Over the Labor Day weekend, I went backpacking in the Arroyo Seco river. I am not much into backpacking, hadn’t done that in over a decade in fact. This one sounded easy enough though: about 10 miles in 3 days along the riverbed with nice pools to swim in, under the trees and other pretty nature. Ten miles is nothing, right? Various people from the same crowd have done this for years, we’ve heard. Usually, in 2 days, we’ve heard.
We would split into two groups, 5 salmon, and 7 turkey. Salmon would start downstream and work their way upstream. Turkeys would start upstream and “float” down. We would meet in the middle to exchange car keys. I was a turkey. Apart from Paul who organized the whole adventure this year, no turkey had done this hike before.
It was pretty clear from the invitation that, in a nutshell, this is hiking inside of a river. Without a boat. In hindsight, that alone should have suggested that it would be an insane adventure, or, as Aaron told some of the first strangers we ran into toward the end of Day 3: “This is totally nutso, but you should do it.”
It was worse than it sounded. Most of the trail, there was no actual trail. Moving forward was, most of the time, accomplished in one of the following ways:
- Waddle over slippery and shaky rocks in the cold water, water reaching somewhere between the ankles and the neck
- Scramble over shaky but less slippery dry rocks through shrubbery, a lot of which was poison oak
- Swim in cold water
Swimming and water waddling ways had an option of towing one’s gear on a leash pet seal style. Pet seals are fun!
On Day 3, there was that one part where we had to climb, one by one, down a small waterfall while holding onto a rope. Stephanie and I tried a less slippery route and I soon found myself inside of a scene up to that moment only accessible in nightmares: perched on a tiny platform, back against the stone wall, nearly vertical drop of unimaginable height (I am afraid of heights) in front of me, and a laughable piece of rope to supposedly help me get down.
After being cheered, step-by-step guided, and spotted down the waterfall, I had the most beautiful swim of the trip, down a deep narrow canyon, arms and chest resting on top of the pet seal, paddling with my feet slowly, almost not cold.
At the end of Day 1, Bonnie and I started eating while others were still settling in. “We can still say grace with you, if you want,” Bonnie offered helpfully when everyone finally sat down. The offer wasn’t exactly accepted, but we went on anyway. That was the beginning. Here is a more complete version.
I am grateful for this tasty nutritious food in small packages.
I am grateful for the technology, especially, dry bags, water filters, and space blankets.
It was only the evening before the trip when I realized that space blankets mentioned on the list were for real and not one of Paul’s jokes. Space blanket ignorance stood between me and camping all these years by the way!
I am grateful to Matt for bringing extra space blankets and giving me one. Matt is a life saver! Space blanket kept me toasty all three nights, which is so much better than freezing.
I am grateful for occasional dry rocks on the trail.
I am grateful for the beauty of the nature and for this rare chance to get immersed in it for days.
There was the canyon, the river, all sorts of trees. The river was sometimes muddy, but sometimes also very clear and we could see fish, crayfish, and salamanders in it. There were geckos running all over, at least one snake pointing its little red tongue at us, non-ducks, and bats.
The only other people we saw on Day 2 were the salmon, well on track to be done in 2 days. It was so early in the day, I freaked out about not being able to be done in 3 days, which maybe helped with being done in 3 days comfortably.
The rocks were treacherous and also beautiful. The rocks sticking out of the water took animal shapes. The dry bedrock was striped in different colors, and so were the canyon walls.
The waterfall was scary, but it was awesome to have climbed down an actual waterfall. (OK, it was a small and mostly dry waterfall, but let’s not get too technical here.)
There were stars. On the first river night I fell asleep when the sky was still light, and then woke up to see all the stars above us. The sliver moon rose in the middle of the night, and even the sliver was bright enough against the dark sky to wake one up. On the second river night, Sierra, Trebor, and I saw several shooting stars as we lay side by side wrapped in space blankets and sleeping bags on a luxuriously wide patch of sand (no poison oak in sight) watching the sky darken.
I am grateful for my small body that doesn’t need much food or water to function faithfully. It bent, stretched, pushed, and balanced in many helpful ways. It saved me from close calls, and even when it fell, it did so gracefully enough to get up quickly with just a scratch and a bruise here and there. Nothing twisted, nothing broken.
In particular, I’m grateful for the butts. They are often under-appreciated, yet they are so good for softening the falls and for climbing over big slippery rocks all fives style. Butts also usually look quite nice.
I am grateful to Trebor for offering warm embraces of his bigger body when my small one had too much of externally applied cold water.
I am grateful for the wonderful people bringing extra food and gear to share.
I am grateful to Sierra for sharing a spare water bottle.
By now it sounds like I stole food and gear from everyone, which I did, but, to be fair, I brought a first aid kit, including antiseptic wipes, bug spread (the bug spray spraying gadget didn’t work, so we spread), and coffee squares to share, so there.
I am grateful for my sleeping bag staying dry enough through two days in the water to keep me warm for two nights on the river.
I am grateful for the California weather.
I know, I know, the weather has been weird, but as five of us (minus Aaron and Stephanie temporarily separated on a scouting assignment) lay in our sleeping bags side by side on a tiny patch of sand between the rocks and poison oak looking at the darkening sky on the first river night, it was so great to know that we will not get rained on and thus totally screwed.
I am grateful for the sense of friendship and camaraderie that inevitably developed.
By the end of Day 1 it didn’t matter that a bunch of us got butt-naked to optimize drying of the clothes not on the body.
I am grateful for the sense of humor and lighthearted spirit my fellow turkeys showed even when they were having a hard time with all the water and slippery rocks.
We laughed so much, I am not sure if my belly hurt from falling belly down on a rock or from all the laughing.
I am grateful for the support we gave each other,when we took turns having a hard time with all the water and slippery rocks.
I am grateful for the human ability to get up and make the next step: next slippery rock after a fall, into the river after a warm sleeping bag, back into the river after there really has been enough swimming for the day, on a cliff side from the top of a waterfall.
I am grateful for Paul’s insufferable spirit of play and magical presence. What a feat to instigate such an adventure for all of us and to shine all the way through it!
I am grateful for the mind being smart enough to make some good decisions and calculations, and dumb enough to say “Yes” to the adventures like this.
It was glorious.