As wildflowers and sunshine give way to choked and cluttered canyons, I’m struck by the unique character of this mountain range, how the features almost force a certain mode of thought. Slopes too steep and thick with brush, much of this landscape is not made for seeking vistas and sunsets, instead funneling the wanderer into overgrown, tree-lined waterways.
I imagine this terrain would be claustrophobic for many, too closed-in, teeming and busy, the overlapping texture of plant and rock reaching in from all directions. At times it feels jungle-like. To the uninitiated, possibly messy and oppressive.
Growing up here, the character of these canyons has likely played a part in teaching me to appreciate the tiny gift, to be content in examining the details hidden in small spaces. What lies around the bend is very often no different from where one stands, unless a mindset is cultivated to approach the experience like one approaches a bonsai collection, looking for micro-environments and quietly hidden paradises. Roaring waterfalls are seldom found. Instead I find myself drawing in my knees and sitting close, watching a small stream flow over a rounded boulder into a sandy-bottomed pool.
Observing water striders dancing for position at the edge of an eddy replaces the trout-gazing of High Sierra alpine lakes. Stone-colored toads swim the breaststroke through slow moving pools no deeper than a shin. Wrens and dippers hunting insects flip in and out of undercut banks and rocks, disappearing into dark hollows. The stones here do not scream for attention, they do not tower and inspire awe through scale. It is a land of small, subtle happenings that require attention to understand, full of small creatures living small lives.
Fortunately this seems to have a way of thinning the crowds, warding off those seeking the spectacular. They congregate at the range’s peaks and waterfalls, leaving those of us happy to look for more humble treasures to do so in peace. I’m reminded of a whisper from Cold Mountain: If someone would poke out the eyes of the hawks, us sparrows could dance where we please…
Here’s to the joy of small things.
In my teenage years I trained a pair of scrub jays to eat from my hand and eventually perch on a shoulder to gingerly pluck breadcrumbs from my lips. While an “animal trick” that won praise and laughter from family and friends, conjuring images of some backyard teenage St. Francis of Assisi (my mother always said this), the whole act was partially a product of the emotional lows that left me sitting alone under the trees in the corner of our yard for who knows how many days throughout the years. The befriending of the birds took far more time, silence, and stillness than anyone was aware.
I strongly suspect that some form of depression is at the core of more animal whisperers and stream watchers than we can account for.
I’ve always liked being quiet, being left alone. That people elevate the “silent retreat” to something spiritual is quite obvious, yet it has simultaneously never made much sense to me, perhaps because it has come so easy and so often that it does not feel like it takes any particular discipline. When practice ceases to be practice and simply becomes life.
I eventually graduated from hiding in the trees in my backyard to driving and sitting alone in bigger spaces. The nights were particularly long and black then, sleep was always tortured with the sounds of the forest. I was still learning how to be in the woods, how to relax. My wife, who was not yet my wife, would sometimes walk to my camp to surprise me with breakfast in the morning. Those days were magic, intense in a reckless sort of way that comes only with youth, yet our bond survived.
I was diagnosed with a mood disorder at the age of 26, given a prescription and instructions to return every week for therapy. I never had the prescription filled and after my second therapy session, I never went back. To this day I’ve struggled with the accuracy of that diagnosis, and with the entire process of evaluating mental health, but that is not to say I haven’t struggled.
Despite the fact they’ve never gone away, something even then hinted at the idea that the highs and lows were a part of me that I had to learn to live with, perhaps even embrace, not squash with medication or overcomplicate with a stranger’s disinterested musings (that was my impression of therapy, anyway). I’ve largely learned to stop fighting with ideas about what behavior is “appropriate” in relation to “norms” and instead try to welcome the whole of my being. The thought of change is often more frightening than the thought of enduring the pain of swinging between the peaks and valleys. To change is to try and imagine who you would be without being who you are. Perhaps for some of us, life is the slow process of learning to live with ourselves.
Accepting your burden might just conserve energy that will be needed to carry it.
I am very fortunate to have found someone that understands me. When I throw a sleeping bag and some food in pack and head out the door, my wife has the trust to know that the escape is not about us or the life we’ve created together, but about allowing me to be the person that still needs to go sit with the birds.
So I go where the dark-eyed junco dwells. I walk until my feet hurt and I find a suitable patch of earth for my sleeping bag. If there is a good view, a trickle of water somewhere, the sound of the wind leaning into pine, sagebrush, or manzanita…even better.
But there are always birds.
I get lost in their calls, in trying to pick apart the trees to find them and figure out who is saying what to whom. Or there is simply drifting off into a hazy present underscored by the urgency of their conversations at dusk.
Triiit!! Triiit!! Teet-teet-teet-teet! Triiit!!
Tep! Tep! Tep! Twoooo-eee!!!
