Photo by Robert Burroughs
I have decided that if there is any true wilderness left in San Diego County it will probably be found on the San Diego River between the Santa Ysabel Valley and the El Capitan Reservoir.
On this hot morning in May, as I load up my old battered red backpack at the Inaja Memorial Picnic Ground and prepare to head off into the brush, there’s a cowboy sitting in his jeep a few yards away watching me in his rearview mirror and trying not to laugh. He’s slouching there, his hat cocked back, one boot posed nonchalantly on the dash, and squinting defiantly into the morning sun as it rises up over the Cuyamacas to the east. Anybody, he’s thinking... who’d go out there is a damn fool.
I take off my pack, then my clothes, and dive into the nearest pool. Up and down the river, every frog in sight accepts my suggestion and dives in with me.
Let him laugh. Everybody’s somebody’s fool. He’s there sweating in his red wool shirt and bandana, looking like he should be out shooting mountain lions and Indians; he’s got a wooden ammunition box next to him that must be full of dynamite, coyote traps, fence cutters, Marlboros, and grub. But hell, partner! You ain’t never gonna find the Wild West by sittin’ there in yer jeep! This is San Diego County, man, where the Wild West is just a tangle of tumbleweeds the engineers hack aside as they lay out their survey lines. Get up and move, partner, because the only desperados left in these parts are frustrated real estate agents; and while you’re sittin’ there, the wilderness is running in the other direction faster than a wildfire in a hot wind.
I’m beginning to lose my patience with this brush. Most of it is poison oak now. The gorge is becoming steeper as I drop down into the canyon.
I swing my pack up on my back, hunch my shoulders to settle the load, then stumble on across the dirt parking lot and descend into a buckbrush maze. With any luck at all I won’t see another person for two days and twenty miles.
I have decided that if there is any true wilderness left in San Diego County it will probably be found on the San Diego River between the Santa Ysabel Valley and the El Capitan Reservoir. I’ve never been there before, and don’t know anyone who has. I prefer it that way, because now I will have the pleasure of finding out for myself what’s out there.
Since the cowboy at Inaja, I haven’t seen a single person, or even so much as a bottle cap or a broken shoe string.
The first thing I discover is that there is no trail through this country. I’m delighted. That means that in the entire history of the earth there haven’t been enough people with a reason to go this way to beat even a narrow little footpath. It doesn’t matter, though. I can see where I want to go. I want to follow the river from its headwaters along Highway 78 west of Julian, and the river simply gouges its way through these mountains until it gets lost in the blue hazy distance. The immediate problem is to get down into the gorge itself — to find the river.
I follow an old four-wheel-drive track for a couple of hundred yards until it deadends at a power pole. In the red soil all around the pole are the small eroded rivulets — tiny desert canyons — that mark every place man has disturbed the earth. They lead downhill from the power pole, fanning out like wrinkles around the eyes. Past this there is only a forest of glistening poison oak, blue buckbrush, and tall yucca spears. I stop to put on long pants and long shirt (maybe that cowboy was laughing at my hiking shorts), then crash on into the brush as ignorant and insolent as a wild pig.
I’m not sure what that word “wilderness” means, but I suspect it has something to do with the relative absence of people and their constant meddlings and improvements on nature. By this definition, most of the ocean is a very fine wilderness, and we are fortunate to have plenty of that in San Diego. But the land here has been too valuable to leave wild, even though most of it is much too dry to support very many people. If it’s good for anything at all, it’s been developed, and I have no doubt that if somebody could discover some use for this miserable stretch of land along the upper San Diego River, then it, too, would be quickly civilized.
Not that they haven’t tried. This gorge is so delightfully impassable, so impossibly steep and rocky, so dry and overgrown with brush, so wonderfully pathetic, so totally devoid of any reason for anyone to ever want to come here, that it makes me think of the past.
In 1854, when the whole country was suffering from railroad fever, a group of San Diegans organized a railroad company to survey a route from San Diego to Yuma, where they could connect with any transcontinental railroad. It was very important that the railroad terminate in San Diego and not in Los Angeles. Otherwise, L.A. would become the center of Southern California. The route was intended to follow the bed of the San Diego River, more or less, but the last one and a half miles over to the Santa Ysabel Valley were too steep (the very terrain that I am now ripping, crawling, scrambling my way through). So the whole plan collapsed, and San Diego withered while Los Angeles thrived.
