A summer morning in the Santa Barbara backcountry.
Weigh your counsel, Priest, he said. We are all here together. Yonder sun is like the eye of God and we will cook impartially upon this great siliceous griddle I do assure you.
–The judge in Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
I stagger deeper into the chaparral wilderness listening to the rhythm of the fuzzy systolic blood-gushing beat pounding in my skull like a kick drum and I gauge by the pace of the muscled pump how far to push into the sere wastes any longer before pulling up short for critical rest.
I find little shade when I need it. I claw into the shadows of greasewood and mountain mahogany and ceanothus, scrunching up in the fetal position trying to dodge the summer sun and the heat, cowering under a bush like a beaten dog hiding from a vicious aggressor.
The spangled shadows offer little relief. A hot slash of unfiltered sunlight falls across the lower half of one leg and even this much is intolerable. This is no way to rest. This isn’t rest. I must move on. After a brief pause to calm just a bit my throbbing heart and head.
Deeper into the lurching olive drab slopes, seared and withered by the white hot hole in the sky. Parry. Riposte. Thrust. A step at a time I fight my way over the land and through the forest, struggling to merely walk.
The local weed patch within the Los Padres National Forest.
Shrubs leer in mocking silence. Giant weeds quivering in hot puffs of breeze as if laughing. They bob and weave along the edge of the trail, rocking back and forth like the creepy distortions of clowns in a horror funhouse.
I struggle through the gauntlet under a pack, heavy footed with my jaw clenched and nostrils whooshing, surly and sinewy, dragging my body with trekking poles like a sack of wet canvas.
The shrubs watch the spectacle with amusement, I’m sure. They dance in the hot mountain air rooted in soil so dry I wonder if it hasn’t turned hydrophobic. And they love it.
It’s late June as I hike and no rain has fallen for months and although I don’t know it at the time no rain will fall for another six months, not until the very end of December. The weeds don’t care. I could die here. They thrive.
I lumber on, glistening and beaded in sweat with sticky lips and fingers puffy and swollen from the heat. A freak out of place. “Where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Who cannot remain. Who can barely get by. No better than a weed. The shrubs leer and chuckle.
Trail through weeds and rocks.
I pass between needled clumps of yucca and cross over blistering bare slopes of dry ravel. Hillside fields rattle and ripple in waves of sunroasted wild oats and dried grasses all gleaming in golden buttery hues so brilliant in the fierce sunlight it nearly pains the eye.
The blasted land radiates heat like a wall furnace, trembling and wavering in my vision through squinted lids. The sun sears from above like a broiler and the heated earth bakes from below like a pizza stone. I walk through a cookery of short and long wave radiation.
The ground works as a force multiplier absorbing and radiating the sun’s energy, baking and blow-drying my body at once.
The radiant heat flows in sustained updrafts from the sunhardened ground underfoot like a breeze from a street vent and across the bare trail swiftly rising plumes cast thin fluttering shadows.
Through convection the hot dry airflow heats my body while also drawing water out of it and exacerbating dehydration. I cross the hard packed trail like a strip of beef laid out to jerk.
A lot is said about the wind chill factor. I don’t hear much mentioned about the ground heat factor.
A crab spider on a yellow mariposa lily.
I walk through a creekside camp without breaking stride, chin to chest, trekking poles poking earth with gloved hands and shaded eyes on the relentless trail.
Hiking a mountain trail is like playing tennis against a wall. No matter how long you hike, the trail still goes on. “I played a wall once,” Mitch Hedberg said. “They’re ******* relentless!”
The cool shade of the treed creek pools in the cleft of the canyon, but I resist the lure of its shelter and comfort. I do not stop. And the glare and heat of the dryland furnace comes soon again like a punch in the face as I step from the shelter of the riparian canopy.
I claw my way up the mountainside, a lumbering quadrapod. Some odd sort of bionic beetle with metal poles raking back and forth like spindly insect legs. I feel like a bug scurrying about in search of a rock to hide under. It’s too bright and too hot.
I hide under a wide brimmed hat chosen half a size too large for that added bit of shelter from the ball of fire in the sky.
