climbing -Black men’s climbing group, Brooklyn
- Black Faces White Spaces – Professor Carolyn Finney’s book (one of my heroes)
- Trace -Lauret Savoy’s book (another one of my heroes)
The Beta (finally)
The last Bay Area public transit hike I did inspired me to continue this challenge of looking for the most accessible ways to get outside and hike. This trip was not made via public transportation, but thanks to car-sharing apps, it was pretty affordable. But, I learned my lesson—DWB with a burnt out tail-light and blazing down the freeway in the golf cart they call a SmartCar was probably the most stress-inducing part of this journey. Next time, I’ll take the bus.
Big Basin Redwood State Park – Berry Creek Trail Loop
Typically, this hike follows the well-known Skyline to Sea trail to reach Berry Creek Trail. Due to the rains we had this past winter, however, this section of the trail was washed out and closed. Fortunately, I hadn’t been planning to take Skyline to Sea and I was much happier for it. I planned my hike using the “Hiker’s Guide to Big Basin Redwoods State Park” which I have to say is pretty thorough if you’re looking for good hikes and intro level explanation about what to pack, how to plan, trail etiquette and other basic safety tips. (It’s actually way more thorough than I will be in this post, so go to that PDF if you want more backpacking 101 tips.)
The trails I followed were: Big Basin HQ > Skyline-to-Sea Trail > Howard King Trail > McAbee Overlook > Howard King Trail > Berry Creek Falls > Sunset Trail > HQ (Based on #21 in the guide, but modified to exclude Twin Redwoods Camp)
Details: I made this approximately 12 mile loop into an overnight trip. If you start early enough, however, it’s very doable in a day.
- Moderate grade. Despite many many signs that warned me about how strenuous this trail would be, I had to disagree. It’s a fairly gentle, gradual ascent to McAbee lookout. I will admit that the switchbacks down 1,000 feet into the next valley were pretty steep. Going down is ostensibly “easier” but try telling that to my thighs, which were sore for days—think 1000 tiny weighted lunges. The trail that ascends alongside the waterfalls is only about .75 miles long. There are a few “staircases” that suggest that it is fairly steep, but they’re very short. The trail back to headquarters was also very gentle.
- McAbee lookout: View to the ocean.
- Waterfalls! Very worth going to see, even if it’s just a day hike.
- Banana slugs appear in damp cool weather. They’re wacky looking creatures.
- Redwoods. Always a treat.
- Variety in landscape. It’s mostly dense understory, but there are a few times when you come around onto some sunny southern slopes and the environment is noticeably different–from eucalyptus and redwood forest to exposed slab and chaparral shrubs.
Things to be aware of:
- If you’re doing this as a backpacking trip, make your reservations in advance. Backpacking trail-camps are reservable only by calling (831) 338-8861 between the hours of 9am – 5pm. Front country campsites may be reserved by phone or online .
- Rules and Fees
- Mosquitoes. Yes. They swarm in the summer. Bring some form of repellant and/or rain gear/mosquito netting.
- It’s cool at night–bring layers.
- Despite what I said about the grade (above), it may be strenuous if you are a beginning backpacker.
- The Hihn Hammond Road and Howard King Trail intersect quite a bit more than you can see on the map. Howard King is only marked as “TRAIL” and signs point toward a rather skinny path through the undergrowth. This is indeed Howard King if you choose to follow it. The road is much wider and well-traversed. Don’t worry too much if you find yourself on the road instead of the trail or vice versa as they both eventually put you at McAbee Overlook.
- The end of Howard King Trail leaves you at a crossroads near Waddell Creek. This junction is also poorly signed. Turn NNE, right, until the trail crosses the creek. This is the Berry Creek Falls trail.
- Sunset Camp is about .25-.5 miles from West Berry Creek, the nearest water source. Either fill up here before you go to camp, or do like I did, and set up at Sunset, grab your bottles, and make the short (but steep) walk back to the creek.
My Packing List:
- Water filter (I use a pump, but any certifiable filtration system will suffice i.e. iodine tablets)
- Hat to protect against the sun
- Bug spray
- Enough food for lunch, snacks, dinner and breakfast in a bear canister (These can be rented at places like Sports Basement)
- Snacks: trail mix
- Lunch: salami, cheese, crackers
- Dinner: TastyBite, or 5 min rice and freeze dried beans, or a backpacking freeze-dried dinner, or something else (see that hiker’s guide above for other suggestions).
- Breakfast: Oatmeal and instant coffee
- Camp stove + fuel
- 1 liter water bottle + 2 liter bladder (or another 2 liter water bottle)
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
- Pocket knife
- TP & hand sanitizer
- Trowel (for digging cat holes when outhouses are not available)
- Warm, clean camp clothes
- Camp shoes (sandals)
- Change of hiking clothes & socks
- Toiletries (the bare essentials)
- Warm hat/beanie
- Warm layers or down coat for the evening
- Rain gear
- Hiking boots (although some prefer to hike in trail runners)
- Cook pot
- First aid kit (include bandaids, Neosporin, Ace bandage wrap, and blister care)