So every now and again, I get these ideas. Epic ideas. Ideas that will take a whole lot of determination and dedication if I’m going to accomplish them. I do it often. Like, hey, why don’t I knit this crazy intricate shawl in one month? Or oooh, wouldn’t it be great if I stayed up all night and watched every single movie that Miyazaki ever made? My current personal favorite is that whole dumb thing where I signed up to run a 5k. (Who let me do that?)
Now these epic ideas are usually set up for me to fail. If you add up the total run time for all those movies, it would take more than a single night to watch them. Even if I put in three knitting hours a day (a true luxury), the shawl would not be complete in my allotted days. You see? I set myself up for failure. All The Time. It’s like a disease.
Seven weeks ago, my husband took my children to Idaho, and stayed there. I’ve been without them for days and days, and I knew what would happen. Suddenly given all the time in the world, I would wander aimlessly around my house thinking gleefully that I could do whatever I wanted . . . but then come up short on what that actually was, and suddenly it would be time for them to come home again and I would have done nothing. I cannot waste an opportunity like this!
So I made a spreadsheet. It’s a thing of beauty, all categorized into columns with spiffy labels like “Housework,” “Exercise,” “Crafting,” and my favorite, “Social activities.” I made a spreadsheet that would require me to not be a hermit reveling in my solitude. See that? I’m a planner, though an incredibly ambitious one. There’s more stuff on that spreadsheet than I could ever finish in seven weeks, and now that I am days away from getting my family back, I’m slowly letting the unfinished stuff go. I had a good run; I did a whole bunch of stuff on that spreadsheet and then a little extra that I didn’t plan for.
One of the spreadsheet items was to go on a hike every Saturday as part of this new idea I have of not being obese anymore (so sick of that, but at least that plan doesn’t seem to be failing). My first week, I went up the Mount Wilson trail to Orchard Camp and couldn’t have been happier with myself, until it dawned on me that before my hiking time ran out, I wanted to get to the top of Mount Wilson.
And there we go again. Doomed to FAIL.
I am not a strong hiker, nor a fast one. The Sierra Madre Search and Rescue team requires its initiates to get to Orchard Camp in 90 minutes wearing a 40-pound pack as they go. My first time, with less than five pounds, it took me 180 minutes (yeah, DOUBLE). Now the hike to Orchard Camp is brutal, no mistake, but I was being passed by people RUNNING up it. Like, they do it for fun. Running.
I started obsessing about getting to the top. What was up there? I’d heard there was an awesome telescope or two, a hot dog stand, and a view to die for. I had to see it. I had to do it, and I had to get up there before my family came home, because when Ducky is here, he’s the one who gets to run up mountains while I take care of children.
For the next few weeks, I continued doing yoga. I started training for the 5k. I hiked, many times to Orchard Camp, and just couldn’t get any further. Once you hit the ruins at the camp there is a sign with an arrow pointing to the trail that would take you to the top. That trail is Straight UP, and every single time, I would look at it, get a kink in my neck, start to get a little dizzy, and finally I would tap the sign (that’s what the cool kids do, I saw them), and make my way back. Not enough water. Not enough energy. Not enough time. Just . . .no.
But Mount Wilson is HUGE, and the trail through Orchard Camp isn’t the only one that will get you up there. So I planned another tactic, here on my last day, my last chance. I was ready to fail, really, but I wanted to see what the trail up there would be like if I started on the other side.
I woke up this morning later than I’d like. I always plan to be on the trail by seven in the morning, but that’s actually when I woke up. I carefully filled my water bottles that I was bringing with me, 1.5 liters worth. I packed 500 calories worth of Clif energy bars (I hear you. Ugh, Karin, those taste like cardboard. Yes, they do, but you’re eating them wrong. Scramble up 3.5 miles of steepness before you open one. After that, I assure you, they taste like heaven). I laced up my boots and smeared on some sunscreen. I put my phone in my pocket just so I’d have some sort of clock (no service where I was headed), and forgot my ID and my credit card.
Chantry Flats is twenty minutes north of my house. I drove the windy road, sang some songs, tried to make peace that this was my last hike, and I should enjoy it and not stress over where I go or how far or high. As I got closer, I passed bicycles manned by those poor souls who are bigger masochists than I am slogging up the hill. I passed those other poor souls who weren’t there early and had to park alongside the mountain since the spaces in the actual lot are usually full before seven. I’m extremely fortunate. I have Ducky’s truck with a yellow sticker in the back, which means I can move this orange cone and park in the ranger lot. Useful.
