A Three-Hour Tour

Now sit right back and you’ll hear a tale…

The Monarch butterfly (that’s the orange one) migrates up from South America and winters in California. They are supposed to gather in Sycamore Canyon, up north of Malibu. My friend JoAnn, her husband Chris, and I decided to take a hike up there and take some pictures the other day.

I drove, and JoAnn and Chris went through the books for maps and instructions. JoAnn and I had been there before–the trail’s a little bit complicated, but it’s a lovely 1- or 2-hour walk. We parked near the trailhead and started up. After all the rain we’d had, the creek was high and covered all the stepping stones. It was a warm day, so we decided to just step in the creek and not try to stay dry. It seemed like just when our boots and socks were feeling a little drier, we’d have to cross the creek and get all wet again. (Note to non-hikers–wet socks are a really good way to get blisters.)
We saw three or four butterflies along the way, but they all managed to flit almost close enough for me to get a picture, then zoom away. We noticed the hawks seemed much bigger than the ones we normally see–we wondered if they were a different kind. We followed the trail north, waiting for the loop that would turn around south, back toward the ocean. But when we came to the fork, it led further north instead.

We tried to figure out the map (one of those hand-drawn ones from a book of hikes). Finally we decided the trail must go north, for a few more minutes, then loop around. We continued on, but the next fork also led north. Chris (who has the best sense of direction in the group) declared the map must be wrong, and that we should keep going north and find the loop. (Note to non-hikers–when you decide you are right and the map is wrong, this just may be a sign of trouble.)

The next fork also led north, and it sure seemed like we were too far north already. At this point it is alleged that I snapped, “I’ve got the car keys and we’re going SOUTH!!!” This is untrue. What I did was point out, in the nicest possible way, that Chris’ policy of going north had not yet achieved any southerly direction. Just the opposite. THEN I snapped, “I’ve got the car keys!”

For a while we were fine, winding south through pretty meadows. Then we started to climb. Well, that was okay, we had walked past the canyon ridge, so we had to get back over it. It was a very big ridge. I joked that it would be funny if we got all the way to the top and the trail ended at private property. That was very funny until it happened. Chris went to scout out the fence. On the other side was a big black bull. OK, it was probably a cow–we’re city folk, what do we know? We decided against trespassing and meeting the cow, and followed the other path, which led…north.

But that was okay, because it wound around and over the top of the ridge, where we found…another ridge. We went down, looking for a lower path, and found one, but the sign said, “Closed for plant rehabilitation.” (I have no idea where the plants got the drugs in the first place–they’ll just have to work it out with their Higher Power.) We thought about going down anyway, but we figured it might not be maintained after the recent rains (by now the possibility of retracing our steps was very unattractive), and of course there were the fragile plants to consider. JoAnn (who is a landscape designer), said, “Death to the plants!” I suggested she wear a T-shirt with that slogan on her next job. We started up the hill.

On the other side of that hill was…another. My camera broke. Not that I had gotten one picture of those stinking butterflies, but now I was missing all these spectacular mountain-top shots, and I knew I would NEVER EVER be here again. These hills were 1500 feet high or so. It took awhile to climb over them. We were pretty tired. We’d been walking about three hours, and still hadn’t found the path back down the canyon. I had brought some vegetables to munch on, but I was starting to think I should save some for the next day. Plus I knew JoAnn had a Swiss Army knife, so I didn’t want her to know I had food. Nervous jokes were made about the Donner Party. We saw some big ants with red fuzzy stuff on them. Having never seen big red fuzzy ants, we decided we were hallucinating. Then we decided the butterflies had developed a unique symbiotic relationship with the hawks, where they would flutter around, luring unsuspecting hikers up the canyon, and the hawks would finish us off. We started watching for circling hawks.

Finally we came upon a guide from the Ashram. (That’s a spa in the area that feeds you minuscule portions of macrobiotic food and forces you to exercise strenuously all day. If you’re on the same trail as the Ashram, you’re in big trouble.) It turned out we had gone in the wrong entrance to the park, and therefore were following the wrong map the whole time. (Had we gone down the plant rehab area, we would have wound up on the Navy base. I don’t know if the Navy has attack cows. I’m pretty sure they have guns.) Ashram Guy told us we could, A) retrace our steps, B) go down the valley in front of us and try to figure out the trail, or, C) continue straight over the hills to the parking lot. I didn’t even make any idle car-key threats, just headed over the hills.

We eyed passing mountain bikers and wondered if they were carrying chocolate. We snarled at the perky hikers coming up. JoAnn asked them how far we were from the parking lot, and almost burst into tears when they said, “about two hours.” (Note to non-hikers: Never ask how far you have to go!) Finally we climbed down the last hill. After we persuaded JoAnn to get out of the creek where she was soaking her aching feet, we hobbled to the parking lot. You know how the Pope kisses the ground after he gets off a plane? Well, let’s just say I’m glad I washed the car.

We’d walked almost 20 miles, most of them steep uphill or downhill. How did this happen, you may ask? Well, let’s review. One of our hikers selflessly offered to drive, leaving the other two with nothing to do but review the maps and instructions in several books. One might think that, given an hour or so, being chauffeured in the lap of luxury to their destination, at least one of these navigators just might have noticed which part of the park we were going in.

One might mention that the author of the map book obviously drinks heavily, and must have done the map from memory and made up the parts he forgot, or it might have been more obvious to us that the map bore absolutely no resemblance to where we were.

And, although the State of California is a wonderful place in many ways, it does tend to overdo. One or two hills per trail is completely adequate. Five or six is just plain excessive.

Far be it from me, however, to point the finger of blame. Only a bitter, angry person would do such a thing, and I am far too evolved for such pettiness.

The first place that had food was Neptune’s Net, a biker bar on Pacific Coast Highway. It’s a sad day when all the bikers are better groomed than you are. It’s an even sadder day when you don’t care. I had the worst cheeseburger of my life, and it was the best cheeseburger of my life. (Chris said, “this food tastes much better than it deserves to.”) The bikers edged away from us nervously. As we finally staggered and limped out, bent over in pain, I know everyone in the bar was thinking, “those people should get more exercise!”

Copyright 1997 by Janine Smith. Not to be reproduced or distributed without permission