No Escape

A night of illegal camping

Men have changed this wilderness for centuries, and archaeological evidence of habitation found here stretches back thousands of years. Some 450 years ago, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo reported the Indians frequently burned whole hillsides of brush. Comparatively, the land-clearing ranchers, tunneling miners, and now campers and mountain bikers are all recent phenomena.

As ruthlessly as land is paved over in Orange County, this part survives because of its remoteness and inaccessibility. Still, the uses of the Cleveland may multiply. The Elsinore Valley Municipal Water District has asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for permission to build a hydroelectric generator that would require two new reservoirs and a power line corridor on the forest lands. While the reservoirs might be located in parts of the Cleveland outside Orange County, the power lines would most likely cut across the proposed wilderness area. In addition, new highway corridors across the Santa Anas, to take the load off the Riverside Freeway and Ortega Highway, are under consideration.

Meanwhile, much of the access to the Trabuco District on the eastern slope of the Santa Anas has been lost as Riverside County development cozies right up to the forest boundaries.

Preserving this place for its biodiversity is important. In his 1992 book The Diversity of Life, Harvard University entomologist and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Edward O. Wilson designated the "California Floristic Province," a large swath of environment extending south through the Golden State to Baja, among the world's 18 endangered ecological hotspots. Saying that the area is being "rapidly constricted by urban and agricultural development, especially along the central and southern coasts of California," Wilson claimed this Mediterranean-like province, of which the Cleveland is a last-standing example, holds one-fourth of all the plant species found in the United States and Canada. Some 2,100 of these species are found nowhere else in the world. Indeed, the Forest Service list 22 endangered plant and animal species in the Cleveland.

It's also an important cultural treasure, a glimpse of the land as it looked for centuries. You can imagine what one of the Kumeyaay or Cahuilla people felt looking out over these mountains 500 years ago. You know how it feels to look off in the distance and see Santiago Peak covered in snow, just like they did. Still, its most important aspect is this: that it offers escape from what goes on below.

At one point, I awaken to the sound of someone walking by. The insect buzz ceases, and I strain to hear something through the silence. Then the buzz starts up again, and I hear nothing else. A shooting star whizzes by and then another. I have come to touch my inner primitive and instead found a nervous Cub Scout.

I wake in the dark, feeling no better than the vandals that fire away at every posted sign. The stars have succumbed to marine haze. Sunrise comes in a dull glow, and I am well down the road when the first flinty rays of sunlight break the horizon over a Lake Elsinore housing tract. The campground is quiet. There's no sign that anyone has been through to check on things. Wishing I'd saved $15, I take down my tent and split.

Nearly all the early morning commuter traffic coming in from Riverside County is doing better than the 45 speed limit. Farther down the road, everyone comes to a stop behind a big backup. People get out of their cars. No one seems to be coming from the other direction. Eventually, a good Samaritan comes by on foot and says there has been a multicar accident with fatalities and that Ortega will be closed all day. We all turn around and head for Lake Elsinore, me taking advantage of pullouts to let those late for work speed by.

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