On a summer Saturday, Chris and I decided to walk on the Santa Ysabel East preserve. I hoped to show Chris a trail I knew of that he might enjoy as a running trail when I’m not along. It is also a safe route on a hot day because the path crosses a stream twice and the dogs leap in, splash around, have a drink four times during the seven miles.
We took our three dogs: Domino our black and white terrier; Percival, Domino’s brother, all black, and Gatsby a tiny Yorkipoo. Domino and Percival have never been apart. They love each other and hate each other, are rivals about everything, particularly my attention. Gatsby, though tiny, gets in on the battle and usually ends up perched in my lap, lording it over his bigger competition. These three are enthusiastic hikers and when we say, “Do you want to go on a walk?” they stick their various snouts in the air and howl. The only way to stop the canine symphony is to get a move on.
That day, the five of us started out early, still cool enough to enjoy the sun. The car locked, the dogs secured on leashes, we headed out, full of energy and enthusiasm. It is the first day of our Staycation and we didn’t want to waste a second on our usual routine. The dusty, cow pie strewn path stretched in front of us. Fields in Southern California summer are amber, the tall grasses bow in waves as gentle gusts ripple through. Cows of every color watched us as we walked by, suspicious of the four-legged creatures they have learned to loathe. The strawberry roan had a brand-new calf, wobbly on its untried legs. This mama could be dangerous, we knew, so we hustled by. She stared, jaw moving as long strands of slobbery grass slowly disappeared. The dogs chased cows, we knew from bad experience, so we always keep them on a leash. As it is, they about tear our arms off when they hear a ground squirrel pip-pipping a warning on top of some of the huge, natural Stonehenge-like rocks that loom here and there on the hillside.
Percival, so anxious to pursue the squirrels, as usual, turned to his brother and bit his ear in enthusiasm. The usual squabble took place, Domino mad about ear-biting, growled and then Chris yelled and everyone got tangled in one another’s leashes s tied to his spot like the Randsomer of Red Chief. After they sorted themselves out, we began again.
At our first stream crossing, the dogs immediately lay down in the creek, the first of the mud layers on their bodies and legs. Beside the stream, enormous, stickery mounds of blackberries created a thicket, deep and dense. On the dangling branches thousands of blackberries hung, awaiting the many creatures who thrive on their sweetness. I picked several and enjoyed the tang of the not-quite-ripe fruit. I hoped that on our return, after a day in the sun, they would be even sweeter.
Chris took the lead, as he often does, chomping at the bit to go faster, hindered by my pace. It’s been a constant argument over the years, mostly because I hate being last and feel mean holding him back. I tell him to go ahead, but when he does, I get mad and snippy. I resisted the urge and tried to find peace with my pace and my aging legs. “What’s the Goddamned hurry anyway,” I repeated to myself over and over. “It’s better to go and go slow than not to go at all,” another mantra.
After another quarter mile, the trail headed from open field down into an oak forest, some huge ones still remain, but many have succumbed to the golden borer beetle that attacks the oldest and most magnificent first.
“I love these oaks,” Chris said.
“Me, too,” I replied as we craned our necks upward, searching for vigorous trees. We spoke out loud our hope that the rainy past year will strengthen the drought-weakened trees to fight harder against the insects.
We saw the creek again and followed its ravine, thick with scrub oak and fallen limbs of their giant comrades. Hidden in the shade, tails swatted at flies: a brown cow, a black cow, a white cow, almost like patches of sunlight and shadow. They watched us, lowing their secret cow prayers that we wouldn’t scare them into fleeing from their cool, wet hiding places. Calves peered under their mothers’ bellies, maybe we appeared like aliens to them, a shocking new sight in their bovine landscape.
Here and there we began to see sycamore trees, once a favorite of my Grandma Deedle. I remember her singing “On the Banks of the Wabash,” her eyes damp as she recalled her Indiana home
Oh, the moonlight’s fair tonight along the Wabash
From the fields there comes the breath of new mown hay
Through the sycamore the candle lights are gleaming
On the banks of the Wabash, far away (Dresser, 1897)
As we came around a bend in the trail, there, in an open field, five sycamore giants, some say are six hundred years old, own the landscape. We couldn’t resist shooing some grumpy cows so we could stand at their base, the earthy aroma of dust and fresh dung surrounding us, and reach our pitiful arms around their trunks, the paper-like tan, blue, gray, pink bark peeling away as it has done for centuries. From a distance they look so easy to climb, but our foolish attempts were futile, they are so huge, so smooth, so free from toeholds or grips. The forest service had to cut one branch, as it grew too heavy and they feared that either a human or a cow would eventually get crushed.
We repeated how glad we are that the 2003 Cedar Fire, up to that point the biggest fire in California history, didn’t make it this far, that this hidden grove stealthily waited out that fire. We dawdled awhile admiring the plate-sized sycamore leaves and reminded ourselves to come back in the fall when the leaves turn to gold.
