Men Backpacking in Kilts

It took fifty-one years, but I finally got a tattoo. My inner left bicep now reads, “Sed omnia praeclara tam difficilia, quam rara sunt.

It’s the last line of the book Ethica by a 17th century philosopher named Baruch Spinoza, whom I vaguely understand and appreciate, thanks to high school Philosophy. It’s the only class that stuck with me from those four years, even though I wish it had been Econ or Woodshop. I’d much rather be able to build bookends or understand my daughter’s 529 college savings plan than be able to roughly grasp what some dead white guy wrote four hundred years ago.

I chose Latin because Spinoza wrote Ethica in Latin. (I’m fancy like that.) It means, “But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.”

I tattooed this on my arm because everything I treasure in life, my daughter, my marriage, the rest of my family, my fitness, my career, my vinyl collection, has required hard work. And I understand how fleeting it all is. And now that it’s inked into my flesh, I’m stuck living by this creed for the duration. So, as the scabs healed a few weeks back, it only made sense to ramp up our 2022 John Muir Trail backpacking training with a three-day jaunt along the Pacific Crest Trail in the Angeles National Forest.

We decided to do it wearing kilts, specifically, 5.11 Tactical Kilts. We chose them for their comfort, durability, price point, and functionality—albeit not the manufacturer’s intended functionality. The 5.11 website advertises that the kilt’s cargo pockets can hold, “two 30-round AR magazines” and “three full-size pistol magazines,” which is quite different from the trail mix, mandarin oranges, and map I kept in cargo pockets.

“Hiking in a skirt is the best!”

We planned to start Friday morning at the Three Points Trailhead and end Sunday afternoon at Indian Canyon, 42 miles north. I would drive Kevin and Don to Three Points, where we’d leave the Subaru. Chris, who couldn’t make the whole trip, would drive to Indian Canyon on Sunday, hike south to meet us, and drive us back to my car. My wife, Marilyne, bowed out with the lame excuse that she would be “in France” that weekend. (She actual was in France, but still.)

Halfway through our planned route, the map indicated a 17.5 mile “water desert” between Pony Park and North Folk Saddle, meaning there were no streams or spigots from which hikers could refill their bottles, so Don drove up the day before and stashed three gallons of water at the top of Mount Gleason, about two-thirds of the way through the “desert.”

We arrived at Three Points after heavier traffic than expected, pulled on our packs, and asked an elder woodsman waiting for his hiking buddies to take a photo of the three of us. He was impressed by the kilts.

“Let’s see how those skirts treat you tonight on Mount Pacifico,” he mused as he snapped away on my iPhone. “Forecast calls for snow.”

The moment I got my phone back, I checked the weather. 10% chance of rain. I check my Garmin watch. Also 10% chance of rain. I asked Kevin to check his iPhone and Garmin, in case the tiny meteorologists crammed into his technology might have a different opinion, but they agreed with the 10% prediction. Elder woodsman, my butt! We downgraded him to “some crazy old guy,” and headed out.

We made good ground quickly. Kevin took the lead. Don took the rear guard. I took the middle, where I offered my standard stream of consciousness babbling. Hiking with me is kind of like hiking with the transistor radio from Gilligan’s Island. I offer a steady stream of off-putting information that usually propels the plot, and my battery never, ever runs out.

Most of the route consisted of single track carved into the sides of various hills and mountains. Pushing through the overgrown bushes along the trail gave it a fun, Indiana Jones vibe. However, some parts were vegetation-free, so without the benefits of roots, the path became sandy and loose. If you got too close to the edge, the path gave way. This also had an Indiana Jones vibe, but not so fun.

Credit: Girl Scout Troop 5126

I was deep into a dissertation on the benefits of keyhole firepits, which I’d read about the night before in Bushcraft 101: A Field Guide to the Art of Wilderness Survival, therefore making me an expert on the topic. Frankly, the Field Guide makes more sense to me than Ethica, but it’s not as quotable, so I probably won’t use it as inspiration for my next tattoo—although a keyhole firepit illustration might look pretty rad…

Anyway, I heard a loud scuffle behind me and turned just in time to see Don skid to a halt at my feet. The path had given out and he’d thrown himself forward trying to protect his bad ankle. In so doing, he’d scraped up his elbow and, thanks to the kilt, his knee—and still messed up the ankle.

