Loose rock, heat, thorns, and ceaseless ups and downs; I do not believe the San Gabriel mountains are given due credit for how rough the backcountry can be. Proximity to Los Angeles and its crowds likely dulls that appreciation- and yet I find myself alone, running out of water, pants shredded from seemingly endless stretches of blowdowns.
If you’ve never seen it for yourself, perhaps you’ll believe me if I quote John Muir:
In the mountains of San Gabriel, overlooking the lowland vines and fruit groves, Mother Nature is most ruggedly, thornily savage. Not even in the Sierra have I ever made the acquaintance of mountains more rigidly inaccessible. The slopes are exceptionally steep and insecure to the foot of the explorer, however great his strength or skill may be, but thorny chaparral constitutes their chief defense. With the exception of little park and garden spots not visible in comprehensive views, the entire surface is covered with it, from the highest peaks to the plain. It swoops into every hollow and swells over every ridge, gracefully complying with the varied topography, in shaggy, ungovernable exuberance, fairly dwarfing the utmost efforts of human culture out of sight and mind.
But in the very heart of this thorny wilderness, down in the dells, you may find gardens filled with the fairest flowers, that any child would love, and unapproachable linns lined with lilies and ferns, where the ousel builds its mossy hut and sings in chorus with the white falling water. Bears, also, and panthers, wolves, wildcats; wood rats, squirrels, foxes, snakes, and innumerable birds, all find grateful homes here, adding wildness to wildness in glorious profusion and variety.
It is still wild enough, apparently, to ward off the hordes below. I saw nobody.
I was lost out there for a day, not literally, at least not for long, but lost nonetheless. It was a training hike; I carried a 20# dumbell wrapped in a sleeping bag in my pack to simulate a typical backcountry load. Crawling, scraping, shimmying, sliding- this land does not go easy. Eventually coughed out by a canyon, I shuffled home by moonlight, at first on trail and then on streets, 37 miles and 15 hours later. Waiting at a streetlight with a bag of Doritos in one hand, a quart of cold Gatorade in the other, lost in a new strange world. The Saturday night malt liquor and lottery ticket crowd didn’t quite know what to think when I walked through the liquor store doors, trekking poles poking skyward from a filthy pack.
Within hours and then days and then weeks the dehydration and madness of it all gave way to nothing but memories of seemingly endless canyons stretching out in front of me, pools and tiny Edens hidden in their nooks. Writing this, I remember no pain.
Just a long day. A good day.
It’s tempting to liken distance running to asceticism, especially when temps are over 90 degrees and climbs are approaching 1000 feet per mile. The Desert Fathers parched their tongues under a Middle Eastern sun; I’m in the San Gabriel mountains with my head low, dizzy and grinding out the grade.
Somewhere beneath the heat and sweat a silence takes over, a purity of being. My body doing what it was built to do; blood pumping, muscles contracting, lungs filling and expelling air. This is right. And it’s not always a struggle; I had miles and miles of smooth, quiet running yesterday, everything clicking, everything steady. No turbulence, just a mirror-like mind reflecting the world around me. Silence and solitude and breath.
I want to see the world before I’m gone. I want fresh trails rolling out before me, new vistas around each bend.
dance in an eddy
as stones are worn
lost in a sheet of water
sliding down the rocks
by an ant exploring
my daughter asleep in the tent
lit by a crystal moon
-I’m left at the fire
searching, always searching
the woodpeckers mock
smiling at birds
whispering to a fox
in the cool skin
of a salamander
-sitting in darkness
I’m filling with light
(hands cupped together)
a gesture of gratitude
beneath twilight oaks
I heard death this morning
just beyond the amber light
-soft footsteps dampened
with bracken fern
-it will be here soon enough
walk slowly, friends
and lift your heads
put on another pot of tea
—it will be here soon enough.
2 packages of ramen,
1 bag of instant coffee.
This shit doesn’t have to be complicated.
She burns frankincense
in a bowl
as a bluebird hops and flicks
-smoke mingling with sunlight
and the stunted dreams of the dead.
I sit under a cedar
and dream about ghosts
trapped in the shadows
Glasses were raised
and the men stood to sing
about homeland and love
-the faint sounds of silverware and music
now muffled beneath roots and earth.
As if names carved in stone
and traced by the fingers
of a stranger
could ever account
for their laughter.
Whistle on, sweet deepener
of dark loneliness
I’ve been birding.
Many, many hours worth over the past few days. Alone mostly, but with my mother and my wife on separate occasions.
I have been aware of birds for a long time, obviously, with fragments of names drifting in the back of my mind, scattered remnants of field biology classes in college.
