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GUEST POST: In Praise of “Cowgirl Camping” by Ted Adamski

Camping can be the greatest expression of free will, personal independence, innate ability, and resourcefulness possible today in our industrialized, urbanized existence.

Anne LaBastille
Cowgirl camping in the desert section of the PCT in Southern California.
“Cowgirl” camping in the desert section of the PCT in Southern California.

I met Ted Adamski on the John Muir Trail in 2012. He is an ultramarathoner, clocking elite finishing times in the Western States, Leadville 100 and The Fellsman, a race near his home in the UK that he’s run over forty times (and me, exactly once)


Ali was excited to tell me of her new camping experience as I meet her at Van Dusen road near Big Bear Lake to join her for some 200 miles on the final stages of her thru-hike – “cowgirl camping,” camping under the stars, no tent necessary.

I look aghast, images of rattlers and scorpions slithering into my sleeping bag for warmth. She smiles knowingly, whilst memories of seeing photos of snake bite victims during my visits to South Africa, who were visited by these cuddly reptiles in just these situations, swirl round my head. 

Mike's Place was deserted when we got there, but he left plenty of water and a spot to camp under a full moon.
Mike’s Place was deserted when we got there, but he left plenty of water and a spot to camp under a full moon.

That first day was a long one for me, 18 miles to Arraste Trail Camp where we share my small two-man tent, the one I use when running a two-day mountain marathon with my son. Big on convenience, sturdy for Scottish weather, but not a space I’d deem comfortable. Cozy? A more ‘fitting’ term might be cramped, but we are safe and sound.

The following day takes us along Mission Creek, a physically challenging route of up and downs, something I love. I am born for this, but nowhere near as ready for it as is Ali. I am so glad that she is taking pictures as the beauty of the region is overpowering and difficult to comprehend. As the day begins to draw to an end, we are tired but happy and eager to find somewhere to pitch the tent, keen not to be too late as sundown at these elevations brings intense cold. We pass several sites down by the creek but the dead trees surrounding, weakened by fire, do not invite.

Finally near the path there is a flat spot that is exposed but offers a great view across the peaks we have just passed. But, horror upon horrors, my tent pegs will not penetrate the packed soil and the guy-lines are not suitable for stones. There is only one solution – cowgirl camp, of course!

The view from our sleeping bags. We had to sleep in a wide spot on the trail.
The view from our sleeping bags. We had to sleep in a wide spot on the trail.

And what an experience, climbing into the sleeping bag at 6pm and watching the stars come out as Ali types her blog. Then we talk and whoop with delight as shooting stars fall all about us. It is difficult to sleep through a full 12 hours and I wake often to a canopy of stars, its light throwing a shadow around the surrounding hills. It’s magical, its relaxing, it makes one feel alive.

The best part is in the fall there are no snakes! It’s far too cold for them to even think about leaving their burrows. Needless-to-say, each and every night from then on was under the stars, the tent staying safely in my backpack.

If you haven’t tried it, do so. I will be working out if it is possible in the rather damper condition of the UK when I return and I imagine Ali will offer a full update!

Ted Adamski received the trail name "Terrible Ted" on the John Muir Trail.
Ted Adamski received the trail name “Terrible Ted” on the John Muir Trail.

Ted and Richard hand me a bottle of water before saying goodbye as I head into the mountains for the last night alone on the PCT.
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PCT Day 136, Highway S2 to past Sunrise Trailhead junction, 18 miles

Dreams and reality are opposites. Action synthesizes them. – Assata Shakur

Ted and Richard hand me a bottle of water before saying goodbye as I head into the mountains for the last night alone on the PCT.

Ted and Richard hand me a bottle of water before saying goodbye as I head into the mountains for the last night alone on the PCT.

I wake up with the sun even though we were up late talking and laughing in the hotel’s beautiful lobby. It’s so nice to have Richard right there next to me, though he begs for more rest. I mess around with my pack on my last walk out of a town, at least my body’s clean, but dusty hiking clothes will have to suffice.

We love our stay in Julian. The guys shared a couple of pints last night at the brewery while I caught up. This morning, we’re served a two-course breakfast of granola, eggs and polenta along with wonderful homemade bread. We’re back at our table in the parlor, eating on a linen tablecloth and dabbing our chins with linen napkins, there are even doilies that fit into the historic period of Julian’s mining past. It’s very old school, but we like old school and everyone we met at tea yesterday chooses the same tables and seem quite happy to be served such awesome food. We share more stories and talk about where we want to hike next before piling into our rent car to return me to the trail.

It was usually long walk off-trail to get water in the desert.
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PCT Day 132, Mikes’s Place to Highway 74 (Warner Springs) 17 miles

Sometimes your only available transportation is a leap of faith. – Margaret Shepherd

A sandy track winds through dry grass near Warner Springs in Southern California.
A sandy track winds through dry grass near Warner Springs in Southern California.

No beings – animal or otherwise – came round last night. I slept soundly in our little piece of sand next to a shack, the moon’s reflection in the windows looking like eyes. Mike doesn’t show, but I am so grateful he offers a place to camp, water from a huge tank affixed with an easy-to-collect spigot and a long-drop, clean and odor-free. I eat the last of my bars with vanillacoffee and have Ted bandage my back, my spine bones taking a beating from my pack before we set off.

Terrible Ted negotiates the rock fall trying not to look down.
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PCT Day 129, Saddle Junction via Devil’s Slide to Cedar Spring, 20 miles

I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes. – Edna St. Vincent Millay

Terrible Ted negotiates the rock fall trying not to look down.

Terrible Ted negotiates the rock fall trying not to look down.

I set my alarm a bit too early this morning thinking I’d need more time to organize since going back after a ‘zero’ day is always a bit of a shock. I fill the time eating too much yogurt and granola and reading the Times. An article grabs my interest as I wait outside under a sky just beginning to lighten for handyman Dean to take us back to the trailhead. It’s about grieving and highlights a book by David Kessler where he takes the five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – and adds one more, meaning. “Loss is simply what happens to you in life. Meaning is what you make happen,” he writes, offering something hopeful, optimistic and, most important to me, active to the peace and groundedness of acceptance.

Dean arrives right on time and we pile our bags in the bed of his truck and head up to Humber Park. I think about the kind of meaning I’ll create out of the ashes of my loss, and decide, as Ted and I retrace our steps up to the saddle, that my experience will be meaningful and I will carry it with grace and dignity. It’s fitting to consider these things here as I walk up what I just came down, as though offered a kind of do-over and a chance to gain a new perspective.

Ted leads and powers up even with a full resupply. Taquitz – pronounced tah-quits or tah-keets, take your pick – looms over us, seemingly inviting me to come climb him. Giant firs hold their enormous cones at the tip of the boughs like poorly placed oversized Christmas decorations. Several dead trunks stand as beheaded sentinels, their bark stripped revealing a twist underneath from root to crown. Birds sing good morning and we’re at our junction before we know it.