I had gotten settled back into San Diego. It had been a couple of months since the Muir Taco trip to the Sierra. I had only gotten out for some short hikes around my house. I’ve been curious about a place in Cleveland National Forest called Cemetery Hill that I’ve seen on the map. It was pretty near the area where the PD and I summited a number of peaks and visited Cedar Creek Falls.
I was chatting with a friend (let’s call him Tenderfoot) who had worked with me in the Santa Barbara area. He just got laid off, similar to my situation. I knew what he was going through. I invited him to take the train down and join me on a backpacking trip to one of my favorite areas of San Diego. “Yeah I’m down for that” was his response. What started out as a short overnight backpack turned into one of the most scenic afternoons I’ve spent in the San Diego backcountry.
We started driving toward the trailhead later than I usually do. We were well fed, since I had been making a point to show Tenderfoot a number of my favorite food spots in San Diego. I had picked him up from the train on Friday and today was a lazy Sunday morning. We had less than two miles of hiking to do, which was fine. I was a little out of hiking shape, since I was giving my foot a little rest since it was diagnosed with Morton’s Neuroma. It had been feeling better, especially with my new Patagonia hiking boots, one of several models recommended by my podiatrist.
We passed the pull-out on the side of the road and just drove around for a while. The area was dry, but still retained its beauty. We saw trucks here and there, likely owned by deer hunters, since this was hunting season. It had rained the day before and the dark clouds still hung around, framing the landscape with backlit shadows. We returned to the trailhead and got our packs ready. We tracked some hunters from a nearby truck and saw that they entered the same trail we were going to hike. We would have to be careful and respectful.
It was chilly when we started, with autumn riding on the cool breeze. Any tracks we saw on the ground were less than 24 hours old, since it had rained heavily the night before. We scanned the trail to see if the hunters left the trail, but they followed it into Deadman Flat, where we stopped at the edge and peered into the open meadow. We didn’t want to get shot and also didn’t want to spook any deer that the hunters may have been getting a bead on.
Tenderfoot had an orange beanie on his pack and I was wearing a Columbia Turbodown jacket that had a highly visible red sparkly hood interior. We crossed the meadow and continued up and down the rolling trail. We began to see some tracks, which could have been deer, mixed with some large cow tracks. We crested a rise and came face to face with a small portion of a larger herd of cows. A bull stood closest to us and watched us carefully. We continued over the next rise where we encountered the rest of the herd. We skirted them and a large empty pond and stopped to take a rest and a snack on some rocks.
We were just about to our destination. A hunter approached us from the trail and asked us where we were going to be. He was extremely polite and respectful, likely one of our local military personnel, and was surprised that we were here to just camp, not to hunt. He let us know where he was going to be and that we shouldn’t hang out to the north. Sounds like a plan, we said. We were relieved to have been spotted by the hunter, and confirmed it was the same one by examining his tracks. Looks like we wouldn’t be accidentally shot. Always a relief.
It was early afternoon and we left our packs and walked to the top of Cemetery Hill. I had expected there to be some headstones or some sign of graves, but there was nothing except a large square of posts that I had seen on Google Earth. The barbed wire, as well as some charred posts, likely from the 2003 Cedar Fire, even though 2007’s Witch Creek Fire also could have made it this far southeast, lay around the area.
Cresting the top of the mountain, we saw to the west. The sun was low in the sky already and we could see the ocean shining golden in the distance. We descended to retrieve our packs and took them to a likely camping spot on the west edge of the mountain.
We set up our tent and put some camping chairs next to it. We sat down and watched the sun slowly edge its way downward to meet the mountains to the west. The light was already amazing, as clouds passed in front of the sun intermittently. We got up from time to time, to look at the view from different angles. We took out our phones and camera and kept taking pictures, since every minute that passed made the view that much more spectacular. All the while, we talked about everything under the sun.
We had dinner and heard rifle shots echo off the canyon walls. We heard and saw the herd of cattle make their way up and over a nearby ridge.
It’s amazing how being in the outdoors strips everything else away, and what you’re left with is two humans, sharing the current experience and bringing their past experiences into perspective. In this way we spent the hours from sunset, through dusk, and through the silver moonlit landscape. Tenderfoot was in the midst of a large life-changing event and being out in the backcountry helped him come to terms with the upcoming decisions he needed to make.
We had been on a backpacking trip in the Santa Barbara area, where I got to know him a little bit, but on this trip, it was just us two. I got to know him pretty well and it reinforced what I already suspected. He is a thoughtful, introspective person and I am lucky to have him as a friend.
After finally getting a little chilly after standing in the moonlight for a few hours, we decided to make it to the tent. He was asleep in minutes and I wasn’t far behind. In the morning, we woke up, took our time, and headed back to the car.
Almost back to the car, we enountered another hunter. We asked him if it was his rifle we had heard in the morning and he said no.
“Was that you two on the ridge back there?” We affirmed it to him and then realized that this likely meant that we had a rifle pointed at us at some point in the morning. Glad we were wearing some bright colors.
We were out for less than 24 hours, but, for a short while, we seemed like we were a world away.