Intro to Backpacking: Nudity, Fried Chicken, and a Fifth of Bourbon

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About 15 years ago I went on my very first overnight backpacking trip. It was also my very first solo backpacking trip. I was in my early 20s and to that point had very little camping experience. But I lived right next door to Big Sur, I’d been reading a shitload of Edward Abbey, and I was in a jobless period with almost nothing to my name but a staggering amount of free time.

I also didn’t have any gear. I spent an afternoon shopping at a nearby Army/Navy surplus store, wandering amid aisles of helmets, knives, and those weird ninety-degree angle flashlights that soldiers used to carry. There was an actual mountaineering store in my town, and I knew it would have far better camp gear, but I was on a very fixed income (six months of saving while slaving away at the San Luis Obispo Jiffy Lube) so the Army/Navy store would have to do. I picked up an ancient Jansport external frame backpack and a heavy cotton sleeping bag. My roommate had an enormous car-camping tent, and not knowing any better, I borrowed that.

This was before the internet existed as we know it, and sure, I could have researched proper backpacking gear in a book, but ole’ Abbey always just threw a can of beans and a hunk of salt pork in a canvas bag and didn’t give a damn about what anything weighed. I figured a tent, a sleeping roll, and some food and water was all a man needed to sleep outside.

Well, and weed and booze of course.

The morning I left, I stopped by a chain supermarket and headed for the deli. I picked up a fried chicken dinner deal and a gallon of water and a fifth of bourbon. I pointed my truck north, the greasy wonderful scent of fried chicken filling the cab, and imagined myself majestically setting up camp overlooking…well, I had no idea really. I was headed for the Sykes Hot Springs, via the Pine Ridge Trail. I had no map. I had no compass. I had no idea that ten miles was a very long way to hike with an uncomfortable pack, close to 20 pounds worth of tent and sleeping bag, and while carrying a gallon jug of water. I had no idea that the Pine Ridge Trail is a full-on asskicker, gaining and losing absurd amounts of elevation. I also had no idea whether or not I needed a permit or reservation to camp out there. I figured what the hell, there’s plenty of trees to camp behind, I’ll be fine. Basically, I had no idea I was a complete idiot.

In retrospect, I can’t believe I made it.

The hike was painful and cruel, and like lots of first timers, I wondered what the hell people went backpacking for in the first place. I wondered that for most of the morning, during an uncomfortable lunch swarmed by mosquitos and sitting on a rotten log, and I wondered it into the afternoon when I stumbled into a chest-high tangle of poison oak. I continued wondering it for another hour or so until I walked into Barlow Flats camp, a couple miles short of the hot springs. Though it was mid-spring, it was a weekday and there was nobody there. I was far too tired to continue walking, and deep in a redwood grove it was already growing dark. I clumsily set up camp, wolfed down about 5,000 calories of grease-soaked chicken, gloppy potato salad, and chalky white bread rolls. I chased everything with bourbon and a poorly rolled joint.

In the morning I awoke confused and a little hungover. But I’d come for the hot springs, so I broke camp and trudged along the trail.

Sykes Hot Springs are a potentially glorious, though most often overrun and somewhat disgusting, series of geothermal pools along the Big Sur River. Like the camp the night before, there was nobody home. I stripped down to swim trunks, and plopped into a tub. Years of candle remnants rimmed the rock wall of my little boiling pool. I set one aflame, and settled in to relieve my aching feet. Backpacking was easy, I thought, lighting up the last of my joints, and enjoying Big Sur just the way countless people had before me.

It was then that I heard splashing, faint at first, then much, much louder. Like a marching band stomping through the river toward me, just around the bend. Soon people began streaming into view, dozens of them, walking silently. They each looked at me and smiled, some giving me a funny little wave.

All of them were totally naked. Save for river sandals.

Men, women, old and young. A cross-section of human bodies of all sizes, genders, and shapes. I watched them plod by, their buttocks bouncing away into the distance. Then, silence. I took another drag from my joint, and dug into my bag for the last piece of soggy fried chicken. Backpacking is weird, I thought. And totally awesome.

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