This must be how a beginning skier feels when he makes a wrong turn on the bunny slopes and ends up at the top of a black diamond run. Looking down from the top of the sandstone outcropping called Lizard’s Mouth, I couldn’t see much of my intended route, as the land dropped away too steeply towards the city of Goleta and the Pacific Ocean. Still, I knew that between civilization and I stretched many miles of the thickest chaparral that Southern California had to offer. Every year, one group of idiots makes the mistake of attempting this off-trail descent, according to my online research. This summer, it was my turn to be the idiot.
Unlike last week’s bit of misfortune with the disappearing moonlight, I had no excuses for my present folly. A few months ago, I’d heard first-hand reports from the foolhardy trio who tried bushwhacking down the mountain last year and vowed never to do it again. They’d been forced to spend a cold, chilly night sleeping on rocks in a ravine, surrounded by poison oak. I hoped to fare better on my adventure, but I had read and heard enough to know that most of it was not going to be pleasant.
At least the trailhead was scenic. Lizard’s Mouth encompassed a colorful region of sandstone outcroppings along the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Five million years ago, titanic forces pushed the tectonic plate of the Pacific up against the North American Plate, thrusting layers of ocean sediment thousands of feet above sea level to create the mountain range. This segment’s high point – a feature shaped like a yawning lizard head – was a popular site for sunset picnics, and the remaining boulders attracted rock climbers, photographers and sadly, the worst kind of visitor: graffiti artists. Easy access by road had turned the boulder field into a battleground between taggers and preservationists. The latter group fought back by scouring, pressure-washing or spray-painting over the tags in natural colors.
This morning, I had the mountaintop scene to myself. I began the epic scramble by hiking down towards a lower boulder field. The sandstone surfaces there were still rough and crumbly, as there had not been enough human traffic to kick away the looser grains. I took my first tumble of the day, sliding on a sandy rock and landing hard on my posterior with my legs outstretched, straddling the boulder. At least the rock was conveniently saddle-shaped and not pointy, so my weight was evenly distributed. I only scraped my arm and left a little blood on the way down to the next ravine.