It was a dusty, windy dirt road that led up to the trail from Big Bear, and it took some time for Susan and I to make it to the trailhead, though I found I would’ve given anything for it to last a little longer. I was saying goodbye again to her, and had already said goodbye to my family, and was once more setting out into the solitude of the trail. It was surprisingly hard, but I was also looking forward to the sights to come.
I had spent the three days off with my family and Susan, going out to dinner, looking over my photos for the first time in three weeks, going to dinner and watching movies, and generally enjoying myself. Though I’d taken time off in Idyllwild, this was my first real experience stepping away from the trail for a time.
My parents had rented a hotel room near Big Bear Lake, the resort town on the west end of it’s namesake, and, being a few days ahead of schedule, I found myself enjoying the restful atmosphere the town had to offer. After San Jacinto, Susan and I had agreed to meet the following weekend to attempt a summit of Mt. San Gorgonio, the tallest mountain in Southern California, and a longtime goal for both of us. On the way up to Big Bear I’d been laughed at many times by other hikers for hiking on my day off, but I didn’t care, it was a chance to hang out with Susan for another day, it was worth it.
My dad, excited to be caring for Smeagol, had taken to carrying the little guy in a mesh pocket hung from a cord around his neck, where his body heat helped keep the mouse comfortable. He fed my little hitchhiker milk from a small syringe, and doted on her (as he soon deduced) endlessly. Smeagol went everywhere with us, to dinner, to the store, to the movie theater. I was happy because she was saved, as I’d hoped she would be upon getting her to my Dad.
Hiker hunger had set in upon getting to Big Bear, or more accurately the day before I arrived. There is a profound need to eat copious amounts of fatty, greasy, not at all healthy food when one hikes for any great length of time, and I found myself burying my face in huge bacony burgers, buffalo chicken calzones, breakfast pastries, ice cream, and any number of things that ordinary people try to eat in moderation. There was a scale in the bathroom of our hotel and I’d lost 12 pounds since my arrival at Campo, the calorie sucking hike was doing its work, and I was starving.
On my second day in town I ran into Stacey and her friend Just Jules, a hiker from New Zealand who I immediately gravitated toward. Having lived in Wellington for a year, I find myself immediately drawn toward the kiwi accent, or even the chance of talking about the islands. I need to go back one day, for certain, but that’s a future adventure. Stacey was happy to see me again, as we’d only briefly talked in Idyllwild on my day off there before going our separate ways. She’d come down San Jacinto the day after I left Ziggy and the Bear’s, and found herself trapped by the oppressive heatwave that I’d fortunately just missed. Temperatures in the Palm Desert were hitting 105, and with no shade and little water for large sections of that trail, I could see why it had proved too daunting for many a hiker. Over a dozen hikers had left the trail from Ziggy and the Bear’s, and Stacey and Jules had taken the offer of a ride from Legend, a Trail Angel I’d yet to meet, and bypassed the 50 miles up the mountain to spare themselves the pain. I didn’t blame them, and as we sat eating ice cream and discussing life and the trail, it all seemed to have worked out well for us.
Susan arrived early on Saturday morning, and I was beyond excited to see her again, though it’d only been a week. We hopped in the car when she arrived and grabbed a quick breakfast before making our way down to the start of the San Gorgonio trail, a large, waterless canyon that sat at the base of the nearly 12,000 foot peak. There were signs all around warning of a need for a special backcountry permit to access the summit, which we did not have, but we persevered, climbing out of the wash for nearly a mile of rock strewn switchbacks, which left both of our legs burning. We were sore, and neither of us were particularly enjoying the process, so when we came upon a ranger at the National Forest boundary, who asked us pointedly to see our permits, we politely apologized and reversed course, no harm, no foul. The summit would be there another day.
So my third day in Big Bear was spent exploring with Susan, and it was wonderful. We had lunch with Mama Goose, newly arrived in town, and my parents came to join us. We grabbed fudge at the local fudge shop (a real gem of a place, and one I’ll be revisiting for sure), and explored the surrounding mountains by car. Susan and I are suckers for abandoned places, so when we discovered an abandoned boy scout camp, we were excited to explore it, wandering a sage-covered meadow, laying in the grass of an archery range looking for shapes in clouds, and generally enjoying each others company. We met my parents for dinner and spent the night joking and telling stories (mostly at my expense), and it was lovely.
But all good things must end, and I found myself stepping out of her car, fully laden pack on my back once more, kissing her goodbye and fighting tears that didn’t want to be held back. We said goodbye, under the assumption that we’d see each other again in three weeks, and I set out, putting some distance between us before I was slammed by a wave of emotion I’d not expected. It’s hard saying goodbye to people you love, even for a time, and Big Bear had reminded me of that love, of it’s presence and the reasons for it, and now I was alone once more.
