Onyx to Whitewater

Conditions couldn’t have been worse for our drive down to Big Bear, a 7 hour venture at the best of times, but it was a holiday weekend and not just Columbus Day, but Thanksgiving. And it was raining. For the first time in six months. We had planned a hike in the Sierra’s about half the distance away but that had been foiled by the weather and so we’d moved on to Plan B. Dan picked me up from work after my shift at 6pm. I was happy to have four days off and happy to see my man, my van and my girl (Cleo) at the SLAC gate. Off we went. We stopped for dinner about 7pm and shortly after that I crawled into my comfy bed in the back while Dan drove. Thanks to an eventful ice hockey game the night before, I was operating on three hours of sleep and my tank was empty. I figured if I got a few hours sleep in I could take over when Dan got tired. I slept soundly until Dan woke me up at 2am having reached his limit. He’d stopped a couple of times to stock up on energy drinks and managed to avoid all the road carnage he saw, including having to swerve out of his lane to avoid debris that came from a four-car stack up right in front of him. All of this I slept through. Cleo, ever the riding companion, stayed up shotgun with me while Dan took my place in bed and I took the wheel. I talked to my parents for a while then sang along to music the rest of the drive. I saw an accident every fifteen minutes or so. Even halfway through the morning there was enough traffic to make you think it was early Monday morning.

We finally rolled into Cottonwood Canyon at 4:15am, thankfully we weren’t far off the highway so the bumpy dirt road wasn’t a long endeavour. Dan had done most of the work but I was shot and Cleo was worse. She’d been up the longest out of all of us. Only ten minutes later, our friends Eric, Rob, Adam and J-Jay (Rob’s dog) showed up in Rob’s car. We’d driven separately because the hike was a point A to point B deal and so we needed to shuttle cars. It was hurrendously windy outside so we invited them into the van. We all crowded in and laughed about the ridiculous drive we’d just done. Dan justifiably asked, “is this the closest hike we could find?”

All keen to get to bed, we had a few bites to eat then started thinking about sleeping arrangements. No one felt like pitching a tent in the wind so I offered the floor of the van and so Adam and Eric ended up cramped in Ramsie’s living room, me and Dan on the bed with Cleo on the kitchen bench. Rob and J-Jay had the whole back of his Pontiac to themselves. Right as first light was peaking over the hills behind us, we all went to sleep.

I think Dan and I had the most comfortable night/morning but we all slept. About 9am we started ambling about and while the others organised their packs, Dan and I threw a frisbee, played with Cleo and admired the view.

We hadn’t stepped into the wilderness yet and we were already in pretty countryside. We were in no rush since Rob had some house-buying logistics to coordinate and so we rolled out after the boys had collected all the gear they needed for the hike. Leaving Rob’s car at the end of our walk, we drove towards Onyx Summit, stopping at a Denny’s on the way partly to kill time while Rob sorted his house out and partly to have a huge breakfast. We were all walking a little slower as we left and with Rob all housed-up, there was nothing stopping us now!

Dan drove us up the winding road to Onyx Summit and we enjoyed the views as we drove, it was enough to get us pumped for the hike. At the trailhead, we were 40 miles from Rob’s car and it was our turn to pack. Since the boys were ready to go, we made quick work of it, deciding on what clothes to bring and how much food was really enough.

Twenty minutes later, at about 1pm, we had our packs strapped to our shoulders, the van all locked up and walked off on the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail). The PCT is a walking trail that runs south-to-north from the US borders with Mexico and Canada – a pilgrimage for some but also a nice place to do some hiking for others like us. As we joined the trail, we saw our first evidence of “trail angels” with stacks of water left at the trail by do-gooders just looking out for their fellow wilderness-lovers – a nice touch.

As we got going I was excited to be isolated in the forest and stoked for Dan and Cleo, it would be the first time for both of them spending more than one night in the wilderness and I was thoroughly pleased with the pack I’d bought for Dan at the last minute. He was also fairly impressed!

Only a half mile in, Cleo took a huge bathroom break right in the middle of the trail and something in my brain went, “Ah…. dog food.” After a quick look at Dan, we realised we’d left it in the van. It was already getting late in the day and our goal of walking 8 miles already seemed a far stretch so this didn’t help, but Cleo had to eat.

