Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Mount San Jacinto, 7 July 2012: Part IV

I remained up there in the blue, blue sky, eating my lunch and looking out into forever for an hour or so. I've come to always eat the same thing on long walks. The salad of red quinoa, black beans, and avocado laced with red onion, lime, and salt is so satisfying. I ate a bunch of raw almonds, too, and some 85% chocolate that was melting from the mid-day sun. I felt high. Facing southwest while I ate my lunch, I saw the peak of Mount Baldy, where I'd been just a week prior. And beyond that, I could see the towers and white domes atop Mount Wilson, the mountain where this whole story began. Closer in, I looked in revery at the casually imposing Mount San Gorgonio, the tallest mountain in southern California. From my spot at 10,834 feet, its 11,503 feet didn't seem all that intimidating, and I couldn't wait to get up there, too.

I knew I was starting to get sunburned, and it was time to walk down the hill. I envied the handful of people I passed coming up; they were about to experience the same awe I'd felt upon first sight of the stunning view. I stopped at the summit shelter. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built the stone and wood cabin for trekkers on foot or horseback to take emergency shelter. At 10,800 feet above sea level, the cabin was then billed as the highest building in California. The shelter's four wood bunks are covered with sleeping bags donated by hikers, and the big stone fireplace is flanked by shelves holding a few canned goods, crackers, some bottled water, a book or two, and a register. The sole dusty window let the bright, white sunshine in to throw a dream catcher's feathers into relief against its glow. I thought that I could stay there forever.

I had only learned of the existence of the Civilian Conservation Corps a few weeks prior when I watched Ken Burns's twelve-hour documentary The National Parks: America's Best Idea. The parts about the CCC piqued my interest, and I found a short documentary devoted to telling its story. Part of the PBS American Experience series, the short, eponymous documentary moved me. The story of the CCC is astonishing. Eisenhower's idea to establish this group and his visionary conception of a mutually beneficial governmental enterprise is, to my knowledge, unparalleled. Its programs changed the lives of thousands of families who were living in misery as a result of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, and the work done by the CCC is still enhancing the beauty, accessibility, and safety of our parks. The interviews with men who'd served in the CCC told tales of bad turned right and hope in the face of true despair. The organization was terminated at the inception of World War II, as the young men enrolled in the CCC were called to military service. I couldn't help but wonder what the world would be like now if the CCC had been reestablished following the war, or if Barack Obama were to reinstate it now.

I was only a few hundred yards down the path when I spotted some familiar faces. Two of the people in the party who'd started out from Humber Park that morning at the same time I did were resting on a couple of rocks, and I saw the photographer taking aim at a stand of pines nearby. They couldn't believe I'd made it up to the summit already and had spent an hour there. Training for an August attempt to summit Mount Whitney, they were taking their time, pacing out their way. And, of course, they were taking lots of pictures. But their comments made me realize that I was moving fast. Without anyone to talk to or another person's pace to match, I'd been traveling on a kind of meditative inertia that was, though not devoid of discomfort, extremely pleasant. What I came to understand is that I was deriving my pace from an unconscious negotiation between my ability and my ambition, flirting with the boundaries of my pain threshold and the thrill of walking alone through unknown territory. By the time I ran into the Whitney training party, all of the shyness and annoyance at others that I had felt on my way up the mountain had disappeared, dissolving into some ethereal feeling of groundedness that had possessed me since leaving the summit. Energy radiated all around me, and I talked to everyone I met on the way down.

And it was a long way. On the way up, all of the scenery was new. I had fretted about when to eat, how long it would take me to ascend the mountain, potential encounters with wildlife, how much water I had, getting lost, and any number of other things one can worry over on a long walk alone. I'd had to handle the adjustment to the altitude and accept a certain degree of pain as my reality for the day. But on the way down, I retraced my steps with an ebullience that belied the weight of worry that lifted from me upon reaching the summit. Getting up there was the hard part. Walking down would be cake.

The beauty of the mountain was not diminished upon second view. Without so many pounds of worry, I was able to appreciate the landscape all the more. I moved fast through the now-familiar territory. My senses were heightened, and I remembered Dave's recent comment about how smells always seem more poignant to him when he is coming down from a high altitude. Walking back through Wellman Cienega and then down the PCT, the pungent scent of the humus soil filled my head, the aroma of the pine trees and the sun-baked granite was like a revelation, and my impression of the surroundings was imprinted all through my body. At Saddle Junction, I was tired. Ready to be off the hill and craving a burger, I figured rest was an hour or so away. It was hot. I drank up the last few sips of my water as I continued down Devil's Slide. What had been a shady paradise earlier that morning was now an endless path of dusty, sun-beaten switchbacks. It seemed like I was lengthening the trail with every step. Finally, I crossed the little trickle of a summer stream that I knew was close to the trailhead.

Emerging into the bustling parking lot, the first thing I saw was a group of walkers tucking into a freshly sliced watermelon. I was so thirsty, and it looked positively dreamy. I asked a couple if there was water at the park, and they told me no. I'll never forget to leave extra water in my car again.

All the way down the PCT, I'd been watching a red and white helicopter hover near and then recede away from the face of Tahquitz Rock. I wondered if a rescue was going on, and when I got to the parking lot, it became clear that this was indeed the case. I found my car and saw a small group of people standing near it. I opened my car and set down my poles and pack and then asked a man standing nearby about the helicopter. He told me there wasn't any news yet but that a climber was being rescued near the pitch where he'd been climbing earlier. We talked for long enough that news finally came in that the climber had broken her arm, but she was otherwise fine. I greedily ate a bag of salty sesame and quinoa crackers while inquiring about the best local burger. I realized that, even though I'd camped in Idyllwild four summers in a row, I'd only eaten at one restaurant. Since Chelsea hadn't come up with the steaks and potatoes we'd planned to grill that night, I didn't have anything back at camp for supper. Eventually, I found myself at Joanne's--Idyllwild's great central hangout, a gathering spot for local families and bikers and tourists and outdoorsy types alike--with Jim and his friend Deb. My too-sweet margarita was like heaven, and my burger and fries were delicious.

Back at camp, there was no hot shower waiting for me. The light was waning, and I retired to my warm sleeping bag after a quick nip of tequila and a few more pages of Infinite Jest. I stared out at the stars and fell into a restless sleep. Breaking camp the next day, my body felt supple and agile. I wanted to walk up the mountain again. Instead, I bought a birthday present for Dave at Mountain Mike's and ate another burger with Jim at Joanne's. On my fourth day, I was reluctant to leave the mountain. But I rolled down all of the windows, turned up the J.J. Cale and took the tight curves that wound me down the northwestern side of San Jacinto in the setting sun. After I passed the gun club, San Gorgonio was in my sight until the road leveled out at the flatlands, and I started making plans.

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