What if I told you
you had to touch it
to make it real?
Trace a finger across
or lower a bare foot into an eddy
nudging a leaf with your toe.
If I told you it was there
could you believe me?
Have you ever felt a cool bed of polished granite?
Can you know what you’ve missed?
I don’t believe myself sometimes,
second-guessing hazy memories
of alpenglow in the peaks
and sheet after sheet of waves
whipped by gusts across a lake.
Compelled to return, time and time again
to inspect the flow of creeks
and the decay of boulders
-to confirm that it is all as I have left it
that it is all still real.
When recalling the cold indifference
of midnight air
stinging the lungs
-I can see it, feel it so clearly in my mind
and yet I’m shocked upon return.
Recollection is untrustworthy.
I have come to trust rain,
the loneliness of stars.
Abandon the idolatry of memory.
Press your feet into the soil and trust their weight.
Trust the mule deer
slowly edging a hillside
-stopping, nostrils flared and ears erect
winding me, locking eyes
a nonhuman witness confirming the present:
I have arrived.
(Images and prose from a 4 night/5 day solo hike in the Upper Kern Basin just before the summer fires of 2020).
The cranks turn, over and over, and my mind wanders as I pick a line through ruts and rocks and drifts.
Picking a line.
Perhaps this is the crux of the issue, of why I am never quite certain that cycling or bikepacking is as therapeutic as walking. The background energy needed to operate a machine at speed seems to dictate a different sort of thought, a different mental pace.
Not better, not worse. Different.
On the climbs I am certainly drawn into a smaller sphere; attention is required to watch the line, getting lost in breath, watching sweat drip on the top tube. But it doesn’t seem to allow for watching the birds or scanning a treeline or wondering about cloud formations. Walking is slow enough that attention to foot placement requires less conscious attention. Walking thoughts are expansive, with space for the external world should you allow it to enter. The bike tends to draw me into an inward space, an experiential sphere existing in a small radius extending from my front wheel, all else a relative blur.
And then there is the descent, often with little time for thought at all; maintaining the line reigns supreme. To think is to hesitate, to hesitate is to find oneself laid out in the rocks. A flow takes hold, very akin to the experience of surfing a wave, an everflowing present uncoiling beneath the wheels. While there is something to be said for 8 miles of downhill and being home for coffee by 9AM, a side of me always feels that the speed has robbed me of playing witness to the gray fox hidden in the chaparral or the tanager perched in the crook of an oak’s arm.
That we evolved on foot no doubt plays a role in the syncing of pace and thought, the bike a technological and comparatively obnoxious intrusion.
This weekend I’ll be walking overnight. But don’t get me wrong; there is something to be said, time and time again, for being home for coffee beside my wife by 9AM. Sometimes we simply have to cheat to fit it all in.
I lay there floating on my back, arms and legs outstretched, watching a half moon and Orion’s stars roll with the swell from behind the waterspotted lenses of my diving mask. Like a passenger looking out of the windows of my own eyes.
Darkness above, darkness below.
The growing seasickness spreading through my gut and limbs stunted any interest in chasing lobster. A cold sweat was seeping beneath the seals of my wetsuit hood, snorkel feeling tight and restrictive on my breathing.
I could hear the waves breaking rhythmically in the rocks, sound echoing off the cliffs. Getting back in sounded ominous, especially as I was certain I’d be fighting vomit and convulsions by then.
Rolling back over and spitting the snorkel, picking out Rigel and Sirius from my bed of kelp.
Bed of kelp.
I understand now.
Resting in a thick mat of it, its air bladders buoying my arms and legs. Like a bed of slowly writhing leaves and tentacles, if one could somehow be at peace with that.
I turned my light off and I was home, unconcerned with my two partners, bobbing quietly and alone in a blackened sea.
Thirty minutes later I would crawl out on my own, leaving them to continue the hunt. Slithering and dragging onto shore, strands of kelp and eel grass clinging to mask and snorkel and shoulders, hands shaking. The sight of a strange and wounded beast.
Splayed out in the rocks on my back, moonlight reflecting their wet surfaces in a silver, ice-like sheen, I let the tide lap at my fins. Burping and dry-heaving slowly subsiding, relaxing into breath.
Smiling like a fool in love with the world.
The Preposterous Deep.
