Written by Oboz Truist Brandy Brooks
A preface from the writer:
What you're about to read is the account of my experience backpacking The Sespe River Trail, but through the lens of a biracial woman. I'm a millennial - born in the year 1986. Truly, a great year. I'm also a mother and a solo-backpacker. Many of you have your own stories adventuring in the great outdoors - if you're white, they may feel unrelated to mine. My intention in this piece is not to single out anyone, specifically SIS white men, but to provide insight into how it feels to be a BIPOC person on the trails, solo. It’s important for us as a collective to share and consume personal stories like mine from women and men of color out on the trails, so we can better understand how to build a bridge we so desperately need in the outdoor community.
When I thought of Ojai, CA, I thought of overpriced lattes in the white hands of free-loving hippies who said "fuck it" to living in the city and "yes" to living amongst cows and the occasional full moon. I mean, Ojai was re-named by a white guy after the Chumash's 'Awha'y, meaning 'moon,’ anyhow. I had taken a day trip there in late October to hike the Topatopa Trail. Nothing in particular about the trail had caught my interest but it being off the beaten path had piqued my inquiring mind. About a mile in, I concluded that Ojai would be the perfect place to backpack during Southern California's winter months when favorites like Yosemite and Sequoia would feel out of reach. And that’s where The Sespe River Trail comes in.
Driving on an incline up Highway 33 toward Rose Valley, I had passed the turnoff to Ecotopia; a glorified hot spring coined 'a sanctuary.' I, too, believed this until I experienced the Sespe Hot Springs located in The Sespe Wilderness. I would be on my way to hike The Sespe River Trail: a 33-mile hike in and out. It would be my first time hiking more than 16 miles over a multi-day hike. My ultimate dream is to take six months off to hike the PCT Trail so I figured I should probably start training now. For the most part, the trail itself is pretty leveled with its switchbacks along the mountain's side. It’s the mileage that makes this adventure physically taxing.
One of the unique traits about this trail is the few distinct smells I noticed. The first being the smell of cinnamon + fall (at the 3-mile mark). It was like walking through an advertisement of my childhood: me making cinnamon ornaments in the third grade during the holiday season, wanting to take a bite so badly before my teacher torched them in the kiln. The changing leaves of the Oak varieties added a visual layer that really drove the point home. The second odor was more robust, like walking into a hamster cage (at the 8-mile mark). Rodent pellets and dry brush hybridized, and I had no way out except in or through - depending on how you look at things. The smell could have been more distinct for me, though; I bit the bullet and promised my daughter two pet rats for Christmas. We're in a pandemic. She needs real-life friends.
I can usually fare without a map as my directional senses are spot on. Even as a child, my mother would be in a state of shock every time I'd lead us back on track if she made the wrong turn while driving. But this trail was different; dare I say, difficult. The first time out of the many, I crossed the dry river bed, and I got lost. This is where I insert something witty about me forgetting to download the trail on the AllTrails app while I giggle like a girl and twirl my hair, but I’ll save my ego instead. My saving grace was the cairns built by previous trail stewards, albeit hard to miss if you're checked out, which I was some of the time. The truth is, I was in desperate need of trail-time to sort some life events out. The kind of sorting out that only happens when your hands are firmly held to a rock as you clank away at a tent stake while the combination of sweat, and SPF stings your eye. I suppose my approach to self-care is a little over the top.
On this trip, I had experienced the concept of 'being one with something.' For me, it was the pain that had turned out to be hot spots I ignored after the seventh mile. Don't know what 'hot spots' are? Let me use it in a sentence for you: I’m now without a pinky toenail because I ignored the hot spots on my feet. And, not to break the fourth wall and all, but this had nothing to do with my Oboz boots; I wore a pair of socks I used hiking up Hogback Trail in Griffith Park a few nights before. I could feel both my pinky toes throbbing with red, but I continued anyway. Never had I experienced blistering as I did on this trail. According to NOLS Wilderness Medicine, 6th edition, one of the many classes you can take at REI, if you feel a hot spot, immediately remove your shoe, dry off that area, and put your blister bandage, moleskin or tape on the site directly. Additionally, a thin layer underneath your wool socks can help keep your skin safe from chafing.
I had just started to envision Army of Darkness' tiny Bruce Cambell's stabbing the top sides of my pinky toes with hot pokers, and then at the 8-mile mark I saw my people: a group of all-female packers. Statistics tell us that white men dominate outdoor sports, but if we look closely, women are swiftly catching up and reveling in the benefits of outdoor culture. Like a millennial surpassing 100k followers, I was just as giddy when they told me that I was only 1.9-miles away from the hot spring, but 1.9-miles passed quickly. After I got home from the trip, I looked at a map, and I realized they had camped at Willet Hot Springs, the first hot spring you'll reach on The Sespe River trail. From the trailhead to Willett Hot Springs is about 9.5-miles; Sespe Hot Springs is roughly 16-miles, and I had passed the Willett Hot Springs without even knowing it; that's how overgrown certain parts of the trail are. In terms of helping you to the Sespe Hot Springs, all I can say is, you'll know when you're there when you feel like you can't walk anymore. That and the trail forks in two at the top of a mountain. A janky rusted sign will greet you. It’s barely legible, that says, "hot springs this way," with an arrow going to the left.
