Today I went for my first solo hike in what I believe to be my entire life. Really, I’m thinking hard here and I just can’t come up with another time I’ve hiked alone. I used to take my dog Sandy, a gentleman of a chocolate lab-pit mix, hiking with me in my 20s. But completely alone? Can’t think of a time.
So for this adventure, I chose to try hiking the bluffs adjacent to Hart Park in northeast Bakersfield. It’s only about a 20-minute drive from the center of town. I’ve walked along the Kern River trail at the park before, but this was the first time going up into the hills. I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into. All I knew was to park at the Kern County Sheriff’s Department shooting range.
As I pulled into the dirt parking lot, I saw several cars. I figured I’d find someone to ask about the trails. After pulling on my 10-year-old Salomons, I zeroed in on a woman at a van. A baby sat on the ground next to her, strapped into a carrier backpack. I have two children. We even had a carrier backpack when the youngest was an infant. I thought, why had I never taken her hiking on my own like that? We had used it for a few family “hikes” – with my husband bearing the load of our daughter. But it had never occurred to me to take her out on my own. And now, here before me, was this badass mom getting ready to take her baby into the hills. My own daughter was at day care. I felt a twinge of guilt for going hiking by myself.
“Hi. Sorry to bother you. Do you know the trails here?” I asked.
She pulled her ear buds out and paused from her preparations.
“Yah. I’m meeting a friend. We try to walk out here at least once a week.”
She called it “walking.” This bluff thing sounded like a stroll. I could do it.
“What’s the best way to start? Do I go straight up that skinny path there that cuts up the hillside? Or do I follow that dirt road there?” I pointed to a wide dirt path along the perimeter of the shooting range that disappeared around the hill.
“Whichever you want. They all take you up. There are tons of trails. The hardest part is to not get lost,” she said.
Lost? Oh my goodness. I didn’t bring a compass. I had no map. I was totally unprepared for this, I thought. She must have read my concern.
“You’re welcome to come with us if you don’t mind waiting for my friend to arrive,” she said.
I considered her offer for a moment, but politely declined. I didn’t want to be a third wheel (or fifth if her friend was packing a baby too) and I had really been looking forward to this solo challenge.
“Maybe I’ll see you up there,” I said. “Thanks!”
I started along the dirt path, rounded the hill and began my ascent. The breeze was strong and the temperature was still cool at 8:30 in the morning. Two guys jogged past as they came down the hill. Very soon the small canyon closed around me and I found myself in a ditch with tight switchbacks. The path turned into a narrow wash the width of my foot that sloped up on either side. It was difficult to walk in the center, so I stepped from side to side, going up the banks on foot the same way I used to ride the sand berms on ATVs as a young desert rat.
I worried a little about my 39-year-old knees. About 10 years ago, I had to go to physical therapy after I strained my right knee on my daily lunchtime walks. At the time, I had been working in a rural part of town with no sidewalks. For drainage purposes, roads curve downward toward gutters on the outer edge. For months, I walked the same three-mile loop in the same direction – always on the right side of the road, always with my right foot along the gutter. The strain of walking on the sloping road caused intense pain in my right knee and it took a few more months for my knee to feel normal again. Luckily my job moved back downtown and I could walk on sidewalks after that.
The tiny canyon was mesmerizing. I imagined flash floods causing water to gush through it, eroding the walls and deepening the crevice. Was this an actual path that people took? Or was I stupidly following it to a dead end?
After a little while, the canyon opened up to a couple of paths that could take me out and up to the top of the bluffs. I chose to go left and follow the row of power poles heading southward. As long as I could see the poles, I knew I could make it back to my car.
At the top of the bluffs, the land leveled to a plateau. That allowed me to “stroll” for a bit and try taking some panoramas with my iPhone. I’m terrible at panoramas, though. My arms shake too much and I end up with black streaks at the top and bottom of the photos. From this vantage point, I could see other trails traversing the top of the bluffs. I saw a possibly abandoned camping trailer. And I could see the end of Morning Drive and the beginning of the housing development there.
I continued southward along the powerlines and came to two more deep crevices, allowing me to practice some steep descents and climbs. Finally, I came down off the bluffs at the south end and stopped at an oil pump. I had been hiking for one hour. I had allowed myself two hours total so that I would have time to get home, shower and have lunch before picking up my son from school. It was time to turn back.
As I took a swig of my water, I also took notice of my body. I felt great. Warm but not hot. A little sweaty but not soaked. Definitely not tired or sore. Except this nagging sensation on my right ankle. I did feel a tug or an ache in it each time I started walking after taking a water break. As I turned to head back, I felt it again. I shifted my foot in my boot to put more weight on the left side of my foot rather than on the right side, thus keeping my boot from rubbing on my ankle. After a few steps, the pain went away and I continued on.
As I neared my first ascent, I heard a noise behind me growing louder. I turned, thinking I’d see a work truck – perhaps someone coming out to check on the oil pump. But instead, I saw an open-top Jeep. Off-roaders. I knew people tore up the bluffs with their dirt bikes – that’s long been a struggle out there. There was a time when the bluffs were streaked with motorcycle tracks from people scarring the hillsides. Games at the soccer complex next to Hart Park were played to the soundtrack of “wrrr, wrrr, wrrr” as daredevils would drive straight up the face of the bluffs. The county put a ban on motorcycles at Hart Park to try to let the natural vegetation grow back and stop the erosion and ugly scars. But apparently that didn’t stop off-roaders from accessing the bluffs from Morning Drive on the southside.
My heart sped up as the sound of the Jeep came closer. Would it drive up the same road I was on? Would the driver see me? Would he plow into me? Would he see a lone female and consider taking advantage of the situation? For a moment, I regretted being out there by myself. Why didn’t I stick with the hiking mamas? Why didn’t I take a buddy? “Always use the buddy system,” I learned as a Girl Scout. I was being a bad Girl Scout.
I stepped off the dirt road to the right, making sure there weren’t any snakes, and turned to face the Jeep. It was close enough to me now that I could see two young guys – probably teenagers – holding soda cans (not beer cans!) and laughing as they hit the hill and sped past me. It was 10:30 in the morning. Why weren’t they in school or at work? It wasn’t spring break. I let them disappear up into the bluffs before I continued on. I liked my solitude. I didn’t want company – especially from joy riders. This was a hike, afterall.
I retraced my steps for an hour back to my car. All the while, my ankle became more and more sore. By the time I came out of the wash – which I later learned is named “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” – I was full-on limping. I gingerly removed my boots and put on my tennis shoes. Other than my ankle, I felt exhilarated. I had completed a two-hour training hike on my own. My mind felt clearer and I simply felt happier. I love hiking. I love this journey I am on to train for a one-week backpack trip this summer.
Now, about those 10-year-old Salomons …