It’s been a breathtaking week at Echo valley farm. The nights specifically with a moon so big and bright you’d think it was Alaska in the summertime. I look out on the nighttime fields to find the vegetable rows glowing and the fruit trees iridescent reflecting the soft moonlight clear as day.
Before I recount this story let me give some background: this is an adventure post (although I’ll weave in food somehow), this area is on mountain lion alert (didn’t get the memo until recently), we don’t have cell phones (they don’t work out here), and we were only going to be gone a little while …
It has really been a storybook week with temperatures in the high 60’s during the day and moonbeams ablazing at night. My boyfriend comes to celebrate Valentine’s day and I have made promises of wood-oven cooked local salmon, fresh baked bread, nettle pesto pizza, local beer made from Echo Valley Farm hops, fire in the hearth, hot tubbing, and long trail runs. Fun!
We like to run together. We like to run about 10 to 12 miles at least. Anything less just feels like a warm-up. We spend the morn testing my new pumpkin butter-rosemary bread while sipping strong hot coffee and staring out onto the farm from the porch of my cabin. It’s a misty magical foggy morning. The sun has disappeared. But it’s still warm and pleasant.
The new adorable mini cow (Bambi) is moo-ing to us, the goats are bleating, the chickens are clucking, and one dozen baby ducklings arrive in the mail. The farm is just too cute for words.
We stuff ourselves and around 3:30 P.M. decide that we should work off our gluttony with a run. I’ve found a few short trail loops around here that I supplement with a little roadside action. But I have it on good word there’s a nice wide trail just a half mile away I have yet to try out.
Loma Mar is a special part of the Bay Area. It’s half way between Santa Cruz and San Francisco, fifteen minutes inland from the Pacific ocean and Pescadero (which is the closest town). It’s at the base of the Santa Cruz mountain range which is basically one enormous wild preserve with a few mountain towns scattered throughout.
Loma Mar is slightly off the grid surrounded with magnificent old growth redwood forests (some of the last remaining) and some State Parks that are mostly empty. And Loma Martians like it like that. I’ve seen the “Don’t Tread On Me” flag flying proud around these parts. Don’t get me wrong, people are super friendly around here and I absolutely think this is heaven on earth, but at the same time it’s pretty common to not know all your neighbors – jes’ like anywhere I s’pose.
We find the entrance to the trail I’ve been searching for and it’s a wide forgotten fire road called “Old Haul”. It’s perfect for running side by side. How romantic! The old gravel bed beneath our feet is littered with redwood tree leaves and it’s nice & bouncy. The air clears our thoughts with the fresh scent of bay laurel, ferns, redwood bark, and moss covered earth. Banana slugs crawl out to greet us – this is what Northern California is all about.
The forest tree canopy keeps the temperature just right for running – not too hot or cold. The fine mist that’s been lightly showering us all day gently washes away our harsh salty sweat and keeps us hydrated. We tear off layers of clothes and pick up our pace as we begin a mild ascent up some unknown part of the Santa Cruz Mountains. I’m feeling so good I could leap and pirouette my way up the hill.
This is called runner’s high: when you feel you can run forever, you relish inner thoughts, you feel one with nature, your heart no longer is pounding but rather sailing along on cruise control, and talking is easy – not labored – with no gasping for air inbetween.
If you run long distances, or even short ones for that matter, you will understand how annoying it is to come back whence the way you came. It is always better to do a loop. At least I think so. Especially when you get that runner’s high going and you want to keep the momentum going forward.
We have seen no trail markers or hikers so far. Which is sort of perfect we think. The woods are just for us today. So we agree to run 45 minutes on Old Haul and then turn around. That way we’ll make it back before dark which is around 6PM out here in the country.
But no. We come across two hikers.
Stopping briefly we ask where the trail we are on is headed. We find out it’s a straight shot to Portola Park – no looping around. I ask stupidly: “By chance do you guys know of any trails that will loop back to Loma Mar that just happen to bisect Old Haul?”
