WILLOW CREEK WATERSHED — Their tent floors were soaked when morning came, the brisk air revealing clouds of expended breath as nine Sonoma County teens gathered for a breakfast of hot tea, egg scramble, homemade tortillas and mole sauce, then packed up camp and hit the trail beneath a brightening sky.
They had lugged backpacking packs over hill and dale to reach this verdant clearing near the coast, where cathedral trees surrounded by thick, redwood duff edged the streambank and a wooded ridge line rose above, separating them from the ocean beyond.
Relieved of their packs for the last leg of their four-day trek, they began the 5-mile climb through county open space properties toward Shell Beach in Sonoma Coast State Park, where they would bury tired feet in the cool sand and frolic in the surf.
But first, they formed a circle with their adult leaders to reflect silently on the previous three days, on the beauty of the land, the wildlife they had seen, the expectations they had when they started out and the experience of pushing forward through fatigue, self-doubt, homesickness and, one of them, severe nausea, only to arrive at camp and have the heavens open up.
And still they wanted more.
“I hope I get to come back next year,” was how Santa Rosa High School junior Marisol Cornejo, 17, summed up her feelings that day.
Part of a spring break expedition organized by the nonprofit group LandPaths, these high school students had been mostly strangers to one another and largely inexperienced with backpacking or even camping when they started the week at Westminster Woods near Camp Meeker to practice with their loaner tents and organize water bottles, clothing, hiking boots, rain gear and other equipment provided to them for the trip.
But on the trail, or preparing meals together or sitting around the fire, they had become friends and confidantes, empowered by the opportunity to experience the beautiful west county landscape and to overcome new challenges.
“I guess just being outdoors really connected us, since we had to work together,” Elsie Allen High School sophomore Emma De La Cruz, 16, said. “It was really just a wonderful experience.”
Omar Gallardo, LandPaths’ director of outreach and diversity, was unmistakably moved by how the kids opened up during their recent trip, sharing stories of family struggle, loss or hardship.
“Out here, they’re different,” Gallardo said. “They drop their guard.”
Some of them had had their doubts, especially on the long day of hiking that took them 11 miles overland from Westminster Woods, where they bunked in cabins to get out of the rain, to Willow Creek Ranch, where they were hosted for two nights of camping.
Healdsburg High School senior Jorge Cervantes said he “was already tired” after the first 500 feet uphill, while Jazmin Escandon, who attends Roseland University Prep, wondered, “Why did I think this was a good idea?”
“I’ve never been camping and hiking,” said Escandon, 17. “I don’t like walking.”
But when they arrived that afternoon at their stunning destination, a private ranch awash in green splendor and redwoods, “we all had smiles on our faces,” said Cervantes, 17. “You feel superhuman.”