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.
Attached to a branch
from the leaves surrounding
-until some rain
and a gust of wind
set you free.
downward from the cliffs
through waterfall spray
and pulsing gusts.
Caught and lifted
by unseen currents
-a midair dance
tracing loops and circles
bringing patterns to life
drawing across the sky.
Independent, alive, and shining
-but eventually falling
and joining the obscurity
of those that have already danced
on the canyon floor.
Everything was covered in a layer of ice crystals and when I hit a field catching the sun’s first rays it was like walking through a sea of diamonds. Glistening everywhere.
I was looking for quail, though I would’ve been happy with any upland game. Two weeks prior I flushed four covies in this area, but packing a .22 there wasn’t much I could do about it. Little phantoms, erupting from nowhere into cacophonous flight, then completely disappearing back into the brush. I was hoping to come back and cash in with a 12ga this time, a delivery of Rio Bismuth shot bringing new potential to the Winchester Model 12 that belonged to three generations of fathers before me. I figure $2.75 per round is a small price to pay for being able to continue to take it into the field. I fell descending a slope and put a nice new scratch in the stock, but I suppose I’m just adding to its history. This shotgun is not getting sold, and any “collector’s value” is trumped by my pleasure keeping it in action.
The morning was filled with canyons, hiking streambeds, thrashing stands of brush to see what I could rouse. Hunting quail- wild quail- is hard, especially alone and without canine. I’ve shot pen-raised birds on private land with trained dogs, but the solo pursuit of wild quail is a different thing altogether, as is the animal. I have no lingering interest in the former, especially the ethics of it. Unlike their prison-raised cousins, wild quail don’t give themselves up easily, either bursting into escape long before you’re in range or remaining dead still and silent in the deepest and thickest of snags, so disciplined in their hiding you nearly have to step on one to make it budge.
All of which is my roundabout way of justifying why I wasn’t able to shoot any. Shooting is the easy part; I didn’t even see any. But it’s not for lack of fucking effort.
The covies of two weeks ago were nowhere to be found. In fact, all of the animals, save for jays and sparrows, were quiet, most likely headed for farms and fields in the lower country. A stillness seemed to have covered the entire area. I have my theories about when and where to find the quail, but I suspect that recent storms, high winds, and temperature drops had them fairly holed up, making it very tough to get on them without a lot of luck or a dog.
After a morning of fruitless hunting and a stop for coffee and food, I decided on changing plans, leaving the main valley, and exploring another drainage. A large cliff band separated me from the higher ground where I entered and I was hoping to find another route to get out, a few ridges looking promising on the map. The map showed a plateau at the top that looked good for more hunting.
Heading up the new canyon, there was the tingle of adrenaline on the back of my neck as I looked back to make sure I was oriented, taking bearings on distant peaks and landmarks behind me. The uncertainty of cross-country travel is incredibly appealing, as is the thrill of exploring new areas while trying to make new route connections.
I walked slow and stayed on the lookout for game, crunching sage, navigating brush and thorn, eventually breaking down and packing the shotgun in preparation to climb a ridge.
Looking at my watch, it was clear that I was at a sort of crossroads and had to evaluate the commitment involved in what lay ahead. Darkness would be coming fast, and if this climb proved slower than I estimated or didn’t go through, I’d be racing darkness to backtrack.
I enjoy being out past dark and the prospect normally doesn’t carry any threat, but in this case, it could get serious. Doing steep climbs by headlamp can be difficult, if not downright dangerous, and all of the landmarks I’d been using to navigate would become invisible. The nighttime low was slated to be around 20 and +20mph gusts were pushing the windchill severely (despite all the sunshine in these pictures it was in the 30s in the shade). Given I took a cross-country route to get in, complete with a steep canyon descent that has many potentially confusing tributaries, I’m not sure I could’ve reversed it in the dark without getting into bad territory. I had some emergency gear- a light down quilt, a puffy, a 3/4 length CCF pad, but I really didn’t want to have to go there.
I went for it, embarking on a ridiculous bushwack, shredding a Rab Boreas shirt and forcing my way through manzanita stands so thick I’d literally get arms and legs stuck and just stand there supported and resting like a scarecrow before thrashing my way out. Unfortunately, the bushwacking only gave way to steeper, looser rock and dirt, and I soon found myself navigating a knife ridge and staring at a 30′ cliff band ahead of me. I had already been pushing the limits of solo safety and everything in front of me looked downright stupid. Dead end. And now the prospect of turning around racing the darkness to get out.
I reversed course into a different canyon on the opposite side of the ridge I climbed, and was promptly engaged in another horrendous vegetation battle, complete with crawls on all fours through game tunnels and a slip and slide down a loose slope. Pushing the pace, no hunting, no rest stops allowed until I could see that I was within reach of my exit, I kept trucking along, singing Captain Beefheart’s Abba Zaba to ward off a potential bear surprise in the more vegetation choked areas (tracks were everywhere). I was able to relax some once I finally began my climb out of the valley, knowing now that I was now well ahead of schedule before light disappeared and temperatures plummeted.