Kit Carson and General Stephen Kearney passed just a few miles from here on their way to getting the living hell stomped out of them by the Mexicans at the battle of San Pasqual in 1846. They came looking for trouble and they found it. They were ambushed; their troops were nearly wiped out. They say that Kit Carson stayed up that whole night crying. He said he was lamenting the loss of so many fine young California boys, but I suspect he just couldn’t stand being humiliated. He later took it out on the Navajos of Arizona by slaughtering their sheep, cutting down their fruit trees, and starving them into submission.
I’m beginning to lose my patience with this brush. Most of it is poison oak now. The gorge is becoming steeper as I drop down into the canyon, making it even more difficult to find an acceptable route. It’s very hot, even at ten o’clock, and I’rr beginning to realize that I’ll never get to the river by picking my way around this stuff. If I really want to get to the bottom. I’ve got to go through the poison oak. It’s an easy decision; I just say to hell with it and begin tumbling recklessly down the canyonside. I know very well that now, in the spring, the oil on the leaves of the poison oak is most potent, but I’ve lost all respect. “Take me! ” I shout, and leap into the open arms of misery.
The truly unnerving thing about this brush is that it doesn’t belong here. It isn’t natural. In a way, man has put it here, through ignorance, by fighting fire. The Spaniards described this country as being open, grassy, and passable. They also described vast range fires that burned for months at a time every year in the late summer and fall. Contrary to Smokey the Bear and popular opinion, frequent fires do not harm the wilderness, but actually improve it by returning the dead growth to the soil; and if they bum often enough they can’t get hot enough to damage the living foliage. But when we began seriously settling this country, wild fires were unacceptable to us because we couldn’t control them; they frightened us. Our solution was to eliminate them. Now, one hundred years later, we have one hundred years of virtually uninterrupted brush growth, which has created a vicious, snarling tinderbox of dead wood. Our original fire hazard has been infinitely multiplied. The Cleveland National Forest spends ninety percent of its budget on fire control — money they would love to be spending on other things. We have made a monster out of fire, and when it goes berserk, destroying our homes, charring out forests, and even taking lives (as it did here in Inaja in the fall of 1956, killing eleven firefighters), then we’re convinced once again that all fire is evil and that we must put an end to it.
After tumbling down the mountainside for a ways, I come to the edge of a small cliff. I stop to wipe the sweat from my face and think this over. I can either go around, which would be the intelligent thing to do, or I can jump five or six feet to the bottom and go on my way. But I’m in no mood for patience. I want to see this river. So I just jump. . . .
I hit the sand at the bottom. The weight of my pack throws me to the ground, and I get up laughing. But there next to me, no more than two feet away, intertwined in some kind of reptilian embrace, are two very good-size rattlesnakes. I nearly landed on them, but they don’t seem to be at all concerned; in fact, they don’t even know I’m here. My God, what are they doing? I feel like a voyeur standing here watching them. My first impulse, as always, is to kill them. I’m afraid of them — instinctively uncontrollably, everlastingly. I’m ashamed to say that my legs are trembling and I feel weak. But I tell myself that I've made my peace with rattlesnakes. I don’t kill them anymore, and am hopeful they will take the same vow with me. Finally one of them lifts its head and flicks its tongue a couple times as a kind of obligatory warning. I turn and continue down the canyon a bit more cautious than before.
What is it about rattlesnakes, anyway? Those little yellow eyes and that bright beadwork across their backs. It must be a hatred that goes back millions of years. I stepped on a rattlesnake barefoot once, and, as I saw it, that was such an unforgivable act of aggression on the part of the snake that I immediately cut its head off and skinned it out while it still writhed in my hands. I felt badly about it later, so I boiled the flesh and ate it, as a kind of apology. I believe a snake, or any carnivore, could understand that. But I’m still so keenly terrified of rattlesnakes that I can often smell them before I see them. It’s a sickening, rancid oil smell.
Before I reach the river I encounter three more rattlesnakes, all of them lounging lethargically in the morning sun, as lazy and passive as those first two. I suppose they’ve never seen a man before.
Down at the river things are much more "peaceful. The green lushness seems like paradise after that canyonside. The water is clear, waist-deep, flowing quickly through cool rock grottos and over small waterfalls. Huge oak trees line the banks, and under them grow wild raspberry, strawberry, willow, and castillian rose, which they say was Father Junipero Serra’s favorite plant.