Dan and I left our packs and jogged back to the van with Cleo while the boys slowly walked on. I beat Dan and Cleo back to the car, found the dog food which was stashed away in a storage cavity and met them back on the trail. From there we walked briskly back to collect our packs and meet the others. We found them stopped at “The animal cage” a place that had until recently been used to house animals used in the filming of Hollywood movies. We were only an hour away from LA and so it made sense, but the size of the cages did not. Rob had been here a year before and described seeing bears, tigers and all sorts of large animals in captivity, none of them looking too happy. I can only hope that the closure means they went to a better home. Packs back on we continued walking as a group.

It was already cold and kept getting colder as we climbed gradually higher, so much so that when our last opportunity to catch some sun came up, we took it, basking ourselves on a stack of high boulders while snacking up for the rest of the afternoon’s hike.

As we moved on, Cleo was ecstatic to see snow, though her experience was limited by her muzzle. She’d had a run in with a neighbourhood cat only yesterday and so Dan didn’t want to take any chances with J-Jay considering his size and fluffiness. She seemed happy enough running around in her hoodie looking for things to chase.

As the sun started setting behind the mountains we stopped for our first blister issue. Not good so early in the walk but Eric was a first-time backpacker and hadn’t worn wool socks and his sneakers weren’t holding up.

As Adam and Rob attended him, Dan and I explored the old cabin that was nearby. It was more like a mini-village that now served as a good rest spot for PCT’ers and a shelter if the weather turned foul. Blister repaired, we soldiered on.

The view disappeared with the fading light and we were left to follow the light hitting the ground from our head torches. It didn’t seem right that it should be pitch black by 5:30pm but that is winter for you!

We were treated to a beautiful orange glow as we rounded a corner as the sun mustered all it’s energy to burst through the layer of clouds that sat like a lake in the high valley of the mountains.

A short time after that, I obeyed my rule to frequently look behind me (a necessity when doing a point-to-point hike for the best view could be behind you!) and as I did I shouted to the guys, “STOP! TURN AROUND!” The moon was rising behind us, large, colourful and mighty. It took my breath away, and everyone else’s too. I couldn’t believe how lucky we were to be in that place at the right time. Only five minutes of walking later and she was out of view.

The wind really started chilling us now and it was pitch black. Despite being two miles short of our eight mile target, none of us were excited to be hiking without seeing the spectacular views around us. Despite that, we had no choice but to continue until we found some flat ground sheltered from the wind that was ripping up the side of the mountain.

During a map check, Dan was in need of a snack and so I stayed put while he reached not my pack for an apple. A few extended whoops and hollers later, the apple escaped his gloved hands and went bouncing down the mountain side to some lucky squirrel. Swear words from Dan ensued accompanied with laughter from me as, defiant, he got another apple. At least he’d lightened my load!

Thankfully, we didn’t have to go much further before finding a perfect camp. It was a huge clearing with plenty of tent space and not a breath of wind to be felt. It was now thoroughly cold and so we wasted no time de-packing and clicking tent poles together.

J-Jay and Cleo had us in fits as we lay our tent mats out. They new a structure was coming and they both wanted to be inside of it and so they sat right on top until you pushed them out of the way. Even with the tent half up, Cleo was trying to get inside of it. Poor thing. As soon as we got it up we got her inside with a sleeping bag and took her muzzle off. Then the crazy really came out. She did laps around the tent rubbing her face against anything she could, crazy with itch desire. The muzzle had obviously been cramping her style more than we thought. She eventually settled down enough for us to lay down our mats and sleeping bags and had little interest in exiting the tent again, except for some dinner and water.

The humans got fed next, a hearty meal of dehydrated chili Mac and beef that warmed us just enough. As we were packing up, I saw that the water I’d left out for the dogs had already frozen. It was going to be a cold night!

I think we were in our tents by 7pm or something ridiculous, but then again our sleep schedule from the night before hadn’t exactly made sense.

