Junipero (Spanish for "Juniper") Serra was an extraordinarily religious figure originally born in Spain in the 1700s. Having moved to Mexico to teach, he was charged with leading the formation of religious missions in Alta California (Spanish for "Alt California.") Having made his way first to San Diego (which is Spanish for--never mind) to found a mission, Serra slowly traveled up the California coast, eventually settling in what is now modern day Monterey. Close by, he started mission Carmel where he remained stationed as one of the more awesome titles in historical figurity, "Father Presidente" to the California Missions.
But Monterey County's history is not all sleepy and religious. A presidio was established just to the north to protect the coastline, but apparently it wasn't a very good presidio, because a pirate named Hypolito Bouchard completely tomfooled the shoreline Spanish garrisons by employing a new, cunning technique: attacking at night. Well, not really, he merely sailed his ship close to the shore at night: so close, in fact, that the cannons which the Spanish had cemented in place at 90 degree angles could not fire on his ship. So Bouchard mercilessly fired on shoreline Spanish homes with his Adjustable Cannons until the occupants fled, raided the homes, stole everything, burned them to the ground, and blew up the Spanish cannons too, just for snorts and jollies. No, I don't mean he fired off celebratory rounds, he literally blew up the cannon barrels by burying them halfway in the ground and THEN firing them. A lifetime supply of Badass Fuck Yes Points were earned by Bouchard that day, after which he sailed south and never returned.
Speaking of fires, some of you readers may recall from the news that in 2008 Big Sur was nearly engulfed by a massive series of wildfires burning nearby. Unbeknownst to me, these fires engulfed a good measure of the area I would be traveling through, as well. Which brings us to Junipero Serra Peak in the fourth installment of Your California: Monterey County
A missionary in a foreign field
Population: 401,762 (5.58 Sold-out memorial stadiums)
Major Towns: Monterey, Carmel, Salinas, Soledad
Highpoint: Junipero Serra Peak, elevation 5,853 feet (19.9 Sather Towers)
Location (Berkeley terms): South of SF
University of California Affiliations: Symposium was held at UCSC on the future of the Santa Lucia Mountains including UCB reps, also a bunch of papers were published on the archaeological history of the area.
Note: Joining me on the trip would be a new hiking buddy that I had only met a few previous times. While I include pictures of him in this report, I thought it best if I not reveal his name lest the world discover his True Candy Identity, so in this report he will be referred to only as Twix Bar.
The weather for the week had been unsettled, leaving me unsure as to whether my plan to tackle Junipero Serra Peak was a wise one. A 6-hour round trip drive plus another eight hours of hiking would be challenging under most conditions, but downright miserable in the rain. However, the rugged looking but folksy and down-to-earth weatherman on channel 2 told me it would rain Friday and not again until Sunday, leaving a full day to accomplish the goals.
So my alarm rang at 4:30am on Saturday, and at 5 I was out the door and fueling for the trip:
To this day the British yearn for the deliciousness of Empire.
At 5:15 I was at Twix Bar's apartment in Berkeley, and at 5:20 was on the road. Oakland, San Jose, and Gilroy were soon in the rearview mirror as I jockeyed for position with a minivan who insisted on going 60mph, letting me pass, then stating indignation and passing me until the cycle repeated every ten minutes or so. The drive was fairly placid and farmy until, oh my god, here it comes I CANNOT BELIEVE IT YES, YES IT IS, IT'S HAPPENING, IT'S HAPPENING IN SOLEDAD! IN SOLEDAD! KIDS UNBUCKLE YOUR SEAT BELTS, LADIES THROW YOUR BRAS ON STAGE, DOGS STICK YOUR HEAD OUT THE WINDOW AND DROOL, BECAUSE IT IS HAPPENING, WHAT IS HAPPENING? IT IS HAPPENING IN SOLEDAAAAAD! SOOO LEEEEEE DAAAAAAAAAAAADDDDDD!
You had to be there. Because it happened.
I always get a crack out of places trying to "rebrand" themselves. I'm not making this up: recently Papua New Guinea tried ads with a new tourism slogan, calling itself the "Land of the Unexpected." Potential tourists didn't so much think of jungle expeditions and snorkeling from the slogan, but instead dying in a volcano or a plane crash, and tourism actually went down until the ads stopped.
Anyway, we drove right through Soledad. Shortly we stopped at the highway turnoff point in King City, where there was the deal of the century on motel rooms.
This has William Shatner written all over it...sweetlips.
After another half hour or so on rural roads, the route turned onto Fort Hunter Liggett. I knew this because there was a sign telling me I was now under the command of a Sergeant Major. Also there was a tank.
Not many people were around because Army had half-a-day.
I had to stop at the entrance station and both myself and Twix Bar were told to show photo ID, explain why I we were entering military property, and give the military agent vehicle license and registration. He very kindly let us pass but not before telling me best part of me ran down the crack of my momma's ass and ended up as a brown stain on the mattress. Also something about not knowing they stacked shit so high. Nasty things to say, I thought.
Anyway, so we kept driving, all obstacles out of our way, with no further problems, just the GTI, the empty open road and a yellow sign that said "Reduce Speed: River Crossing."
Ha ha! Why I'm sure those jokesters at the base must have put that sign up to trick dipshit tourists and scare them off the base, there's not actually a river cro---
I got out of the car to check the water. It was impossible to tell how deep it was in the middle, but the water was running smoothly and slowly over the road. And like most Berkeley grads the only experience I'd had fording rivers ended with the loss of oxen and the drowning death of Zeke.
