Hiking in Big Sur

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I woke up in the Big Sur backcountry yesterday morning, and hiked 17 miles out on a very painful knee. The trip was stunningly beautiful though, with spring wildflowers everywhere, and the Shangri La of hot springs nestled along the bank of a wild river.

That morning I had a choice to make about my knee: hike 5 miles back the way I’d come the night before and never see the springs, or say “screw it, this is my manly weekend of manliness and I’m going to do the manly thing and pretend my knee doesn’t hurt.” Note that doing it “the manly way” (as an old hiking buddy of mine used to say), generally equals the brute force approach, but is generally inevitable once the idea to do it occurs.

So, I hatched a scheme. I’d leave my tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, stove, fuel, aluminum pot, whiskey, and reading material. I’d then hike 12 miles out and back to the spring. This would help me move faster and agitate my knee less. But it also meant that I’d have to make all the steep miles to the spring and then hike those same miles back.

A few steps in and I knew this might be a bit risky. What if my knee got worse and I couldn’t make it back to my tent? The pain in my knee was really sharp, and I winced with each step. Luckily I had some Ibuprofen in my kit, so I took a couple and went on my way. 30 minutes later everything magically became a bit more doable, and my focus on the pain abdicated to the equally intense beauty all around. I was thankful for both actually, since they were keeping my mind off the difficult weeks I’d had at work recently. The steep river valley fell 1,500 feet below me. All around, the sides of the mountains were covered in a mixture of redwoods and other trees, filled in with wildflowers reaching out into springtime. I was doing the same thing as the wildflowers, and happy to be on the trail after a rainy winter.

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Big Sur is breathtaking, and if I could have kicked myself, I would have for not coming down here yet. I’ve lived only two hours away for nearly a year! Driving in, the scenery had reminded me of the south island of New Zealand, which is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. But now, only a couple hours from home, I’d driven to Big Sur through the same type of landscape, hugging steep cliffs above a both beautiful and angry ocean. The mountains seemed to hurl themselves at the ocean as much as the large winter waves hurled themselves, crashing into the rocky and imposing shoreline below. The mountains here are sheer, nearly every slope coming out of the ocean and quickly rising at 60 degrees or more, all the way to the peaks. These are new mountains by geologic terms, and they were kicking my ass. Like being slapped in a face by a beautiful woman. I couldn’t help but kind of like it, if for nothing else but the attention of someone so painfully beautiful.

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I’m not sure how the body is able to adapt to the stupid ideas the mind comes up with. But as I hiked, I seemed to find novel ways of contorting myself to avoid the most painful parts of my gait. I also found new ways of using my walking stick which had never occurred to me in the 20 years I’d been hiking with it. I made it when I was 12 years old at a summer camp. Everyone should have a walking stick, even better if you made it, and bonus points if you made it when you were a kid. Mine I actually made for my ‘ol hiking buddy: my dad. But, turns out he didn’t like hiking with a stick, and I re-inherited shortly after. It used to be too big for me, but I grew into it soon enough and I remember it being the last thing I grabbed on my way out the door when I headed off for college. Today, it’s hauling me out of the woods rather than the usual me hauling it.

I was in the Ventana wilderness. The trail followed the sheer mountain ridges that tower above the National Wild and Scenic Big Sur River. It wound in and out of deep folds cut into the mountainside as the hills were shaped by drainages. The trail had to cross at just the right spot above or below cliffs each time, and would usually involve a scramble over massive jammed up trees that fell in some wild storm and got lodged there by the water.

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After 4 miles of climbing and descending to and from these crossings, the thought of soaking in the hot spring at my destination kept me going. My knee hurt in a different way on the uphills vs. the downhills, so that was something of a masochist’s reprieve. But I wasn’t going any faster down than up, and overall I’d have 5,000+ feet to gain (and then loose) by the end of the day.

