Escape to the Forest of Titans

I woke up early, packed my bags, and drove as quickly as I could out of LA. I was antsy and in need of some exercise, but I didn’t dare spend another minute in the city. On the way out on the northbound I-5, I was contemplating stopping somewhere to run, when I spotted this enormous and monolithic wall of something from the highway:

I took this as a sign and pulled off the nearest exit, which read “Castaic Lake.”
I drove in the general direction of the imposing structure until I came to a park. At the gate I was stopped by a stout troll-looking boy and told it was $11 to enter. I turned around and parked across the street at a horse cop training compound.
Near where I parked I noticed a peculiar sign. Apparently there is a lethal and incurable outbreak of horse herpes going around. 

I put on my gym shorts and took off toward the mysterious wall. As I got closer, I realized that this thing was much bigger than I originally realized, and thus much farther away. Its context appeared to designate it as a dam. Whatever it was, I was bound and determined to reach and conquer it. I saw an off-limits drainage ditch that appeared to be my ticket in. After some strenuous uphill running in a narrow concrete culvert, I discovered that this drainage ditch was but a tiny minion to the mother of all drainage ditches, as wide as a 4-lane highway. It appeared to start up on top of the hill on the left side of the dam. I ran up the hill alongside it and took a couple pictures:

I was very intrigued and couldn’t help but think of all the cool things this could be used for: longboarding races, street luge tournaments, throwing an avalanche of bowling balls down it…et cetera. My musings culminated in a fantasy of constructing an aerodynamic and amphibious 1 man vehicle that could roll down the mega-trench and reach terminal velocity before skipping out over the lake at supersonic speeds. Sort of like a life-sized Pinewood Derby diathalon, but way more legit because people could, and probably would, die in the process. The creators of this thing had the foresight (or experience) to anticipate devious minds like myself and had installed an impenetrable security fence with outward-slanted barbed wire over the top. I was determined to penetrate, and eventually I found this poorly-designed section in the security fence, conveniently located over an access ladder.

I climbed in and gleefully ran up the trench to the mouth, which widened to 10x its original size, and sported a perfect roll-in for skateboarding.

Here’s a picture looking down the trench from the mouth. Check out the power line towers on the left for scale:

Once I reached the lip, I realized this was a spillway for draining the lake above down into the lake below. It was clearly built to handle an insane volume of water, and would be a sight to behold in action.

I climbed up and out, and looked out over the upper lake at this ominous installment. Reminds me of something from the video game Half-Life.

A state vehicle approached on a service road, searching for trespassers like myself, no doubt. I ducked behind a concrete wall and evaded the truck, and after the coast was clear, continued on the the promised dam.

 The view from the top was excellent, as expected.

The only established path out was through an enemy encampment, and sure to result in an arrest or citation. I decided to just scramble down the dam itself. I quickly realized just how huge it was, when after 10 minutes I wasn’t even halfway down:

 After much careful side-stepping and mountain goat footwork, I reached the bottom and followed a dirt road. I led under a huge power line tower. I had never been so close to one of these, and stopped to marvel.  You could hear the fatal levels of electricity hum through the lines from the ground.

 I navigated through an industrial compound of unknown nature, to a nearby hilltop, and took a picture of the dam for scale. Note the power lines and the shadow cast on it by the clouds.

 Having come, seen, ran many miles through, and conquered the Castaic domain, I ran back to my car, had a quick picnic, and continued toward the Sequoias.

The landscape grew increasingly beautiful, and as the elevation grew, the smooth and pristine hilltops started to poke into the clouds.

I stopped for gas and last minute supplies in Bakersfield, which totally sucks, by the way. To illustrate this, I took a picture of a local and intelligently-named bank.

what in the hell were they thinking?

I got bogged down in the morass of troglodytes in Bakersfield, and by the time I got near the Sequoias I was way behind schedule. I started up the winding mountain roads and was racing the sun to be able to set up camp before dark.

To my dismay, it started to rain, and as the elevation steadily grew, the rain turned to snow. I realized I wasn’t going to make it, and I was missing out on the beauty all around me by trying to rush. I let go and decided to leave my fate completely in the hands of the merry prankster. True to form, I was almost instantly provided with a large, warm, and quite suitable cave. I laughed out loud at myself and my foolish plans once again, and set up camp within.

The cave was home to some bats in the far end, but we shared a common goal of peaceful slumber, so we got along fine.

—————–Day 2——————

 I awoke and emerged from my troll-haven to find myself in a misty winter wonderland.

I continued up the road to my original destination: the tiny mountain “community” (not enough people to qualify as a “town,” I guess) of Camp Nelson. The place pretty much consisted of a handful of houses, a little diner, general store, and a ton of wilderness. I walked into the diner to inquire about my destination, Belknap Grove. I was met with skeptical looks and general discouragement, as the locals warned me not to try and get there. Apparently the roads were pretty well frozen and I was unlikely to succeed. They did direct me to a vacant lot nearby that I could camp in. They called the owner to get permission for me to stay there, and she said I could, “as long as you feed the ducks. The goose’s name is Lucy.” They filled up my water jugs and sent me on my way.

I investigated said lot, and grabbed some bread to give to the ducks. They quacked in anticipation when I arrived, and swam up out of the pond to meet me.

