13 miles sauntering through coniferous forest, 3 black bears, 7 shooting stars, the Milky Way, Jupiter’s rings, one comet, and a view of Half Dome that literally took our breath away (thanks to 2400 ft of elevation gain). We treated ourselves to this over the weekend as a perfect transition to a new season. While we’ve done car camping before, this was our first time carrying all of our gear deep into the forest. The last few car camping trips made me question if I liked it all; whether it was campsites too close for comfort or kids/dogs going ballistic, I felt like I couldn’t have a good time unless I hit the booze. I got sober during the pandemic so I didn’t want to sabotage myself for a quick getaway. Backpacking to the rescue!
My inspiration for writing this is that perhaps someone will read and consider embarking on their own adventures. My partner and I only came across one person of color backpacking the trails in Yosemite this past weekend, and I began contemplating how high the barrier to outdoor trekking truly is. Not only do you have to spend at least a thousand dollars on carefully selected equipment, you have to plan for weather, permits, food, maintain a moderate level of athleticism, and actually know someone interested in partaking if you don’t want to brave the wilderness alone! My personal mental barriers to backpacking: spending a significant chunk of money, exacerbating my existing back problems, and not wanting to go multiple days without showering. Backpacking across Europe saved me money; all I needed to do was get train tickets and choose a hostel. This seemed like hard work in comparison!
It took a total of 3 friends casually exposing me to the idea over 7 years for me to finally plan my first trip. I think of it like Buddhism; people who love complete nature immersion won’t pressure or try to “convert” you. It’s either something you appreciate, tolerate, or avoid. The first friend who planted a seed in my mind is a nurse who backpacked with her husband almost every month. They moved to Denver in 2017 so I kind of forgot about it since we both preferred in-person hangouts over calls. Then I met my friend Nicole, an amazing soul that cycled 4000 miles across the US in 2016! She told me the highlights of her trips when we spent time together but she also moved to Denver in 2019 so I only see her a few times a year 🙁 Plus, I was too caught up in trying to keep up with corporate life back then to even think about picking up a new hobby. Finally, in 2020 I moved in with my partner Mark, and our housemate was beginning to explore the idea of backpacking. He bought a copy of How to Survive Your First Trip in the Wild and left it on our living room table. That year I had so much insomnia from the stress of my job that I often got up at 4am and read a book until I fell asleep again on the couch. The book happened to be so relatable and digestible that I finished it in 2 nights! It taught me all the high level essentials of trail life with a bit of humor. Next thing you know I won the lottery for a backpacking permit in Yosemite – I attribute it to Mark’s great karma, since I never won anything until we got together 🙂
So how did I get over those mental barriers that I mentioned? With respect to money, my dearest friends bought me the essentials for Christmas & my birthday. I got a Feathered Friends sleeping bag, REI’s 2p+ Half Dome tent, and a Petzl headlamp with the option for AAA batteries or USB charging. The rest of it Mark and I purchased together. There’s also the easy option of renting from your local sporting goods store if you don’t want to fully commit to gear. When it came to my back problems, my therapist’s voice helped me. I somehow was able to justify biweekly chiropractic & masseuse visits for work-related stress when my insurance covered it. Why couldn’t I do the same thing for a hobby that I actually enjoy? The only difference is that I have to pay out of pocket, and in the past years I’ve become better at spending money on things that improve my quality of life. This consists mostly of creature comforts like nutritious food, housing, bedding, comfortable shoes, therapy, & massages. And finally with respect to showering & going numero dos, a couple of my friends humbled me. One is an activist for the homeless population in Marin and chooses to be homeless so he can be a better advocate for his community. And Nicole chose to live in a van for many years, showering every few days at a local gym and using baby wipes in between. Both of them are still sexy badasses that smell good (; I actually find it comforting to escape the world of mirrors and judgment since my grandparents didn’t own any mirrors while raising me. The occasional zit and tousled hair is a tiny price to pay to meditate under the Milky Way.
When I bought my Osprey 58, I still wasn’t sure if I would enjoy hiking uphill with ~25 lbs of supplies on my back. On September 25 I started having second thoughts when Mark loaded up my bag with our stove, pots, tent, clothes, & sleeping bag + pad. My anxiety flits around my brain with all the what ifs – especially with the recent fires in our state and my food/water insecurity from my precarious childhood. However, once I put my bag on, it vanished into thin air. “That’s it? That’s all I have to carry?”…Whoops…that question made Mark shift a couple of pounds from his bag to mine 😛 I still felt very little weight on my back and a comfortable amount of pressure on my hips. This is remarkable for someone who is 5’3” and 103 lbs – most gear doesn’t cater to small humans. Yay, Osprey!
On the night before our trip, I left our shades open so we could wake up with the sunrise. We stopped in Jamestown to indulge in a lavish brunch of coconut shrimp and a loaded “Volcano” scramble at Smoke Cafe before beelining to Backpackers Campground. Yosemite allows all permit carriers to spend one night before and one night after your trip at any of these first come, first serve sites. It’s amazing to not have to worry about getting to the trailhead early enough especially after a long drive from the bay area. We picked up our permit at the wilderness center where a ranger quizzed us on backpacking protocol – stuff like the Leave No Trace principles and what to store in bear canisters. The site itself lies at the back of North Pines where we had access to flush toilets and potable water. An absolute luxury for backpackers! A kind ranger named Cindy checked our permit in the morning, and upon chatting with her I learned how lucky we were. Because it rained 4 days last week, the streams were flowing again which meant easy access to drinking water. Prior to the rain, the air quality was still poor from the fires and Yosemite Falls was more of a trickle than a waterfall. Thank you rain gods!
