A week in the San Gabriel Mountains
A week spent along in the San Gabriel Mountains with nothng to do but read and enjoy the lack of humanity for a while.
It had probably been a stupid mistake, one that could possibly be the last stupid mistake I would ever make if I didn't find water soon. The heat was the problem, punishing and relentless, escaping past my old leather hat, frying the rocks and hard packed, sterile dirt I was walking on, burning my eyes, drying and then baking the snot buried in my face, cooking the brain in my head, squeezing whatever water out of my very skin that might still be left after seven hours -- the last four hours agonizing and terrible -- laboring, struggling up this mountain ridge.
Ten miles behind me as the crow flies, about double that distance by foot, and about four thousand feet below I had contemplated this mountain trek from the relative comfort and safety of the Rincon Fire Station, a refuge for the U. S. Forest Service Freddies and the hotshot fire crews that protect this section of the San Gabriel Mountains.
Very early this morning I had walked my single speed bicycle -- bought for ten dollars, a 30 year old rusting relic dragged out of someone's garage and sold to me on a front lawn -- fifteen miles from my home, through the canyons along Highway 39, in the heat of the night, taking to the hillside when ever I saw the lights of motorized vehicles coming.
On the highway, I usually walk at night and in the early morning hours, pushing my bicycle up hill with my backpack firmly strapped in place, my bedding and tent roped to the handlebars of my bicycle, riding down hill when ever the highway dipped down briefly before resuming its upward climb, singing songs aloud to myself, thinking about water, thinking about sleep, hay foot, straw foot, sweat slicked balls swinging loosely from left to right and back again as mile gave way to more mile, as "way gives on to way," as any weary Hobbit would tell you.
At this time of night it's certain that each driver will be drunk, stoned, crazy, and heavily armed so every time I saw the glow of headlights down below coming toward me, I shouldered my metal frame backpack, lifted up my old bicycle off of its tired feet and on to my own, then I'd scramble up the hillside against the highway, there to hide in the shadows in hatred and distrust until the drunk, stoned, whatever driver went past, leaving behind the usual offensive cloud of stink.
With the threat safely past I'd come out from hiding behind rocks, cactus, and scrub, lift my bicycle again, then make my way carefully back down to the highway, consider taking a drink of water, then press onward, rolling up the highway until the next vehicular threat approached.
There had been fifteen miles and three sweaty hours of this until I reached the foot of the Rincon recreational area and ready access to the San Gabriel River, there to peel off my sweaty, clinging clothes, stretching them out onto rocks to dry in the hot night air while I walked naked down into the cold, swiftly flowing water.
I had sunk into the river, screaming aloud at the expected, wonderfully agonizing pain of the cold water as it enveloped my head, flooding my mouth, throat, and guts, cutting off my screams. I lay there under water, feet pressed against rocks down river, arms clinging to rocks up river, buffeted and given new life from the heavy flowing river outside my skin, the rumble of the flow over the rocks, their voices pounding their insane babble into my ears.
Air? Who needs air? Outside of my river, out in the air I had rejected, it was over 80 degrees, probably around two in the morning, some thirty degrees cooler than it had been during the Noon of the day, but still pretty hot weather to be hiking in up hill pushing a heavily loaded bicycle and carting a moderately heavy backpack.
I lay there at the bottom of the river, bouncing on my feet, sipping the river now that I'd filled my guts, putting off my return to the warmth of the outside as long as I could, music meandering through my head. Brooke Benton sang to me about rainy nights in Georgia, worried that it's raining all over this man's world.
Brooke says it's just life and we all have to play the game, but as I lay there I couldn't have disagreed with him more. Life isn't a game we're forced to play, it doesn't have to be a big Monopoly game where everybody plays until there's only one winner, the rest of us losers. Those of us who are dealt hands that are so-so, neither winning hands nor truly losing hands, have options outside the realm of playing out the cards we're dealt. We can leave the board, either forever (deliberately or by accident) or leave for short periods of time -- like I had done, as I was doing.
Finally I couldn't stay down any longer, dragged my knees under me and stood up quickly before I could be swept down stream. I sucked down a lungfull of air and then screamed it back up again, something I had no control of, surely. I had gone into the river screaming and that's the way I had come out of it this dark morning.
