Week one: Dark side of the moon

Darkness… the backdrop for all manner of morally questionable enterprises. I had waited until the murky hours of moonlight to trudge down these ranch roads because the legality of my presence was murky as well. This quadrant of the Santa Ynez Valley contained a mountain I’ll refer to as Cerro Largo, and I had eyeballed its summit dome for ten years before temptation led me to stray from the National Forest boundary and attempt this midnight expedition. With luck, not a soul, not even the cows that roamed the ranchlands, would be the wiser.

Infringing on private property was an inglorious way to begin a summer of high adventure. But loftier goals lay ahead. Over the next three months I had plans to explore the remote beaches of California’s Lost Coast, the twisted redrock canyons of southeast Utah, and the fractured glaciers of Washington’s Mt. Rainier. Before any of this could happen, however, I needed to get my legs and lungs back into shape. Cerro Largo was the first big step in that direction.

As I emerged from a dry riverbed, the mournful cries of a great horned owl broke through the gentle whirring of the crickets. I would have felt less intrusive had I been able to restrict my travel to public watercourses, but to reach my destination quickly, I was forced to follow a long, dusty ranch road to the base of the mountain. The Strawberry Moon lit up the landscape like a Hollywood movie set, and by its light I could make out an escape route from the upper reaches of Cerro Largo – a path free of the impenetrable shrubs that dominated the steep southern slopes. The return journey would be swift and simple if I could locate this route during my descent, so I took care to memorize its location. Not wanting to hike the same path twice in one night, though, I continued down the road as it circled around to the mountain’s less rugged north side.

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