Poor Dan and Cleo had a tough night. I was in and out of sleep for a lot of it, but Cleo was crying, moving around the tent and let out an especially big scream when Dan tried to get her comfortable. She was not a happy camper and Dan, ever the caring parent, did everything he could to soothe his child. Turns out all she needed was a big drink of water and a bathroom break and she came good. To make matters worse, his borrowed air mattress only lasted half the night before losing all its air. Not a great sleep for any of us.

Despite the early morning sun shining into our tent. We lingered. The others hadn’t stirred yet and Dan needed to steal back as much sleep as possible. When we emerged, so did the others and they quickly congregated on the hill above camp where they were in the sun for breakfast.

I broke down our bedroom while Dan made us a brekkie of dehydrated egg soup (I added a little too much water) that the dogs also enjoyed.

The aim was to get a whopping eighteen miles in today so we packed up swiftly. Even though it was a four-day weekend, people had work commitments people and the boys wanted to drive back Saturday night to avoid traffic, and so it was.

Before leaving camp, we decided Cleo was behaving well enough to leave her free of the muzzle and it was also warm enough to take her jacket off. When Dan tried to do so, she squealed in pain, or fear? When Dan had a closer look, he saw that the jacket had caused serious chafing in her armpits and they were red raw. We felt terrible, she’d seemed fine on the trail yesterday but had never spent that long in her warm clothes. Ever so gently, cajoling her the whole time, Dan pulled the hoodie off her. Immediately she ran around camp with joy. That half explained the troubles of last night. Parents are always learning.

As we got hiking, I was very happy that we’d stopped when we did, we were treated to some beautiful views of snow capped mountains and pine forest.

The terrain took us gently downhill, a trend that continued for most of the hike.

A couple of miles in, we came to our first water spot at a horse corral. Being the PCT there were hints everywhere, in the form of hand-written signs and pinecones laid out on the ground spelling “H2O”, to make sure hikers would always find water. At the end of a short trail was a magical spring spewing ice-cold clean water out of the ground.

With all our bottles and Camelbaks and only one filter, it took us a solid half and hour to fill up as we took turns putting our hands in the stream of the ice cold water.

Soon we were decending out of the pine forest and into a burnt valley of snowgums and desert scrub.

The change in scenery was nice, as was the welcome rise in temperature, it distracted us from the sudden weight gain in our packs from the water.

The boys set a cracking pace, but Dan and I happily hung at the back, catching up on the days we’d been doing different things, watching Cleo as she ventured off trail to investigate every shrub and moving thing she could find.

We stopped for an early lunch at a beautiful bush-sheltered campsite when Eric’s blisters required attention but we couldn’t have been there more than twenty minutes – there was ground to cover!

By 2pm we were so deep in a valley we were already losing sun. We were following a wide, dry creek which soon turned into a babbling brook which the dogs took advantage of.

Having put fourteen miles behind us, conversation was dwindling, all were focused on our daily target and I’m sure poor Eric was fully aware of the blisters plaguing his feet, we stopped a few times so he could re-wrap.

Rob filled the silence by pulling out Dan’s harmonica and playing some tunes with the little breath that he had. Not an easy feat to crank out the theme song to Jurassic Park while trudging on an unsteady trail.

We managed a rest stop after a creek crossing in a patch of sun – it would be our last full warmth for the day and we savoured it, fearing another cold night.

With the magical eighteen mile target in mind, we pressed on, noticing that we weren’t wearing nearly as many layers as we had been the day before at the same time so we were encouraged. As we continued to follow the creek, we were treated to a line of yellowing trees, dropping their leaves slowly, making it rain Autumn.

It was good to see that even after fourteen miles, Cleo was running around as if we were out for a morning walk. She was out of our view much of the time, probably covering twice the distance that we did with all her off-trail excursions.

Dan and I were well behind the other guys in the shadow of the mountain when we heard them shouting after her amid laughs. We looked up to see as we caught up and saw that she had sprinted away to the west, obviously after something. We whistled and yelled, but she was soon out of sight. That was until we saw her scaling the side of a mountain. We really laughed then…. she was gone! And then we saw what she was after. A huge elk or deer right at the top of the mountainside. How she’d seen it or thought she’d be able to catch it, who knows, but she was on a mission. Eventually, maybe two thirds up the virtual cliff, she slowed and stopped. The elk had taken a couple of easy trots and was now completely out of her league. She sat a while, catching her breath and perhaps contemplating her failure, a small brown and white spec on the lit up mountain side. Slowly, but surely, she started making her way back to us, Dan encouraging her to go as fast as she had when she was on the hunt. She couldn’t have been happier when she returned to us, bounding up and over the desert brush. Prickle-free, we carried on.