A cool breeze is blowing up the canyon, but I’m still warm, so I take off my pack, then my clothes, and dive into the nearest pool. Up and down the river, every frog in sight accepts my suggestion and dives in with me. I splash around in the water with the frogs for a while, then pull myself up onto a warm rock and dry out in the sun.
Across the gorge a creek feeds into the river, cutting a little V-shaped canyon of its own into the mountain. I look at my map and see that this is Coleman Creek, which is interesting, because it was on Coleman Creek, just up in Spencer Valley, that Fred Coleman, a black man, discovered gold in 1870. Gold had been found all along the mountain ranges that stretch up and down the coast of North America, so it was only logical that somebody would find it sooner or later in the Cuyamacas — they’d been looking for some time. As it turned out, there were only moderate amounts of gold in these mountains, at least when compared to the motherlode of the Sierra and the Klondike of Alaska. But it was a sufficient find to start the community of Julian, and it’s been surviving on apple cider and homemade bread ever since.
I put my shorts and boots back on, lift my pack, and start walking down the river’s edge, making my own path through the lush foliage, and occasionally hopping rocks to the other side and back, always following the easiest of all possible routes.
Before long I come to a jeep road that seems to have come down from Dye Mountain to the west. A jeep has recently passed this way, too, and the grass growing up out of the road has been cut down like a freshly mowed lawn. It isn’t much of a road, and I’d be surprised if a half dozen vehicles went this way in a year; but to me, in the bottom of this gorge, it seems like a freeway. I cruise along it for a while, thinking that this is much too easy; I’ll be out of here by mid-afternoon.
But after about two miles the jeep road ends abruptly at the edge of a major cliff, and the river cascades to the bottom of a rather awesome waterfall. I had heard there was a waterfall somewhere along here, and I had considered that I may have trouble getting to the bottom of it, but I hadn’t really expected this. The river simply takes one giant leap downward, plunging at least 150 feet from the oaks and mixed conifers into a desert canyon with cacti, yucca, and shattered red rock. At the bottom is a large dark pool with a misty rainbow arching up to the top of the cliffs.
I stand watching this spectacle, both delighted and disturbed because I have to somehow find my way to the bottom without the help of a rope. But if I’ve learned one thing about these adventures, it’s that it is much more frightening to think about them than it is just to do them. So I try not to think. I just start down, picking my way through the rubble of rock, using the handholds and footholds as I find them. And in twenty minutes I’m at the bottom.
I realize now that I am truly in a wilderness, because there is no easy way to get to this place. No roads at all. And it is absolutely beautiful. The canyon walls are much steeper down here, narrowing right down to the river, and the river seems to run a little more slowly now, as if it’s resting after the waterfall. There are long clear pools with iridescent grasses swaying in the current. And the gorge isn’t as straight as it appeared to be from up above; it meanders back and forth so that I can only see the next few hundred yards of my journey, while the rest remains a mystery.
It’s impossible for me to go into the wilderness anywhere on this continent and not feel the presence of the Indians. They have left something here, and although I would never suggest that I know where it’s coming from or why I feel it, that strange sensation of their presence remains. It’s one of the many messages available in the wilderness which remind us that there are things going on here we don’t understand.
As I wander down the river, I look for the usual signs of Indian habitation — obsidian flakes, pottery shards, perhaps even a pictograph. Indians were certainly here, because this is prime hunting territory. But I also realize that they weren’t likely to have lived here in large communities, and if they had, all sign of their presence would have been washed away long ago by the frequent floods, or freshets, which scour this canyon during the rainy season.
Every time I think of the Indians of this area I think of a description given them by a certain Friar Font, who was one of the first Catholic missionaries in San Diego. It usually makes me laugh, because it demonstrates the incapability of the Europeans to comprehend the simple lifestyle of these people. He said of them, “. . .they are of degenerate bodies, ugly, dirty, disheveled, filthy, ill-smelling, and flatfaced.”
I believe that the Indians lived the way they did not because they were backward, but because that life gave them joy. (We today may very well be the primitives.) They chose to live in the wilderness and not alter it for 10,000 years, because they weren’t afraid of it — something that is almost inconceivable to us. The West, they said, wasn’t wild until the white man got here.