If God wills it. My father-in-law used to say this with a shrug and a gesture of his hands, palms to the sky. He’d say this about the most difficult things while we chatted about life over a cup of Turkish coffee.
I can understand the anger. At the core, a lot of people are confused and afraid. Some lash out, some put on the armor of denial. Some sooth themselves by seeking fault in others. Some build a wall of stoicism and logic.
Do what you have to do.
People are terrified of losing control, whether it’s a virus or fear of someone taking their rights away. But maybe we never had it in the first place? Maybe living with 300,000,000 other people requires the humility of surrendering the illusion of that control? Dwelling on this might help with the fear and anger and bravado directed towards others, perhaps giving way to something healthier like forgiveness. Relentlessly seeking who’s to blame is likely a missed opportunity to live your life.
Welcome to being in something together, for better or worse. I know it’s disorienting for those just realizing it. I know we like to think we are in control.
“Inshallah” as my father-in-law would say, squinting into the sun while sitting on the porch. You don’t have to be a believer to understand that beyond your personal actions, what’s going to happen is going to happen.
Grab a drink and gather ’round folks, I’ve got a tale to tell.
There were four of us, out for a late afternoon mid-week dive. Conditions and visibility were good, though there was a little swell in the water to keep us bouncing, and lights were carried in the event of a late exit. Hunting on this day was about a quarter mile offshore (generally marked by the red arrow), exploring some kelp beds and rock structure in ~35 foot deep water. Rumor had it there were some good nests of sheephead in this area and I was intent on shooting a big goat. Everything was going well…
As (too) often happens, we all strayed a bit from one another, hunting in pairs but loosely doing our own thing between check-ins. My partner was about 15 yards from me, taking mid-depth perch on a polespear. I was hugging the bottom, looking for sheephead. Plenty of small females were lurking, but their king proved elusive. The sun was dipping low so I lowered my standards to match, knowing we’d be getting out soon, willing to shoot anything that would make some tacos.
I was exploring a kelp thicket and *!POP!* shot an opaleye near the end of my breath. Rather than going to retrieve the spear and fish, I made for the surface and would bring it up from there.
Except when I turned and pointed for the sky, something was holding me down…
Kicking hard, I couldn’t budge. I jerked my gun, assuming the spearshaft was stuck in the rocks, but no, my gun was free. ~25 feet deep, I was tangled in something and running out of air.
Instinct told me to kick again, kick harder, when I looked down and realized a thick mat of kelp had wrapped itself behind the knife’s sheath on my belt. I went for the knife to either free it or cut out, but the kelp was too thick. I couldn’t get my hand through it to find the knife…And this suddenly became one of those moments where time warps, a tinge of panic about the reality sets in, and things feel like they are taking forever…
I kicked again, even harder this time, and was worried by the strain I felt back; I was seriously stuck, no movement. Time passed while I fought…and then something gave with a snap. Relieved, I felt the thrust of my fins- and soon buoyancy- lifting me to the light above.
Shaking it off, I caught my breath and went to work dealing with my fish; I still had my gun in hand and a fish on the spear. When I went for my knife to kill it and get it on the stringer, I found it was gone. I snapped it off my weight belt, sheath and everything. A thick scrap of broken plastic was left attached where it sheared off.
I called a friend over, borrowed a knife, strung the fish, and got my bearings back. I was still slightly rattled, but kept diving, not really trying to shoot anything, just letting my nerves straighten back out. I have found it’s important to keep going in these moments rather than succumb to the instinct to bail. Leaving the scene with a bad feeling sill lingering tends to allow fear to fester, as opposed to reassuring oneself that everything is still OK, regaining control of mind and breath despite a scare.
Post-dive analysis, a couple things obviously went wrong, but I will admit I’m bothered primarily by my lack of one particular reaction. Initial instincts went in this order: 1. struggle to break free (Bad!: wasting air), 2. calm down and try and cut free (Good!), and 3. back to struggling to break free (More bad!: wasting even more air) when I discovered I couldn’t cut out. I am a little disturbed that the instinct to drop my weight belt entirely didn’t enter the equation faster. Not that it wouldn’t have- I would like to think that if I didn’t break free the second time I would’ve gone to drop my belt, but regardless, the instinct never came because I ended up breaking free. I feel like it should’ve been there sooner.
