The Days Before
Making the most of our time, I slept in the back of Ramsie after my Friday night shift while Dan drove us up to Lake Tahoe’s Northstar Ski Resort. It was raining in the Bay Area so that meant it was snowing up there. I had a great sleep, woken up only when Dan needed to find the snow chains and again when one of the chains broke a link and went “Whack! Whack! Whack!” against the car. We were up on the mountain by 2pm and we had the BEST conditions of the season.
The two hours we had riding were spent floating either on or through powder on a mountain that wasn’t as crowded as usual on a weekend. We didn’t rush for the last lift at 4pm, we knew we would have even better conditions tomorrow – so I buried myself in powder and we took our time on our last run.
It was on the bus back to the carpark that the coronavirus hit us in the face. I overhead a couple guys saying everyone would be at Squaw Valley resort and something about their accommodation. When I asked, they confirmed that Northstar was closed tomorrow, along with every other Vail-operated resort in North America. “No way?!” Yes way. Despite an announcement less than 24 hours before stating the resorts would be staying open, everything was closing down. On a Saturday too after everyone had already travelled – so the damage was already done? There were probably 50 people packed onto the bus I was on while having this conversation about closures – not exactly social distancing. Dan got to spend a few more moments in bliss than I because he hadn’t heard.
Back at the van, we rose our drinks, celebrating the wonderful season we’d had together and said thanks for the few hours of powder we’d had that day.
We chilled in the carpark for a couple hours, made dinner and had an exhausted nap. When we exited the van, we found three inches of fresh powder on the ground and not a single person or car in sight. It was our own winter wonderland and it was still snowing! In a timely manner, we soon saw a security vehicle drove past so we made our exit to our usual camp near Martis Dam.
It snowed all night and in the morning, Sunday, we were surrounded by at least two feet of snow! After a quick assessment, Dan was sure we weren’t going anywhere, anytime soon AND it was still snowing. It was barely 9am so we were confident a plough would be by soon, we could see them making plenty of progress on the highway only 100 meters away. So we hunkered down, watched a few documentaries and took frequent walks through the snow that was soon up to our hips.
Around lunch time we started calling for help. Starting with 9-1-1, we found out the non-emergency number for the county and tried our luck there. We knew this road was usually ploughed but no one could tell else by whom. After a couple hours of calling back and forth, the Deputy Sheriff called me and basically told us to paddle our own canoe. Thanks a lot. We did as he suggested and called every local plough company listed on Google and I spoke to one very, very helpful lady that called around for us, but eventually came up with nothing. So we were screwed. I called the non-emergency number again and the lady there said she’d do all the calling she could and get back to me. So we were waiting, mentally prepared to stay in place until Monday when the snowing eased and we could maybe wave down a plough from the highway?
Later in the afternoon, we went outside to check out the conditions, all tracks made by us over the last few hours were covered by the fresh snow it was coming down that much. Wanting to make a good impression with whoever might rescue us, we put the chains on and attempted an escape. As Dan suspected, we didn’t get anywhere. Ramsie was only compressed the snow in her wake instead of getting through it. We snapped a couple more links on the chains while we were at it so we knew we were properly stuck. We wandered around in the now hip-deep snow, ploughing paths for Cleo to follow us around and generally admiring the place we were stuck in. I was looking the other way when Dan pointed back towards the car and said, “It’s a cop! A cop!” Wow! We turned around and pushed our way back towards the car, watching in amazement as this black Chevy SUV pushed snow out of its way to get to us. Our saviour!
The policeman stopped a few dozen feet from our car and chatted to us, he’d heard about our situation from the non-emergency calls and finally had time to stop by. He seemed confident he could plough us a full path and so hopped back into his car and promptly cleared the snow behind us, giving us a clear road out. Only in a few attempts, I think our mouths were completely open while watching, his machinery made it seem so easy! Dan is now desperate for a 4WD. Mr. Policeman then went one better and pulled a large snow shovel out of his car that made my foldable shit-shovel look pretty stupid. We both shoveled away the wall of snow directly behind Ramsie then Dan gave it a go. The chains held and we needed to do a few more rounds of digging before success, but soon enough, Ramsie was pointed in the right direction. I did more work with my puny shovel after a first attempt at driving forward, then Mr. Policeman reversed out of the way as Ramsie charged. I watched as Dan drove past me, me waving my shovel and Dan yelling out at our success. I laughed as I watched him reach the end of the road, then quickly hopped out of the way as Mr. Policeman came charging toward me to give me a lift to the end of the road, which was nice of him. It was my first ride in the back of a cop car!
We got home at midnight Sunday after a long drive through snow – just in time for Dan to go in for work the next day.
Day 1, Monday 16th March – “Shelter In Place”
If coronavirus hit us in the face on Sunday, on Monday it took our pants down, turned us around three times then pushed us out into the forest. Dan was at work and I was home doing pretty menial tasks like laundry and cleaning out the van. At around 1pm things came to a head. I called Dan and when he missed my call, I messaged him saying “We need to leave. Tonight.” The Governor of California had just put a “shelter-in-place” order for the next three weeks mandating by law that all residents of the Bay Area should stay in their homes except to go out for essential activities like grocery shopping, medical reasons or in pursuit of the outdoors. Sounds fair, but with a travel clause stating that residents should not leave their county, it sounded too restrictive to me.