A mile or so beyond the waterfall I come to a stretch where it’s impossible to follow the river, and I’m forced to climb up the canyon wall and traverse its side. It’s tough going. Even up high the brush is thick and dry, with little more than rabbit runs climbing here, dropping there, suddenly petering out. There is but chamise, yerba santa (called the holy herb by the Catholic missionaries after the Indians brought them some to cure their stubborn constipation), and everywhere poison oak, jungles of poison oak. (Three days from now I will break out in a horrible, itching rash that will last two weeks.)
I eventually realize that if I were to walk right down the middle of the river it would have to be easier than this. There might be fewer rattlesnakes, too. So I drop back down to the river and follow its course whenever I can, wading up to my waist and deeper, hopping rocks, wallowing down along the mossy shoreline, stopping now and then to strip down naked and baptize myself once again into the sweet nonreligion of pantheism. The river wading is much slower, and my leather boots are taking a terrible beating, but it’s wonderful. Next time I will know to bring tennis shoes.
This gorge changes around every bend — from cool sycamore alcoves to bald, rugged, red and black sandstone formations that look as if they belong in the Grand Canyon. I had no idea it would be this wild down here.
Sometime late in the afternoon, as I slog along the bank, a little tired but too full of adventure to stop and rest, I twist my ankle. I can hear and feel it pop, but I’m afraid to stop and take a look at it. What if it’s too bad to keep going? So I just cinch up my boot laces so tight I can’t bend my ankle, and keep moving. It feels weak but it isn’t painful. This worries me a little, and takes some of the fun out of this adventure. I try to go a little more slowly, a little less recklessly, but still I twist it twice again within the next two miles.
As the sun goes down behind the canyon wall I begin to think about a place to spend the night. It will be dusk soon, and that’s when the rattlesnakes come down for water and look around for something warm-blooded to sink their fangs into. I’m tired, a little weary, and I’ve seen enough for one day.
I’m directly under what is called The Devil’s Jumpoff, a high craggy cliff to the west. There’s a nice sandy beach on the point of the bend, with a small waterfall and a good deep pool to bathe in. I set my pack down and take my clothes off, trying to ignore the lump on the outside of my ankle. I dive in the pool, then get out, dry off quickly, and get dressed — it’s starting to get cool now. I gather up some driftwood that’s been caught in the bushes three and four feet higher than the present water level, and I build a little fire in the sand. For supper I have steak fried in butter, sliced tomatoes, rice, muffins with honey, and tea.
As soon as the sun sets, the breeze changes direction and blows down canyon. Frogs and crickets. Frogs and crickets.
It’s a fine clear night, and I walk a little way downriver to enjoy it. Venus is just sinking behind the canyon wall; it’s round and bright, almost like a distant moon.
Somehow, in the light of dusk, the plants growing on the canyon wall seem to be arranged in a kind of pattern — at least it isn’t a totally haphazard arrangement. Each species has selected for itself the exact sunlight, moisture, and shade that is correct for it; and now, in this fading light, that desert pattern is revealed to be a kind of wild mosaic. It’s the same everywhere in nature — in apparent chaos there exists a subtle underlying precision.
As I wander back towards my camp I’m startled to see in the distance a campfire and a red backpack. It actually takes me a moment to realize that they are mine. Since the cowboy at Inaja, I haven’t seen a single person, or even so much as a bottle cap or a broken shoe string. I pull out my bag, find a flat spot in the sand, and lie down.
I feel strangely emotional tonight and I want to blame it on the full moon which I know is coming, but that isn’t all of it. It isn’t loneliness, either. I think of close friends I haven’t seen in a while and nearly want to cry. How embarrassing. I feel very vulnerable. I feel like celebrating, too, just for the joy of being here. But there’s this other thing, this fragile sense that I can only identify as an awareness of death.
The Luiseno Indians, who made this territory their home, tell a story which begins, “. . .They could hear something singing, far away, and the Eagle said that was the spirit, and he told the people that everywhere he had been, north, south, east, and west, death was there waiting for them. It was very near. No one knew when it would come, but they would all have to die.”
The possibility of death becomes very real in the wilderness. This is the uneasiness I’m feeling tonight, and I recognize this sensation, this fear, as the very reason the white man has always found it necessary to subdue the wilderness, to tame it, to make it safe, while the Indians were able to make their peace with it. To the Indians, death was inevitable, essential. These are frightening things to consider,but I’m glad the wilderness is here to remind me of them.
