Day 8: Backbone National Recreation Trail, Pt. Mugu SP, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

Road Miles: 0

Total: 496.5

Trail Miles: 19.7

Total: 60.2

Sites: Backbone Trail, Pt. Mugu SP, Santa Monica Mountains NRA

Not-So-Pro-Tip: If you wouldn’t trust someone with your life, don’t trust them with your hike.

I woke up to dense fog, and everything was fairly soaked since I hadn’t bothered with pitching the fly (I almost never do unless the weather calls for it). I packed up, filled my 2L of water, and started walking. Although I couldn’t see much for the fog, I could still enjoy the zillions of wildflowers along the trail, and the temperature was cool and pleasant. It was a slow start – I definitely felt the impact of not having hiked with a full pack in so long, and also my first fully-loaded hike in my newest trail shoes, the Saucony Peregrines. I quickly realized I am going to need insoles because my feet were definitely not adequately cushioned from the ground.

Despite the assurances that there was no water on the trail, I found it everywhere, the result of the unusually wet winter California has had this year. In the first few miles alone, I crossed water around a dozen times. Now I wish I had brought my filter.

As the morning progressed, the sun burned the fog off, and became progressively stronger and hotter the further I climbed up this almost entirely exposed trail. I stopped for a snack and to enjoy the widening views at a saddle in the Boney Mountain Wilderness and was caught by a Boy Scout group from nearby Moorpark doing a training hike for their weeklong trip this summer in New Mexico. I saw them again shortly before arriving at Split Rock, a bizarre formation that looks like a piece of slightly overdone toast, split neatly in half.

Although it was warming up substantially, the panoramic views opening as the marine layer receded made the walking much easier. Finally, I arrived at another amazing giant rock formation that looked kind of like a submarine I mistook for Sandstone Peak. I texted my support person to report that I had just passed the Peak, and he replied that he had figured I would be hitting the Yerba Buena road crossing around the time arrived back in the area.

I continued on, passing a few other water sources, now cursing myself for not having brought the filter, as I’d already gone through more than a liter, and the next reliable water from a tap on trail was at Encinal Canyon, another dozen or so miles away.

About an hour later, I arrived at signage for the Sandstone Peak spur trail and saw that this is the highest point in the Santa Monica mountains. Oops. Guess the submarine was not Sandstone after all. He’d said the side trip up Sandstone for the views are well worth the 1.2 mile round-trip, so up I went, and I can report that yes, yes they are. There were a lot of people at the top, and it was great to see broad diversity among the hikers who were out, especially great to meet Breana and Treona from Norwalk, who were on their first hike ever!

At this point, I was running low on water, and Casey, Kylee, and David from Los Angeles, who I also met atop the Peak, said they had some extra at the trailhead parking lot. I left the Peak before they did, figuring I would meet them at the lot to pick up the water. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that there are actually two lots people use to access Sandstone Peak, and one of them is not on the Backbone. That must have been where they parked, because I never saw them again.

I was in the Mishe Mokwa trailhead lot, and by now down to less than a half-liter of water. The sun was at its peak, and the only shade in the hot dirt lot was under one scraggly tree that apparently was the trailhead toilet, fully contaminated with human waste and toilet paper.

I texted my support to let him know I was at Mishe Mokwa and low on water. He responded that he was on the road and wanted to park at Encinal Canyon, another 10 miles uptrail, and that I should just continue on and he would run the trail back in my direction with water. I was dumbfounded that he would ask me continue toward Encinal, a section with no less exposure in the hottest part of the day with less than a half-liter of water and no idea when or where he would get to me with water, or how much he would bring. Especially since I was already at a road crossing, he was still driving into the area, and I’d told him that it had developed into a fairly brutally-hot day, and I was already exhibiting symptoms of dehydration. So, I decided to wait around in the parking lot to try to beg enough water off of other hikers returning to their cars to safely get me to Encinal. After about a half hour, I scored when some climbers filled me back up from a 5-gallon jug they’d brought. I texted my support to let him know there was no rush, I now had plenty of water to get to Encinal.

The trail between Mishe Mokwa and the Yerba Buena road crossing was nice, but with views that were more of canyon innards and suburbs. Despite less gain, it was still fairly slow-going. I was still dehydrated, and by now my feet were killing me. I was passed by a trail runner just before the road, where I found a rock to sit on in one of the very few blissful patches of shade. I had just peed for the first time since waking up, another indication of dehydration. Right as the trail runner was disappearing into a SUV that had appeared as if by magic at the road, I heard, “Michelle! What are you DOING? Let’s GO!”

I looked up to see my trail support skittering down the stairs and across the road. He pushed a Gatorade bottle with less than a liter of still-cold water into my hand, and repeated, “what are you doing? I was worried about you. I thought you were maybe hurt or ran out of water or something.” I told him that I’d texted him that I’d gotten water, but had stopped to cool off in the shade a bit because I was dehydrated. He checked his phone and was silent, and we started walking toward Encinal, another 5.6 miles away.

