Like most transplants from the Northeast one of the things I miss most about living in southern California is the onset of Fall: the smell of woodsmoke in the air on the first cold morning, the kaleidoscope of foliage blazing high across the hillsides, the crunch of leaves underfoot, mammoth pumpkins screaming “First Place” out on display at the entrance to the country fair, eating pumpkin spiced whoopie pies from that little country store with the creaky wooden floor. With the increasing “strip-mallification” of America it’s sometimes easy to forget that all of that Norman Rockwell stuff still really exists in many areas.
True, it’s easier to recall those picture-perfect postcard memories and a bit tougher to reminisce about many of the things that aren’t quite as inviting (“mud season” springs to mind immediately), but even a cold, wet day in Autumn has always held a certain charm for me. So with it being October and all, yesterday I took the bike up to the Idyllwild area to do a little hunting for my favorite season.
Idyllwild sits about a mile high in elevation so it and the surrounding mountains enjoy all four seasons, as opposed to the brutal 1.25 seasons I endure living in San Diego County. Rolling out from the trailhead around daybreak, I immediately descended into the calm of the lowest part of the valley and the temperature dropped precipitously toward the freezing mark.
“Perfect! Just what I’m looking for”, I said to myself as my fingers and toes went numb even though the atmosphere was too dry to allow me to see my breath as I did so. Idyllwild is not very far from the deserts of the Palm Springs area and the conditions can be exceedingly dry at this time of the year, well any time of year.
As I pedaled down the paved road toward Thomas Mountain, Lake Hemet seethed in the distance like a witch’s cauldron of dry ice on the set of an overproduced Hollywood B-movie, the contrast between land and water was that distinct. I detoured a bit and picked up the pace to try and get a decent shot of it without interrupting my ride too much as it was quite spectacular, but as I did so the sun crested the eastern rim of the valley and the fog vanished almost immediately into the thin, dry air like a memory into old age. The sun hit my face and I was warm again. I must be getting old if I’m starting to enjoy the sun this much…
Back on course, I began to climb. I’ve decided that I’ve been taking too many photos lately and disrupting my workouts so I made a vow to ration my ammunition to 5 shots unless I came across a bigfoot or something. Maybe a mile or so into the climb the first big trees began to appear from out of the scrub and I looked over my shoulder… big trees, big foot… ok close enough. Time for a photo. Nothing better than being alive and outdoors early on a Sunday morning with the warmth of the sun chasing at your back. Besides, I was never that great of a racer anyway.
Continuing upward, I began to pass numerous trucks parked beside the road. Dammit, I forgot that this was the first weekend of deer hunting season! This would fall under the heading of “One of Those Things About Fall I’ve Forgotten About”. As I rode along I passed more and more trucks parked haphazardly here and there with as many as 7-8 parked at empty camps along the way. Suddenly, my quiet morning had disappeared and things began to feel a bit crowded. I hugged the interior of each corner to avoid potential oncoming truck traffic.
I have nothing against hunting and those that pursue it (aside from trophy hunting, but that’s another issue entirely), so if you’re a hunter and you read this please don’t think I’m judging you. I’m an occasional meateater and I know that since most of the predators have been removed by humans from the face of our forests there needs to be some management of the deer herds or they will quickly overrun the carrying capacity of the land and become sickly and diseased. I also understand the desire to hunt for food. It’s not my thing, but I “get” it. No hate mail, please.
However, in the National Forests of San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties I always feel a bit uneasy when I come across someone with a gun. It’s a phobia I’ve developed living out here since in other areas of the world I don’t necessarily react this way. For instance, I recall running into a guy carrying an assault rifle in Alaska during the Sheep Mountain Winter Bike Race 2 years ago and I felt perfectly at ease talking to him, it just seemed natural. I was the weird guy riding my bike in the snow that day through someone else’s world.
Same thing with the live lynx with its foot caught in the trap that I passed twice during the course of that race (once on the way out, then on the way back). It broke my heart as an animal lover (and cat owner) to see such a beautiful animal reduced to waiting for the trapper to check his lines and end its suffering, but my morals and “citified” ways hold no real merit in that arena. Same goes for the frozen coyote that was strapped to the back of his snow machine when I met him later that day. He seemed like a really nice guy. All I can do is boycott the use of fur but I cannot tell a man his way of life does not jibe with mine.
What I can tell you is this: when you’re bone tired from exertion and sleep deprivation and standing in the middle of a frozen 20 below wilderness feeling totally helpless, tears quickly freeze to your cheeks as you see the face of your dearly departed pet cat in the terrified, defiant, hissing face of a trapped lynx. You want to try and help the poor, doomed animal. That was a tough moment. I’ve always wondered how I would react if I were forced to hunt and kill my own food, and I readily admit that blood from my hands drips somewhere along the food chain since I do eat meat.
In the National Forests of southern California it’s as if these two worlds collide quite suddenly, the civilized and the wild. With all of the talk of Mexican drug cartels running pot farms etc. in our urban National Forests I tend be a little leery of anyone with a rifle that I see close to an urban area. Not to mention I’ve also seen the lack of human decency that quite frequently is on display during southern California traffic… actually any place where human interaction requires standing in some sort of line. People kill each other over parking lot spats around here and sometimes I wonder if some idiot might take a pot shot at me just to scare me while I’m out riding. I think I have a right to be paranoid as I’ve been shot by a pellet gun wielding moron while out road riding before, too.
My opinion of some of these urban “hunters” has also been soured by having come across some driving along dirt roads with their buddies standing up in the bed of their pickup waiting to blast at any deer they startled (an extreme, illegal and totally out of the ordinary case for sure, but it happened near Big Bear a few years ago). I’m sure it also has something to do with being a dude wearing lycra, riding a bicycle and taking photos of butterflies versus camouflaged men driving monster trucks, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. Maybe I’m the one out of my element after all? Oh well, I guess that’s my cross to bear. At least I found my Autumn colors a few miles later along the roadside, it wasn’t the fiery red and orange leaves of sugar maples and oaks but it will have to do.
My ride continued in the relative silence of a gorgeous Fall day, the whirring of my drivetrain powering the electric-blue sky, until a few gunshots rang out in the distance. Feeling like a moving target on the winding road that tried in vain to evade the open ridgeline, I quickened my pace as I retraced my pedalstrokes back to the car.
I fell into a rhythm on the descent and began to enjoy myself a little as I played with the sandy corners. A sudden “BAM” on the ridge above me momentarily broke me from my fun as someone fired off a round at some unseen target. Personally, I think he had better odds of hitting another hunter than a deer.
I reached the bottom of the descent and passed a game warden who was strategically positioned in his truck to watch the hunter traffic heading into the hills. He waved so I went over to say hello.
“Did you see a lot of hunters up on the mountain?” he asked. After giving him my description of events he replied with a smile:
“Good thing you weren’t here yesterday, it was even more crowded. Glad you made it out alive”, then laughed as he drove off toward the source of the gunshots.
I returned to my car, packed my gear and drove back to the Endless Summer of San Diego.