Of course they do…
“See you just go a few miles more up Old Haul trail, then turn on Snaggletooth trail, then take the Bridge trail to the Easterly Pomponio trail, and that brings you back to Loma Mar.” The hikers warn that it’s a good 5 miles. That’s peanuts to us, so we decide we’ll make it back home in plenty of time. They offer to give us their trail map.
“Oh, no thanks.” we politely respond, “That’s okay, we won’t need it, thank you anyways, enjoy the rest of your hike!”
That was mistake numbers: one, two, and three.
We shouldn’t have been running in an area that was closed just two days before because of a Mountain lion attack (not that we knew). We should have stuck to the plan and not run off the main trail, and we should have taken the trail map off those two hikers.
We continue up Old Haul a couple miles more and sure enough we see a marker for Snaggletooth trail. “Wanna do it?” I ask questioningly because the trail entrance is covered with a broken tree branch and it’s a single track that looks like it’s been unloved for a good ten years. “Sure, we can always come back if we want, we know that Old Haul will take us home”.
Snaggletooth trail, like the name suggests, is snaggled with broken branches and it’s muddy but nonetheless fun. We find the most magnificent Sequoia twisting clear up to heaven and it’s probably around 1400 years old.There are so few sequoias in this area that I’ve become familiar their history. It’s one of my favorite trees. I give it a hug and run on.
We find the Bridge trail and head up that and now we’re thinking we are well on our way home. Easy. No turning back now. “Those hiker guys really knew what they were talking about. This is fun! What a great undiscovered run!” I chirp, totally intoxicated from the fresh air and my runner’s esprit.
“Yeah, this is pretty awesome. We certainly have the whole forest to ourselves…” My friend responds just as caught up in the spirit of the adventure.
We come to an intersection of 6 different trails and an illegible trail map that is, by the way, the only one we’ve seen along the way. We see the Pomponio trail the hikers told us to take. We go for it. The time is around 5PM and it is starting to get darker and colder, but no worries…
We take Pomponio trail for a few miles and it’s a fairly flat run which is a welcome relief from the last 8 miles of uphill. We are chatting, breathing in the fresh mountain air, and just having a great time on our little adventure. My calf muscles are cramping but I’m not bitching about it because I know we gotta get home and – we’re almost home anyways.
The trail splits. One way crosses a bridge and leads to a County Jail which is clearly marked with big signs that caution us to stay away. “Crossing this property with alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs is a felony offense…”. The other path, which has an unreadable marker that’s been hacked through or struck by lightening, continues uphill on a nice wide path.
Had I known that the County Jail was really the Boys Juvenile Hall I would have run through it because I know that the entrance leads to Pescadero Creek Road which leads us back to the farm. But I thought it was some hidden county adult jail and the signs were more than off-putting. Too bad for us, because the Pomponio trail we are looking for picks up again just to one side of this correctional facility. How could we have known? Thank you San Mateo County and California State Parks!
“I don’t know if we should turn around now.” My friend says looking at his watch.
“I know. There’s no way we can get through that Snaggletooth trail again in the dark. No way. Too dangerous. There won’t be any light tonight. I think last night was the full moon. This path has got to take us somewhere. It’s got to get us to a road or a park entrance. We can’t be that far from Loma Mar.”
Mistake number four: do not guess where an unmarked trail goes when you are running out of time before it gets dark.
But here’s what was going through both of our heads: what if civilization is just a 1/2 mile away and we turn around and risk running back 9 miles in the dark through some pretty wet precarious trails? What if we’re almost home? We’ve got to be almost home!
The unmarked trail that we are now on just goes steadily up and up and up. The flora and fauna change, the trees become twiggier and the redwoods thinner. Crows circle their nests and caw to each other and at us. (So this is where all those egg stealer’s go! They’ve been driving our chickens crazy!) We are not in Loma Mar anymore that is certain. Every hollowed out tree we pass I try and memorize just in case – just in case we might need some protection and shelter tonight…
Our immediate mission now is to get to the crest of the mountain so we can try and gain some perspective on the situation before the light is totally gone.