(I am working on achieving mastery in transcribing birdsong to English.)
Seeing and hearing birds consumed with the immediacy of their own lives helps bring me back, the feeling of not belonging in this time and place replaced by the warmth of understanding that this is the only time and place. A reminder to carry the presence of the birds.
Wild and lonely.
It’s hard to understand why that would be appealing right now, given the pervasive low-grade anxiety that seems to lurk beneath everything in these strange times. My feelings seem to oscillate by the day; on Friday this trip wasn’t going to happen. On Saturday morning I packed my bag and left. To seek out the wild and lonely felt wrong at first, but the moment I locked the car, swung a leg over my bike, and tasted some wind, it made sense. Some things don’t change. Perhaps we need those things more than ever right now.
I am so pleased with the bike as a tool, this bike in particular, but remain generally convinced a solid MTB should be an indispensable part any adventurer’s quiver. If not for mountain biking, which I have waning interest in as a discipline unto itself, for linking loops, shuttling to vehicles, and making other adventures happen. The bike made the 6 mile connection between the entry and exit points of my hiking loop, remaining hidden and locked to a tree until I returned. Its usefulness is a reminder to keep my cycling fitness up, even if only for trips like this.
The idea was a peak-bagging fest, exploring some ridge systems I already know more thoroughly. Winston Peak (above) and Winston Ridge (across the canyon), went down quickly and predictably as many a sunrise has been spent hunting them.
Down into the canyons, somewhere off of Little Rock Creek I became sidetracked, roughly eight miles and many thousands of feet into the hike, lost in thought and wandering onto the wrong trail. The detour was worth it for the discovery of the above spring, which will be quite useful come hunting season.
Camp on Burkhart Saddle felt particularly lonely, nothing but a windswept bare spot on a ridge at 7000′. The lights of the desert cities could barely be seen in the distance to the north, bringing with them visions of families in quarantine and a general reminder of the heaviness that was waiting down below. The winds were whipping, trees moaning, temperatures dropping quickly. After ramen followed by half a pot of instant potatoes, I retreated to the back of the tarp and got in my bag, only 8PM, fully knowing I was in for a long night but unwilling to sit outside in the wind. The Seek Outside DST saw it’s inaugural night; spacious, versatile, the diamond fly pitch was excellent with the downward ridge pointed into the wind.
I boiled the coffee at 3:30AM, long awake but it was as long as I could wait, now biding my time so I wouldn’t burn out my headlamp navigating while hiking too early. The country on Pleasant View Ridge is steep enough that a headlamp hike could easily become a fiasco. I was trying to time it so I’d do the rather straightforward climb and arrive on Pallet Mountain at sunrise, facing the harder country and route finding on the other side with the aid of the sun. Timing was perfect; I topped out as magma flowed from an eastern sky, shedding jackets and hats and gloves as the light grew brighter.
Looking back on Pallet Mountain, first light barely touching it. I’m wise I camped in the saddle and resisted the strong urge to hike through the night. It would’ve been a steep route finding disaster in the dark. Winston Peak top left, where I started.
About 18 miles into the loop, I was very concerned I’d be stopped by snow and the lack of traction gear and an axe. More confirmation hiking at night would’ve been bad. It registered as much steeper than it appears here when I saw it in person, snow hard and crusted, and it looked like it only got worse. Without crampons the snow sections were too dangerous, the risk of a slide in many places too great. Skirting the edge of the snowline on the ridge proved safer, though it cliffed out in a few spots, forcing me back to kicking steps on snow.
Slow down. Calm down. One foot in front of the other. Check your footing, plant your poles. Don’t end up alone and broken in the bottom of a ravine.
The ridge soon gave way to Mount Williamson, fortunately more snow-free as the southern slopes became more gentle. Ultimately the ridge gave way to the descent back to the highway on part of the PCT I climbed 4 of the 7 peaks I was initially interested in, scrapping three simply becasue what I saw on the topo did not translate to the physicality of what I saw in person…Steep Country. A good reason to return.
By the numbers: 22 miles, +8000′. Home by 10:30AM, just in time for Second Breakfast and Coffee (a trick I learned from Hobbits).
Shortcut canyon, 4/21/20, looking south to Mt. Wilson.
Mount Mooney, looking at Mount Waterman and East Twin Peak. Snowcapped Baldy in the distance. 4/24/20
Mount Sally bear highway
Mount Sally summit (4/24/20). Waterman, East Twin, and Baldy in background.
Mount Wilson from Mount Sally.
Rambling the high country. Cool approaches and snow lingering on north slopes, escaping the heatwaves below. Walking beside my eldest child; large, man-like now, sharing a sip of whiskey after dinner, I’m flooded by strange memories of a small hands, treats, and children laughing in the woods. He spoke, I listened. We read. His favorite authors are my favorite authors. It was different and yet exactly the same.