On we went, muddy dogs becoming dry dirt dogs, their feet changing color each time the dirt of the trail went from white to tan to black to chocolate brown. Eventually, just as the dogs were truly dry, we crossed the stream again, more mud, more opportunity to drink and splash and snap at flies. The bugs became unbearable so we took off our hats and sprayed them thick with bug spray. We expressed our life-long loathing for whoever had the bright idea to mix insect spray with vomit-inducing sweet scent.
This was where our trail bent upward at a very steep angle. This was where my pace slowed to a virtual crawl. Chris, as always, tried to comfort me about my lack of speed and as always, I bit his head off. What do I expect? Either I have to go into some kind of training at sixty-six years-old and speed up my abilities, or I have to shut up, and not snip at the one person who always sticks by my side as, like a turtle, I make my way up the incline.
I noticed that the dogs began to seek shade whenever they could, the temperature rose and all our slow sight-seeing brought us closer to midday. We had plenty of water, a dog bowl and trees, what more could we need? I thought this as I lumbered to the top of the rise and saw the empty, treeless fields stretch out in in the heat, waver in front of me. At least it’s flat now; I tried to walk faster and keep us moving through the landscape. We came to a fork in the trail. This is where the loop began that Chris had never seen. “This way,” I said cheerfully, happy to share this pretty circular adventure with him.
Once on top, with no trees, I began to suffer a little from the heat. I thought I would be faster on this portion; the sun dragged me down, the dust filled my nose and Chris kept scoping out shade for us and the dogs. At each little spot, we drank our fill, brazenly opened our shirts to feel the breeze and let the dogs lap from their bowl. With a little too much desperation, they knocked over the water time and again until we managed a ritual to allow each one to drink separately and still have enough.
“Oh God,” I said, as I stood facing up the next hill. “I forgot about this part.”
The slope loomed above my head, no shade spots dotted the trail, and I remembered the time before and how difficult this section was.
Fighting back the desire to quit, we headed upward; I counted steps and stopped every time I got to twenty-five. Chris and the dogs ahead of me by quite a distance, kept looking back, the dogs with a grumpy, what’s-taking-you-so-long expression, tongues hanging. They sounded like three simultaneous train engines chugging up the hill. After what became a sweat-drenching climb, we reached the top, the breeze blew for relief and beautiful, young, healthy coulter pines shaded us for a long rest. The trees, big enough to provide relief from the sun, were too young to have the enormous cones called “widowmakers” so we safely dozed in their shadows. There is nothing like the breeze in pines, sap, acrid-needle smells and an exhausted nap. The dogs rested too, but it must be difficult to sleep with a tongue hanging a foot out of your mouth.
Rejuvenated, we continued on our loop, downhill now, easy, right? No. It was pebble gravel with run-off ruts, loose rock and sand. Our nimble-footed dogs had quite a time picking their way down. Since fewer cattle were around, we let the dogs off the leash occasionally so they wouldn’t pull us too fast. So, it was slow going up and slow going down; the sun pounded us from straight above our heads.
Noon. It would only get hotter. Gatsby disappeared and we found him over and over again, ahead on the trail in deep shade waiting for us to trudge and meet him. The other two wanted to do the same but their loyalty kept with us and they suffered our slow going.
At one point we passed an old apple orchard and I encouraged Chris to climb the fence and steal some fruit. His typically honest self would rather die than be dishonest, something I admire about him, and he would not do it. Plus, I didn’t think he wanted to use his precious energy to climb the fence. I know I didn’t.
Our trail, insufferably turned uphill and there I was again, way behind, Gatsby just a tiny dot with a pink tongue on the high-above horizon. After another interminable climb, I made it to the top again and in front of us, the most delightful, hopeful, surprising forest of young coulter pines. They stood, full of pride, with the vigor of perfect health. Did they survive the fire? Did they plant themselves because of the fire? Did the fire give them the gift of life? Burned bodies of old oaks and pines littered their feet, caverns ruptured the earth where the old one’s roots tore from the soil, now homes for ground squirrels and termites. What joy to know these will be left behind when Chris and I are just bits of dust under their needles.
My beloved husband surprised me with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on spent grain bread, a feast in my mind, and he climbed a pear tree (on public land) and picked us pears. Once again, a coulter pine shaded us as we gobbled our lunch, the pears, tart and hard but full of flavor. After lunch we lay back, took another snooze as the temperature climbed. The dogs, now exasperated with both of us began to whine,
“Humans! It’s hot out here!”
“We didn’t get any peanut butter or jelly or bread and we don’t like those pears!”
“Let’s not dawdle!”
“Our feet are burning! You have your damned boots!”