I park and stick a mint in my mouth; it’s a special mint, smaller than a watch battery. It will take about three hours to dissolve, and I love them for hikes. They keep your mouth wet; they make your water taste colder than it actually is, and they help you avoid getting a ball of mud at the back of your throat from panting up all that dust. Great mints. I lock the truck, clip on my daypack, and start down the trail.
Along with half the population of the state who also thought it would be a great idea to go on a hike for Labor Day. There are the usual groups. The really buff guy with his girlfriend who absolutely did not wear the right shoes. The Asians in their groups of three (two men, one woman, and she always has bandanas all over her head and face). The young couple who brought their tiny dog, which the man is carrying. The large group of teenagers, and that one guy who is so extreme that he not only is running down the trail wearing nothing but shorts – he’s doing it with a punching sack thrown over his shoulder (I’m not kidding.)
I queue up with them, and we make our way down Cardiac Hill. Normally, I do the loop the other way and come up, so this is sort of new. It’s steep. Very, very steep, and goes on forever. It is not lost on me that in order to hike up this mountain, first I have to march a quarter mile DOWN into a canyon. Oh well. Things even out after the bridge at Robert’s Camp, and then the ascent begins. Gently. There’s a wide trail and lots of shady canopy. There are cabins, really quaint little places where no one lives. One of them is named for Tom Bombadil and I find that so charming that I want to hop over the fence and knock, just in case.
Most of the multitude is headed toward Sturtevant Waterfall, an easy, family-friendly hike. Not me, though. I pull off at the Mount Wilson turn off, noticing immediately that I have a problem. There’s an upper trail and a lower trail up the mountain, one going left and the other going right. Fortunately, there’s a gatekeeper – who was actually just some random hiker who happened to be resting at the junction. He looked the sort that had probably been on at least one of the trails before, so I asked him which one he’d recommend.
“They’re the same distance,” he said immediately, which I had already gathered from the sign. But then he went on to say that the lower trail had more shade, and that’s all I really needed to hear. I thanked him and headed right. Or I should say UP in a right-ish direction. The trail went alongside the Sturtevant one, just higher, and I may or may not have hummed Loch Lomond as I went along (You know? You take the high road and I’ll take the low road? I mean, why wouldn’t you? It’s practically required.) Before too long, I found myself standing at the top of the falls, or what’s left of the falls since we’re very, very much in a drought. The falls are more of a trickle, mossy, sad, with so many people standing in the few inches of water at the bottom.
The trail there is difficult, rocky, narrow. Super narrow. Like “why don’t they have a rope to hold onto here” kind of narrow. Imagine yourself on a skyscraper, outside on the window ledge, except the window ledge is rock and it slopes outward. That’s the trail right here over the falls. I crept over it very carefully as I had no desire to ruin everyone’s day by falling to my death (can you imagine!).
The rocks continued, but the narrowness didn’t. Which is a very good thing because as I made my way into the beautiful shady area where the upper pools feed the waterfall, a helicopter came by. The search and rescue helicopter. I heard it coming, very close. I wondered what it was doing there, but then I saw what it was doing to the landscape. All the debris on the sides of that trail lifted up, pulled into the copter’s wake and coming right at me. My husband has spoken of this, how the wind from the blades will fling everything around, but I’d never experienced it before. I put my back to the gale and hugged the rock, feeling the back of my neck and legs get pelted with stray leaves and sticks. The helicopter flew off, and I started again, headed the opposite way. Another hiker came down a few minutes later wondering what had happened. I just pointed at the helicopter and went on my way, wanting to be somewhere else should it make another pass.
Things got a little boring after that (because I know you were just so captivated before). There were no more people. The trail kept going up. I hit a sign indicating that Spruce Grove was a mile and a quarter further on. I tried to remember if I’d seen that in my research of where I was going (I’m terribly ambitious, but I’m not ridiculous. I may fail often, and I still may have to turn back, but not because I don’t know where I’m going). No more horses were allowed on the trail after that sign. More steepness.
