There we were. Three novice backpackers (rookie may be a better term), standing at the check in counter of LAX with one way tickets booked to some backwoods shelter in north Georgia. We were on our way to an adventure of a lifetime. That was March 7th, 2012. What better way to celebrate the start of our Appalachian Trail journey than donning our packs and heading into the Los Padres back country on March 7th, 2015.
Kilimanjaro and I packed the truck with two bikes, helmets, and backpacks. A quick drive over the Santa Ynez Mountains dropped us into the Santa Ynez Valley, along Happy Canyon Road, and to the base of the San Rafael Mountains. We parked, strapped on the packs, secured our bike helmets, and started pedaling to adventure. I had donated my bike helmet to Goodwill the previous week (one of the only items I’ve given away that I could have actually used again) so Kilimanjaro loaned me an old BMX helmet, which made me look much more capable than my timid reintroduction to mountain biking proved to be. The statement “It’s like riding a bike” is true…once learned, it is difficult to forget how to do it. That said, I can ride a bike anywhere on flat ground, but riding a bike on a mountain trail was a different story.
We rode our bikes 9 miles up the fire road to the base of McKinley Mountain. “Riding our bikes” might be an aggressive term as there may have been just as much walking as riding. While the fire road was wide and well maintained, areas were incredibly steep and left us with no choice but to dismount and walk. A section of the road called Hells Half Acre was not only steep, but rocky, making it doubly as difficult to ascend (and descend as well). I joked to Kilimanjaro, “If I’d known how hard this was going to be I would have taken a few spin classes last week!” Most of the time I thought to myself, “I’d actually rather be running this trail than attempting to ride it…”
To the south we caught glimpses of the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. To the north the daunting ridgeline of Hurricane Deck begged me to visit soon. Nearing the top of the fire road we were surprised to find snow! What a novel idea! Not quite as novel though when the snow started covering the trail. It was difficult to ride a bike, uphill, with a full backpack, through snow. But alas, adventure is adventure.
We reached a flat plateau on a saddle beneath McKinley Mountain. “This is it, the end of the road” Kilimanarjo said, jumping off his bike. We found a narrow space in the scrub brush and shoved the bikes in. The last four miles to Mission Springs Campground would be on foot. Finally, some real backpacking!
As soon as we signed the trail register and hit the single track the experience improved. Trees, some dead from the 2007 Zaca Fire, covered the landscape. Around every turn we were treated to a new vista. We traversed the north side of San Rafael Mountain, sometimes trudging through several inches of snow. I picked up the pace as my toes were freezing in the Luna Sandals I was wearing. When we reached the top of San Rafael Mountain at 6,593 feet we were treated to breathtaking 360 degree views of the Los Padres National Forest, the Pacific Ocean, and the Channel Islands.
We continued less than two miles to Mission Pine Springs Campground. The Mission Pine area in the Los Padres National Forest is said to be named because the pine beams used to build the Santa Barbara Mission was harvested from this area. Kilimanjaro and I passed under towering pine trees and massive windblown rock formations. We even passed the skull rock, a huge boulder that had been shaped over time to look exactly like a skeletal face.
We reached Mission Pine Springs Campground before dusk and set up camp near the picnic table and fire pit. It is hard to believe that this was only my third backpacking trip since completing the Appalachian Trail, while Kilimanjaro had taken advantage of the backcountry a bit more, even thru-hiking the John Muir Trail. With the tents erected, dinner served (sans stoves, cold dinner, just like the AT), and water refilled, there was only one thing was left to do. Hang the bear bag.
In true Appalachian Trail fashion I found a throwing rock, grabbed my 40 foot line, tied a spider web around the rock, and the two of us ventured off into the darkening woods like two lost puppies looking for the ideal branch to hang the bear bag. “What do you think about this one?” “Ahh, I don’t know…It’s an awfully small tree.” “Yeah, I know, no bear will ever be able to climb it!” “Yeah, it’ll just pull the tree down and take our food.” “Oh, yeah, you’re right, we should keep looking.” Just like the Appalachian Trail.
I found the perfect branch, but Kilimanjaro had pitched his tent directly under it. Kilimanjaro pointed out a branch that we both agreed on. We positioned ourselves uphill from the tree, and with the sun fading, I wound up and gave my best big league throw. The orange reflective rope zipped past my headlamp until I saw the tail of it fly by my face. Crap! I forgot to hold on to the other end! No matter, I’ll just grab the rock side and pull it down. We looked into the darkness as the sound of a rock echoed, bouncing down the hill, without the rope. My spider web knot hadn’t held, typical, and now both ends of our bear line were dangling from the tree. Luckily one was within jumping height and I tugged it down. I retied the knot on a better rock and started on our second attempt. Success! We hung the food bag and stumbled back to camp in the dark, laughing at how spending 4.5 months on the trail still hadn’t made us experts in fine art of hanging a bear bag.
