Will Rogers State Historic Park to Trippet Ranch
25 miles: out and back on the Backbone Trail 11.5 each way; 1 mile to and from the trailhead inside WRSHP
Not really any elevation gain or loss to speak of; a few hundred feet, probably
About 7 hours walking and 30 minutes for lunch
So, I was thinking about going to the Grand Canyon later in the year, and when I started reading about walking in and around the canyon, I came across what some call a "classic" walk: rim to rim in a day. The walk is about 23 miles in total with an elevation drop and then gain of about 6,000 feet each way. While some call it classic, others call it crazy. The National Park Service literature warns against attempting it. But trip reports around the internet prove that it's done quite often. In fact, it seems that it's more often run than walked. Anyway, all of this piqued my interest. What would it be like to walk across the Grand Canyon without stopping? What would it be like to walk across the Grand Canyon without stopping, alone?
I mentioned to a friend or two that I'd heard of people walking from one rim of the Grand Canyon to the other in a single day and was roundly, vigorously discouraged from attempting it. But my trip was months away; it couldn't hurt to do a little experimenting to test whether I was fit enough for such an adventure. To be safe, I decided to do one walk approximating the distance and another one approximating the elevation gain and loss. Since I often walk in Will Rogers State Historic Park and have also walked a bit near Trippet Ranch in Topanga State Park, it seemed like a nice idea to use the Backbone Trail to link the two, and the distance was just a little bit longer than the 23-mile estimates of the rim to rim grand Canyon walk with very little elevation gain and loss. I chose a convenient Saturday in July and put it on the calendar.
This would be, by far, the longest walk I'd ever taken, but since I knew there was water at Trippet Ranch, I wouldn't have to bring more than I would for a walk of half the length. I packed my ten essentials, including two liters of plain water; one liter of water with honey, lemon, salt, and baking soda for electrolyte replacement; my usual arsenal of snacks: beet juice, hard boiled eggs, cheese, almonds, apricots, quinoa and black bean salad, and carob bars with spirulina; first aid kit; extra clothing; map and compass; matches; headlamp... When I woke around five o'clock in the morning, it was still dark, but I could tell the sky was overcast. I was relieved: the day before had been the warmest, sunniest day of the spring to date, and I was worried that the heat might only increase. I drove up through the fog to the Pacific Palisades and parked my car as daylight took hold. Cinching up my backpack straps and telescoping my trekking poles, I walked away from my car, not really knowing when I would be back...
It was six o'clock in the morning, and by the time I got to the trailhead, about a mile from my car, I had already sweated through my clothes. I took off my long-sleeved shirt, stowed it in my pack, and looked up into the mist. Patches of sun were already breaking through. I started to worry that I was in for it, but I started up the single-track Backbone Trail toward Chicken Ridge. At the height of land where the trail's upward trajectory makes a gentle slope down into a more lush riparian landscape, I looked out to the sea and then dipped beneath the ivy-covered branches.
The farther I went on the Backbone Trail, the more I realized how few people must pass through there. The trail was completely overgrown with grasses as tall as I am. Covered in spiderwebs and morning dew, the feathery grasses tickled my face and left sticky bits of web and flecks of pollen all over me. The high grasses disguised lower brambles that ceaselessly scratched at my bare calves. It was awful in the way that only the merely unpleasant can be: not really that awful but just so annoying. I thought that things couldn't go on forever this way, but with every slight turn of the trail, it looked like more of the same. And so it was. For at least three miles. Three miles...
When I finally emerged onto a wide, red fire road, I was elated. To the west, the remaining inversion layer lay heavily in the little canyons of the northern reaches of Los Angeles, and to the east, a bright blue sky rose up above the brush. I walked. And then I walked some more. And I had to admit that I was really, really bored. I kept trying to remind myself that the desert is a place that reveals its beauty through close attention over time, but the truth is, the scenery along the Backbone Trail, at least in this section, just isn't that great. I tried to entertain myself by looking closely at things and then by looking out into the distance. Maybe I would learn something. Maybe the desert would open up some secret to me. In front of me: dust. Way out all around me: dust. I meditated, focusing on sensations in my body: I was really, really hot, and there was no denying the swelling in my feet or the pain near the back of each of my heels.
