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).
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.
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.
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.
It was supposed to be an overnight but camp was so damp, dark, and cold there was no chance of a warming fire.
So I kept walking long into the night.
It was all quite alive and full of energy, as was I.
I’ve been spending some time here. No traffic, no parking issues, no outrageous fees.
I’m working off of videos from David Garrigues’ Ashtanga Primary Series; it seems to be what I need. So many nagging injuries and imbalances to heal, I think taking it slower and focusing on yoga, diet, surfing, and walking is in order for a while.
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.
You can feel it in the air, even at sunrise, that the day will be searing. A bad case of insomnia the night before, I roll into Fast Eddy’s driveway at 6AM, hoping for a coffee refill, greeted by the sound of a million roosters in the surrounding neighborhood. A mix of canyoneering and riverboarding gear sprawled across the dirt driveway, I’ve always admired Eddy’s style. I immediately notice that his sleeping pad is an old vinyl, foam-filled workout pad from a 70s or 80s P.E. class, printed with stretching diagrams. His water is packed in 1 gallon, screw-top glass jars placed inside cardboard boxes. I can always count on Eddy, who gets out as much or more than any adventurer I know, to humble me with his gear choices. Every trip with him that begins with me thinking I need a new piece of gear ends in certainty that, with a little more duct tape, I can put the money towards gas and another outing instead.
We drive, winding up the Kern River, Eddy regaling me with whitewater feats, stopping the car occasionally to show me famous rapids and waterfalls. As his excitement spills forth, my stomach turns while staring into roaring, churning chutes of water through rocks. I reassure myself that he knows I’m new to this, that hopefully we won’t be running anything like what I’m seeing. But I’m not so sure. I can’t help but dwell on the fact that getting pinned under a rock or knocked unconscious and drowning just looks so easy.
Settling on doing the Limestone run, from Johnsondale Bridge to the dam, we manage to finagle a shuttle with some rafters up the canyon. Loading our gear into their trailer, I see some of it for the first time; baseball catcher knee and shin guards, elbow pads, PFDs, a roll of duct tape. It looks like it’s going to be an interesting day.
The put-in at the bridge is teeming with rafters and kayakers. We are the only riverboarders. We definitely catch quite a few sideways glances from the boaters as we carry what essentially amount to thick, overbuilt boogeyboards with handles down to the water. Putting on our wetsuits and helmets at the water’s edge, a kayaker spots us.
It’s an older friend of his. Immediately, tales of whitewater feats and the old days start to flow. More kayaks start to gather. Eddy is introduced among the younger with an almost royal status, having done, from what I can gather, just about every major rapid and waterfall on the river during the most extreme flow rates. I’m assured by JB, an old veteran, than I have the best teacher there is on the Kern and I’m in for a treat.
We finish reinforcing our pads with duct tape, put on our fins, and hop in.
Now I’m completely new to whitewater, but I can immediately glean that while kayaks and rafts tend to flow over most waves, on a riverboard, you tend to go through them, all of them, head first. You have to be comfortable holding your breath. A lot. And where you might slide over rocks in a boat, on a riverboard you bump and drag your body across them. Keeping your legs high and on the surface is paramount to avoiding getting completely battered, let alone stuck and drowned. Needless to say, it’s a pretty wild and fun ride. On Limestone Rapids I got caught in a current and took a bad line, got pinned against a boulder, and started to get dragged under. I freed myself by rolling off upside down and to the right, getting sucked down a small drop head first and on my back. Eddy watched, complementing me on making a good move to get out of a bad situation. I have to wonder about a sport where going down a rocky chute head first and on your back is a “good move”. The turbulence of the water is also very different from a surfing wipeout. As opposed to an explosion of force, there’s the strange and uncomfortable feeling of it wanting to hold you and steadily pull you down.
But it’s a blast. I fully understand the appeal vs. kayaks and rafts. Simplicity of technique and intimacy with your surroundings. As opposed to being on the water, you’re fully in the water. At class III and IV, the day feels comfortable and well within my ability, a good introduction.
And Fast Eddy is already texting about the next trip. Higher flows and bigger water are being predicted for next weekend and he’s itching to take me off a 15′ waterfall. Hmm.
I took no pictures on this trip, but here’s a video of Eddy running Upper Salmon Falls for some perspective.
The convenience of cool temps and cloudy skies is just about over and I find myself reevaluating my sun protection systems. Sun protection, especially at altitude or in the deserts, has the potential to quickly make or break a trip and should be considered very carefully. Getting older and taking preventative measures like having suspicious moles and sunspots burnt off by a dermatologist is testament to the importance of being smart in this area. While I love being relatively unclothed in the outdoors, slathering on sunscreen all day long is increasingly unappealing. It’s messy, attracts dirt and grime, and soils all of your gear and sleeping bags on extended trips. In addition, in places like the High Sierra, with small and pristine water sources full of life, I question the ethics of getting into a small pool or stream for a bath when you’ve been slathering yourself in chemical oils all day long. It just doesn’t feel right; these places are special enough to me that I want have as minimal an impact as possible.
My system on last summer’s trip into the Upper Kern with Tom proved to be the best I’ve used for extended full sun exposure to-date. I don’t believe I used more than a dime-sized drop of sunscreen on the entire trip, just a little for the backs of my hands and my nose. Both of which are small enough areas they can be washed off well away from water sources. I believe with slightly more precaution, I could eliminate the use of sunscreen altogether and plan on trying to do so on this year’s upcoming trip into the high country.
