Sunday, January 29, 2006

Neenach and the Tehachapis from Liebre Mountain

PCT Trip 17 Aqua Dulce, Ca to Highway 138 at Neenach, Ca January 22nd to 25th 2006.

This was almost 62 miles. We picked up Captain Bivy (Paul Freiman) at Highway 138 and dropped him off in the dark at Elizabeth Canyon to complete a section for himself. It wasn’t until we got there that we saw what a tough climb he had ahead. We were fortunate to be able to stay with the Saufley’s at Hiker Heaven in Agua Dulce, CA, the night before the hike. They have a trailer behind the house and it was heated! They are the best PCT Angels and wonderful people.

We managed about four hours of sleep before the first day but I never felt tired. You follow the road out of town for a mile or so before you hit the dirt again. What looks like a junk yard has the fuselage of a large commercial aircraft in it. It was a very windy day and as we gained a view of the lovely sequestered Annan Ranch, we were almost blown off our feet. There is a large exposed vein of quartz along the trail and scattered pieces all about as if someone had tried to blow it out of the ground. The mountain here is called Sierra Pelona. It is better looking than most mountains, and though it is high the trail is an easy grade. It was plenty windy on top so we didn’t dawdle long.

We passed some French day-hikers on the way down and took our lunch in a quiet spot soon after. Ray took a quick nap which he does so easily. I’m jealous anyway. We got to Bouquet Canyon Road, the source of the day-hikers, crossed the street, and started another trek up the hill there. Within a mile and a quarter we saw two small streams running well. It appears, though there have been some recent rains, that last year’s massive downpours have kept a lot of streams and springs going into the new season. Our day ended at 4:30PM with about 18 miles traveled. We worry about finding camping spots in this chaparral cloaked area, but were surprised to find the Anderson’s Oasis water cache before road 6N09 to be the perfect spot. They hollowed out an area under a large Manzanita, put in lawn chairs, a pink flamingo and a hanging skeleton – I guess for a Halloween theme. It fit two of our tents, and Bill put his in a big spot on the trail. We cooked our new trail food: Tortellini with dried tomatoes. It was terrific! It got to 36 degrees that night, but we were warm and comfortable in our bags.

The chaparral here is boring and unattractive. This is a devilish section in the late spring and summer. We weren’t consuming a lot of water but it is critical later in the year. For the first time on the PCT, I wore my wind stopper jacket all day. The trail after Bouquet Canyon Road is in poor shape. It needs maintenance. We saw the first evidence of motorcycles using the trail. They had ripped up the tread in many places where the ground was soft and muddy. It creates erosion zones, is bad for the trail and just plain illegal. I believe about 70% of the trail has been used by them between Agua Dulce and Highway 138. We hate the results of what they are doing. Bill said if he lived closer to this section he would come out on the weekend with a lawn chair and a camera and get them in trouble.

There are remnants of wild cucumber on the entire section. This is one strange looking plant. Passing San Francisquito Canyon, another big climb, we saw two big water caches that had been brought up from the dirt road below. Elizabeth Canyon was running well. This is a tough section because you are going up and down crossing canyons. We are strong hikers but it wasn’t easy. We saw some great views of the eastern Antelope Valley. The desert and surrounding mountains are beautiful. We have a great view of the sections ahead. At length, we ran into some conifers, big cone spruce, and soon after saw some black oaks with their acorns making the ground slippery. The big surprise, though it shouldn’t have been, was snow. It started to cover the ground in patches and eventually nearly covered it completely. We passed a beautiful stand of trees that looked good for camping but was too windy. Our camp for the night was built by a scout troop in the nineties and, though chilly, had a very soft duff so we slept very well. We didn’t cook hot breakfast because of the shortness of the days – wanting to make the most of daylight. We are all coffee drinkers and Ray brought some magic beans from his wife Kay (at least that is what I named them) – chocolate covered coffee beans, to feed our need at the beginning of the day.

The next morning we passed a stream that had a cap of ice over the small waterfall, and
a small pond behind it that would have been the perfect ice rink for fairies. You can see the Pacific here; I don’t remember ever seeing it since the start at Campo. The coulter pines are a beautiful species with a large cone. They are found here healthy and beautiful. Also sprinkled about are incense cedars which they make pencils from. Most of the hills are chaparral and brush so these trees are a gift to walk through.

