Wild Isolation: Rain or No Rain (1/2)

Lately, we’ve been getting near-daily afternoon thunderstorms, which have been delivering the moisture we had so hoped for. Despite this, my backpack is packed and I am heading out on a 4 to 5 day backpacking trip. Rain or no rain, I am ready to hike to an area of the wilderness I have not yet explored. 

I’ll be traversing areas that endured a lightning-caused wildfire from last year. The wildfire ended up accounting for a total of more than 88,900 acres. When I learned then that the fire had reached the area I am now going to, I was quite saddened. (I wrote about seeing the lightning strikes that caused that wildfire in a previous post). It consumed both places I had, and had not hiked. Places I adored and places I wished to someday come to know. My concern was of the possibility that the fire might have dramatically changed the character of the yet-to-be-seen areas, before I had the opportunity to see them as they were before. I had both read, and heard from old-timer adventurers, great things about them and wanted to see for myself. But right now, it didn’t matter. I was going any way. 

Though mostly, my expectations were set aside, ready to take things as they come, I had expected to endure rainstorms and possibly grueling stretches of post-fire downfall. I was prepared for anything. 

Day 1 – 6.6 miles

I arrived at the trailhead after nearly an hour and a half meandering drive through scenic forested mountains. The recent abundance of rains made me think that water would likely not be an issue over the course of the forty-mile loop I will ultimately be hiking. On the drive, it had appeared that this would be the case as nearly every ephemeral creek along the drive was flowing, including some small delightful roadside cascades. So, I headed out dry. (That means that at least initially, I wouldn’t be carrying water). Figuring it was only 4 miles to the first creek, I felt quite comfortable about my decision and my abilities. 

The first 3.8 miles or so were more grueling than I had expected. In a recent decision to change up my backpacking meals to encompass greater nutrient density than the usual go-to’s, my pack is unusually heavy. With the humidity at an all-time high (for this region at least) and no shade, in a relatively recent burned and exposed desert-like area, I felt a dizzying physical push-through as I gradually climb to traverse the hot ridge. My body feels cloaked by an invisible hot and damp shroud of dense humid space. The air simply hung in stillness around me as columns of clouds rose from the horizons. It felt as if I were hiking through a sauna, almost hypoxic, and with a fully loaded pack, no-less.

During the traverse, I felt a bittersweetness as I walked. Due to her newly developed heart condition, I had to leave my dog at home with my partner, and though I have more or less accepted the end of her hiking days has come, I still grappled with the idea, and as I walked, I swear I could hear the jingling sound of her collar. Several times I had to stop to try to find what might be causing the jingle sound on my body or pack, even looking back curiously as though she would miraculously be seen trailing behind me. But of course, she was not there. And, I never could discover the source of the mystery sound. I simply carried on feeling perhaps that inspirit she was with me, even though I knew she was simply at home. 

I began to find some relief when I begin my descent towards the creek making my way through shade-providing ponderosas. When I reach the creek, I top off my water bottles and slash my face. The creek flow is dismally faint and tainted with an overgrowth of algae and I was limited to two tiny barely flowing puddles of clear water to fill up on. Not what I had expected. Interestingly, I experienced a fascinating sensation before continuing the upward journey—I was pulled, almost trance-like to wanting to walk downstream, where my instinct told me more water would be, but alas that wasn’t my route. Rather, I needed to follow the creek upstream to get to where I was going. That meant that very likely the water might be more of an issue that I had thought, at least during this stretch. Sure enough after a short break and snack, continuing upwards I follow a mostly dry rocky creek-bed. At least for now, I am okay as I am carrying a full load of extra water. 

Being out here again, I think as I walk about how much more gentle the wilderness is as I relax into the sounds surrounding me. I think of even the gentleness of wandering bears who may be foraging about. Within the first few miles of the hike, I saw several beetle-ladened scat and several turned over stones along the way. Such a peaceful existence… to carry out a daily forage of grubs and other wild delectables. That is, until a bipedal (human) comes trampling through… I hoped to myself in thought that I not disrupt the peaceful nature of the wild too much with my curious intrusion.

