Walking the Fringe

I went for a walk on the fringe this afternoon. The sounds of automobiles, trucks, and choppers rose out from El Toro and Santiago Canyon Road on my right as I made my way down the Santiago Trail, an ancient route first pioneered by Gabrilenos for the summer migration to Old Camp. Despite the lack of parking at the trailhead — a restriction which exists mostly to please the wealthy occupants of a pair of hillside retreats across the road — bikers and hikers plod this route whenever the rain ceases in the wintertime. The bikers head for the Luge, a dizzying ride through the chaparral that ends up near Cook’s Corner. Hikers typically go as far as Fossil Hill or Vulture Crags and retrace their steps: few want to dodge the aluminum cannonballs coming down the mountain.

Santiago is very different from the Harding. The latter writhes like a sidewinder up a steep face covered in what botanists call “Hard Chaparral”. The tough stuff that rips your clothing off your back and drains your blood with its fangs if you attempt to pass through it. You begin practically at the top of the Santiago and follow the undulating ridgeline through a mix of chaparral and open grassland. There are a few places where you can steer off the main route to enjoy different vistas, study a rock crowded with fossils, or just loiter. Until you reach Fossil Hill, there isn’t so much as a switchback. After it rounds that crest, it plummets down to a stone cairn where mountain bikers have raised an American flag. Immediately across from you is the conglomerate formation known as Vulture Crags which resembles a combination between a mosque and a dollop of ice cream dispensed at Dairy Queen.

This is the time of year to do the Santiago. The track is completely unshaded as far as Vulture Crags. In September 2002, geocachers were shocked by the death of one of their own, Mike Curtin. Mike attempted to reach a few of the more distant caches on a day when temperatures in the shade peaked at 109 degrees. Under these conditions, Mike’s body spewed out its precious salts and water. Fellow geocachers raised a cross to his memory. His family’s loss should serve as a warning for all those who venture into the chaparral: don’t go alone, don’t go when weather conditions forbid it.

I had a pleasant trip. I began at the trailhead off the Modjeska Grade, which intersects with Santiago Canyon Road after you pass down the left fork at Cook’s Corner. My hike took me along the ridgeline, partly shielded from the winds unfolding down Mount Santiago by a series of low crests. All along the route I could see Fashion Island and, beyond that, out to Catalina. Yesterday’s rain softened the earth and polished the dust off a series of fossil rocks.

In addition to the tracks of bikers, I saw other signs of life. Bobcat, squirrel, mule deer, and skunk left their mark in the soft earth. Juncos and black phoebes skittered over the brush tops. Hawks and vultures rode the updrafts out of Whiting to observe me from the thermals whirling over my head.

This trail brings hikers and bikers together. Unlike certain routes in Whiting, it’s wide enough for both to travel on. People come here to walk and talk, to be alone, to enjoy the scenery, and breath the continually refreshened air. If you are seeking a relatively easy walk you will find satisfaction here. This is the season for a journey on the edge of things. Prepare yourself properly with food and water: you will enjoy the experience.

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