No Escape

A night of illegal camping

I don't see hikers, bikers, equestrians or vehicles while hiking up the road toward Los Pinos ridge. The road makes for steep, slippery walking, boot-deep in dust that dirties my fly-bitten calves. But the view, even as I pant, is amazing, the wide valley and flat waters of Lake Elsinore on one side, the chaparral-covered hills rising on the other.

Los Pinos isn't the highest peak in Orange County's share of the Santa Ana Mountains. It isn't even a peak, really—more like the highest spot in a ridge that runs northwest towards the coast. The summit, 4,510 feet above the visible sea, is a few steps off the well-worn trail, an uneven tumble of rock and litter surrounded by charred chaparral. It's a love nest for rattlesnakes that offers a view north to haze, highways and other peaks in the fuzzy distance. Ridge tops surface like islands above great fjords of smog. The wrinkled landscape resembles those gauzy National Geographic photos of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina.

But wilderness is relative in the Cleveland. Witness the highest point in Orange County, right on the Riverside County line, 5,687-foot Santiago Peak. I would have hiked in to sleep there, but the peak is fenced off and bristling with a dozen electronic relay antennas. Though I'm not above fence climbing—a backcountry ranger told me that Santiago's gates had been locked since the Sept. 11 attacks—backpacking at altitude fries your brain enough.

Some 20 million people live within a couple of hours drive of the Cleveland. Its campgrounds overflow on weekends. Hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians vie for space on its trails. In season, hunters comb its hills for deer, birds and jackrabbits. It's also a great place to dump a lumpy mattress or plink beer bottles with the old .22. Forest Service personnel deal with vandalism and poaching (mostly of deer), teenage drinking, and illegal off-road vehicle use. While the smuggling of illegals is a focus in the southernmost Descanso District of the Cleveland, Trabuco is known for its marijuana cultivation—6,000 to 10,000 plants last year, according to Chuck Shamblin, law-enforcement coordinator for the Cleveland.

I make out two sets of dainty deer tracks imprinted over mountain bike treads that lead up the wash. A motorcycle had illegally run the slope, its wide tire track standing out as it careened back and forth over the others. The wash becomes a trail at the top of the ridge and meanders toward the Los Pinos summit. The deer and mountain-bike tracks continue; the motorcycle tracks do not. The kibble-red dung of some dog lies on the trail just a yard away from the hair-tangled scat of a coyote. There are signs of past fires in some of the draws. The views, as I near the summit, expand in all directions.

At the top, a pair of nested tin cans painted red serve as a summit register, holding a note pad along with a pretzel and some cigarette butts. "Oct. 6: rattlesnakes." "July 4: hot and buggy, but I've got my hash pipe." "May 19: saw two rattlesnakes doing it right here on the rock." The area was scattered with broken green glass, and I found a couple of cigar rings on the gravel but no stogies.

I kill time watching the view, eating a peanut-butter sandwich. The place seems the perfect image for the opposed attractions of urban and wild lands. Here I sit in a place where snakes copulate and coyotes shit. Somewhere in the visible distance are the jazz clubs, concert halls and restaurants I've grown to love. Even as I watch, they seem to crawl closer.

Daylight slips away early, preceded by three distant shotgun blasts. The western sky is a tie-dyed wonder of orange and smoky violets. There's no place to sleep on the summit's broken rock, and I'm not anxious to sleep on the trail. Instead, I move down the ridge to a flat space empty of brush a yard or two off the path. The stones there seem to glitter even in the darkness. I watch the stars add up, imagining the warm breeze is generated from a million televisions aglow with Monday Night Football below me. I suddenly realize the flies are gone. I feel completely alone.

Night lasts a long time in October. I spend it in an updraft of thought. How could an island ecosystem like this survive? How was I ever naive enough to think I'd get caught doing this? What if some renegade dirt biker comes roaring down the trail? Where were they growing all that weed? I drink a lot of water but never have to pee. Sometime during the wide-awake night, I wish I had a Playboy.

I periodically check for snakes and other animal sign, keeping my flashlight low to the ground. The modulating buzz of night creatures is something out of science fiction. At times, I hear small disturbances in the growth around me—or think I hear them. The locust roar makes it impossible to tell.

Like I said, I'm not one who believes in the magic of nature or that wilderness can save your soul. But wild areas offer intensely personal experiences, even if it's only the misery of exhaustion and a bad night's sleep. And I am having one.

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