My cabin sits just back from the rim of a small canyon, which is actually a finger—a glorified arroyo, if you will—of a larger canyon. At the top of ‘my’ canyon, a tall waterfall brings icemelt cascading down from the top of the mountain. In late winter and early spring, if we’ve had enough snow, the stream of runoff from the falls, which normally goes underground, trying desperately to fill the aquifers of this arid mountain, runs along up top, rushing, gurgling, pouring down the canyon, eager to meet the larger San Antonio Creek. From my cabin, even with the windows closed, I can hear the water music down in the canyon.
This morning when I walk at dawn, it is this sound that greets me as I leave the cabin. Standing on my front porch, I can look down the mountain to the lights of the city beginning to fade in the dawn glow. A wide band of blue stretches across the sky down there. Another band of color—sunrise pink—hovers above the blue as the sun stretches and thinks about rising.
It is 50 degrees. I pull the hood of my sweatshirt up, stick my hands in my pockets, and start up the road.
Eric’s curtains are closed this early. He lives in Connecticut but comes here to his cabin several times a year to de-stress from his crazy-busy job. I look down to the Murdock cabin and the curtains are closed there as well. (Cabins here are identified by their people—not necessarily the current residents or visitors, but by the owner with the most notoriety. Thus, Eric’s cabin is “Finnegan’s cabin,” after the Irishman who lived there for years. A Murdock still owns the Murdock cabin, but someone else is staying there right now. My cabin—unless I live here for thirty years or so—will probably always be known as “Stutsman’s cabin,” because Richard Stutsman lived here for three decades and made it, with his wonderful woodworking skill, what it is today.)
Since last night was Friday night, I try to walk as quietly as I can past Rob’s cabin. Above Rob’s, none of the cabins on our road are currently inhabited. Because my lungs are small and the road is quite steep, I stop to catch my breath a hundred feet or so past Rob’s. Below me, I watch the flow of water over rock. Then my eyes scan the slope on the other side of the canyon. I look for Bighorn Sheep, which visit often, but today there is no one there.
Now the blue of the sky below has paled, the pink faded, as more light enters the valley. The perpetual layer of brown air that blankets the cities below is now more apparent. But it’s not a heavy blanket today, and I can see to the ocean—or at least as far as the hills that separate our valley from Orange County. The OC is covered with marine layer. The valley is not. This dictates what I will wear when I head down the mountain for a writers group meeting later today.
I continue walking higher, to where our road dead ends, and I keep going, across Doc Brauer’s front yard and around behind his cabin. (“Doc” has been dead for over a decade.) The trail winds past Deborah’s cabin, and I do a quick check to make sure it is undisturbed. Her father is in his 90’s and has been ill recently. The last time we spoke by phone, she told me, “He just wants to get well enough to travel, to visit the cabin one more time.” In her driveway, I find an empty beer bottle, freshly thrown. I pick it up and carry it with me. Her driveway leads up to the fire road, which leads to the falls. Ambling up, I stand in the wide turnout of the road, glance one more time to the valley below, across the canyon to the spectacular, thundering cataract, and then start down the trail on a circuitous walk home.
The fire road leads to the main highway. As I go, two hikers pass me. Here they are, wearing hundreds of dollars worth of gear, carrying water, off to hike for the day. Here I am at 7:00a.m. in my hooded sweatshirt, carrying an empty beer bottle, headed back down the trail. What must they think?
I cross the main highway at the trailhead where several other hikers are gearing up to hit the trail. They too, watch me as I pass, return a tentative “hello” to my cheery “Good morning!” I wander into the campground, where boy scouts huddle around a picnic table while grown men set out snacks. There are no women in this group. I have to make a conscious shift in my mind away from the resentment I still carry at not being allowed to join the scouts when I was a kid.
Several spaces down from their group I spot an empty cardboard beer carton—with 12 empty bottles—sitting on a picnic table. Under the table is an empty plastic water bottle. I grab it, add it and the empty I’m carrying to the box, then pick it up to carry it home for recycling. Across the highway, someone honks a car horn impatiently, waits several seconds, then honks again, then honks again a moment later, each time louder and longer. It’s time to get back to my sanctuary.
The campground is directly across from our road, so I quickly cross the highway and start the steep walk back up to my cabin. I pass Jimmy as he throws a jacket into his idling car, and he says good morning, not even questioning the box of empties that sits heavily in my arms.
I huff and puff my way up, past the Walker’s, who are probably just turning on the morning news, past Dr. Nicki’s. I can see a light on in her kitchen. Last winter, when I found myself walking home more often than I would have liked in twilight, through deep snow, the lights of her cabin always cheered me as I passed. Now, finally, I make the final turn and I am once again walking along the rim of the canyon. As I pass Eric’s, I see that his curtains are open and his computer is on; he will spend the day ‘telecommuting’ to his job in New York. And then I smell the sweet rich scent of wood smoke. Patty is up; I can see the smoke drifting up from her chimney. We will probably walk together later if time allows.
At my cabin, blue jays are gathered in the pine tree branches above the porch, squawking loudly and waiting for me to throw them some peanuts. “Hang on,” I say aloud as I hurry inside to trade empty beer bottles for bird seed.