Enough time for a pot of ramen while relaxing on a ridge and a slow hunt over the two miles of hiking left to get to the car. While hunting left me empty-handed, the day was a complete victory. Wild, wandering days like this are a great reminder that I need not always go out overnight, that hot coffee in hand and a lazy drive home are sublime ways to end 12 hours of rambling.
Fragments from a trip in Joshua Tree earlier this year, which was actually my wife’s first backpacking trip.
One thing we’ve always shared is a love for the desert; we were married inside Joshua Tree at sunrise in 2000. The desert can be an acquired taste, especially when leaving developed camp sites, cars, water jugs and shade structures behind and shouldering a pack instead.
We managed to catch the backcountry in full bloom. The desert is deceiving, boasting more color and more diversity than other environments- if you know where to look. Built for the sun and heat; she can soak in it all day, recharging, never getting tired of it.
My favorite approach- wandering washes and valleys until you find a place that looks good enough to rest.
I was hardly surprised at her ability to sit in the sand and slurp noodles beside me. I remember a trip to Utah in the winter in our early days. I rolled over early in the morning to find ice all over our bags; she was at least 7 months pregnant; I was not surprised in the slightest that she had no qualms laying our bags down in a wash and sleeping out.
It’s easy to get greedy.
Tom had a partner bail and I was planning a solo on the same weekend. Fast forward a few days and a few emails and Tom emerges from the dust, walking down the road from our exit pass and second vehicle. Pack on, trekking poles in hand. Ready to go. I turn the car around and we arrive at our entrance location in minutes. Climbing up towards the setting sun, scrambling through brush and stream crossings now, it’s hard to imagine I was at work 6 hours ago.
I’ve come to realize that it’s imperative to know people that know how to hit the trail at the drop of a hat, competent people that only have to be told when and where. For any aspiring outdoorsperson, a few words of advice: get comfortable going solo, and if not, surround yourself with reliable people that know how to plan and show up on time.
The pass is wild, eyes of deer reflected in the dark everywhere. The air is getting crisp, noticeably cooler than just a few weeks ago. Snowstorms will soon be upon these hills, you can hear it in the pines, feel it carried in the morning wind when drawing your sleeping bag just a little tighter against a draft.
I brought in a sickness from the city, a beginning of the school year bug that settled somewhere in my sinuses and upper lungs. Ill in paradise, likely better than healthy at work; the passes were especially slow and taxing for my energy level.
Wonderings and wanderings, I believe it is safe to say that Tom and I have become well acquainted with each other’s rhythms in the mountains. Aside from reliability, compatibility is a partner trait of the utmost importance, one you should consider yourself very lucky to find when it presents itself.
I know many good people in this world, but not all are suited for company day after day in the mountains. I’ve experienced everything from subtle clashes of egos to simple errors in chemistry- these things have nothing to do with the quality of a person’s character, but spring from the lack of some elusive and intangible thing who’s presence builds solid relationships. Something that is either there or it is not.
Here’s a link to a portfolio of work I created for a summer photography course. I came to quickly realize, when comparing many of my images with those of fellow students, that technology matters quite a bit in the digital world. My camera, an older 10 megapixel Canon EOS Rebel, is noticeably lacking detail (as compared to newer models) no matter how well I focus. That said, I’m quite happy with many of these images and would love to set aside some money for a few large prints.
With daytime temperatures at 100+, clear, washed out skies, and nights at over 70, summer is upon us in Southern California. I hate it, the days anyway, but it does make packing easy. For short trips in the local foothills, a simple, hot-weather sleep system is in order. (Excuse the stock photos, I’m a lazy photographer.)
Sea To Summit Nano Mosquito Pyramid Net. About $50 shipped from anywhere. 2.9 oz., stuffs super tiny, very roomy and airy if you stake it out. Tie it off to a tree, use branches, or cross a pair of trekking poles. Combine it with a sized tyvek or polycryo ground sheet (Duck Brand window insulation from the hardware store) that overlaps the perimeter skirt and you’re covered. Skip the groundsheet if not worried about crawlers or dirt. Either way, it’s a sub 6 ounce shelter, including 4 light stakes and some string.
Z Lite Original Pad. I like closed cell foam pads in hot weather better than softer, inflatable pads. Because it’s firmer and you don’t sink in, they don’t feel as sweaty.
Costco Double Black Diamond Packable Down Throw. $20. ~16 ounces, 60″x70″. Packs to nearly the size of a quart container. Yes, my feet hang out, but it’s summer.
These three items create a small-packing, excellent warm-weather sleep and shelter system for less than $100 and 3 pounds combined. With a sewing machine you can easily add a drawcord footbox to the down throw for a little more sophistication.