We come to another marker. I’m beyond thirsty even though my face is covered with mist, I attempt to wet my palate by licking my lips, instead I get a mouth full of rock salt – blech! This marker now gives 3 new directions not previously mentioned before: the Overlook Loop, the Horse Trail, and the Canyon Trail. There are no mile indicators. We have no idea which one to choose. It’s Russian roulette.
What’s that Mary Ivins quote? The first rule of holes: when you’re in one, stop digging?
Sage advice be damned, we choose the Canyon Trail since it seems to crest the mountain we’ve already climbed. It must come down and out somewhere. We are walking now. Or rather, I am walking because my calves are cramping super bad and it feels like I’m being stabbed in the leg repetitively. My friend is running ahead to try and find trail information and running back with new reports.
“There’s another marker, it’s close, come on, I don’t know where it goes but…”
I force myself to jog (limp) lightly to the next marker. I look at it and I’m perplexed because the trail that we were just on seems to end and now three others begin. “Are you kidding me?!? Three more new trails? What happened to the one we were just on? What is going on with all these trails that just disappear? This is insane!”
One direction reads: Sam MacDonald Park Ranger Station. I know this park well. Or I used to know it well. I camped there when I was a kid all the time. That was only 30 years ago…
I also know that Sam MacDonald Park is not anywhere close to Loma Mar. It’s at least 15 miles away from the farm and higher up in the Santa Cruz Mountains towards the town of La Honda. But I figure we are closer to that now than to anything else considering how much we’ve been running uphill – which feels like 12 miles or more. And San MacDonald Park is a known entity. The other trails could go anywhere…
We are relieved. We have found a marker that makes sense. We run again even though it’s now raining and the trails are slick. My friend takes a bad fall, but brushes it off. He’s covered in mud. Hope is near we think. We are almost home. We are joking again. I’m talking about how good it’s going to feel to jump in the hot tub and quench our thirst with some nice pale ale.
Uh, yeah, right. Wishful thinking.
And besides Farmer’s Kate and Jeff will wonder where we are. They know I wanted to do a farm dinner tonight. We talked about it. She will come knocking at my cabin and will smell my second batch of bread in my bread machine (no apologies for this little machine, I really like the convenience factor). I’ve told her the menu already: B.L.T.’s with a farm fried egg and roasted blue hubbard-garlic soup. She will see the last of the Echo Valley Farm Bacon defrosting on my counter and surely know that we have gone missing – I would never waste good bacon like that! Oh Lordy, no!
Yeah, and leaving breadcrumbs in the woods is a sure way to find your way back.
What could Farmer’s Kate and Jeff do anyways? Unleash the hounds? Form a search and rescue party? There’s nothing anyone can do in this weather. Not until morning.
The sun, which we have never seen today anyway, is sinking. We are lost. We are alone. We are cold. We are hungry. But we are trying our best to tell each other jokes and keep our spirits up. My boyfriend says encouragingly, “If we can get through this, we can get through anything.”
And I’ve always felt safe in these woods. They’re my woods. I spent many summers here with my parents and the Girl Scouts camping and hiking. I can forage for just about anything out here if need be. But this is not exactly a time to forage. This is a time to figure out where the hell we are and get back to civilization.