We always carry a ton of information on these trips. I have step-by-step directions, Bill has a GPS and maps, and we always study the section before we go. Still sometimes we get confused. There is an intersection of the old and new PCT on Liebre Mountain. The sign is broken and we stood around, walked around, and consulted our notes and the stars before taking off the right way. Our friend. Paul Freiman, 2 days ahead of us, wasn’t so lucky. He went 2 miles down the wrong way before stopping for the night and doubling back in the morning.
On the way down to Pine Canyon Road, we made our last camp under a massive oak in a grass covered saddle sprinkled with ice. No wind and soft undergrowth. I spent my 12 hours in my tent sleeping or listening to Stephen King’s Carrie. The whole area has clumps of Miner’s Lettuce which I ate a handful of. Bill and I promised ourselves to make a salad the next time we run into it.

We left our long underwear on for the last cool segment but we had to strip them off at Pine Canyon Road. On the way down we saw maybe two tons of Mistletoe hanging everywhere, 4 or 5 washouts of the trail in the creeks, the remains of last year’s fire, a bizarre post conflagration plant and, surprisingly, fruit trees. We couldn’t figure out which kind from the mummified fruit on the ground, but it was remarkable at that altitude. Miner’s Lettuce everywhere, and beautiful views of the valley below including a giant crop circle of green grass or alfalfa. The trail is in rough condition here. We descended slowly, sure in our minds this would be an easy day. At Pine Canyon there is a river, and we passed a bucolic vernal pond with ducks. A road worker grading the sides of the road from a washout said he would like to hike, too, but hadn’t been in that kind of shape since the army. We assured him he could do it. He also said that deer sightings in the area, once common, were way down due to increasing populations of mountain lions: something I confirmed later. Comforting…

Then we crossed the street into No Man’s Land. The map showed a gentle slope down to our terminus of about 7 miles, but it turned into a roller coaster through Hell’s Half Acre. A topographic map shows altitude in 40 foot contours so it looked like we would go down about 1000 feet until the end, but in reality it goes up and down meaninglessly and strenuously through hills until the last 500 or so yards. To top it off the whole section is burned out. Very few pleasant sights except the occasional glimpse of the valley ahead and the shock of a gingerbread mansion dream house on a hill nearby. The PCT handbook says this torturous section was designed by lawyers from the Tejon Ranch who kept the PCT skirting their land 20 years ago. They have agreed to reroute the trail through their property sometime in the future, which will take it out of the desert and properly through the mountains as God intended.

We found a dead ostrich tied to a fence not long before highway 138. Our first impression was of an animal owner’s cruelty though we will never know. We were pretty tired and achy at the end, but took the time to visit Bob at Hikertown across the street to get permission to park our car there for our next segment. We walked a mile east to Gil’s Country Store in Neenach to wait for Jeff Saufley for our ride back to Agua Dulce. Those 3 hours will live in our memories forever. We met, saw and listened to the strange and interesting characters of a small town.

Gil of course doesn’t sell stuff on credit anymore. His wife runs the store now because he is laid up in the trailer out back: He shattered his leg while trying to collect on a debt. Patty, who has worked at the store for 6 years through 3 owners, was there, and the guy who built the store in ’75 and ran it for 15 years stopped by to say, “Hi.” Another “Gil”, Gilbert, a big hulk of a man from Lebec “since 48”, who knew everything about the surrounding area, played with the giant five month old dog who tried to eat our food. A cowboy, who stopped by to pick up hay, went in and out of the place 5 times, walking like he spent most of his time on a horse. At least five school buses dropped off kids from area schools while parents picked them up. Several people got the new lecture about no credit, and one slightly brain damaged young man asked for a case of beer that he would pay for on Thursday, while his Methamphetamine-high friend waited in the truck for him. I asked Patty what percentage of their sales was alcohol and cigarettes and she said, “All of it.” It was almost more interesting than the last 4 days.

We have traveled 519 miles on the trail and it has been challenging and fun. The next segment crosses 16 miles of desert before going up into the Tehachapi’s. See you soon.