I walked back to my bicycle and looked over my bedding wondering if I wanted to unrope things to get comfortable to sleep the rest of the morning. If morning was just a few hours away, unpacking my bedding to sleep for those few hours only to repack everything up again might not be worth the effort. On the other hand if it really was two in the morning (according to my best guess) it might be worth at least spreading out my tarp.
I searched the sky, looked for Jupiter, Casiopia, even the Big Dipper would have helped give some indication as to how much longer I had before morning came. The lights from the cities to the South of me and those to the West made the identification of useful constellations difficult, and as I put off the decision I fell asleep, putting an end to the argument.
By the time the Sun started to suggest itself in the East, I had refilled my canteens, inspected my feet (a toe on my left foot always liked to get dislocated on long hikes) donned my clothes before the first of the Forest Service employees and volunteers showed up, then got my first look at the mountain ridge line I contemplated hiking up.
From down below it had looked easy enough. It was a climb, sure, from around fifteen hundred feet to just over five thousand, a ridge line some twenty miles long with the promise -- according to old US Geological Survey maps and more recent satellite photographs -- to have water at a few places I might reach. Maybe. If the water hadn't dried up by this time and if I could find it.
July in San Gabriel can be cool and sweet, filled with gentle breezes that lift tired and sweaty hair from one's brow, bringing with it the fragrance of cactus and pine, coyote shit and water, precious water.
July in these California desert mountains can also be brutally hot, the suffering land literally groans aloud at times -- as I had been groaning for some time now, having hiked up this far in the hot morning Sun while running out of water. My bicycle was safely stored down at the fire station, and here I was hiking carefully among the scrub along a ridge in July -- one of the hot Julys.
I unsnapped my backpack and let it drop heavily to the ground. In fact I hadn't the strength to carefully set it down anyway. Checking around in my pack for my canteens I found what I knew I'd find since it'd already done this. Each canteen was empty, not even drips left. At over one hundred and ten degrees, the time it takes between unscrewing the cap and bringing the canteen to one's lips results in half the contents evaporating -- or so it seems.
In any event I had been out of water for a long time. I was dizzy and light headed, black splotches came and went before my eyes when ever I lifted my head and bright streaks of light occasionally crossed my vision. I lifted the hat from off of my head and held it up to block the Sun, allowing the evaporation to cool my brains, if possible, and restore some sanity.
"Time for sanity's long past, asshole," I told myself, not unkindly. "Sanity -- not to mention water -- is that way," I told myself, jerking a thumb behind me, across the burning haze and down into the canyons below were the San Gabriel River lay somewhere.
"Go back?" I argued. "You want us to go back? According to my calculations there's water here, about 100 yards along that crack," I told myself pointing.
"No, I don't want to go back but how can you be sure this is the right ravine? They all look alike and we're dying up here. You want to struggle down that ravine looking for water that might -- just might -- be there, relying on maps made before you were born?"
It was an argument we'd had lots of times, endless times. Some times I won the argument, other times I lost. I reminded myself of this and said, "Look, the fact that we're still alive and standing here arguing about what to do tells us something about our judgment and navigation skills, right?" Grudgingly he admitted this was so. "Lamb Springs, that October, remember that?" He remembered.
I dragged my backpack into the shade of a boulder and sat down behind it to rest, taking off my hat and rolling it up to try to contain its moisture for later. Digging further into my pack I pulled out a can of peaches. From around my neck I took my old Army rations can opener, punctured the can in a few places, and drank -- hot, hot, sweet syrup I choked down before opening the can the rest of the way and eating the peaches.
"You said it would be cooler up here," I told myself, finding more energy to resume the argument now that I had some liquid in me. "Twenty degrees cooler, you said." The thing of it was, sitting in the shade under this boulder it was cooler -- much cooler. Without the Sun's rays pounding into my skin, bouncing off of my hat, it really was much cooler.