She repeated the same mountain sprint a second time, this time after a band of deer and the result was the same. After her second slow return, we put her on leash, worried she’d hurt herself with these sprints. When the light got low enough to make her blind, she was free again. Despite not being able to see anything, she never stopped scouting.

Just before the head torches had to come out, we came upon a beautiful camp, right next to the trickling creek under a big yellow-leafed tree. The majority of us were ready to make camp, we’d managed sixteen miles – a massive day by my standards – and so we de-packed. It was nice to be able to take our time setting up because there wasn’t the cold to worry about, it was going to be a mild night.

While Dan got dinner going, I strategically placed our tent away from the others to avoid the snoring that was bound to provide a soundtrack for the night. Also knowing that Dan would be sleeping on the ground, I searched for soft dirt and think I did ok. Meanwhile, we’d set Cleo up in her sleeping bag in the middle of camp and she happily got straight into sleeping, not showing interest in food until we got into it. Dinner was pretty much ready by the time our beds were made. We doubled up our rations tonight to feed our hungry bodies since it looked like the boys would not be convinced to camp another night.

Dinner done, the boys produced a cigar which was passed around and we sat watching the stars, waiting for the moon to appear over the mountain beside us. We could see it lighting up a nearby cliff and made bets about where she would appear. We would never find out because we were all in bed by about 8pm. We were treated to one of the best ISS (International Space Station) sightings I’ve ever experienced. It peaked over the mountain right when I was looking that way and it was BRIGHT! Rob denounced it as a plane while Dan and I stared at wonder at the people floating above us. Only a minute or so later, the light from the station’s solar panels faded to nothing and they were gone.

Before tenting up for the night, Dan and I walked Cleo a little ways down the trail, feeling light to move without our packs on. We watched as she sniffed and to our great joy, she enjoyed a big bathroom break and drank big gulps of water. Ready for bed, she crept into her sleeping as we got into our tent and stayed there the rest of the night. We only managed a few minutes of pillow talk, thinking it would have been a good idea to bring a deck of cards, before falling into exhausted sleep.

The boys had mandated an early rise and we were all up before the sun hit our tents which was a good start. Already feeling like we were in a routine, I packed down the tent while Dan serviced Cleo and got brekkie going. Such a domesticated tenting family! Rob and Adam had pretty much finished breakfast by the time we dug in and so they went to a good spot along the river to fill up our water stores. When they returned they were disappointed to find our tents still up, but we weren’t going to rush this beautiful morning!

By the time the sun hit camp we were ready to make way. Cleo was on for another day of chasing shit at least!

We followed the river for a good hour or so, crossing back and forth which resulted in a few wet socks, but thankfully no complete dunks.

As we got out of the shadows of the mountain, we left the beautiful yellow trees and started on our only serious climb in elevation for the whole hike.

There was a good reason we were doing the hike in a north-south direction – to follow the downward trend! The sudden 500 ft gain was hard on our legs and lungs, even Cleo was hunting for shade every chance she got. We’d ended up in desert-style terrain at the same time as the transition to t-shirt and shorts weather which was a nice!

At the peak of the climb, we chilled for a few minutes to celebrate and admired the clouds as they persistently stuck themselves amongst the mountains.

And now the descent. We managed to find a well-trodden shortcut that must have replaced at least a mile of winding gradualy descent with a bit of a foot scramble down a mountain ridge.

We followed this up with another shortcut through some brush and found ourselves following a sandy river that had been without water for a while. Cleo was queen of the place, treading her own path amongst the rocks and sand.

All too suddenly, as we found rushing sandy water in the river, we saw people! Not people like us either – they had day packs, walking sticks and children! They gave us a look (one that was becoming all too familiar) of “where did you come from?” as we crossed the river.

