The customary rattle and clang of my rickety rav4 bounces along forest route 2E18, balanced on a thin line between a machine capable of self-locomotion and a heap of lifeless metal. As the route climbs steadily it rounds the eastern slopes and ridges of Sugarloaf Mountain near Big Bear. Views of the desert floor stretching to the horizon thousands of feet below draw a stark contrast to the alpine forest and oft snow-capped peaks nearby. Stopping for the tenth time to check the photocopied sheet of hand drawn maps marking remote ‘yellow-post’ campsites doesn’t reassure me that I haven’t already passed site #57. The everlasting possibility that it may be around the next bend keeps me inching my way further into the wilderness.
Approaching a saddle at 8500’ the single lane track intersects another fire-road. The campsite is supposed to be off to the left and although this road is not marked on the map it seems diligent to confirm it is not the place. The road quickly deteriorates into loose scree and scraggly brush whistling as it encroaches, scraping the side of the car. It’s the kind of road that a non-4wd vehicle has no business navigating but one of those situations where, once you’ve invested in a bad plan, you keep on investing because to self-arrest is to waste all of that effort already paid. Three quarters of a mile down, at the bottom of the steep rocky descent, the road is closed off to vehicles. There is a meadow fed by Wilhorse spring which is probably not the site but a heavenly place to camp regardless.
The green pasture, the serenading chirps of countless birds, the lack of any traffic noise all descends on me a little riotously. After a moment of withdrawal and panic I settle in to my primitive existence. As breathing slows, the senses flow. The sun sets and a vast star scape scatters above the silhouettes of towering pines. The next morning, having depleted what little water I brought with me, I trek down to the spring to fill up some bottles. After a slow morning of repacking I warm up the engine and decide to give the road a go. The first section near camp is flat but rocky with a deep trench running diagonally which prevents me from gaining speed before hitting the next most steep section, a visibly crumbling slope of ‘golf-ball’ to ‘bowling-ball’ sized boulders and other loose debris. There’s only a few inches to maneuver on each side.
The car stutters as I try to keep the momentum going. Then it lurches and tumbles up onto the slope eventually swerving side to side and grinding loudly as the wheels kick out loose gravel and eventually spin into soft sand beneath. I reverse down the hill. Shaky, I examine the scene of the crime on foot. Then try my approach again angling to the right up the hill a bit. This only causes the loose sand on the hill to collapse as the front wheels slide down laterally getting stuck in a new depression. After reversing and trying again my attempts seem to be getting worse and probably making the road worse too. I stand there for a while listening intently wondering what to do. A distant hum turns out to be nothing more than a plane. In fact, looking up I can see unreachable jetliners heading for LA. I keep an ear out for any passing cars on the parallel fire road 100 meters above me. 0-3 cars drive this traverse on a weekend day.
An adequate answer for the smartass that asks why I brought my measly vehicle out here escapes me as I begin clearing the biggest loosest rocks from the road. I try to drive it again and this doesn’t help a bit. I get out and stand there panting. I clear a few more rocks on the lower section hoping to get a better run up. But when revving the engine the wheels just spin despite the flatter terrain. Akin to riding a bike up a hill covered in coconuts. Stressing out doesn’t help. A chill followed by a warm burning courses through my spine as I realize how STUCK DOWN HERE I am. I'm resigned to trying again despite feeling increasingly helpless. After clearing as much of the loose gravel as I can in the worst areas I give it a little gas and the wheels kick and spin but then miraculously catch and bobble an inch or two ahead then catch and lurch forward a foot swiveling to one side before grinding up a couple feet till they finally spin to a halt.
Cleared patches and brake rocks still in place.
This time, having made it past the original ‘difficult’ portion I throw on the parking break and jump out. Placing big rocks behind each wheel to keep them from rolling back I dig out all the sand and pebbles around the tires. Ankle deep in dirt and rocks, desperation grows. Rest before the next go. It’s difficult even to climb into the car because it’s situated at such a steep angle. It seems the whole thing may just slide backwards at any moment. I unload everything that has any significant weight, jump back in and start it up. I let the car ‘rest’ back on the supporting boulders then accelerate forward till the wheels spin. I repeat this process rhythmically rocking until the wheels finally bounce forward out of the old troughs. It’s going, it’s going? it’s going! Hang on, keep the gas even, don't let head smash into window. The road levels off before curving and rounding another treacherously steep loose area with big misshapen rocks. Somehow I manage to get through on my first try and finally reaching the intersection with the other road I pull the car into some shade and shut it off.
It takes a moment for the shock to lift and the fact that I have actually excavated myself to sink in. Relief washes over me. Silly how it feels like a new lease on life. As I trudge up and down the hill with sleeping bags and camera gear dangling from my limbs I consider how illustrative this experience is. In these moments the great analogy is about the empowerment of overcoming obstacles in all walks of life. But something else teases me. The idea that anyone can experience enlightenment by defeating long odds, but to become a master of any endeavor you must encounter and overcome those particular obstacles time and time again. We train endlessly so that we can sharpen our ability to do this. So that it becomes second nature and doesn’t require conscious effort. If I wanted to become an off-road champion(which I am sure that I don’t) after just narrowly managing to navigate the ascent and escape the ravine I should turn around and drive right back down to the bottom of the hill! This is where many endurance athletes get into dangerous water. By realigning perceptions to view challenges as training, we forget the benefits of paying attention to fear and discomfort. Namely that these intuitions keep us ‘safe’ or sometimes ‘healthy’. If I had listened to the part of me that didn’t want to risk going down an unmarked road which clearly became increasingly difficult, I might have spared myself the panic and potential hazard of getting stranded. Then again one might argue that if we always lived like this we may never come across the unmapped meadows that lie just around the next bend...