Editor’s Note: After a year's hiatus, the chronicle of Bryan Snyder's misadventures in the Western high country, "Off The Map", returns to the pages of The Evening Sun. Besides the usual tales of Rocky Mountain mischief, Bryan will report from the drought-afflicted backcountry of Southern California and the snow-capped, slumbering volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest.
That settled it. This trail had now broken into the ranks of the Top Five Worst Trails Ever. Congratulations, stupid trail. Anyone you would like to thank while accepting your trophy? Up until this point, I had been able to contort my body like a ninja, ducking and dodging the poison oak branches that arched menacingly over the path. But finally, two bushes on opposite sides of the trail had pooled their poisonous resources and closed the distance between them, making it impossible to pass without contamination. I could already predict that in about three days, when the itchiness began, I would find myself deeply regretting these next few footsteps.
This was supposed to have been a slightly-romantic vacation to the rugged stretch of California coastline known as Big Sur, where fog-enshrouded mountains drop straight down to the ocean shore, and where the coastal highway that clings to the cliffs is frequently shattered by landslides. The trip had begun so pleasantly, too. Kitty and I had witnessed a stunning sunset the night before, when the blanket of fog over the ocean glowed amber from the rays of subdued sunlight. But the next morning, bad advice led us to the unmarked trailhead for the Little Sur Trail, and bit by bit, our good fortune began to erode away.
We descended into a redwood forest - a landscape that warps one’s perspective so severely that I could see why George Lucas used it to represent the forest moon of Endor in “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.” All we needed were a few diminutive, furry Ewoks glaring out of their hoods and jabbing spears at us to complete the otherworldly impression. The trees were so tall that they strained the neck as well as credulity. Even what passed for clover in these parts seemed oversized; the three-leafed redwood sorrel grew from the fallen needles of the forest floor, forming a dense, vibrant layer of shamrocks that mirrored the emerald ceiling of treetop branches high overhead.
Apart from the sporadic tendrils of poison oak, which hid like highway bandits amid the serviceberry and ferns, the first two miles of trail were pleasant and uneventful. The Pico Blanco campsite was another four miles away, but we had plenty of daylight left. When the trail left the fairylike forest and climbed into the dry country of the hillsides, however, we began to notice elements of deterioration. The route intersected a private road and continued on into the brush, where the overgrowth became more extreme. No one had likely cleared this path in a decade, and it showed. But we maneuvered around the patches of poison oak and pressed on, encouraged by thoughts of a waterfall at our destination, where we could wash off the sweat and rash-inducing oils at our leisure.
Then the incline steepened. That wouldn’t be a problem, except that these switchbacks had undergone years of what I call trail creep, where hikers adjust their steps to avoid the expanding reach of poison oak and brambles, and the trail creeps steadily closer to the edge of the cliff. Inevitably, someone shifts their course too far, and the edge caves away beneath them. This began to happen to us.
The trail corridor was often occupied by thick growth, forcing us onto the open edge where the soil was dry and unstable. We slid sometimes and caught ourselves. But the grade increased, and we entered ravines where a fall could mean serious injury or death. The poison oak began to acquire sinister undertones; while shifting my weight to avoid it, I felt like I was trying to avoid getting nudged off a crowded station platform into the path of an oncoming train.