I’ve been replaying the scenario in my mind, visualizing and rehearsing releasing my belt over and over and over, trying to ingrain the action somewhere in my consciousness. When I relayed this story to my partners at the surface, it was also a stark reminder to all of us to stay a little closer, be more watchful of each other.
While some may be reading this thinking us fools, an honest evaluation says that these situations are going to happen in some form, that we are accepting these risks the moment we get in the water, and we have to remain diligent and honest with ourselves about our abilities, actions, and future considerations. This is how we learn. Yes, this is also how people get killed, but any outdoor adventurer knows that learning experiences and disaster are often dual faces of the same coin.
Remain humble, stay honest, learn to be safer.
Shall we talk about alienation? Or the romantic naivety of professing love for a place while understanding little of its workings? Love is love, no doubt, but perhaps this is an immature love that takes the complexity of its object for granted.
No, this will not do. To learn the names of your hosts and neighbors is a matter of respect, the first step.
There is something disorienting about an “outdoorsperson” being able to cite more outdoor gear manufacturers than birds, in knowing the local drive-thru’s menu better than one’s local edible plants. What does it mean to recognize the fleeting silhouette of a Toyota Forerunner but remain unable to name of the stalks of yellow flowers whose fragrance reminds you of that day you walked that coast with someone you love? To understand the evolution of bicycle braking systems or professional sports rosters better than one knows the history of the western gray squirrel who happens to be yelling at you from a branch?
We seem to love ourselves and our creations above all. Look at the world unfolding, this much is clear.
And we forget what we’ve forgotten. Amnesia. One generation having lost a sense of what has been added to or missing from the landscape stretched before it; something has changed, but it’s blurry around the edges. Is not knowing the names a symptom, manifest in unconscious unawareness, oblivious to one’s obliviousness of the natural world? All the while perfectly in-sync and at home in a manufactured world. Chasing Pokemon in a computer simulation in a dream.
Sunburned, mildly dehydrated, and scratched upon return, my head is swimming with “new” plants and birds and watersheds. I sat still in the dirt of the chaparral at noon and was rewarded with the conference of two spotted towhees, one perched on a burnt-out manzanita close enough to reveal his blazing red eyes. My own eyes burning, I gorged on tart blackberries beside a small creek for lunch. There was purple, berry-laden coyote scat beside me. Not so different.
I’m beginning to understand what I missed for all those years in my pursuit of mileage, but I suppose this is the way: Sketching the large lines, filling in the big gaps, slowly refining, shrinking the scale, adding layer upon layer of detail. I think of a good friend who’s been slowly tracing the Upper Kern for decades, alone, mapping small bends and folds, until arriving at the headwaters and turning back. And doing it all again, discovering what he missed, reassessing what he found.
The cartography of sweat, thorn, and birdsong.
We sit in the shade of a sycamore and I can see it in your eyes. Words are coming out of my mouth but you resent them. A father’s stumbling concern becomes an affront to individuality, to autonomous thought. The words are suddenly painful, unsolicited and sticking like barbs, and rejection is the shield behind which an adult ego grows. Even agreement is fraught with concern, micro-delineations of positions and caveats must be probed. Your head burning with ideas from university, books and voices, heroes, making my ideas seem small. I have exposed myself, the anatomy of a mere human being revealed, banal viscera, the mythical stripped away.
I look at your arrogance and I almost forget my own.
How many did I tear down and cannibalize in the construction of this self?
(Visions of empty robber trenches in ancient archaeological sites. One burgeoning civilization hacking away at the foundations of the monuments that precede it, hauling off someone else’s quarried stone to build anew, a dusty pit where a temple once stood.)
Hammer at the foundations, tear down your father.
I just ask that you be gentle, if and when you can. There may come a day when you are hurt and exhausted and you catch a sideways glimpse of my eyes peering back from your reflection. Looking down you realize that your thick legs resemble mine and that you no longer have to carry it all alone.
I will sit quietly and listen for you.
Years ago I sought out a local gunsmith to look into modifying the fixed full-choke barrel on a Winchester Model 12, my great-grandfather’s hunting gun. This change would make it potentially more useful to me, converting it from a duck hunting gun, something I do not do, to a tool more capable of hunting upland game. I found a small outfit that will remain nameless, located in an obscure industrial park outside of Los Angeles.