We gave him a moment to adjust his kilt and regain his modesty. Then we discussed our options. We could turn back and hike five miles to the Subaru or we could go forward seven miles to our destination for the night. Don taped up his injury and decided to soldier on.

Along the way, we ran into the crazy old guy again, who had met his group, driven further north, and was now backtracking the opposite direction. Despite the lack of clouds, he renewed his threat of snow. One of his companions, a diminutive older woman with short, white hair, grabbed my arm as she passed me. “Hiking in a skirt is the best,” she insisted. “It’s the only way I hike!”

She was wearing pants.

Break rocks, not ankles.

By the time we arrived at Mount Pacifico, Don’s ankle felt okay. It was only two o’clock, so we

pressed on for a couple more miles to lessen tomorrow’s milage burden. It was true masculine logic: aggravate a fresh injury more now so that you can aggravate it less after it’s healed a little.

After a few more miles, we came to a clearing that wasn’t an official campsite, but it was flat with traces of a couple campfires—although not keyhole—and it featured a beautiful view. Over the last hour, clouds had begun to gather to the north. In the unlikely event that the old guy was right, it seemed prudent to put up some shelter.

The clouds rolled in as we set up our tents. It began raining to the north. Twenty minutes later, it was also raining to the east. We watched helplessly as every conceivable type of cloud surrounded our site. Cumulus, stratus, stratocumulus, mushroom, nine, silver-lined, you name it—a meteorologist’s wet dream.

Once camp had been set up, Don and Kevin sat on their bear canisters as I occupied myself with breaking the big rocks littering the site. I didn’t have much luck at first, until I discovered that if you put a smaller rock on a bigger rock and dropped another big rock on the pile from about five feet up, the middle rock would shatter. At one point, a woman holding up her iPhone wandered into our camp. I thought she wanted to document my quarry work, but it turns out that she was filming herself and missed the trail.

Once I finished smashing stones, I joined the other boys, leaning my backpack against a log as a back support. As we sat there discussing nothing, a white speck landed on my kilt. Then another. First, I thought it was ash from a distant wildfire, but then I realized that it was snow.

At first, we resigned ourselves to spending the rest of the day inside our tents, but after rigorous debate, we elected stay outside, toughing out the elements, making the sole concession of putting on underwear. My underwear happened to be wool. I was grateful.

Luckily, the snow subsided quickly. The cold that caused it did not. As we hopped around, trying to keep warm, a young couple hiked into our site, probably thru-hikers judging by their gear and the fine layer of filth covering their entire beings. We assumed they had missed the trail.

“The trail’s back there to the left,” I offered.

“We know,” snapped the woman. I sensed pique. “We’re staying in this site tonight.”

Her response lacked decorum, but there was plenty of room, so whatever. They hemmed and hawed for a while, eventually picking a flat patch behind a tree. As the man set their tent up, the woman came back to chat, perhaps to make up for the fact that we got off on the wrong foot.

Her name was Jocelyn. He was Landon. They’d started at the southern end of the Pacific Crest Trail and had traveled over 400 miles so far. Their quest dwarfed our little weekender, but I’m also certain our mortgages and childcare needs dwarfed theirs. Either way, we plumbed her for hiking advice until she returned to help Landon.

We set up our Jetboils and all made our dehydrated dinners. I had a lupini bean, couscous, and veggie mixture that Marilyne had concocted. Kevin had a Mexican rice-and-bean thing he had concocted. Don took the soft option and had a pre-packaged Mexican concoction. They were all delicious and packed with fiber, which can be a good thing or a bad thing when backpacking, depending on who you share a tent with and how you feel about pooping outdoors.

After dinner, Kevin and I had ginger tea and bourbon. Don hadn’t brought evening libations, so I shared my ginger tea but not my bourbon. At around 7:00pm, the cold became overwhelming, so we all retired to our tents, where we all read until the numbness in our fingers made it impossible to turn pages or push Kindle buttons. A brief survey the next morning revealed that we’d all been asleep by 8:00pm. My mummy sack kept me warm enough, except my exposed face, a problem I solved by pulling my black Smartwool neck gaiter up over my head for the night.

Snow blind.

The other guys were up before dawn, puttering around the campsite. I lay in the darkness ignoring them as best I could, but eventually my bladder got the best of me. Upon opening my eyes, I discovered that I’d gone blind overnight.