A thin stalk of grass between crimped lips teases saliva glands just enough to keep the mouth from going dry.
A kerchief drenched in water and tied around the neck, about the pulsing hot blood pipes of the carotid arteries, for the evaporative cooling effect.
Pant legs rolled up to mid shin for breezy ventilation with each stride and the fly open. Even an open zipper makes a noticeable difference, each stroke of a step working to pump fresh air in and out of the pants and vent heat.
Tactics of mitigation in a battle of thermoregulation, the guerilla marches on through the empire of sun.
From the exposed hot south slope I plunge with great relief into the deep shadows of the mixed forest around the old oak and the massive stone.
The gnarled and knobbed oak has pressed through decades against an enormous sandstone boulder and the tree now grips the monolith with a smooth and rounded woody lip like the foot of a gargantuan garden snail.
I move beyond the boulder and the oak locked in their monumental grappling match, a violent clash held in repose silent and still. The short meander of a seasonal creek has gone dry. Everything looks very dry. The stones in the creek bed appear crusty and without the slightest trace of moisture.
I had seen a half-inch deep pancake of bubbly moss-fringed water holding in a low spot, a moment’s walk back from where I now stand gazing into the dry creek bed. But that’s it at first glance. Foul muck and it’s not enough anyway.
A few bay laurel and oak and sycamore line the creek bed and the deep shadows and cooler temperatures provide relief from the sun and heat, but I need water. Lots of it. Several gallons at least. Clear and clean water. And I find it.
Ded Ted cooling down in a cave.
A weak trickle emerges from a slope of bedrock. The water pools under the trees in a small tank formed by a jumble of rocks and roots and hardpacked mossy soil.
The tank is not readily apparent as I walk up the draw, but sits above eye level, up out of the dry creek bed, at the foot of an otherwise dry cascade. The pool of water is small and relatively hidden.
Hot and sweaty and dehydrated, I’m in need of lots of water presently, more than what little I have on my back, and much more over the next several days. The tank is a marvelous and precious find.
Now I will not have to turn around and hike back so I don’t run out of water. Now I can camp for two nights and take my fill as needed. Here in the comfort of the spaceship oasis in a sea of sun and scrub.
I’ll sleep on a large bench of windblown sand beside a heaving wall of gnarled sandstone, the clean golden grains soft and the deep lithic dust beside the cliff creamy as baby powder under bare feet.
I’ll wander into the bristling wilds for one day choosing my own exploratory adventure off trail into land I’ve never seen, after first having spent several hours in a futile effort searching for a petroglyph.
I will not know where or if I will find water on the day hike away from camp so I will have to fill up at the tank and carry several liters.
I’ll ration water from the start and sip little from my backpack as I hike. The ferocity of the sun and the dryness of the land will dictate much of the day’s excursion.
My thoughts and decisions will largely revolve around not running out of water, avoiding overheating and not getting too dehydrated, with frequent calculations regarding how far and where I can go afoot, way out there, and get back.
I kneel beside the tiny pool and stick the tip of a finger into the gorgeous crystalline wetness, parting the tension of its unctuous surface heavy and oily as a glassy sea and the still water envelopes my swollen finger in a titillating coolness.
I stand over the tank hot and sweaty, wanting to plunge my bald head to the shoulders and cool off and refresh after hours of strenuous hiking in the summer sun. I resist the urge. That the water remains undisturbed and clear, so still and clear, and sweet tasting.
I ladle water from the tank a billy can at a time and I stand in the fluttering shadows of the tremulous trees dousing my hot steamy head, the water splashing and washing over my bare body in cool waves and the breeze coming now and again as a sensuous evaporative blast horripilating my skin and triggering a shiver and suddenly I’m gloriously chilled.
Some shade, a bit of water and a breeze.
Nothing has never felt so enjoyable.
Something happened along the trail, somewhere. Somehow I passed through the wardrobe and into a wondrous land where nothing is something and something is everything.
I revel in the enormity of the miniscule wallowing in a ridiculous pleasure wildly disproportionate to what measly comforts the wilderness allows and I wonder what little in the city ever offers a human so much.