My journey on the aptly named Backbone Trail

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Erica Broer (right) was joined by her father for part of her hike on the Backbone Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains. Contributed Photo.

Years after back surgery, hiker walked 67 miles over five days through Santa Monica Mountains

By Erica Broer

Contributing Writer

I hiked the Backbone Trail, spanning 67 miles from Pacific Palisades to Malibu, over five days in October 2021. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and my parents moved to Malibu after my brother and I left for college. Though I’d spent many hours walking in the Santa Monica Mountains, I hadn’t before walked continuously for days through this coastal range.

My mother dropped me off at the Will Rogers Trailhead, and I hiked 10 miles to Musch Camp in Topanga. The Backbone is well-marked, with brown signs on wooden posts, but there are forks in the road. I used a National Geographic paper map and the Gaia app to navigate. It’s a beautiful trail, with layers of mountains gently rolling and rising toward the sky, the ocean in the distance sparkling in the sun. Sitting under the sandstone outcrop of Eagle Rock, I looked out upon a landscape that had been scorched by fire in May 2021, and I admired the oak trees that were growing back, green leaves on black branches. I pitched my tent, the only one at the campsite, beside the cottontail rabbits, and made dinner over my camp stove.

When I was 16 years old, I had spinal fusion surgery to correct severe scoliosis. I’ll never forget the X-ray of my spine on display in the office of my orthopedic surgeon at Children’s Hospital in LA: It was so curved it looked like a snake. In the days leading up to my surgery, I was terrified that I would wake up in the hospital paralyzed, or that I wouldn’t wake up at all. The last thing I remember before succumbing to anesthesia is seeing my parents cry and realizing that, though they’d been hiding it to keep me calm, they were scared as well. While I slept, the surgeon cut open my back, put a titanium rod on either side of my spine, and bridged the gaps between my vertebrae with bone from a cadaver. Upon regaining consciousness, I was overwhelmed with relief that I could wiggle my toes. The operation was a success, but the long recovery period was a blow. I was a serious soccer player at the height of my athleticism, but my doctor told me not to engage in strenuous physical activity, much less contact sports, for at least a year. 

Seventeen years later, the Backbone Trail held special meaning for me because of its name. After my surgery, I became a hiking enthusiast and lover of the outdoors. The scar that runs the length of my back is a constant reminder of my body’s resilience, and I never take my own movement for granted. 

The next day, I walked 15 miles from Musch Camp to Malibu Creek State Park. It’s fun to imagine the stories behind the names of the trails that, stitched together, form the Backbone: names like Dead Horse, Fossil Ridge, Saddle Peak. I loved feeling surrounded by nature and also in contact with humanity, scrambling over rock formations one moment and crossing a paved road the next. On difficult uphills, I realized how much of walking is about overcoming mental blocks, turned off my brain, and put one foot in front of the other. I became acutely aware of time and distance, measuring hours in miles. I found a white and brown striped hawk feather that I wore in my hat for the remainder of the hike. A rattlesnake that had recently eaten something, a mass moving through its body, slithered along the side of the trail, and 12 deer grazed in a field at dusk.

My mother drove my father to meet me at my campsite in Malibu Creek State Park on the morning of my third day, and she gave us a ride to the trailhead at Piuma so we didn’t have to walk 1.5 miles. My dad introduced me to the Backbone Trail by taking me on a couple day hikes: from Mishe Mokwa west to the Ray Miller Trailhead and from Mishe Mokwa east to Kanan. I love hiking with my father; he walks in front and seems young and strong, like he could walk forever. Ben, my friend at the time who has since become my husband, planned to meet us at the Kanan Trailhead. My cellphone service was spotty, so I wasn’t sure the timing would work, but just as my dad and I arrived at Kanan, Ben pulled up in his van. The three of us sat on a bench by the parking lot drinking beer and eating snacks. We hiked to Zuma Ridge, for a total of 14 miles that day, where Ben made a delicious dinner and we talked and laughed until after dark. A great outdoorsman himself, Ben brought so much joy after an exhausting day of hiking in the sun. My father and I spoke about him many times over the next two days, and he was ecstatic when Ben and I started dating a few weeks later.

My initial plan was to walk 14 miles to Sandstone Peak on the fourth day, but we ended up hiking an additional 6 miles to Danielson Multi-Use Area because my dad convinced me not to go to Circle X Ranch for water. It would have required hiking 3 miles off the Backbone, and we weren’t positive there was water at Circle X. We were lucky to find a water spigot at a fire station across the street from the parking lot at Encinal, but we definitely needed more water before the end of the day. We passed Sandstone Peak, the highest point in the Santa Monica mountains, and walked down the steep Old Boney Trail to Blue Canyon Trail. The sun set as we hiked, light blue sky fading into a peachy glow behind the mountains, which looked like they were covered in velvet. Thirsty, we were relieved to find water at Danielson. It was a warm night, the moon cast shadows, and we fell asleep under a big sycamore to the sound of crickets. 

When we woke up on our final morning, we heard two owls hooting in the tree directly above us. Walking through Sycamore Canyon was lovely, flat, and shady, and we saw a stag with huge antlers. The end of the Backbone is spectacular: We looked down at the stunning coastline of Point Mugu, blue waves crashing on gold sand. We met a middle-aged man near the Ray Miller Trailhead who said he ran the entire Backbone in 25 hours without sleeping, and I thought, To each their own. After 8 miles, my mom, our trail angel, met us at Ray Miller with sandwiches and lemonade and drove us home.

At the end of the hike, I felt like I had accomplished something important. I realized my body is capable of much more than I think. Each morning, I winced at the pain of putting on my backpack: aching hips, back, shoulders. The trail would break me down, then build me back up, leading me to find my hiker legs. My backbone provides support and structure for my body, like the Backbone Trail does for the Santa Monica Mountains. These backbones may not be perfect, and they may have scars, but they are a force to be reckoned with.