Sometimes you get a sense of a place as if it had a personality and will unto itself - not literally, of course, but in the way your own thoughts and experiences relate to it. Traveling through, you get to know the environment as if it were a companion with specific tendencies and intentions rather than a set of morally neutral circumstances. I've had this sensation before - and usually it's a positive thing - but last week I had a chance to get acquainted with some wilderness that just rubbed me the wrong way: A spooky, holistic undercurrent of unease and hostility. I get why people have spiritual feelings about wilderness, even though I know that's not really what's happening, but it's still worth sharing some of what I saw and felt.
Where I'd gone was the environs of an old truck trail above and going into Cucamonga Canyon that's no longer used by vehicles, and also hiked some of the bike trails surrounding the trailhead into the mountains. Unlike many of the places I've hiked, this is not a wilderness park - not a place cultivated to suit the human imagination of a primordial paradise - it's just plain wilderness: Nature more or less left to its own grim devices.
Since the first time I went there, something about it weighed on me - something it took a while to understand. The thing of it is, the place isn't ugly or desolate - there's plenty of life and sweeping vistas to enjoy on many levels. But somehow it all adds up to less than the sum of its parts, and makes you feel vaguely diminished for having experienced it - as if you had swam through something mildly caustic and come out the other side a few skin layers short of when you dove in. There's a tragedy and sadness to it overall that defies easy identification if you're not breathing the air, feeling the strange chill of the shadows, and walking the ill-proportioned scale of the old truck road.
There's a tangible air of ruin throughout much of the way, hammered home by the scarred, crumbly rock of the mountainside, the spooky plays of light, and the disheartening warping of perspective that convinces you you're close to something when you're actually nowhere near it. Nothing is whole - everything is a fragment of a fragment: The rocks, the trees, the trail, the shadows, everything. Charred wood from old wildfires sits randomly strewn around, and the living trees poke out at each other at odd angles from violent winds going back who-knows-when. The sense of scarring and unrecovered trauma piled on trauma is hard to avoid noticing and being infected with.
Mountainsides that would be awe-inspiring in another context just seem to loom ominously, creating pools of disquiet between them. It puts me in mind of Stephen King - not in the hokey sharp-toothed-monster sense (although, being bear, rattlesnake, and mountain lion country, there are probably those too), but in the creepy, atmospheric sense that makes his works worth reading. You don't realize it immediately, but there's a seeping sense of foreboding that creeps into the unexamined crevices of your thinking, and creates a distinct impulse to move through as quickly as possible so you can leave. "Strong with the Dark Side of the Force, that place is," and so on.
Every time I go, the few people I run across are vaguely sinister oddballs (which must surely say something about me...?) - a weirdo in a straw hat who was spinning two trekking poles like Charlie Chaplin canes while his three dogs of varying sizes and colors ran around; a guy who looked like an ex-con with tattoos all over his chest and back walking by shirtless with a couple of rottweilers, a shirt wrapped around his head like a Bedouin, and a cigarette hanging off his mouth; three assholes on loud, sputtering, smoke-belching mini-bikes despite regularly-posted prohibitions on motorized vehicles; and, of course, the Army. Yes, the Army.
The first time I visited, the Army was using the place as training for Afghanistan, and let me hike through their drills - not exactly an auspicious introduction. I've now been there four times, and not one of them was a truly satisfying experience - they were all troubled by petty mishaps and the pervading atmosphere of anxiety and yawning spiritual abyss that distinguishes the place from maintained wilderness parks I've visited. There's a great set of terraced lookouts accessible from a side-trail, but the path is way too steep and strewn with pebbles that act as ball-bearings, so I only went there once and had to take one step at a time going up (and half a step at a time going back down).
The next time I went, I took a detour on to some bike paths and ended up in a Sisyphean nightmare of relentlessly up-sloping, rock-strewn, concave trails that I kept being certain were almost done, only to turn a curve and see them heading off into forever. Then I ended up with chills and a fever halfway into the wilderness, and had to hike all the way back sick, with every light 70-degree breeze feeling like an Arctic blast.
Most recently, I'd set my sights on climbing a mountain called Frankish Peak, whose satellite map looks deceptively doable. This is about when I started to realize the area is not the most psychologically inviting environment. The old truck trail descends again from the mountains back into a higher part of the canyon and trees reappear along the trail, but I found something foreboding in them that wasn't typical - usually I find trees very welcoming, even when they're leafless and gnarled. Instead it all just seemed sullen and bitter, with hints of menace behind it. I don't know if that comes through in these photographs, because it's still pretty - but there's something troubling beneath the superficial appeal:
I've been to deserts, but all I feel from them is obliviousness - a sterile lack of memory, absence of substance, blankness. They make no impression beyond the purely visual and coarse sensory information like temperature and texture, as opposed to the deep chemical/instinctual wholeness of being in a pleasant forest. But this is something else - a drooping, collapsing entropy. Dysfunction. You get a real sense of the ad hoc, default basis of Nature there - how things only occur a certain way because they collide and bitterly compete for a scrap of existence. It's strangely easy to become demoralized in such a setting - to feel like your efforts are wasted, if not actively opposed by some eldritch grudge.
On this particular trip, I'd only just barely started getting somewhere when the light turned murky and it was clear I wouldn't have enough time to complete the trip. As it turned out, despite having set out around noon, I was only halfway along the trail by the time I approached the turn-back point where I'd have to terminate the journey to get back before dark. I crossed the stream over a graffitied cement path, and despite the plain evidence of civilization having been there, ironically the artifacts of human passing just seemed all the more chaotic and degenerate for being out in Real Wilderness because nobody looks after them or does much of anything to make them look nice. So at first it was heartening to see something people had built, but closer up it was somehow worse for being so dismal, minimal, and careless - like something dropped and abandoned by passing tourists who hadn't bothered to return, only to be swept down on by Krylon-toting vultures:
From there, the trail ceased to be a truck road and became a two-foot-wide dirt track with encroaching brush on both sides and periodic washouts. I decided to go for a few more minutes to get a sense of where it led, but my intrepidity dissolved when I heard something substantial moving around in the trees just below, loudly cracking branches in ways that had to involve an animal much larger than a coyote. In the afternoon gloom sinking into evening, I really didn't feel much like sneaking alone through the domain of a bear in cub-rearing season. In that psychic atmosphere, it was just too easy to picture my own gnawed, red-stained rib cage laying amid the shattered wood of the riparian corridor in the fading light.
On the way back, the gloom seeped into me and I felt like a walking Kipling poem or the original Bob Dylan version of All Along the Watchtower - as silly as that impression is for a day-hike a few miles away from suburbia. Things seemed apocalyptic and ominous, and I didn't run into a single person on the return trip.
The lesson of places like this is that the world is not naturally the way we would want it to be - we have to make it that way by imagining better than we inherit, and being better than the environment would shape us to be. That's the oddest realization of all: All these negative feelings don't deter me from going back there - they're a challenge I can't ignore. Places like this, both in nature and inside ourselves, exist to be defied and conquered - whatever bitterness they engender exists to be passed through and dissipated like fog in warm sunlight. Next time I'll bring other people though - one thing I know is that in human terms, two is infinitely more than one.