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Ventana Wilderness

Ventana Wilderness

One of my favorite short stories is Hemingway’s Big Two-Hearted River.  It’s the story of a young man returned from war, affected, negotiating his shell shock in the wilderness, fishing and camping.  The story's themes are delicate and the imagery is acutely intense, a Hemingway trademark.  The landscape, his camp, his cooking, his casts and the way he cleans fish are brilliantly vivid. 

I love bringing literature to life, experiencing the same scenes a character I’ve connected with has experienced.  Friends Pete and Martin were in town from Boston and we made plans for a quick backpacking trip in Big Sur.  While Big Two-Hearted River takes place in Michigan, as I walked into the Ventana Wilderness, I was transported to the pages of In Our Time, as Nick, the matter of fact man Hemingway made himself, heading for a camp to clear his head.  Passages would leap into my head throughout the trip and are interspersed in this text.

It was a long time since Nick had looked into a stream and seen trout.

We got a late jump on PCH and traffic into Ventura County was fucking brutal.  We arrived at Big Sur Station, the old train station predating PCH in the late in the afternoon.  It would soon be dusk and the group voted down hiking into camp by headlamp.  We drove a quick half-mile over to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and miraculously scored one of the last sites.  We setup camp and cracked some beers.  We strolled down to the Big Sur River and I barehanded a little steelhead fry, cornered in a shallow pool.  I didn’t handle him long.  Steelheads populations are fragile, plus I didn’t have a fishing license, angle or not. 

We made a big fire before hitting the hay, listening to a rowdy crew next door who were on acid or mushrooms, giggling and hissing, pretending to be snakes as they slithered through the grass and poison oak around their camp. 

The train went on up the track out of sight, around one of the hills of burnt timber.

In the morning we had a big breakfast and drove to Big Sur Station to meet the Pine Ridge Trail, which cuts 23 miles into the Ventana Wilderness, part of the Los Padres National Forest. 

The trail begins in a dark and loamy redwood forest.  Sunbeams dart between chinks in the woods, lighting carpets of bright green clover.   Banana Slugs add bursts of yellow onto the dark palate of the trees. The trail is relatively flat and stays near the river before climbing above the canopy onto a steep golden ridge, speckled with wildflowers of every color.  The steepness is shocking and takes its toll on the shadeless ridge.  A thousand feet above the river we could see ocean behind, the canyon ahead and the rugged face of the Double Cone Peak, a severe mountain with twin summits spiking like horns from the top.  Ventana means window in Spanish and it is believed that these twin cones were once connected by a rock bridge, giving it the appearance of a window.

The road ran on, dipping occasionally, but always climbing. Nick went on up. Finally the road, after going parallel to the burnt hill, reached the top.

We soon entered a large burn area from a recent wildfire, with cindered punji sticks covering the landscape.  New life grows in the form of Manzanita, chaparral, grass and wildflowers.  The trail runs along this lofty stretch before descending back into the lush redwood and poison oak forest, meeting back up with the river. 


We past Ventana Camp after four miles and the beautiful Terrace Creek Camp after five.  The trail climbs above the trees and back to the river with neurotic abundance through this section and the miles move slower than one would think.  At one moment we were along the river, the next we were high above it on the side of the mountain.  Back up on the ridge we stopped for lunch at the fringe of the burn.  We weren’t far from camp but had not rested yet.  The mountains rose from all directions and we could see the sparkling river far into the canyon.

Two hundred yards down the fire line stopped. Then it was sweet fern, growing ankle high, walk through, and clumps of jack pines; a long undulating country with frequent rises and descents, sandy underfoot and the country alive again.

Finally, we reached Barlow Flat.  A girl was just leaving and pointed us to the premium campsite, just on the river's edge.  Barlow Flats is a deep slow moving stretch of the river with a jade sunlit pool.  The camp is wide, flat and open and though the entirety is about the size of a football field, it feels incredibly intimate.  We were the only ones there and dropped our heavy packs with delight, cheering with the bottles of beer Pete had hauled out. 