“So, what are your plans for camping tonight?”

“Well, the car’s at Encinal, there’s water there, and I’m already tired and dehydrated, so that’s where I assumed we’d be camping.”

“Well, I thought we’d camp at Kanan Dune, the next trailhead after Encinal.”

I looked at my trail map and saw that Kanan Dune was almost 5 miles past Encinal. “That’s fine, as long as you drop me back at Encinal tomorrow morning to continue hiking.”

“So wait, are you saying you won’t hike another 5 miles today to get to Kanan to camp? It sounds like maybe we’re camping in different places then.”

Now I’m pissed. “Yeah, no. I’m not ready to commit to that right now. I’m tired, my feet are killing me, and I really don’t want to go further than Encinal today. I’ll have already done almost 20 [miles] by the time I get there. Are you saying you’re not willing to drive me 10 minutes back down-trail in the morning so I can start back up where I stopped? I mean, really. I would have been here a lot faster if you’d brought me water at Mishe Mokwa, AND I could have slack-packed this whole section.”

“Oh,” his voice turned snide, “I *thought* I heard some attitude from you when I told you to just keep going. If you hadn’t taken such long breaks and smoked your guts out all day you wouldn’t have needed so much water.”

“Um, I’ve only had 3 smokes all day, and if by ‘taking long breaks’ you mean sitting around a hot, exposed, dusty parking lot waiting to beg for water from other people, then maybe you have a point.”

“Is this how you’re going to be? If this is how you’re going to be then I don’t want to walk with you. I can just run back.”

“You know what? That’s fine. I really don’t give a fuck what you do.”

“I just want to run back to the car and give you your stuff and leave.”

“Get after it, then.”

And with that, he took off jogging along along the trail, leaving me furious… and worried.

By now, my phone charge was down to less than 30% and it contained my only map of the trail, my capacity to take pictures to document the hike, my ability to figure out how to get back to public transit at the end of the trail or call someone to pick me up, and I had no way to charge it as I’d counted on plugging it into the car. I’d have 3L worth of water containers to carry to the next reliable source of water, more than 16 miles from Encinal, and considering how dehydrated I already was, I’d need at least all of that. And, I now had no car to camp in, so was looking at pitching in a roadside trailhead I hadn’t yet seen, I only knew there was water available at a building across the street from the trailhead.

I picked up my pace, worried that he’d get impatient and take off with my food and gear. When I descended into the large exposed dirt lot at Encinal (once again, the only tree in use as the toilet), I saw him pacing around his car. He saw me, rushed over, and shoved a gallon-sized Ziploc he’d labeled “Michelle – BBT thru-hiker” full of my food and gear into my hands and pointed across the road. “There’s water over there on the back side of that first building.” Apparently he had been planning to just leave the baggie somewhere around the trailhead for me to find, like an Easter egg hunt crossed with the Hunger Games.

I said not a word as I took the bag and headed across the street. He called out behind me, “the next water is around 18 miles away.” I didn’t acknowledge or respond, just kept walking. He got into his car and drove off.

I got across the street, passed the “No Trespassing” sign, and saw that the water source is in a conservation camp, where prisoners are trained to be frontline responders to fires and other disasters. I hear voices over the camp PA announcing dinner. “Are you fucking kidding me?” I think to myself as I pounded a liter of water. “I’m gonna pitch a tent across the street and try to sleep here?” (I should mention that I am an insomniac.)

I felt angry, exhausted, dehydrated, and mildly panicked. I looked down at the phone – 18% battery remaining. I decided to use it to call someone I actually DO trust with my life, and this is why:

“Hey. Shit got really fucked out here and now I’m stranded at an open dirt trailhead across the street from a fucking prison camp. Can you come get me?”

“Send me your location, and I’m on my way.”

Then, I broke out the wine.

So, there are many lessons to be had from this trip, and they are all pretty much common sense. Unfortunately, I had let my desire to get back outside and on a trail override mine.

I didn’t do adequate due diligence in researching the trail. I should have known that recent rains would result in water being present at any likely natural source and brought my filter. I should have brought the plug for my phone charger cable. I should have been prepared to be absolutely self-reliant if I indeed wished to Hike My Own Hike, and not the hike planned out for me by someone else to suit his own convenience. I knew this person was volatile, moody, and unpredictable, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt, never imagining things would go so far off-track. Once again, my desire to get out trumping my common sense and intuition. It cost me my ability to complete the hike with peace of mind; I was not prepared to do it without the support I’d been promised. It was hard to let it go, even though the day had turned into a nightmare, but things could have gone much worse.

So again, if you wouldn’t trust someone with your life, don’t trust them with your hike. At best, maybe the hike is ruined, at worst, well… you can imagine the possibilities.