I stopped for the night at the edge of a meadow beneath grand ponderosas. The grassy meadow is adorned with tall stalks of prickly poppies. Their striking white blooms seem to remain illuminated despite the falling light and rising dark of the cloud filled evening sky. A thick and curious looking swath of baby ponderosas stretches alongside the creek. I think how neat it would be to return to this place ten, fifteen or even twenty years from now to measure the success of their growth as they mature into towering giants. 

For a moment I begin contemplating where I‘ve come in my life with another year passed. Where am I? What have I done? Where am I going? Who am I really? Curious at a question I’ve always been so sure of. Never have I been unsure of who I am… Intrigued as to why the thought entered my consciousness in the first place, I slip further into meditation at peace and in curious wonder, breathing into my present moments. Wilderness allows us to do this for I truly believe wildernesses are the truest of temples, where we may find the answers to our innermost inquiries or at least some sense of spaciousness and peaceful thought. 

I return to the awareness of my surroundings and notice that even the sounds of distant rolling thunder is gentle. Looking skyward towards the darkening of clouds ready to accept whatever may be, I retreat into my tent after eating my dinner, drinking my bergamot tea and wandering about my camp area for a bit. With the sounds of weekender traffic of fourth of July holidayers, and the incessant busyness of modern life far behind me, I continue to listen to the quietude of wilderness… Then, as if the jokester of my reality comes to test my sense of serenity, the sound of a plane engine roars from somewhere above, returning me to an old thought of whether or not true wilderness still even exists. Consciously, I drop the inner dialogue and return to the feeling of wild gentleness. 

Picking up where I left off in the book I was reading, I read until the dimming light of dusk grays the pages into darkness. Lying in silence, not yet tired enough to fall asleep, I listen to the soft rolling thunder and nighttime chorus of insects, and without an expectation of tomorrow, I eventually give in to sleep.

Day 2 – 11.5 miles

In the morning, I continue following the dry creek with a heavy pack filled with the remaining extra water. In not more than two miles, the movement of a coyote captures my attention along the forested slope next to me. I pause to admire their grace and ability to move across the mountainside with ease, unburdened and as one with the forest. 

Unlike my bipedalistic ambling, hauling a heavy pack, the coyote lives truly free, completely equipped for survival. While lost in thought of this, I begin to imagine being able to move with as much grace and freedom upon four steady legs, even and my admiration for the coyote grows. 

Being generalists and with great ability to adjust to changes in their environment, coyote are one of the most successful animals of the wild. Avoiding human also helps. They are masters of survival.  

The coyote wanders to a comfortable distance, stopping to turn to look towards me before disappearing into the trees. I take off my pack to guzzle down some water when I suddenly hear a bizarre series of screeching cries emanating from the direction the coyote was heading. It couldn’t be… could it

Yesterday was fourth of July, and I was sure I was far enough away from any campground beyond the wilderness boundary that I wouldn’t be able to hear fireworks of any kind. Besides, with the notoriously serious recent fire-season, fireworks within the National Forest were prohibited. But the cries sounded like a series of those hideously screeching fireworks… Come to think of it, I could have sworn that even last night I had heard distance the booming of celebratory fireworks. Perhaps it was only in my mind, but the series of screams I was hearing right now was real. 

There was a series of four or five screeching sounds before a coyote from the other side of me starts chiming in with an incredible, almost wolf-like song, singing three or four soulful cries. Then all falls into wild silence once again. 

I am left pondering, still unsure of what produced those screeching cries. I have heard a great deal of unusual sounds while in wilderness, and the only thing that I can recall that came close to this was an unusually cry I heard in the wilds of Montana. It was a sound that made me think that something, someone, were dying, perhaps becoming a meal in the great circle of life. Intrigued I listened, for a few moments more before continuing my creek-side journey. 

Trying my best to stay hydrated, I am conservative with my water as I am unsure when I might come across a good source again. Suddenly, I see a glistening of dancing light in the middle of the rocky creek bed, where a tiny stream is flowing crystal clear. It’s not much but enough for me to wash up, get a drink and lighten my load and since the creek remains within eyeshot for the next couple of miles, I can watch for any signs of petering out. It isn’t long before I follow the new source of water to a shower-tall waterfall cascading over perfectly carved rock. I cannot pass up the opportunity, so I stop to refresh once again. Good thing too, because the water opportunities begin to dry up for the rest of the day’s hike.  

