One day in 2013, I asked my boyfriend Brian to take us on an adventure in Kennedy Meadows that would inhabit the better part of the day and perhaps beat our record hiking distance of 12 miles. Brian chose a hike through the Dome Land Wilderness.
The map made our trip look so easy. We would start with a quick downhill jaunt on Woodpecker Trail, hang a left on Rockhouse Trail (35E16), follow that clear across the Dome Land Wilderness, hop on the Pacific Crest Trail and do cartwheels all the way back to our cabin.
Me and my awesome new Osprey backpack.
We began our hike in a portion of fire-ravaged forest, descending quickly into it’s heart.
Woodpecker Trail, fire-ravaged.
After 4 miles on Woodpecker, we began looking for signs for Rockhouse Trail.
Following the arrows, we found on the ground a small broken sign, nearly buried in dirt. It was so worn, the only way to determine what it said was to read it with my fingers like braille. Lucky for us it read 35E16, the Rockhouse Trail. Okey Dokey, let’s go.
Just as quickly as we picked up this trail, we lost it. I mean we completely lost it. Thus began our first round of bushwhacking – hiking in the middle of nowhere with no path. We debated if we ought to forge on or return. Knowing us, we would regret not going forward. It was early on, so Brian did some expert scouting, and found what looked like the trail. Awesome. Except we lost it again shortly after.
Round mile 6, Brian spotted some very fresh, bear prints up a hill to the right of us. It looked like we had just scared a bear into the brush moments earlier.
Did I mention I really enjoy city life?
At this point I attempted some conversational reminders on what to do if one were to encounter a bear. I asked Brian, “So which is it that you’re supposed to do? Play dead? Make noise? Make friends?” Brian explained that with black bears it’s best to stand your ground, make a bunch of loud noise and to make yourself seem as big and menacing as possible, and that they would most likely run away scared. But with brown bears, the much larger of the two, it’s advised to fight.
“How do you fight a 700 lb brown bear?” You probably don’t.
Instead, we took up calling out loudly as we hiked. We shouted “Noooo Bear,” which quickly morphed into “Noooo Beer,” and my personal favorite, ” I wish I had a tweeeeelve pack of beer.”
Did I mention a giant storm was closing in on us?
At least the cloud coverage, however ominous, brought us much needed shade. It sure was beautiful. Serene. We didn’t talk for three hours, but more out of concentration than ease.
This pattern of losing our way was incessant for the next 10 miles. Our map was constantly wrong. It said we were one place then we’d discover we were someplace entirely different. Eventually we stumbled upon what looked like a hiking trail but ended up a cow trail.
We even found the cows!
The only thing I was sure of at this point was that we had no clue what was going on. I had stopped thinking, “adventure!” and started thinking “how the hell do we get outta here??”
We had been hiking for close to 10 miles, had consumed more than half our food supplies and almost all our water. We were grossly underprepared for this adventure. No water filter and none of the muddy creeks were suitable for the iodine tablets Brian had. I began to see rock formations as places for shelter or setting up a fire or camping out for the night. I told Brian, “if we have to stay the night you are not allowed to leave me to go get help.”
We began looking for the South Fork of the Kern River to lead us to the Pacific Crest Trail. We knew the river could be wide and deep in places, and we were genuinely worried that it would not be cross-able. We’d be neck deep in water, our bags held above our heads and struggling across strong currents.
We landed in a series of small clearings, full of flowering bushes that hummed with bees and aseemingly impassable thicket of 6 foot tall thick cattails, weeds, and shrubs.
Unsure of how to get through, pushing mile 11, and only knowing which vague direction the PCT lay, Brian opted to break through the marsh…and boy am I glad he did! It opened up like some prehistoric landscape. Brian kept calling it the jungle.
Brody made no effort to avoid the black tar-like pits of mud and sunk in up to his chest, like that scene in The Princess Bride. The only reason we were even able to get through the marsh was because the cows had stomped a singular trail across. I love cows.
Miles 12 and 13 were the most adventurous. We abandoned the map for instinct, sun dipping towards the horizon.
As we traversed upward and turned back with a higher vantage point, we realized that the marsh we crossed was actually the South Fork of the Kern River!!!!! You cannot imagine the relief we felt. The stress of a possible dusk river crossing was gone. Invigorated and hopeful, we moved swiftly.
Only 15 minutes of steep mountain climbing and Brian and Brody had gotten a good deal ahead of me. I then saw Brian waving his arms and whisper-shouting, “Did you see??” I shook my head ‘no’ as I rushed over to him. Lo and behold, what I had been dreading, up the mountainside, through the trees, and only 200 feet away, was a black bear. The only thing saving me was my adrenaline. I followed Brian’s lead growling loudly, yelling and hissing. Brody stood his guard with the troop. The bear stopped to look back at us. We roared again, arms flailing and off he ran. Now we know what works.
We continued on through the steepest and most treacherous part of our trip (besides the drievway). After about a mile, we came to a sweet, gorgeous, magnificent clearing. We had made it across the mountain! Brian was so excited, he called out to a hiker in the distance. It was a tree.
Walking somewhere in the middle of that clearing, we looked down at our feet to see…a trail? A very worn, wide, obvious trail. The PCT!
We nearly cried. How did we do that? We rewarded ourselves with a much needed 10 min. break. We had barely taken any breaks for nearly 6 hours. But the sun was setting, and we still had miles to go.
Across the PCT, we took jogging spurts, shouting words of encouragement. I was proud of myself. We had trekked some serious terrain and encountered some dangerous situations for 13 miles with a heavy pack, and still I found stamina to run. I felt alive.
The sun lit the tops of the farthest mountain peaks as we shared our last droplets of water from our camelbacks and promised not to crack open the last small bottle of water until we hit the dirt driveway home. We hiked across an old dirt road out of the Pacific Crest Trail at about 7:30pm. We had been hiking since 10:30am with 2 miles to go ‘til home. Blistered, thirsty, our knees and joints aching.
As we opened the fence to a trailhead parking lot, I turned back to look at our conquest. At that precise moment, we experienced the most stunning sunset.
It felt like the universe was rewarding us – telling us we did a good job. That we got just what I asked for – an adventure.
We made it home up our stupidly steep dirt driveway in the dark. I was so exhausted I was lightheaded – Brian held my hand the whole way up. All in all, we were on the trails for 10 hours. We hiked nearly 18 miles, 8-10 of which were through thick brush…and no trail.
I set out on this adventure innocently enough and ended up facing so many fears, doubts, and real life dangers without the security blanket of a map or trails. I was only armed with instinct and willingness. I got so incredibly lost and so overwhelmingly found. I consider these lessons to be some of the most potent of my life thus far and am compelled to immortalize them here for myself and for you.
PS – We realized the next day that the map we had been using was from 1991. May I suggest using current and updated maps when setting out into the wild.