Written By: Jeff Craig
It all started with my manager telling me I was going to have a weekend off. Living in the retail world, getting a weekend off is a seldom occurrence. When I heard the news, my immediate thought was “Where am I going to travel to?”.
I have always had a passion for travel since I was a little kid. I was fortunate enough to have parents that took me all over the world on vacation.
As an adult, traveling has become more difficult. Finances, work, laziness, and life situations often got in the way and prevented me from experiencing the euphoria that is travel.
This year is different though. This year I made a promise to myself that I would give into my wanderlust desires and travel every opportunity I had. This weekend was the perfect opportunity to get away.
But where would I go on such short notice?
A plethora of possible destinations crossed my mind. My heart pounded with excitement. Then reality dawned on me. A weekend is not very long. If I wanted to travel somewhere, it would have to be somewhat nearby to be worth it. So then I just reframed the question, “What have I been wanting to do for a long time that I haven’t gotten the opportunity to do?”. The answer came immediately. As a kid, I was a Cub Scout. Aside from sports, it really was the only after school activity that got me excited. I loved going out in the wilderness and learning survival skills. Now in my adult age, I have become spoiled. I sleep in a big comfy bed, I drive to work, I eat at classy restaurants, and buy junk daily that makes my life more convenient. Although I am grateful to have these privileges in my life, a part of me has longed to reconnect with nature. This was my chance to actually do something about it and I was not about to let it pass me by. I decided I was going to go on a camping trip to Sequoia National Forest.
Now I knew that as a kid, staying at a camp sites was a lot of fun, but it was also still easy living. There are usually public restrooms within a quarter mile of the tent, fire pits are already prebuilt, and some places even had convenience stores within walking distance of the campsite. This trip needed to be different. I wanted a challenge. I wanted to get away from the world I knew and have a real experience with nature. Some say I get a little overzealous with my goals, and I wouldn’t disagree. I knew that if I was going to challenge myself in such a way, I would not be able to do it alone. So, I invited my cousin Jake and my good friend David to join me. Jake is a man’s man. He owns a metal shaping company and has been on numerous camping trips throughout his life. David grew up in the wilderness of Idaho. He is incredibly knowledgable and has years of camping experience. With these two guys by my side, I knew this was going to be an epic trip. Little did I know, I was in for more than I bargained for.
Friday night arrives and I am finally off work for the weekend. I pull up to the Santa Ana train station to find my cousin Jake standing there with his gear on his back and a huge smile on his face. Jake and I haven’t hung out since we were kids and even then it wasn’t by choice. This was going to be a great opportunity to reconnect as family. As he threw his bags in my truck, we took off to Walmart for last minute supplies. At Walmart, we met up with David. As the two of them got aquainted, we began grabbing all the gear we would need for the weekend. Because Jake and David already had camping gear, this trip was mostly for me. With every item I threw in my cart, my anticipation built. This was happening.
The next morning we woke up bright and early. On the ride there, I could feel my nerves building. I told these guys that I wanted to wander in unexplored territory. Was I sure I was ready for this? After a 5 hour car ride, we finally arrived at the Lodgepole Visitor Center. Surrounding us were massive trees that darted up to the sky. The smell of pine and wood engulfed my nostrils.
When we entered the visitors center, we were greeting by a pretty little blonde girl named Liz. We told her we were looking for a place to go that was off trail. We told her we wanted to fish and be isolated from everyone else. She immediately became alert and told us that she had the perfect place in mind, Silliman Lake. She told us that no one was up that way and that there was no trail to get there posted. This is what we were looking for. We quickly finished up signing off on paperwork and got our packs from the car. It was time for the adventure to begin!
Now I have done camping before, but normally I am within walking distance of a car that is carrying most of the supplies. This trip was very different from that. I don’t know if you have ever felt 50+ lbs of gear strapped to your back before, but it is fucking heavy! With our gear strapped on, it was time to begin. We started walking on the main trail leading up to Silliman Lake. We saw a couple families pass us by and they all looked happy and relaxed. “Hey. Maybe this wont be so bad,” I thought. Oh man was I wrong.
After about an hour of hiking, we came to the crossroads where we leave the main trail and head for the lake. We took a quick break to hydrate and set up a game plan. David, being a camping expert, explained that the easiest way to get to Silliman Lake is to follow the path of least resistance. There may not have been a man made trail, but surely others have been there before, which should have left some sort of trail behind. The goal was to follow the path of least resistance until we reached the lake, which by our calculations would be about a 3 hour hike.
Off we went into the wilderness. It was quite an experience walking through a forest filled with such life. I was overwhelmed by the beauty that surrounded me, the birds chirping high in the tress above, the sound of water on rocks from the nearby creek, and the mosquitos attacking every inch of exposed skin like microscopic ninjas. I saw massive trees that lay on the ground dead and black from a lightning strike. The air was fresh but shallow from the high elevation.
After a couple hours of hiking, we were ready for a break. We took off our packs and relaxed by the creek. David walked a little bit ahead to see if he could get an idea of how close we were to the lake. When he returned, it was back to hiking. After another hour, fatigue was setting in. We have traveled a few miles at this point and were getting pretty high in the mountains. My gear felt like it had doubled in weight and we still had no idea how close we were to Lake Silliman.