I was in the Trader Joe’s carpark while all this happened and saw their doors close and a line form outside – they were only letting in a few people at a time and their shelves were bare anyway. I didn’t want to stick around. SLAC shut its doors immediately despite originally planning to stay open for select coronavirus research and it surely meant that Dan’s construction company would be shutting down.
When Dan came home at around 4pm, we took Cleo for a walk and tried to wrap our heads around this weird situation. I talked to my parents and a few friends in the Bay and decided we did not want to get stuck here. We were packed and on the road by about 8pm. We kept our options open, bringing the bikes, all our hiking and climbing gear and pretty much all the food we had in the house. There wasn’t much traffic on the road, less than normal anyway for a Monday evening. After a couple of hours, we drove out of the southern-most restricted county and made camp at the entrance to a state park. I made us a dinner of fish and chips while we watched a news update, still in shock.
Day 2, Tuesday – Children of the Earth
The next day we were happy to see green mountains passing us and despite multiple police car drive-bys, we were left undisturbed. Not wanting to push our luck, we decamped before breakfast, stopping at San Luis Reservoir just as the sun peeked through the clouds for a minute. It was a beautiful spot, justifying the chairs despite the cloudy and cold weather that became dominant.
We spent the rest of the day driving south on highway 99, kind of making up our plan as we went. After hitting Bakersfield we turned east into Kern River Canyon searching for “Children of the Earth” hot springs I’d found on Google Maps.
It was near 5pm when we made it to the winding road on the opposite side of the canyon to the main road and we picked out a few choice camps on the way to the springs. The trailhead to the springs was obvious and quite crowded with camper vehicles of all types. Though the ground was anything but flat, people had been creative in order to make a comfortable home. As we packed a bag of essentials (beer, towels), we saw another couple making their way down a trail and so we followed suit once we were ready, Cleo happy to be out exploring again.
It was a steep but easy to follow and the sound of the Kern River was soon in our ears. We met a couple people coming up and down at the springs, we found a small crowd, some naked, some semi-naked (hence no photos). There were three moderate-sized pools perched on the edge of the river and there’d been a lot of work put into their construction with gems and stones set into the concrete baths. Everyone in the pools was friendly and welcoming to us so we changed and slid into the bottom pool, which also happened to be the coolest, but it was comfortable. We chatted to a couple that had travelled over to Oakland from Utah to see family before flying down to Ecuador, a trip that had gone to shit thanks to the coronavirus restrictions put in place, so they were slowly making their way back home to Utah. There were many stories to be swapped and it was a nice setting to do so. We stayed about an hour before braving the cold air and getting back up to Ramsie to make camp.
With our spot already picked out a few miles back down the road, we were happy to see it still empty and excited to have our first campfire in a long while. I’d done a lot of cosmetic upgrades to Ramsie recently so it was exciting to enjoy it fully for the first time. Dan got a fire going quick smart while I made dinner and Cleo stood watch. As the sun went down we were sitting by a fire, enjoying a hot meal and watching the stars come out. Our decision to run was seeming better and better.
Day 3, Wednesday – Just Outstanding?
We’d learnt about another hot pool just down the road called Miracle Hot Springs so that was the extent of today’s plans. SLAC was trying to figure out if they could re-open specifically for coronavirus research that could be conducted remotely, so we were kind of in limbo, not wanting to go too far from home in case we had to turn around and go back for me to go to work. This ever-changing set of conditions set the pace and it was slow but in a good way.
Awoken by cows by the car, we got up and went for a long walk down to the river where we found a small cave and picnic tables corralled as if this was a place to hold events. It was a steep climb up, enough to warm us up on this chilly morning. Dan made us a breakfast and we sat in the sun contemplating our situation, tossing up options, trying to wrap our heads around it all. The sun didn’t seem strong enough to warm us, despite wearing our down jackets so we de-camped and went in search of our springs.
Going on directions we’d received from people we’d met yesterday, we found the day use area easily and also found it was being used heavily for camping. We passed many vans on our walk down to the springs, this time completely unprepared thinking we probably wouldn’t bother because of the number of cars in the carpark. After the short walk, we were surprised to find only a small crowd of older Asian people occupying only one of the five pools. We tested the water of the one closest to the river and it was the perfect temperature for us, so we claimed it! We stripped down and made ourselves comfortable, setting Cleo on a perch so she could stand watch.
Again, we stayed about an hour and ended up chatting to a lady who had brought her two young children to the pools, swapping stories about how our lives had changed in the past few days. Cleo became restless when another dog showed up and so we made our exit, but not before I tried the hottest pool of the lot right at the level of the river. I had to travel through cold water to get to it but it was worth it just for interest’s sake.
By the time we got back to Ramsie it was lunch time and the sun was out, getting more and more powerful so we decided to stick around hanging out by the river. I made lunch, Dan tested a tarp set up for over the kitchen, we washed out my backpack that had been victim to a beer spill and looked at our Atlas to see where we should head next. The answer was Lake Isabella.