I looked around me and opened the side pocket on my backpack and pulled out my folded paper maps. These maps had been with me for years, printed by computer off of the US Geological Survey's set of photographs taken long, long ago. These maps had survived rain, mud slides, periodic attacks of sweat, bears and deer pawing through my stuff looking for food, snowfall, slippery accidents while crossing rivers and streams, and Mojave Desert flash floods.
Why not get real maps? Maps that were made within the past 20 years, say? Maps that would be more accurate and improve my chances of survival? I'll tell you why later.
Right now my maps were bone dry and crackled as I carefully peeled them open, selecting the first sheet covered in pencil marks. I shaded my eyes out of habit even though I was sitting in the shade and looked around. This could be the ridge I was looking for. "It's more like half a mile, not 100 yards," I said aloud. "Maybe even a mile." I paused. "Could be two," I admitted to myself.
I stood up and walked to the edge of the ridge line and squinted into the sunlight. The Sun was heading down the sky, slaying my eyes. Unrolling my old leather hat I reshaped it and set it on my head, tilted down and cocked to the side to let air flow under it. Looking from map to rock, from map to dirt, from map to the distance, I was convinced that I was on the ridge I wanted.
I decided to press on, hoping, taking it on faith that there would be water at the end. If not I would wait until night fell and make my way back down to the fire station, assuming it would take less than half the time it had taken me to get up here -- doable without water, I supposed, though it wasn't going to be pleasant. "Pray for rain," I suggested, then laughed, the invocation of deity a sure sign of impending heat stroke.
Shouldering my backpack took some effort. Despite there being no water in my canteens, and despite having eaten the contents of a can of peaches, I could swear my pack was twice as heavy now than it had been before I'd set my foot on the Rincon Shortcut.
See, I had parked my bicycle down at the Rincon Fire Station, checked in with some of the fire crew and Forest Service people there, then started hiking up the Rincon Shortcut, a wide dirt road that was built supposedly as an escape route for the people of Los Angeles City in the event of nuclear attack which unfortunately never transpired.
The Shortcut is a magnificent hike in the Winter or in the rainy season, winding its way through the San Gabriel Mountains all the way up to Angeles Crest Highway -- Highway number 2 -- some 30 or 35 or more miles away. Along the way -- if one's on foot, anyway -- one can appreciate the flowers and the occasional streams, and depending on how heavy the haze is, one can see for hundreds of miles at some points along the Shortcut. I had left the Shortcut after hiking along it for several miles, and had stepped off of the road and trekked off into brush long ago.
People hike and jog along the Shortcut up to Pine Mountain and back down again, usually, despite the fact that the U. S. Forest Service allows dangerous and uncontrolled, unsupervised motorized vehicles on the Shortcut if drivers pay a fee. Who drives the Rincon Shortcut? Sissies in pickup trucks, dickless pansies who think driving big pickup trucks and pretending to be men will finally make it so as long as they can subdue, rape, and torture Mother Earth, that's who. Clowns who think they're rugged mountain men because they can press a gas pedal while drunk, that's who.
Can I express how much I hate them? Probably not. The things I've seen people do up there with their pickup trucks, motorcycles, firearms, road flares, wood matches, cans of gasoline, alcohol, crack cocaine, spray paint, and their endless, enduring human stupidity justifies my hatred of every one of them who intrude into my forest.
So many of them drive through my wilderness, comfortably wrapped in their air conditioned monster pickup trucks, clown tires ripping up my forest, killing my plants, slaughtering my wildlife, thinking the laws of the country don't apply out here. And yes, I watch them some times, perched high above them on ridge lines looking down, seeing them, these dickless morons who don't know anyone else is around to see them.
They park, spray bullets down into the canyons and the hillsides around them with not a care in the world they might kill someone. This they do while drinking beer, smoking pot or crack cocaine. When that proves to be boring, I've watched countless morons drop their pants to piss off some of that beer they downed while spraying bullets at rocks. I've watched countless pause a while, whacking off afterwards stopping only if they finish or hear either vehicles coming toward them or my disembodied laughter coming down to them from my ledge above them.
