It does not require a suspension of rationality to go for a hike to talk to a pair of trees; the understanding that the trees did not reply thirty years ago and likely will not reply now is beside the point. Often, the appropriate counterpart for my conversation is no one at all except trees and the air above the upper Sespe.
Starting sometime before 1980 I frequently climbed from Highway 33 to Chorro Grande and stopped to visit the Sentinel Tree pair along the way. I did it based on an irrational and persistently indistinct gestalt possibly involving time, place and connection. Maybe free will and predestination were in there somewhere as well having a tussle of the antithetical. Ultimately, when asked to explain the reason for my affinity for the trees (and I was asked) I deferred to the words of Mark Twain: “I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn’t know.”
The hike to Chorro Grande integrates a fine mix of attributes. The trail head is far enough along Highway 33 to feel remote, but the drive does not require the level of commitment demanded by continuing to Pine Mountain summit and the Reyes Peak trail. In the summer it is not as hot as, for instance, the Piedra Blanca area. The trail is sufficiently long and steep to give one a sense of back country accomplishment. And the view along the way over the upper Sespe country is worth experiencing as often as possible.
Thus, the parameters for August 18, 2011 where well defined: drive Highway 33 to the Chorro Grande trail head, hike up the trail, visit the trees, engage in some photography, linger a while at Chorro Grande camp, visit Oak camp on the way back and return to the car. An old, simple yet elegant formula honed in the 1970s and 1980s, now ready for redeployment in 2011. Although the sign in the parking area was gone, the old streamers mounted on a post that the Pine Mountain hang gliders used to target were still there. Of course I have no way of knowing if in the past 25 years the streamers have been refreshed, but the look and feel was the same The two posts with nothing attached were still present at the beginning of the trail. A stake had been added with the single word “trail” on it; obvious but accurate Forest Service prosaic parsimony. As I stood looking across Highway 33 to the trail, the scene fell perfectly into place with memories dating back a quarter century and more. Ultimately, the paradoxical feeling of remoteness while parked twenty feet off a highway completed an ambiance that caused the small changes to be nothing more than almost imperceptible background noise.
I passed Oak camp in relatively short order but ignored the site, as I was focused on reaching the trees and Chorro Grande camp beyond. The familiar climb began and brought back memories of Boots, my frequent canine hiking companion in the mid 1980s, and how she liked to run off this section of the trail and down slope either to investigate items of dog importance or to taunt me or both. She only exhibited this behavior on this section of the Chorro Grande trail, nowhere else we hiked. After one incident where I climbed a considerable way back up the trail to look for her, only to find her jogging in a very unconcerned fashion down the trail toward me, she hiked the Chorro climb and descent on the leash.
In the midst of these cogitations of things past, I looked up and saw the Sentinel Trees just above me. In a hazy picture I hold in memory I first encountered these trees that flank the trail about two thirds of the way to Chorro Grande camp (34°37’26.58″N 119°19’22.50″W) at a stage when they were not as tall as I am. That is probably inaccurate, but I like the concept, so I will keep the image. Once I reached the trees, the hiker in me wanted to push on to Chorro Grande camp and stop at the trees on the way down. The photographer in me realized that on the way back I would have high angle back light and the morning front light I had at the moment was the best I would have the remainder of the day for this subject. The irrational sentimentalist in me said “Dude, these are the trees you watched for years. It’s been a long time. Stop right now and reintroduce yourself.” I stopped. And wondered briefly why my inner voice always addresses me as “dude.” While I deployed my tripod and set up the shot I had one of those moments where the realization hits that I was exactly where I wanted to be doing exactly what I wanted to do. I was high up on the Chorro Grande trail taking pictures while telling a pair of trees why I had been away for so long and what I had been doing. The trees did not respond. It all made sense.
I packed up the camera, tripod and other photographic paraphernalia and hiked the remainder of the distance to Chorro Grande camp. For the purpose of this posting I shall define Chorro as “gush,” an appropriate metaphorical image of the spring that is the hallmark feature of the area. There are other more idiomatic definitions that can be safely ignored for now. I noticed immediately that the wooden sign at the south intersection of the trail with the camp was gone and, upon entering the camp proper, I saw that the old, classic “Big Chorro” camp sign near the spring had disappeared as well. The inscription on the “1901” rock had faded more than I might have expected which probably means that the “1901” inscription was not an accurate date, but I suppose there is no way to know. I think at one time I had worked out the inscription on the rock, but I did not keep a written record and can no longer decipher it either in old photos or by direct examination.
It requires great effort not to relax at Chorro Grande camp. The deep shade that provides a cool respite on a hot day was as I remembered it. Were I given to simply repeating cliched phraseology I would describe the sound of the water flowing from the spring and the rustling caused by the movement of wind through the trees as soothing. The melodic synergy of the sound of the water flowing from the spring and the rustling caused by the movement of the wind through the trees was soothing. I was armed with a tripod and wide angle lenses, which was the solution to photography in the shadowed, close quarters. I took my time but inevitably the minutes piled up and I packed up the gear and headed downhill.
When I got back to the Sentinel Trees, I was overtaken by photographic deja vu as I looked out over the Sespe gorge. The sun was still high and somewhat lateral to the shot I wanted, so I figured with careful framing and other techniques I could get something other than silhouettes, washed out sky and lens flare. So, after a few hand-held shots I unpacked the tripod and did what I could to capture the view.
As I descended to Oak Camp I remembered that there was a wooden sign at the camp mounted on a tall post. The sign itself was small and inscribed simply “Oak Camp.” I had walked by the camp on the way up without taking note, but as I approached the entrance on the return trip, it was obvious this sign was also among the missing. There was another one of those metal stakes with the simple declaration “trail” which seems a poor but practical replacement to me. I used to stop and sit at Oak camp while Boots would engage in what my mammologist friend called thermoregulatory behavior by lying in the stream. I called the process “cooling off and getting wet and muddy.” Dennis R. Gagnon remarked in his guide books that he was fond of Oak camp; so was I. My first trip to Oak camp could have been as long ago as 1968, so perhaps I saw the place before Gagnon. For some reason, I’m not sure why, I’d like to think so. For the record, I admired the ambition, scope and result of Gagnon’s work. I sat on a log in Oak camp and turned the chaotic mix of the immediate experience and old memories over in my head for the better part of an hour. After coming to no conclusions, I stood up, framed and exposed a few shots with the camera mounted on the tripod, returned the gear to my pack and left.
Finally, I came around the bend and saw the end of the hike and my rental car at the trail head parking area. It was approaching 4:30 PM, rush hour on Highway 33. It was time to head back to Ojai.