Hiking and camping remain strong passions boiling within, and these hiking sojourns and escapades have not palled as I’ve somehow slipped into my 70s. Why stick with this beguiling habit? Novelist Lauren Groff answers in her splendid new novel, “A Vaster Wild”: “It is a moral failure to miss the profound beauty of the world.”
Having led scores of hiking and backpacking treks with Crane Country Day School students (1980-2016), I attest, based on direct personal experience, that hours spent in the beauty of the wilderness inspire the soul, enhance the thinking and spiritually uplift almost all humans. Hundreds of thousands of years of evolution transpired in direct proximity to un-civilized nature; our brains and souls have been hard-wired by walking outdoors, and we need these experiences desperately today. Just look at the news and what “civilization” is doing to — fill in the blanks here, but I’m thinking of Hamas, Israel, Ukraine … .
Therefore, I rashly decided to honor the sacred beauty of Iwihinmu and simultaneously honor myself for surviving almost 76 years on this planet.
Many of us know Iwihinmu as Mount Pinos, a tall 8,850-foot peak where cross-country skiing remains popular in winter. Along with Cerronoroeste (Mount Abel) and Sawmill Mountain, these are the highest promontories between Santa Barbara and the southern Sierra Nevada Range.
As noted in the last column, many pre-civilization cultures honor high places in their area. Maria Solares, who died in 1922, was a Chumash elder and key informant for pioneering anthropologist J.P. Harrington. This holy place may have represented ‘alapay, the Chumash upper world, and served as a sign of balance in the universe.
Harrington recorded that:
Once when Maria went to the Tejon, some of the [Chumash] people there were going to
gather piñon nuts, and invited her to go along. They camped at the spring near
Iwihinmu — it was the only spring anywhere around. The ridge of Iwihinmu was
right up by where they camped and it was loaded with piñon, but it was a sacred
spring and no one ever touched the piñon nuts there at all (Blackburn, 4.1.1).
I believe that 8,400-foot Sheep Camp Spring may be the water source Solares referred to, and the primitive U.S. Forest Service trail camp there is the highest official campsite in Los Padres National Forest. Therefore, as a spiritual endeavor and as a physical exertion “birthday challenge,” I chose to hike the 8.5-mile round-trip from the “Mount Pinos Nordic Base” trailhead to Sheep Camp and back.
Trusted hikers Mr. C and wild Pete wanted in on this arduous effort, and we planned two overnights at nearby Mount Pinos Camp just two miles below the Nordic Base parking area. In mid-October, conditions were decidedly propitious, and I carefully chose what to tote since nine miles above 8,000 feet would be quite challenging for all three of us and particularly for me, the Methuselah of this trio.
Wearing long-johns, long trousers, two shirts and my heaviest boots, I also had gloves, hiking poles, sunglasses, and a large fanny pack stuffed with power bars, a medical kit, sandwiches, a rainshell, three liters of water and one A&W Root Beer can. My friends’ each had a cellphone, and interestingly they had excellent reception and would prove useful in any emergencies.
After the first 1.7-mile uphill on the old road (9N24), we arrived at what is called the Mount Pinos Condor Observation Site (aka “the old Condor Lookout”) at the top where the Vincent Tumamait Trail proper begins, and soon we entered the Chumash Wilderness.
Iwihinmu forms a sanctified area at 8,850 feet and offers awesome vistas all around. We noted the ubiquitous piñon conifers scattered all about, just as Elder Solares mentions.
The conifer-studded slopes contain more than 130 species that abound in this landscape of balance and persistence — including gooseberry, buckwheat, white fir, Jeffrey pines and other conifers as well as mule deer, lodgepole chipmunks and California black bears.
We observed very small squirrels and a regal bobcat strolling along in stately splendor overlooking various federal wilderness areas, including the Dick Smith, the San Rafael and the Sespe protected zones.
The trail is well-worn and clearly delineated, but the up-and-down passage across the side ridges of Sawmill Mountain and Grouse Mountain required strong efforts. I needed the twin poles and heavy boots as we moved along the winding trail. We found a pair of leaning pines we humorously termed “the Leaning Tower of Pinos” hanging right over the trail.
After a few recent health issues, I wasn’t certain about the intelligence of this demanding plan, and my partner of 55 years definitely asserted I was nuts, questioning my selection of such a trek. In the event, we did not make it the full nine miles and did not reach the “North Fork Trail” sign (22W02) indicating the steep drop down to Sheep Camp and the unique spring there. With the same two colleagues, we had managed the full day hike just three years ago.
Relying on their iPhones’ FitBit calculations, we figured we had managed 3.8 to 4.1 miles heading in; thus, I knew we were extremely close to reaching Sheep Camp and spring. However, mindful of my life-partner’s admonitions, unbelievably weary and even staggering some, my hiking pals concurred with the decision to “turn it” before attaining the (ridiculous) linear goal of “Sheep Camp Spring or Bust.”
After five hours walking amid the fragrant beauty of a high-altitude mixed-conifer forest, inhaling the terpenes and watching for condors overhead, my exhaustion became intense, yet in some ways I still enjoyed the return when we re-summited Iwihinmu and left the Chumash Wilderness.
I had just savored about eight miles hiking above 8,000 feet and had occasionally become painfully over-aware of the human strife and wars raging below “in the real world.” However, the astounding vistas with views of the San Joaquin Valley on the one side and the dark sea on the other transfixed the soul, relaxed the spirit and diverted the urban mind from all those all-too-human horrors.
I became so physically tired that I imagined leaning towers and even a sort of leering rock monster.
At another point in a pleasing near-delirium, I swore I could detect a whitish “Gollum” clambering up a majestic pine tree chasing Frodo with the Ring of Power clenched in his teeth.
I heard the whispery lines from Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” verse with:
‘T was in the darkest depths of Mordor
I met a girl so fair
But Gollum, and the evil one
Crept up and slipped away with her … .
Nearing my actual 76th birthday on Nov. 4, Bob Dylan’s lyrics from “My Back Pages” also kept ringing in my psyche as I felt assured that “I was so much older then but I’m younger than that now.”
Driving: Take Highway 101 south to Ventura and Highway 126 through Fillmore to Interstate 5 north at Castaic past Gorman to the Frazier Park exit (just before Lebec); follow Frazier Mountain Park Road another 18 miles west to Mount Pinos USFS Camp.
Books: Groff, “A Vaster Wild” (2023), quoted p. 215; Solares quote in Thomas Blackburn, ed., “December’s Child — a Book of Chumash Oral Narratives” (UC Press 1975), p. 300.
Map: Los Padres National Forest East (National Geographic, California 812).