Being alone on the trail is a soothing, grounding experience. It forces a level of comfort with the self and the here-and-now that the distraction of company doesn’t offer. Getting comfortable with that is, however, a whole different matter.
It’s high time I introduce my son to a trail that means so much to me – Bridge to Nowhere in the San Gabriel National Monument mountains, CA. It’s where I cut my hiking and backpacking teeth; it’s the first place I’ve witnessed the changing of the seasons and come to know as a second home on the trail. He naps as I maneuver the winding mountain roads and wakes with anticipation when I finally pull into the familiar parking lot. There are few cars and even fewer people on the trail; we have it to ourselves in its rugged beauty.
I wrangle precious cargo onto my chest and back. In front my wide-eyed son, on my back 40 liters of painting and baby hiking gear. I have an emergency shelter and extra formula packed away, a personal locator beacon just in case of emergencies, my hands full of trekking poles and bear spray at the ready. It all weighs heavily on my shoulders, but the weight is nothing compared to the one on my psyche.
Inspiration strikes everywhere on the trail – on the summit of a mountain or in the depths of a canyon, in the middle of the day or when the sun is quickly setting. A painting kit that’s light enough to carry, tough enough to endure the trail and quick enough to deploy on snack breaks or when the light is fading is essential for plein air painting on the trail! Here is my set-up:
Not every adventure can be an isolated multiday far away from civilization. I’ve been extremely lucky to have a plethora of hiking trails newly discovered in my part-time residence here in the San Diego area. These trails are little hidden gems in the midst of urban sprawl. The climbs may have buildings marring the view but the climbs themselves give a taste of the wilderness, the herons are just as graceful here as they are in the backcountry and the views of the distant ocean are breathtaking from the peak of a local park as they are in the early morning mist of northern California’s rugged sealine trails.
The smallest dormant volcano in North America requires some short but rugged climbs to get to the top. A reservoir at the foot of this fascinating geological structure is home to fish, waterfowl and attracts an assortment of local wildlife. Behind the volcano is a network of trails sprawling across the rolling hills.
Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve
Forest meets chaparral through this network of trails exploring the bubbling rush of a creek and up upon a peak overlooking the land onto the ocean in the distance. The trails offer the rocky, rough terrain hikers crave and the ease of proximity in San Diego county. There are easy walks and tough climbs as the trail network creates fascinating out-and-back hikes or can be linked together for a slightly longer loop.
In complete honesty I crave the expansive backcountry of long trails with nary another soul in sight. In the interim, these little tastes of wild home tides my wanderlust and sooths the soul until the next big adventure.
I dreamed of traction spikes crunching into ice and snow gracing the soaring geology of the Grand Canyon in winter. It was a dream we rush into reality as my pregnancy moves along into the fifth month. The frigid air nips at our unacclimated faces on the porch of the Yavapai Lodge as we disembark to the South Kaibab trail. Herds of elk meander along the rim while condors freewheel overhead, striking the clear blue sky through with their imposing black wingspan. There is no snow despite the cold. The brutal series of switchbacks decending into the canyon peals away layer after layer of breathtaking scenery of the Grand Canyon’s interior.
They cut my abdomen open and gave me cabin fever when I birthed my son. A c-section is major abdominal surgery. Combined with the residual pregnancy-complication related back and hip pain, I spent the first few weeks of my son’s life teetering around with a cane. I was a postpartum wobbly tornado of stir-crazy eagerness.
Needless to say I wasn’t in the most reasonable mindframe when I swore that I was going to solo trek the Trans-Catalina Trail at three months postpartum.
I’ve done this trail a few times before. There really is no excuse for not knowing better. The trail traverses the length of Catalina Island just off the coast of southern California. Its unmaintained, meandering singletrack follows the coastline and diverts deep into the interior of the island where there is no refuge from the unrelenting sun and arid conditions. The harsh climbs and off-trail wanderings around bison are the price paid for beautiful campsites on the beach.
I’ve seen this trail wreck athletes with ultralight packs and trail runners with support.
I board the boat and set off for Catalina Island anyway.
The expanse of Death Valley seems unfathomable as our two-jeep party enters the park via long highways and high, winding roads. The desert stretches into the distance and is framed by the rugged ridgelines of mountains and stricken through by the blinding white of salt flats. Two coyotes pose by the one lonesome National Park sign as we hit the park boundary proper, and out of nowhere: Stovepipe Wells, a small, rustic town with amenities such as a restaurant and gas station. We stop to fill up on gas and give our rigs a last-minute check, then hit the dirt road past the claustrophobic campground and empty airstrip.
The washboarded road leads us through flat expanses of sand, volcanic rock and brush, the mountains growing ever-closer, imposing as twilight casts them into stark relief. We quickly leave the noise and buzzing energy of Stovepipe Wells behind and silence welcomes us.
We don’t see much of anything when we arrive at Moab, UT. A half day’s drive stretched into the wee hours of the morning. Such is life when on the road with a three-month old baby. After a few hour’s sleep the morning sun reveals the powerful Colorado and beautifully bizarre red rock formations characteristic of the land – just steps away from our camp site. Despite my apprehension for the day’s plan, I stop and paint.
The baby is left in his grandma’s good hands. I am new to this. I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m putting my faith in my wonderful friend and skilled river-rafter to get me from point A to point B still breathing. We load up the agile two-person raft and set off along the Colorado.
Introducing my good friends to the Bridge to Nowhere trail was something I anticipated with great joy. I knew they’d fall in love with its calming waters, riparian greenery and imposing geology. The weather was warm and the hike itself was simple as we cooled off in the river and found one of the many small camps where we put up the hammock and enjoyed the peace offered by the San Gabriel Mountains.
The brutal summers take a toll on the river. The sunken levels mildly reroute the trail and expose banks of sand and granite that would be otherwise hidden. I painted as my friends skipped rocks across the shallows. I’ve been hiking and painting this trail for years, but this particular season was disconcerting. I have never seen the river so low. This painting is aptly titled “The River Survives”, done in oil on 10 x 8″ canvas panel.
Utah went out the window when our two-jeep caravan crawled its way through highway gridlock past a big rig on its side. That’s when Mom’s ’92 Jeep TJ stalled.
Instead of making the nine-hour drive to Moab to meet up with a good friend, do some rafting and some offroading, we wound up calling a tow truck on the side of a two-lane highway in the desert just outside of Las Vegas, NV. The noisy highway made a stark contrast to the expanse of golden desert shrub and the shadows of complex joshua trees cast by the tenacious noon sun. We got out of our vehicles and away from the impatient traffic hitting the gas as they passed the big rig accident.