Thriving in the wilderness

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Left: Melissa Sale hikes The Wave, the iconic sandstone landmark at Coyote Butte North near the Utah Arizona border. Photos: courtesy of Melissa Sale. Upper right: Sale explores the Ohlone Wilderness near Sunol, California, during a solo backpacking adventure. Lower right: Ensuring everything is in its place, Sale carefully prepares her backpack for a backcountry adventure.


Livermore Laboratory Employee Services Association (LLESA) manager Melissa Sale is an outdoor enthusiast who grew up spending time in nature. She reminisces about childhood summers, when playing outside was the norm and kids were expected to come home only when streetlights came on. She recalls the carefree and adventurous spirit of her upbringing, where she spent countless hours exploring the outdoors. 

“I remember in the third grade, going and catching tadpoles all by myself in a lake and then bringing them home on my bike,” Sale said, noting that the tadpoles eventually turned into frogs, much to her surprise. “To think, in today’s day and age, that you would let a little child ride their bike somewhere and play in a body of water is outrageous. But that’s kind of how I grew up and I didn’t really think a whole lot of it at the time.”

Years later, her passion for hiking developed when her son expressed an interest at 10 years old. Together, they embarked on short hikes, including a memorable outing to Angel Island. However, as her son entered his teenage years, he became less interested in the hobby, leaving their outdoor gear to gather dust in the garage.

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Sale enjoys the breathtaking views of the Yellowstone National Park backcountry.

Solo adventure 

With her son now grown and moved out of the house, last year Sale pulled her backpack and other outdoor gear out of storage. She and her wife started exploring Del Valle, Brushy Peak, Morgan Territory and other East Bay Regional Parks, gradually building up their experience and exploring different trails. 

While planning and training for an overnight backcountry trip on the Ohlone Trail during wildflower season, her wife had a family emergency that she needed to attend to and wouldn’t be able to make the trip. Sale’s LLESA colleagues encouraged her to take on the challenge of traversing the mountains and canyons of the wilderness preserve alone.

Overcoming initial doubts and concerns, Sale took on the solo adventure and had what she called her Cheryl Strayed moment, referencing the famous backpacking journey described in the book “Wild.” She recalls a couple of encounters with wildlife, coming across a fox with a squirrel in its mouth on the trail and a coyote yipping outside her tent in the middle of the night. 

“Despite my initial hesitations, I had a really great trip,” Sale said. “My experience backpacking the Ohlone Trail by myself — or as I like to call it the ‘aloney’ trail — instilled in me a sense of self-reliance, boosted my confidence in handling unforeseen situations and set me up to take on additional experiences.”

Preparation and empowerment

Sale loves planning and organizing her trips, meticulously weighing each item of gear to ensure she carries only what is essential. She finds joy in the preparation process, researching trails and considering factors like weather conditions to make informed decisions. She emphasizes the importance of preparedness and adaptability, understanding that unexpected challenges can arise in the wilderness. 

“It’s important to me that I think through potential scenarios of things that could happen in the backcountry and identify what gear I am going to take to handle that situation, but not to the point to where I’m packing everything and the kitchen sink,” Sale said. “I’ve learned the hard way that it’s way more fun if you’re not carrying a really heavy backpack.”

Sale and her wife recently attended a weekend wilderness survival training offered by the Thomas Coyne Survival School in the Santa Cruz mountains, where they learned to build a shelter, start a fire, signal for help and provide basic wilderness first-aid using just those items they could source from the land. 

The training prepared them for getting caught in severe weather during a backcountry trip to Yellowstone National Park in May. 

“We got caught in a thunderstorm and were rained and hailed on,” Sale said. “We were really glad that we had the preparedness training we did and that we had packed the appropriate gear.”

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Sale treks through the snowy landscape at Bryce Canyon National Park.

Solitude and serenity

Sale’s backpacking experiences have been transformative, rekindling in her a sense of freedom and curiosity about the natural world. Through her experiences, she has grown more confident in her ability to navigate different terrains, make crucial decisions and appreciate the solitude and beauty of the outdoors. 

Sale believes that spending time in nature positively impacts her mental and emotional well-being, providing a sense of serenity and an opportunity to disconnect from the fast-paced modern world.

“Being alone in nature, I really appreciate the silence and disconnecting from the bustling crowds often encountered in popular tourist destinations,” she said. “There are lots of cool things you can see on a driving tour of some of our national parks. But I love when you get in the backcountry and come across spectacular views or become immersed in unique landscapes and sights you can only experience by hiking in.”

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Together with friends and family, Sale ventured into the wilderness of Yellowstone National Park, embracing the untamed beauty and awe-inspiring wonders of nature.

Inspiring connections and sharing experiences

Sale’s love for the outdoors has become an integral part of her life, fueling her desire to embark on new adventures and explore lesser-known destinations. She is now planning a trip with an Australian friend to complete the Cape-to-Cape Track in Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park in Western Australia.

“A lot of my friends think it’s a bit of a crazy hobby and don’t consider it a vacation,” Sale said. “Getting away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, turning off your cell phone and relying on yourself and what you can carry on your back is incredibly challenging, but also incredibly empowering and rewarding. It’s awesome connecting with nature and being completely immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of the outdoors.”

At work, Sale’s adventurous spirit and recent outdoor experiences have piqued her interest in potentially establishing a backpacking networking group for LLESA members. She envisions a space where colleagues can share experiences and resources. 

“I think there’s definitely an opportunity to bring people together, go on some outdoor adventures with new friends, or even just a place to talk about the hobby and share gear tips.”

– by Paul Rhien