By Peter Frick-Wright
From our perch above the clearing, Laura and I can see well-worn game trails encircling the meadow and a shaded glen that looks about right for a nap. There's a small pool of water burbling up out of the ground, and the smell of ripening fruit wafts skyward from below. Meanwhile, the soporific sunlight suddenly feels very heavy, impelling us to sit . . . maybe to lie down and relax awhile.
In the backcountry, it's important to embrace moments like this. Let your mind wander, and who knows what you'll find: maybe the right questions, maybe the right answers—maybe just a new appreciation for a birdsong serenade.
Except we're not in the backcountry. We're on the balcony of our room at Estancia La Jolla Hotel and Spa, a high-priced pamper palace in San Diego. We just got back from the gym.
That clearing isn't exactly a meadow; it's a meticulously landscaped courtyard. Those game trails are really sidewalks. And that pool of burbling water is a fountain with a pump. We're pretending we're on vacation from our vacation.
That serenade? Our room's ringing phone.
"Hello, sir. This is housekeeping. We've noticed that you have items hanging on your balcony. Is something wrong?"
"No, everything's fine," I say. "The clothes are drying."
"OK, sir, someone will be by to dry your things in the dryer."
"No, it's all right," I answer, wondering if housekeeping thinks that evaporation requires some sort of physical effort on my part.
"We can't have anything hanging outside, sir," the voice says. "I have to ask you to remove your clothes."
The original plan for this three-day vacation had us hiking along the Illinois River in Oregon, but instead, because of a gift certificate and scheduling conflicts, we find ourselves at Estancia.
Given the heated saltwater pool, expeditious room service, and parfait-soft towels, a weekend here would seem the exact opposite of a backcountry expedition. I am, for example, probably the only guest who checked in with waterproof luggage. And unlike my trekking buddies, the bellhops have no interest in the weight I saved by packing nylon pants instead of jeans. Which is surprising, since they insist on carrying my bags for me—an arrangement that makes me remarkably uncomfortable. I think this is because if someone hauls your pack on the trail, it means you're either injured or diarrheic and probably heading home.
But it turns out that a stay at this resort actually has much in common with a long wilderness trek: Both are supposed to transport you away from everyday concerns; it's easy to get lost without a map; and judging from the variety of pedicures offered at the poolside spa, foot care is paramount.
Backpacking trips of any length require discomfort—on some level most hikers are barking for ice cream and a shower after three days. At Estancia you can get ice cream with a wave of a hand (unless you prefer sorbet), and showers might as well be mandatory. So three days here impart a different kind of suffering, one that leaves you longing to prove your toughness by spending a month in Alaska scavenging grubs.
Take the pool: warm as a sunny patch of carpet, blue as a melting glacier, but typically empty. Most guests lounge in chairs under yellow umbrellas. Some pay extra to sit under orange curtains fashioned into circus tents.
The activity of choice is asking staff for food and drinks, so you're fueled and hydrated for some intense slothfulness. The pool, then, is akin to a campfire. It gives you something to sit around and look at as you eat. If someone falls in, it's probably an accident.
The onslaught of idleness becomes stressful, like backpack straps digging into shoulders. So Laura and I start looking for small ways to differentiate ourselves, to assert our competency in the face of overwhelming comfort. We need to prove to the world that we are uninjured, nondiarrheic luxury-resort adventurers. At the final trailhead, during checkout, we make the brave decision to carry our own bags to the car.
Loaded with luggage, we make it as far as the front door, where we stop in our tracks. A valet stands between us and the car.
It's not quite as dangerous as coming between a grizzly and her cub, but we back away. Slowly.
"Give me your bags!" the valet says, swiping at Laura's suitcase as if it were a spawning salmon.
"I can get it," she says. This initiates a standoff.
"But you're on vacation!"
We realize this is our last chance to prove our toughness, and for a moment, we consider fighting for our luggage. But on his second approach, we back down—as you're supposed to do in the presence of a larger predator.
Peter Frick-Wright, who wrote "Digging a Hole for China" in the March/April issue, is a frequent contributor to Sierra.