And when they're not destroying my forest, setting fires, shooting up the place, whacking off, getting drunk, and the usual activities those in pickup trucks usually engage in when they believe they're not being watched, they're dumping their garbage on the ground. Beer cans, beer bottles, the boxes the beer came in, McDonnald's Hamburger wrappers, used baby diapers -- all the garbage that's in their vehicles winds up on the Rincon.
Some times when I catch such people setting fires, I'm close enough to stop them. You'll be relieved to know that when I do, I hardly ever think about sneaking up on them, clubbing them down to the ground with a rock while yelling, "ah ha!" and then gently nudging them over the edge of the road, there to roll gently and rapidly over the cactus and boulders to the canyon floor far below to be followed by their four wheeled surrogate penis. Hardly ever think about it.
I'm not quite so crazy. The fact that I look crazy when I've been in the mountains hiking and sweating for days is enough to convince firebugs to put out their fires, usually, and often enough I just come up and dump their own ice chest on the fire they're standing around, cans, ice, water, and all, reminding these mother fuckers that only they can prevent forest fires.
I had left the Shortcut in part to escape the enemy and because no road or trail leads to where I was going. I'd taken out my oil-filled compass and taken a heading, sighting along the most likely ridge path before leaving the dirt road. That led me to the ridge I now stood on, backpack once again in place and planning to step off into a new, perhaps fatal direction.
I started across the face of a cliff, paying attention to my feet and trying to ignore the overwhelming thirst that was creeping back now that I was in the sunlight again. Noise above me. High above a pair of hawks circled and circled, wings not moving at all, being lofted higher and higher by the rising thermals. I stopped to watch, fascinated as they soared ever higher, spiraling up without moving a finger until they were just spots then lost to sight.
I moved on, stepping over rocks clinging to the cliff face, stepping on some of the heavier plants where I could (pardon me, won't be a moment, this won't hurt much) for safety -- well relative safety. Half a mile or so, I found a place to remove my backpack and sit down, arming the sweat out of my eyes to look around.
There, below me about thirty feet and another fifty feet or so ahead was a spot of black -- shadow -- and what I was looking for, right where my old maps had said it was. Here I found myself looking at two hills rammed up against each other forming a ravine which came to a weathered point, rather like the cheeks and crack of someone's ass, perhaps, sagging and covered with scrub brush. A squint into the sunlight and yes, within the shadows are green trees, a grand total of two of them. My home for the next week.
I shouldered my backpack again and clambered down and in to the cool shade of a box-shaped cleft about 20 feet deep and maybe ten feet across, a fair amount of water dripping down the back of the little box and forming a small plunge pool perhaps six inches deep with a few worms laying dead at the bottom.
Two pine trees, not in the best of health, I'd say. Looking out of my new home for a quick check before ducking back into the coolness again, I thought that the trees and the spring itself should be in the Sun in an hour or so. Shade and water -- I dropped my backpack and shoved my face into the small plunge pool, stripped off my clothes to dry, then had myself a shower of sorts.
Where was I? I couldn't say but what I will say is that you can check your maps and not find this place, not unless you have a map that's older than I am. This little spot of green -- an actual oasis -- is virtually unknown.
There are a number of springs with vegetation like this all through the San Gabriel Mountains. I know of a good one that can be reached from the main highway around mile marker 30 -- if you're willing to climb up a long ravine to find the source of the water that disappears into a grate along the highway. Had that particular stream gone underground and disappeared far from the highway, it might likewise be relatively unknown, a oasis like my new home.
There's water up here in places people in vehicles never know and people on foot rarely do. Flowing springs and streams are numerous some parts of the year, less numerous during the Summer months, some flowing in various volumes all year around. My spring was producing perhaps one gallon of water a minute -- a large volume of water, collecting in a wide and shallow pool which drained into a wider and even more shallow pool before flowing out of the rock box and down the ravine, disappearing entirely maybe thirty feet further down, soaking into the ground -- perhaps to resurface further on down but I rather doubted it. Evaporation probably claims it all.
Old maps have things not on new maps. New maps have things not seen on old maps. These truths are often due to deliberate attempts to mask the location of some things that someone has decided should not be found. I think it possible that this spring, this quality source of wonderful water is one spring that has been deliberately hidden from contemporary hikers.
