A thin layer of smoke from the summer fires hangs heavy over the city, but it doesn’t bother me too much. I’m up above, looking down on it from the foothills.
Behind my back, the sun was starting to rise over the San Bernardino mountain range, casting a haunting orange glow on the San Gabriel mountain range to the west. I usually don’t stop to take a lot of photographs on my morning mountain bike rides, but this morning I was in no particular hurry to get up to my turnaround point. Besides, I was tired of carrying my camera every morning and never really using it. It was always with me, just in case I ran across something rare and awesome on the trail, like a mountain or a bear. But I almost always arrived home after the ride with an empty memory card.
After taking a few photos of the beautiful scene in front of me and failing to adequately capture the magic digitally because of the tricky early morning light, I stowed the camera and continued working my way up the trail. I could see the footprints of two people who had beat me up the trail this morning, and who I would probably overtake in about half a mile. There were no other fresh tracks on the trail, just a jumble of mountain bike tire marks from the last few days, and the thick tracks laid down from the guy on the ATV who uses this trail illegally every day or two to haul water up to his pot farm that he thinks we don’t know about.
It’s a cool 66 degrees or so at 5:30 in the morning, a refreshing respite from the 100 degree plus temperatures we are experiencing this brutal July. Before long, the steep climbing is over. I switch gears, pick up the pace a little, and begin the short descent down across Potato Flats. As I pass the spur trail through the mound of poison oak that leads off to the clandestine pot farm, I can see the two hikers, a man and a woman, ahead of me. They are just passing my turnaround point, and will be far enough ahead of me by the time that I reach my turnaround that they’ll probably never even know I was behind them.
After a brief climb, I arrive at an old USGS gauging station which used to measure the water flow through a flume that pulled water out of Plunge Creek and redirected it down to the once-pervasive orange groves that were the glory of Southern California’s East Highlands Ranch. Alas, most of the orange trees have been gone for a dozen or more years now, and there is no water flow left to gauge, so the odd-looking metal contraption serves no purpose other than as a convenient place to stop for a rest or turn around. Isn’t it funny how, out in the wild, the one place that humans tend to gravitate towards is the one structure they see? It’s a sad commentary, but maybe modern man just finds a little bit of comfort in being close to a man-made contraption out in the middle of nowhere.
I take a sip water, then take another photo or two of my surroundings. I have lots of photos from this spot–because it’s a place I almost always stop, so taking a photo here does not interrupt my pace–yet I never hesitate to take more photos from here. The vegetation, the lighting, the clouds, the color…every day, it’s just a little bit different from the last time.
I prepare for the descent home by shifting gears, dropping the seat, and adjusting my front shock. I’m old enough to not be worried about racing down the steep, rutted trail in an attempt to set a new personal record. Oh, I could probably do it. But my reaction time isn’t what it used to be, and my bones are brittle. It would be a bargain with the devil. So now, each year, each ride, I try to be a little more careful than the last time, take it a little slower and more safer, and just enjoy the ride.
Another sip of water, and I mount my steed. Gravity quickly takes over, pulling me down the mountain at an ever-increasing speed. The pedals that I relied on so much on the way up now just hang there, practically useless, their only function being to act as a convenient place to place my feet. The brakes, which on the way up were feeling so sad and neglected, finally get their 15 minutes, working double time to keep me from careening out of control and going off the side of the trail.
About half a mile down from the Gauging Station, I stop to take another picture of the morning sun illuminating the San Gabriel Mountains. From a different angle, with the trail in the foreground below the mountains, it looked like a magical composition in my mind, yet the photos didn’t even come close to capturing the magic of the moment. But if you think about it, they never really do. The purpose of the photograph is little more than to rekindle the memory; years from now, when I’m too old and decrepit to scale any more mountains, I won’t be staring at these photos and mumbling to myself “What a beautiful photograph!” No, I’ll glance at them just long enough to reignite the neurons that burned in my brain that morning, and then close my eyes, letting the movie play in my head and reliving the glory of that magical morning ride.
I was only on my bike for another 30 seconds or so when I came around a tight turn, right where my friend Geoff had walked up on a resting mountain lion about two years ago, and an animal ran across the trail about 20 feet in front of me and went behind a small bush then over the steep side to the right.
It wasn’t Geoff’s mountain lion; it was too small, much too close to the ground, and the coloring was wrong. And it wasn’t a bobcat, because it had a much more substantial tail than a bobcat. It might be a coyote, but again the coloring was off…and it didn’t move like a coyote. It moved like a cat.
It never even occurred to me to stop and look at the tracks this mysterious animal left. I’m always looking at tracks on the way up the mountain. Going slow, breathing heavy, staring mostly at the ground in front of me, my mind trying to keep itself occupied to forget about the pain of the uphill grind–it’s a good time to try to identify marks in the dirt. Shoes and tires, domestic dog, and a variety of wildlife leave their temporary imprints on this trail. I’ve seen coyote, bobcat, deer, raccoon, mountain lion, bear, and other tracks on the way up. But on the way down, I’m focused 110% on staying safe and keeping on the bike, and never even think about tracks.
Probably the other reason I didn’t think about looking at the tracks left behind by this shadowy animal was that tracks are how you identify that an animal was there after the animal is gone. In this case, the animal wasn’t gone–it was right in front of me. Or had been until a few seconds ago.
I raced a few yards down the trail to where the creature had crossed, turned off the trail and onto the berm, and pressed my brakes firmly, stopping right on the lip of a precipitous, near-vertical 75 foot drop down into a small drainage. And there, a few dozen feet up the opposite side of the drainage, holding a freshly killed rabbit in its jaws, was my animal.
It stood with its tail towards me, as if it was ready to beat a hasty retreat, but its head was turned towards me and it just stood there. It seemed to be as curious about me as I was about it.
Not breaking my stare, I pulled out my camera and zoomed in as far as possible, firing off a couple of quick shots. This standoff lasted close to a minute, then it suddenly turned and bounded off across the slope, disappearing in the bushes a few seconds later.
The animal that commonly kills rabbits in this area is the coyote, but this wasn’t a coyote. It was smaller, or at least its legs were shorter, and it was closer to the ground; the tail looked larger, and more bushy. And when it ran, it held its big bushy tail out and used it for balance, as a fox or almost any type of wild cat (with the exception of the bobcat) does. My initial assessment was that it was either a fox, or a ringtail cat. I knew there were ringtail cats up in these mountains, and had identified their tracks once, but I had never seen the actual animal. And I had never heard of foxes inhabiting this area.
When I got home, I looked at the two grainy photos on my computer screen and then brought up some photos of ringtail cats from the Internet. The ringtail cat is a member of the raccoon family, and looks an awful lot like the genets I had seen so many of a few months earlier on my adventure in Botswana. The most striking feature of the ringtail is obviously the black and white “rings” on its tail. In my photo, I thought I could make out some faint rings, or maybe it was just my imagination. With my cheap camera, the low light situation, and the zoom set at maximum, I was 90% certain it was a ringtail cat. Then my friend Mike correctly identified the animal as a gray fox.
The truth is, part of me didn’t ever really want to know what species that animal was. It’s part of the mystery of being out in the wild. And who knows, maybe I’ll see my little friend again soon. And maybe this time I’ll get a better picture.
I’ve ridden this trail hundreds of times, and hiked it hundreds more. You would think all this repetition would get boring. But it never does. There’s something new to see, to touch, to feel, to smell, to experience every day. Every day is a little bit different. Just different enough to keep it exciting.