The closer we got to Lake Isabella, the more I thought it might be possible to go mountain biking on the “Just Outstanding” trail that has been on my to-do list for a while. The recent snow that covered the Sierras was the only question mark, but we figured it was worth a shot and Dan was ever-willing to be my shuttle driver. Before getting to the Lake, we decided to brave a supermarket in search of some fresh fruit and eggs. Neither of us had been to a shop since the order but we’d heard stories. They were all true. The toilet paper and soap/wipes aisles were completely empty, there was barely any bread and they were limiting eggs and other items to one carton per person. Alcohol stores were in good supply though and I saw a man with three huge handles of vodka and one small bottle of orange juice in his cart, perhaps as his cover for drinking pure vodka? Desperate times.
In the supermarket carpark, Dan got a call from his work. He was being laid off. He was expecting something of the sort and he wasn’t phased, in fact it was a big win for him, since he’ll be getting paid two thirds of his pay for the foreseeable future, which is free money! His boss was very empathetic and stressed how much he wants Dan back when “this is all over” so it was almost cause for celebration. My work was still up in the air. To the mountains!
We drove around Lake Isabella and then up to Wofford Heights. The higher we went, the more snow we encountered at the edge of the road. Maybe I wouldn’t be riding?
We found even more snow as we turned off up to Alta Sierra, where the trailhead was situated. Now there was a bit of ice on the road and snow enough to stop us getting to the very peak. If this wasn’t enough to convince me, putting one foot out the car was. It was bloody freezing! Still, we were here, I wanted to at least find the trail so we donned all of our clothes and our snow boots and went off into the white.
We soon discovered Alta Sierra was a small ski resort, one that was completely deserted.
Cleo was happier than a pig in shit running around in the fresh snow and we weren’t too far from it, marveling at this sight. A place meant to be enjoyed by hundreds was completely untouched, occupied by us alone.
Cleo did sprints around us and we wandered over the ski field, eating snow every chance she got.
Dan was desperately looking around for something we could use as a sled and despite finding a tub in one of the lift huts, we decided against it in case of injury or damage to property. We played around in the snow a good while, enjoying the bursts of blue sky that came over our heads. It was magical.
Still determined to suss out the Outstanding trail for future use, we wandered on down the untouched snowed-over road beyond the ski resort. It was a real winter wonderland, the deep snow making it seem like a place of complete isolation.
Just after walking past a closed gate, we saw a truck balling towards us. We corralled Cleo and stood to the side of the road as the truck pulled up and the driver asked, “Are we back in civilization?” They had come the back way through the forest, seemingly out for an explore and we disappointed them when we told them about the gate. They soon drove past us again going the other way. About a mile of trudging later, we saw cycling signs and a sign post indicating the start of the “Just Outstanding” trail.
Cleo was right onto it but there was no way my wheels would be touching it today. Good to know for next time, we were happy to have explored anyway.
Heading back down the mountain, we were soon under the clouds again and looking for a camp somewhere around Lake Isabella. Despite the opportunities, both legal and not, the lake was choppy from the wind so we sought shelter.
Stopping in at Hanning Flat Dispersed Area, we drove around a long while through the huge open space, trying out multiple spots, but unfortunately none were out of the wind and there were millions of prickly bushes that would have immobilized Cleo. There was one windless, secluded camp in the whole place, nestled behind a boulder in some trees – of course it was taken.
Though it was getting late, we cut our losses and decided to push on. A ways down the highway, Dan spotted a nice spot just off the road and slightly lower than it, getting us mostly out of the wind. There was a dirt road that went back into the brush that justified the use of the bikes for the first time, just for a bit of an explore.
Once Dan had Ramsie nice and flat, I made dinner and we watched some news before bed. Too cold and windy for a fire.
Day 4, Thursday – Under Military Control?
We woke up happy to be isolated, sure it was now the law, but it kind of suited us. Having been on the road for a while now, we also found ourselves getting into a bit of a routine – getting up somewhere between 7 and 8am, enjoying a morning fire over breakfast and leaving camp by around 10:30am.
We were in no rush to get anywhere, so we played with the bikes, checked all the criticals on the van and did some stretching. During the morning’s camp leisure, we spotted multiple military jets flying over head.
The clouds and height of their flight made them very difficult to spot, but their presence was ever felt thanks to their fearful noise. Was America now under military control? For all we knew it was.
Back on the road, we found another camp just up the road where the PCT intersected the highway then had a bit of an explore at Red Rock Canyon State Park after we turned south. Nothing much to excite us there, but we did a short walk just to get out of the car and give Cleo an excuse to run around.
We didn’t want to go anywhere fast, especially today because we were expecting to hear whether SSRL was going to open up for coronavirus research the following week, which would mean we’d have to turn around and go home. As such, we dawdled along to Rainbow Basin Natural Area in search of a hike through a canyon. The highways were fairly empty and the town of Barstow wasn’t much different, though it was hard to tell if that was normal for Barstow.
At the trailhead to the Owl Canyon hike, we found a huge campground with over 100 sites that was occupied by only a few parties. It was only early afternoon, but this seemed like a great place to spend the night, especially considering the views into the valley, the nice facilities at each site, the price of $6 and most of all, the lack of wind! We didn’t make any decisions, but parked it and head up into Owl Canyon to see what trouble we could get into. Being a wash canyon, there were warnings of flash flooding all over that warn not to enter if a storm is threatening and the sky looked like a textbook storm threat, but we figured we’d just be careful and keep one eye on the sky.