As I descended into the valley on my way to the Sespe Hot Springs, the trail overlooked the mountainous region where once-endangered California Condors inhabited. Hot take: The Sespe Wilderness, a part of the Los Padres Condor Range and River Protection Act established in 1992, helped ensure their refuge. The sky started to roll into gyres of grey, and then it began to rain. I used to be the woman who never wanted to be caught out in the rain, not because I didn't like the rain, but afraid that my hair would shrivel to its naturally curly state from its flat-ironed straightness. But I loved every minute of it. The raindrops were cold on my cheek, and my jacket stuck to my skin in an oddly favorable way. I hopped over tributary puddles in my Oboz Mid Bridgers; pushed low hanging branches from my face with my bare hands; and for the last two miles of the trail, I was in the belly of the beast, and quite simply, I felt alive. When I got to the campground, tents were up, and I was relieved not to be alone in the wilderness. It's strange, but being out there makes you yearn for human connection.
A white guy around my age came out of his tent after taking a ''nap while the rain passed." We will call him Millennial Hippy. He was the kind of guy I wished I was into - crunchy, blonde beard, likes camping, and doesn't mind changing into his swimming trunks in the light of day. I've been romantically involved with black men for so long now that I'm not sure if it's a preference or a way of life. I’d rather not further complicate my already “hard to maneuver in duality” life with racial aggressions from, well… everyone. Now, where was I? Oh, yes, Millennial Hippy! He was very kind; I didn't catch a bad vibe from him at all. But then his father came out, and it was like seeing two completely different generations; one where I could walk hand-in-hand down the street with him and one where I could not. It made me think about the conversations I had with my daughter the whole week leading up to this trip. Tensions were high during the week of the election. She was troubled that something 'bad' would happen to me, worried angry racist white men would see me alone on the trail and want to hurt me because of the color of my skin. Every time I tried to sooth her mind, I knew that she was right. Maybe I wouldn't come face-to-face with white people who had hate in their hearts on The Sespe River Trail in Southern California, but somewhere in this country, I would.
Millennial Hippy told me that a 5-minute walk up the trail would lead me to a hotter spring - he was right. I ended up in a rocky ravine, with the hot spring as the midpoint. My favorite little area happened to be underneath a cluster of palms. And yes, it was extremely weird to see a cluster of palms in the middle of the wilderness. The only real explanation has to be that a 1920s real estate tycoon who fancied backpacking to the Sespe Hot Springs wanted it to feel more like a spa, so he had a few palms flown in. Honestly, if anyone knows how they got there, please reach out to me. I'd love to know the actual story and not my writer's brain story.
As I settled into the hot pool of water, shielded by said palms, I rested my head against a rock covered in Trelease's Blue-Green Algae, and all of the reasons why I had wanted to take the trip in the first place melted away. The only thing that existed at that moment was me, the heat from deep within the earth, and the occasional 'bro' laugh about four pools down. If you've never experienced a hot spring before, it physically feels like a hot tub and spiritually feels like the sound of a Swedish masseuse's exhale as he rubs a stone down your intercostal muscle. It's wild. And the science behind it is incredibly humbling - geothermally heated water from the underground produces a hot spring?! That's it?! There's no fire, no electricity, nor gas heating the water; it's just the earth in all of its greatness?! That night I slept exceptionally well regardless of the frost that had accumulated on my tent's outer shell over an 8-hour period. I thought once or twice about the elderly dad possibly carrying a 22," unzipping my tent door, mid-night, as my eyes would eventually look down the barrel of the gun, but I slept it off. Maybe the last four years have taught us that it's okay to think the worst of people because sometimes it's true. SideBar: If you want to stay extra toasty on a cold night, pull out your emergency blanket and use it as a sheet within your sleeping bag. You'll thank me later.
The next morning as I packed up my gear, hands red from the 30-degree frigidity of The Sespe Wilderness, I realized that my concerns, like who was going to win the presidential race or what the hell I was doing in life at almost 35-years-old, faded away into the very back of my mind. In a good way. I realized that as much as I was hurting in different areas of my life, it couldn't compare to the pain I had felt in my feet. They really fucking hurt. If I could endure that kind of pain, I had to ask myself, why was I actively accepting hurtful situations? And then I had another thought, maybe being human means to be in pain and wonderment all at the same time. One thing I know for sure, after finishing The Sespe River Trail, it’s okay to walk away from something that hurts you. And the parallelism is quite humorous.
Brandy Brooks is a writer and contributor to Oboz Footwear, based in California. You can follow her here.