The Learning Curve

Arroyo Seco Loop in the Ventana Wilderness of Coastal California

Approx 60 miles in 5 days all on trail

“The Learning Curve”

In telling this story of hiking the Ventana,  hear the viewpoint and story of a young girl who had always wanted to backpack and finally got her chance!  The adventures on this journey spawned a  backpacking career spanning close to 50 years and counting.   Come along and find out what it was like to backpack in 1969,  and read a story of  the Ventana Wilderness the year of it’s birth …also in 1969!

“Tell me about the constellations again and how far away the moon is?”  A question I pestered my brothers with over and over whenever they gifted me a night sleeping in the backyard with me in our large suburban backyard.   When I was four years old my older brothers each got brand new flannel lined green sleeping bags for Christmas and I got a doll.   Oh how I cried…and cried…and cried.   Not one for playing with dolls…all I wanted was a sleeping bag just like my brothers so I could sleep outside too!  After awhile my mom ingeniously solved my tragic loss by taking 2 old cottons blankets, laying them one on top of the other and sewing them together lengthwise in the shape of a sleeping bag.  She left the top foot of one side unstitched so I could slip in and out.   And that wonderful homemade bag kept me warm countless nights in the backyard of my childhood home until I was 10 years old and my dad finally gifted me my very own beautiful real sleeping bag.  And when I was 10 years old another momentous event occurred one night as  I  sat crosslegged on the couch spellbound  watching a TV show with my dad about the John Muir Trail, a 200 mile trail in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  That TV show gave me a yearning to go beyond my backyard and camp far away in the Sierra Nevada Mountains where John Muir had once roamed.   I vowed that night to hike that trail someday…and I eventually did.  But…hiking the John Muir Trail came many many years after this 60  mile loop in the Ventana Wilderness in the Los Padres National Forest of Coastal California.  I earned “my stripes” on my long ago Ventana trip with long days, cold nights, ill fitting equipment and a passionate appetite for backpacking that has not waned yet,  close to 50 years later.

High School was a time of broadening horizons.   I met other kids that had gone to other schools as I was in a larger high school that had several elementary and middle schools to feed it.   And in my sophomore year I met Connie.   Connie and I sat at the same table of whatever class we were in together that year we met…the academics were not near as important enough to remember as the fact that just before spring break one day, she  casually mentioned  that SHE was going backpacking with some other friends over Spring break.   I know I wasn’t drooling or stammering or twitching, but something gave her the idea that I was suddenly riveted over what she had to say.  And before I could embarrass myself further by dropping to my knees to plead with her to take me…which I would have been too shy to do in any case,  she casually asked me if I wanted to join them.   Oh wow, would I ever!   So off to home I went to plead with my dad to let me go.   My mom had long since passed away,  and I had to get permission to hike with 2 other girls and 3 other boys for a whole week from my dad who was a strict ex military man who wasn’t even letting me date yet!  There was no way to sugar coat my request.   I simply came out and asked him and I did not lie about the boys when he asked who was going.  But,  Lo and Behold,  my distant dad who never seemed to be around much or have a clue what I was about,  said yes!   Dad had paid attention after all all those years previously when I begged mom to take us camping for vacation just once instead of up to see family.  Dad had indeed paid attention when I cried and cried about not getting a bag to sleep outside in.  And dad had paid attention that night when my whole world grew in ways that would reform the rest of my life when we watched that TV show together on the John Muir Trail.   I was going to go camping!

Connie had experience.  Connie had backpacked with her family as a young kid and knew exactly what I needed to get to go backpacking.   So…once again I approached my dad,  and with trepidation asked  if I could withdraw some money out of my precious savings account that I was never ever ever to touch…and once again surprisingly  he said yes!   So off Connie and I went to the surplus store to get my equipment.   Back then there was no R.E.I.  There was no Marmot Mountaineering or Outdoor World or whatever suffices as a backpacking store nowadays.  There was the surplus store.   However, a few “modern” pieces of equipment were starting to filter into the market and we managed to find a lightweight ripstop nylon goose down sleeping bag.   Internal frame packs were starting to be invented,  but had not hit the market yet…Kelty would not patent their first until 1973.  But, we did find  a lightweight non military external frame pack with a nylon pack bag called the “Camp Trails.”  My camp Trails would torture me all week that first trip and I would later sell it to a friend who said it was comfortable enough for him and I would find my first  beloved Kelty external framed pack that would serve for many more years.  We bought a snake bite kit that my friend said was an absolute necessity.  We bought an ensolite sleeping pad that would roll up around my precious sleeping bag and be bungie strapped to the bottom of my pack.   Almost outtfitted but not quite, at one point, we left the surplus store, and  Connie took me to  a magical store near a Shopping Center that had actual gorgeous lightweight non military backpacking tents made by a small cottage company called Geary.  Walking in and staring up at the wall at those magical tents I thought I had died and gone to heaven….until I heard the price.   Out the door we went and we drove all the way back to the surplus store where we picked up a plastic tube tent for $4.99.  A tube tent is just that…a tubular piece of plastic that you could string a thin piece of rope through and tie the rope ends to 2 trees pulling the plastic up enough to slip your bag inside and be relatively free of rain. Finishing up the trip, we bought  my very first pair of hiking boots and wool socks and thin liner socks.  I would hike in beautiful High top leather Dunham brand boots.  They didn’t have my size so we got a size up but they would give me years of hiking pleasure…blisters and all.   And where was the stove you might ask? And the water filter?  And first aid kit?  Back then none of that was available…or readily available if it was available.  Connie told me to find someone who was just about out of coffee as I could cook in a coffee can.  So my pot was a Folger’s can.  My stove that week was a small campfire.   We put our cans on a rock on the edge of the fire and cooked all our hot meals over an open flame.  My water filter was a teeny tiny bottle with chlorox bleach in it…I would put a couple drops in every  quart I drank that week and wait a few minutes before drinking.   Synthetic clothes had not really been widely developed yet,  so I hiked in cotton jeans and cotton t shirt,  but I did have a synthetic fill nylon puffy jacket to keep me warm.

