Thursday, December 23, 2010

Official Member Of The Order Of The Brotherhood Of The Squirrels

When I was eight years of age, I grew up in the Cleveland National Forest. There were many adventures to be had in the wilderness; swimming, hiking, horseback riding, treasure hunting, etc. Far above the ranch where I lived was Tahquitz Peak where you could see Lily Rock, the mountain's crown jewel, from miles and miles away.

While vising the little hamlet town of Idyllwild, which is just below Lily Rock, I remember being told that if you ever dared to hike to the top of Tahquitz Peak, you would be greeted by a Forest Ranger that would provide you with a certificate acknowledging your accomplishment of the the hike.

Well, year after year I vowed to make that climb. But, there was high school ,dating, eloping, the onslaught of babies to be born, bills, pre-school, more bills, visits to the principals office ( you get the idea) and I never put much effort into obtaining that goal I had set for myself as a child.

In the Fall of 2007, our son Justin was attending a progressive high school program where he could chose an activity of his liking for PE credits. And wouldnt' you know it! He wanted to go hiking !!! Right then and there I knew we could accomplish his scholastic needs and my desires to complete this lifelong goal in one fail swoop !

The following weekend, Justin, Jim, and I set out for Idyllwild to make history !!! We had our trusty tennies and a bottle of water and off we trekked! We were completely oblivious to the fact that the trail head was named "Devil's Slide" ...perhaps we should have taken heed. About 30 minutes in, I started in on a terrible headache. So bad that I had to sit every few feet and would almost pass out upon rising. Despite my desire and the encouragement of fellow hikers telling me that I was "almost 1/4 of the way there" , I threw in the towel; admitting that we had not been properly acclimated to the altitude, it was already too warm, and I was not hydrated well and perhaps having some blood pressure issues. We turned back for the truck; defeated.

A few weeks later, we made a second attempt. This time we were armed with honest-to-goodness hiking boots, hydration packs, energy gel, hats,an inhaler, and a blood pressure cuff... I was determined to get that certificate !!! I'm to frame it and display it in all of it's glory, dammit !!!We started earlier in the day and the morning hike was invigorating. I remember how pleased I was with myself as I passed the spot where I had been defeated by my own body the last time...I think I even sprinted past!
Slow and Steady wins the race, so I was sure to pace myself. A little background here: Tahquitz Peak is at an elevation of 8,828 ft with an elevation gain of 2,500. It is a moderate, 9 mile hike usually taking several hours to complete ( this info did NOT phase me as I am invincible ... I mean, I've birthed four babies, right?)

As I "pace" myself, Justin asks if he can go ahead to the next turn in the switchback trail ...which we allow him to do for the majority of the hike. After what seemed like an eternity, we reached the "saddle" of the ridge and now needed to traverse the ridge to the south to reach the Ranger's station and on to V-I-C-T-O-R-Y!!! I just needed to rest a tic.

Justin went ahead, as he had been, and we were separated by a group of 50 or so girl scouts who weren't even phased by the difficulty of the hike !!! ( oh how I hated those smug little smiles as they passed by my huffing, puffing carcass perched on a rock). The final Girl Scout "groupie" to pass us was one of the leaders who asked if we were looking for our kid. We nod, I was breathless, and he says that Justin is just ahead, right around the bend.

When we get "just ahead, right around the bend", there's a fork in the trail and NO sign of Justin !!! OK, stay calm...I'm sure he's chosen the fork to the south which is the obvious route to the ranger's station. We begin down that trial which is VERY narrow with VERY steep drop offs...I'm experiencing moments of vertigo and wonder if Justin had felt the same...
Justin is NOWHERE in site and he's not answering our calls and the conditions getting more precarious. So we decide to turn around and head back to the fork in the trail. At this point, I begin to share my sick sense of "worry-wart mommy" with Jim:

"What if fell down one of those steep cliffs and he's lying there with a broken neck and he can hear us calling him back he can't answer?"

"What if a bear got him ...or a mountain lion got him and drug him away and they're eating him alive?"

"What if he met up with a pedophile and he was lured down the wrong path to be violated and murdered?"

"Maybe, just maybe, he took another trail and is back at the truck?" (NAH)

Each passing moment lended itself to my mind-effs. Poor Jim, I don't know how he endured it.

While I waited at the fork in the trails, Jim took the trail to the north to look for Justin...and I was alone....ALL ALONE on a trail with the potential of bears, mountain lions, and pedophiles in my midst. I panicked and started after Jim to the north. Jim followed the trail (The original Pacific Crest Trail) until there were no more footprints to follow ... OK, NOW, we're REALLY scared!!! We head back to the fork and begin calling out for Justin, frantically. Thank GOD I learned the signal for S-O-S on my whistle, because I was chirping S-O-S every 15 seconds or so, and then screeching his name til my til I was hoarse ... each time just waiting long enough to listen for a response, any response.....nothing.