My wife rode along with me. For reference, my wife is Armenian and pretty dark-skinned. I am 6’2″, 225 lbs, white, and have a shaved head and tattoos. People used to mistake my wife for “the nanny” when she’d push our children down the block in a stroller…
We pull up to the storefront in an empty parking lot, it’s already dark outside. It’s relatively unmarked, save for two sets of security doors opening into what appears to be a machine shop behind a wall and a service counter. There is the company’s logo on a flag with some crosshairs hung in a small window behind bars, as well as a small Gadsden flag, an NRA badge, and a few gun manufacturer stickers.
Seeing these symbols, my wife knows how this sort of situation works. It’s the same reason I do the talking in gas stations in certain parts of the country.
“I’m going to wait in the car and let you handle this one…”
I ring a bell. An overweight, late middle-aged White man peers from inside and buzzes me through both security doors. My wife is in the car right outside and can hear our conversation through the bars and screen.
We hit it off immediately, talking about the shotgun, and I trust him as he talks me out of a modification, suggesting I keep it vintage to honor great-grandpa, ultimately urging me to just buy a cheap new hunting shotgun from someone else.
During the chit-chat, however, he tips his hand a bit.
“Where are you from?” he inquires.
I state my city.
“Kind of dark up there, isn’t it?”
Mmm. I’m caught off guard. I sort of deflect and change the subject.
I can’t help but notice there’s a tricked-out AR-15 pistol on the wall, a weapon breaking an untold number of CA laws, but I figure he’s an FFL and a gunsmith and who knows what else so maybe none of that applies…
He obviously likes me and we continue chatting about local hunting and the mountains. A few more dog whistles are thrown in, little jabs about how the neighborhoods have changed, about how much better “things” used to be.
We eventually wrap it up.
“If you need anything, let me know.”
“I appreciate that, thank you.”
“Really, anything you need, you come back and see me.”
As humans, most of us are keenly aware of body language, tone, and generally how to read people. It’s not what is said, it’s how it is said. I know exactly what he was telling me and what went down in our exchange.
Getting back in the car, my wife informs me she heard the entire conversation through the security doors.
“Kind of dark up there huh? Oh, he LOVED you with your bald head and tattoos…” she says with a smirk. “Aren’t you glad I know when to stay in the car?”
“Hey, now I know where to get a machine gun…”
And so it goes.
I’ve never been back there.
My wife is interesting to me. She’s got a very blunt realism about her, she easily blows things like this off. It’s not that she thinks it’s right or good or any of that…It’s just that she expects it. It’s like she’s over being shocked and angry and disappointed by people.
We were driving yesterday, stopped at an intersection where BLM protesters were gathered and waiving signs. I honked the car horn, got a few cheers, and immediately felt highly self-conscious that I was sitting in an air-conditioned car while people were yelling in the street.
My wife was quiet.
I noticed that behind her sunglasses she was crying.
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.
I rounded the corner by bicycle and was hit with a sinking feeling; yellow caution tape strung across the trailhead entrance to my local stream, closure orders stapled to the signposts. My stream. The one I frequent nearly daily. That this is National Forest land makes no difference, it has become an extension of my backyard. I know the bends and the boulders, the most comfortable depressions nestled into oak roots, places for sitting and watching the water until the sun dips on a random Tuesday after work. This place is important to me, intertwined with my identity, but like so many front-country escapes, it has been overrun in the recent weeks as people turn from the bars and restaurants and malls to the outdoors. I cannot blame them, I will not begrudge a non-local family for driving out to take a walk…but it was as if all of Los Angeles did it at once. My quiet sanctuaries and hidden hermitages were suddenly overrun and the State stepped in. It was inevitable.
Thankfully, after reviewing local forest orders today, all is hardly lost; the high country is still open and I see nothing that would make solo backpacking against the law in certain watersheds or trail systems.
The shock of the entire quarantine situation has subsided some, shifting more into a state of low-grade background anxiety and simply worrying about this new face of suffering in the world. My family is, quite fortunately, safe and healthy at the moment. The initial instinct to hunker down and stay close has been blunted some with time; not out of restlessness or impatience, but out of actually seeing the situation for what it is. As my family and I settle into our respective routines, a solitary drive up the mountain and a night spent among juniper and sage no longer feels wholly inappropriate. It’s a relief, even if temporary. Here’s to going back out.
Clear skies replaced by clouds sometime early in the morning, awakened to rain spattering the tent fly. Coffee under the tarp, a slow walk out after the drizzle subsides; the smell of soil, droplets clinging to leaves.
