As I mention in the back of the book, many of the occurrences in Opalescence are real, in that they’ve happened to me. I don’t want to relate them all here though so as not to give away any more plot details then I’ve already had to in the blurb. But I can tell you a few other tales that are also true.
This first story is embarrassing. When I first began to hike many years ago, I was pretty green about it. Very much like Tom. But I got the bug to go and went to Sequoia National Park. I wanted some back county experience. So I loaded up my pack and when I got there I told the ranger at the closest station to my decided upon route where I was going, and how long I expected to be gone (10 days). Good. Probably the only good thing I did.
My pack was heavy, too heavy, and that was because I had loaded it up with canned food. Ten days worth. If you are an experienced hiker I know you’re already laughing at this. So anyway, I set out, planning to make as much distance as I could that first day. I figure I went about 10 miles. The scenery was gorgeous but the redwoods made it close and dark. Then I began to hear something following me on the slope above. Or so it seemed.
Shortly after that, the sun began to set. Hmm. It was quiet out there, not what I was used to. I was getting nervous. Finally I decided that it was time to set up camp. Problem was, the only flat land to retire on was the trail itself, and it was rather narrow. So I forwent the tent and just rolled out my sleeping bag next to a large boulder. Then I realized that I forgot a pillow. What to use? Oh, here’s something soft, an open pack of hotdogs (I’d had one). Another dumb move. The sun set early, and that’s because it was winter. That was my next mistake, which I’ll get to.
Long about 6 pm, I think it was, I was suddenly awakened by the sound of something very large and heavy running up the trail at me! Yes, running. And the thing is, it sounded like something on two legs! You know, the steps had the cadence of a two-footer. Anyway, it stopped by me. I immediately thought of Bigfoot. That got my heart thumping.
I’d heard that you should play dead in case of bear attack but I was scared and breathing fast. No faking it for me. The only weapon I had was a camera with a flash. I decided that if whatever-it-was touched me I’d flash a light at it in hopes of scaring it off. But to do that I’d have to turn on the flash first, and that entailed a long, shrill high-pitched whistle as the thing warmed up. What if it annoyed the thing rather than scare it off?
So I lay there in my bag with my arm sticking partway out and the flash pointing at the beast. I didn’t see it because, one, it was too dark, and two, my eyes were closed. Then came a loud snort. Did I mention I was scared? Anyway, after some time, I heard the sounds of leaves gently crunching as, apparently, the thing was walking away. That was great!
I was exhausted, not just from carrying a heavy backpack ten miles up a trail, but from this terrifying experience, and so, eventually, I fell asleep. Long about 10 pm, I woke to discover that the animal had crept up on me and was now standing over me. I realized that when I moved, and with that movement the beast suddenly ran down the path. Same heavy, booming steps. That woke me right up and immediately my heart began to race again. But, far as I know, it didn’t come back. At last, I fell asleep.
It was a relief to wake in the morning to sun. I could hear something downslope of me, on my right. I got up and carefully looked over the edge. About a hundred feet away was a black bear slowly walking and digging in the dirt, presumably for grubs. Or maybe he smelled my hotdogs. I tossed them over the side a ways away from him, then loaded everything and turned to head back.
That night on the news there was a weather report that Sequoia was having its worst snowstorm in 30 years. Hmm again.
I was jumpy for the whole of the week following this episode, and it, in fact, made an impression on me that took years to get over. You can see that it still affected me in my essay The Sacred Secret. Now I night hike when I can.
Another time, when I was still somewhat in my basics phase, I once drove to a hike to Caliente (meaning “hot”) Mountain. It’s the highest peak in SLO county. At the top was (is still?) a little, broken down shack, that had large gaps in the thin wood walls. I’ve camped out overnight in it.
So this time when I reached the beginning of the trail – and actually, there is no trail – and parked the car, I discovered that I’d forgotten to bring something to drink. Considering that I’d come about 50 miles or so I was not a happy camper. What to do? I opened the trunk and, hey, there’s some water! Bottled water for the radiator, just in case. So I brought it. Didn’t really think about looking closely at the label, about what kind of water it was. Distilled. Water that’s had all the minerals removed. Drink it and it will suck the minerals right out of your body. That’s precisely what you don’t need when your trekking through a desert. You’re already sweating it out and need more, not less.
So I was drinking it. Got maybe halfway when it began to hit me. I knew soon after that that something was wrong. Started feeling weak. Then it dawned on me. Distilled water. I immediately turned around and headed back. By the time I got to within a hundred yards of my car I could barely lift myself from the ground. I did it in increments. Drove home, then bought a bottle of Gatorade.
Not being able to recognize when something is wrong and when to turn back has cost many outdoors people their lives. I’ve learned a lot of the dos and don’ts of hiking in the years since these experiences (even taught a hiking class for awhile).
I’ve seen other bears since. Once while Ruddy and I were far in the outback of the Los Padres. We were going to camp out for the night and I’d brought my tent/hammock (which you can see on my My Hiking Bonifides page taken the very night of this incident). Anyway, after setting up camp we took a stroll to one side of a large pond some distance away. I sat down and watched some cows on the other side. What they were doing there, I don’t know.
Ruddy was enjoying himself in the water. Then from some thick chaparral on the other side comes this BIG chestnut colored bear. He was walking in that lumbering way of bears and headed toward the water. My eyes went wide. Ruddy somehow did not see him, but the bear seemed to smell us, because he lifted his head, sniffing the air in our direction. I was pretty nervous that, with Ruddy there, there might be some sort of confrontation.