I pulled a fresh pair of socks out of my backpack, sat down and examined my feet. There's hard ridges of dead and yellow skin stacked up on the side of toes, the balls and heels of my feet, and on the right foot half way up my ankle where my shoes always seem to scrape despite the make or size of the shoe. After particularly long or difficult hikes my feet get blisters or start bleeding; not so today.
Smacking my shoes against the rock face to dislodge any unwelcome visitors, I put my old shoes back on top of fresh, clean white socks. The ground here is broken rock, loose dirt, and scrub brush of some kind -- I never did bother to learn the names of the plants up here except for some of the plants I either eat or avoid. The two trees are short -- 15 feet tall or so, I'd guess -- and squat, bushy with piles of dead limbs, dried mouse and bird shit, and needles under each.
Pawing through the dead branches and twigs I found seeds I couldn't identify. Out of the Sun once again, my guts sloshing full of water once again, I sing, motivated by the seeds -- bayonet yucca, perhaps? -- I'd found. "Holly holy love, take a lonely child. And the seed, let it be full with tomorrow. Holly holy," I sang, thinking the phrase appropriate. Here were seeds holding within themselves the promise of life tomorrow.
I placed the seeds back where I had found them and covered over my little hole, then I looked around. I wouldn't disturb somebody's tomorrow. I'd disturb as little as I could while I was here, I vowed, and as I sat there on the loose dirt, naked except for shoes and socks, something kept nagging at my conscience. It was hot. Check. My clothes were drying. Check. Sunburn is starting to sting a bit. Gotcha. Hungry? No, not really. Water? Drank plenty. Missing, something missing.
Animals were missing. I stood up and walked to the edge of the box to look around in the sunlight once again. Where are all the animals that use this water for survival? For that matter why wasn't there an animal track or two? Most of the well known springs and streams I've visited over the years have had "goat trails" leading to them, little narrow ledges carved into the side of the cliff face by the feet of deer and other animals. This spring had none despite a good volume of water.
Or was it good water? I turned and walked back to the plunge pools and examined the bottoms again. Yes, worms and a few of those damned annoying insects that skate on the top of the water I want to drink so often. These animals live so I should. Animals aren't avoiding this water because it's poison, at least, but the mystery of why larger animals haven't carved a foot trail is a mystery I ponder over.
The only thing I could think of was that there was a bigger, better spring somewhere nearby, one easier to access. There was no clue as to its location, if there was one, not along any hill side or cliff face I'd seen so far. Besides, my old map indicated a single spot marked "spring" -- unless the map point meant a pair of springs, maybe?
I laughed and said, "hell with it." While my clothes dried, the Sun swung into view, shining down on to the pine trees, then on to the lower plunge pool to illuminate the rocks therein, and finally across my shoes, prompting me to stir from my near sleep. I had things to do -- like try to figure out how to contrive a place to sleep on the rocks that was at least flat enough that I wouldn't slide much while asleep. Avoiding ants where possible is also preferable to plopping down right in the middle of them.
I got up and much to my surprise nearly fell on my face. My knees had stiffened up and the pain of rising had been unexpected. Stupid of me to hike a hard distance and then rest in the shade for hours without moving. I stayed down on my hands and knees, lifting rocks and stacking them out of the way until I had a fairly rockless patch of dirt, sand, and twigs. It wasn't exactly flat -- nothing much is flat in these mountains -- but with enough rocks moved out of the way I'd have a bed. I'd put the rocks back before I left.
I lay down on the ground to try it out, moved another rock, lay down again, moved left and right, removed still another rock, then was satisfied. On top of my less rocky dirt bed I put down my old green tarp, folding it over twice into a narrow cover about three feet wide, eight feet long. I folded the upper edge a couple of times until it was three feet by six, then I untied the rope around my blanket. Tent? I lugged that bitch all the way up here, weighs about four or maybe six pounds and yet here I was not going to use it?
Thing was, there was no room for the tent and no need for it any way. During the Summer months I use my tent as a means to escape insects, and during the rest of the year I use the tent to reduce ants ending up in my clothes or deer ending up in my bread. When it rains I'll put my tent up, throw my tarp over it (folded) to keep my sleeping bag or blanket mostly dry. I didn't need my tent but I'd hauled it all this distance, I should use it.
