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Bus Hiking: Don’t Pay at the Pump

Gas prices are soaring. Glaciers are melting. What's a conscientious hiker to do? Take the bus, says Dan Koeppel, who did just that to escape downtown L.A.

You just don’t know what incredible stuff people are capable of until you come to Trail Canyon. People give each other tattoos out here. I’m not kidding. They hike naked. Have you seen those signs that say “This is YOUR Forest?” Out here, YOUR means EVERYBODY, just like the Founding Fathers meant when they wrote it in the Magna Carta.

But after the five-mile mark, you’re pretty much alone, and you need some experience, gear, and planning. Without a lot of traffic, the route becomes overgrown, and we have to push our way through the brush and into chaparral.

If lower Trail Canyon looks too lush to be So-Cal, then the upper part looks exactly like folks imagine: brown and parched, covered in scrubby sage. In May, the yucca trees bloom, but their spiky leaves are sharp enough to pierce your flesh. One little wound puffs up like 20 bee stings.

Our first camp–and first water source since Trail Canyon Falls–is just below Condor Peak, and we arrive right on schedule (important, when you have a bus to catch). The ridge is just a morning’s walk above us. As we pitch our tents, Devin–one of the transit geeks–makes a salad of fresh orzo pasta with grape-size organic tomatoes (another benefit of being specialty-food-store close).

After dinner, Kalee and I walk up the ridge and stare to the west. The wind is sweeping away the smog below us. That’s when another, more modern vista appears. I can see the twinkling lights of the burbs and beyond them pure blackness–the Pacific. We can also hear a low hum. It takes a minute to figure out that it’s the freeway. I get into my tent, close my eyes, and imagine it’s the ocean.

IT TAKES US THREE HOURS TO CREST THE SAN GABRIELS the next morning. Standing atop the range, staring down into Antelope Valley–we’ll descend today, camping somewhere below–we feel a strange, nearly schizophrenic amazement. Gazing at high desert, with few trees and little water, we wonder how people actually manage to live in the valley below. Our second impression is astonishment at how many people actually do manage it. The towns in the region are among the nation’s fastest growing. In 1980, the valley’s population was about 20,000. Today, it’s almost 500,000, partly because there’s no cheaper place to buy a home in Los Angeles County. The price for attaining the American dream is the area’s most grueling commute: up to two hours, each way, to downtown.

This might sound, again, like a yucky destination for a hike. But think of it in reverse: It is absolutely essential that people have a place–and the means–to hike away.

From the ridge, we have two miles to walk along the PCT; after that, we’ll drop down steep switchbacks, skirting a series of deep, rain-cut canyons that feed the Santa Clara River.

The crux of our trip comes on the second night. We have no idea where we’ll camp or even if we’ll find water. That’s due to more misinformation from a Forest Service official. Working in the Angeles can be tough, because the issues are pretty wide ranging: catching commuters who use the roads as shortcuts; taming suburb-threatening wildfires; and managing conflicts between the forest’s millions of visitors. Sometimes basic information suffers. The official said camping anywhere was okay, as regulations allowed, but that the fire road had steep drops on either side, so there would be no practical place to pitch a tent. Water? Nothing between the ridge and the pavement.

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