Craig Wisner

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Enough. (Joshua Tree Backcountry, 3/29/17)

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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

But today?

I’m taking a jog to my favorite shaded waterfall.

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Over and over again. (overnight 3/24/17)

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.

Trail

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.”

– Pascal

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.

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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.

Teenagers. (3/19-3/20/2017)

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Parenting and nearly 18 years of working with teenagers has taught me one thing:  When in groups, they’re sort of on this natural drunken high…Screeching, laughing, fighting, rolling, hugging, more laughing…the energy is manic.  It’s honestly what I enjoy about working with them, I believe it keeps me young and wards against taking things too seriously.

I swear I don’t understand why so many kids even drink or do drugs to get their kicks; watching them bouncing off the walls and each other, I’ve long realized they‘re always highIt’s the old and the bitter that could probably use the help.

When my son asked me to take him and five friends (all ages fifteen and sixteen) backpacking this weekend I was a bit hesitant.  They’re good kids, but surrounding myself with teenagers on weekends is not exactly first priority after working with them all week.

That I have a fifteen year old son that’s not embarrassed for me to hang out with him and his friends is not lost on me, largely factoring in to why I won’t say no to these requests.  That he will sit on a log beside me eating dinner and unashamedly rest his head on my shoulder in front of his girlfriend and other best friends is not lost on me either.

But they’re still teenagers.  They destroyed my Eno hammock, the explanation something about someone wrestling someone in the hammock while someone was trying to poke the two of them with a stick…I liked that hammock, but easy come, easy go, I found it in a canyon anyway.

Aside from my son, most had never been camping, let alone backpacking, which is always an interesting affair.  I packed gear for all of them, they provided their food and clothing.  The choices and behavior are fascinating; unbeknownst to me, Marcus hauled two entire gallons of water and a bag of oranges to our camp, all the while we were hiking on a stream.  Dash, like most people that don’t spend time outside, naturally assumed leaving piles of orange peels and spilled chili all over the rocks was acceptable because they’re “biodegradable”.  He fell in the stream while carrying Anthony’s sleeping bag, completely soaking it.  Brendan fell in the stream and ruined his phone.  I’ve taken him out once before; he’s the one that collects knives and always shows up with something that makes me nervous, intent on twirling, flipping, and tossing it…and it’s always the one with the biggest knife that’s afraid of spiders.  Anthony was planning on going full blown Rambo and brought a gas powered airsoft pistol and a camouflage bandana to which I promptly said “Uh…NO.”  None of them slept, save my son and I.  All night I heard whispers emanating from their tents…”Dude, what was that?!” -panicked at every falling acorn or snapping twig.  Neysa, my son’s girlfriend and the only girl on the trip, was the only semi-sane one among them.  The maturity level at this age is typically higher in girls and I’ve never been too sure about what sixteen year old girls see in the crazed and testosterone-fueled energy of sixteen year old boys.  I can only presume it’s a combination of something hormonal and something primal and other things nobody will ever understand. To his credit, my son is far more laid back than the others.

But despite the spastic energy, I caught a few moments of enlightenment, overheard a few comments about how beautiful the light was, how good the air smelled, about how they should keep doing this when they’re older.

“And quieter” I thought to myself.

Two areas of education that I firmly believe are absolutely necessary, especially for youth:  the arts and the outdoors.  We need to be teaching children how to be whole, how to cultivate their own creativity and appreciate the wonder of the world around them.  The outdoors can teach them what it means to find joy in the world and each other without relying on possessions and distractions, to slow down and pay attention to what’s around them- both things desperately lacking for many contemporary kids.

Take some kids out, even if it means a beer and an ibuprofen and a nap to dull the headache after the last one has been picked up.

The Spiral Leaf.

Attached to a branch

since birth

indistinguishable

from the leaves surrounding

-until some rain

and a gust of wind

set you free.

Spiraling, spiraling

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

-unwitnessed

now resting

on the canyon floor.

Not for lack of fucking effort. (Hunting Los Padres, 12.18.16)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Shape shifters, ghosts. (Los Padres, 12/3-12/4/2016)

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The first rabbit I flushed was in this brush.  I hadn’t had a round chambered yet…and made the mistake of dropping my eye to grab the bolt.  It left tracks in some snow and I thought I had it holed up in another bush…but it vanished right under me the way only rabbits can.

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I descended this main canyon, making my way to ridge in the distance, then west (right), out of the image.  I love the twinge of uncertainty mixed with excitement when dropping into unknown canyons like this-alone.

Long shadows in golden grasses, sun dipping behind a western ridge. Slowly working my way through a field of sagebrush on a bench above a damp creek bed. There’s a glimpse of movement in my periphery. And then there’s a rabbit head and ears in the grass about 30 yards out. Clicking off the safety and shouldering the rifle, the dark silhouette is in my crosshairs. A squeeze of the trigger and an obscene crack shatters the canyon air.  Its head pops and disappears beneath the grass. Lowering the rifle, jogging now, crunching sage and winding my way to where it lies. There is nothing there but a burnt brush stump and a few splinters. I shot a piece of wood, not a rabbit.

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Spot the rabbit.  I couldn’t either.

Everything is a rabbit when looking for rabbit. I’ve taught myself to look for eyes, to look for movement, but everything still looks like a rabbit. And sometimes the rabbits turn to wood, sometimes stone. A clump of grass with a stick behind it can become a rabbit, and then you approach and the rabbit becomes a ghost.  Shape shifters. Illusions.  Nothing left but a breeze.

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I realize that with a .22 in this sort of country I’m hunting them the hard way, but I enjoy chasing ghosts. It’s good reason to slow down, to spend an hour covering a small patch beside a wash, watching ice crystals shimmering and flashing in fields under morning sunlight. Walking, pausing every three or four steps, looking, walking.  I saw three, took two shots, and came home with nothing. Patience, this has worked before. I suppose certainty is for the supermarket, whereas hunting is full of hope…but also hinges on using the right tool.  It’ll be a 12ga next time; the .22 is better suited for open desert.

I walked miles and miles of canyon and valley, high stepping brush and picking my way through snags.  Hard miles, slow miles, wilderness miles that are a far cry from groomed trails.

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Slow walking, sage crunching, morning light.

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New favorite breakfast: avocado and instant refried beans on bagel…though a 2o degree nighttime low made the avocado a bit crunchy at first.  Morning was too cold to stay in camp;  I hiked until I warmed up and found sun before eating.  I cannot remember the last time I bought “backpacking food” or a dehydrated meal.

The air temperature is dropping fast, the entrance gates to the area are getting locked. Leaving those who are willing to walk further to find themselves alone in paradise.  It’s my  favorite time of year here.  Solus Rex, the lone king.

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Retracing canyons, up and out….

I’ll be back again next weekend, looking forward to the first snows likely to come later in the week.  Thousands and thousands of acres….

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Favorite pack to date: HMG Windrider 3400.  Light enough, yet robust enough, a big improvement in functionality and load hauling over my GoLite Jam2.  With two gallons of water, rifle, and cold weather clothing I was easily pushing 40 pounds but it carries well for the size and weight.

Remember the Desert. (April, 2016)

Fragments from a trip in Joshua Tree earlier this year, which was actually my wife’s first backpacking trip.

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A snow-capped San Jacinto barely visible in the saddle.

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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.

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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.

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My favorite approach- wandering washes and valleys until you find a place that looks good enough to rest.

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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.

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