But recently, there was an epiphany:
Little forest dwellers, canyon hermits, waterfall architects, purveyors of perches and lookouts and mud nests. Colorful, raucous, solitary, bold. Singers, squealers, scratchers, and composers, sentinels and hunters, greeters of the morning light.
I credit solo trips to my hermitage with this newfound appreciation, waking in the morning to a cacophony of sound, so much it’s almost impossible, at least for this amateur, to separate one creature from another. Initially it was not their looks but their songs that drew me in. I lay there in my sleeping bag, staring at the canopy of oak and bay trees in complete mystified silence at what creatures could produce such noise.
Sometimes you realize you’ve been hearing something yet have never really heard it. In this case, it might have taken me 40 years of being outside. With classical music, it took Philip Glass. This is not to say I haven’t been deeply moved in the past, but sometimes things hit you in an entirely new way, seemingly out of nowhere.
I suppose that at times we have to be ready, have to have lived and felt certain things before we are capable of understanding others.
Progression and evolution.
I also credit my mother, an avid birder, Audubon Society member, and Huntington Library desert garden tour leader. She’s taken me out birding in the past, bought me a gift membership to the Audubon Society a few years ago, as well as membership in our local chapter. And, of course, the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. I haven’t gone on outings with the clubs (yet), instead just regularly digesting their magazine and newsletters. I suppose all of this information has been slowly sinking in, helping to catalyze this recent change in interest.
I also realized this is a perfect activity to share with her. We walked in a canyon yesterday, both of us with binoculars in hand, talking and looking and passing the morning together. Doing something while doing nothing: the best way. Together. In a moment I clearly understood that I do not how much time we will have together and that birds seem like such a good thing to meet over, something that will form a solid foundation for future memories.
I could feel it. Standing by her side, watching a pair of red tailed hawks circling the hills: I will remember this.
Today my wife and I went to one of our favorite canyons, a timeless stretch of classic California, teeming with bird life. Cliff swallows everywhere, a kestrel perched at the tip of a dead trunk, horned larks singing from rocks in the grasslands on the approach.
A perfect day with my partner. Another foundation built.
I’ve been cataloguing my sightings, listing birds and dates and locations. Meeting new birds that were likely in front of me for years, reacquainting myself with those I already know. The desire to understand who is who, who says what, and who lives where has me approaching the wilderness in a fresh way.
It’s seeing through a child’s eyes again, even after 40 years. It’s an excellent practice in being mindful.
of a canyon wren
blend with water song
and golden oaks
Fuck off, I’m birding.
I had high hopes for this trip. I went out with the intention of hiking the Fried Liver Wash from Pleasant Valley, connecting with the Washington Wash on the Pinto Basin side of the Hexie Mountains, then looping back to my staring point.
That plan was immediately foiled when I got to Geology Tour Road and saw a giant 4WD ONLY sign at the entrance. I’m familiar with Joshua Tree dirt roads, having driven plenty in 2WD compact cars, but I wasn’t sure if something had changed and I just wasn’t feeling up to testing it. So I switched course, driving to Pinto Basin, intending to pick up the Fried Liver Wash on that side and reverse the loop.
I was getting a bit impatient by the time I parked. There was traffic on the drive out, the billboards all seemed especially belligerent, soon the entire planet will be eating from the same five crap food chains, and people were driving like maniacs. And Joshua Tree has been completely overrun. I’ve never seen crowds like this in 25 years; I sat with the car off for 20 minutes in traffic just to get through the fee kiosk at West Entrance. The misanthrope in me started to surface, alive and powerful, bellyaching and grimacing over what the hell a person’s got to do for some peace and quiet and solitude…
But all that settled quickly. I love the moment when you turn off the engine, step outside, shoulder a pack, and realize it’s quiet, nothing but wind.
I also loved the quizzical, almost disbelieving looks from the other visitors parked at the backcountry board as they saw me walk off into the desert with a pack. I had almost 10 liters of water, enough to go goof around for a couple days if I chose. I headed cross country for the mouth of the wash.
The desert is deceiving. What from a distance looks like easy walking can prove to be quite slow. Broken rock everywhere, no level footing to be found for miles, not until I finally picked up the first fingers of the wash fanning out from the mountains. It became quickly apparent that I’d be changing my mileage expectations drastically.
The wash was dead still. Any breeze that I had before entering completely disappeared, leaving me doing a drunken shuffle through glaring sand, sweat starting to pool. Being on the low side of the park, temperatures hovered around 90. “Fried Liver Wash” was beginning to seem quite appropriate and it’s only spring.
