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

Since this story was originally published, several people have pointed out that the location of this hike has become crowded with hikers who have made a mess of the place. We’ve removed direct references to where it is. – Ed.

About 20 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 ton 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 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 budget (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 booze. Some pot too.

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 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 some natural hot springs, via a trail I thought led there. 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 trail I was headed for 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 a campsite, 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 soggy 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 bit hungover. But I’d come for the hot springs, so I broke camp and trudged along the trail.

When I arrived at the springs, just 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 the place 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. The sound kept building and building and I sat in my pool, trying to imagine what was headed my way. I was unprepared for what I saw.

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 jiggling away into the distance.

Then, silence.

I took another drag from my joint, and dug into my bag for the last piece of fried chicken. Backpacking is weird, I thought. And totally awesome.

When’s the last time you read yourself some Abbey? Get him here:

Desert Solitaire
The Monkeywrench Gang
Fire on the Mountain
Hayduke Lives!
The Best of Edward Abbey



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