Straight away, the different colors of the rock formations kept us in awe and it only got more interesting the deeper into the canyon we went. We still hadn’t escaped the jets, with one flying overhead every half hour or so and I swear I saw one with missiles tucked under its wings! Cleo got herself into trouble in a couple of spots along the canyon walls but Dan was always there to help.
We were in fits of laughter after every turn because we’d discovered spots of quick sand that would swallow our shoes up to our ankles so after about a half mile we stopped all attempts to keep our feet dry. Though the canyon had high walls in places, the banks were generous so we were confident we’d be safe in the event of a river appearing before us.
There was a bit of climbing involved as we got deeper into the canyon which made the route an interesting one, we even came across the carcass of a desert tortoise, something I’d never seen before.
After two miles, the canyon opened up to an area of sandy mountains that were covered with dirtbike tracks. It seemed this was normally a popular place. We mucked around for a bit on the mounds but didn’t linger fearing the rain that had been threatening all afternoon.
Sure enough halfway back, it started sprinkling, then turned into proper rain. Thankfully, we knew of a cave that we’d explored on our way up so we sheltered in there. The cave had an entrance and exit and as we sat in our shelter, we imagined what it would be like to see a wall of water come through the cave.
When the rain eased, we made a break for it and just as we got back to camp, it started raining again and didn’t stop for a few hours, so we’d timed it perfectly.
Definitely keen to stay the night, Dan maneuvered Ramsie so that her backside was underneath the picnic table shelter, covering the kitchen for the dinner I would cook later.
Just a few meters away from camp, we could see the water channels swelling to transport the new water that was hitting the earth.
With a spot of service I was able to call Mum and Dad and get an update on the coronavirus situation in Australia. It seemed all countries were on the same path, just different timelines. Ramsie provided us with a very comfortable home in the rain, though we did discover a few leaks. Late that night, we got confirmation that SSRL would be opening to facilitate coronavirus research so I was required back at work for night shifts in a week. It was good news for the world, bad news for us because we were having such a good time. Duty calls I guess.
Day 5, Friday – MTB In Joshua Tree?
Despite the call from SSRL, we didn’t want to rush back home to our 350 sq. foot apartment so we thought a couple days climbing in Joshua Tree National Park would be the ticket. After following our normal routine and enjoying a huge delicious breakfast, we spent the next couple of hours on the road.
Coming into Joshua Tree mid-afternoon, the weather was cold and neither of us felt like going on a climbing endeavor so late in the day so I looked for any mountain biking trails in the area. I was desperate to justify carting the bikes all this way and found a small trail network five minutes north of the National Park entrance. Not expecting much, we found ourselves in a dispersed area well away from the neighborhood homes and a couple cars with bike racks – always a good sign. The official parking spot was occupied so we carried on down the road a bit and found a spot next to a mountain of boulders that looked like an amazing camp. There was a fire ring nearby so we considered it a legal one. Cool!
Before we could ride, Dan’s bike needed some maintenance in the form of air in his rear shock but some idiot (me) forgot to bring the shock pump so we had to improvise. Dan came up with a very elegant solution that kept his suspension raised while still giving him some spring at the rear of the frame.
Ready to ride, we called to Cleo who was off exploring our new home. Normally quick to respond, we couldn’t see her. Calling and calling, we eventually saw her head pop out from behind a rock but she wasn’t moving towards us. Dan knew immediately what that meant – prickles in her feet and face. He ran over to her rescue and sure enough, she had about 50 prickles all over her feet and in her mouth. Oh dear.
I got out the pliers and we spent the next half hour doing cactus maintenance on our child. Convinced we’d got them all, we dusted her off and put her in the car, figuring her paws would be too sore for her to ride. As soon as we mounted our bikes though, she was scratching at the window.
Two times in the past Cleo has escaped from Ramsie – the first was from mountain biking FOMO – so we weren’t going to make that mistake again. I guess she was coming.
We ended up having a brilliant ride and the trails were just outstanding (do you see the joke there?).
Though it was only a very small network of trails, they had some of the best natural features I’d ever ridden and the views were wicked.
I was whooping and hollering like a kid and, though I came close, didn’t hit a cactus once! We pretty much explored all of the main trails, hitting a couple of black runs on the way back.
That night, we enjoyed our best camp yet. It was an early one, so I entertained myself by doing some more maintenance on Dan’s bike, trying to loosen the stiffness in the head stem with a good clean of the bearings.
Thinking opportunistically, while driving through Yucca Valley we scored a couple of pallets so when the workshop closed, we had a nice fire.
We watched the sun set behind snow-capped mountains and when the sky cleared, saw satellites flying among the stars.
We were in a world without coronavirus. Unbeknownst to us, it was this day that the Governor of California issued a statewide shelter-in-place order.
Day 6, Saturday – No More Joshua Tree
That morning while eating breakfast at our re-kindled fire, we were greeted by a pair of cars that came tearing right into our camp driven by a pack of teenagers. Out in their Daddy’s Jeeps to do burnouts, they were greeted by a sing-song “Good morning!” from me and a “fuck off” stare from Dan. They responded to neither and after yelling at each other to sound cool, they fucked off backwards away from us. Random.
