East Bay Backpacking, Day 1
I arose unexpectedly early, having forgone an alarm clock, and set out just shy of 7:30. A slightly cool day, mostly gray, but pleasant.
Only a day before, the forecast changed drastically, now calling for a thunderstorm the first night out. I still didn't have a rain jacket, but I was able to borrow a tent from my friend. It wasn't my ultralight one-person tent, but it wasn't colossal either, a relatively compact two-person. Still, it took up at least a third of my pack, and most likely accounted for at least that proportion of its weight. Mannn, if I'd been able to go without it!
Only a couple minutes of hiking put me on the University of California campus. Cal's campus is laid out like anything but a grid, has a natural creek running right through the middle, and it is unapologetically inclusive when it comes to all the hills in the local landscape. Another campus might have flattened a few out, but not Cal. All that, along with the massive trees found throughout, make you feel more like you're in a natural California landscape and there just happen to be some buildings lying around.
By the time I left campus, I had already shed two layers and was now down to just a shirt. Getting past the campus puts you almost out of civilization's grasp, halfway up the hills surrounding Berkeley. I'd been on that hill before and I knew what a stunning view there is of the entire San Francisco Bay, but alas, it was not a clear day, so today there was no view.
Just over an hour later, I came across the first humans I'd seen since leaving pavement. It was an older couple, maybe about 60, both with trekking poles and neither with any pack. I caught them from behind.
"Looks like you're carrying a load there!" exclaimed the gentleman as he stepped aside to make way. I smiled.
"Hey, I recognize that pack!" the lady chimed as I passed.
"Yeah, I have the same one!" she revealed.
"Oh! Well, it's a good pack! I like it!"
"It's a great pack!"
"Have a good hike!" added the gentleman as I got away from them.
Only a few minutes later, the trail went directly over the peak of a hill, affording a 360-degree view of the California hills. The air had cleared up a bit by now, so I hung out for a second, taking it all in.
The couple caught up to me just as I was finishing up. They didn't even pause. It was clear they'd been here before.
"You wouldn't be able to guess you started in town, huh?" I remarked.
"No, you wouldn't!" the gentleman replied, smiling.
"We like to come up here," added the lady. "Where are you headed with that full pack?"
I explained my visit to California and my three-day hike to them, making up something for the parts about where I was stealth camping.
"Well, you got good weather for it! Except tonight, I suppose."
"Oh, I know! If not for that, I wouldn't've brought a tent!"
We said a farewell and parted ways.
For the next several hours, I was mostly in popular local parks, so I bumped into someone every so often, whether a hiker, mountain biker, or trail runner. Aside from that, it was quiet where I was. I was happy.
After crossing a road, the trail changed from singletrack to fire road, and from somewhat damp to mud. Not just wet dirt, but thick, deep, black, sticky mud, the kind you have to fight to take your shoes with you (and sometimes you lose). Only a couple minutes later, I came across two female hikers who looked like they might be mother-daughter.
"Muddy trail, isn't it?" remarked the younger.
"Yeah, I guess so."
"Does it get any better?" asked her mom.
"After you get to the road, it does. Still wet, but not like this."
"It's pretty much all mud from here," she glumly replied. "A few drier spots here and there, but," she shook her head, "pretty much all mud."
And she was right. For at least the next hour, and off and on the rest of the day, it was all mud. After slipping and sliding a few times, I made it a point to plant my feet when walking, rather than rolling through like normal. At least two cm of mud caked to the bottoms of my shoes, including all around the outside, making them bear some resemblance to a snow shoe. They felt heavy.
I made it past Jewel Lake and began walking along the Wildcat Creek Trail, noticeably drier. A trail runner passed me, slowly. Wait a minute...that was the same guy that passed me going the other way two hours ago!
I bumped into a guy doing a half-run, half-hike with his three dogs. We wound up passing each other back-and-forth for the next hour or so. Like the earlier couple, he asked about my pack at one point, and gradually, I explained my hike to him.
"I took my kids out hiking at Mt. Shasta last summer," he revealed, "we climbed the other mountain next to Shasta. They'd never been backpacking before, and they loved it!"
"That's great! I've never been to Mt. Shasta."
"You doing any of the Sierras while you're out here?"
"No," I replied, "But I've been out there before. I really only have time for a few days in the area."
"Well, good for you! I love hiking."
And with that, we parted ways for good.
I had lunch and checked both the map and my watch. I was making good time! It looked like I would be at my expected destination around 3:00 PM, if not earlier. I could easily get to the next good camping area before dark, but it was supposed to start raining at 5:00 PM. I might barely make it, but I'd have to hurry.
The next trail I found myself on requires one to pass through a gate and close it behind you, so as not to let out the grazing cattle. Sure enough, there were promptly cows all over the place, including standing right in the middle of the trail. I just walked around. They barely seemed to notice I was there. The funny thing is, on the way out of the grazing area, there's a sign saying "Now Entering Private Property." So the cows were on public land?
I had to walk through a small town for a couple miles to connect to the next trail. You'd think that the monotony of seeing nothing but trees and grass would make it feel like the trail goes on forever, and once in town, with more to give you a frame of reference, you feel like you're moving faster. In my experience, the opposite is true. First off, "nothing but trees" is like describing New York City as "nothing but buildings" (which isn't inaccurate). There's a lot there, it only looks all the same to some of us because we're not used to seeing so much. And secondly, we're used to traveling through cities rather quickly. When I get around by bicycle, that's still at least five times faster than walking. So when you're forced to walk any significant distance in a city, it's frustrating to spend so much time covering one measly block, then still have a dozen blocks left to go.
I "finally" made it back on a trail, and only a little later, found myself in the park where I'd originally intended to camp for the night. Looked like a great area to camp, with lots of good spots to hide out, but it was only 2:30 PM. No reason I couldn't get a few more miles in and make tomorrow a little easier. Besides, if I pitched a tent with four hours of daylight remaining, my chances of getting caught camping where I shouldn't were much greater.
I wound up having to hike along a small highway for about 5 km. All along both sides, barbed-wire fence, with a creek on one side. Not a good sign. My "ideal" camping area up ahead was on a fire road on the same creek. When I made the turnoff, the barbed-wire fence remained. A lot less traffic on this road though (about one car per hour), and a lot more trees to hide behind. I may or may not have hopped a fence, then found a great flat spot in the woods, out-of-sight of the nearly-abandoned road.
I got my tent set up before the rain began to fall, but that was mostly because it didn't start raining until 10:00 PM, five hours later than predicted. But once it started, it was a legitimate thunderstorm, rare for the bay area! I read a few chapters of my book before it got dark, then laid low, not tired. I found myself wishing I had a phone signal so I could at least chat with someone to pass the time.