I often note with bemusement that my mind builds connections among events and processes that I could otherwise rationally explain in terms of simple coincidence. The Reyes Peak trail, Haddock camp, the California condor: these are powerful symbols of transition for me.
I last saw condors fly in the Southern Los Padres while hiking the Reyes Peak trail somewhere between Reyes Peak and Haddock Mountain. Two of the giant birds materialized overhead, a silent thunderclap rolling west, ultimately curving northwest and gaining altitude as if to make a circuit of the Cuyama Valley. This was November, 1984 when fewer than twenty five condors remained in the wild but there was talk of a summer 1985 release of birds bred in captivity. The release did not happen when the condor population crashed and by the end of April, 1987 there were no California condors flying free.
This Paul Conrad cartoon has been in my files since it appeared in 1987.
I grew up with the condor; the concept that no birds would be exploiting the wind above the Los Padres, as only condors can, was inextricably woven into a conceptual fabric of change. I had an unsettling but vague impression in the fall of 1984 that the forest was in transition; I had heard diametrically opposed rumblings of revisiting plans for dams on the Sespe and protecting the Sespe with a combination of Wild and Scenic River and Wilderness Area designations. I returned to the Reyes Peak trail in June of 1987 and hiked to Haddock camp as an elegiac tribute; there were no more condors to observe in the Los Padres. A relatively short time later the vague personal foreboding of change I tried to ignore crystallized and I too went missing from the forest; albeit, unlike the condor, my departure was distinctly undramatic.
In November of 2005 I availed myself of the opportunity to stay a few days at a lodge in the Northern Los Padres; Pfeiffer Big Sur, to be precise. I was a tourist from the urban Midwest to the person in the park store from whom I purchased a trail map. With great sincerity and concern, he filled me in on the challenges of hiking in the Los Padres. I thanked him politely for the well motivated insight; I was instructed that hiking the Los Padres is not like walking the railroad right-of-way paths where I come from. What is the expression? I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
With the good advice I had received in mind, I decided to accept the risk of leading a hike to Manuel Peak, the high point in Pfeiffer Big Sur. I had been there last sometime in 1974 or 1975. During the hike, while ascending a section of trail lateral to a canyon, my hiking companion informed me she was sure the bird soaring above her head (and mine) was a condor. Without looking up, I replied “turkey vulture.” Then that inner voice I have previously described in this blog, the one that addresses me as “dude” sent a message. “Dude, the person you are hiking with earned a Ph.D. studying avian neurophysiology. She knows birds. Look up.” Of course the message did not manifest as individual words but rather as a blinding conceptual flash that compelled me to, in fact, look up. And I did.
I looked directly into the one symbolic archetype that exists within the center of chaos theory that lives in my head: a huge, straight unfurled spread of wings marked by elongated white triangles; unmistakably a condor. I was once buzzed by an Air Force fighter jet in an eastern pass in the Sierra Nevada. The decibel content of that event had minuscule impact compared to the silent passage overhead of the big, black bird.
Twenty one years previously, almost to the day, I had observed the condor pair while hiking to Haddock camp. Was it coincidence that I was again in a time of transition? The only rational explanation is that the apparent synchronicity was coincidence, which I accept. On the other hand, I am also happy to live with the opposing idea that the event had directed personal significance. After that, I could not fully suppress the condor that silently, persistently soared at the edges of an absurd concept I could not drop. It was a steady, and finally more abrupt, progression from here to the Los Padres Expatriate Hiker.
On August 19, 2011 I was back at the Reyes Peak trail head, twenty seven years after my 1984 trip to Haddock and my last Southern Los Padres condor sighting. Unlike the hike to Haddock camp in 1987, I had at least a small chance of seeing a condor. Had I traversed some closed loop and returned to this place with personal change looming yet again? Yes I had.
The Reyes Peak trail “descends moderately along a ridge” and is “steep in sections” in several descriptions I have read over the years. The “steep in sections” part is an accurate depiction of the ridge portion of the hike; “descends moderately” is a first approximation average that does not convey the nature of the route. As noted in a Ventura County Canyoneering blog entry, the ridge hike rolls up and down, sometimes steeply. It is not a simple “moderate descent.” The last approximately two miles of the hike to Haddock camp from the Reyes Peak trail head drop sharply and steeply; no moderation here. I have always pictured the portion of the hike just beyond the trail head near Reyes Peak as a passage through a corridor of trees. This feeling becomes acute for me in the dim light of early morning or late evening.
I found myself pushing to reach Haddock Mountain to see the unique old sign that resides there. I did force myself to pause and photograph the expansive view west from the ridge. For some reason I was harboring an odd anxiety that I would somehow walk past the sign and miss it entirely. In reality, missing it would have required superhuman inattention. Nonetheless, I felt a sense of victory when I saw the sign, now somewhat faded but possessed of a stoic dignity, leaning a boulder or two east of where I had last seen it in 1984 and 1987.