Nothing is lacking.
A slow process, but my first net is finally complete. I believe this sat in my shop for nearly three years before adding the net.
With quite a few years of tenkara fishing in alpine lakes and streams under my belt, I’ve found that the net should probably become an indispensable part of my kit. The art of landing fish with a tenkara setup is often physically more complicated than in Western fly fishing, namely because the line cannot be shortened and fish must be brought in with the rod and an opposite hand on the line. In real-world applications, combining factors such as a rocky shore, 7X tippet, an 11′ rod, ~14 feet of line, and balancing on a log with trees and brush behind you, it can be more than awkward to successfully land a large fish. Needless to say, I’ve lost many good trout at this critical moment.
I typically don’t fish catch and release (a topic perhaps worthy of another post). While the contemporary justification of a net is very often to cause less harm landing a fish prior to release, my use of net is more selfishly motivated; I don’t want to lose a good meal. Killing and eating fish aside, I still see it as an obligation not to cause any additional suffering prior to the fish meeting the knife; bouncing fish onto the shore has never been appealing.
This net is Jeffrey pine, known for pliable green branches that oppose each other, very forgiving to shape. Netting is fine .9oz no-see-um mesh. The tip is deer antler. While the Japanese apparently believe the antler provides a bit of “luck” or protection in the water, I’ve found that the smooth, pointed antler allows it to slide in and out of a belt at the small of the back quite easily. It also adds a pleasant weight as Jeffrey pine is fairly insubstantial. It’s hard to see in the pictures, but the bend in the handle also aids in the ergonomics of landing a fish; I find this style is easier to dip than the typical straight Western net.
Tenkara USA describes the build process quite well.
I have a few more branches that have been sitting and curing for years; like all things, I suppose the second and third nets will be more refined.
Image after image, burned onto the surface of the mind, drifting through like clouds reflected in a lake. The reality of the sun burning my back, the sound of raindrops on the water’s surface; all of it shadow now.
In meditation I see myself there, sitting not beside the lake, but upon its surface. Crags rise on all sides into a limitless sky. Cold blue depths fall beneath me. I can hear the wind in the grasses on the shoreline, whistling through rock saddles in the peaks above. Sitting on the lake, becoming an island in its center. Words echo: I have arrived, I am home.
So many of the mountain poets speak of Glory and Light and God and yet I seem to be among those that find a sweet despair, a state that only magnifies the indifference of the universe. I have become a seeker of sadness and streams. A collector of sights and sounds to be lived and then filed away in a library of shadows. A historian now scrolling through old images, trying to discern which world is more real.
The indifference becomes a looking glass through which a great pointlessness can be observed, precursor to the timeless reminder to be present, to bear witness: A single flower struggling against all odds to carve a small niche of existence at 11,000 feet, surrounded by rock and snow and unceasing wind. Life simply doing what life must do before it is extinguished. That we may be no different is an imperative to be ever grateful for having experienced the warming rays of morning light, life itself, if only once.
I sit here recalling the images of summers past, clinging to shadows, knowing that shadows alone are not enough, planning my return.
The urge to go do something stupid and hard is always present somewhere in the background of my mind, no doubt spurred by some asceticism. Some of us like to suffer. It’s also in no small part due to a time in which I laid in a hospital bed, stared at fluorescent lights among beeping machines, filled out an advance directive, and wondered if my body would fail me long before it was “supposed to”. There have been many moments in which a future with the physicality I crave has been called into question.
So I figure I’d better use it while I’ve got it.
I’ve been deeply interested in local trips, partly out of simplicity, but mostly out of desire for filling in blank spots on the map and connecting canyons and roads under my own power. Getting to know my home. In the last year it’s become increasingly obvious how lucky I am to live in this proximity to the mountains, that I can find contentment so quickly out the front door without touching car keys. Doing it in this style means more and more to me.