We set up camp and considered hiking the couple miles to Sykes Hot Springs.  It was the plan all along but the charm of Barlow Flat, the solitude, the beer and the reports that Sykes was a bit of a dump kept us put.  We walked the river and sat around the wide pool.  We climbed on trees and swam in the frigid April water. 

He smoothed out the sandy soil with his hand and pulled all the sweet fern bushes by their roots. His hands smelled good from the sweet fern.  Nick tied the rope that served the tent for a ridge-pole to the trunk of one of the pine trees and pulled the tent up off the ground with the other end of the rope and tied it to the other pine.

Martin and Pete worked on their shelter on a sandy bank across the river.  They didn’t have tent, just a 10x10 sheet of plastic I had given them.  With cord and sticks they rigged a shelter and harvested giant ferns from a healthy patch for bedding atop the sand. 

Nick swung the rod back over his shoulder and forward, and the line, curving forward, laid the grasshopper down on one of the deep channels in the weeds.   A trout struck and Nick hooked him.    

We were all fishermen and chided ourselves for not bringing a rod to such a perfect habitat for Steelhead.  The great pool below fast rocky shallows, the overhanging trees of a tight forest, a fish couldn’t imagine a more spectacular home.  “If only we had a rod,” we said.

Not five seconds after the utterance, a long, gently tapered branch illuminated, propped up against a dark tree. 

“That would make the perfect rod!” one shouted.  “If only we had line.”

We inspected the branch and lo and behold, there was twenty feet of line tangled around the tip.  We spent a good thirty minutes untangling the line while Pete fashioned a hook from a soda top he found nearby.  We’d have a rig going yet.  Finally the line was untangled and a crude hook was produced.  We skewered a piece of salami to the hook and tossed it in. 

The casts on our makeshift tenkara weren’t pretty and there were no results so report on.  However, the sequence of discovery and the ingenuity to try was a thrill.  Such rustic engineering to hunt a meal threw us deeper into my Big Two-Hearted fantasy.

He was very hungry. Across the river in the  swamp, in the almost dark, he saw a mist rising. He looked at the tent once more. All right. He took a full spoonful from the plate.  "Chrise," Nick said, "Geezus Chrise," he said happily.      

Evening was approaching and we were famished.  We built a fire in the established pit and started cooking.  We grilled sausages over the fire while I boiled water for rice.  I chopped an onion and added it to the rice along with a can of black beans, a bouillon cube and Cajun spice.  I pulled the sausages from the grill and sliced them, adding them to the simmering pot.  My tiny MSR stove buckled under the mass of camp jambalaya and the spice wafted against the wood smoke, watering our mouths. 

The stew came out mediocre but we indulged unconsciously.  After dinner we passed around some whisky and brandy, telling stories, etc.  After burning our stockpile of wood, we turned in and slept to the passing river.

In the morning, we broke camp and head back for the trailhead.  The narrow wavelengths of trail contour were brutal as we broke through the barrier which often exists in the first mile of exercise.  Soon we were moving at a good clip, documenting each species of wildflower we came across. 

As we past the burn area, Pete’s phone caught service.  His fiancé was at Logan Airport and they had locked it down.  It was Marathon Monday in Boston and the bombs had just gone off. 

It was a stark juxtaposition, disappeared into the gorgeous wilderness away from violence, war, economics, politics, worry and misfortune while hearing these first hand accounts of horror in Boston.  I was concerned, for Kristen at the airport especially, but also frustrated the world had found us after we set out to lose it.  The trail was coming to an end and all that waits across it’s threshold had reached in to pull us back.  We finished the hike with smiles and relief as news unfolded.  I was the only one of us not from a Boston suburb and the mood moved from joy to concern to curiosity and back. 

So much of Big Two-Hearted River was evident in the mountains—the forests, the river and fish beneath—but the subtlety in the story was most obvious here in real life.  The wilderness is a powerful fortress and amid the pain and chaos of the world, of life, we run to it to escape, to forget, to heal. 

We drove to ­­­­­ Big Sur Café, a heady organic lunch spot we usually stop at.  After a cold beer and a sandwich we parted ways with Pete and Martin.  They were headed for San Francisco, we were going back to LA.  More news poured over the radio riding home while the Big Two-Hearted River, the Big Sur River, was at peace all the same.