After passing the sign, the nose dive into Haddock began. There were stretches with brush impinging inward and posing a distinct pack, clothing, trekking pole and exposed skin snag hazard. This is tantamount to saying “I went for a hike in the Los Padres.” But the tread was otherwise outstanding. I certainly don’t remember the conditions being better in the 1970s or 1980s.
After a final short drop to a creek crossing, I was once again in Haddock camp. I wandered around a bit to get my bearings. I walked up to the cedar that symbolizes Haddock camp in my mind, put my hand on the trunk and immediately thought that was a very peculiar thing to do. In the next moment I revised that judgement to one of evaluative neutrality. While I couldn’t think of any reason compelling tactile contact with the trunk of that tree, I could not think of any reason why I should not put my hand on it. In retrospect, I think I needed something tangible to define the moment, as I had been very much alone all day and there was a disorienting aspect to be standing in this spot after an absence of so many years.
Haddock camp had not changed in any dramatic way. The substantial metal sign at the bottom of the drop from Haddock Mountain showed amazingly little wear. The old, wooden Beartrap camp trail sign was gone, replaced by a fiberglass or Carsonite sign that looked pristine. The aforementioned cedar tree was precisely where it belonged with the same old pine standing watch behind it. The pine did look rather defoliated compared to 1984.
I tried to remember the first time I was at Haddock, but I could not; before 1975 I believe. One trail veteran I knew acquainted several of us with the correct pronunciation of Haddock (hay dock). If he was to be believed, old Judge Haddock did not appreciate a pronunciation equivalent to that of the identically spelled fish (had dock). I wish I could remember more of the stories he told. He did mention that Erle Stanley Gardner, a Ventura lawyer, was a frequent visitor to Pine Mountain. Mr. Gardner would gain more fame as the author of the Perry Mason series. From another source I heard the story of one of his cases, a murder, of course, which involved Jake Hartman (the Sespe Hartman after whom Hartman Station was named). That I will save for another time.
The time came to tackle the climb from Haddock camp back to the Haddock Mountain sign. I was surprised to quickly drop into a contemplative, rhythmic uphill hiking zone. I stopped to photograph some remnants of the wire that many years ago ran to Pine Mountain Lodge and tried to imagine the thinking and labor that went into running this phone line. The thought of placing a land line call from Pine Mountain Lodge is surreal. With this thought going through my mind I crested the trail at the sign and, ironically, found I had a usable cell signal from a nearby west overlook and made a call to someone more than 2,000 miles away. She worries about a crazy old guy running around the mountains alone.
From there, the remainder of the distance to the trail head went by quickly. There were no other cars in the parking area; the ridge and camp had been mine alone all day. The feeling of isolation was dispelled when I was gratified by the unexpected appearance of an old friend. Maybe the long, long, long lost mystic Billy “Snake” Vargas sent him, if only such things were possible. If such things were possible, Snake would find a way.
From the point at which I returned to the Reyes Peak trail head less than 48 hours remained before I would be on plane east. The first stage of the return to the Los Padres had run its course and the results were better than I had dared hope. But that was not strictly my doing. On August 14, 2011, the second day after I arrived in Ojai, Masha the Uber-hund and the person in her charge, none other than the Los Padres raconteur who produces the craigrcarey.net blog, gave me a tour of the old range from Ojai to the Reyes Creek / Beartraps trail head. This included a stop at the Reyes Peak trail head and a hike to Reyes Peak itself, which resulted in the panoramic photograph at the bottom of this post. Having a preview of the road to the Reyes Peak trail head was a crucial facilitator for the Haddock hike. I needed the orientation provided by the trip and got it from the best possible source; you can’t put a value high enough on that kind of generosity.
In 1984 I hiked to Haddock camp with Jon B. and it was he who first noticed the materializing condors. Jon was (and still is, I’m sure) one of those strong (exceedingly strong, in Jon’s case), skilled and completely deranged hikers that you want along if you are going to head into difficult country, which we did, many times, between 1983 and 1992. Long trips through the San Rafael wilderness to Mission Pine Basin or over Hurricane Deck; sprints up Alder Creek to McDonald Cabin; one day death marches up Santa Paula Canyon to Bluff camp and back; shake down cruises out of Dough Flat to Sespe Hot Springs and Alder Sespe; snow shoe trips in the Sierra Nevada; dashes through the Grand Canyon; hundred mile sections of the PCT in the Cascades; loops in Big Bend: I am proud to say I survived pounding all this ground with Jon. As an additional note, Jon and I both remember that one of the condors we saw on that day in November of 1984 was AC9, Igor, pictured at the top of this post. He was the last condor in the wild when he was captured in 1987. Igor was reintroduced fifteen years later and as of October, 2011, still works the sky in the Southern Los Padres.