I finally crossed over the Temescal Fire Road and got my bearings. I knew I had to be relatively close to Eagle Rock. Indeed, after a few turns in the road, I emerged onto the familiar fire roads winding around the massive rock formation. I saw the park service map standing in the distance with a few people hanging around in the shade of the kiosk it stood next to and realized that the only other people I'd seen so far were a family sitting in a little outcropping off of one of the fire roads a few miles back. They were all in regular street clothes, sitting in the dirt with a couple of big bottles of soda and maybe some snacks. It was weird. They didn't respond to my greeting. I imagined that, on my way back, I would surely find them all lying there, dead, victims of a familial suicide in the far reaches of Topanga State Park. Sure, I was bored, but I guess I had also been letting my mind go to some dark, Didion-esque places... But over here, closer to the trailheads, the folks were all L.A. Saturday morning cheer: trail runners, mountain bikers, and casual walkers alike were out for a weekend turn. I'd already been walking for three hours. I passed Eagle Rock and, with much gratitude, descended onto the Musch Trail. From here to Trippet Ranch, I knew, the views would be much more lovely, and I would probably even find a lick or two of shade. Despite the pain in my heels, my mood was significantly elevated. I drank deeply; it was hot, and I was hungry. In addition to the change of scene, the water was a sweet palliative, and I picked up my pace.
As I delighted in the shady, twisting single-track path leading out to the meadow just east of Topanga camp, I rounded a tight bend and came this close to a head-on collision with a very speedy trail runner. My heart was pounding as he passed, yelling out, "A few more behind me!" I gingerly continued a couple more steps before another came bounding toward me, forcing me to step aside into the bushes. I repeated this pattern another eight or ten times until reaching the meadow, where I encountered the last runner in the pack. He was walking, decidedly heavier than rest of his ridiculously fit (and all quite handsome, I might add) compadres. "Are you all training for something?", I asked. He responded that, yes, they were training to run some difficult-sounding trail race coming up in a few weeks, snidely adding, "Some of us need it more than others."
At Topanga camp, I encountered a young couple. They were clearly charmed by the little camp and the meadow rolling out below it. They asked me, "How long is the trail?" By that point, I'd come about ten miles. I'd been meditating most of the way and hadn't spoken much more beyond the exchange described above. I guess I was in what could be called a philosophical state of mind, and I took his question to mean something entirely larger than what he was actually asking me. I stammered something about how it depends on which way you go, there are shorter walks and longer ones... Every response I could think of called to mind one hackneyed metaphor or another, and all the poor guy wanted to know was what he was in for on his little stroll in Topanga Canyon. Instead, they got the crazy walking lady.
Finally at Trippett Ranch, I sat down on a bench in the shade. I was ravenous. I ate my lunch quickly while mulling over the situation with my feet; they were quite swollen, and I could tell from the pain that I'd already developed at least one large blister on each heel. I thought about the moleskin, bandages, and clean socks in my pack. I began to untie one of my boots and then abruptly stopped. What if I took my boots off and couldn't get them back on? Sure, I was in a lot of pain, but at least my boots were securely on my feet. I had more than 12 miles ahead of me, but I decided that I'd rather live with the pain than risk not getting my boots back on.
On my way back to Will Rogers, I took a slightly different route around Eagle Rock but otherwise retraced my steps back over the sun-baked miles of Topanga hills. Crossing over the fire road marking Temescal Canyon, I drifted into a revery. It was extremely hot, and I was in a lot of pain. My feet and hips felt increasingly tender with every step, and my backpack straps cut into my shoulders. Sweat rolled down my face, burning my eyes. I thought about the distance to my car. I thought about how stupid it was to want to walk 25 miles. I thought about the lamb osso bucco I'd order at Canele later that night. I thought about the pain. And then, all of a sudden, my body was moving in reverse. I sucked in my breath and walked backwards ten yards in a heartbeat. It wasn't until I stopped moving that I understood what I'd just seen: my first rattlesnake. There it was, just down the way now: coiled up, rattling and hissing like the Devil Himself on one side of the path. I'd been so close that I'd nearly jabbed the thing with my trekking pole. Now what. I was miserable. I just wanted to get back down the dusty trail so that I could take my boots off and stand under a cool shower. The snake had other ideas. The snake thought it was a good idea to continue this stand-off for way longer than necessary, in my opinion. By the time it finally relaxed and slid across the path and a down into the chaparral, I'd learned my lesson: Watch where you are going. Be aware. Always scan your surroundings. It is possible to live in simultaneous awareness and relaxation. In fact, the achievement of this seemingly unlikely combination of states may constitute a return to a true human nature.
Once the snake had cleared the path, my breath deepened. I crept up to the thick line the snake had drawn in the sand and then ran the next half mile like a silly child. And when I slowed down to a walk, I looked up through the clear blue sky to a few clouds and started in at full volume: "Bows and flows of angel hair / And ice cream castles in the air / And feather canyons everywhere / I've looked at clouds that way... " By the time I'd gotten through the whole song, I hadn't even covered a mile, and I was only half way back to my car. But all of the adrenaline flooding my system had taken the edge off of the pain, and I floated back over the dusty trails toward something more ordinary.