I took a water break and let a family pass me. Four of them. All of them beautiful, tanned creatures with muscular legs and trekking poles. I most certainly did not want them behind me. They marched past, talking, laughing, not even breathing hard. I panted against a tree for another minute until I couldn’t see them anymore before continuing up.
A few minutes later, I passed a father and his young son coming down. They both had large backpacks, and it was clear that they were on their way home from a father / son camping trip at Spruce Grove. The dad asked me where I was going.
“Mount Wilson,” I answered promptly, innocently. He sized me up and down and got this look on his face.
“Yeah?” He said, incredulously, and I wanted to smack him. “Well, uh, that’s . . .” he looked behind him at the steep trail ahead of me. “Quite a ways in.”
“I’ve got all day,” I said, moving around them. “And no one will care if I have to turn around.”
“That’s probably what will happen,” he said, also moving on. It made me furious. I know what he saw when he looked me up and down. A frumpy overweight mother of two in a really, really large white T-shirt, a dorky hip pack, and a sloppy pony-tail. I know what I look like. If I make it or don’t, what’s it to you? This is my body. I LIVE IN IT. I know what it can do, and when I push it some, most of the time I’m surprised what it’s capable of. And I take offence when men who are older and heavier than I am decide to judge my ability to hike. I may not be fast. I may not be strong. But I decide if I can or can’t, when I give up, if I’m going to give up. There is no need for you to comment.
I was so angry about it that I almost made it all the way to Spruce Grove campsite on just rage. Might have done it too, if the helicopter hadn’t come back. By this time, I figured that they were searching for someone who had probably failed to return the previous evening. I wasn’t on a ledge, thank goodness. I was standing in a wide space full of trees. The copter came down close, so incredibly close I could see the man hanging out the side looking. I turned away from him and tried to radiate that I was not the droid they were looking for. They gained some altitude and passed on, and I braced myself for what they were trailing behind them.
The WIND! The NOISE! Pulling at my clothes, ripping at my hair, dirt trying to get into my eyes even though they were tightly closed and I pushed my sunglasses against my face. Then something rammed me in the shoulder and took me to my knees. I cowered, waiting for it to be over.
Things settled, leaving behind this strange delicious scent, which I guess is what it smells like when you rip a bunch of leaves off the trees all at once. I stood up and turned to orient myself in the direction I was supposed to be going. At my feet, right there at my feet, was an enormous branch, ripped off its tree by the helicopter. That’s what had clipped my shoulder; that’s what brought me to the ground.
I hit the ground again, on my knees, putting my hands on the branch. It was so big. Right There. The jagged, broken edge had just barely clipped my shoulder on the way down. It didn’t even hurt anymore. If I’d been one more step up, it would have fallen right on my head.
You bet I prayed. You don’t get your life saved like that and not say thank you. Nor do you get up again without extending an invitation that, since something divine came to be with you in that moment, why not stick around? Enjoy the scenery from under the trees?
I passed through Spruce Grove, where there were many campers in untouched tents. No disastrous windstorm for them. I kept my head down and marched through, coming to another sign not too far after.
This! This sign. This is where I made my mistake. I had a choice. Go left 2.75 miles to reach Hoegees Camp or go straight up for 3 miles for Mount Wilson. Well. It was practically the same, you know, except for that elevation thing. If I had taken the left trail, I would have hiked across the mountain pretty much back to where I’d started.
But I didn’t. I went up into a surreal spot of the trail. You could see the trail, little yellow brick road as it were, winding up through all these trees. Usually the trail has mountain on one side and a drop off on the other. This had slopes, sort of, and rocks, and a lot of open ground. So open; it was weird. And it was steep. I started taking smaller steps, mountaineering steps. I panted. My mint was gone. Step, breathe, step, try to gather some spit together so you can swallow, step, swallow? Nope, step. My left ear got blocked with the gunk that was building up in the back of my throat. Step again. Why didn’t I bring another mint? Because the one thing I was certain would drive me absolutely nuts while hiking would be to hear those mints rattling around in the bottle the whole way. I know; there are about a million ways to get around that particular problem, but the one I chose had deprived me of mints for two thirds of the hike. It just wasn’t my day for good choices.