We reached the north entrance to J-Tree around 10:30am and were met with a short line of cars, people milling about and a “ROAD CLOSED” sign put out across the entrance lane. I drove Ramsie slowly past the entrance hut, looking for information but coming up with nothing. There were a few cars behind the closed sign and some directly in front of it (inside the park). As we crept forward we didn’t see any authority and so drove on into the park. That started a trend with multiple others following us in. Ignorance was to be our tactic!
Looking for a climbing spot with a short approach so we could be close to Cleo, Dan got onto Mountain Project and picked out “The Trash Cans” – a small, relatively short crag only a few miles into the park and situated conveniently right at a carpark. There were a couple of climbers around and a few other picnickers. As Dan tended to Cleo, I overhead some people talking by the crag so wandered over to get some news. A climber was sorting his gear while talking to an older couple who both had drinks in their hands. When I joined the conversation I learned that the park was to be closed at noon and all the campers had been kicked out. Despite the news, everyone had the same idea to hang in the park until we were told otherwise. I then chatted to the climbing guy and he gave me the lay of the land – pointing out the climbs in front of us. We were in a great spot and he turned out to be an outdoor guide and on the run from COVID like us so we had plenty to share.
We continued chatting while he had some lunch and got into a handle of whiskey while we readied our climbing gear. He was entertained at Dan’s stack hat and my nut-tool hanger fashioned out of a phone cord. He stuck around chatting to Dan while I started climbing, I think because he subtly wanted to make sure we knew what we were doing on the rock.
As Dan started climbing beneath me, he took his leave, headed to Moab, or somewhere that wasn’t closing its outdoors.
Despite me having a flaky start on a trad-route graded at 5.4, we climbed all three major cracks on the wall. It was nice to be on J-Tree rock again, it almost feels like coming back to a local spot.
We finished on a great 5.7 route that had an interesting move at the top, our hardest climb of the day, but we were just warming up.
For our last climb we were joined by a big group of climbing bums that were running up and down the routes near us.
Around 3pm the fun was over. A ranger drove in, lights blaring. We were on the top of the rock, cleaning our gear and so the ranger directed his instruction to the hippies. “Guys, the park is closed,” he said, as if it was obvious. There was further exchange, with everybody acting dumb and asking stupid questions like, “when will the park re-open?”. Though we didn’t realise our advantage initially, we were probably the last to be kicked out because the crag hid us from the main road. We packed up our shit and got out.
Headed back to the main gate, we came across a couple walking away from us on the opposite side of the road. I stopped to ask them if they needed help or a ride, but they waved me on, happy to be walking. We soon came upon another guy, then another couple. Confused, it became clear at the entrance. There was a couple of rangers there now, surrounded by an OCEAN of cars. There must have been at least 200 parked bumper to bumper along the entrance/exit road and of course that meant there were dozens of people around. They’d closed the park to vehicular travel, but cyclists and walkers were still allowed to enter. What a shit show. I guess people had seen the same article Dan had read a couple of days earlier – informing people that park entrance fees were waived and that they should use this opportunity to get out into a National Park – just so they could close it the next day.
We were happy to be out of the chaos, satisfied that we’d got to climb even a little bit. Back to our magical camp, we actually found it occupied! We felt pretty smart now for hiding our firewood behind a rock. We soon figured out they weren’t campers so we just parked the van then clambered up the mound of boulders behind camp so that I could get a couple bars of cell service to call Mum and Dad and give them an update.
Cleo kept watch over the landscape, making sure no further intruders were sneaking up.
She didn’t last long though, sitting in the warm sun, she was soon asleep in Dan’s lap, recovering from yesterday’s ride I’d guess.
As soon as I hung up the phone, our campsite was free and so we descended to our home.
Day 7, Sunday – Ramsie Leaks
We had yet another morning visitor in pretty much the same setting as the day before, only this time we’d finished our breakfast and were just sitting at the fire, watching the mountains and wondering what to do next. “Good morning!” the call came, bring us out of our daze. We were soon informed by this random guy on foot that the area we were in is for hiking only, it was not for camping and DEFINITELY not for fires. We replied politely and he repeated himself a couple of times before telling us he was from the Bay Area just like us. That just made us confused – usually people that have something to say are locals. We were leaving anyway… it was still our best camp. We doused and buried the shit out of the fire so that you couldn’t tell we’d even been there.
Leaving Ramsie at camp, we were on for another ride.
Cleo was just as fast out of the blocks as she had been yesterday but she soon slowed.
We found a few different trails that weren’t on my map and found a couple of great view spots but didn’t venture too far for Cleo’s sake since it was a lot warmer today.
We were grateful for the blue sky, it was the first time we’d had a properly clear and hot day since we’d left.
I was still in amazement that such a class of trails was right outside one of my favourite climbing spots – I won’t be going back without my wheels.
Back “home” we pulled the Atlas out to figure out our next move. We figured we’d come far enough east, it was time to head to the coast and so we were off. Bye camp.
We had a fair drive ahead of us to get to Santa Monica, where we expected to see a normally crowded place deserted. We stopped in at a pet store for an essential new leash, then a grog shop for essential alcohol and even went house shopping in the carpark of a Home Depot, looking at their Tuff Shed houses just for interest’s sake.
Following that, we settled in to the drive, watching the mountains we’d seen from camp become ever-closer.