The trail that apparently will lead us to the ranger station splits again in four different directions. At this point it is laughable. We have no idea which way to go. We can’t tell North from South because we haven’t seen the sun the whole freakin’ day but my spider senses are telling me we need to go downhill and go fast. We need to find one of the creeks and follow it. Pescadero or La Honda creek – I don’t care. We just need to find one because most of the campsites, houses, and roads are close to them. (Why didn’t I think of this earlier – dumb – mistake number: three thousand and two)
Leaving the wide open space of the crest of the mountain which has provided absolutely no view, we head back into the thick redwood forest following a new path yet again: the Heritage trail. We are walking fast. It’s too dangerous to run. Too many obstacles, too little light, too wet and rainy. We can only see about ten feet in front of us – it’s all just different fuzzy shades of grey at this point. The only thing lighting our way is the lichen that radiates an eerie day-glow green all over the forest. It feels like a haunted house.
I’m leading the way and I luckily stumble on another marker with three more trails that split off from it. I get down on my knees to read it closer because I can’t make out the words in the dim light. One of them is (again) leading to the Sam MacDonald Ranger station. Hallelujah! We’re back on track!
“Did you see that? Did you see something move up ahead?” I ask not sure if my eyes are just playing tricks on me in the dim light and shadows are shifting.
“I can’t see anything. I hope it’s not a skunk! Want me to take the lead?”
“I think my vision is still okay for right now. I’ve got another 10 minutes before it all goes dark on me.”
My friend has picked up a heavy 12 pound walking stick which I am teasing him about it: “You look like a German hiker. Where’s your lederhosen and your mustache? Are you really going to carry that beast the whole way?”. I don’t like to carry walking sticks because I like to have my hands free in case I fall, but…
It’s pitch dark now and only 6:30 P.M. we can’t see to save our lives. My friend is in the lead now with his big walking stick and I am grasping on to the hood of his jacket like a duck on a june bug. That walking stick is our saving grace – I’m eating my words big-time. “Close your eyes,” he says, “We can’t see anything anyway, just focus on feeling the trail”.
He is stabbing the trail with his stick from side to side feeling for the ravine on our right and the mountain bank on our left and I’m doing the same but with my feet.
I have never in my life had to go without the sense of sight and I had no idea just how acute my other senses could be. I am navigating with my feet and I can make out the differences between the hard trail and the soft redwood tree litter of the banks. He says to me what I’ve been thinking for the last hour, “I’m glad I’m getting lost with you. I wouldn’t want to be here with anyone else.” and I know what he means. This isn’t a cute love-line per se, it’s just that we are both in survival mode and freaking out is not an option.
We joke about how you just don’t know some one until you’ve been in a life & death situation with them. Stories I’ve heard recently where hikers make stupid simple mistakes and die run through my mind. I keep this to myself of course. This is not going to happen to us. These are my woods. I was practically raised here.
Shit, I think to myself, I won first place in the Girl Scout regional fire building competition and the botany identification competition at Sam MacDonald park a quarter century ago. And I won first place in these two competitions for four years straight. We are not going to die. Not that I could make a fire in these wet conditions or identify a plant in the night, but we are going to get through this. I didn’t sell Girl Scout cookies for nuthin’!
And trust me, I would really like to cry, but I know it’s not going to get us anywhere. And neither is complaining about my stomach which is eating itself, or my dry throat & dehydration which have shut my voice down completely, or the fact that I really have to pee but I don’t want to stop hanging on to my boyfriend in case we loose each other and I’m not comfortable peeing in the dark. Is that weird or what?
“Stop!” He says. “Where’s the trail? Do you feel the trail? It all feels the same here…” he continues stabbing around for something tangible while I stamp the ground with my feet. Neither of us can find it. And everything that we both know from years & years of backpacking & camping and Eagle Scouts & Girl Scouts clearly states that if you are lost you should make a shelter and stay put. DO NOT WONDER OFF THE TRAIL.
Laugh out loud.
We cannot see each other’s faces which are right next to each other let alone find a place to make a shelter and get ourselves off the wet ground. Fire building? Forget it. Foraging? Yeah, okay. We are going to freeze if we stay put. The sweat on our bodies which felt warm while running is now icing us down. Our jackets are wet, our shoes are soaked through, and there is not a dry body part between the two of us. As much as we’d really like to follow the advice that’s been pounded into our brains since childhood, it’s sort of a toss up between hypothermia or getting lost further in the 5,759 acres of open space preserve. I want my B.L.T. and my beer!