Grasping my eyes in terror revealed the reason for my blindness: I still had the gaiter pulled up over my face. I yanked it down and squinted at the glare. It’d actually been daylight for quite some time.

Because of the cold, I elected to put on pants this morning instead of the kilt. I stumbled out of my tent into a winter wonderland. Everything was covered in frost, including my bear cannister, a sturdy, plastic tub designed to be bear-proof. When frozen shut, it’s also human-proof, making coffee extraction a challenge.

I desperately clawed at the ice barricading my morning caffeine. I growled in frustration, understanding for the first time the plight of woodland scavengers in the era of sealable, impact-resistant polymer containers. Kevin emerge from behind the “bathroom” bush and cleared his throat loudly. “Good morning,” he chirped. “It’s a pants day, is it?”

I turned around. He stood before me, on this 40-degree morning, resplendent in his full, kilted glory.

“Damn you, Kevin,” I muttered as I dropped my bear cannister and crawled back to my frosted tent to put my kilt on.

The Twinkie divining rod.

Unfortunately, Don’s ankle had swollen badly overnight. He taped it up as best he could; we ate breakfast; we bid adieu to Landon and Jocelyne, who had been speaking with her mother on her iPhone all morning; and we headed out, pondering why someone would want to talk on the phone instead of enjoying the surrounding beauty.

Within a mile, it was clear that Don’s ankle wasn’t going to make it. We decided to get him to Pony Park, where someone could drive up the N3 and pick him up. As he called Chris for a ride, I noted this as a specific example of where someone would want to talk on the phone instead of enjoying the surrounding beauty. I really need to stop judging people, especially the ones who have just hiked 400 miles.

The one hiccup of losing Don, besides losing Don, was finding the water he’d hidden. Upon limping into Pony Park, he pulled out the map and a series of photos he’d taken of the drop. He instructed us to look for a sign with green gardener’s tape wrapped around it, turn a hard right, walk 100 feet, and we’d find the three gallons behind a log. He then mumbled something about additional tape around a second sign, but whatever. Klaatu barada necktie. We got it.

Having confirmed that Chris would pick Don up, Kevin and I topped off our water bottles and headed out just as Jocelyn and Landon emerged from the trail. We made it about a quarter mile before Kevin pointed out that Don still had the map. We spent another quarter mile feeling confident that we didn’t need the map, then realized this was stupid and backtracked to Pony Park, where we found Don holding court with the youngsters, using the map to reveal to them the hiding spot for the water. Three gallons is a lot, so there was plenty to go around.

That said, Landon wasn’t all that appreciative. He looked up from his iPhone and the squished-up Twinkie he was eating. “Guthook shows there’s water much closer,” he claimed, wiping a blob of cream filling from the screen. Guthook is an app. It’s like Waze for hikers. “Says right here, ‘A cool, clear stream 13.5 miles away.’”

Our National Geographic Pacific Crest Trail: San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mtns map didn’t report the stream, probably because the stream was seasonal. Either way, technology had failed us once this trip with a faulty weather prediction, so we decided to stay old school and headed on our way, trusty map in hand.

Penises with legs.

Physical activities with Kevin can be challenging, mostly because we’re both dumb guys. Yes, we’re both loving, nurturing fathers and husbands committed to living upstanding lives, but once you strip away the artifices of society, we’re also just two penises with legs, locked in perpetual one-upmanship. Today was no exception. Sure, the views were pretty, but no matter how hungry or thirsty we were, no matter how bad a knee hurt, no matter how big a blister swelled, there was no way in hell that one of us would allow the other to go faster or longer than the other down the trail. This is how it’s always been between us. I’m certain that we’ll both live to a ripe, old age because we’ll both hold out until the other one dies first.

In other words, the search for Don’s water quickly escalated into a testosterone-fueled vision quest. We stopped briefly to wolf down packets of tuna, tortillas, and dried fruit for lunch, but beyond that, it was full speed ahead.

We found the green tape marker at mile 11, a mile further than Don had predicted, in an open field littered with fallen logs. Dozens of them. We took a hard right and looked behind the first log—no water. Then the second log—still no water. As we looked behind log after log, our panic grew. Ironically, we’d hammered down the trail so aggressively that we both forgotten to drink, so we still had plenty of water—but we were also both dehydrated and scared to use up this precious resource.