I pulled to the side of the trail because over the sound of my own pulse, I could also hear someone behind me, and from the sounds of it, they were moving faster than I was. Much to my surprise, it was the Gazelle family AGAIN. I’m not sure where I passed them, but it must have happened. They weren’t talking and laughing anymore. The mother, tiny little thing, was actually panting too. I felt a little better that it wasn’t just hard for me. They passed, plus one more guy I hadn’t seen before, and I was back to being my only company. Well, me and the squirrels.
The squirrels are gorgeous, did I mention? They are a bluish silvery grey with the fluffiest tails ever. They make the squirrels at Caltech look like scrawny little rats. This open spot was their playground, chattering, chasing. One of the games seemed to be how close they could get to me before freaking out and running up the nearest tree. I had a lot of time to watch them, what with my progress being So Slow. I stopped a few times, thinking back to what I had read of the trail. The last mile or so is horrible, I remembered reading. But the switchbacks really help.
Switchbacks. Switchbacks? I looked behind me. I looked ahead of me. I wasn’t near any switchbacks. That meant I wasn’t even close. I thought of going back to that sign, the one for Hoegees, but my water supply stopped me.
It’s like when we would go snowmobiling to Flag Ranch in Idaho. First, you call ahead to make sure the gas station is open. If it is, you can go. But there is a point on the trail where you cannot turn around, because you will run out of fuel before you make it back to your vehicle, and that would be very, very bad. After you hit this point, you have to continue in order to put gas in that snowmobile. Then you can return. That’s where I was with my water. I knew at the top I could refill my bottles. I knew I wouldn’t have much fun heading back with what I had left. It was only upward for me.
I’d probably gone back and forth on a few switchbacks before I realized what they were. Hey, didn’t I just make a turn a little bit ago? Yeah, there’s the trail under me, oh, but ahead of me, where did the trail go? Ah, there, up and around – oh wait – Switchbacks! Horaay!
I hated them about three more turns in. I tried to think of other things, but you actually kind of need to concentrate. The open bit was behind me – it was back to mountain on one side and incredibly steep drop off on the other. Up and turn, up and turn the other way, one more turn, oh look a lizard.
Lizards are plentiful on these trails. You don’t really see them until you’re right on top of them, and then they freak you out by skittering away from under your boots. Some of them get to be quite large (by large, I mean, six inches long or so without the tail). I love when they try to run away from me by running the direction I’m going. It takes them so long to veer off, and I like to watch them.
I couldn’t see much of this lizard, except that it was big and strange. I paused to look at it, on the side of the trail, wondering why it looked like that, not like the other lizards.
Then it made a noise. You know the one. Not the hissing noise that geckos make sometimes. This was more of a rattle. Yeah. I think my heart sort of stopped about then.
I started backing down the trail as slowly and smoothly as possible. The rattlesnake went quiet, and then did me the extreme honor of coming out into the open, draping all three feet of itself across the trail. It was beautiful, but I couldn’t really appreciate it until later. While I watched it, very still, hands at my chest, tears running down my face (yes, I cried, shut up), all I could really think about was how very, very far away I was from anything, and how terribly long it had been since I had seen another human.
Fortunately, the snake had zero interest in me once I was out of its red zone. It slipped across the trail, so quiet, moving so well it was like someone was pulling it across on a string, keeping its rattle tail up as it went. I watched it go, waiting until it was far enough off the trail that I could put some distance between us.
The adrenaline from that encounter had me flying up the next five or so switchbacks like I was running across a parking lot. Too bad they weren’t the last five. I found one last sign indicating I had 1.4 miles left to the top, and I laughed. 1.4 miles? Ha! That’s nothing!
Let’s just say that the last 1.4 miles to the summit of Mt. Wilson are every bit of something. I think 80% of the elevation gain of the trail happens in that last 1.4 miles. I had to stop, frequently, but I did notice that it was sunnier up here. That while the trees I was walking past still towered over me, nothing was towering over them. Then I walked out into a patch of sun and the view became clear, spreading out and down in overwhelming majesty. (Yes, majesty. It was breathtaking. Literally, I had to sit down again. That view made me dizzy and just shy of hyperventilation.) There were other peaks, but they weren’t above me. Below, so so far below, I could see the Santa Anita racetrack. The freeway. For a girl raised at sea level, it’s really something to find yourself that high (it’s sort of weird to be surprised, I mean, I had been climbing upwards for, like, four hours straight). I stared with my mouth open until the height started making me sick. I tucked my attention back on the trail, remembering that there’s probably a very good reason I’m only five foot five and why on earth had I wanted to come up here anyway?