We decided to go for it anyway.
Zeke was expendable.
Ok so FINALLY, with just a few more minutes of driving, we would come to the trailh--MOTHER FUCK
Again I got out to check the water, it looked shallow enough, we forded and THIS time we continued on to the trailhead as the foggy skies began to clear.
We arrived at the trailhead. Though no fire damage was yet evident a sign in the trailhead register indicated the area had only recently (actually, ONE day prior) been reopened after a full year of fire closure. I did not know what to make of this at the time, it would turn out to be both a blessing and a curse.
Like Desean in trail form.
We started out through a grassy area that had a ton of flowers and was ringed by interesting rock formations. Earlier, I mentioned that it rained the night before. This was evident as the grass all around was sopping wet with rain in the early morning.
The fire closure was more of a curse at this point as the trail disuse meant it was horribly overgrown.
Weed whacker is #11, right after the 10 essentials. DAMN YOU BOY SCOUTS.
Normally this wouldn't be so bad, but the rain on all the plantlife meant that in short order everything from the stomach down was completely soaked. After 5 minutes, to be completely drenched, with another 10 hours to go with drive time, was not a fun thought. I felt like such a wuss for even contemplating it...there was no WAY we were turning around from what basically amounted to a dewy meadow.
So we trudged upward. The trail reappeared and disappeared into thick grass, meandering when it should have been straight, straightening when it should have meandered around obstacles. It was slow going. Thankfully modern conveyances could be found to speed up our progress.
Twix Bar contracted gonorrhea from the tractor.
Soon, fire damage became more prominent as we headed up into a forested canyon. Most of the trees were either badly burned and barely clinging to life, or completely incinerated, as though by lightning.
There was a tree here. Then Jahvid Best ran by.
The fire had downed much shrubbery over the trail and left the landscape looking barren and dead. The only thing this was good for so far was getting very intrepid shots of Twix Bar.
Not even Twist could out-intrepid Twix Bar even if he was intrepidding as much as he could intrepid with an electrified intrepidding machine.
As we climbed out of the canyon, a change was apparent. The plant life was more shrubby, and the animals more vicious-seeming:
But this is where the fire proved itself to be a blessing. Rather than having to fight our way through thick, prickly, brambly brush for another three miles, the fire had very effectively cleared all the leafy interference out of the way. This made travel much, much easier. The summit also came into view, high above and nearly in clouds.
Climbing higher, the trail abruptly entered a deep forest. The transition from oaks to chaparral to pines was striking.
Not only were we hiking to the highpoint of Monterey County, but to the highpoint of the Santa Lucia Range as well. Many have not heard of the Santa Lucias. That is because historically, they are home to more or less nobody. They are far from population centers of Socal and Norcal. They are stiflingly hot and dry in summer and surprisingly cold and wet in winter. Soils are generally poor, hillsides very steep, and fire incinerates the landscape every thirty years. As a result, plants have to be very specialized to live in such a unique place. This is so, as there are numerous plants found nowhere else in the world but the Santa Lucias. They are the southernmost range to contain redwood trees, but they also have yucca plants, a close relative of cactus.
What a wide variety of terrains and biomes and plant life translates to is that it is difficult to use. Loggers need monoculture stands to be profitable, ranchers need open meadows and tons of grazing room for their cattle, and miners need things to mine. The Santa Lucias provide none of those. As a result, the area was barely used from the very founding of modern California. Fort Hunter Liggett probably has the most acreage that isn't already included in Ventana Wilderness (which contains the bulk of the Santa Lucias), and even that is mostly used to train army people in carrying 100 lb packs up muddy slopes through the very vegetation Twix Bar and I were crashing through.
One of the few residents is Jack English, 90 years old, who lives in summer on a tiny parcel of grandfathered land, without electricity, in the middle of the Santa Lucias. Be sure to check out this photo essay about him from the Merc. I liked this quote from English:
"I like this kind of life, anyway. It's not that I don't like people, I do. I just don't like swarms of them. California's remarkable stream...it's got everything. Only one problem: everyone's found out about it."
But rather than run off to Oregon or Colorado as so many other retiree Californians do, English remained in the geographical center of the state, hiding in the Santa Lucias, returning even after fires raged through. Mercifully these fires spared the pines near the top of Junipero Serra Peak:
Most of them, anyway
Shortly, I found myself looking at the highpoint benchmark.
At the summit I found the remains of a lookout tower and nearby cabin for whatever ranger or soldier who was assigned to the job.
This is what happens to beds when Mike Stoops has sex in them.
I found the invisible flooring a little disconcerting and inconvenient, but Twix Bar loved the place so much he refused to come down.
"He who live in house with glass floors should not um...live in house with glass floors."
He could see his ma from up there.
The view was pretty good. Cone Peak was off to the west, Ventana Double Cone to the north, and valleys to the south. The east was still clouded over from the previous night's rainfall. After 4000 feet of climbing, the air was colder than expected. There was no register to speak of, likely torched in the fires.
After a while we headed down. We passed a sign we had missed that would have indicated the trail where we had wandered upward searching for it in the growth earlier that day.
SANTA TRAIL. LUCIA OUT. SANTA CREEK. ARRO. LOS PADRES N.
Maybe it was translated directly from Spanglish. Anyway, we found our way down to the bottom and signed the trail register, forded the rivers, left Hunter Liggett, and drove back.
Because our mommas wanted us home.