We go down on our hands & knees and feel out the trail, calling to each other and talking loudly so we can find each other again. When I say ‘we can’t see our hands right in front of our faces’, I’m not joking.
“I’ve got it! I’ve got it! It’s this direction!”
“Are you sure? I can’t feel it….”
My friend has found the trail again. It has widened making it difficult to access the edges. Our only prayer is that there is not another stupid trail marker we are missing because we can’t see. We crawl patting our way on the ground. Oh what a relief to find the trail. Good Gawd what a relief!
We navigate switchbacks, ravines, and the wet slimey trail that is covered with fallen logs and trees and branches. We tap the path, we poke the path, we get on all fours and crawl the path. And we do this for two hours. Two hours in complete and utter darkness.
And it’s quiet. Too quiet.
Every now and then we hear an airplane passing overhead and we stop and listen hoping that maybe it’s a car. It never is. What I would do to hear a generator humming, or a camper singing ‘Kumbaya My Lord’ or an off-the-grid crazy guy chainsawing his backyard of trees into a bizarre sculpture garden (um, yes, there are a few of those around here).
And where is the Ranger Station?!!?! WTF?!?!
We are angry now. Not at each other but at the State Parks. The trails are not well marked, the ones that are marked have no mile indications, they are not maintained, and they don’t make any sense. They start and end haphazardly.
“It’s lucky that it’s you and me and not some kid who strayed too far from the campsite…” I couldn’t agree with my boyfriend more, but I’m not feeling so lucky. But it is true: how would a kid figure out anything on these trails? We are trained hikers and we can’t figure out jack.
We navigate another switchback and then I let out a little scream. My friend stops abruptly. “Look! Look!” I say and point to some itsy-bitsy teeny tiny flickering lights. He can’t see me pointing but he can certainly see the lights bouncing up and down in the distance. “It must be flashlights – it must be campers or people looking for us!!!”
I’m delirious obviously.
“Amy, be quiet, we don’t even know what that is. It could be just a reflection. Just stay quiet and let’s get back to the path, what if it’s some crazy person?” he jokes. But I am like a moth to light and I start yelling as loud as poosible, “Hello?!?! Hellllllooooooo!?!?! Helllloooooooo????”.
Nothing. No response.
“See? That light is a long, lonnnnng way off. And it’s throwing off my senses. I need to concentrate. Let’s keep our heads down and start moving…”
He’s right. I quit trying to wake up the dead with my hollering, and we need to keep moving, and the bouncing light could be anything, and it could also be miles and miles away or across another valley. And there is a ravine on our right which is stopping me from just running for it. But our hearts are both pounding with the sense that civilization is close.
We continue and the light disappears which is worrying beyond belief but I know we have to follow the trail. We have no choice. We navigate another hour of switchbacks and then the trail widens once again. We probably have hiked no more than five miles in the last two hours at our shuffle-along pace. We are down on all fours feeling our way.
“It’s a car! A car!!! Oh my God there’s a road ahead!!!” I call out at the sight of a moving traingular-shaped light in the distance.
I want to run, we both want to run towards it but we still can’t judge the distance. The trail is taking us the other direction from the car and we just have to bite the bullet and make our way no matter how far it is. The ravine has evened out so we know we are on level ground, at least we think so. We can’t afford for the trail to take us somewhere else.
We send some prayers up to the moonless starless night that there isn’t a canyon between us and the road. We tap and poke our way around redwood tree stumps and brambles and poison oak and God only knows what else.
Another car drives by in the distance and this time it doesn’t seem more than a mile away. We are laughing. We are going to live! The little lights that were bouncing an hour earlier now come into focus on our right through a thicket of ivy and branches. They are christmas tree lights strung outside a cute little woodsy house. We make our way through the thicket and pray nobody’s pitbull comes after us.