Getting to and from the canyon by bicycle is not much to speak of, other than that it possibly wins some amount of “style” points (in some circles known as stupidity) and that it must be factored into the cumulative fatigue of logistics planning. It’s one thing to do a hard canyon, another to be somewhat tired going in and know that your work will not be done at the end. The 35 miles to the trailhead was uneventful, save for being quite fortunate to hit overcast skies for the ~3000′ climb into the mountains. The 35 miles home was hot and slow for the first ten miles, graced with a tailwind that exactly matched my rolling speed, leaving me in dead air and heat radiating off the road. I walked as much of the uphill on the ride out, figuring 2.7 MPH pushing was just as good as 3.2 pedaling on the bike. When it’s that steep, what’s the point? Not to mention a bad case of chafing aggravated by pedaling due to wearing shorts with a soaking wet chamois through the entire push. I won’t do that again. But the final 25 miles were a neck-stiffening, nonstop 30+ MPH downhill; no complaints there, save for being buzzed by 4x4s too close for comfort and too many times on HWY 39. The downhill was another almost comical moment to reflect upon how the mind tends to want to be anywhere but where it is, hopping like a flea and grasping for whatever it can find. When climbing you dream of descents; when the neck stiffens on descents, you dream of getting off the bike…
And then there are those precious moments when you shut all that noise down and embrace whatever is happening because you’re simply alive.
The real work was in the canyon, on foot. Mileage is all over the place; Harrison maps place the canyon at about 16 miles. CalTopo says the route is a bit over 14. Google Earth closer to 20. Regardless, all of the riding I was hoping to be able to do was quickly shut down and I found myself pushing continually from the first miles. And soon the terrain was rough enough that pushing became the wrong descriptor. Pushing implies the bike is working with me and rolling…but this was a battle. Bowling ball sized rocks, tangles, blowdowns, countless river crossings, and occasional boulders the size of cars, requiring pressing the bike overhead and climbing them.
The stupidity of pushing the bike through this canyon grew quite strong, pace being reduced to 1 MPH at best. Crossings were deep and fast enough in places that the bike was knocking me over if when I foolishly placed it upriver. In most places the canyon became so choked that walking in the river became the only reasonable choice; the banks only offered thorns, punctured tires, snags, and scratched up legs. So a good deal of the hike became stumbling through submerged boulders in knee deep water, dragging the bike at my side, and hiking through an overgrown tunnel that the river cut through the trees. A perfect way to be trapped for a bear encounter.
The first time I rounded a bend and we surprised each other. I was downriver and downwind and my sound was drowned out by the rushing water. The bear exploded off the edge of the stream and went crashing up an impossibly steep hillside, showing nothing but a giant cinnamon ass with a few bare spots. I worried it would run out of climbing in the rocks above and have to come down and challenge me for space but it made it over the top and disappeared. My pace doubled while the adrenaline lasted.
The second encounter was nearly identical but more harrowing, the bear obviously overtaken by confusion. Once again we completely surprised each other. This time the bear was in the stream. It instinctively spun to run from me, as black bears typically do, but obviously felt boxed in, and wheeled around in a last-resort sort of charge that it seemed it didn’t really want to make. I obviously had no way of knowing how serious it was. This happened so fast that my only instinct was to try and put the bicycle between us and yell. The charge came alarmingly close, about 5 yards, before the bear very briefly halted, squared up, then wheeled around to run again. This time it crashed through deadfall in a panic at the riverside and went up a hill on the left bank, sitting there eyeing me from 20 yards, sniffing and licking at the wind. I can say with certainty a weapon or spray would not have helped me in the moment if I had it. Everything happened too fast. I suspect this is how any very rare physical encounter with a black bear would go, complete surprise being the main provoking factor, nullifying any chance of a coherent response.
Around this point I’d truly had enough, exhausted and coming off the high of the animal encounters. The upper East Fork is wild and lonely; deer, bear, and coyote sign everywhere, no trails or signs of people to be found. Night would be falling and I wasn’t quite as close to the climb out as I had hoped to be. I found a gravel patch not far from the Prairie Fork/Vincent Gulch junction and dropped my gear. No shelter, just a tyvek sheet, pad, and bag. It was a bit of a psychological blow to find my ramen was a no-go as I had really wanted some salty broth. My esbit tabs and stove were in the bike’s saddle bag for half the day and got rattled enough to fill my cookpot and stuffsack with white hexamine powder. Huh. Something to remember for the future. So dinner was a quart of water and a few bite-size Snickers bars before climbing into the bag and drifting into an aching sleep. Between the bike and hike, I was about 15 hours in.