Here’s what I’m using so far:
Sunday Afternoons Adventure Hat.
My beloved man-bonnet. Most people hate them based on sight. In certain conditions they’re too much (bushwhacking, hunting, or anything technical), but for backpacking the high country or deserts it’s proven to be one of the most functional pieces of gear I own. It allows me to go out without using a drop of sunscreen on my neck, ears, or face, and that’s worth something. The black under the brim shades the world nicely, especially at 10,000+ feet, and I’ve found it to be far more secure than you’d imagine in wind. In addition, I think it’s the coolest hat I own; plenty of air flow and it dries quickly. I know people can’t stand the look of them, but if you’re worried about fashion over practicality in the mountains, I suggest you check your premise.
REI Sahara LS
The SPF 50+ seems legit, as I’ve shown absolutely no signs of sun exposure through this shirt, even after weeks at over 10,000 feet and full sun. It breathes well enough, even at 90+ degrees, doesn’t seem to stink as bad as other synthetics I own, dries quickly, and has a good enough feel against the skin (some synthetics feel too plastic-like and sticky). This year I plan on slitting some thumb loops into the sleeves so I can pull it down for back of the hand protection, an area I neglected and burned last year. So far it’s been good enough and durable enough. While merino wool feels better on the skin, the price and the durability aren’t worth it to me.
Patagonia Rock Craft Pants
My favorite outdoor pants, period. A little stretch woven into them so they move well, they dry fast enough, and the cut is good. I suspect I could find a slightly cooler pant for 80+ degree temps (the Patagonia Gi III pant looks appealing), but these have done well enough so far. I pair them with a synthetic boxer brief (most of what Target sells seems to do just fine versus more expensive name-brand offerings I’ve tried). Fast drying, they eliminate chaffing, and briefs are great for swimming when one needs to be modest.
I’m looking into the possibility of palmless sun gloves to take care of the hand issue. While it may sound like overkill, sunburned hands and fingers have been pretty common- and annoying.
As for eye protection, I typically use my Ray Ban Wayfarers or any other typical UV protection glasses, but plan on getting something darker and more full coverage for this summer, likely the Julbo Tensing (so far as I can tell, some of the most reasonably priced dark mountain glasses). Time to get more serious; my eyes are pretty sensitive to brightness, I’ve already developed early stages of surfer’s eye, and I would like to avoid cataracts in old age.
While t-shirts, shorts, and the wind on bare skin feel pretty damned good, I ultimately think full coverage is the far more sustainable (and simple) way to go; less sunscreen on me, less sunscreen in pristine water sources, less consumables to pack. Fashion be damned, practice what will keep you outdoors and healthy into old age.
After many years away, I’m rediscovering the desire to climb again. It’s been so long, and it seems my break has brought about a fresh start, both mentally and physically. While it’s frustrating to have to work up to doing climbs that were once routine, I’m in such a different mental space, it all feels very new and fun again. It fits my pattern of weaving in and out of activities or finding new life in old things. I think Yvon Chounard summed it up well in calling himself an “Eighty Percenter”.
“I’ve always thought of myself as an 80 percenter. I like to throw myself passionately into a sport or activity until I reach about an 80 percent proficiency level. To go beyond that requires an obsession that doesn’t appeal to me. Once I reach 80 percent level I like to go off and do something totally different…” -from Let My People Go Surfing
I can identify strongly. I’ve dabbled in most aspects of the sport, roamed the rocks with packs of people and pads and ropes, but looking back, my most memorable days on rock seem to be the ones spent alone. Naturally, this is what drew me away from sport and trad and into bouldering. The ritual was quite simple; wake up before sunrise, drive through the mountains, hike the approach as the sky was turning, and ideally find myself sitting atop a boulder to watch the sunrise. It was a physical meditation. I did this for many years, especially seeking out obscure and unclimbed routes in the periphery of developed areas. I’m feeling the siren song again and find myself stashing climbing shoes in my pack before trail runs, scouring my local hills for new things.
Six months ago I joined up at my old climbing gym, hoping to get back into the habit and develop some regular climbing fitness. It was a slap in the face and had the exact opposite effect. I walk in on a Thursday evening to music blaring, people everywhere…
I climbed there twice, paid up the rest of my contract, and walked away.
I’m no doubt a different person than I was in my earlier gym days. This is not a judgement on the people or the gym, it was simply immediately apparent it wasn’t what I was looking for.
Fortunately I just found a better “gym”, a spot where I can train the way I please. It’s outside, very close to home, completely secluded, with only birdsong in the air. At 10 to 15 feet tall and over 100 feet long, this retaining wall has countless difficulty levels and is big enough for my main goal of endurance work. That this man-made wall has been sitting right under my nose for years and I only just discovered it motivates me to find what else is hidden right within my stomping grounds.
Sometimes little discoveries like this are a wake-up call, a sign that I was looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place, that I have grown and my preferences have changed. It’s a reminder that I have to be true to myself, that I have to surf my own waves and climb my own rocks. Perhaps it’s an acknowledgement that after all these years, I’ve unconsciously developed my own style and I’m feeling its gravity.
She makes the coffee
stirring it in the press
with a chopstick
or a favorite bamboo handled spoon
reserved just for this.
I go out back
split some wood
get the fire going
and pull up a pair of chairs.
The children are still asleep
and will be for a few more hours
so we meet
and sit outside.
The cats follow us out
we warm our feet
beginning our weekend
beneath the branches
of the oak in the corner.
I hope this is the way the kids remember us-
sitting by the fire
after all these years.