“A house! A real house!!!” I shout out loud.
My friend hangs back, who is covered in mud, while I tap on the door and peer through the window. A nice woman who is clearly afraid to open the door asks me what I want. I can barely speak. She see’s my friend and assumes that we have come to raid her or I don’t now what. And I can’t blame her because if I lived way out past Sam MacDonald’s park practically off the grid, I would feel the same way if some one showed up on my doorstep unannounced.
“Please, we’re lost, we’ve been crawling on our hands and knees through the forest for the last 3 hours because we couldn’t see the path. I live in Loma Mar. Where are we? Can I make a phone call?”
I have started to shake uncontrollably now. The cold has finally set in. She realizes quickly that I’m not faking it although she’s not sure if she want to let us in. She grabs the phone and dials the number I give her. Farmer Kate picks up the phone and she’s worried as all hell. Our story has panned out and the woman gives us a ride back to the farm.
“You’re in La Honda. You came a long way from Loma Mar. And you’re lucky to be alive. There’s been a lot of mountain lion sightings recently and some fatal attacks too. I saw one just the other day and reported it on google. A big male. Very big. Just out back here.” She points to her backyard, which is really the open land preserve, as we climb in her car. “Trust me, they are big, you two are very lucky, most of the trails are closed right now.”
“They are?” I say dumbfounded barely able to form a sentence still shivering away. “I’m sorry if we frightened you, we are so grateful that you’re taking us home, you’re little christmas lights saved our lives. We saw them miles away but we weren’t sure if they were campers or flashlights. Have you ever had hikers show up on your doorstep like that?” I ask wondering if maybe we’re not the first offenders considering the lack of trail maps and markers.
“Oh, you’re not the first.” She says which relaxes us a little as she handles the curvy mountain roads expertly. Only a long-time mountain dweller can drive curves like these at night I think to myself. “But you really are lucky, very lucky, Mountain lions don’t normally attack humans but there’s just been too many of them around here lately…”
I can’t help but to think ignorance is bliss because I know I would have freaked out if I thought there was a mountain lion on my tail. But I doubt any big cat would want to take on two humans – one with a big stick – who keep laughing, yelling, talking, making noise, singing, walking, crawling, and running. My Mom’s favorite saying about what to do if you must confront a mountain lion? Jes’ don’t act like dinner. We didn’t.
We arrive at the gates of Echo Valley Farm and thank our saviour for the lift home. “Now we just have to navigate our way back to the cabin…” my boyfriend jokes because the farm is set about a quarter mile back from the entrance and it’s pitch dark too. But we link our arms and tap the path with our feet and we laugh our way back to the main farm house passing the sleeping chickens, the silent mini-moo, and the sleeping goats.
The moon is nowhere to be seen. The stars are hiding. It’s a blackout night – the darkest I’ve ever experienced on the farm.
Farmer’s Kate and Jeff hug us and we are too tired to recount the story but promise a good one for the morning. We shiver our way back to my cabin, make a fire in the hearth, jump in the shower because the hot tub is way too hot for our frozen limbs, fry up some Echo Valley bacon and take the warm bread out of the bread maker and make some B.L.T’s. We crack open beers. We stuff our faces even though we are nauseous from hunger. We try to sleep.
But sleep doesn’t come to either one of us. Our bodies hurt so much and we can’t get comfortable. The adrenaline is playing games with us. We toss and turn. And morning comes…
My boyfriend says to me, “That was the best Valentine’s Day ever.”
“Really?” I reply in disbelief, because to me it was probably one of the scariest experiences ever.
“Yeah, really, best Valentine’s Day ever. Great adventure ….wanna go for a run?”
“Sure, let me just grab some bear spray, a few protein bars, a mini flashlight, my GPS tracker, and some strike anywhere matches. Wanna go see where we got lost?”
“Yeah, of course I do.”