Since I’d gotten an early start, I’d descended to and arrived at the main junction with the river by about 10:00. I’d been told that I needed to hike down it for about a mile to find the “hidden” springs. This information was passed on to me by a very stoned hiker I’d passed going the other way. I was dubious, but I went on anyway. I found the trail winding along the alternating beaches and cliffs that a powerful river often creates as it bends one way and then the other. At last, I found the spring! But the stoner on the trail had said “don’t stop at the first small tubs, keep going and you’ll find some nice big ones.” I didn’t realize that “keep going” meant about 20 feet in stoner speak.  With images of truly secret soaking, I foolishly went on, painful limp and all. In fact, I kept going for a good 40 minutes down river, mostly hiking barefoot as I had to remove my boots to cross and recross the cold river. Always thinking the secret tubs would be just around the next bend.

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When I finally came back to the absolutely stunning and beautiful springs, I was in no mood for company. Luckily there wasn’t anyone else around. The hot spring water comes out of seemingly solid rock face on the side of the river. The tubs are built as if you’d cupped your hand to the side of the rock to create a pocket for the water to pool. Someone had built a few of these with stone and concrete many years ago. All in all there were about 5 tubs, with two being the standout winners for size and placement.

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I got in the one nearest to the river, and the problems of the world and my body simply washed away. I think I was there for about a half an hour before I had a conscious thought. I’d just been staring up at the trees and out at the river in a kind of forest ecstasy. My knee didn’t hurt, the water was amazing, and the river was singing me to sleep. If there were such things as sirens like those in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” they would have made a killing here.

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Eventually it was time to go. Sadly, this place has been “discovered,” and is overrun by college kids and the party scene every weekend. The website with info says don’t go on the weekend, and I’d planned to get in before those types by being here in the morning. It had worked, but now my work was cut out for me as I had to go all the way back to my camp.

The website had been right. I passed groups nearly every 5 or 10 minutes for the next two hours. This tiny hidden gem of a hot spring, which could hold 15 people at most, would be host to 100-200 people this weekend, as usual. It’s really too bad. I’d had my fun and my seclusion before the crowds, but I couldn’t help thinking there should be a way to control access to the place to help preserve it. I’ll admit I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder too, as part of the backpacking community, while most of the people I saw going the other way were clearly there for the party, not the scenery. Hiking with music blaring from portable speakers, getting high on the trail, and hiking in swim shorts. Why couldn’t these folks just go to the beach on the other side of the hills? I guess I’m a grumpy old man with a limp today. Damn kids.

I got back to camp 6 miles later, very weary and sore. But in the time it had taken me to get there, I’d made a difficult decision. My back, other leg, and bracing arm were all aching now too. But I knew that if I stayed here tonight, the 6 miles out in the morning would be even worse. If I just kept pushing, kept going even on sore and tired muscles, it would be better than trying to do it on muscles that had all night to get stiff and stop moving. So I did what seemed kind of impossible, and I packed up my tent and everything else, and I kept going. I’d already done 12 miles. What was another 5?

Well, another 5 miles was a lot of things. It was beautiful and difficult. (I’m done with the analogies to surly females, but you get the point). I’d started the day at first light, and now I was hiking out as the sun reclined. There’s a greater sense of connecting with the landscape when you’re moving through it over the course of the entire day. You get a different, more intimate sense of it. The birds were more active, and the ridges were touched by rim light.

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Three hours and several thousand feet of elevation later, I hiked out of the woods just before needing to use my headlamp. I kissed my walking stick, chucked everything in the back of the car, pretended to stretch for about a minute, and then hit the road. I’d hiked from sunrise to sunset.

The next 30 minutes driving along the coast were every bit as beautiful as they had been on the way in, and there were cars stopped everywhere taking pictures of the sunset over the frothy sea. I felt relief and awe. I felt safe in my little technological bubble, driving home. But I couldn’t help but look at the ocean and think of the sailors that once lived on it in wooden ships. How a moment like this could be theirs every night, exhausted from hard labor all day, but with no coastline to cling to or safe haven. Just the endless sea. It was an eerie feeling, and I knew the only way it could be bearable would be the company of others. I couldn’t wait to get home and call my girlfriend, and tell her all about the epic struggle and success of the trip. Sharing these moments is what really makes them all worth it in the end. Otherwise our suffering and our inspiration mean very little. If I’m honest, I was already composing this story, my modern version of a sea shanty, miles back on the trail. The glory of sharing it with you and everyone I care about gave me that little something extra I needed to get through the miles and the pain—it helped me so I could experience a place that’s truly beautiful and worth sharing.

Thanks for reading —

– J.R.W.