The Birthday Trip That Almost Didn’t Happen

In a previous post about backpacking in Point Reyes, I had mentioned that I had given myself this birthday goal to hike part of the Lost Coast Trail in northern California before the next birthday.  I had never gone on that long of a hike before and I don’t really do too much in the backcountry.  Maybe it was a way to just literally break free of all the things that weighed me down in my last birthday, and get back to a feeling of independence, self-reliance, and the general untethered-ness that one would like to feel again after having a child and family.  Of course I love my family and my life, but that birthday hit me like a ton of bricks, and I was faced with a lot of feelings about turning off my life’s auto-pilot.  That year was a turning point for me, and I’m happy to report a lot of great things came out of it.  I had made my list of things that I wanted to change, and started taking steps to do it.  I would have never gone to Thailand or even created this blog if it wasn’t for that birthday.  I’ve had so many highlights to that year, and still that one hike left unchecked on my list.

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One of my favorite photos from the Lost Coast Trail, as we hiked up to the cliff’s edge overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  The trail would head back into the mountains, with switchbacks zig zagging down, then climb right back up to the next cliff edge… and it seemed go on like this forever.  We would turn the corner thinking the end would be in sight, and it never was, but we had the beautiful sunset to keep us company.

About 10 months go by, and I was so busy with other things to really focus on the Lost Coast.  I would spend an hour here and there, reading a blog or doing some research, then getting back to regular life.  Now looking back, I didn’t even have the guts to put it into my schedule.  I was afraid of it; will I have the training or experience to do this?  I questioned everything about myself and my abilities.  I started to forget all the reasons why I decided this as a goal in the first place.

Then I got the call that the cousin I had planned to hike this with was not going to come anymore. She had backed out and I definitely wanted one other person with me, so I thought it may be a sign to call it off.  Luckily, we had this backpacking trip planned for Point Reyes.  It was the jumpstart I needed to feel like I could do it again.  Hiking almost 13 miles total in Point Reyes was tough (or so I thought at the time) but I did it and the feeling of being able to do something tough is really my type of fuel for the next adventure.

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A photo from August’s trip to Point Reyes.  I thought the terrain would be similar to that of the Lost Coast because it is Californian coastline as well.  I was wrong.  

I started calling around, trying to find myself a second hiker.  In total, I had four friends drop out in the planning stages, for various reasons.  I felt like one person was a sign to call it quits, and now I have four people dropping out?  I told myself this must be a sign that I am not supposed to go.  I basically called the whole thing off in my head, at least for getting it done before my birthday which was at that point 2 weeks away.  Maybe this was the perfect way to get in more backpacking experience and find new trails to train on.  I started planning another birthday trip for a weekend at Lake Tahoe and the Travertine Hot Springs instead.

As my mind settled on the decision to stop pursuing this, I attended a wedding.  My friends in the neighborhood got married, and I was on the dance floor partying it up when the topic got brought up with my friend Jenny.  It just so happened that she was looking for something similar to take on.  She said she could do the hike with me and had my birthday weekend open for it.  I was stoked!  We talked about some details and got each other more excited about the prospect of it all.  When the hangover of the next morning hit, I was left wondering if it was all drunk talk.  I immediately tried to confirm with her on a text, then even asked her to go online and just read a bit about it before getting back to me.  She confirmed, and it was game on.

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I look back on some of the photos and have some mixed emotions about them.  Although this view was beautiful, I can’t help but see those cliffs and know the pain that came with hiking them.

As we planned which part of the trail we would do, I come to find out that part of the trail I wanted to do has been washed out.  I couldn’t believe my luck.  Apparently, other hikers have added rope to help others make it through, but the websites were clear, “HIKE AT YOUR OWN RISK”.  At this point, I wasn’t going to let it stop me, we had plenty of trails to choose from so I just needed to plan a new route.  We decided on taking the mountains, we would summit Chemise Mountain at almost 2600 feet at continue along the range, slowly decending to the coastline.  We would camp at Needle Rock, what was once a booming lumber port and now lost back to nature because the Highway 1 decided not to continue on such a rugged area of California coast.  The next day we would hike the same way back, avoiding the washed out trail, and make it back to the car to continue the birthday celebration elsewhere.

