Bear Canyon Trail to summit, Devil's Backbone Trail to Baldy Bowl, Gold Ridge, Three T's Trail, to Icehouse Saddle, Icehouse Canyon Trail, Mt. Baldy Road to village20 miles
5,700 feet of elevation gain
Just past Bear Flat, I took off an outer layer, put on more sunscreen, stowed my trekking poles, and pulled some boiled eggs, almonds, apricots, and a tahini and date bar out of my pack. From here on I faced a relentless climb, about a thousand feet per mile for five miles on an exposed single-track trail. I focused my mind on upward motion and started walking, eating deliberately as I went, and trying to avoid looking up at the false summit that fooled me the first time I walked on this trail. I reached the alpine section of the trail much faster than I expected to and was greeted by a pair of hawks jetting past only a couple of feet off to the side of my head.
I was about four miles into a twenty mile day, and I was having a hard time. I wondered why all of my walks were so hard this season. I felt tired and slow; my movement lacked spirit and buoyancy. I considered going back down to the village via the Ski Hut Trail or Devil's Backbone and the service roads instead of attempting the full twenty-mile loop I was intending. Less than a mile from the summit, I sat down in a rock shelter with a view of West Baldy. I put on a windshirt and watched a man walk up and over the side of West Baldy while I ate cheese and salami and chocolate.
Walking past friends high five-ing, couples taking snapshots, and hiking groups eating lunch on the summit, my trajectory linked the Mount Baldy Trail to the Devil's Backbone Trail, and I decided to fulfill my goal of walking the entire loop across the Three T's Trail and down through Icehouse Canyon. I made quick work of the Devil's Backbone and started down the ski run into Baldy Bowl. A couple greeted me, and one of them asked me a lot of questions about where I had come from, where I was going, and whether I'd done the route before. He was excited about the prospect of my day and my upcoming John Muir Trail through-hike. I was moving faster than them and pulled ahead, wishing them a good day. The woman, who hadn't said a word till then shouted, "Be careful!"
At the Top of the Notch ski lodge, I filled my water bottles and put on more sunscreen amid hikers, runners, and sight-seers eating burgers and drinking beer, most of whom came up and would descend via the ski lift. I found Gold Ridge and made my way up the ski runs until arriving at an access route where I found the sign marking the Three T's Trail. As I descended onto the trail, a sense of calm arose from somewhere inside me and meshed with a tide of enthusiasm that had me raring to take on the rest of the day. I thought back to the morning and the difficulty of my ascent up the Bear Canyon and Mount Baldy trails, and I wondered about why and how my outlook shifted while I was passing over the summit. I remembered feeling far away and separate from everyone there. It's likely that, of all of the people I encountered on the trails and all of the folks enjoying the summit, I was on the longest outing of the day. I was also the only person I noticed out alone. Something about these things sparks a drive in me that I don't completely understand. Maybe I think that it sets me apart, makes me different or more adventurous than other people. I don't know; it's not a conscious thing, but I'm often energized when I'm the one who isn't lingering at the summit or when I'm taking on a challenge that doesn't occur to most people.
The thing is, I don't really like this feeling.
On one hand, it motivates me to get the job done, but it also makes me wonder if I am doing what I'm doing because I really enjoy it or because there is a part of me that wants to differentiate or elevate myself. I sometimes worry that this propensity could lead me to endanger myself. When the woman back on the ski run above Baldy Bowl entreated me to "Be Careful!", there was a part of me that took her farewell and turned it into a dare: my insistence on rejecting cultural notions about what a woman can or can't do in the outdoors and my fascination with exploring the boundaries of my own fear could indeed backfire in some way, someday. But so far, so good. I have yet to be seriously threatened by wildlife (or perhaps worse, another human), I have not taken any grave falls or run out of food or water, and I have not walked into unfavorable weather that was bad enough to do me any harm. And so I continue.
But whatever this thing inside me is, it ends up making me work harder than I need to. I go too long without eating, or I don't sit down and rest, don't take off my pack and shoes. I sweat through layers or shiver with cold because I don't want to stop to remove or put on clothing. Listening to and heeding these simple calls from my body and my surroundings would make my walks even more enjoyable than they already are, and it's likely that abiding them would also make me faster in the aggregate.
Continuing along the Three T's Trail, I passed the junction with the spur trail to the summit of Telegraph Peak. Feeling pressed for time, I had decided to forgo making the three summits (Thunder Mountain, Telegraph Peak, and Timber Mountain). The scenery there on the side of Telegraph Peak facing south and east is beautiful; the path abuts a vertical ridge, so the western hairpin of each switchback looks out into the valley between Telegraph Peak and Mount Baldy, and I could look over the divide to the trail where I had been a few hours earlier. Heading downhill again after climbing up the north side of Telegraph Peak, I thought about the multiple summits and passes I would do each day on the John Muir Trail, just like today but at higher elevations. Up and down and up and down, and with proper planning, hard work, and some luck, I would make it to the lowest point possible by nightfall each day to set up camp.
Last year, when I was just starting to take on longer distances and learning about how to be outside for a whole day or more, my adventures were just that: adventures. I was out there to see what I could see, and everything was new. I will always remember walking on Mount Baldy for the first time and how it felt to achieve what felt like a significant accomplishment. I was in love and invigorated. Every summit was like meeting someone who immediately recognized me, every view like opening my eyes for the first time.
Now, with a double crossing of the Grand Canyon and the John Muir Trail ahead of me, I was in training. This was my fourth summit of Mount Baldy. Back on the Mount Baldy Trail, the drudgery I felt was the oppression of conditioning: rather than being out to enjoy the scenery and make good with the day, I was out to bring my body into shape for doing something larger and tougher than it had yet known. This walk wasn't about this walk but about another goal out there in the future. Once I reached the Three T's Trail, I wonder if my spirit lightened at the new terrain, was unbridled in undiscovered territory. Here, it was both training and adventure. I can't avoid these peaks that I've already climbed. I need them. They are the closest mountains to me geographically, and they are the highest in the region, the closest thing I can get to what I will experience on the J.M.T. It will be to my benefit, then, to find the place in me that allows for repetition while maintaining the capacity for joy.
Just past the junction for the Timber Mountain summit, I found an outcropping with a view of Icehouse Canyon and a fallen tree. I sat down with my face in the wind and ate a big dish of quinoa and beans and the better part of a bag of Have'a Chips before descending into Icehouse Saddle and the canyon below. I'd only been to Icehouse Canyon once before. I thought I remembered how beautiful it was, but I was wrong. What a lovely place. The enormous boulders dazzle with their swirling sedimentary timelines, the aspens and sycamores crackle the light with their flickering young green, and the pines loom above like sentinels standing guard along the way. The bright white granite rocks shine like gigantic pearls in the dry washes, and delicate wildflowers decorate the edges of the path. Columbine Spring fills the stream in the lower portion of the canyon with cold water that rushes past the little mountain cabins. Most were empty, but in a while, I heard laughter and the clanking of metal against metal. Coming around a bend, I saw an old wooden cottage with a big American flag hanging down, friends sitting around in lawn chairs and on cut logs, drinking beer and playing horseshoes, a grill sending up plumes of the finest smelling smoke. Nearing the end of my lonesome day, I envied their camaraderie, and I couldn't help looking back over my shoulder as I passed.
The trail soon grew wider, disappearing into a flat access area for the cabin owners' parking. My feet then touched pavement for the first time in nine hours. Walking down Mount Baldy Road, I was a tired vagabond, so comparatively close to my starting point but still a ways away, all the better to gradually work myself back into the rest of the world.