A few hours in I took refuge under the shade of a smoke tree, stretching out for one of the most glorious backcountry naps I think I’ve ever taken. Nearly a full hour of peaceful slumber, awakening occasionally only to brush buzzing things from my ears or face. A silence surrounded me that was so dead I could hear flies and bees from scores of yards away. This would be the highlight of the trip, staring lazily through the branches at the sun and feeling my weight against the earth.
Walking, walking, I renamed the Fried Liver Wash the Same Old-Same Old Wash. I felt like I was walking in some strange limbo in which every bend revealed the stretch that I was just in, some sort of horror unfolding in which I’d never, ever get out. I am a very patient person and I don’t mind my share of suffering, but something about the nature of this trip was beginning to shift. I was losing my drive. After another few hours, nearly at the end of the wash spilling into the Pleasant Valley side, I began to ask what proved to be a trip-ending question: Why?
I truly enjoy long stretches of solitude, but on this occasion I genuinely found myself wondering what I was doing out here in this wash, sweating and alone. What is it with beating myself up in the wilderness, with long hikes that end up with me limping home when I could be riding waves or sitting under shady waterfalls instead? Motivations for sitting in silence I can understand. But why the need for discomfort?
My imagination turns to all of the desert ascetics before me, the Desert Fathers, Paul the Hermit out baking in the sun, St. Anthony of the Desert, itching and thirsty and silent. I wonder about the Shia whipping themselves into ecstasy with chains, the famed standing or sitting or rolling Babas of India, contorting and punishing themselves into an imagined purity. I daydream about monks throughout the monasteries of the world, meditating until their legs are locked, staring at walls for lifetimes. To say why I understand this nonsense is too difficult to put to words, but for better or worse, something inside me can relate. But on this day, I was growing pretty certain that I had had enough.
I was sufficiently satisfied that the scenery was not going to change and started to consider setting camp and retreating into chores and daydreams, but there were still three hours until dark and I was a bit restless.
Enough. “I’m going home” a voice says, “As long as I don’t get snake-bit or break an ankle, I can be back at the car by 10PM”. But another voice was telling me that I was just giving in to the monkey-mind and being impatient, that I needed to pitch camp and finish what I started.
And then a quiet voice reminded me that life is short and there is no need to sit in the desert alone if I’m not having fun, stuck on a trip only trying to prove some sort of pseudo-spiritual point.
I think I need to listen to that last voice a little more.
I was done with Fried Liver Wash, content to turn the trip into a twenty-plus mile dayhike with way too much water on my back. I’ll likely be back to finish this loop when the temperatures are a little cooler and the familiar ascetic voice starts to get loud again.
I’m taking a jog to my favorite shaded waterfall.
There is value in going to the same place again and again, returning as the seasons change. I believe I’ve written four or five reports about my hermitage, though I’ve stayed dozens of nights now. Through drought and greener seasons. In oppressive heat when gnats incessantly hover around your face in clouds, in rainy seasons in which there was not wood I could get to burn. In windstorms that I feared would get me crushed under a falling tree, and two nights ago, in weather perfect and mild and clean. I’m beginning to understand this place, though there is still a lifetime of work to be done here.
I’ve been dragging my friends up this mountain for years, most of them dead, nonetheless sharing campfires and whiskey and words by candlelight. Ryokan, Wang Wei, Jeffers, Basho, Li Po, Issa, Han Shan, Snyder, Buson…all the cold mountain poets gathered and breathing ghost steam in the night air.
My hand holds a cane made of rabbit horn.
My body is wrapped in a robe of flowers in the sky.
My feet are clad in shoes made of tortoise hair.
My lips chant a poem of no sound.
-Ryokan, translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi
You brought a smile to my face with that one friend!
I picked up my book to write but nothing came, instead sitting in a cross-legged bastard Zen stupor in front of the fire for hours. Taking in the night sounds, reading a page, putting it down, playing a note or two on the flute, feeding a log, taking a sip. But mostly it is just sitting.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
Probably true enough, though doing it outside is far more rewarding.
There was a mountain lion scream in the hills somewhere around 2AM. I was still sitting, though it was my cue to go to bed.
But the mornings! Birdsong everywhere, bouncing off the canyon walls, mingling with the rush of the stream. Standing under a grove of oaks like a fool, head craned upwards, turning in circles, trying to figure out who’s who.
And then down, down the mountain, walking back to the city, the monkey-mind, the fidgeting, the scabs of concrete and idiots that care nothing for Cooper’s Hawks.
And finding safety at the bottom. My wife just awakening, enough coffee still left for me, sitting together in the yard under our oak. Cats come crawling out of bushes, the chicken begging for sunflower seeds, the dog at my feet, and our children still in bed.
There is nothing to run from here.