Saturday, April 17, 2010

Canyonland Musings



Note: My incredibly busy schedule of late has forced me to do something I loathe to do--recycle essays! I wrote this piece for my AP English class. It's not specifically about birds, though it's awfully tough for me to write anything without mentioning birds...

I yawn. The car’s clock claims it is four-thirty. Early, very early. The headlights illuminate a couple dozen feet of the rough, steep road in sickly yellowish light. Otherwise, all is dark. The engine of my mom’s old Ford Windstar complains about the steepness of the grade. Swinging around a sharp curve, I swerve to the right to avoid scraping the encroaching chaparral. If you watch the news, you’ve seen chaparral. It’s the low, dense brush that cloaks California’s hills and mountains—and it catches fire very easily. The hood noses up sharply over a small rise, then down again. Stream crossing. I slow and savor the sound of the tires slicing through the shallow stream. Farther up, a large animal darts into the road just beyond the realm of the headlights. I hit the brights—a Bobcat! It quickly melts into the brush.

Orange County, best known for its beaches, bikinis, and surfboards, is a jungle of jammed freeways, high-rise office buildings, and sprawling housing developments. Precious few wild areas remain. One of these is Upper Silverado Canyon in the Santa Ana Mountains.

Dawn emerges slowly. Silverado Canyon seldom enjoys dramatic sunrises thanks to its steep slopes and frequent fog. Several Bigcone Douglas-firs—tall, shaggy conifers with dark, deeply furrowed bark—loom out of the gray mist. The Santa Ana Mountains are too low to harbor extensive conifer woodlands like some of California’s other mountain ranges—but nestled in the deep, moist canyons are a few stands of Douglas-firs and Coulter Pines. I coax the grudging minivan farther up the road, wincing as the car rumbles over washboards and jolts over loose rocks. Bigcone Springs is my destination.

Bigcone Springs lies three thousand feet above sea level, miles from the nearest town. Towering Douglas-firs shade the lithe young Bigleaf Maple saplings and Coast Live Oaks. Even on the driest, hottest July afternoons, water from the spring trickles down through the road, etching a labyrinth of dark paths through the dust. I pull the car to the side of the road and eagerly step out from the driver’s seat. The air is chilly and calm. I take a deep breath, enjoying the pleasant, clean aroma of pine needles and dust. The dust does not have the chokingly hot, dry smell of most dust. It smells cool and sweet, like a pantry.

The tall, sinister trees bustle with life. A cacophony of bird songs fills my ears—the spiraling whistle of a Purple Finch, the clownish laughing of a family of Acorn Woodpeckers, the muffled yelp of a Mountain Quail deep in the canyon. Grunting with approval, I fish the Cougar Stick out of the van’s backseat. A sturdy, six-foot wooden staff, the Cougar Stick gives me security when I hike in lonely places. The lucky adventurer may run into a Mountain Lion anywhere in Orange County’s foothills and mountains, though these great cats are notoriously elusive. When I encounter one for the first time, however, I don’t want to be unarmed.

My trusty Cougar Stick in hand, I boldly stride down a nearby path. It is not a long hike; only one or two minutes of walking bring me to a dead end. From here you can look down into the steep canyon or beyond to the flat, developed lowlands. On a smog-free day, the mighty San Gabriel Mountains jut up many miles to the north. There is no smog, so the angular blue ridges of the San Gabriels tower out of the low, dense layer of clouds that envelops the lowlands. Ironically, though the distant mountains are visible, the canyon itself is difficult to discern. Thick fog banks roll by, one moment allowing a glimpse of the chaparral-clad hillside opposite and the next concealing everything more than thirty feet distant.

Returning to the road, I opt to hike rather than drive farther up the canyon. The sun finally crawls over the dominating ridge that has been keeping the canyon in shadow for so long. A few stubborn fog banks persist, but as the sun climbs higher, they melt away as quickly as ice cubes placed on a sidewalk on a summer afternoon. I break free from the lush shade of Bigcone Springs to the hot, monotonous chaparral. No more tall trees, but the dusty road is lined with an abundant variety of wildflowers, much to the delight of the Anna’s Hummingbirds. They zip across the road in fierce chattering fights, squabbling over rights to the blooms.

Another mile or two of hiking brings me to a large stand of Coulter Pines. Big, muscular pines with husky trunks, broad limbs, and massive cones weighing up to eight pounds, Coulter Pines are truly spectacular. Sadly, many of the trees died in a recent fire. Only charred skeletons and the occasional clump of toasted needles remain of their former glory. In the wilderness, however, fire is rarely a bad thing. Several Hairy Woodpeckers gleefully tap the dead wood, occasionally giving sharp peak calls that echo through the canyon. A male Lazuli Bunting delivers his beautiful slurred song from a black snag, his brilliant blue, orange, and white feathers shining from the grim grove of pines. The ground beneath is carpeted with verdant young wildflowers and shrubs.

With a start I realize that I am too warm in my hooded sweatshirt. It is only eight-thirty—still early by most people’s standards—yet life in the canyon is winding down for the day. Fewer birds are singing. Even the air seems different—stiflingly dry, no longer possessing the dawn’s cool dampness. Wilderness runs on a different schedule from man. I turn and begin plodding back down the road to the car.

The car is in sight when I finally encounter another person. A mountain biker. His face red, his calves bulging from the strain, his bike inching up the steep dirt road—I can’t help but respect him. “You are a better man than I,” I exclaim, throwing him a salute. He grins and wheezes out a greeting. Back at Bigcone Springs, it is cooler, the dust still smells good, and a few birds are still singing. But it is not the same. My solitude has been shattered.

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