Jay and I keep looking at the map, agreeing where we want to go, then finding that the terrain and vegetation won’t take us there. Rachel’s pace has slowed to a crawl, further stressing everyone. At first I think she’s just tired, but slowly I begin to suspect that she’s terrified at not knowing how the hell we’re going to get wherever it is we’re trying to go. I try every ruse in my old mountain-guiding bag of tricks to make her feel better. Me: empathetic. She: glowering. Me: gentle prodding. She: stubborn resistance. Me: rhapsodies on the joy of adventure. She: sullen silence backed by a “you’ve got to be kidding” stare. Then I think it must be a blood sugar problem. I offer her my Clif Bar and she grabs it, saying nothing. Finally, when I’m scouting out of her sight, Jay reveals that Rachel is furious. Her slow-down strike is aimed at the leader-that would be me-in whom she’s lost all faith.
“We have to get out of this creekbed,” says Jay. “It’s way too difficult and dangerous for an inexperienced scrambler.” Ken agrees, though he has a knack for such travel.
The sun has dropped below the western rim of the Sierra by the time we reach the ridgeline. No matter, for here, plain as the blood pooling on our arms, is a dirt trail leading right where it should along the open crest of the gently descending ridge. Our joyous chorus is answered from across the valley by the plaintive moos of errant cows. Never again will we trust bovine judgment.
Winter night falls at 6:15, sharp. Rachel is all smiles, white teeth and sparkling eyes reflecting in the glow of our lantern. There’s nothing like a trail to brighten moods after a few hours adrift in untracked wilderness. Coyotes yap and howl to the north across the huge San Dionisio Canyon, while stars cap our soaring spirits. My companions are asleep by 8 after counting out the quarts of water: one each for personal rations tomorrow, plus a shared quart for breakfast. While the others sleep, my eyes burn holes in the map trying to interpret the landscape. We spent this entire afternoon covering 1.5 crow-miles. Tomorrow there’s 5 to travel, and the contours look much steeper and more convoluted. We must maintain the trail. And the ridge. But what if they diverge again?
We’re off at dawn. Ken is having a relapse of the flu that kept him in bed that first cold morning. His body needs sleep, but I’m too nervous to give him any rest. In no time, we reach a fork in our ridgetop path. Jay and I leave Ken and Rachel at the known trail and split to scout the two unknowns. It’s a pattern we’ll repeat time after time: Split, compare notes, and pick the way. The going is slow, at times uncertain, but we keep a steady pace. We’re looking for paths, shown mostly by machete cuts, which are as good as blazes. Morale is high until finally the ridge cliffs out. After an hour’s scouting, we find no alternative but to drop into steep brush tunnels leading straight down the hillside. What do you know, it works. Finally machete marks again, and at long, long last, a pool of water between boulders in a flat-bottomed, palm-fringed canyon. We pump our filter and guzzle water, giggling with relief.
By midafternoon, after a couple of hours of boulder-hopping and sometimes tricky scrambling down the arroyo (a dry riverbed), the wilderness finally spits us onto the blunt end of a dusty road. I have but one thought on my mind: Where are my girls? And then I hear the tinkling of Siena’s voice from the shady side of a grove of palms. She gets a big hug from her smelly, unkempt dad before he flips the lid on an ice-box full of cerveza.
Rachel, sitting on her pack, is a new woman. Her bright gray eyes and huge grin scream out: “I’m alive and isn’t that great!” Adele, who worried about Rachel’s limited backcountry experience, asks her about the route.
Rachel turns to look back at the mountain and fairly gushes, “Wow! It was so beautiful, especially once we reached the riverbed!” She takes a cold swig, but her emotions keep tumbling out. “It was hard, but it was just so worth it. When I look back at those mountains, I can’t believe what I accomplished.”
“Would you do it again?”
“Oh, definitely…next year, that is!”
While we regale each other with stories of our errant ways, my eyes scan the surrounding hills. Relieved of my “leadership,” I’m suddenly curious about rugged, boulder-strewn streambeds leading deep into wild exotic hills. Jay says he’s up for more exploration-next year, that is. Ken is still green in the gills and has his sights set on nothing more distant than tonight’s mattress.
Meanwhile, Adele and Siena spin tales of sand castles built with new friends on white-sand beaches. From their radiant smiles, I can read our destiny. Midwinter Baja migrations are already hardwired into our brains. Who knows what semifrozen glop is falling from Oregon’s weeping sky. Better yet, who cares?