A great spot to fill up with water, I happily removed my shoes and socks and let the cool water rush over my weary feet. Poor Eric was in total envy, not able to dip his bandaged feet in and Dan was soon onto the trick and took my spot on the log sitting across the river. In between water-filling duties, I even gave him a foot massage, much to the entertainment of the boys.

Still no time to rest! Once all the water bottles were filled again, we continued on. The grey sand turned into a clearly defined path that was much better trodden than what we’d been on the last few days. We were saying “hello” to people and Cleo was on leash again – it was an uneasy settle back into civilisation.

Only a couple of miles walking on the flat ground and we arrived at a fork in the trial. To the left was Whitewater Preserve only a few hundred meters further, the source of all the tourists and to the right was an eight mile trek to the end of our hike. We’d decided as a group that Eric, Dan, the dogs and I would end at Whitewater while Rob and Adam charged forth with lightened packs to pick up Rob’s car. Eric had been in pain from day one of the hike, the dogs’ legs were fatigued and we’d aimed for too much. We’d barely had time to sit down and enjoy the scenery so this was the best compromise we could muster.

Rob and Adam did a quick repack of their supplies and left us to carry their gear the short way to Whitewater. It was around 1pm when they walked out of our sight, poor J-Jay wasn’t sure what was happening. Cleo didn’t care, she was fast asleep, but J-Jay was without his master and wasn’t sure about hanging with us. He let fatigue take him, sitting with us as we hoe’d into some chocolate. It was nice to properly relax for the first time in a few days, we had at least five hours to kill so we weren’t rushing anywhere. When we finally packed up, me carrying Rob’s pack on my front while Eric and Dan shoved extra gear into their packs, J-Jay led the way, taking the right fork in the trail – determined to find his master. We managed to redirect him and head towards Whitewater Preserve.

We were on dry flat ground so the going was easy, but it felt like the longest few hundred meters of the whole hike. The visitor’s center just never seemed to get closer! Finally, it came into view and greenery was suddenly in abundance, it looked and felt like an oasis. We de-packed at the closest picnic table, right next to a large pond and sighed in relief. First on the boys’ minds was food and so they got some hot water going to cook up lunch. Cleo was keen for sleep and so after a big drink she snuggled into her sleeping bag, a solid lump on the ground. J-Jay was the same, but he didn’t take any warmth, just the ground.

We put food out for the both of them but neither of them showed a slight of interest. Me, I went and had a birdbath in the bathroom, thankful to get the oil out of my hair and get into a clean set of clothes. When I returned to the picnic table, Dan and Eric were convinced and had showers after me.

We continued eating, drinking and talking, enjoying the cold breeze, enjoying the people watching, even enjoying the feel of concrete under our arses. A few passers by asked us where we’d come from but being the followers of the group, we didn’t manage to explain very well.

When we heard some hooting and hollering around 4pm, we couldn’t believe we were looking at Rob and Adam. They’d sprinted the last section, making the eight miles in a killer time! Perfect timing as well because the local ranger had just asked us if we could get in front of a camera and talk about the wilderness we’d just been in for his Instagram. Rob and Adam happily took the job, high fiving for the camera and everything. Eric, Dan and I were almost frazzled we were so surprised. We’d spread our gear around in an arrangement of disarray and now had to pack everything away neatly to fit into the back of Rob’s car. Five people, two dogs and five packs in a van is one thing, but in a Pontiac wagon? We nailed it, obviously.

And so we drove through two hours of incredibly painful traffic to get onto the winding road that would take us back to my van. Cleo shuffled around on Dan’s lap the whole time while J-Jay slept like a rock on mine in the middle back seat. We explored Christmas carols and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra to keep us all awake and in good spirits. By the time we got onto the mountain road, it was properly dark but Rob drove like a champ. When we finally turned into the Onyx Peak trailhead, we were ecstatic to see Ramsie safely tucked behind the trees where we’d left her. The cold hit us right in the face as we got out of the car. The dogs both relieved themselves, as did we all and the boys were turned around and ready to go before we’d even managed to unlock the car. Ramsie started up right away and Dan handed me a cold beer from the fridge after he directed me out of our parking spot. Cheers!

