More than 20 years ago, I joined my closest women friends on a four-day backpacking trip in the Golden Trout Wilderness area of Kern County, California. Back-country hiking and camping is so far outside my comfort zone that I might have as well been traveling to Mars. But that trip has served as a road marker for me ever since, helping me find my way home whenever I stray off course.
It was a great female friendship trip with a lot of laughs, some of them admittedly not so funny at the time. Like how we thought it was a good idea to carry frozen chicken breasts on the outside of our packs to grill for dinner on our first night. We didn't count on smelling like raw poultry for the next three days.
And then there was the pinnacle moment of the trip: Reaching the very remote and secluded hot springs where we could "bathe" for the first time in days. We were all au natural when the Boy Scouts descended upon us en masse. Who knew this spot is on every Eagle Scout map -- or, from the Scouts' perspective, that scouting could be this much fun? There is a scout master somewhere who likely still talks about the stubborn naked women who refused to leave the hot springs.
Indeed, some experiences improve the farther in time you travel away from them, and that hike may be one of those experiences. But while our stories from the trip have lived on -- and probably grown some -- there was one thing that never needed any exaggeration: the two tired old broads we met on the way out.
No, that's not my description of them; it was theirs. They were two ball-busting women in their late 70s or early 80s who had made that same arduous trek every year together for decades. We met them as we were hiking out on our fourth day, our bodies filthy, smelly and exhausted. At one point, one of us clung to the narrow cliffside path and announced we should just leave her body for the wolves. That may have been me. Our good humor had left us the day before and our bickering was echoing off the canyon walls. Our uphill going was slow, seriously slow, with each step more painful than the last; the trip had stopped being fun.
At a flat meadow with a muddy creek, we came upon them -- the two tired old broads. We were inching our way up the mountain, they were half-inching their way down it when our paths intersected. One of them used two ski poles for balance and the other had a walking stick that converted into a mini-seat for rest stops. Both carried staggeringly large packs on their backs and wore hiking boots last seen in a pre-war Swiss Alps catalogue. My feet hurt in sympathy just looking at them. If we four were struggling so, how was it that these old two women were not?
Being friendly or chatty was the last thing on the mind of anyone in my group, but we needed to stop and rest and they were in the clearing first. "Mind if we join you?" I asked, sliding my pack off my aching back before the question was answered. And so the conversation was struck. Where were we girls from? Left our families at home, eh? Were we new to this trail? How full were the hot springs at the bottom and did we see any bears? (Bears? What bears? Just cubs, as in scouts.)
Their chatter kept up, without much encouragement from us. Eventually they started talking about themselves, about how much this annual trip together meant to them. They told us about the year the stream that now only trickled had to be forded. They told us how one preferred to sleep under the stars, the other needed the security of a pup tent. They took pictures of the wildflowers, of the birds they saw. Often there were deer or bears or other animals. They just talked and talked.
And while I long ago forgot their names -- or if they even shared them -- I remember one thing in particular they said. "Yep, we are just two tired old broads who keep on going," one said, looking over at her friend. "Once you stop, it's over you know, so we just don't stop," said the other, nodding in agreement.
They talked about their friendship -- neither could remember how long it was -- and they spoke about how everyone has to take care of themselves a little too. Women, they said, are busy taking care of everyone else. Nothing like going into the wild by yourselves for a few days, now is there?
We sat with them for maybe 15 minutes and mostly just listened. But there was something about the two tired old broads that touched us. We looked at one another and pledged right there and then that we would be them, we would do as they had done. We would be friends forever and once a year, we would put aside our excuses and formulate a plan to hike somewhere together. We would vary where we went but all would commit to the time and the trip. It would be our friendship glue, our connection get-away. We had been given the secret to aging gracefully, surrounded by love and all we had to do was heed it: just don't stop.
I don't remember much more about the rest of the hike out. We made it just before dusk, collapsed in the car and after a final dinner, drove several hours home where "real life" -- husbands, kids and jobs -- awaited. I think my hiking shorts, worn for four days, required burning.
The two tired old broads inspired us to continue the annual Girls Hike tradition for years. We went a little softer some years -- going inn-to-inn in Marin County one year and staying in the tent-cabins of Yosemite's High Sierra camps for two trips. When they were old enough, we brought our daughters along. We stayed in a condo one year and may have spent more time cooking dinners together than we did on the trail, but still we did it. And then one year -- the occasion of my 60th birthday -- my friends surprised me and flew in from around the country. We had a fabulous dinner, crashed at my house, and the next day went hiking. That was our last Girls Hike.
And so to my friends, I ask -- from one tired old broad to another, let's not stop, OK?