At Whitewater rest area, we had lunch at the base of the mountains and watched the traffic fly by on the highway. There were a hell of a lot of fifth-wheelers, caravans and trailers full of dune toys like sand rails, dirt bikes and quads. It didn’t take us long to figure out that these people were likely not getting away, but getting kicked out of the dunes like Glamis. This COVID wasn’t going to stop us having a good time though. We enjoyed a couple of drinks over lunch and stayed a while, filling up our water and doing some more Atlas planning. Having not had our fill of climbing, I remembered a climbing spot near LA called Echo Cliffs and picked out a camp at the trailhead there.
We carried on west along highway 10 and unforunately left the blue skies behind us. At Santa Monica we were met with dark clouds and pouring rain, so the place was deserted, but not for the reason we thought. It was getting late in the day by the time we drove through Malibu and turned steeply north into the hills.
We twisted and turned slowly up until we were in the clouds. By the time we got to the Echo Cliffs carpark, we were completely engulfed. There were a few other cars in the lot which confused us, but after an hour or so we saw hikers descend from the wet mountain, after which we had the place to ourselves.
It was a little early for dinner and there wasn’t much hanging out to be done outside, so I wrote while Dan fashioned us a shelter at the back of the van over the kitchen so that I could cook. It was semi-successful, but he couldn’t help the rainfall of water falling from over the doors, under the tarp. We tried in vain to stem the flow but ended up just cooking around it. It did not let up as we scrambled to get our hot food inside. As delicious as our meal was, we couldn’t fully enjoy it because Dan noticed a significant water leak dripping right onto the solar regulator and all my electronics below it. Eek! I whipped out some plastic and protected everything as best I could.
Maybe it would be dry enough in the morning to go climbing?
Day 8, Monday – Hot Spring Cesspool
We woke to conditions similar to the night before, but we were dry so who’s complaining? There was no way we’d be climbing anything, we were still in the clouds. Even if the sun did break through, it would take a whole day to dry out the rock after such a downpour. We conceded to return here to climb another time. It was my second time attempting to approach Echo Cliffs and my second time failing.
Not bothering with breakfast, we wound our way back down the road we’d come up, avoiding a huge spread of rocks over the road from a recent slide.
faces. Back at the ocean, we stopped in at a state beach for breakfast. While
making coffee for Dan, he provided me with some great entertainment when he cracked a spat on the beach with Cleo because she was doing a huge poo and he’d forgotten a doggy bag. After laughing at his tantrum arm-throwing, I chucked our bags down to the beach from where we were parked up above and it just reached him.
Coffee and a bagel later, we were kerb sitting watching Cleo watching squirrels. There must have been at least a dozen living in the bushes and Cleo was zoned in on every single one of them.
With our plans changed yet again thanks to the weather, we were floating and so Dan drove north while I researched options and found one in Santa Barbara in the form of a hike through a pair of canyons. Dan was hungry for lunch and we didn’t have many supplies so we drove to a Trader Joe’s
in the area. When we saw the line out the door we drove straight on past. Next we tried a burger joint for some takeaway but no drive through. Dan was getting pissy so we went straight to Tangerine Falls trailhead, resolving to do lunch when we got there.
We drove through some very fancy neighbourhoods to get to the spot. It took a couple of attempts thanks to a road closure where water from the canyons we’d be hiking completely washed away the tarmac. We passed a
different parking area that seemed quite busy but thankfully at our spot there was room. Not trusting the bikes outside the car, we stashed them inside, packed lunch and water and head on up the trail. We were making a loop out of the Cold Spring and Hot Spring trails with the promise of some hot springs at the historic “Hot Springs Hotel”.
With the rain, the river we were following was raging and it didn’t take us long to find a lunch spot. We propped up my gas stove on a rock to boil water for a dehydrated meal and cracked a beer while we waited. Day drinking was becoming a theme on this trip. Lunch was delicious and with four miles of hiking ahead of us, we were stoked to get onto this trail.
We crossed the river multiple times, climbing steadily up the hill. We’d noticed when driving up the coast to Santa Barbara how well the area had recovered from the fires less than two years ago and we assumed this area was the same. Most large trees had blackened trunks but the fauna was full
of green and colours of the wild flower season that was starting.
As we climbed to Montecito Peak, we left the river behind only for it to be replaced with a great view of Santa Barbara’s coast.
The big blue ocean was a nice sight, one we’d been missing for a while, with a handful oil rigs dotted throughout.
The sky was cloudy but the rain was holding out. Now for an easy trek downwards.
Before long, we could see the stone remnants of the hot spring hotel and sure enough, there were hot springs and lots of them!
According to the spring-breakers dotting the six or so pools, there was no such thing as shelter-in-place or social distancing, only a hot spring party. There was absolutely no room for us and the vibe wasn’t right anyway. It was a really
cool setting with tiered pools, but I could only think of the filth flowing down to the lowest pool.
On the way down, we followed pipes following the trail, full of hot water from the spring source and wow was it hot!
When Dan saw a trickle coming from bushes way higher than the trail, he imagined an undiscovered hot pool from a cracked pipe and so bush-bashed his way up to investigate. I soon lost sight of him in the thick brush. Ten minutes later he was back with a huge smile on his face. There was no pool but he had discovered a break in the pipe and repaired it by propping the two sections up on some rock. Sure enough, the trickle he’d originally noticed was gone. Now to find where that pipe went!