We followed the tail lights of the Pontiac down the other side of the mountain and into Big Bear. It was a gorgeous setting right on the lake with ski mountains lit up under orange lights. We left it to the leading car to find a dinner spot and followed wherever they turned. We ended up on the main street of this beautiful snow town and nabbed a park right on the main street. The boys parked then climbed into the van to change clothes. Since their gear was all in the Pontiac, it was the Dan’s pants show as we walked down main street. Only Eric and I were left wearing pants that didn’t belong to Dan. 

Fire Rock Burgers & Brews was a small little nook that warmed us right up. Food would take a while so we filled up on beer while we waited for a table. By 8pm we were all fed and watered and ready to go absolutely nowhere. For Dan and I, that was true, but the others were heading back to the Bay that night, in the hopes of avoiding Thanksgiving traffic. I thought they were crazy, but when Tesla calls, it calls (for some people).

We all piled into my van so that Dan could get his pants back and Dan directed me as I weasled my way out of what had become a tight parking space thanks to the guy in front of me. He may have got a little tap on the bumper as a thankyou… At Rob’s car, it was hugs all round and an especially big smile from Eric as we said goodbye and thanks for an epic weekend. As they drove away around 9pm I was happy to not have eight hours of driving immediately ahead of me. Dan and I drove a grand total of 100m to find our camp. Level ground? That’s all we wanted. Despite the cold, sleep came thick and fast for all three of us under our warm doona.

In the morning, I was quicker to rise than Dan and so he stayed in bed with Cleo as I washed my face out the back of the van. He stayed in bed as I drove us down to a breakfast spot by Big Bear Lake, just as locals started roaming the streets with their winter-dogs. He stayed in bed as I parked and took Cleo out in a park by the water, tip-toeing over the frozen ground. He stayed in bed as I cooked us breakfast in my first revision kitchen. Still he stayed in bed as he ate my delicious breakfast. Ahhh, van life.

We were so happy to have an extra day to kick around slowly. When Dan finally made it out of bed, we hit the nearby supermarket for a bathroom and since there was a Dollar Tree next door, we couldn’t resist, getting all sorts of useful shit for the low price of yes, you guessed it.

Figuring we’d get stuck in traffic no matter which way north we drove, we elected for the scenic route offered by highway 1. We made it to the ocean by lunch and with it we saw the devastation of the fires that had ripped through Malibu in the weeks before our trip. Every mountain side was black and while we saw a few celebrity mansions burned to the ground, most appeared untouched, depiste the dry burnt ground getting right up to their white picket fences. It was eye opening to see the contrast between the bright blue ocean and the blackened earth that had affected so many people.

We stopped at a few beaches for a walk with Cleo, tempted to take a swim in some places, but thinking better of it and just enjoying the sand between our toes. Each time we got out of the car we had to remember how to use our legs without looking like idiots but the pain wasn’t too bad. We stopped for a late lunch/early dinner at a sports bar a few blocks back from the beach and enjoyed some nachos and Sunday arvo football as the tempearture dropped. One last walk on the beach with Cleo and we were ready to drive off next to the sunset. A few minutes into the drive, Dan was going through his regular routing of pocket-searching to locate his essentials and came up one phone short. I pulled over at a highway exit to help him look, but we had no luck trying to hear the ringtone over the road noise so we pulled off properly and looked again, ringing with my phone but not hearing anything. Just as I became convinced the phone was not in the van, Dan heard a voice through my phone. He picked up and someone had found his phone on the beach! Whoops! He drove like a mad man back to our dinner spot as the sun glowed orange against the blue water. I stayed with the van while he took my phone to find the new temporary owner of his. I joined the locals in watching the sunset, Dan reappearing just as the sunset-watching crowd dissipated. Lucky duck, he’d retrieved his phone. Now we could head home.

I drove about three and a half hours, letting Dan take over and do the last couple. I thought I’d fall right to sleep but I remained awake and we talked through the rest of the drive, reminiscing about the music we listened to in highschool, discovering we’d both shared similar tastes. We were home by 10, tired but happy. We’d survived, the van survided and Cleo didn’t get into a fight with an elk. Happy thanksgiving.

22nd November 2018. 34°11’31.6″N 116°42’32.8″W.

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