For a few hours, yesterday, I escaped into the Cleveland National Forest.
To get to the trailhead for the West Horsethief/Trabuco Canyon Trail, I had to roll, scrape, slide, and sometimes levitate over what might well be the worst road in Orange County. It does not, as far as I know, have a name, but most call it the Trabuco Canyon Road. Officially, up until the National Forest boundary about five miles in, it is a private road which can be closed at any time. The drives leading off of it take you to private domains with picnic tables, hidden ranches (there was once a marijuana plantation back in these parts not so long ago), and a tiny airstrip for flying model airplanes.
Washboarding sets your jaw to clicking and chipping your teeth as you struggle to achieve a speed over ten miles an hour enroute to your destination. Potholes inhale unwary drivers. Stones scuttle into the middle of the throughway from the mountainsides or out of the washes. I have seen SUVs stuck here, leaning heavily to one corner on broken axles. You must take it slow here. It is not a freeway — at least not a California one.
The road gets marginally better when you pass the National Forest Boundary. This section looks as if it gets scraped over from time to time. You enter a forest of giraffe-spotted sycamores, elephantine live oaks, and — the gazelles –anorexic white alders. Along the Arroyo Trabuco, you can see the remains of fieldstone dams constructed during the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Just before the Holy Jim Parking Lot, where most visitors stop, you see the first of the cabins built to bring people to this area and the Holy Jim Fire Station, one of whose volunteers rides a flaming red Volkswagen beetle converted into a fire engine. The road goes on, over a hump, past the roofed over Alder Spring, and two more miles to a rugged cul de sac, the trailhead for the Trabuco Canyon Trail.
You must park here as I did, in one of the stone-studded spaces that have been made by the selection of motorists rather than the intentions of government. The signpost for the trail has fallen. Except for the steady path — originally cut for campers at a now extinct campground — it looks as if no one has come here for many years.
Walking up the trail is like passing through a slow strobe light of vegetation and sunlight. When the light comes on, you are surrounded by the chaparral: scrub oak, white sage, black sage, buckwheat, laurel sumac, and sugar bush. Then, suddenly, it flickers off and you are under a thick canopy of the same trees you saw along the road. On the ground, sand and pebbles are replaced by grass and a thick matting of leaves. You pass through this for maybe a hundred, maybe two hundred yards. Then you come to more chaparral and then forest again.
The strangest sight along this trail is a rusting Camaro parked in a clearing among the trees. Its license plate and paint have long since disappeared. You look back at the inches wide path that brought you to this point. The trees overhead roof it over completely. How did it get here, you must wonder? In the thirty years since this car was made and lost here, the creek, the landslides, and the forest have wrought great changes.
Ultimately, this trail brings you past a mine blasted into the side of the hill, some of the largest trees in Orange County, the summit of Mount Pinos, the Main Divide Road, and back to this spot. I did not travel the full eleven miles. For about half an hour, I sought out a benchmark which proved to be hidden in inpenetrable chaparral. As I sat on a ocellated boulder catching my breath after scurrying over rock and root in quest of the circle of bronze, I listened to the wind languidly combing the hillside’s buckwheat hair. This is as close to wilderness as you can get in this part of the Orange, a roadless area where you seldom see people on weekends and never during the week. I sipped my water, ate dried cherries, and then walked back the way I came, blinking at the rusting car as I passed it. How did they get it over that road and then up this trail? It’s a mystery waiting to look you in the eye when you follow these paths.