About the Author: Deborah Peel is a writer, blogger, marketer, mother, lover of big trees and isolated mountain tops. Her passion is writing to build a better world and sharing her backpacking and hiking adventures, one step at a time.
At age 55, I committed to my first thru-hike and found myself falling in mad love. It started when I spent my summer vacation simply watching my dear dad curled weakly under the covers, holding his cool hand, playing some old Cat Stevens music (Wild World, of course), and waiting. It had been 48 hours since I’d slipped him a fragment of his favorite chocolate chip cookie. Alzheimer’s had slowly stolen his brilliant Silicon Valley mind, he was no longer eating or drinking, and I don’t think he knew who I was. I knew he was deep in his intention to coast out of his Alzheimer’s journey and my role was to champion his dignity as he reached the end of the trail. To pass the time, I scrolled through Facebook on my cell phone. One of those ads popped up upon which this cautious gal never, ever clicks. This time, I clicked. I knew without a doubt I’d be going for my first thru-hike on the 30-mile Skyline to the Sea Trail. To honor my dad, the man that introduced me to hiking, I promptly named it The Hike for Harvey (H4H).
Preparing for my first backpacking excursion gave me a positive focus following my dad’s death. I was tremendously sad. But I didn’t tumble into miserable grief. Instead, I became absorbed with researching, planning, and getting equipped for H4H. I was starting at square one, a complete newbie to backpacking, something I’d always wanted to do but never pursued.
So, here was the plan. Three days and two nights on the Skyline to the Sea Trail. It leads from the summit of the Santa Cruz Mountains starting at Castle Rock State Park on the Saratoga Gap Trail, winding down through old growth-redwoods and chaparral, through the natural spectacle of Big Basin Redwoods State Park, past streams and waterfalls, and ends at Waddell State Beach north of Santa Cruz, CA. Yes, I would literally be walking from a mountaintop to the ocean, a total descent of about 2,600 feet after lots of ups and downs. Friends thought I’d gone a bit nuts and implored me to take someone with me. Being single, I didn’t have an obvious hiking partner. I invited my daughter, but she emphatically declined walking even a mile. Instead, she agreed to pick me up at the beach in her shiny black car. I recruited my twenty-something step-sons and got two immediate affirmatives, plus a surprise request from their bio mom Mary to join in! We now had five for H4H, four hikers and one driver. I felt the love and I’m sure Harvey felt it too.
Matt, Mary and Nick at the start of the trail
A belief is an idea that possesses the mind, and I had to believe in me to get prepared for H4H. I embarked on preparation, body, gear, mind, and soul. But, let’s face it, in my fifties with a desk job, the body came first and by the time H4H arrived I had lost 14 pounds. Physical preparation involved a regular cardio workout in my living room and walking longer and longer distances on my mountain roads. Next, I slipped on an old pack. Week after week, I filled it with more weight (those old college textbooks finally came in handy) to challenge myself, gain strength, and build stamina. I became fixated on ultra-light gear and friends Sara and AK, avid backpackers, were excited to display all their favorite gear and show me the way. I finally was fitted for my Keen hiking boots with that comfy, wide toe box and, after trying many backpacks at many sporting goods stores, had the helpful guy at Hermit’s Hut order me an Osprey Sirrus 50, in purple, of course. It wasn’t a huge pack, but just right if I stuck to the basics. I hooked my sons up with new packs and boots and encouraged everyone in our party to get ready and travel light!
One of the trickier sections of the trail coming out of Castle Rock State Park
With a trail camp backcountry permit secured for Memorial Day Weekend, my evenings were dedicated to studying thru-hiking video on YouTube from Darwin to Dixie to the always upbeat Hurlgoat Hiker. My weekends were dedicated to hiking. It had been about 15 years since I’d done a long hike. That was 7 miles at Castle Crags with plenty of toe pain due to too-small boots. Now, I felt accomplished the day I did my first 3 mile hike. The day I did 6 miles with a full pack was a personal celebration! Just two weeks out from the H4H, I took a solo birthday hike, completing 12 miles out and back, all uphill and then all downhill. It kicked my ass in a good way. I knew I was ready to hit the Skyline trail and after that I dreamed of hiking the John Muir Trail, the Inca Trail, trails across England and Ireland and The West Highland Way, and, why not the Pacific Crest Trail? I was all in for The Hike for Harvey and plotting many other honorable adventures to come.
We didn’t all make it the entire way on The Skyline to the Sea Trail. My oldest son, Nick, was highly disappointed when he blew his knee out by mile two. Middle son Matt relieved him of pack weight, burdening himself with over 60 pounds, as we helped Nick hobble over a mile up a steep incline to find a road. Matt had just joked about calling a cab when, whoosh, a yellow Santa Cruz taxi came flying around the bend! I flagged her down and Nick and Mary exited the trail. I like to think my dad sent that cab to us.
Together, Matt and I finished the first 9-mile day wandering through the redwoods, marveling at old “dead” cars that had careened down the hillside and having a meaningful chat about life. By 4:30, we were in camp, fired up the Jetboil and “cooked” up a dinner of Mountain House rice and chicken, our new food of the Gods. By 7:30, I was snuggled into my Nemo Hornet tent and awoke once to stumble out to pee (older gals urinate more frequently…more on that trail challenge later!). It rained heavily in the wee hours of the morning and I took it in stride for my first backpacking experience. The extra weight of a wet tent fly strapped to the outside of my pack made Day 2 a bit tougher. Matt and I celebrated our arrival at Big Basin with weary feet and an ice cream cone from the park store.
Day 3, mom Mary was a vision trekking into camp at 7:00 am. She’d started driving by 4:30 am to get out to Big Basin and find our camp. Now, that’s commitment and that’s family! That last day was a surreal 13 miles and emotion surged over me as I caught sight of the ocean in the distance. I finally hit the sand, yanked off my boots, and dipped my feet in the sweet salty cold of the Pacific. The inaugural Hike for Harvey was done, and I’d worn or carried dad’s “Wallace” hat the entire way, taking him with me on the trail one last time.
Oh baby, baby, it’s a wild world and you never know what will call to you and give you exactly what you need in uncertain times. I went out on that trail and found peace, clarity, and connection with the dirt under my boots, with myself, with all that could be. My dad was someone who truly believed in me. It was time to believe in myself and I believed I could heft a 28-pound backpack and complete my first little thru-hike. You know what? It was a life-changing success! I loved every step of those 30 miles and so my love affair with my purple Osprey and backpacking began. I believe in me so strongly that I’m planning the 2nd Annual Hike for Harvey on the John Muir Trail. It’s my way of honoring my dad and all those who have been struck by the devastating thru-hike of Alzheimer’s. I’m thinking, “JMT trail lottery, pick me, pick me!”
Left: Arrival at the beach after 30 miles on the Skyline to the Sea Trail. Right: Traveled with my dad’s hat the entire way.