We had about a week to get prepared, and started our grocery and packing lists.  We spent some time at the local REI grabbing last minute items, and packed our bags together in my kitchen the night before.  It looked like it was really going to happen… BUT we also started worrying about the weather report.  It went from some rain to a 90% chance of thunderstorms, and I again started questioning if it was doable.  Naively, we decided to just account for extra trail time, additional time to hike in the rain and stopping for more breaks to refuel.  We packed our rain gear and extra plastic garbage bags, and threw caution to the wind.

At 4 am the next morning, we were up and ready to load the car.

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Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and excited for the adventures ahead. 

The plan was to drive up early, stop by the BLM center on the way in and buy their waterproof map that was way more accurate than the backup one we got at REI.  We were going to park by the campsites there and start our hike up the mountains.  Then we got to talking… a lot.

Apparently, our conversations about the Steven Universe cartoon were so intense that we passed our turn off.  Correction… LONG passed the turnoff.  We ended up almost 4 hours off our schedule and just a hop and skip away from crossing the border into Oregon.  We were both crushed and it was a quiet ride back south, only talking when we would see landmarks that we had noticed on the way up.

We passed a BLM fire station on the way, and I was able to check in to see if they had the maps we needed.  And just my luck, they did not have the map and reported that the office that we could buy one would be closed if we tried to make it there.  Refusing to give up, I kept asking for any information we may need, we talked about the storms and the chance of lightning, we talked about possible camp spots along the trail, and we talked about bears.  He handed me a flimsy non-waterproof piece of paper that had a basic map on it, and wished us luck.  Jenny and I sat in the car, snacking, as we discussed the pros and cons of the situation.  Then we kept on.

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As inconvenient as the 4-hour detour was, the drive was beautiful with the fog, the sun, and all the amazing fall colors in the trees.

We found the trailhead and the parking area and again sat in the parking lot for a minute to consider our options.  The hike that we were going to leisurely do though the mountains is now 4 hours off schedule, so we would need to hustle.  We don’t have the BLM map, but we have a less-accurate version that would suffice if needed.  The thunderstorm is still scheduled for the morning and the next day, but we have some rain protection.  Our car was even the ONLY car in the area, making it more apparent that we only had each other to get through this.

With a belly full of uncertainty, we decided to go.

At that point, I don’t know that I even thought of it being a birthday goal.  I laughed about all the things that stood in my way, and here I was at the trailhead of what was going to be a crazy adventure and I didn’t want to back down.  I was glad to have Jenny there with me with her positivity.

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There were grades so steep that we could sit down and slide ourselves down the mountains.  It would have been a little fun if you didn’t just need to beware of bear poop, and elk poop, and poison oak… and sliding right off the cliff for that matter.

I think people think I’m exaggerating when I talk about how difficult that trail ended up being.  I know I’ll never forget the fear of getting chased by a german shepherd after wandering across someone’s “private” area and needing to hide in a bush so not to get chased right off the cliff.  I know the pain of that last mile that we hiked in the dark to get to a safer location is burned into my memory… and my knees.  I’ll never forget how many stars filled the sky, but my arms were just too shaky and tired to try to get a photo.

I’ll do another post with all those details about the hike to follow.

With all the complications, with all the hardships, with all the barriers, we made it… in the dark… and found a barn to sleep in to be out of the storm that was about to hit.  It was like at the end of all of that, fate smiled on us and gave us a roof over our head.  I woke up on my birthday morning to the sound of the ocean and the rain hitting the barn.  Then out of nowhere, the sun came out, and it was going to be a good day.

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My birthday morning in the barn with Jenny and some coffee.  Everything was still wet from the morning’s storm, but the sun was just starting to come out to greet us.  This also happens to be another mixed emotion photo because I knew how sore my body was when setting the 10-second timer and running back to the steps to make it for the photo. 

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