Kilimanjaro and I sat on the picnic table watching the stars come out, talking about the many nights in the Appalachians that we had done the same thing. The night that we stealth camped and watched the sunrise over Big Bald Mountain. Easter Sunday when we camped on Big Bald Mountain and nearly froze to death. The rain, the snow, the heat, the rain, the cold, the rain…that darn rain. Pretty soon it was “Hiker Midnight”, closer to 8:30 PM in town, and we retreated to our tents. I spent the night in my ZPacks blue Cuban Fiber Hexamid tent, the walls translucent and glowing from the light of the full moon overhead.
In the morning I woke up early, before 7 AM. Partly because I was ready to wake up, but mostly because my sleeping pad from the AT has since developed leaks, and by morning my behind was resting solidly on the cold dirt. I put on all of my layers and crawled out of my tent and into the brisk mountain air. I grabbed my usual trail breakfast, 2 packages of Pop Tarts and a Snicker’s Bar, and scrambled up some rocks to sit and watch sunrise.
The forest was coming alive with various bird songs. One humming bird whizzed by and landed on a branch a few feet away. It curiously looked me over, its head of feathers changing colors from black to red as it moved back and forth in the sunlight.
After a magnificent sunrise I skipped back to camp to see what Kilimanjaro was doing. I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw 3 sets of eyes, none of which were his. Three deer were quietly visiting the springs for a morning thirst quencher. For a few moments we stood still, barely losing eye contact, as they finished their drinks and nonchalantly walked away. It reminded me of the various wildlife that I had come face to face with in the Appalachian Mountains.
Kilimanjaro started stirring and we packed camp and headed out to explore the section of the trail from Missions Pine Springs Camp to Mission Pine Basin Camp before heading for home. Kilimanjaro returned to camp and I ran on to explore a few more miles. I had no pack, no water, no food, just my Luna Sandals and the trail. I took off running, over small ridges, under large trees, scrambling over rocks, and dodging overgrown scrub brush. Being completely alone in the backcountry was a little nerve racking, but I felt alive. I felt free. I felt at home. I spent the next hour running, exploring, climbing big rocks, and making a to-do list for next trip. I made it back to camp and Kilimanjaro and I prepared to head for home.
The hike back to the bikes was easy. I tried wearing my Injinji toe socks to keep my feet warm in the snow, but adding the cloth around my toes actually made them colder and took longer to warm up in the sun. We found the bikes still hidden in the bushes and prepared for our descent. The ride up the mountain had taken more than 3 hours, but even with the snow and dangerously steep sections, we planned to be at the car in 90 minutes or less.
We pushed off and barreled down the trail, whooping and hollering as we attacked the snow banks, front wheels sliding back and forth, grabbing nothing, us holding on and peddling like mad, hoping to make it to the dirt before spilling sideways. We were having a blast and approached a picnic table 1.5 miles into the ride, 7.5 miles from the car. As we pulled off to take a quick drink break I heard the eerie sound of an air hiss. First I thought maybe it was just snow rubbing on the frame, but when we started down the trail my rear tire felt heavy, it was completely flat.
No problem! Kilimanjaro had brought spare tire tubes. We laid the bike down and tore out the new tube, preparing the make a fast pit stop, until we realized that the rear wheel needed an open ended wrench to remove. Crap. This was Ann’s bike. Kilimanjaro’s bike had quick release bolts, but neither of us had wrenches for actual bolts. Okay, plan B, I’d try to ride the next 7.5 miles on a flat tire. I mounted the bike and started peddling, until the actual tire folded over the rim and got jammed in the breaks, stopping me dead in my tracks. Plan C. The only thing to do was to walk the bike down, but if you know me, I’m not much of a walker. We stuffed my gear into Kilimanjaro’s saddle bags and backpack and I kept only the lightest gear in my pack. I pulled my backpack straps tight, adjusted my Luna sandals, and started to run. For the next 7.5 miles Kilimanjaro rode a heavily weighted down bike while I ran beside him, pushing a bike with a flat rear tire. We made really great time and reached the parking lot a little tired and sore, but happy to be heading home.
Three years ago that evening we had stayed in the Springer Mountain shelter, our first night camping on the white blazes, hunkered down in a thunderstorm. A short 2,184 miles and 136 days later I found myself standing atop Mount Katahdin, an Appalachian Trail Thru Hiker. Today though, I found myself a little tired and sore, but in a car barreling down the road at 65 miles per hour, heading back to town for a shower, a warm bed, and work the next morning. The Appalachian Trail had been the adventure of a lifetime, but in reality, all of life is an adventure.