Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Leaving the trail behind

      We each enter this world on our own, and we exit on our own. It's a well-worn cliché, yes, but poignant nonetheless, and it serves as an overlay to the feeling I have sometimes when I step off the trail into the wilderness. It's a cutting of the chord, from the other world to this one, or from this one to the other. Similarly, the interface between tame and wild can be covered in one or two steps. The wilderness (as in San Gorgonio Wilderness) has popular trails, with people weaving their way back and forth. One such path, the Vivian Creek trail, wends its way up from Mill Creek to the highest peak in Southern California. It runs about 9 miles or so from parking lot to rocky top; at a certain point, about 2/3 of the way up, it begins to follow a north/south ridge for the next mile or two before turning eastward to the peak.
     I'll be coming down from San Gorgonio [and Dragon's Head], heading off the trail down a thousand foot bushwhacking descent to the Mill Creek Jump Off (sometimes referred to as the Galena Headwall). Each time I do this I feel a sort of sadness, like I'm leaving behind the comfort of the peopled world. Even through the wilderness, when there is a trail that hikers tread, there is a sense of safety even if hours pass before seeing any other person passing. But there's something about leaving the trail in the wilderness that is like cutting the ties that bind. It's a feeling. And I wonder if it's more like the passage of birth or the passage of death. In birth, we enter our human world; in death, we leave it behind. When leaving the trail I enter another world where I'm simply another animal, on my own, without human companionship. I cut the umbilical cord, the human chord fades and nature assumes a royal mantle. (It's always there, of course, but we typically choose to ignore this.)

     I wouldn't choose to be a reclusive, living out in the middle of the northern woods of Canada. I've just too much to learn from the company of others to set aside the peopled world. Yet, from time to time, a fugue into deep nature is the most powerful teacher I can find, with elements of extraordinary beauty and peace, as well as wistfulness and even fear. This coming Saturday morning I'll be heading off down a steep draw covered with bush chinquapin. At the bottom, above the headwaters of the Mill Creek, I'll begin my ascent to Galena Peak and the subsequent traverse over Cuchillo and Wanat peaks. This will be the most remote section of my trek, the furthest removed from my "tribe," and when I arrive at the saddle beneath Little San Gorgonio, and find the human path once again, I will let out a loud whoop—I'll "sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world," as Whitman wrote. 

     As a note, The Wildlands Conservancy presently owns Galena Peak (and Wilshire Peak) and supports the expansion of the San Gorgonio Wilderness to include these as part of the Sand to Snow National Monument (within the California Desert Protection Act). They certainly deserve to be added to the designated Wilderness.


  1. You're "passage of death" analogy and description really does capture the feelings I have when going off-trail. Great writing!

    Oh, and good luck on your little trek tomorrow!

  2. It's just a little Mill Creek runaround (hey, that might be a good name for this in the future, the "MC Runaround"). Thanks for the good wishes.