Mill Creek Summit to Pacifico, Shard #2

Gentle reader, the snake spared him. We turned tail and headed back to the rest of the group, and by the time we’d reached the spot where the snake had reared up, it had slid back beneath a manzanita bush five feet from the trail. It was still rattling to raise Cain, bound and determined to let us know exactly where it was, for which we were thankful. We passed the spot cautiously and then tore down the trail. We revised our hiking order: a grownup would lead to watch for early evening sunbathing reptiles and to bear the brunt of any potential strike with his or her full-sized and therefore less vulnerable body. We wound around the ridge onto a level path shaded by Jeffrey pine, which soothed us with their bracing fragrance. Eventually, we scrambled up the dome of Mt. Pacifico as a bleary pink sun drained out of the sky. After watching for the last flash of light and collapsing by the picnic tables, we set up camp and cooked, hazed by twilight and fatigue. On our pads that night, we watched shooting stars and huddled together beneath a wind whose nightlong argument with the treetops wouldn’t let me sleep for more than twenty minutes at a time. The moon rose, backlighting my dreams of pink-eyed mountain lions and lodges of Jeffrey pine into which Husband’s hippie friends would not let me go.

Sunset from Mount Pacifico
Sunset from Mount Pacifico

We were lucky, after having been foolish enough to put our kids in harm’s way by taking them high into waterless, snake-infested mountains. Foolish or no, though, we’ll do it again, as we are about to this very weekend.

As I write this, I’ve been reading about the Syrian refugee crisis. Not too long before we took this hike, that meat truck filled with fifty decomposing humans was found in Hungary. A few days later, the shocking picture of the tiny drowned boy on the beach in Turkey showed up in my Facebook feed.

I never know how to react to this kind of thing, as a posting and as an event in the world. The images seem sensationalistic, and they are, but they’re sensational because the situations are. The failures that have caused these situations are so big that I feel helpless to change or influence them. At the same time, I understand these situations to be caused by historically specific human actions that are not inevitable.

So a couple of days later, I signed a petition asking the US government to accept more Syrian refugees. I didn’t repost either the article or the petition. When it comes to reposting, I fret that I haven’t done enough research, that the photo will prove to have been staged or exaggerated, that the petition to be scurrilous. Maybe in fact the US government already does accept a lot of Syrian refugees, and I’ve just signed a petition that actually lowers the number. Besides, what sentimentality or selfish crypto-racism or ethnocentrism impels me to respond to this tragedy and not to endemic gang violence (which also targets children) in Chicago, or San Salvador, or downtown LA? I don’t like activism that takes ten minutes; it feels insincere and ultimately ineffective. On the other hand, maybe activism that takes ten minutes is better than no activism at all.

Whatever this is – ambivalence, guilt – makes it hard for me to write, because what I’m writing about are first-world problems, or at least a first-world perspective on problems. My kid almost gets bitten by a rattlesnake because I’ve taken a three-day weekend to guide him into a well-regulated, taxpayer-funded backcountry. We get some blisters from our hundred-dollar shoes, sip water from highly engineered water bladders, and eat ten-dollar hiking dinners. This other child drowns because a rubber dinghy – the first step in his father’s plan to achieve a “normal” middle-class life in Vancouver – flips in the Mediterranean in the middle of the night. What I’m trying to say here is hard, partly because it’s obvious and partly because it doesn’t go anywhere, but I’ve got to try to say it anyway. Somehow when I write, I always come around to the insignificance of my experiences and ideas about them in the face of global social injustices.

Maybe this reaction is conditioned by GenX futility, maybe by my gender. I postulate that my self-silencing when it comes to representing my adventures has something to do with gender (more on this later). My adventures don’t matter, especially given their internal or domestic character, and since they’re by definition about relationship as well as territory. By contrast, a male adventurer – take Kerouac, because why not – wouldn’t question the cultural significance of his adventure, even in the shadow of Auschwitz and during the first frosts of the Cold War.

The picture of that baby plagues me, and probably in what’s ultimately a very selfish way: for every disaster, I imagine it happening to my kids and I’m a wreck. Gun violence, ebola, human trafficking, kidnapping by the Mexican drug cartels. I find ways in which my situation is not really like those situations – the large (but not impenetrable; c.f. gun violence) economic safe-zone that protects them and me from tragedy. And then I feel guilty or confused or hopeless about that safe-zone and how little I’m willing to do to extend it to others, except think about it and write about it and plan to donate to Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders once I make more than 20K a year.

See, and I don’t have an answer. No closure, no healing, no satisfying conclusion in which I figure that being brave enough to say something I believe in and care about somehow ameliorates social injustices and human suffering on a global scale. I wish it did. But I don’t think it does. It’s just something I want to do, something without which my own life will be sadder and more disjoint than it is right now.

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Mill Creek Summit to Mt. Pacifico: Shard #1

Mill Creek Summit to Mt. Pacifico (San Gabriel Mountains; trailhead roughly 23 miles north of La Canada Flintridge on CA2 and N3).