The trail was easy, thankfully, and I turned my attention on putting in miles in the 7 hours I had left before dark. I hiked through the pines of the mountains to the north of Big Bear Lake, looking down on the water and town I’d just left. There were wildflowers in abundance along the trail, and lizards everywhere, and soon I was happy to be back out and walking.
I wound along the mostly level trail, slowly descending from the ridgeline. A few miles in I passed the meadow Susan and I had found the day before, and was hit again by a wave of emotion, but I pushed it down and soldiered on.
The area north of Big Bear was marked by a series of large burn areas, from the all too frequent wildfires that hit the area. Soon I was out of the trees and hiking down a barren and rocky hillside, catching my first glimpse of the San Gabriel mountains to the west, the mountains that stretched north of my home in Los Angeles, and was again confronted with a powerful emotional reaction. In a week I’d be the closest to home I’d been in a month, it was exciting, and I was anxious to get there. I descended into Little Bear Camp and used the surprisingly well maintained toilet there, a solar affair behind a wood plank wall, a luxury out on the trail, and continued on, until I got to the dirt road crossing near Holcomb Creek.
I had seen the truck parked at the road as I came down from the mountain into Little Bear Camp, a white pick-up that I presumed belonged to some local out for a day of hiking, off-roading, or hunting. I found myself nervous as I approached it. Though I had no reason to doubt the intentions of anybody on the trail, thoughts nevertheless sprang into my head of redneck shenanigans, and harassment from locals. Whether it was due to some inborn prejudice (it was) or just general social anxiety from a month removed from society (it was), I was filled with a decidedly anxious feeling as I approached the dirt road.
Compounding my anxiety was the fact that I couldn’t see where the trail led after the road. I stepped onto the well graded dirt and pulled out my phone, scanning the map and trying to judge where the trail picked up again. The white truck was to my right, not 10 feet away, the driver sitting quietly watching me, the idiot hiker, lost and filled with nervousness. As I looked at the trail, and my map, he rolled down his window.
“Looking for the trail?” he asked, and I said yes, nervously laughing off my lack of route-finding ability.
“It’s about a 100 yards up the road, past that fenceline and down along the creek. Just walk up that way and you can’t miss it,” he said.
I thanked him and he smiled, starting to roll up his window again. As he did I asked if he was out hiking.
“A little yeah, just got back to my car. I was out saying goodbye to my dog.” He said, stopping his window halfway up.
This was one of the heaviest hitting, and most beautiful moments I’d come across on the trail, and I offered my sympathies. “How old was he?” I asked, knowing the pain of losing a pet, and having just helped Susan through her own loss not 6 months earlier.
“Fifteen, but he was strong til the end,” the man said, and continued. “I’d bring him out here all the time, he loved hiking this section. He’d always jump right out of the car and run straight into the creek, it’s really cold water, especially on days like this. It’d take hours to get him out.”
I listened, entranced, as he finished. “We buried him last week, but I kept his collar. I figured it would be nice to leave a piece of him here in his favorite place. I hung the collar on the fencepost next to the sign up there, you’ll see it when you hit the trail.”
I again offered condolences and thanked him for his help. Not for the first time, nor for the last, were my preconceptions proven completely wrong upon talking with someone on the trail. As I walked on, and past the collar, hanging from the trail sign as I stepped down away from the road, I was buoyed by the beauty of the moment, and it both lifted my spirits and opened my eyes to the sights on the trail ahead.
I followed the creek, past large, placid pools, dammed by beavers, it seemed, the cool dark water calling me. I considered jumping in, but left it alone, instead filling my water bottles and pushing forward. The sun was getting low, and I wanted to get a few more miles in before stopping. There was a crossing not three miles ahead, and reaching it would set me up perfectly for a hike into Deep Creek the next day.
I walked through another burn area, big boulders dotting the landscape, and new manzanita and wildflower growth lining the trail to either side. I stopped for some time by one manzanita, in full bloom and covered in bees, and took pictures far longer than I should have, but it was peaceful, and I felt inspired to capture the beauty of the moment.
The sun was almost down by the time I hit the crossing of Holcomb Creek, and I set up my hammock quickly before eating dinner. It was disappointing to be back on trail rations, but there was nothing to be done for it. I dressed for bed and climbed into my hammock, and went to sleep as the full moon rose over the small canyon. It had been an eventful first day back on the trail, but I was happy to be back out.