More switchbacks and rests later, I finally staggered to the summit. Where I was promptly disappointed. It was a parking lot. A huge tangled mess of radio antennas and cables and towers. There was a tiny museum, and two large observatories labeled 100-inch telescope and 60-inch telescope. I did not go in to look at them. I limped instead to the most attractive thing I could find – a water fountain. Two little girls beat me there, getting themselves a drink. Their parents, little brother, and an old woman I assume was their grandmother followed them. They went over the bridge to look at the telescope while I filled my bottles.
More people came – old people, dressed nicely, carrying huge cameras. Tiny people in summer dresses with lovely ribbons in their hair, running over the bridge because when you are three that bridge is big time fun. Old Asian men who should really be using a cane but for whatever reason they choose not to, walking the way they do, tiny little steps, hands behind their back, slightly hunched over. No one had a pack. No one was covered in helicopter dirt. Obviously no one I saw had hiked up here.
I went a little further, breaking eye contact with anyone I found staring at me (everybody). Up ahead there was a café with even more little families out for the holiday, drinking iced tea, eating hot dogs and cherry pie with ice cream. I meandered around, looking at the map because I did not want to go back down the way I’d come, but I wasn’t quite sure where the other trailhead was. Little dogs came to sniff my boots as their owners pulled them away from me. Two very stately gentlemen eyed me up and down, and I wanted to jump up on one of the picnic tables and yell at them all that I had NOT driven up here. I had CLIMBED. There was a rattlesnake! There was a tree branch! Stop looking at me like that – I earned my place.
I refrained. Instead I meandered to the parking lot, where the trailhead was supposed to be. I could not find it, and I wasted so much time just going around and around, getting frustrated, passing people, pacing around the lot. Finally, three teenage boys took pity on me.
“Ma’am,” one of them said, and they circled me. “Did you lose your car? Where’d you park? The other lot, maybe?” I bet I looked pretty wild when I met his eyes; he actually took a step back.
“I parked my car at Chantry Flats,” I said, not snappishly, but rather on the firm side. I swept my hand toward the south. “Seven miles down the mountain.” That made them all sort of straighten, their eyes getting big.
“Damn, lady,” one of them muttered.
“I’m looking for the Mount Wilson trailhead; do any of you know where that is?” They didn’t. I thanked them and paced some more.
Thing is, I could see it; the trail. Well, I could see where it went meandering off into the distance, but I could not see how I was supposed to (safely) get on it. There were some safety cones and big “do not enter” signs where I thought the most likely place was, and after way too many passes back and forth at that spot, I mentally squared my shoulders and headed that way. Basically, I got down on my stomach and dropped onto the trail. And then, then I started down.
For the first long while, I worried. This bit is where most people get lost, and honestly, I did not have the energy to do something like that. But I was going down, so at least that was good. The trail widened into more of a road, forking sometimes with no sign to indicate which fork would be the one I wanted. It took me a while, but I eventually realized that these forks weren’t really forks. They were also switchbacks, but for whatever reason, enough people had cut down them a different way (shortcuts) as to make it seem as though there were two paths.
I went alone, but at least I had full water bottles. There were tons of rocks; I could hear an eagle crying somewhere. It was disorienting. Before I got properly afraid, I stumbled on a sign that was almost too old to make out. Chantry Flats, it said, via Upper Winter Creek trail, 5.5 miles with an arrow pointing down. I said another little thank you prayer.
Of all the muscles in your legs, fourteen are dedicated to helping you move up a hill or stairs. Fourteen muscles so you can compete with gravity and move away from the earth. So how many do you think help you come down?
The next two and a half miles were a startling sort of agony. I descended along another switchbacked trail so much steeper than the first one. The turns were less than twenty feet apart. I counted. I moved back into the shade, but I noticed that the light was hazy, the kind that filters through the trees and leaves little dust spotlights all over. I was losing the light. I tried to guess what time it was, but it did me little good. I had a finite number of steps left, and I needed to get them behind me before dark. I had not brought a flashlight, or really about seven of the ten essential things that you are supposed to bring with you on a hike (pocketknife, flint and steel, first aid kit, whistle, some ID to identify the broken remains of my body, none of that – worst boy scout ever!). I hadn’t thought of it, honestly, because I had never been on a hike this long.