I’d never seen Dan hike so fast! He’d changed the course of water, therefore the future and he wanted to reap the fruits of his labour! The pipe would go out of sight, then come back to the trail, then go underground, then come back again. He was regularly checking the pipe temperature to confirm his hot water was flowing and yes it was! Unfortunately as we came back into
the fancy neighbourhood, there was multiple pipes so it was impossible to know which one was his. We assumed he’d made someone who had an empty pool very happy and he was content with that.
Walking the last half mile past mansions and beautiful gardens was a pleasant glimpse into the lives of the rich and famous. We crossed the great river one last time to get back to Ramsie and were happy with a successful walk.
It was high time for camp so we shopped up (no line this time) and didn’t go far before we started looking. Dan was driving, I was hunting and I was confident because there was acres of National Forest around us. Too cocky apparently. We found at least three national forest campgrounds, lush, beautiful and empty – also CLOSED. While the camphost remained, each place was gated off, we assumed because of the recent shelter-in-place order. Well that was just ridiculous. I could see that the campsites were 60 feet apart, let alone the required 6. What a joke. We saw other vanners driving around in the same position as us which gave us a thirst for some competition.
Plodding along Paradise road, we checked out dozens of potential spots and coming up with nothing. Dan found a spot but it was covered in piles of trash so after running around in circles, we nestled ourselves into a tiny nook right by the road but it was on the inside of a bend and by a big rock so we were invisible. This would do!
There was an old car seat at the camp as well as some suspension bits and Dan found a bloody toilet that had been built into the earth behind our spot. Weird…. We walked up a sort-of trail (passing some old t-shirts) and found ourselves a view on top of a boulder. We enjoyed for a while before heading back and doing fire and dinner. It was a little muddy so our chairs were sinking into the ground but we managed.
In bed, I was just about falling asleep when we both heard noises outside the car. It sounded a hell of a lot like something touching the bikes then distinct footsteps. Dan thought it was something underneath the car. Whatever it was, it had us completely on edge. Dan had a quick look outside and underneath the car with his torch and despite not seeing anything, we decided to bail. The nearby home-made toilet, the well-trodden trails – it was enough to make us think this could be someone’s “”home”, which would make us intruders. Dan was brave enough to grab our chairs and shoes from outside, then we raced outta there. When it doesn’t feel right, it’s just not right.
We ended up at a large pull-out a few miles north and slept easy.
Day 9, Tuesday – An Empty Park
We woke up happy to be alive and safe but the highway was no place for breakfast so we carried on, an early start for us!
We stopped in at Waller Park and had breakfast while laughing at Cleo “hunting” in mole holes and listening to a World News podcast.
With the weather unfavourable for much outdoor activity, we resolved to drive to Pinnacles National Park, which was most of the way home. It was a nice drive, one I had never done coming into the park from the south.
As we drove in to the familiar park, we were astounded at what we saw. Absolute desertion. There were a couple of RVs in the powered sites, and maybe three other campsites occupied, but otherwise not a soul around. The Pinnacles has over 170 campsites and it is IMPOSSIBLE to reserve one less than six months ahead, so this was insane. I went into the office and booked us in at site #10.
Party at the Pinnacles! Before we did anything, we were hitting the showers. We knew we should wash our hands regularly for at least twenty seconds, but does it still count when that is your shower too? We piled
into the girls bathroom and shoved quarters into the shower slot until hot water poured out. It was bliss.
Clean and warm, we had a couple of beers and a yummy lunch spread back at site #10.
We only had the afternoon, so Dan suggested a bike ride to the trailhead with Cleo then a hike to the reservoir which he had never been to. It was a 2.5 mile tarmac roll through the deserted area and another couple miles to the reservoir on single track. Dogs are not allowed on the trails here but we didn’t expect to see a ranger so we risked it.
I’d never seen the Pinnacles so green, it was gorgeous. Dan was suitably impressed by the reservoir which was chock-a-block and again, deserted. As we sat on the banks enjoying another beer (yes, I know!) we
conferred that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity – to be in a place like this completely alone.
That’s what the squirrel behind us thought too. If he was a local, he’d probably never seen a dog before, let alone a pit bull. She got right on the bushy tail of this grey squirrel and chased him into a big crack in a boulder. He squealed and squealed in distress! Before we could pull Cleo back, she rammed the rock with her nose, making the most terrible tooth-on-rock sound. Silly girl, thankfully no damage, but we were amazed at her stupidity. The squirrel persisted in its squealing until Dan threw an empty can at the rock and said “Shut-up!” which he surprisingly did.
A sharp, chill wind was whipping at us over the reservoir so it was time to leave. The ride back was a cruise thanks to it being a descent, meaning Dan could thoroughly enjoy the beer holder he’d fashioned for his bike.
Back at site #10, I cooked and Dan built a fire from damp wood which he got going after fighting with it for a good half hour. It was a chilly night so perfect fire weather and with clouds covering the sky, our entertainment was the flames. That was until Dan heard something move past him. Could we be cursed after the events of last night? This time we caught the bandit red-handed. A raccoon had snuck past us, climbed up onto the picnic table and started helping himself to a Snickers bar. We had the light on him just as he got it unwrapped and we watched him run off with it sticking out of its mouth. Bastard! Cleo had been sleeping in the back of the van with the doors open and she was soon onto it, stumbly from sleep as she was. Dan stopped her short with a stern voice and she was back in the van while we looked for sticks to through at the prick who was eating out Snickers in the bush. We ended up just throwing a pot of water in his direction and that made him get lost. Cheeky bugger.
