“There was no telling of the sun, save for the one cold, dim, and even light that lay on every corner of the land and made no shadow, and the silence was close by and all around . . .”
N. Scott Momaday, House Made Of Dawn
I traipsed no more than one hundred measly yards up the trail before coming to an old and gnarled deciduous oak tree. I couldn’t walk by it. I had to sit a spell for no particular reason, other than it looked like a fine place for sittin’ in the gloomy morning silence on a freshly moistened mountainside.
I muttered to myself, admiring the quietude, the unignorable pressing silence that enveloped the land and made my ears hum. A lack of noise as much a character of the forest as the plants, the animals and the rocks and hills. A silence that worked like salve for my soul.
“This is all I needed,” I told myself. Solitude and silence in the mountains. That was what I had been after. The trail was incidental. A random pick of no real import other than it offered an abstract vehicle with which to effect escape.
I am notoriously indecisive when it comes to choosing a place to get my hike on. I typically shun anything to do with planning apart from the last minute morning scramble to assemble necessary gear, which is strewn about the garage where it appears a bomb has been detonated, and scattered throughout various places of my much more tidily kept house.
I don’t keep a checklist of places to “bag.” It’s mostly about the journey for me, not the destination. The forest, then, represents an inexhaustible supply of experiences and content to write about, rather than a limited number of named places graphically denoted with symbols on maps.
If you’re only out to stomp your way to the destination at the end of each trail, then you’ll soon find you’ve exhausted the supply and have little elsewhere to go. I don’t have that problem. I walk by foot a journey of the mind.
I drove up San Marcos Pass wondering where to go. It didn’t much matter so long as it was out of the city. And into the mountains. That’s good enough for me.
A hankering had taken hold of my mind since the first fall of recent rains and I desperately needed to get out into the wet hills. I turned off the pass and onto a byway only to then abort the idea, and turn around and continue on down the highway to somewhere else, yet still not sure exactly where I was headed.
I finally ended up at the trailhead to Ranger Peak Trail (Hike Los Padres – Ranger Peak Trail). I reckoned the day at hand made for choice conditions to ascend the southern slope of Figueroa Mountain by way of the well-trod and open trail. The footpath can be brutally hot during summer months, but with the shifting low cloud cover and intermittent rain showers, this winter day seemed like an opportune time for the hike.
Looking up at Ranger Peak.
About two miles up the trail, which took an inordinately long time to walk due to constant daydreaming and various wanderings, I sat to cook some noodle soup and brew a cup of coffee. Clouds rolled in thick and dissipated, obscuring the mountain in a gauzy shroud and then vanishing wispily to reveal sweeping long views of the countryside.
I glanced up the slope and caught sight of a deer skylined above me and peering down at me with pricked ears. It watched me for several minutes before wandering off.
Light showers began drizzling from the clouds shortly before I reached the top of the peak. The sight and sound of falling rain, the rich fragrances wafting from a wetted earth, wild herbs, grasses and scrub and the moody ambiance of a cloudy winter day on Figueroa Mountain. After four years of record drought, a hike through water falling from the sky was a gloriously sensual and invigorating experience.
Taking their cue to action, rain beetles were soon flying about everywhere winding loops and meanders through the raindrops and low over the grassy slopes in search of mates. The muddy spots of the trail recorded the tracks of resident mammals including bobcat.
Trail through the trees.
After a brief rest atop the peak I turned back, a strange loner cloaked in olive drab pants and a black hooded rain jacket, stomping by several people without a glance, oblivious to their surroundings and caught by surprise as I strode out of the trees just feet away from them.
A little further on two other fellas came into view, having taken the easy way and parked on the road adjacent the peak summit rather than my nine mile round trip hike. I took pleasure in turning east away from them and imagining their thoughts, as this dark clothed stranger before them suddenly turned to disappear into the rainy gloom of a deepening late afternoon, along a mysterious trail they probably did not know much about. “Where the hell’s that guy going?” I imagined them wondering.
The answer, of course, was simply, “away from you and the city you’re from.” The destination wasn’t important.
The view from Ranger Peak looking into the San Rafael Wilderness backcountry.
Quite possibly the best thing of yours that I have read (maybe even the best thing you’ve written). In my mind I was there right behind you. Thank you again
Vivid and compelling. Thank you.
Your gnarled, deciduous oak trees seem straight out of Caspar David Friedrich. Beautiful and haunting.
Nice, moody piece (both you and the place). I often find the destination a bit underwhelming. But the path there is usually something else entirely.
Thank you. Beautifully written and photographed. Doesn’t the earth look happier for the rain!
Hello Jack, nice story; just what the doctor ordered! Thank you for all your musings, I enjoy reading them very much. Richard
Inspiring story. I very much look forward to getting out again.
I love this and share your enthusiasm for the things you have enthusiasm for. Namely solitude.