The Friendships of Nature

Putting People over Place in the Los Padres High Country

The Friendships of Nature

Putting People over Place in the Los Padres High Country

By Matt Kettmann | June 9, 2022

Hikers on the 18th annual Los Padres backpacking trip, now called The Life March, sit atop a mountain while the artist Chris Potter works on a landscape and Coyote Dave (left) and Jon Payne (center) jam on the guitar. Sunset views extended from the Channel Islands to Vandenberg.  | Credit: Brian Hall

When hiking, especially with half a week of supplies and sustenance on your back, mileage really is nothing but a number. There’ve been times when my buddies and I cruised 10-plus miles in a relative breeze, and other times when we covered barely one mile during an entire, utterly grueling day. (Thanks, Sespe Gorge!) Nonetheless, whenever I learn the itinerary for the annual Los Padres National Forest backpacking trip that my friends organize each Memorial Day, I study the mileage like it’s all that matters when deciding how much to pack. 

Wooly fruit desert parsley | Credit: Matt Kettmann

This year, for the first time ever, not only was the first-day mileage short and seemingly innocuous — just 3.7 miles, quickly up and gradually down — but we’d be staying in the same location for all three nights, using it as an outpost for day hikes and trail work. Concerns about anything being too heavy went out the window, and my existing tendency to overload just got amplified. I didn’t fret tossing in more than the usual bags of wine, plus beer, sausages, anchovies, spicy peppers, two kinds of cheese, multiple onions, garlic heads, bagel thins, chili mix, bagged tuna, a full jar of jalapeño mustard, even actual tin cans of beans — not to mention the book, binoculars, hatchet, hacksaw, journal, oatmeal, and assorted items that never even saw the light of backcountry day. 

Which is the long way of complaining that this 3.7 miles to our own paradise in the Los Padres high country felt like a lot more, at least with what felt like 100 pounds on my back — and, for a while, my front, thanks to my less-than-brilliant plan to walk with a daypack strapped to my chest. (Don’t do that; just hook that one to your back too.)

Of course, upon reaching camp, none of that mattered. We were beneath towering sugar pines and incense cedars, steps from a constantly gushing, pure-as-rain spring, and near rock perches with views from Vandenberg to the Channel Islands to Ventura County. It was, as advertised by chief trail master Coyote Dave, an incredibly special spot, the ideal place for the mellowest ever of these adventures. 

He’d plotted as much because one of the other cofounders of this annual affair, the well-known plein air artist Chris Potter (, had been diagnosed with cancer around his lungs last fall, a couple of days after we’d all celebrated Halloween by camping at El Capitan State Beach. While the initial rounds of treatment fought back the disease, Potter isn’t quite his full-strength self, so a more relaxed itinerary was planned.

To ease things further, we all volunteered to help the Los Padres Forest Association in their efforts to clear trails of download trees and encroaching scrub brush, which granted us vehicular access past the usual trailheads, chopping off considerable hiking mileage. And, for reasons that should be abundantly clear, the trip’s longtime nickname “The Death March” was officially rechristened as “The Life March.” 

There’s usually at least half a dozen participants in this trip, which started 18 years ago and kept on marching during COVID’s darkest days. But this year, because of Potter’s predicament and, presumably, the less horrific hiking route, there were a dozen of us. We even welcomed brand-new faces, which is a rarity; exponentially elevating our musical game was the guitarist/sailor Jon Payne, a musician of indefatigable reserves (I’ve requested he add “Tequila, Sheila!” to his repertoire), and upping our backcountry celebrity status was the LPFA’s executive director Bryan Conant, who charted and designed the best Los Padres wilderness maps on the market. He also hauled in a crosscut saw, Pulaski ax, and a number of loppers to empower our trail projects.

Yellow flowers, red rocks, and a green pine in the Los Padres high country. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

On our first full day in camp, while most went off in search of some hermit’s abandoned cave, I practiced the overlooked art of doing nothing. It’s challenging to not do very much of anything for hours, and there’s no shame in it, especially when a couple of your friends are equally engaged, content just shooting the breeze, staring up at trees, taking in views. By the way, there’s also no shame in bringing up the rear of the hiking column: Slow and steady might not really win races, but you’ll eventually cross the finish line, which is all that counts out here.

The following day, I barely touched my iPhone, another liberating non-move, although it put a gap in my photographic evidence. We found a couple of dunking holes downstream from camp and rinsed off our accumulating dust and sweat in bracing baths. Payne and Coyote Dave jammed in the dappled sunshine as carpets of ladybugs swarmed on the mint-lined creek banks.

On the appointed day of work, we hauled out nearly four miles, using the crosscut, Pulaski, and loppers to clean up the trail in ways small and large. While sawing, chopping, and clearing a number of downed trees, we quickly understood the need to be strategic in how and where we moved the logs: Use the wrong tool, and it takes 10 times as long; shove in the wrong direction, and the massive wood might fall right back on you.

It was a long walk back, some of us running low on water. We walk alone much of the time, leaving your mind plenty of chances to wander. As sweat drops from my hat brim, as my thighs pang with soreness, as my CamelBak dwindles, I often fight through unpleasant waves of self-doubt during such solo stretches. 

The pale purple and white Mariposa lily. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

Did I pack too much? (Yes.) Do I have enough water? (Probably.) Should I have sawed more? (Perhaps.) Am I the worst ax wielder? (Unclear.) Should I be in better shape? (Yes.) Am I going too slow? (Impossible.) Am I gonna pass out? (Not yet.) Is this fun? (I think so.) Though uncomfortable, there’s catharsis in this mind game — the forest is a wise place to confront demons, and these ponderings are humbling, if nothing else.

In between steps, I snapped shots of the flora that never fails to mesmerize me on these treks: the subtle purple and white of the mariposa lilies, the stark yellow of blooming goldfields, the tiny fuchsia bells of Fremont’s monkeyflower, the oddly outlined pods of the woolly fruit desert parsley, the prehistoric protruding of snow plant. And there were acres and acres of young green pines, bringing a frothy shade of green back to a wildfire-decimated basin.

These scenes of nature at its finest are what lured us out here in the first place. But as we grow older, it’s not the places that keep us coming back; it’s the people. The real appeal of these adventures emerges around the cookstoves every morning and night, whether we’re jostling for the next cup of rum-spiked coffee or perfecting the cheese crust on tortillas for smoked pork-butt tacos. The conversations are kinetic, bouncing from hilarious to insightful to introspective, and the camaraderie only intensifies as the wine flows and music rises.

Long ago, these trips taught me that the great outdoors aren’t going anywhere, that — apocalypses aside — I’ll be able to take my own grandkids to these same places and find similar wonder. But on this year’s mission, with mortality thrown so abruptly in our faces, we were reminded that people aren’t as timeless as nature. Friends are not actually forever. Enjoy them all while you can.

Read all of the stories in this year’s Blue & Green issue, “From Big Waves to Tall Trees.”


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