Sunday, December 5, 2010

Mono Lake - Solo

A hellish week - and the walls in my office seem to be closing in. Racing home for a quick lunch, I pack in about 25 minutes: camera, tripod, cold weather gear, sleeping bag and tent are thrown into the trunk of my car. I have no fixed plan, just an intense longing to be somewhere other than where I am.

Later that night, somewhere south of Lone Pine, I stop to take some night time exposures of the Owens Valley. The pictures don't turn out - but the dark, velvety expanse of the desert under the starlight brings a sense of freedom and excitement.

Waking long before dawn the next morning, I drive north. There is the same sense of urgency as one usually feels before a long hike, and I have to force myself to slow down, breathe. There is no destination I am trying to reach, no reason to hurry.

A lavender dawn gives way to a faded, wintry morning. It is outstandingly beautiful but the intense cold and incessant wind seem to have scoured all color from the landscape.

Independence, Bishop, Tom's Place, Mammoth, and at last - Mono Lake.

I wander for some time along the shores of Mono Lake - platinum grass, turquoise water and blue gray mountains stretch endlessly - to the horizon and beyond. The wind is fierce, throwing up huge clouds of sand and dust.

A storm is blowing in, and I reluctantly turn south again. I cannot resist a quick side trip to Convict Lake - whipped by the wind and mirroring the stormy skies:

I end the day with a trip up to Whitney Portal. It is completely and utterly deserted - and in the fading light it is too lonely even for me. After watching the moon rise over the darkening Inyos I retreat to my overheated room at the Dow Villa.

I lie there for some time, listening to the storm - and then a sudden longing for home has me up and packed, heading south through the rain washed desert, a brilliant moon lighting the way.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Hurricane Deck

After the cool, shaded climb from the Sisquoc the light and heat of the open Deck are almost shocking. To the North, the far blue mountains are soft, rumpled against the pale winter sky.

To the South, the trail hugs the edge of a vertigo inducing precipice as it climbs steeply up the first of many 'hills' before it meets the junction of the Potrero Trail. It's like looking along the spine of an enormous dragon, scales and all.

For the first several miles the trail is relatively clear, then without warning it completely disappears in a tangle of chamise and star thistle - the bane of back country hikers. We thrash back and forth for some time searching for the track. Hot, discouraged, we are on the point of turning back when the chaparral suddenly and mysteriously opens up again into a wide and well marked trail.

Mile after mile, we climb sharply up, then just as precipitously the trail drops, then up again, now down. As the sun begins it's slow descent to the West, we climb our last, long hill and finally, thankfully see the rusty trail marker for the Potrero Trail.

Golden grass backlit by the setting sun along the aptly named Potrero Trail.

View toward Zaca Peak.

At the base of the Potrero Trail, we encounter a herd of pack goats and their owner, settled in for the night. After chatting for a bit, mutual acqaintences are discovered (such a small world, after all.......) and as we move down the trail in the gathering dusk, the smallest goat runs after us, baa-ing plaintively.

Manzana Schoolhouse

The light is clear, the air soft and warm as we set out for Manzana Schoolhouse. The trail crosses and recrosses the creek, but the water levels are low which makes the crossings effortless.

October rains have kept the water flowing nicely - new grass is brilliantly green against golden Sycamores and delicate grey pines shimmer in the sun.

Manzana Camp is soon reached and we climb the bluff up to the Schoolhouse. Traces of the 2007 Zaca Fire are still visible around the edges of the clearing - but concentrated efforts by fire crews saved both the Schoolhouse and the nearby Dabney Cabin from the conflagration. Built in the early 1900's, it served both as schoolhouse and meeting hall for the 100 or so homesteaders in the area.

Drowsing in the late morning sunlight, the clearing is utterly deserted and silent. The front door yields, we venture a few steps inside but are greeted with the overpowering scent of dust, mildew - the sight of field mice droppings forces a hasty retreat.

Resting in the cool shade of Manzana Camp and gazing out across the beautiful Sisquoc River delta, the idea of returning via the Hurricane Deck is considered. We check our supplies: (short on water, but still do-able since the day is relatively mild) headlamps, fleece.... we are ready!

The trail begins by cutting steeply up the backside of the Hurricane Deck - shaded by ancient oaks, it is cool, verdant - a striking contrast to what follows.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

San Carpoforo

After losing most of the summer to a mysterious illness, I jump at the chance to hike in Ventana Wilderness with B this weekend.

A 5:00 a.m. departure is unappealing; we compromise on 6:00. Santa Maria, 5 Cities, San Luis Obispo - the miles fly by as we chat - catching up on the events of the past several months.

An opalescent dawn has given way to a cool, misty morning as we head up the first steep switchbacks of the Cruikshank Trail.

Climbing rapidly away from the nearly shoreless sea, we move through fields of golden grass and ruddy buckwheat - a few lone pine trees etched against the pewter sky.

Buckeye Camp is deserted, almost desolate. We eat lunch quickly, a chill wind making us disinclined to linger. A spur of the moment decision is made to return to the car via Soda Springs Trail - B's motto being "There are no wrong trails......"

The fog lifts, a vivid blue sea stretches endlessly to the horizon and beyond. Soda Springs trail winds down, down through stands of scrub oak and Pampas Grass, the trail slippery with fallen leaves.

Then south along Highway 1 to San Carpoforo Beach. It is unbelievably beautiful in the pale, wintery sunlight and the ceaseless roar and hiss of the surf is hypnotic, soporific. B naps in the sand - but I cannot help myself and begin picking up rocks, each more beautiful than the last. Pockets soon stuffed, I pull off my fleece and use it as a kind of collector's sack.

Finally, reluctantly, we head south to a much appreciated coffee in Cambria, dinner at the Firestone Grill and then home in the gathering dusk.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Grass Mountain

To B's chagrin, I propose a 6:00 a.m. start time to our Grass Mountain loop. The last time I did this hike we got a very late start on a blisteringly hot day. I am not eager to repeat that experience.

As we set out, the mountain shimmers - distant, dreamlike - in the early morning light. We follow the stream for a while before climbing up through the grassy potreros to the first ridge line.

Far to our right, Grass Mountain warms in the rising sun.

We are too late in the year for poppies - but the grasses, verdant and cool, slip sensuously through my fingertips as we climb up, up, up.

We pause for a snack (homemade butterscotch bars) on a rocky outcropping. Far below us, young turkey vultures lazily ride the rising currents of warm air.

Engaged in conversation, we somehow miss the connection to the Zaca Lake trail and have to retrace our steps - bushwacking through thick stands of scrub oak. Clouds of golden pollen rise, drifting, swirling - then settle ever so gently along bare, scratched forearms.

Then along the connecting ridge to the face of Grass Mountain, over the precipitous edge and down the chalky, loose trail we descend. It's hellishly steep - and I've done this loop both ways. A quad-busting climb up the face, or a slip/slide down the face.

Near the bottom, we encounter a man and his dog hiking up. He is vaguely Sikh-like in appearance: hair screwed into a topknot, extremely thin, nearly naked. (The large Bowie knife he clutches in one hand strikes an off-note, however.) As his dog seeks the shade, panting heavily, he begins a discourse on the continuity of life. We listen politely for a while, then excuse ourselves.

Looking back over my shoulder, I see him slowly making his way up the steep trail, heat waves rising from the baked earth.