Thruhiking the Backbone Trail – Moth StorySlam

Don’t die, and don’t do anything stupid.

These are the two rules I set for myself before embarking on a quest to solo thru-hike the Backbone Trail in only 3 days.

Now, for those of you who are unfamiliar, the Backbone Trail is a winding, 70-mile path that cuts up and down the spine of the Santa Monica Mountains before terminating in the Pacific Palisades.

What drove me to want to hike 23 miles a day for 3 straight days was a breakup. But not just any breakup. Only 2 months earlier, I had broken up with the man I desperately wanted to marry. I was so depressed that I had to force feed myself Soylent just to get enough calories. I bordered on suicidal.

So, rather than extinguishing my body completely, I decided that I needed to give myself a massive, physical challenge to snap me out of my heartsick and convince myself that I was strong enough to push through this.

And I decided to tackle the Backbone Trail alone.

The first day, I woke up at 4am to drive my car to the trailhead. I groaned as I strapped my 40 lb. pack to my body, feeling more tortoise than athlete.

At mile 16, I lost the trail and had to scramble through a dense thicket, losing my trekking poles in the process.

Then, I plugged my phone into a portable solar charger, only to find that it had stopped working. “That’s cool. I just won’t take any pictures or have a GPS or listen to any music. Fine, I brought a book to read, so this is fine!”

On the second morning of my trek, I was feeling strong.

But, as I rounded out my tenth mile, it began to rain.

Now, if you’re from Los Angeles, you know better than anyone that Angelinos do not like to venture out when it’s wet. They’re like Gremlins or pillars of salt. This is even more true when you’re out on a trail in the middle of Malibu.

I went from passing friendly hikers and bikers every 20 minutes to being literally the only person around for miles. I tossed a rainfly over my pack and pressed onward.

After a 23-mile day in a torrential downpour, I set up an awkward camp on the edge of a switchback on the side of a huge mountain. My bed was totally sideways. I shivered in 40-degree temperatures as crawled into my tent. As I removed my socks, I noticed that skin was peeling off my feet in big, gross white patches, and I rummaged around to find a pair of dry ones.

Except that… my clothes weren’t dry. Nothing in my pack was.

Somehow, the “rainfly” that came with my backpack wasn’t as waterproof as advertised, and everything I owned had been drenched.

My teeth chattered as I curled into my down sleeping bag, which was, miraculously, only damp. I tried to steady my mind by reading a book.

And then, my tent light went out.

No matter, I had a headlamp as a backup that I could use before I dozed off.

And then my headlamp went out.

Oh, and did I mention that it was a new moon? So it was 100% dark outside.

My heart jumped into my throat as soon as I realized the gravity of my situation. Even though I had hiked 23 miles that day, I recognized that I needed to bail.

I remembered crossing a road about a mile back, and I figured I could follow it all the way to the PCH and hitchhike from there, if I had to. I packed up camp faster than I ever had and skid down the muddy, pitch-black trail. By the time I felt my feet hit the pavement, I felt like I was on drugs. I felt like I could run a marathon if I had to.

As I ran, Jaguars and Teslas and all sorts of luxury vehicles started passing me on the street. I jut my thumb into the air to try to get a ride, only to find that people were actively avoiding eye contact with me. I looked down at my body and remembered that I was drenched, covered in mud, and carrying a massive backpack. It occurred to me that I might look quite homeless.

Just then, a light appeared in the distance, and I sprinted towards it. Soon, I found myself face-to-face with the front door of a 5-star Malibu restaurant called the Saddle Peak Lodge.

I was ready to barge my muddy self into this nice restaurant and demand to talk to a manager if that’s what it took to charge my iPhone.

But thank god I didn’t have to, because the valet who works there is a living saint. He let me warm up under his heat lamp and charge my phone in peace until I could call a friend to pick me up.

As we drove home that night, I stared wistfully out the car window, frustrated by my failure and also grateful to have a warm bed and a good friend to drive me to it.

I realize now how easy it is to bite off more than you can chew in the outdoors. How tenuous your safety as a novice often is.

I decided to hike The Backbone Trail to get over a breakup, but what I actually started getting over were my own self-destructive tendencies.

I still go backpacking all the time, by the way, but now I bring friends along so that at least I can have a voice trailing behind me as I hike, reminding me, “Don’t die. Don’t do anything stupid.”

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2 thoughts on “Thruhiking the Backbone Trail – Moth StorySlam

  1. Steve Polinsky says:

    Dear Emily,
    Yet again, you speak your emotions through your words and continue facing each challenge that pops up as and they always do…I call it “spiritual Murphy’s law! What Buddhists sometimes refer to as Samsara…the ever changing manifestations of our lives. You are smart, talented, tenacious and lovely…I’m sorry for your break up and disappointment but, in most of your posts, you brightly express an ever endless strength to forge ahead and learn from each new experience. The most difficult route to the other side of anything is right through the middle.

    Peace & Love,


    • Emily Pennington (BrazenBackpacker) says:

      Wow, Steve! Thank you so much for your kind words. I feel like the notion of Samsara is at the heart of so much of what I do. The moment we accept that things are not going to be easy or comfortable, we can earn to play within the discomfort and, hopefully, ease it a bit!

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