Day 10, Wednesday – Back to Shelter
I’d heard a few bouts of rain overnight and when we woke it was wet. Not again? This once in a lifetime was too good to be true obviously. We remained in denial as I made breakfast but when we had to shelter in the car to eat we knew we weren’t going to be climbing. Keeping positive, we resolved to return after my four days on-shift to a still-deserted sunny Pinnacles.
There was nowhere left to go but our actual home. Being only an hour and half’s drive away, it was too close and the drive went too quickly. We pulled into the drive and got into our familiar apartment to find it exactly
how we’d left it. Walking in, I felt happy that we can call the thousands of acres of public land our home when the apartment doesn’t suit us. We unpacked and contemplated this new life of “shelter”.
The Days After
I went to work the next four nights to facilitate coronavirus research at SSRL which was being run remotely so it meant us duty operators were the only ones in the building. It was weird, but I found enough to keep me
entertained. During the day, Dan and I played tennis and took Cleo for long walks around the neighbourhood.
On my first day off, we celebrated Dan’s birthday with a climb at newfound Handley Rock. Dan found this little gem on Mountain Project and though it was small and short, there was at least five routes you could top rope with a good spread of grades. It was a great local spot, especially under the circumstances.
We had the place to ourselves in the morning but were soon joined by different gangs of youth who came to the rock to sit in its caves and smoke weed, but that didn’t really bother us.
A few climbs done, Dan felt the inkling to play tennis so we rode over to our local court, a standalone in a place rightfully called Hidden Park. It was taped off. We’d only been here yesterday having fun playing in the
rain. What bullshit. How can two people from the same household playing on an isolated court do any harm? We theorized it was a nearby resident who put up the tape, pissed off that he’d heard people having fun, because apparently that’s not allowed anymore. Dan was not to be disheartened, we rode home and planned our next few days while birthday celebrating.
The next day, the van was packed again – we were going back to the Pinnacles like we’d said. I checked the National Park Service website and the rules had changed, but the park was still open. You couldn’t show up
without a campground reservation so I booked one in.
The entry gate was seriously guarded this time with a ranger in full outfit by his car stopping us. No “Hello” or “How are you?” just “Do you have a campsite?”, “Well yes we do officer!”, “Show me your evidence.” Wow, ok. I showed him a screenshot I’d taken on my phone. I should mention that during this, he was standing within a foot of the car (way less than 6 feet from Dan’s face) and he took my phone and touched it with his virus-hands. After consulting a sheet on his clipboard, he looked up and said, “Ok, you can go.” Well thanks a lot.
Whatever! We were in the park and while it was fuller than last time, probably about three quarters full mostly with families and older couples. They’d obviously spent more than a week at home and needed a way to get out. We parked up at site #78 which wasn’t as good as our #10 but we didn’t care, it was cozy. No bikes this time and you could no longer drive the 2.5 miles to the trailhead so we put our climbing packs on and trotted off through the campsite to the road. Just because there was people in the campground didn’t mean there was anyone out here.
We didn’t see another person on the road, or the adjoining trail. We climbed at the Tourist Trap, the closest crag to the trailhead and a favourite of mine, it was a great place to warm up for a few days of climbing. We did all the normal routes, then I finished on a 5.10a lead that had a cruxy move at the start that Dan gave me a solid belay on.
The next day we climbed at a couple of crags right by the reservoir. When we got there, one lady was sitting under a tree reading a book and despite her solitude, she was happy to see us and we chatted a while before heading over to The Sisters which overlooks the reservoir. I hadn’t climbed here before so it was a bolt-finding adventure especially since the bolts were powder coated a bronze-colour, I think so they don’t shine in the sun and scare the birds. We did a couple of easy but long routes here and simul-rappelled down. I didn’t really like the climbing that much, the wall was at too much of an angle, it felt more like scrambling. Over to the other side of the reservoir, we got onto the “Coyote Ugly” route in Tiburcio’s X, which is a rock right by the reservoir. It was a great climb but the wind picked up towards the top of the route which made it a slightly uncomfortable lead for me. I had a great view from the top watching Dan climb up towards me.
Our final day, we had Discovery Wall to ourselves. It was a sunny day, we had our pick of climbs and we were in total isolation. This was the once in a lifetime chance we’d been hanging out for. We climbed Portent,
then “The Wet Kiss”. Thanks to the anchor I’d set on “The Wet Kiss”, I was able to try out “The Big Pucker”, a 5.10d. I was glad not to have lead it but wow, was it a stellar climb. I really enjoyed the reaches halfway up though a hung a couple of times to figure it out. What a pleasure.
We were all smiles walking back to camp, having been at The Pinnacles three days under the same routine, it almost felt like an evening commute. The drive home was perfectly timed, I got to see my favourite rolling
hills of Hollister while we talked shit about the house we would build in a paddock out here somewhere.
When we got home, we learned that our original shelter-in-place order had been extended from April 7th to May 4th and we were no longer allowed to venture further than five miles from our house, except for the essentials. No more running. We had our chance and we took it.