President’s Day Weekend was the date chosen for the big demonstration in Washington D.C. planned by the Sierra Club and 350.org. to urge Obama to block the construction of the XL Pipeline. It was the first massive public action on Climate Change, and I wanted to join it, but no group transportation arrangements were available from California and I didn’t have enough miles on my frequent flyer account to make it feasible to go.
Nevertheless, after the satisfactions of the Peru trip and the recent hike to Sykes Hotsprings, the urge to travel again outweighed both inertia and the motivation to work on other projects. “Seize the Day” was accumulating authority as a watchword for my seventies and full retirement.
Reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot strengthened my desire to return to the trail. Ian’s five-day Winter recess from Grade 4 was coming up and he was excited by the slideshow about backpacking presented at his last Cub Scout meeting, so I decided to return to Big Sur with him on an overnight camping trip. I’d been up the Salmon Creek Trail a few years ago with a former student and remembered a remote campsite by the creek only two miles in but requiring a thousand foot ascent.
We sat at the computer together and ordered a packsack for him, a butane stove, and a water purification bottle from Amazon, which were delivered within two days. The weather forecast was mild and the Ranger said no fee or fire permit was required till May.
We departed at 10 AM and stopped at Spencer’s Market in Morro Bay for baguettes and Hershey Bars to complete the food selection plucked from the cupboards at home.
As we drove north on Highway 1 along the open Pacific, the radio reported that a 300 foot wide asteroid was about to pass within 17,000 miles of the earth—only two diameters away—and that a large meteorite just landed with the blast of 25 Hiroshima atom bombs somewhere in Russia. This was the first I heard about either of these apocalyptic cosmic invasions, and the news only confirmed my motto. I couldn’t think of a better place to meet the end.
We shared a Hearst Ranch hamburger at Sebastian’s in San Simeon and parked near the trailhead at noon. Ian’s pack weighed about 20 pounds, mine about 35. The first section of the well-traveled path was a trudge, relieved by dramatic views of the ocean below and the steep canyon above.
The ecology of this valley was similar to that of the Big Sur River I’d I’d traveled through two weeks earlier, but also different. A hundred miles to the south, here there were no Redwoods, but occasional large Douglas Firs and a full canopy of California Bay Laurel, whose new winter leaves glowed fluorescent light green. Lush Fremont Iris bloomed in the shade,
and the sunny patches of exposed Serpentine soil where no trees grew sported rich displays of Poppies, Paintbrush and Shooting Stars. Ian distracted both of us from muscle pain and fatigue by recounting the plot of Shadowmage, the novel he’d recently finished reading on his Kindle for a book report.
It took us an hour and a half to reach the high point almost directly above the road and our tiny Prius, Reddy. There the trail headed inland on a level contour cut into the mountainside, zigzagging toward and away from tributary creeks grooving the main canyon. After the shakedown climb, the last mile and a half of the hike went fast and smooth. At the first trail junction we descended toward the main creek, whose rush and roar we’d heard the whole way, down to the dark and somewhat dismal campsite I remembered. But further exploration led to a crossing of Spruce Creek just above its convergence with Salmon Creek and a promontory bathed in Winter afternoon sun.
We pitched the old tent, gathered firewood and relaxed a little while.
Then it was time to enjoy the pleasure garden: the play of light and water over rocks,
the bloom of pollen-spilling alder catkins,
the extremes of color and shadow on leaf, moss, stone, and liquid,
the thrill of hopping, climbing and jumping,
the satisfaction of building dams and taking pictures.
After the sun passed below the canyon’s wall and our little island of light was engulfed in shadow, Ian built a layered pyramid around a sheet of crumpled newspaper–tinder first, then pencil sized twigs, then thicker sticks—and lit the fire with a single match. He nursed it with bellows breath and fed it with fuel wood until the sparks crackled and the bed of coals was hot enough to ignite the thick wet logs we’d dragged from a distance out of the forest.
He cooked a box of mac and cheese in the coffeepot on the camp stove, drained it and gobbled it down as I munched bread, cheese and salami.
Afterwards we toasted marshmallows and made s’mores, stashed all the food in a bag, and hung it with a cord from a thin branch above the stream to keep it away from the bear.
Snug in sleeping bags by 7:00, we saw the moon rise above the canyon walls through the branches overhanging the tent. By 7:30 we’d stopped talking. Though I woke up every hour or so, feeling my leaky thermarest mattress gradually deflating and listening to the rich music of the creek, I slept eleven hours and awakened refreshed. Ian slept another hour while I cooked cowboy coffee and restarted the fire. He got up and made another pot of mac and cheese for his breakfast.
We set off through the creek in search of a large waterfall about a mile upstream, him leading the way over big rocks, across logs, and up steep banks, as the going got rougher and more spectacular.
We turned back before finding the waterfall, hoping to avoid exposure to poison oak stems that hadn’t yet leafed out and therefore remained hard to recognize
We sighted budding triliums and boulders of jasper
and posed together for a self-timed photo before drenching our feet and boots in an awkward stream crossing.
Back in camp we packed our gear, doused the fire, and at noon, as planned, hit the trail back. The return hike was less arduous than the way in.
Just before reaching the car, we followed a spur leading to an impressive waterfall that compensated for the failure to reach the one upstream. It was topped by a loose boulder that looked like a teetering meteorite.
It was no great challenge for us seasoned backpackers to clamber over the rockfall that hid the pool and cavern at its base.
The way back down required crossing the creek along a twisted steel pipe while hanging on to a stretchy mountaineering rope—a nice adrenaline rush to conclude our short, satisfying adventure.
Slideshow of full-sized pictures