I make another cup of tea and get into my sleeping bag to watch the moon rise. I doze off for a while, but awaken later to find the moon full and bright overhead. Up on the ridgetops the coyotes are howling back and forth, and I let out a howl myself just to let them know I’m here. I can see the moon.
If ever there was a night when I fell asleep thinking it would not rain, this was the night. But when I awaken again about midnight the moon is clouded over and a light mist is falling. I jump up and run around naked covering all my things. I throw my poncho over my bag and crawl back inside. If there is a thunder-shower tonight, and if I don’t get washed off this sandbar in a flash flood while I sleep, there is still no way I’ll get out of this gorge tomorrow. I peek out from under my poncho and try to imagine myself climbing those canyon walls with a twisted ankle. Everybody is somebody’s fool.
I finally fall asleep in the early hours and awaken about seven a.m. feeling surprisingly fresh. I had a dream that I went around the next bend and found myself in downtown San Diego. The morning is clear and beautiful, but my ankle is so stiff I can hardly stand up. I hobble around a bit, trying to convince myself I’m okay. After a quick breakfast of soft-boiled eggs, toast, and tea, I throw everything into my pack, cinch my boots up tight as they ’ll go, and head out.
The going is tough. I’m thinking I should keep my socks dry today, but along the banks there are round river stones, thick brush, and steep walls to pick my way over. My ankle hurts and I have to make each step sure. Soon, though, I lose my patience again, step into the river, and find that my ankle feels much better with the cool water on it. Maybe I will make it out of here today.
The river twists and winds even more. I think of the Spanish word for winding — tortuoso. I’m trying to go south by heading east, then west. There are places where walking down the river is the only way to go — on both sides are vertical cliffs of water-polished rock. At one point where the water is too deep to wade, I have to climb up the rock, tiptoe across a tiny ledge, then climb back down. I pass creek after creek and realize that I must be getting very close to the reservoir now. I begin to find trash here and there — plastic milk bottles, tom trousers, an oil filter.
Suddenly the river opens into a large flood plain covered with sycamores and yellow grass. I find cow trails with numerous trail markers conveniently provided by the cattle. The going is much easier now, which relieves some of the worry about my ankle, but already the magic is gone. I’m clearly out of the wilderness and entering somebody’s ranch. In the distance I see a road cut out on the mountain; an orange road grader gouges into the bank. The drone of the engine makes me drowsy, even from this far away.
Two or three miles later I come to the reservoir’s diversion dam. There are some men down at the river pushing mountains of mud around with bulldozers until the river is unrecognizable. I talk to one of the men and he tells me the nearest phone is still six miles away. I sit down in the shade to change into some dry socks, then head on down the road.
It’s a dull hike now, hot, dry, unscenic, typical Southern California landscape. Without all the modem improvements — water, electricity, supermarkets — there would really be no point in living in a place like this. We’ve remade it the way we want it — with this reservoir, for example. But not without a price. As one of the engineers who worked on this very dam put it, “Adequate storage means big reservoirs; big reservoirs mean high dams; high dams mean big money; and big money means trouble, agitation, and self-seeking scheming.”
But right now I don’t care. I just want to get out of this place, and still have six miles to go. I hear the whine of a motorcycle and look around to see a red dust devil swirling across the flood plain, with the devil himself arched up and hell bent at the head, scanning the horizon for lost souls. When he spots me he downshifts to a skidding halt, kicks it into first gear, and lurches off after me, crouching low and flying over the brush like a hot wind. He screams up next to me, and as the red dust settles on my shoulders and face he smiles through his droopy mustache and says, “Where ya been?” I tell him, and he nods as though he knew it all along. I ask about the nearest phone, and he says, “Climb on. I’ll take ya there.” So I climb on, backpack and all, lock my fingers around his tight little devil’s belly, and we take off.
This, I see, is a bad mistake. We head straight up the mountainside with speed that makes my lips curl back. It’s so steep that when I’m looking straight ahead I see blue sky, and it’s getting closer. We hit a dirt road, and he weaves up the edge of it, hopping gullies and leaning into the curves until I can turn my head sideways and kiss the roadbank good-bye.
I’m screaming, “Stop! I want to go back! I don’t want to die! Not like this!” But he can’t hear me.