We searched around for 30 minutes, regrouped, spoke poorly of Don, and continued. 6.5 more miles to water would be grim, but 2.5 miles seemed doable, so we prayed Landon’s Guthook was right.

The gravity of the situation put a dampener on the conversation—or at least the perceived gravity. In our minds, it was a Lawrence of Arabia situation where death by dehydration was eminent. In reality, we were a few miles from civilization on a trail packed with other hikers and it wasn’t even that hot. The worst-case scenario featured us just getting really thirsty.

When Boy Scouts kill.

We were horrified to arrive at Guthook’s creek to find nothing more than a damp patch. I stared in disbelief as Kevin slumped to the ground. The struggle was real. (Again, the struggle wasn’t really real, but it was exciting to act like it was.)

“Maybe if we go upstream, we could find a usable puddle,” Kevin muttered without looking up.

“On it!” I declared. I dropped my pack and clambered along a series of wet patches up the steep bank. Low and behold, about 30 feet up, I found a shallow, muddy puddle being fed by a thin trickle.

“We’re saved!” I shouted down to Kevin. 30 feet isn’t that far, so I didn’t need to shout, but it added to the melodrama. Kevin grabbed my MSR Miniworks EX Water Filter and a couple water bottles out of our packs and climbed up after me. The MSR is a big, bright red, unwieldy pump that looks like it fell off the back of a fire truck. It’s shunned by many backpackers for its weight and bulk. I intended on upgrading, but now I’m not so sure. Only a filter this industrial could pull clean water out of a pool this small and muddy.

We toasted to our large pump and our mountain man resourcefulness, pulled on our packs, and headed onward. After about 100 feet, the trail intersected with a rutted fire road with a huge log in the middle of it, suggesting it was not in use. Although you’re not technically supposed to camp this close to the trail, we’d completely exhausted ourselves. Kevin’s knee hurt and a blister had engulfed my entire left middle toe, so we stopped for the day. Kevin found a nice flat spot just off the road. I found another flat spot, but it was almost on the trail itself, so I wandered up and down the fire road neurotically for 20 minutes and eventually decided to set up right in the middle of the road. After all, what could possibly go wrong with that choice?

By the time I had my tent spread out, I’d thought of about eight things that could go wrong when setting up camp in the middle of a pathway intended for motorized vehicles. At least three involved death or maiming. To Kevin’s great amusement, I changed my mind and relocated to the spot by the trail instead.

This turned out to be the right choice when, 20 minutes later, a ranger truck came barreling down the road, coming to a stop in front of the log. The young ranger climbed out of the truck, looking more like a boy scout than a forest ranger, He put his hands on his hips, tilted his head, and stared at the obstacle with a “Gee whiz” expression on his face.

Because we were camped too close to the trail, and wearing kilts, and I had a tattoo (which was covered by my shirt, but that’s beside the point), I hypothesized that the boy scout might give us the boot, so I sprang to action, helping him push the log out of the way while regaling him with a slightly heightened version of our dehydration tale of woo. Frankly, I don’t think he cared and, patrolling a forest just north of the second largest city in the US, he probably had to deal with people a lot weirder than a couple middle-aged guys in skirts. No boot was given.

As he drove away, I glanced at my watch. It was 3pm. I looked at Kevin. “Now what?”

Damn Millennials and their Hostess products.

We stared at nothing in particular for a while, which wasn’t such a bad thing considering how tired we were. Proper seating would have been nice, but we settled for lounging on the gravel, with a cement levee intended to control the non-existent creek serving as a backrest. A couple hours later, Jocelyn and Landon came down the trail.

“You find the water?” Kevin asked.

“Yeah,” said Landon. “Didn’t really need it though. Just topped off our bottles and left the rest as a Trail Angel donation.” Good Samaritans often leave food and drinks on the Pacific Crest Trail for thru-hikers. They’re called Trail Angels. But the young couple’s philanthropic ways didn’t soften the humiliating fact that they’d found the water when we hadn’t and that they weren’t thirsty when we were. What’s more, they had enough energy to continue hiking another four miles to the North Fork Saddle campground, as to enjoy the relative comforts of picnic tables, toilets, and all-you-can-drink water.

