Thursday, June 29, 2017

A Man Could Lose His Way in a Country Like This

San Guillermo Peak
A man can lose his past in a country like this
Wandering aimless
Parched and nameless
A man could lose his way in a country like this
Canyons and cactus
Endless and trackless
~Rush, Seven Cities of Gold

I spend a considerable amount of time virtually exploring places I’ve never been by pouring over images on Google Earth and searching topographic maps on CalTopo. For better or worse, I’ve passed this idiosyncratic trait onto my eldest daughter who now carries on the tradition. Most of these “out of body” explorations involve the wild places close to home, the Los Padres National Forest and the Angeles National Forest, but I frequently stray beyond these boundaries to the San Bernardino National Forest, the Sierra Nevada, and to other far-away places I’ll probably never go other than in my fervent imagination.

Recently, while staring at the computer screen and time-traveling across the magnificent canyons and ridgelines that texture the southern flanks of Mt. Pinos, I noticed a narrow slot in the lower sections of the Middle Fork of Lockwood Creek that piqued my interest. Some online searching unearthed a short YouTube video clip posted several years back by a guy who had visited this area which he described as “the narrows of the Middle Fork of Lockwood Creek.” Additional scouring of the interwebs revealed nothing about this little canyon.

So this past weekend, my daughter and I drove to the Lockwood Valley in hopes of getting into the narrows. Much of this area is a crazy-quilt of public and private land that is crisscrossed by a network of mostly dirt roads. One or more of these roads, I surmised, would allow us easy access to the Middle Fork of Lockwood Creek which we would then ascend to the narrows. 

Along Boy Scout Camp Road, we swung off the pavement and tracked north on a gravel road adjacent to the Middle Fork. A short distance later, we encountered private property and a chain blocking our forward progress. Back-tracking to Boy Scout Camp Road, we tried a different dirt road on the other side of the Middle Fork. But to call this track a road is being generous with the term. It was narrow and soft, and the encroaching sagebrush scraped the side of the car as we proceeded forward. Ultimately, this option failed us too.

The preordained back-up plan was Mt. Pinos. But as we headed back to Lockwood Valley Road, San Guillermo Mountain and dark storm clouds loomed nearby to the south. So that of course became our new objective.

We found Pine Springs Campground mostly deserted except for a few hardy souls that were toughing it out in the oppressive midday heat. A couple of small RVs occupied the lower spaces. A tent and assorted gear filled the upper-most site in the loop. A woman peered at us over her bikini top as we circled the campground, a plume of dust trailing us. Looking at this moisture-deprived place, it's easy to forget the big winter we just had.

The air was still and the heat withering as we dropped into the dry drainage adjacent to the campground. On our way, we passed a plastic bucket topped with a section of pool noodle. Toilet paper was strewn hither and yon, while a shovel lay nearby at the ready. A make-shift privy, necessary I suppose since the outhouses at Pine Spring were boarded up tight for some odd reason.

In the drainage, we boulder-hopped west for a short distance, following cairns and the occasional piece of brightly-colored tape hanging limply from encroaching tree limbs. Little black flies buzzed us incessantly. A short distance later, we left the creek bed for a low ridge that splits San Guillermo from Pt. 6,324 to the immediate south. Here, the flies disappeared, chased off by occasional wind gusts heralding the imminent arrival of high-country thunder-showers. Ominous dark clouds hung leaden in the sky, neither advancing toward nor retreating from us. We stopped, looked skyward, and checked wind direction, contemplating the possibility of being caught on an exposed ridgeline during an electrical storm. But sometimes storm clouds are like bullies, threatening but ultimately pulling their punches. And so it was with these clouds. We faced the threat and pressed forward while the storm retreated to the northeast.

Atop the ridge leading to San Guillermo, the impressive expanse of the Sespe Wilderness unfolded before us. The trackless sweep of Wagon Park Canyon spread west to the horizon. To the south lay the boundless headwaters of the Piru Creek drainage. Eastward sat Mutau Flat and the big empty. Mt. Pinos and the beginnings of the Cuyama Badlands buffered the north. This is vast and vacant terrain that doesn’t give up its history or its secrets easily. A man could lose his way in a country like this.

Ultimately, we didn’t go deep enough or long enough to lose our way. We were ill-equipped for that type of undertaking. But the prospect and promise of that very sort of adventure exits in a place this unspoiled, this magical. It’s a compelling proposition, isn’t it? To have a grand adventure. To walk into the wilds and back in time. To get completely lost, if only within one's self. To experience the raw fear and magic that only the remote backcountry is capable of manufacturing. The certainty of all of that is just too tantalizing to pass on. We will return. To secure the missed reward. To collect on the promise.

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