No Escape

A night of illegal camping

I have a history of camping in unusual, often illegal places. The first time was in my teens, when I joined some buddies in climbing over the fence at the aircraft museum of the Strategic Air Command, the one in Omaha where Bush hid on the day of the terrorist attacks. My friends, all Air Force brats, made a weekend habit of this. We spent the night in the nose of an abandoned aircraft with our bedrolls, flashlights, some Playboys, whatever beer and weed we could scrounge up, and peanut butter sandwiches. I remember having a hard time getting over the 12-foot fence and, except for the time spent thumbing through the Playboys, being frightened the entire night.

I still like to wander alone in the backcountry. I've never figured out why, exactly. Sure, the scenery is beautiful. But it's also something about wondering where I'll sleep that night or if I'll get water that seems to take life back to its more elemental form.

And so, a month after the Sept. 11 attacks, I find myself at the foot of Los Pinos in the Cleveland National Forest. I've come to sleep on the summit, to spend a night high above the urban hubbub in one of the last remaining wild corners of Orange County. I came to consider a wild place caught in a noose of urban development. I came to escape . . . and not get caught by the rangers.

I live in Montana now, surrounded by national forests where it's legal to drop your sleeping bag just about anywhere on public lands. But camping outside designated campgrounds in the Orange County section of the Trabuco District of Cleveland National Forest is against the law. And for good reason. The place is a tinderbox seven-plus months out of the year. The mountains are namesake to the best-known winds in America. Campfires, camp stoves, cigarette butts or even a single smoldering match can spell disaster for the few homes, businesses and outbuildings tucked away on private in-holdings.

Therefore, I would make no campsite. I would leave no trace, as the eco-ethic commands. Still, when I asked, the Forest Service people warned me plenty that it was the wrong thing to do.

As Mother said, "What would happen if everybody did it?"

I don't know. I don't know why I do it.

I do know that a lot of what writers say about going into the woods is bunk. They'll tell you that wilderness is a sanctuary, that going there creates a stillness in your mind, that it makes you whole.

That's all crap. The exertion makes your blood race. Instead of stillness, you hear a million voices arguing a million different things, and you feel yourself all of a million pieces, a million bits of experiences, all walking with a single step, all taking you somewhere. Music of all sorts swims to the surface, like bubbles in a spring. This background buzz never seems to burn off.

You're seldom alone in today's wilderness. Everywhere you go, someone has been before, prospecting, hunting, picking berries or, like you, seeking solitude. The first rule of backpacking is never to hike alone, but that rule is frequently broken. I remember a trip in the Sierras above Bishop in which everyone I met over those five days was hiking alone, escaping the responsibilities of marriage, family or work. Hiking alone makes backpacking an extreme sport. Break a leg? You're on your own. Lost? There's no one to point the way. Panic? It's all yours. Of course, just when you feel completely alone, here come the Boy Scouts, a dozen or more strong, looking to get their 50-mile badges. There are few places you can hike 50 miles in today's wilderness without running into a road, a parking lot or a tourist trap. You want solitude? Live in your basement.

The bullet-riddled sign on Ortega Highway welcoming you to the forest proclaims that Cleveland is a "Land of Many Uses." I leave my truck in the Blue Jay Campground, a few miles north of the highway, to make it look like I'm spending the night there. Under spreading oaks and surrounded by grassy meadows, Blue Jay is a place of beauty as long as you don't look too hard. Its campsites are well-spaced and shaded by ancient hardwoods. Though often full on weekends, this Monday afternoon there's only a single family with a trailer and a tent close to the restroom, their campsite cluttered with children's toys. Trails lead everywhere off the little rise where my campsite is, all of them ending in rumpled piles of toilet paper. Toilet paper sits in a puckered pile on the best tent site. Oddly, the area is littered with cheap, black coat hangers.

I put my fee in the drop box and pitch my tent to make it look like I'm really there. Then, with few necessities tucked in my pack, including six quarts of water, I head out.

The walk through the campground takes longer than I expect, the walk along the road even longer. I avoid the temptation to cut across meadows filled with razor-like blades of grass. Flies feast on my bare calves. At one point, a "no shooting" sign stuck on a bank is framed in a halo of broken glass. At the glass-littered entrance to Main Divide Road, I make out nearby collections of spent shotgun shells.

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