I have a birthday coming up Friday.
I usually don’t celebrate birthdays. I have been known to go into hiding and refuse to associate with anyone. Being pointedly reminded that I have run out of yet another year’s time doesn’t feel like fun. There is a seeming requirement that the previous year was full of happy memories and the next year full of great expectations. I’m not on board with this. I’ve also grown to dislike birthday parties and cake just makes me even fatter.
What do I want for my birthday? The things I would want are such as cannot be given. The things I value simply are or are not. Not Pearls of Great Price but rather Pearls Beyond Price.
I have some good news though. My right knee was not crippled due to a torn ACL. Doc twisted and tweaked and pushed and pulled the joint and decided it wasn’t the ACL after all. He now thinks it is a strained patella tendon. The ACL never heals on its own but the tendon will. He gave me cortisone injections and I spent some money on an elaborate knee brace rather than Walmart’s cheapest. A couple of days ago I did a tentative hike in a nearby park and came out fine.
Tuesday I did a much more demanding hike in one of my old haunts, Piru Creek. Hooray! I only heard my knee grind a couple of times.
It was a perfect day for a hike. The high climbed into the low 80s in midday and there was a gentle breeze blowing down the canyon. When I pulled into the parking area at the dead-end of the road, I had the place all to myself. The nearby Frenchman’s Flat picnic area was desolate. We know what that means… birthday suit!
Off went the clothes as soon as I got out of view.
There’s a pair of concrete outhouses in the day-use area. (Far right in the picture.) On one of them, the door was locked. The other had two large-caliber bullet holes in the door that looked a whole lot like they were made by 12 gauge slugs. That door hadn’t been locked – it had been bent so badly the door could not be closed. I needed to use the facilities and I wasn’t worried much about privacy, so I went in. Opposite the bullet holes on the door were a pair of craters in the concrete wall.
I hope the idiots who did this at least checked to see if the place was occupied first. I hate humans. Individuals can be good but the species is a failure.
I’ve put on perhaps 15 lbs. since my knee was first injured. My legs aren’t quite as strong and I’ve lost whatever cardio fitness I may have had. And my skin is the pale pink of skin that hasn’t seen the sun in several months. None of that really mattered.
I was going to leave the mundane world behind. I was entering my own private world where ego would cease to exist. Existence would reduce to the strides of my feet, the warmth of the sun, the cool of water, and the birds and bees buzzing about. A sensuous realm where my body rejoiced while my mind was occupied by photography and geology and ecology and navigation rather than my latest anxiety attack or Europe blowing itself up. A place to forget that I’m a fat old man that the world has little use for.
I can be any age I want out here because there’s nobody to think otherwise. I think I’ll be ten today.
On a normal year, the place would have been carpeted in flowers. We’re still in a severe drought, yada yada, yada, and probably will be forever. Despite this, the plants were trying their best to flower and make seeds. Life will persist against all odds.
I am not worried about humans destroying the world. We might make a mess of it for ourselves but life will persist and probably improve. Today’s species are the result of at least six or seven Great Extinction Events, all biological, geological, or astronomical in origin. Every extinction makes the survivors that much stronger. Do not think we are at the peak of evolution or that catastrophic climate change is unusual. Humans may be nothing more than the next colliding comet.
The hike turned into a comedy of errors.
I’d tossed my hiking shorts into a little pack which I carried over my shoulder like a purse. I’m about a mile in when I noticed a gape in my pack. A zipper was not zipped. Whether it had worked its way open or I had just forgotten it, I’ll never know. There were no shorts to be seen. I checked to make sure my keys and wallet were still there within a smaller zippered compartment. About face! To the rear, march!
My shorts are OD green and easy to miss in the grass and foliage. This was somewhat concerning. I did have a t-shirt which I’d removed and left in the car. I’d look silly coming home in nothing but a t-shirt and a car towel. My wife would never let me forget it. I’d have to walk from the day-use area to the parking area wearing not much and there’s always a chance someone would pick that very moment to arrive. Still, not a tragedy.
I did find my shorts, right where I thought I’d packed them. This time I packed them very carefully, zipped the pack up with great intent, and off I went.
Ordinarily, the area would be carpeted with wildflowers this time of year. The decades-long drought persists. Perhaps it will never again be the way it was. But life does not give up easily. Droughts have happened beforehand. Over the millennia these plants have adapted. Some plants still come into bloom in the hope that maybe next winter will be a wet one. Each year these seeds accumulate, a little at a time. Some will stay dormant for decades if they must. Along will come a wet winter and the buildup will result in a superbloom.
One plant that doesn’t seem to be bothered by the drought is poison oak. It is growing in unusual abundance, verdant green, encroaching on the trail. At times one has the choice of leaving the trail to bypass it entirely or performing gymnastic contortions to get around it. On steep hillsides bypassing is impractical and in deep grass, you have to slow to a snail’s pace because of the danger of snakes. I stick to the trail and practice the poison oak limbo.
Despite my best efforts the poison oak still brushed against my legs a couple of times. Nothing to worry about. Urushiol oil is poison oak’s active irritant. It takes hours to penetrate the epidermis, so if you wash up quickly there’s no risk. Any soap will remove it. As soon as I get to ye olde swimming hole I’ll scrub the areas with crushed yerba santa leaves and smell minty fresh. The minty smell of the yerba santa comes from a natural oil that one time was the only known useful treatment for tuberculosis. I could also scrunch up the leaves from a yucca plant which produces an excellent soap.
