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.

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.

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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