Looking up lower Mono Creek near the Santa Ynez River confluence.
“During the month of November the trail in Little Caliente and Mono canyons was greatly improved.”
Los Angeles Herald (1899)
The Mono-Alamar Trail is a treasure hunt to hike for the uninitiated. Near constant searching, scanning the brush and ground, straining to see subtle clues and telltale signs that lead to the goods. It may well represent in microcosm much of the world of hiking in southern Los Padres National Forest.
I had little time to spare with nine miles to hike in late afternoon up the unkempt, poorly marked trail. The treasured outcome was actually arriving at camp before sunset.
A short distance from its beginning the trail fades into the poison oak understory of a coast live oak forest and there I stood once again, like last time, wondering where the path went and which way to go.
In a general sense I knew exactly where to go. I’ve been there before. I didn’t need the trail. I could’ve reached the campsite without it and I wanted to forget the damn thing. Not waste time searching for it.
The meadow at Mono Campground. I lost a toy cowboy rifle somewhere down there several decades ago, which for some reason still sticks out in my mind.
The intense mental effort required to search for and follow the trail for miles on end makes it seem like an irrational obsession at times. I feel like an unsuspecting character in an outdoor theater of the absurd compelled to stay on the trail whether it makes the hike easier or not.
I waste time and energy searching for the trail, wandering around in circles over here and over there, into the brush and back out, up the creek and back down.
Where is the damn thing? How can it just disappear? It’s clear as day here and then a few steps later, poof, it’s gone.
I stand gazing over the land straining to recognize some trace of the trail’s presence cutting through the grass or bushes or across a patch of soil, but I’m also thinking that I could easily hike on without it. I could make a lot better time hiking without a trail than standing around looking for one.
Sometimes I’m standing around looking or walking back and forth searching for the trail in the midst of a thirty or forty foot-wide gravelly wash beside the main creek channel. It’s open country in a wide, flat-bottomed canyon, but rather than hiking easily up the creek without need of the trail, I’m erratically wandering around staring at the ground searching for it.
It’s like a sick obsessive-compulsive disorder. That I must stay on the trail at every turn, even when it requires more time to do so and doesn’t make hiking any easier. As if the entire point of the trip is walking the trail as an end itself.
Sight of the dry creek triggered visions of digging for mucky water in the gravel of the narrows, squatting in some low spot between boulders ladling up the dirty leftovers of a once clear flowing stream.
I hadn’t actually expected to see lower Mono Creek flowing or even muddy. I knew it’d be dry. Recent rain, a measly and sporadic few showers, had barely moistened the droughty hills. I had packed enough fluids to sustain me for two days at a minimum level and hoped to find water near camp.
Rainwater was puddled in depressions atop boulders along the trail as I hiked up canyon. Even though the creek was drier than the previous year when I was there last, enough rain had fallen to actually raise the creek through the narrows, but it turned it into a silt-laden stream of chocolate milk. While it didn’t invite a swim nor look appealing to drink, some muddy water was better than no water at all and it actually didn’t taste bad despite its hideous appearance.
I stopped short and stood gazing down the twilit creek in astonishment, mumbling to myself, cursing and questioning what had happened. The gnarly old oak had died.
The oak defines the campsite, hanging awkwardly over a bench of silt deposited from prior floods. It looks as if its acorn one day long ago washed ashore during an epic flood and rooted in near the high waterline.
The tree gives the camp a sense of place, that it isn’t just another few yards of unremarkable scrubby forestland like so many others. The tree imbues a particular ambiance to the nook that makes it feel like a destination, somewhere worth arriving at, somewhere worth spending time.
The oak tree sprouts out of the soil with tentacle-like meandering limbs reaching over the flat. In wild day dreams sitting around camp, the old tree my only companion apart from a bear, I imagine that the deep black hole in its trunk is the sucking maw of some fantastical monster with flexing, reaching lips like that of a horse. Some bizarre beast rooted into the creek bank, its tentacle limbs reaching into the stream snatching prey and stuffing its gaping mouth hole like a crab scavenging a reef, its pincers shoving forage into its grinding mouthparts.
The death of the great oak is a tremendous loss. When the tree falls it will take with it much of the campsite’s character and leave a void which cannot be refilled.
It’s unlikely that the campsite will remain an inviting place to stay. It may still serve a basic utilitarian purpose for the odd backpacker passing through who merely needs a patch of dirt upon which to sleep a few hours, but the camp has lost its defining feature and is on its way out. It died along with its ugly old oak.