Enthralled with all my new purchases,  I packed my pack, including all the food Connie told me to get,  and eagerly awaited the day of our departure.    Rising early one morning at the crack of dawn we loaded up and drove the hour plus to the trailhead at Arroyo Seco which is on the inland or eastern side of the Ventana Wilderness.   Driving past the day use area and all the kids splashing in the river and diving off the bridge, we left all signs of civilization behind before we even left the confines of my car,  I felt we were approaching a magical wonderland.

That first day was a looong first day.   Hiking roughly 9 miles to Strawberry Camp all of us were just plain beat by the end of that first day.   The weather even that early in the year was quite hot.  Yet,  I don’t remember any whining  from any of my hiking partners.  I had gotten mixed up with a good group!   We got our fire started and each of us got our coffee cans out and started cooking.  The choices of menu ranged from mac and cheese to rice a roni.  Backpacking meals were hard to find back then and even harder to slip past your pallate they were so atrocious!   But mac n cheese and rice a roni were the fares of kings to us and we gobbled down every bite.  Mosquitos and rain were favorably absent so we all threw our ensolite pads on the ground and our bags on top and we talked until we fell asleep while gazing at the stars.

The next morning we rose and cooked our oatmeal in our by now charred coffee cans.  Spreading powdered milk and sugar on the oatmeal turned our breakfast into another king’s fare.  Packing up,  we hiked again in hot temperatures,  but our next destination was not so far so we arrived in much better shape to Indians Valley.   And, our next night’s camp again was a wonderland…  delightful pines and oaks which I understand were demolished by the famous 1977 fire.  Such a shame as that camp was simply idyllic.  Enjoying another night under the stars sans rain or mosquitos simply hooked me.   In years to come I would fight the necessity for a tent whenever the occasion forced me to set up my tent and to this day I relish sleeping out in the open with a gentle breeze soughing over my face and a blanket of stars for my ceiling.

The trail to Lost Valley the next day was perhaps the most memorable of the trip.   I have since returned to Lost Valley and either it has changed or I have,  as it is not anything like the Lost Valley of my youth.   However,  the more recent memories cannot diminish my early ones….Lost Valley was spectacular and wild and beautiful!  Starting out,  along the way we scrambled over roots and up short sections of trail where there were washouts.  Interestingly this day I remember  learning from one of the girls the value of hiking in running shoes.   One of the girls had a background of river travel with her parents…whether it was kayaking or rafting I do not know…but she wore her “river shoes” on our hike.   Her river shoes were thinly soled hi top canvas shoes and she was comfortable and blister free the entire trip.  And this day traveling across water a few times, she was the most prepared of us all.   In later years I would remember this girl and her river shoes and eschew those first leather boots I bought and the several pairs of boots after those first boots that I would buy that would blister and blacken my little toes in.    I too in time would don something similar in running shoes and hike blister free and cross water worry free time and again.   Back in that early journey though in my thick boots in the longer miles to Lost Valley we made it thru the water, the dicey trail sections and the heat and eventually came to an enchanting meadow.   Grasses as tall as our hips waved in the breeze sporting a subtle range of colors.  Wildflowers still dressed some of these tall grasses and we were all enthralled with the beauty as we traveled the length of this amazing valley.   Once through the meadow,  we came to our final water crossing late afternoon and crossing the water,  we knew this to be our night’s camp.   Tall trees overhead sang in the wind all the night through and I woke several times peacefully enjoying the stars overhead before drifting off in slumber once again each time.

In the morning we had a long uphill slog so we started early and hiked the day through til we arrived at Escondido.   Escondido was normally a car camp destination but the road to it had been closed for some reason and we had the camp all to ourselves.

Next morning, we arose and discussed the strategy of our last section.  Originally allowing 6 days for our hike,  we realized we had only 16 miles left this 5th day, and all on dirt fire road that was mostly level.   A unanimous vote set us off that morning in high spirits.   We would hike 16 miles that day down the Indians Road.   Our 16 miles was indeed a long hot one.  But, our spirits never wavered and we laughed and had fun all the way down that road.  When we finally stood above the parking lot a couple hundred feet below us, we took off pell mell through the brush hollering and laughing full speed down to the car and then home.

We had done it!  Six high school kids aged 16 and younger,  with no adult to watch over or chaperone us,  most of us with no prior hiking experience, and none of us with any adventure like this in our resume , had just spent 5 days in the newly formed Ventana wilderness hiking 60 miles.  We had hiked by map and compass only since none of us had been on any part of this trail before.  We cooked over open fires and slept under starry skies and we had the best time ever in our short lives!

I have only kept track of one of those friends over the years,  and I think of her  fondly for her tremendous help in getting me started in my backpacking career   in such high fashion all those many years ago!

Note: That early external frame pack, down bag, ensolite pad, coffee can etc only weighed 25 pounds INCLUDING food and water for the planned 6 days of our trip.  In later years my pack weight would creep up and up with all the new fangled gadgets until my pack would top out at 40 pounds one trip for just an overnighter one weekend in the late 80’s.  On that overnight trip I would think back to that first trip where my pack weight was only 25 pounds and I would embark on a weight slashing journey until I have now gotten my base weight  down to 12 pounds before food and water….so many lessons learned those many years ago by a star struck kid who just wanted to hike in the woods!:)

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: