Lynn has been out of town in observance of her mother’s eightieth birthday for the past several days so I had a weekend to fill. Going to hiking meetups seemed the thing. The first one taught me the importance of carefully noting the meeting place. Just because a prominent trail begins in a county park, do not assume that the members will gather there or that you will hike the whole length of the trail. The Arroyo Trabuco trailhead that I know lies in O’Neill Regional Park. I arrived there shortly before the departure time to find the lot empty except for a sports car and an oversized pickup truck. Only a couple of bikers on their way back from a ride lingered at the beginning so I wondered if I had chosen the wrong date or time. The network was thankfully connectible, so I installed the Meetup app and discovered that I was there at the right time, but — this took awhile to sink in — at the wrong place. The organizer had chosen a spot two and a half miles away, so I hoofed it over a path thick with stones the size and shape of prehistoric eggs until I caught up with the other hikers — who were on their way back.
I made good time going down Whiting Road even though I had to keep stopping and climbing back until I saw Lynn waving and jabbing her poles against a fall as she crept down the double track. The clatter of chains alerted me to the mountain bikers sweeping through Sleepy Hollow, but I was surprised when I saw another hiker in front of me, a man of average height who wore one of those green boonie hats that one associates with Vietnam. He draped himself in camouflage and wore black combat boots. The only thing out of keeping with his casual uniform was his blue backpack and the tube from his Camelbak. I followed in silence for several steps, watched as he stopped to tie his shoe then resume without noticing me.
“On your left!” cried a voice behind me and “On your right!” as it passed me. The mountain biker shouted the same warning as he passed the trooper, who turned around and noticed me for the first time. He jerked as if he was thinking of reaching for his gun and then realizing that he was unarmed, picked up his pace a little and fast-footed it down the trail, glancing behind every few seconds to see if I was still there. We parted ways when I turned to go up the Concourse Trail to my home.
I thought about his dress and his gear. Was this some sentimental journey for him? Was he remembering old companions? Or did he miss life in combat zones? I thought about what a bad option camouflage was when you didn’t need to hide from people. A nice bright color — a white or a red or an orange — were my choices when I went afield. I made sure that I could be seen should there be an accident. Plain brown and forest green suited this man. We didn’t talk, so I didn’t know his mind but I wondered about his march and his mental destination. This landscape of golden oats and dead mustard stalks was like none of the places that America has battled in our lifetimes. People came to Whiting for the peace. This man found himself walking in war, an adventure in which he would not die or have to kill someone.
So many rocks! They seem to have dropped from the sky and landed on the peaks of this narrow trail in Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park. Stones of rust and bruise settled in the depressed center of the trail, some loose, some fixed to the ground. I went down the hills slowly, finding footholds and soft soil where I could, grabbing dead brush where it offered itself. When I could feel steady enough to stand on the declivity, I threw the larger stones off the trail. They landed with a thud or, at one place, a click as they fell onto a rock pile that other hikers had hurled before me.
Shade wreaks a weird effect over the meadows along the Borrego Trail: Where the full sun yellows the grass, shadow keeps some patches green for a few more days.
I found few blossoms other than the last vestiges of the spring’s mustard, the gnarled blooms of incipient heartleaf penstemon, and the brash orange flowers of Bush Monkey Flower. The day was hot. The open sun at the end of the trail made me nauseous, but a deep draft from my Camelbak cured me.
The Red Rocks remain the Red Rocks, undulating down a cliff and through a canyon. My companions found it fit to discuss why some of the rocks were red and others were white. I did not take part in these as I did not answer questions about why I enjoyed learning about nature or defend the theory of evolution from a companion who was distressed by the fact that it wasn’t easy to understand. Perhaps I am meant for the silence of places like this, just as I choose to marvel mutely over stick insects that define the case for species change over time.