“Get up and get mooooving! Oh, there’s a cow!”
“Can we chase?”
Off we went, around the back side of the loop. I tried to run a couple of young black cows away from their trough. I wanted to stick the dogs in, give their feet a rest, but the teen-aged bovine thought it a jolly game called, “Keep away from our water.” Chris yelled at me from a safe cow distance and told me he wasn’t saving me from anything that weighed more than he does. I gave up and we kept to the trail, the smug cows still standing guard at their trough.
Hotter still, no pines or oaks or sycamores to give relief, we walked on white, white sand across the treeless fields. The dogs stuck to the grassy sides, protecting their poor paws and I thought of cattle dogs, out for days herding and sleeping rough, only scraps thrown their way. During my childhood in Colorado, dogs followed our horses; ran for hours, never losing sight of the horses’ hoofs. Attitudes change about almost everything and I know my dogs think they have it tough. They with their puffy pillows, their canned meats and prepared kibble, what did they know of roughing it like the real dogs of the past?
“Okay,” I choked, “I’m thinking crazy thoughts. I’m too hot.”
Chris looked at me and said, “Let’s head for that shade way over there.”
I got my eye on it and wouldn’t look away until it got closer, bigger on my retina, more real and we arrived. He got his Camelbak hose and sprayed me from head, down around my arms and in my face. Then he stuck the tube in my mouth and said,
“Drink.” Not usually this compliant, I drank and drank, the water hot but still, well, water.
“Let’s get back to the creek.” He started off, the dogs, now urgently needing to cool off in the stream, headed down with him. “Come on,” he bossed. I listened. I know when he uses that tone that I better pay attention. Again, the downhill didn’t help my speed, the gravel and now my aching toes, jammed in the front of my boots slowed me down. I kept at it though, knowing that I needed the cool shade of the creek, to sit and rest again, to drink again.
Like a man stuck in the desert, I imagined I would dream the creek was a mirage, promising relief but always out or reach. But there, finally and thank goodness, it was. Luckily because I was on the very edge of my strength and my will power. We soaked our hats in the water and placed them back on our heads while the dogs again lay down in the water cooling their underbellies. Percival actually submerged his head again and again, enjoying the sensation and the plethora of wet. While the dogs enjoyed their mud bath, I discovered a little bridge and lay down on it, Chris lucked upon a picnic table and again we dozed. Creatures of the earth, struggling with the elements, enjoying the test.
Barely able to tear ourselves away, we still had a mile and a half to go. Deep afternoon shadows, again a multitude of trees, blue elders, ceanothus, among the others, a patch of prickly pear sat like a toupee on a hill. Then the blackberries, a huge thicket, and the day’s sun had done its work. I picked the black clumps over and over, stuffing them in my mouth, their sweet and sour juice stained my hands and face. I tried one on Domino and he spit it out, the other dogs declined with contempt. Chris picked one or two, never a man of gluttony, while I denuded one whole section of the big patch. I could feel the fruit sugar spreading through my veins, bringing with it the last bit of energy I desperately needed for the final mile where the trees thinned and we would be back in the sun.
My legs started back on the trail reluctantly. They really wanted to stay put and eat more berries, but I knew that delay wasn’t going to help. I recommenced my counting.
Twenty-five steps and rest.
Twenty-five steps and rest.
Legs were heavy, heartbeat too fast, sweat stung my eyes, Chris kept showering me with water from his Camelbak. I noticed that the three dogs were vying for our shadows, bumping each other out of the way to be the exclusive one in the privileged spot. Domino and Percival were limping, Gatsby hopped because of his chronic slippery kneecap. None of them had enough liquid to keep up their boy-dog peeing on bushes and rocks.
At long last the fourth stream crossing, more berries, more splashing, more mud. Gatsby sat under the little foot-bridge in the shade and refused to move. I snapped a photo of a scarlet monkey flower in the stream.
“Are you going to make it?” Chris asks.
“Of course,” I snipped but knew I should be so grateful. This man likes these adventures and lives for the outdoors and there is never a moment I don’t feel safe when I’m with him, even in the heat, even when its difficult, even when I’m mean.
We got to the parking area and I couldn’t make it to the car. I saw a bench under a tree and went for it, knowing Chris would bring the car over and pour me in. Of course, he met some bicyclists and it took thirty minutes of Cycle Talk, but I didn’t even get mad. We stopped at our local winery on the way home and the woman behind the counter asked,
“What will you have?”
“Water,” was all I could whisper.
“Have you nitwits been hiking? It’s 101 degrees!” she said, “Whose brilliant idea was that?”
Chris and I looked at each other, embarrassed.
After thirty minutes, seated at the winery, in the breeze under the big cottonwood trees, the dogs safe beneath our chairs with a bowl of cold H2O, I reflected on the stupidity of some of our most perfect adventures.