We had searched for an hour; no Justin... He was out of water, wasn't dressed for the freezing night temps, we were running out of daylight, and we had no cell service. I start to cry...Jim tried the south trail again and had gone all the way to the Ranger Station to see if Justin was there..He came back to me mid-trail to say there was no sign of life anywhere. Not even a Ranger to summon for assistance.

At 5pm, defeated, Jim found a location that provided one bar of cell service - just enough to call 911 for help. (He wouldn't want me to tell you that he was choked up and weepy ... so I won't). He provided just enough detail; location, Justin's physical description, our location, . and the call was dropped; never got another signal. We felt doomed.

Since we were running out of daylight, we determined that Jim would run ahead to the saddle ridge to get help while I tweedle-dee'd myself back reluctantly blowing S-O-S on my whistle...I didn't want to leave my baby if he was still there. Within 10 minutes, a Search and Rescue helicopter flew over my head. Thank God they knew we were seriously in need of help and they were looking !!! With that elation came disappointment, though, because I realized that Justin had not gone back to the truck.

SO, Justin is alone, Jim is alone, I am alone...#1 Hiking Rule...never hike alone !!!

The helicopter passes by every few moments...I smile and wave out as if to tell them, "YES, you're looking for MY kid ...THANK YOU" !!!

As I get to the saddle and begin heading down the "Devil's Slide" I am reunited with Jim who informs me that he has some experienced hikers looking for Justin...Jim runs on ahead. I wave again to the helicopter, feeling a bit shocky as the realization sets in that we are in some real trouble here...

I am then passed by a young father and his children out for a "leisurely hike"; one of his kids perched on his shoulders ( how in the HELL are these people NOT out of breath????) The dad asks me if I'm looking for Justin. YES, I did you know ???
"Oh, all of Idyllwild knows. From Lily Rock, your voice carries down into the valley and we ALL hear you screaming and blowing your whistle.The whole town's been looking for him", he says."The Sheriffs found Justin waiting for you at the truck; he's safe. When they found Justin,and he said you might be sick, they sent the rescue helicopter out looking for you and your husband so you wouldn't get lost up on the mountain. Didn't you see it? Oh, and the Sheriffs are waiting for you at the bottom of the trail."

Oh, holy hell. Thank God, my baby is alive. When I get my hands on him I'm gonna KILL HIM !!!!

Long story short, when we zigged, he zagged. He had been to the Ranger's station...and waited... thought I had fallen ill and ran all the way back to the truck ( 4.5 miles ) ...must have missed him while we were on the north trail. Jim had hiked/ran over 14 miles of trails that day; including a visit to the Ranger Station. I hiked ALMOST 9 miles...I NEVER made it the to the Ranger Station !!! HEY, this is my goal, here, people !!! Well, at least we got our kid back safe & sound and managed to leave the scene before the Sheriffs took all of our personal information with which they could charge us the 10K for the helicopter search and rescue effort !! (whew...Shhhh)


Spring 2008: We attempted this hike one last time, taking a different trail head. The hike was beautiful, and sometimes treacherous. Justin was a real trooper that last 1/4 mile, encouraging me every step of the way...telling me that I could do it and he could see the Ranger Station just up ahead ( liar ) ...
But when I finally saw that Ranger station I felt such an overwhelming sense of accomplishment !! I had done it !!! 32 years after setting that goal, I had done it !!!
I was laughing and crying at the same time as I wearily climbed the steps to be met by an honest-to-god Dept. of Forestry Ranger. It would end up being a 9-hour ordeal that day, but by-golly, I had done it !!!


I shared the story of my 32-year goal with the Ranger and told him just how much I was looking forward to getting my certificate. I signed a book to verify my identity and shortly thereafter the Ranger handed me my certificate....a green business card verifying my hike to the station and welcoming me to my Lifelong Membership Of The Order Of The Brotherhood of the Squirrels..."Conveniently sized to keep in my wallet." he says. WHAT???? 32 years for a 2"x3" business card !!! Where's my certificate to frame????

If you know me, you know that I've been as nutty as a squirrel for years and didn't need a card to tell me that !!! But, all-in-all, despite 3 attempts, this was a good day...a memorable that I don't need a certificate to validate. I'm thankful to Jim and Justin ( and the Riverside County Sheriff Dept/ Dept. of Forestry Search & Rescue Team) for helping me reach this goal ...

The Ranger Station at the top of Tahquitz Peak. Switchbacking over that rough terrain the last half mile or so was the worst!!!
Lily Rock and Tahquitz Peak as viewed from Idyllwild

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