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22 Miles, 2 Days: Manju and Ethan’s Journey

Over the four day weekend, Ethan and I ventured out into the wilderness for a two day backpacking trip in the Santa Lucia Mountains near Big Sur. We brought with us a block of cheese, a carton of OJ, a baguette, some apples and oranges, a bag of trail mix, a map, a water filter, a tent, two sleeping bags, and a few layers. We went into this experience not quite sure what to expect, but by the time we started walking along the trail, we both knew it was going to be unforgettable.

We left Berkeley early in the morning, heading to Peet’s Coffee (thank you to whoever gave me the gift card!) Half awake, we drove down to Big Sur, along the scenic Highway 1, stopping only to marvel at the wide ocean.

After a four-hour car ride/karaoke session, we finally arrived at the trailhead at Kirk Creek Campground. We looked up at the steep, windy trail which clung to the mountainside, finally realizing the magnitude of what we were about to take on. The hills had a golden hue, their topography contrasting the flat, serene water below. We climbed further and further away from the blue ocean spanning out behind us. The hills slowly became mountains. The trail was never-ending, and the sun was hot against our backs. We walked for what felt like forever before we decided that enough was enough, and it was time to set up camp. To our dismay, we realized that we had stopped after hiking for only 5 of the 22 miles. “It’s okay,” we told ourselves, “we’ll just do 17 miles tomorrow!” So, we set up camp.

The spot we decided on was a clearing in a redwood forest right next to a river bank with a canopy of leaves overhead. It seemed like no human had ever set foot in that clearing before. Dead trees lay fallen, while new saplings emerged from the soil. It was a serene oasis within the mountain range. Ethan pitched a fancy Dutch tent, and I helped, even though I initially refused to sleep in it. No matter what the weather is, I always sleep outside so I can look at the stars.

As it was still bright out, we explored the area, made a mandala out of leaves and rocks (try it sometime, it’s really calming), and had an intense conversation about sound waves. As the sun started to set, we made dinner, eating what food we had. Our feast consisted of goat cheese, baguette, and apples; it was perfect for us hungry hikers.

All of a sudden, a man rushed at us from the trail, exclaiming that he had seen a massive mountain lion close by, and that it wasn’t safe here. He was leaving and advised us to do so too, but Ethan and I, somewhat irrationally, said that we were too tired to move our camp elsewhere. Instead, we took our food and hid it far away so that it wouldn’t come after us. I’ve never seen a mountain lion, let alone know how to deal with one correctly.  I couldn’t remember whether I should stand tall to scare it off or make myself small so it wouldn’t be intimidated. That seems kind of important to know. Ethan seemed like he knew what he was doing, but still I couldn’t help but worry. As the night sky got darker, I flinched whenever I heard a rustling.

When the time came, I knew I had to abandon sleeping outside; the Milky Way wasn’t worth being eaten by a hungry mountain lion. We both fell asleep, but throughout the night we woke up to rustling noises and heavy footsteps. I thought if I closed my eyes maybe the sounds would go away, so I willed myself to fall asleep. The sun rose early, shining through the thin material of the tent. As our surroundings got brighter, our fears started to fade and we got out of the tent. We realized that the heavy footsteps belonged to a human and the rustling of the tent must have been wind on the tent material.

That morning after a hefty breakfast of OJ and granola, we set out on our 17-mile journey. For the first six miles, we had to climb several thousand feet to then loop back around the mountain along the ridge and down the valley to get back to the trailhead. Idiotically, we only took 2 liters of water with us.  Even though we knew that there was no water source for the next 12 miles, we told ourselves that it would work out fine. “Water is heavy”. We were convinced it was the right thing to do. Fools.

We walked through a lush canyon, gaining altitude rapidly. Switchbacks were carved into the mountainside, and we rushed up, eager to get to the top before it got really hot. Along the way, I told Ethan about how Manzanita trees constantly regenerate their outermost layer, letting the old one crumple up and peel off. The trees stood tall, towering above us as we climbed up the mountain. Birds sang to each other, and every so often, lizards and snakes darted onto the dusty path between our boots. The beauty of nature around me, along with my rhythmic stomping and syncopated breathing, locked me into a trance

As we approached the peak of the mountain, I realized how incredibly thirsty I was. My legs moved slower and slower; the sun was unbearably hot. I was light headed, and we only had 200 milliliters or so of water left. However, I was determined to save those for a real emergency. I could do this. Walking up those steep switchbacks under the hot California sun while completely dehydrated was among the hardest things I’ve ever done. With Ethan’s encouragement, I finally made it to the top. My head was heavy, my throat parched, my vision blurry. I took off my tight hiking boots and laid down on the warm soil, hands outstretched; I could stay here forever. I looked over at the rolling hills, small in comparison to Cone Peak. I felt like I had climbed up Mt Everest. Cone Peak stooped above the rolling hills, majestic against the carpet of blue ocean stretched out before it. We did it; this was it. Nothing could stop me.

Our half-conscious dream faded and reality descended upon us quickly. It was already past midday and we still had 11 miles to go, and not much water. As we stumbled back down the mountain, we ran into a couple who had brought extra water with them. I begged them to share some of their water with me, and they happily obliged. The rest of the hike was in comfortable silence; we were too tired to talk to each other anymore. Previous conversations about our respective dream houses were replaced by our irregular breathing, the thump of the soil underfoot, and the sounds of the mountains around us. The trees swayed in the afternoon wind, a rushing sound howling in our ears. We rushed down the ridge, through the valley, and across the hills. Occasionally we would turn back to Cone Peak and marvel at how far we had travelled. The sun was beginning to set when we finally arrived at the trailhead. The sun left a glistening golden sheen on the ocean, orange and red streaking across the sky. It was a magical end emblematic of an unbelievable two day.

We hobbled our way down the hills, our legs were sore from climbing uphill and our knees from the downhill trek. Our only motivation towards the end was to find a restaurant and feast there; we deserved it. From the distance we saw the outlines of Kirk Creek Campground, the trailhead. Before we knew it we were back at my car. I laid down, never wanting to get up again. I didn’t know how I was going to drive; I couldn’t really control my legs anymore.

The time came to choose a place to eat dinner. We found ourselves driving to a fancy restaurant called Nepenthe. After trying an appetizer and realizing how ridiculously expensive it was, we left and resumed our feast at In-n-Out. There, we ate as if we had never seen food before.

Our two day journey (hard to believe it was that short!) was fraught with unexpected challenges and joys. Despite our near death experience with a vicious beast and almost dying from dehydration, the immense, complex beauty of nature left us in awe. Often times, especially as a first semester senior, it’s difficult to put life into perspective, but being out in the wilderness reminded us of the simple yet unexpected joys that we tend to overlook.

Here are some photos from our adventure!

Dinner! It doesn’t seem like much, but we were too tired to really think about food.

A sign! Here is a picture of Manju hydrated and smiling. That would change.

At Cone Peak! The mountains and the ocean behind it.

A Mandala! Made out of leaves, rocks, and sticks.


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