Come morning I surprised myself with the wreckage I had left in the night; gear strewn everywhere, wet clothes on rocks, bike laying beside me with a rear flat tire- a scene of exhaustion. The old wreckage of a single engine plane was on a bluff just above me; it seemed like I had found a fitting spot in the dark to crash. I went about patching my rear tire at the stream, searching for punctures in the tube. I quickly found 5 and stopped looking; I had four patches left and a single tube. Thankfully yesterday’s patches on the front had held well enough, though there was a slow leak. I calculated that I’d better push it out of the canyon with the flat and save my last tube for the ride out.
I escaped the madness of pushing through rock and canyon rather quickly, intersecting the trail climbing out of the canyon in an hour or two. The next three hours were up, up, up with a flat bike. I met a bear hunter on his way in to check his trail cams; he was quite excited about my experiences, not surprised in the slightest about the bear density. It’s a wild, seldom traveled stretch in the upper reaches where I found them, chokecherry and manzanita covering the slopes above the river and creating a perfect, lonely habitat. When I explained the bike push I was met with “I’ve done some crazy shit up here but…” and a shaking head. No doubt. I would be fairly surprised to meet anyone else that has done this.
Pushing the bike into the Vincent Gap trailhead and parking lot became surreal, emerging from a wild dream-world into one of cars and Boy Scout troops gathering to mount assaults on Mt. Baden-Powell. I dealt with mechanicals on the bike in the dust under a conifer, discovering a ripped cable at the rear derailleur. Fortunately I was able to jam and ziptie it into a climbing gear. Seriously weighing the idea of asking someone for a ride down the mountain, my mind drifted to the times when I had feared I wouldn’t be able to do this. As the pushing hell of the canyon and its bears drifted into illusion, I reminded myself that so to would the ride home.
Walking into a taco stand stand at the bottom of the mountain, stinking, bruised, and dehydrated, I quietly laughed as I scarfed a plateful of asada tacos and a large Coke. I reveled in the stupidity of it.
Out of the Dreamtime and back into the world.
A quick overnight ramble of about 20 miles door-to-door. I savor the fact I can do this without using a car, simply walking out the front door shouldering a pack. These Friday forays make the weekends longer and sweeter, purging my typical restlessness with a little sweat and stillness.
Sunshine, mist, poetry, sake, miles, and stream crossings…
A two night/three day ramble with out-of-town friends Mike M. (Montana) and Doug I. (Washington). In pursuit of sunshine.
A mix of trail and cross country, revealing two new canyons and some good backcountry routes.Wreckage after the first night (Mike apparently praying a Hail Mary for warmth in the background?). Poor site selection and lows far below what we were anticipating led to soaked bivies, bags that glazed with ice, and a very long, cold night. We ended up reducing the next day’s mileage a bit to allow gear to dry.Victim of my own words, the wet bag was a gift from the day before, likely linked to my lunchtime Sermon on the Mount extolling the virtues of suffering so one may enjoy comfort. I suspect after the ensuing debacle my sermons will not be so welcome on future trips.A lush time of year by desert standards, it was good to stretch the legs with friends to just walk and scramble all day…Daytime weather was perfection and night two passed far better.
For land so heavily shaped by water, it’s fascinating to find so little. Nothing but a few hidden gems deep in canyons…though the animal residents of this world can likely account for every drop.
The following will be carried for a 3 day/2night fastpack in the Joshua Tree National Park backcountry. ~60 miles total, two water caches along the route, a mix of trail and XC. Base weight: 8.05 lbs.
I sat beside the stream in selfsorrow
and it spoke:
“Did you expect the world to slow down?
Surely you understand that the seasons wait for nobody.”
Walking out I pondered this,
hand trailing in wet grasses beside the path,
savoring the odor of damp leaves on the wind;
Resolving to expand a few moments
of perfect awareness
into the feeling of a life well-lived.
Sun and wind on a Saturday morning; that this spot is exactly one hour from my home is not bad at all…It’s become Lusi’s favorite new beach.
The baby Barred Surfperch were out in full effect again but I managed to score two decent ones for the pan.
I’ve been fishing.
Typical surf rig:
St. Croix Wild River rod, 8’6″ Fast Action, 8-12#. (Favorite rod ever).
Shimano Sedona 4000FB reel w/10# mono. (As about a nice of a reel as I’ll take in the surf and sand).
Carolina rig, 3/4 oz. egg sinker/bead/swivel. 4′, 6# flourocarbon leader. #4 Owner Mosquito Hook. Gulp! Sandworms.