They dropped their packs, unwrapped what I think was a Ho Ho, and hung out for a while. As it turns out, they only found the water accidently because Landon had gone extra far into the woods to poop and stumbled onto the second tape-wrapped sign that Don had not (in my opinion) mentioned in a meaningful way.

After they’d gone, we pondered their vitality. Neither of them seemed especially fit and, from what we’d seen, their diet consisted heavily of Hostess products.

“But they took their time,” Kevin noted. “I guess it’s not that difficult when you make it easy.”

He had a point. We were stuck sitting here for six hours with blistered toes and swollen knees while they were having a leisurely walk in the woods, taking in the beauty all around them.

We thought on the concept for a while since we had no shortage of time for meditation. Tomorrow would be different. Kevin proposed that we wake up at dawn, hike the four miles to North Fork Saddle, and have breakfast there.

For dinner, we ate and drank the same stuff we ate and drank 24 hours ago and called it a night. Our dumpy, little spot was easily seven degrees warmer than the clearing from last night, allowing for bedtime reading without frostbite. That said, I dozed off at dusk and fell sound asleep by nightfall. I had yet to turn on my headlamp during this trip.

They got this new thing; It’s called a “picnic table.”

We awoke at dawn and hit the trail within 20 minutes. About a mile into it, we came to a flat spot overlooking the hills and valley we’d spent yesterday torturing ourselves across. It was resplendent in the morning light. I mourned the missed opportunity to camp here. Kevin completely disagreed. Being able to tell people the story of how Denis nearly got flattened by a park ranger was worth more to him than any epic vista.

The North Fork Saddle campground was deserted when we arrived. Jocelyne and Landon had probably headed out hours ago. We staked out a picnic table half-in-the-shade and feasted on oatmeal, trail mix, coffee, and cocoa at a leisurely pace. I sipped my coffee. Kevin savored his cocoa. I made a little video about how I mix my backpacking oatmeal with Shakeology to post on social media because A) I like it, B) I work for Beachbody, and C)  you don’t need to be a millennial to be a narcissist.

We drank water, filled our bottles, and drank more water. It was 45 minutes well-spent.

Someone had left a fancy carbon Leki trekking pole next to the trash, probably because they lost or broke the other one in the set. Neither of us had ever seen the machismo in hiking with poles, even though every PCT thru-hiker we encountered had a pair, but I took it with me anyway because, well, free stuff. Also, my blistered middle toe had become a fleshy nub of puss and flappy skin, so it was nice to have something to lean on.

I noticed that Kevin was also hobbling at this point, thanks to his knee. I offered him the pole. To my surprise, he accepted and we spent the rest of the trip passing it back and forth. We’d gone from courageous highlanders to broken old men in skirts in a matter of hours. At one point, Kevin even mumbled, “I’m gonna look into this whole trekking pole thing.” I’m sure he’s already picked up a pair from REI.

The Tartas Ahogadas Las Originales Mexican Bar and Grill in Newhall.

We shuffled along the trail for another hour or two. We stopped to take in the views, consulted the maps just for fun, rhapsodized about the magic of trekking poles, and just enjoying each other’s company. It was different from the previous day’s beat down. When we met Chris about two miles from the end, I passed the pole to Kevin. I now had a fresh audience for my stream of consciousness babbling, which was the only crutch I needed.

By the time we arrived at Indian Canyon, Kevin and I were exhausted. It was clear that only three things could offer us solace. Given we still had to shuttle back to my Subaru and drive home, a shower and a bed were off the table for several hours, which left the third thing. Chris knew exactly what to do. She asked Siri, “Where’s the best Mexican food near me?” and we soon found ourselves at the cumbersomely-named-yet-delicious Tartas Ahogadas Las Originales Mexican Bar and Grill in Newhall. Grubby and beskirted, we received a few strange looks from the entirely Latino clientele, followed by nods of respect. I guess they thought that any guy willing to walk into a sit-down restaurant wearing a filthy skirt must have cajones.

Over beers and burritos, we discussed how to improve our hiking strategy. Sometimes, it’s fun

to go hard, but if we take on a three-week-plus hike like the John Muir Trail, we’ll need to learn how to slow down and enjoy the miles. We decided to start working on that strategy for our next hike, which we immediately penciled in for the weekend after next.

These outings with my friends are excellent, but they were never rare and they’re about to become a lot less difficult.

So, what am I going to do about this damn tattoo?