One thing about hiking is that narratologically speaking it’s not really that interesting. You walk and walk, and the view changes, usually fairly slowly. The same peaks and ridges loom ahead of you and never seem to get any closer. You sweat. There might be breeze or shadows or other hikers or animals. You get to your campsite, cook, and sleep. You get up the next day and either do the same thing over again, or you hike out and treat yourself to donuts, pizza, and a long midday shower.

One of a long line of baby backpacks we used.
The baby backpack in action

Hiking with kids is somewhat more interesting. First, there are the psychological battles. With two children less than two years apart, The Husband and I couldn’t carry enough gear to do overnights in the backcountry unless one or both of them hiked independently. Since we were invested in the idea of ourselves as tough, athletic hikers, we were selfishly motivated to train the boys to hike like grown-ups when they were still pretty small. We developed a method I’ll call trail-Ferberization. For those of you who don’t have any delicate feelings about making your children suffer, here’s how it worked. You push them relentlessly for the first two miles, hardheartedly ignoring complaints, footdragging, and whining. Remember that it takes a long time to hike two miles, because just when you’re about to throw up your hands in frustration and turn back to the car, they’ll go into the zone, quiet down, get glassy-eyed, and hike. If they flag in the middle of long hikes, try storytelling: my go-to is long, drawn-out, versions of old-school fairy tales in which I dilate their bizarrely specific and often foot-related violence (cut off heels, red hot iron shoes) and add energetic critiques of their gender politics.

Son the Younger and Son the Elder off-trailing it in Joshua Tree National Park
Son the Younger and Son the Elder off-trailing it in Joshua Tree National Park in the early days

This psychological battle came into play on a hike we took this summer. Some family friends joined us to climb Mt. Pacifico in the San Gabriels, a mom and two kids close in age to Son the Elder and Son the Younger. Her younger child started out as the weak link, the one who had to be cajoled and bribed, but true to the method, he broke through his pain threshold several miles in and began to hike like a champ. Our boys, however, began to slow us down with constant fighting about who got to lead. Since Son the Elder was hiking with quiet seriousness and Son the Younger was exhibiting symptomatic complaints and foot-dragging, Son the Elder was out front. After a particularly explosive exchange involving gummi bears, Son the Younger took the lead with a vengeance. I actually could not keep up with him and had to tell him repeatedly to slow down. I got annoyed – I was carrying a pack, not very heavy, but I wasn’t really in shape for it and there was a fair amount of elevation gain going on.

But I had more stratagems in my kit. I tried to get into the meditative state of mind, the through-hike mind. We’d been talking at home about the Buddhist concept of “right speech and deep listening”: putting a volition of compassion in every utterance, and receiving others’ utterances attentively and thoughtfully. So I told Son the Younger that I wanted him to slow down because it wasn’t safe for the group to be spread out and because I wanted all of us to be able to enjoy the hike. I wanted to be near him, to talk with him and experience the mountain with him. He slowed down, and the gap between us went from fifty or sixty feet to about ten.

The second thing that makes hiking with kids exciting is their tendency to fall into harm’s way. In our current situation, the psychological battle took so much of our attention that neither of us saw the rattlesnake that was only three or four feet from Son the Younger. It reared up, rattling with great commitment, a feline, hissing sound.

We subsequently became knowledgable about rattlesnakes in the San Gabriels. The reptile in question was probably a Southern Pacific rattlesnake. Rattlesnakes are pit vipers and in general pretty deadly. Their venom causes necrosis and coagulapathy (this is one reason why it’s not a good idea to cut the injection site). The venom kills tissue, including blood vessels and muscle, and disrupts circulation. Amputation and heart failure are possible outcomes of a bite to the hand or leg. The venom of the Southern Pacific rattlesnake can cause paralysis; if the venom affects the diaphragm, the victim essentially suffocates. Fun fact: snakes can control how much or even whether they inject venom: the snake’s age has something to do with it (younger snakes inject more) as well as whether it’s angry (bad) or surprised (not as bad). Very few people who get bitten by poisonous snakes each year in the US (7000) actually die (5).

If treatment happens within two hours, you’re probably good, although adverse factors like weighing fifty pounds and being so scared that your heart races might shrink that window. The Husband and I talked about how long it might have taken us to get Son the Younger to a hospital. I thought we’d just tear down the Angeles Crest back into La Canada and to the Verdugo Hills Hospital; he thought we’d go to Palmdale/Lancaster. We wondered if we’d had cell reception on that ridge, if they would have sent in a medevac helicopter.

We thought we respected the wilderness; we were careful about water, sunscreen, hiking companions, leaving someone in the frontcountry with the info about our backcountry exploits. But it’s easy to get cavalier, to feel like you’ve got it figured out better than most of the amateurs out there. We’d put Son the Younger in harm’s way with our agendas and our overconfidence. Granted, parenting always involves a calculus of risk and enriching experience, and the outcome of any given equation depends at least a little bit on luck. To be continued….