The elfin forest surrounds me here. So I know it — not as a blur like a mountain biker or motorist does, not merely as patterns on the hill, or anonymous terrain to be passed through on one’s way to a personal fitness achievement, but intimately, with my eyes, with my hands, and with my feet. I am also an observer of the people who pass through it, most of them unequipped and unprepared for the realities of the experience. They go in, maybe once, and never go back because the brush did not forgive their errors.

I love this olivaceous country, unique to California and home of a wide diversity of species. Realtors and developers don’t appreciate our special heritage. Consequently it is endangered. The hatred and mistrust of ignorant hikers contributes to the contempt which planners accord the wilderness around me. I live in an threatened landscape. For this reason, I offer these hiking tips to explorers so that their visits will be pleasurable and safe:

  • Always bring water because water sources are few, streams are likely to be contaminated, and what you drink takes away from the animals and plants which don’t have recourse to water mains. Dehydration is your enemy — even in winter. A bad sign is when you suddenly have to urinate on a hot day. When the body begins to dehydrate, your salt levels go out of kilter. To concentrate those vital minerals, the body sloughs off fluids through the kidneys. When you drink more water, the emergency protocol is abandoned. Try drinking more water when you feel this need. If the urge goes away, you have saved your life.
  • Wear a hat. This is a short forest. Unless you are a toddler, you are too tall to strut under the scrub oaks and the manzanitas. Heat exhaustion and sunstroke are real concerns.
  • Wear sun screen. If you catch me out without it, quote this to me.
  • During the summer months, set out early in the day and return before noon to avoid the heat. Or leave after three and hike until sunset.
  • Don’t bring your tunes with you into the wilderness. You need your ears to hear the mountain lion sneaking up behind you.
  • In the winter, avoid travel within three days of rain. This is the most likely flash flood season, too. Canyoneering is most pleasant in this season before the poison oak has begun to spread and insects have hatched, but it is also the time when you are most likely to be swept away by creeks sluicing through narrow gorges. This is also the season when you are most likely to run into mountain lions who come into the foothills searching for deer.
  • Spring, especially March through May, is the best season, for this is when the monkey flower, the owl’s clover, the mariposa lilies, and other wildflowers special to this region bloom.
  • Don’t kill rattlesnakes. They keep the chaparral from being overrun by plague-carrying rats.
  • Collect a set of nature guides and learn the names of the birds, the butterflies, the flowers, the trees, and the shrubs. I especially recommend Native Shrubs of Southern California by Peter Raven and Sawyer’s Trees and Shrubs of California.
  • Avoid stooping or squatting. Mountain lions lurking in the brush watch for these moments for attacks. Likewise, do not bring toddlers into the wilderness unless they are supervised at all times and you are prepared to carry them. Think of your son or daughter as mountain lion bait and take proper precautions. Better still, leave them at home.
  • Those paths leading off the main roads and up steep slopes aren’t “Indian trails”. The Indians weren’t so foolish as to make their life difficult. Those are Stupid White Man trails. They are steep, they take more time to ascend than the fire road you are short-cutting, and they cause erosion. Stay off of them.
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