On the morning of our trek I had a nutritious breakfast of banana oatmeal and psilocybin. Mark only ate oatmeal so he could drive and navigate responsibly <3 We got to Porcupine Creek trailhead around noon when the early birds were finishing their hike so parking was a breeze. I found a big tree stump, plopped my meditation pillow on top, and practiced a loving kindness meditation while Mark divvied up the weight amongst our bags. I wanted to carry at least half of our gear this time because he has been my DD sherpa on hikes for so long! As we snacked on my favorite cheesy Chex Mix, we saw a man returning from his trip looking exhausted and disheveled. “Howzit?” Mark asked as his brows arched in concern. Apparently the poor guy ran out of water because he couldn’t find the stream, so we filled up his camelback with one of our 3 spare jugs. He only brought 3 liters which isn’t enough to drink & cook with for a strenuous overnight trip! Being anxious & over prepared has its positives and we never regret carrying more than we need. Another solo adventurer came up a few minutes later and told us he had an amazing time but wished he found a better site. He kept sliding around through the night because he was unable to locate flat ground. I always chat up fellow hikers so we can knowledge share. We resolved to keep a steady pace and prioritize finding a level site before the sun set!
As two happy campers with ADHD, we inevitably made a good number of stops along the trail. I marveled at funky mushrooms growing out of dead trees. Mark mimicked a bunch of bird calls as he peered up at them with his binoculars. I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw a big black shadow out of the corner of my eye. “BEAR!!!!” I exclaimed as the furry giant sauntered over to a tree. Mark shouted “cheeeeee hoo!” in unison but the bear didn’t even glance at us. He spent a minute pooping behind the tree before lumbering off into the forest. Thankfully due to Mark’s stellar map reading, we found Porcupine Creek by 5pm and pitched our tent a quarter of a mile away. Someone had previously swept a flat site with shade, and it even had a fire pit! I filtered some water in the steadily flowing creek so we could use it for dinner. I saw an adorable cub with mama getting water from the stream too. I thanked my magic mushrooms for all the beautiful animals I’ve encountered during my trips.
For dinner we boiled 2 cups of water and stirred our Backpacker’s Pantry Cuban Coconut Rice & Black Beans. It tasted pretty darn great with its myriad seasonings and with 24g protein & 610 calories, we were content. We chose not to bother with fire for this trip because neither of us really care for the smoke, water usage, and fire danger that comes along with it. S’mores aren’t worth the nuisance for me as much as I love staring into a fire! I brushed my teeth, splashed my face with the cold refreshing stream water, and changed into my Smartwool before retiring to our cozy tent. We stargazed and talked about life until I heard Mark’s signature baritone snore at 9pm. I saw a few more satellites and shooting stars pass by before I fell into a peaceful slumber myself.
The next morning awoke with the sunrise, stretched, and made some more oatmeal – apple cinnamon flavored this time! I meditated by the stream after washing my face in it, rejuvenated by 10 hours of solid zZz’s. My Autosleep app corroborated that I scored the highest sleep rating of the year in the past two nights, making up for months of sleep debt! Nature has never failed to give me a good circadian reset. We packed up our belongings and hit the trail to ascend North Dome. Since it was Monday, we didn’t see as many people as we did on the weekend, and only 2 groups out of 5 were backpackers. I definitely felt the elevation gain on this stretch so we took it slow with frequent water breaks.
By the time we reached the peak the sun peaked as well. A day hiker asked us to look through our binoculars and tell him if we could see any people climbing Half Dome. Sure enough, 4 people were ascending and 6 people had already made it to the summit before the sun scorched them like lizards. I did not envy them one bit as I scanned the incredible rock and admired the tiny trees that managed to grow out of something so dry and…rocky.
Mark promised me we would return to the creek so I could “splashy splashy” after sweating through the last of our clean clothing. Sadly after 4 miles of trodding back down, the only point at which the trail met the creek was a mere trickle just enough to refill our water filter. I didn’t let that stop me! Instead of swimming, I filled our pouch with water and we enjoyed a makeshift water gun fight until our laughter crippled us. That break was much appreciated since it was all uphill from there, plus I carried both my backpack with our camelback in front like a pregnant lady. Our large bear canister occupied most of Mark’s backpack. I felt the burn of my quads and calves trudging up that hill but Mark kept his sherpa’s pace. The last mile seemed to never end! My watch struck 5pm right as I spotted the pavement that signified that start (and end!) of Porcupine trailhead. I shed all my clothing since the lot was empty and donned my fresh dress and sandals before collapsing into our car. In Chinese Yosemite is 优胜美地 which directly translates to “winning beautiful land”. Beautiful experiences like this are the reason our ancestors came to this country, and why we choose to stay ^.^