Mal Paso

While going through some older musings I wrote while we were living in California, I found this poignant memory:

Bunions covered. Check. Separators between toes. Check. Hiking socks. Check. Sun hat and sun screen. Check. Check. Water, poles, …..

Psyched and anxious at the same time, I knew I loved the challenge, but hated the pain of hiking. That was the ying and yang of my stomach right now.

At the Save Mart Parking Lot it was obvious who the hikers were. Those of the uniform of coverter pants, walking sticks,  obligatory back packs, and hats. Attendance was taken, instructions given and people divvied up into car pools.

At the head of Mal Paso Dr. most of us were left to wait while the cars and their drivers went up to Mal Paso and returned in one truck. It was nippy- in the low 50’s and I was wondering if I looked the novice for wearing a tank top.  More likely the goose bumps were a dead give away. Oh well, too late now.

“I’m Karen, and this is my first Sierra Club hike”  I timidly offered. Secretly I was thinking I didn’t know what I’d gotten myself into so I was glad my friend Sue was along. She’d done this sort of thing many times. If nothing else, she’d look out for me. Right?

Introductions went around and I began to feel that most of the others were somewhere 10 years shy of me. Maybe they would have compassion for me and smile patiently as they waited for me to catch up.

Pent up energy was exerted at last as we started up a private road to a locked gate. The drivers caught up to us. The sun was up, a vulture was drifting (did we already look like road kill?) and I was liking the canyon ahead. The group headed up the road to the redwoods. We were chatting about previous hikes. I was feeling good about the pace.

We headed into the woods and crossed the stream many times. I managed not to end up face down in the water or twist an ankle (well, fear was supposed to make you sharp, right?). All was good with the world! The leader, a taciturn fellow with minimal personal skills, found a hidden path unmarked by cairns.  Mal Paso Creek was narrow enough to be jumped and we were together. I felt like I was walking on a cushion here- the storm had brought down a thick bed of needles- the pine scent was strong, refreshing and rewarding. More please!

Then the words: “We climb now. It’s steep. When we get to the top, stay together. It’s easy to get lost in the shrubs.” I sucked the hose from my Camelback and prayed for strength, good luck, and the ability of my knee brace to keep me from being helicoptered off the mountain.

We tightroped up on baseball and football sized rocks. If we sneezed in one direction, we’d blow off the other side. Steep, hands pulling.  I’d given up the idea that sticks were sissy. We’d go 50 yards then stop. I managed to keep up with the first four people. Panting and sweating I’d try not to look down.  All I saw were the stones two feet in front of my nose. God, is this fun?

We shoved upward. At one point my poles were planted, but feet weren’t. It was so steep I took a dive, but only had a foot to fall. No one saw me. At least my dignity was saved. Again, another stop and breather.  Long and lean Beth, a Sierra Club veteran, had described this ridge at the gate.

“Was that the climb you mentioned?” I asked.

“Yeah. Cool huh?” She replied.

Clearly  she had a unique sense of perspective. In fact, I was beginning to think I was definitely not of the same ilk as this crowd.  I had visions of death in a crevice and she thought it was cool.

Sue came up next. She had what ultra polite company calls a lovely mist- since women don’t sweat. She, too, was panting and had stripped to a dark chamois. Her large straw sun hat was slightly askew. But, ever cheerful, she was saying the climb was a “challenge– but good.” Was I the only one who thought the climb was a miserable beast ready to give me a heart attack? Didn’t anyone else realize that the rocks were falling under our very feet? What of the perilous drop offs on each side of the ridge? Didn’t these folks have loved ones who cared about their return?

Since there was no turning back at this point, I felt I must follow with fortitude, sanity, and determination. Remember Karen, a martini and hot shower are yours at the end.Mal Paso

FINALLY, we emerged into a shallower incline through manzinia, poison oak, and into more redwood. Here the path had disappeared entirely, but there were glimpses through the trees to the ridge above. Larry said, ”See that lone pine? That’s our lunch spot. “ I was overjoyed. I could sit down.

I came out into the meadow and felt euphoric. I had survived. While the men, and Beth (was she really a man in disguise?), peered across the ridges to  Sniveley’s Ridge, I focused on the lunch pine. Sue was still behind me (what kind of friend was I to take off without her? I was scared of being left behind- that’s the kind of friend I was).

You know, when I read about the hike I thought 1000′ elevation gain- 5-7 miles.  Hummm. No biggie. I did that at Garland Ranch all the time. Well, I tell you reader- I’ve known Garland Ranch. You, Mal Paso, are no Garland Ranch! So all I had for  my “ no biggie lunch” was a little sack of peanuts, raisins, and chocolate chips.

But was I hungry??? Noooo. My hunger pangs had been diverted into “get me out of here”  electric nerves. I nibbled a few bites and put the rest in my pack while I watched people eat  mounds of tomatoes, apples, sandwiches, candy bars. Was that a steak and lobster I saw over there?  All I really wanted was a big bowl of ice cream.

After about 30 minutes it was time to “round em up, move em out, raw hide!” I put my boots back on and tried to get up. Oh grace, where art thou? I had to roll onto one hip, place my knee on the ground, hoist up on all fours and lift- to the accompaniment of a lot of groans. At least I was providing  entertainment. Well, probably some self deprecating humor helped.

Now that we were “refreshed” we could enjoy the ease of rambling across Rocky Ridge. The views of the ocean! The waving, golden grass! The lovely breeze! The raptures of “aren’t we lucky!” The pond at the top! This was why we climbed, right? Can we be honest here- I was stiff, weak, and one view of the ocean looked like  every other view to me. I like the ocean at sea level, thank you.  I just couldn’t get jazzed about seeing “clear over to Moss Landing.” My god. Get a life.

But flat walking allowed conversation. This I could do. It did not require balance, grace, or strength. Alas, 1700′ descent ahead. And so we started down. Where I had been near the front going up, I dropped to the middle. The sandy open path had developed a distinctive gutter after the storm. There was a six inch wide rut filled with marbles shouldered by steep sides. Lovely. My poles came into use as canes to halt my slide. I looked for paths through the coastal scrub where other timid sliders  had looked for footing. When I reached a part where the path leveled a bit I silently confirmed “There IS a god!’

I couldn’t look ahead. It was too defeating. Every time I felt I was near the end, I’d look down to see our cars. Crap. No luck. Meanwhile, by myself by now, I’d switchback my way around another craig, over another hump and down another traverse.

My legs were jelly, my muscles shot, my bunions killed me, my feet were sliding on pebbles and then- oh so gracefully- I slid onto my left side into a lupine bush. Feeling foolish, I got myself up and felt a pang in my right hand. Sure enough- it was red and sore. A broken bone? By now I had a scratch on my upper arm, some blood on my shin, probably poison oak, and now this. Maybe I shouldn’t be let out. My keepers had clearly misjudged  my readiness.

Oh well, keep sliding. And then– why there is the old barn– there is the canyon, there are the cars!  We passed more suckers—er I mean hikers- going up. I restrained myself from saying “turn back now! “   even though my thoughts were “Abandon hope- all ye who enter here.”

I finally reached the resting six who had made it ahead of me. I decided to risk sitting down without any stretching. It seems that is not necessary for more seasoned hikers.

After everyone arrived we piled in Sue’s car and headed back to the Save Mart. She was all enthused and said she wanted to keep up the training for  the 2000 footer at Middledorf Preserve in November. I nodded my head vaguely agreeing. Another hike?  I think I have a dentist appointment that day.