Another hour passes and we are exhausted. Looking at the map, we think we are getting closer and closer, only to be dissapointed. It was now 7:00pm, we are exhausted, cold, tired, and as crushing as it may be to our egos, lost. We had one more patch of clearing in the trees ahead. Our goal was to head that way and if the lake wasn’t there, we would set up camp and try again the next day. At this point, my legs are like jello. Each step sends a sharp pain up my body, my lips are dry from dehydration and my body is shivering from the cold. My feet are soaked from falling into the creek an hour earlier whilst trying to fill my water bottle. Needless to say, I was miserable. What was I thinking? Why did I think I could do something so outside of myself? Why couldn’t we have just taken the easy route and set up camp closer to everyone else?
We finally came to a clearing that had a small waterfall behind it. The lake could very well be just beyond that waterfall, but it is too late to keep hiking. This was the perfect place to set up camp and tomorrow we would keep moving. The first thing I did is change out of my cold wet clothes and into some warm clothes. With my heavy pack off me and warm clothes on me, I was finally able to let out a loud sigh of relaxation and just enjoy the moment. I finally had the ability to look around and see where we were. Looking out, I was amazed at what I saw. The sun was setting over the mountains, leaving the sky filled with color while below was a vast green valley covered in trees. It was truly one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life. After enjoying the view for a few moments, it was time to build a fire. David and I gathered sticks and branches while Jake started heating up some hot cocoa from the mini propane stove he brought. Let me tell you something, after hiking for several hours, that hot cocoa was amazing!
We finally got the fire going just as the sun went down. The three of us sat there laughing about the days experiences as we cooked s’mores over the fire. We shared stories about our lives as we passed around a flask of Fireball Whiskey. As the sky got darker, the stars became more visible. What we saw blew my mind. Now I’ve seen the stars before, but never like this. The sky was covered by a blanket of little bright lights and they were as clear as could be. It literally looked like a photo that was captured by a telescope in one of those National Geographic magazines. It was truly beautiful. Deep in the distance, we could make out tiny orange lights in the hills from the fires at the campsite. They were miles away from us. We truly were alone. As our fire began burning out, it was time for bed. Tomorrow would be a new day and a new chance to get to that lake. I crawled into my sleeping bag, wrapped the tarp around me and said goodnight.
The entire night was a struggle to sleep. I was positioned at an angle so I constantly felt like I was going to slide off the mountain. I was also laying in a ditch, which didn’t offer a very comfortable sleeping position. I also was out in the open, covered only by my sleeping bag and a tarp.
Then, at 7:00am, Mother Nature decided we had overstayed our welcome. Thunder began echoing through the valley. Then a strong wind picked up, followed by a torrential downpour of rain. In minutes, my sleeping bag was soaked, my gear was soaked, my clothes were soaked, everything was completely drenched. David was forced out of his hammock because the rain had puddled up in it. Jake’s tent started leaking as well. The three of us stood there at our camp site in awe and disbelief. In just a few short moments, our entire trip had come to an end. We couldn’t sleep in wet sleeping bags, we had no warm clothes, and we still had no idea how close we were to Silliman Lake. Our epic adventure was cut short in just a few short moments.
We packed up our equipment and quickly started making our way down the mountain. The whole way back, all we could think about is how upset we were that we never found the lake and that the rain had destroyed everything. The hike down was not much easier than the hike up. Our bodies were already exhausted, which only made things worse. Soon enough, we started noticing landmarks that were remembered on the trek up. After a few hours of hiking, we had finally made it to the main trail and back to civilization.
The Lesson of Story
So some of you may be asking, “What’s the point of this story?”. Well it’s simple. My goal of this trip was to experience nature, challenge myself, and spend time with people I care about. When I was out there, Silliman Lake was my only focus, but I had actually achieved what I came for and then some. Because we traveled further into the wilderness than we originally planned, I got a stunning view of what surrounded us. Because we pushed ourselves to the absolute limit, I was able to achieve things I never knew I was capable of. And because I went with Jake and David, I had the best company a guy could ask for.
After returning home, Jake went on Google Earth and found that we had gone off course by a pretty large margin. In fact, we probably would have made it to the lake within a couple hours of hiking. Most people in my situation would be disappointed, but actually, I was grateful. Somewhere along the way, we stopped following the path of least resistance and made our own path, which led us to the experiences we had. Sure, the lake would have been fun, but it also would have been predictable. We forged our own path and found a place that even animals wouldn’t tread. We pushed our bodies to the absolute limit, achieving challenges we didn’t even know we were capable of. We had an amazing experience that would not have happened if we took any other route. It may have ended abruptly, but I am coming back stronger than I have ever been. After taking Mother Nature head on and surviving, it reminds you what you are capable of. Jake, David, and myself have plans to go back and find Silliman Lake, but it will never compare to the day we spent off the grid. This experience showed me that taking the path of most resistance and staring fear straight in the eye can often lead to one of the greatest rewards you could ever obtain.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
– Robert Frost