Then something interesting happened, the cows noticed him and suddenly, as one, they charged him. The bear ran back a ways and the cows stopped. After a minute he began to head back to the pond when they charged him again. That sent him packing. Likely, he returned when they were gone for his drink.
On another hike, in another remote area of the Los Padres, we had yet another bear encounter. Walking along the trail at one point, I happened to look to my left and there, on the flat land just below the trail not far from us were two bear cubs. I immediately looked around for mama and saw her about 100 yards off. Ruddy spotted the cubs and, I think, mistook them for dogs, because I thought that he was about to go check them out (as dogs like to do). But he was also a very good dog, and when I hissed, “Ruddy! Stay me!” he obeyed.
I saw that the mother had now noticed us and was looking like she might charge. I did my best not to look directly at her but just from the corner of my eye, pretending that we hadn’t noticed her or her cubs. We continued walking. Then the cubs ran toward mom and they all walked away while mom kept an eye on us.
Not 10 or 15 minutes after that, just as we were going over a small rise in the trail, I saw three mountain lions were on it about 75 yards ahead. They looked full grown, so I assume that they were siblings on the point of splitting up. When they saw us, though, they just ran up the side of the trail on my right and we didn’t see them again.
I’ve heard of rangers that go their entire career never seeing a mountain lion so I consider myself lucky. I’ve seen them on but one other occasion.
Then there was the time that, as I was trekking along in a dark forest, suddenly from nowhere a horse emerges and goes by me. I thought that unusual but continued on. Some time later, maybe, I don’t know, 15 minutes or so, comes another horse. I now happened to be standing at the apex of two trails. This horse stopped when he saw me and seemed very agitated; kind of dancing around and whinnying a bit, unsure. I gathered that he was trying to find the other horse, but wasn’t sure which way it had gone, which trail. I got the feeling that he wanted me to tell him somehow.
I tried to think which way it went, but wan’t sure. Which way had I come? Finally I pointed down the one I thought was correct and in an instant he bolted down it. I hope it was the right one. I later found out that people sometimes take their horses out there and leave them when they can’t (or no longer want to) take care of them.
On another occasion my brother and I were hiking in another remote location when somehow we both ran out of our drinks, something that rarely happened to us. We had maybe five miles to go to get back to my vehicle and were dying of thirst. Course when one is denied something he/she often finds that they want, no NEED it, that much more. Anyway, when we felt in a torment for thirst we suddenly happened upon two large, sweet and juicy grapefruits just sitting together by themselves on the ground next to the trail. We looked around but there was no one else out there. Well! They were just what we needed.
On the depressing side, I’ve seen what people do when they lack love or respect for wilderness. As an example, there is a weekend popular, but beautiful waterfall near where I live. I like to go, when I have time, on the weekdays. From a pool a little ways beyond the waterfall, I once picked out over a hundred beer cans and bottles. There is a college nearby and I assume students from it decided to have a party. There was also clothing etc. One of the items left was a large towel. I gathered up everything I could and wrapped it in the towel knapsack style, and, bent under the weight, carried it down trail, then to the driveway of a rural resident where I left it, hoping that they would take it. It was still many miles from my vehicle, so there was no way I could.
Another annoying thing I see out there is the destruction caused by thoughtless gun-nuts. It’s not uncommon to find Forest Service signs shot to pieces, or find shell casings from shotguns all over the ground, left where they fell after some bozo decided to have a shooting spree. Course, in the rains, those plastic casing will wash down to the creeks, but no matter. I’ve also seen animals that had been someone’s target practice left dead on the ground along some trails.
I once came upon a stark naked woman standing in a stream deep in a dark canyon. I immediately looked away, and she wrapped herself with something and came my way. It turned out that she was living there, had run away from an abusive relationship. I could tell that she was also, perhaps, a bit off. That may have had something to do with becoming feral, wild, after being out there for sometime.
She told me of a large golden bear that sometimes came by to visit. I asked if she needed anything, and she said food. So I brought some on my next trip. When I came, she was singing at the top of her voice. I was glad that she was able to find a life there in the canyon, but problem was, when she moved from one area to the next, she’d leave a big pile of plastic debris.
After a while, I no longer saw her. I called the police and they said that they knew about her and that every once in awhile they go and bring her back. That she was “lulu”. I felt sorry for her.
When he got older, I’d often have to carry my 90 pound dog on my shoulders when he couldn’t go on. Sometimes when my brother came along, he’d relieve me and do it himself. I adopted Ruddy when he was 2 months old and he hiked with me until he was 15 1/2. In the book, I included an actual poem that I wrote after his death.
I guess I’ve walked many thousands of miles now on countless hikes. The farthest I’ve gone in a single day is 30 miles. I’ve been tick bit more times than I can remember. Rattlesnake bit, which I was able to take care of with quick action (no, no harm to the snake), poison oaked, fell off a 15 foot cliff when I mistook some footing, spraining an ankle. Hiked in blistering sun and pouring rain. Through raging rivers and long, narrow, dry canyons. Swam beautiful, uninhabited lakes. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Always I’ve found that there is something out there that calls to me, to my soul. It’s something that we are losing fast.
We need wilderness. It’s part of our genetic makeup. We ARE nature. We breathe out and the trees breathe in; they exhale and we inhale.
I leave this post with a couple of quotes from John Muir.
“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” - John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938), edited by Linnie Marsh Wolfe, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1938, republished 1979, page 439.
“The mountains are calling and I must go.”
letter to Sarah Muir Galloway (3 September 1873); published in William Federic Badè, The Life and Letters of John Muir (1924), chapter 10: Yosemite and Beyond