People think that nature is silent but this is not true. All along the way, I am serenaded. Birds calling, the flow of water, the wind in branches, lizards scurrying away, the crunch of my shoes on the gravel, the explosions of quail being flushed as I walk by. Overhead, the screech of the red-tailed hawk. Behind all this is the continuous hum of bees busily collecting nectar while the flowers are still available. It is most pronounced as I pass large shrubs that are fully in bloom such as the white sage and yerba santa.
The trail leaves the river to climb up and over, then descends. There’s a bit of rock scrambling here. It isn’t much of a hump, maybe a hundred feet, but the footing is poor and the trail is often wedged in a crack between boulders. I’m careful and get past it. One of the reasons I hike nude is to be close to nature. When one is close to nature, one is vulnerable. Nature is not kind. It isn’t cruel either, it is just unforgiving of mistakes. I move more slowly than most hikers through rough terrain. Because of that, I think I experience more yet my risk is less.
The day has warmed and I am beginning to sweat. Today will be is in the low 80s. That’s a good thing. Most people do not think of sweating as a pleasurable activity. One must understand it isn’t the wind that cools you, it is the evaporation of sweat. I consider sweat to be pleasurable, especially in contrast to the equal pleasure of warm sunshine. If you do not sweat, on a warm day you will die. The wind won’t help you at all. Welcome to heatstroke.
The rough terrain has done me another favor. I’m out here and not on a maintained trail at least in part to test my knee. I need to know it won’t fail me when I’m deep in the wilderness. Between the cortisone and the brace it is functioning perfectly and painlessly.
Coming back down the trail closes with the creek again. Here it flows into a sheer cliff face and turns at a right angle. This creates a long deep pool. Good for swimming – but submerged rocks call for only the shallowest of diving and wading must be done with care lest one trip or bang one’s feet and ankles.
It comes to me – I was out here for another birthday.
While the creek flows north, to the south the canyon widens out. The slopes become shallow enough to hike up. I leave my pack and head up the open hillside. Soon I reach a place where I don’t want to go any farther. No more rock climbing for me today. I am starting to feel fatigued. I have lost some strength in those legs and I need to build up before tackling further challenges. But I am far enough up that I can see some lovely landscapes and that made it all worthwhile!
Back to the water to explore up and down the creek and get wet again.
I wound my way down the hill, carefully avoiding poison oak groves, watching for snakes, and gingerly crossing invisible gulleys and rock outcroppings to get to the swimming hole. I’d left my pack behind on this little jaunt and now of course I couldn’t find it. I hide it in case someone comes along, finds the pack and keeps it for themselves. Very unlikely to happen in the back country but this isn’t that far back.
In freehiking circles, hiking leaving your clothes behind is sometimes called flying without a parachute. One might do this as an adrenaline thing because of the risk of being seen. Or you might even hope you’re seen.
There’s no adrenaline in it for me. I find a shoulder bag or a pack to be just another piece of “clothing” and if I can do so safely, I’ll ditch it. I’d ditch the shoes if I didn’t mind ripping holes in my feet and I’d ditch the hat if it wasn’t essential for heat management. I’d ditch my glasses and my knee brace if I could get away with it.
Obviously getting home without the pack would make life even more absurd. I still had my cell phone with me to take these pictures but without keys, I wasn’t about to get into the car and drive off. A 2013 Ford Escape doesn’t use a key. It requires a fob to be in proximity and it unlocks automatically when you touch the door. Leaving a fob concealed on a car means that anyone who wanted could just drive off. Without the pack, I’d have to hike to a location with cell coverage and call my wife to bring me a spare fob. What a scene that would be!
I’d stashed it out of the way where if someone did happen to come by, they’d never see it. The damned thing is camo-patterned and now all the damned bushes looked all alike. I carefully retraced my steps multiple times. It took 30 seconds to hide it and 15 minutes for me to find it again. This has happened before.
The situation is ridiculous but again, not tragic. I know I’ll find it eventually. Am I getting senile?
Finally, I have all my stuff together and it is time to head back. I get 90% of the way back to the car when I realized my phone wasn’t in the pack. Facepalm. It could be anywhere on the trail from the swimming hole to the campground. That’s miles of trail. Back I go. Same rocks to scramble, same poison oak to limbo around, only much slower. Now I am tired. I found it at the farthest extent of my hike. I’d put it down the second time I went skinny-dipping and just forgot it. The phone itself, a Kyocera Duraforce Pro chosen for its ruggedness, is black but I got smart and put a bright red case on it. I’ve lost stuff in the woods before.
I finally get back to the campground and there’s a car right there. Sometimes people come here after work when the days get longer but they almost never go very far. Staying past sunset was prohibited when they converted this from a campground to a day-use area.
It is now Wednesday evening. Slight pinkness but I’m not feeling any burn. Even though my skin is light and my ancestors are all Northern European, I do not burn easily. (OTOH my wife and daughter burn like matches in the sun.) My knee still feels ok. There’s a bit of a swollen spot on the patella but it doesn’t hurt. My quadriceps are sore. It’s a good kind of sore you get when you’ve just exercised muscles that haven’t been properly used in a while. Hiking up steep hills is hard work that I have become unused to.
I didn’t find any ticks. Pretty good for a spring hike on trails thru brush and grassy grass. I can probably thank the drought for this. Didn’t see a single ‘squito, either.
More importantly, my mood is very greatly elevated. When I was led to think it was an ACL tear I was despondent. Depressed. The sun had gone out on me. Now I can get back to doing the things that set me free.