The Day of the Dead Trees

“Do not be afraid; our fate cannot be taken from us; it is a gift” – Dante

Many, many years ago when I first moved to California I went for a ride in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.  Nestled in the Laguna Mountains in the eastern portion of the county, Cuyamaca was never a place to ride miles of technical singletrack, but it did provide a large network of fire roads that wound through a delightful forest of towering trees.  During my first few years here in San Diego I rode the area a handful of times.  It was a fun place to spin out some miles on the bike despite the local population of particularly feisty mountain lions that chased a few hikers, horses and mountain bikers before and after a fatal encounter that occurred back in the mid 1990’s.

Then, in October of 2003 the Cedar Fire completely changed the landscape of Cuyamaca Rancho.  Set by a moron “hunter” as a signal fire as he wasn’t prepared to spend the night out in the woods, it killed 15 people and grew to become the largest fire in California history.  Driven by Santa Ana winds it roared toward the populated areas of San Diego County, then when the winds shifted it turned back toward Cuyamaca.  The beautiful forests of Cuyamaca, though filled with fire-resistant species, burned with such intensity that most of the mature trees were destroyed.  The landscape was forever changed.

Recently I had been thinking about going for a ride in the area again.  Pick your ancient culture and insert your favorite celebration here – through the ages this time of year has been when rites such as Halloween, All Souls Day, Samhain and Dia de Los Muertos (just to name a few) are performed, the time of the year when the veil between the dead and living is closest.  So in the spirit of honoring the departed I headed back to Cuyamaca for the first time since the fires over 10 years ago.

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The climb up Middle Peak has not changed: it winds drunkenly along the ridge like a sailboat into the wind.  But the forest is no more.  On theslopes of the mountain the dead roam the world of the living, their lurching footsteps headed straight into the snarl of a deadfall fate they cannot escape.

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Reforestation of this area has been difficult.  Invasive species have taken advantage of the aftermath of the fire and the persistent drought and have taken almost complete control of many areas, establishing a monoculture where once stood a varied mix of woodland.  Recently a concerted effort has been undertaken to plant trees such as this one (with a sunshade to shield it).  Godspeed little sapling.

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Further along Middle Peak, the coastal fog was receding with the warming of the day.  A shadow of the forest it once was, the standing stones rise to grasp the sun – a remembrance of things past, a gasp on the deathbed of a ridgeline.

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Still, there is life here.  Further down into the canyon I startle a young bobcat and send it leaping into the brush.  A flock of wild turkeys moves through the dry undergrowth of our latest drought.  The words of Robert Frost grind in my gears as I pedal: “And they, since they were not the one dead, turned to their affairs”.  And I, since I was the one that had to climb back up to my starting point, turned to my affairs and began to pedal.

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Climbing up Stonewall Grade and out into the grasslands that border on Anza Borrego State Park, I pause to take in the scene.  Black and white, death or life – it all seems so simple.

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Or is it golden and glorious?  The universe oscillates between the world of the living and the dead as I haltingly but inexorably follow along the path.

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Unsure of where it ends, the path disappears beyond the bend.  Such a beautiful day for a ride, such a beautiful day to explore.

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On this day I ran out of time to follow the path to its end, but that’s OK.  There’s always another day to return, another time to explore what lies beyond the horizon.  Only one thing is certain: the forests of Cuyamaca will never tower above the earth within my lifetime, if ever.  I know because I’ve ridden among their ghost.

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