I folded up my tarp again, unrolled my tent and spread it out half way, laying my tarp down on top of that, making a good large pillow before unrolling my blanket on top of that. Perfect! Comfortable, too.
I sat there on my comfortable bed and emptied my backpack. Cans of vegetarian beans (six meals) box of crackers (four meals, maybe five) four cans of Diet Coke, two cans of mixed salted nuts, flat bread of some kind (six large pancake-like and hard slabs) container of crush red pepper, salt, a jar of instant coffee. It's enough for one meal a day, or if I cut my stay here down by a couple of days, maybe two meals a day.
Also from the backpack came an unexpected bag of "Good and Plenty" candy and an empty Pez candy wrapper. When was the last time I'd eaten Pez candy? Ten years ago? Longer? The surprise candy was hard and I couldn't remember when I'd purchased it. Still, it was a welcome treat.
Aside from spare socks and a not very clean T-shirt, two books and two little stoves were the last of my possessions from the backpack -- tuna cans (the fish long ago fed to stupid and lazy cats) with rolled up and tightly packed cardboard stuffed into them, melted wax poured on top to create small, light weight, safe-to-use stoves.
Looking out, I saw that the light was going. I walked to the edge of the cliff wall and looked out, a naked and Pagan savage, of sorts, saying "good night" to the tormentor of his day. Doomed to a night of being incapable of burning me any longer for a while, the Sun was still nonetheless hot, not giving up just yet, sending its heat toward me in one last effort to boil my blood.
I watched Old Man Sun setting on my right, sinking behind the San Gabriel Mountain range to the Southwest, by my navigation reckoning. (Gazing straight out from this ravine I gaze due South.) The Sun sets early up here, earlier still down in the canyon bottoms, and in the cities down below it would be hot still, another hour before the last rays of the Sun dipped below the city's' horizon.
Standing, watching, the blazing Sun's threat diminished though its grandeur increased. As it set, the Sun turned orange, then red, flattening out and growing wide, shimmering and dancing as the stored heat of these mountain ranges gave themselves up into the slowly cooling air.
Time stopped. The last merest edge of the Sun hung above the mountain tops far to the West and held there, reluctant to go. A pulse of light exploded from the rim of the burning globe, a pause, then another explosion of light and then the Sun was gone.
The sky before me was still bright; it wouldn't be truly dark here for hours yet. Still, all around me the world let out a massive sigh. Insects started buzzing around my face, seeking my salt now that twilight was upon the world. Bats filled the air around my temporary home, darting in crazy, swooping, zigzag paths, clicking and buzzing as they bounced their echoes off of me as well as off of the insects they hunted.
I unloaded some of my stored water on to the ground, calling, "Salt! Come get your salt!" to any creature who cared. If I had been up higher and further North near Crystal Lake and the designated wilderness area, I could expect to be visited by many deer who would appreciate whatever salt I cared to piss for them. Here, though, I was still puzzled by the apparent lack of deer and coyote. I'd have to keep my food out of the hands of mice and ants, but wouldn't worry about deer.
While darkness settled around my shoulders, I stood there, inexplicably sad. I took a systems check to see if I could discover why. Nothing was broken, I had food and water though I wasn't really hungry, and while knees, back, and neck reported minor damage from Sun and effort, there was no discernible cause to be sad. My bicycle? Was that it? Was my friend safe there at the fire station, there in the dark? Probably. That wasn't it.
I pondered my emotional state while a tune played its way through my consciousness, subconsciousness, unconsciousness -- or whatever it is they call that collection of ego, super ego, and id babble that comprise the adult Homosapien Sapien primate's mind. Music bubbled up through my melancholy, the tune taking on words in my mind, now recognizable. A female singer, as it turned out, stepping forward to explain to me why I was feeling sad as light bled out and disappeared from the world.
Olivia Newton John slipped out from my lips, whispered quietly to the barely seen bats that continued to hunt around me.
Keep me suspended in time with you
Don't let this moment die
I get a feeling when I'm with you
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