Along the sides of the trail, poison oak covered practically everything. At least it had the decency to be already dressed for autumn in gorgeous shades of reddish pink. It made finding resting spots difficult, though. By this point, I was just moving without thinking, sort of like how you drive sometimes and suddenly you’re there and you can’t really remember getting there? I’d tune out, then stumble and wake myself back up. I leaned against the trees. I paused at the corners of the switchbacks to curl around myself, hands pushing against my knees. At one point, I just flat out flopped down in the middle of the trail – why not? It wasn’t like anyone was coming. It wasn’t like I was going to be in the way.
I passed only one other soul during this time, a man about my age, with ginger hair in a ponytail and a beard; he was running up as I was limping down. I made a fuss over him. “Wow, another person!”
“Little sparse up there?” He asked.
“Post-apocalyptic kind of solitude, so be very careful.” We passed each other, but then he called down to me.
“HEY! Are you all right? Do you need any food? I have some.”
I thanked him, but I still had one Clif bar in my bag; I was definitely not hungry, and I was only halfway through my water. The only problem with me was the distance still left to the bottom. He went on, and, because I had no other choice, so did I.
The trees grew closer together; the switchbacks lengthened, evened out a bit. I saw little buildings with private property signs stuck to their sides. I started to hope. At last I hit the junction I was looking for – the one that meant that I was definitely not lost, that I had been going the right way this whole time. The junction for Hoegees camp. I could go right to Hoegees and then head back up Cardiac Hill, or I could go left on the Upper Winter Creek trail and end up right next to my truck. 3 miles.
I stood at the junction and turned a full circle, just wishing there was someone there who I could celebrate with. I Knew Where I WAS! I’d been here before! This is a hike I’ve already done, more than once.
The thought of going up Cardiac Hill made me sort of throw up in my mouth a little bit, so I opted for winter creek. The incline was much more gentle, even though it was farther. I had to go up hill a bit, but after all the down, it felt better (for a little while). But at this point, really, nothing felt good. I could feel the grit from the helicopter dust caked in my neck, itchy and irritating. My ankles were going to break any step; I was certain, and I sort of wished that I had wrapped my knees. My shoulder ached where the tree branch hit it, as did my lower back. I stopped so many times, wishing that I had someone hiking with me, someone stronger than me, like my husband. Someone who could shift my focus onto something other than how there were still three miles left to go.
I was still far from it when I could finally see the parking lot. There were two fire trucks there, and I saw the bright orange search and rescue van heading back down to the station. For one tiny second, I really hoped that someone had come looking for me. Not that I really needed it, but after being alone that long, not quite sure if you’re even headed in the right direction, it would have been nice to know that someone was looking. (They weren’t.)
But just seeing it, being close enough to hear the fire trucks’ engines running, hearing someone’s dog barking, was good enough. I don’t know how I did it, but I definitely picked up my pace. I zipped around the corners of the mountain until, at last, I hit the road. Three more corners, past the picnic area, past the trash cans, past the orange cone, and into my truck. I slammed on the air conditioner and took a long drink from one of my bottles.
And then, after I stopped moving, after I knew that I was done moving, that’s when the pain really hit. If all the nerves in my legs were violin strings, it would be as though someone were grabbing them all at once, pulling them as much as they could, and then letting them go to jangle in horrid screeches. Over and over and over. I curled up on the seat until it had died down enough so I thought I wouldn’t be a danger if I drove.
Twenty minutes to my house, and I sobbed the whole way. Because it hurt. Because that was such a long, long hike (15 miles!). It took nine hours. Here I’d finally done it. I made a big, ambitious plan and followed through. I proved that dad walking out of Spruce Grove with his son wrong about my abilities. But I wasn’t crying because I was proud of myself. I was crying because that was so stupid! It was too far; and I shouldn’t have gone without at least one other person. I shouldn’t have gone at all! I should have stayed home and scrubbed my bathroom, mowed my lawn. Knit a sock.
I came home to a quiet house. No one’s home. I posted that I’d made it back safe, but that’s just not enough. So I wrote this because it was an adventure. I really thought I’d feel more triumphant if I managed to accomplish this. But no. I’m just limping around, sort of empty; it’s strange. But I do know a few things.