Before too long, the forest opens up to massive towering ponderosas and views of the bramble-ladened mountain pass I will be climbing through a series of switchbacks. A bit early for berries, though I still remind myself to start thinking about the possibility of bears. As I climb the fully exposed mountainside toward the pass, columns of distant billowing clouds stiffen the air around me with excruciable humidity. The invisible curtain of moist air seems to magnify the sun’s rays upon my exposed arms as I cut through it with each step. After a few switchbacks I stop to look back towards views of growing magnificence. While this climb is far from the hardest of climbs I’ve experienced, it is always in the hardest of climbs where the greatest rewards are given. For today, this view is my reward. 

Continuing the climb, I find a few early raspberries. Still a bit tart (not yet ripe) though quite hard to pass up what natural wilderness can offer, I snatch what catches my eye. Not long after savoring a few berries do I hear a shuffle in the brush a few feet ahead andupslope of me. And just as soon as I look up to meet the origin of the sound, I see within just 20 feet of me, the large furry brown butt of a retreating black bear! The closest I have ever come to a bear. Since I could clearly see that there was no threat, as the bear continued its retreat up the mountain, I looked on in excited awe, but quickly reminded myself to get it into gear and began yelling “HEY! YEAH! GOOD BEAR, HEY BEAR! HEY, BEAR!” to the good and scared retreating bear, so as to secure the bear’s retreating gesture. 

All was good. But as I continued along, I was kicking myself for not having seen the bear first, for having not been in greater awareness of my surroundings, something I usually am in constant natural practice with. Awareness in which I am always trying to master. In the encounters I have had in the past with bears, except for one other ideal occasion, I had usually seen the bears from a greater distance before they saw me and before they spooked off. I felt a little ashamed in my diminished awareness. Perhaps I was too present. It was also possible that the the bear was completely concealed visibly behind the natural brush. In any case, given the circumstance (being in “bear-loving berry-land”) I consciously returned to what I had told myself earlier, “to start looking out for bear”. I at least felt comfort in knowing my assessment and note to myself was an accurate suggestion. 

It was not long before reaching the scenic pass where I break to look toward the view of the direction from which I had come. The “look back” after reaching a pass is a natural gesture. Having come to know that which you had just travelled, one cannot help but look back as if to say, “thank you for your gifts” and “until next time…. so long”. It is a graduation of graduations for those who venture any great distances. Scoping the new scenery I notice up the craggy mountain next to me is the bear. The bear is up the mountain, still trying to make sense of my intrusion (see last photo). It stays up there comforted by our distance from one another watching me curiously. I say a farewell to the good scared bear and begin my journey down the other side of the pass.

I traverse through a small section of more prickly brambles before making my way to a gloriously greened spring, and home for the night. This was the area I had so wanted to someday visit. And while the fire had definitely made its way through this place, I was elated at its incredible resilience. The ponderosas who live here are gloriously large towering ancients, their age is what has given them their resilience. I was glad that most, perhaps more than 90% of them, have survived. Also, due to the “spring’s” dense grass and ground water, the greater area was in fact thriving. 

Despite what one might think of when they hear the word spring, this spring did not have any surface water, why then is it called a spring? …you might ask. Since springs are often the source in which creeks and streams spring from, they may or may not have surface water. In the case of this spring, the water is hidden below the surface.In fact I know, that if I were to follow this spring’s creek to its end, it would ultimately lead me to the top of a waterfall. A waterfall I have seen from another part of this wilderness. But alas, to visit the top of that waterfall will be for another excursion, as that is not (entirely) my route for this trip. 

The spring’s thick grassy green adds a deep serenity to the area. While there, I ponder the giant ponderosas, admiring their great strength. The resilience of this wild space brings me great hope in knowing that some places hold steadfast secrets to resilience amidst rising temps and growing fire danger.  

That night, I slept restfully snug in the serene, verdant wilderness. 

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