I stared ripping up the bread and throwing it to them, but Lucy, the clear matriarch of the group, took offense and got pretty aggressive. She charged me threateningly and hissed a bunch, but the ducks didn’t seem to care, waddling around in a quacking mob. For some reason the whole scene was hilarious to me.

A car drove by, in the direction of Belknap, and had stopped to put on snow chains. Their car was the same make and model as mine, and their snow chains the same size and brand as the ones I had gotten. They said they were going to Belknap for a day hike. I decided to hike up the road after them to see if they got stuck. I strapped on my backpack and followed the road all the way down to Belknap, to find them playing happily with their fat and gleefully hysterical child, who promptly ran up, hugged my leg, introduced himself as “Raymond Arthur,” and immediately started throwing snowballs at me.

The grove itself was beautiful, and soon I was walking amongst the ancient and gigantic trees I had longed to meet. These weren’t quite as big as the famous ones like the General Sherman, but that the trade-off for coming to remote National Forest land, which is much less restrictive and crowded than National Park land. In fact, the campground within the grove was ‘closed’ for the winter, which amounted to the bathrooms being locked and no one being there. But that was exactly what I needed after the manic rush of LA: isolation.

here’s Raymond Arthur; current and future menace to society at large

A stream ran right through the middle of the grove, and the running water gave the place a serene background of natural white noise. I took a deep breath and thanked the universe for delivering me here at last.

 I hiked back to my car, strapped on my snow chains, and drove back to the grove. I picked out a neat little campsite tucked away from view, since, technically, I was there illegally. I pitched my camp without too much trouble, but starting a fire in snowy and wet 20 degree weather is another story. After 2 hours, the sun was setting, the temperature dropping, and my back was sore. I had busted my ass to no avail, and could not seem to get the fire to take. I sat down and accepted the fact that I would be spending a cold night alone in the woods and I was OK with that. Just as I submitted to my lonely fate, the fire crackled to life with no intervention on my part. I jumped for joy, and the merry prankster rode high on the cold wave of darkness sweeping the sky.

the wages of hatcheting is fire

Now that my kindling and small wood was actually burning, I realized I would need some substantial long-burning firewood, so I donned my headlamp and began searching. I eventually found some dry-ish logs around and dragged them back to camp. I began cutting the wood down to more combustible pieces with my hatchet but this proved challenging as well, as the wood was extremely hard and difficult to cut. I slowly but surely got a decent fire going, but I was struggling to keep up the wood chopping. My wrist and knuckles were locking and swelling up from all the high-impact hacking, but if I stopped, I was doomed to a cold and demoralizing night, waiting for the sun to rise. I chose physical pain over existential fear, and it payed dividends. After a painful 2 hours I had a decent fire and enough wood to last me till bedtime, and I lied down next to it to enjoy the fruits of my labor. I’ve usually camped in groups, and didn’t realize how much work it was to do it alone, much less in the snow at 7000ft elevation.

As I lied down next to my hard-earned fire, I took some deep breaths and conjured up the tree spirits all around me. I began to pleasantly hallucinate a bit, looking up through the treeline from my spot on the ground. Maybe it was years-old acid percolating up in my brain, or maybe I was just exhausted, but maybe the ancient Ents were communicating with the lone traveler who was the only one intrepid enough to visit them in the dead of winter.

I enjoyed this entranced state for a while before curling up in my hammock wrapped in my army sleeping bag.

—————Day 3—————-

I slept hard and was woken by the sunrise in the morning. I snapped a picture of my camp now that it was visible in the daylight.

With full daylight ahead of me, I took off and hiked around for a while. I got a couple of pictures, but by and large lost myself and forgot about documentation.

I had gone just about everywhere I could without snowshoes and my throbbing and visibly swollen right hand was not up for another night of hacking, so I packed up camp, said goodbye to the giants, and headed out. 
On the way out the views were spectacular. The mist and snow clouds had cleared to reveal a breathtaking landscape.

Here’s a slightly obscured picture of an old-school powerhouse nestled over the river.

A little ways down the mountain I passed a heavily forbidden walkway. There were 5 different signs telling me not to enter in various ways, detailing a myriad of penalties. You can see 3 of them in the picture below.

Really, if you put up 5 different “KEEP OUT” signs on a neatly constructed stairway, all you’re really telling me is that you’re hiding something awesome. This logic proved extremely sound once I reached the top. It was a pipeline of some sort, that ran on along the mountainside indefinitely. I jumped atop and walked along it daringly like Huck Finn before me.

It got to be pretty high up and sported a great view of the river below;

After a half mile or so of precarious balancing, I was rewarded with a walkway proper. It was like the last level of GoldenEye, whats it called, “Skywalk” or something? I climbed up onto it and tried to contain my glee. This lasted all of three seconds before I was joyfully bounding and whooping aloud across the pipeline. Who the hell was I trying to impress anyway? Any responsible, god-fearing adult wouldn’t be up here in the first place. I’m the only human for miles, halfway up a mountain on a dangerous and forbidden industrial catwalk with an amazing view. I live for this shit. 

the edge looking down

Eventually the catwalk ends and the pipe feeds into an aqueduct. There’s a little winch for opening and closing the waterworks, and again I feel like I’m in Half-Life.

tell me this doesn’t look like something straight out of Half-Life 2

At this point, I’m forced to draw the line on my reconnaissance. I have to get to somewhere with phone service so I can figure out where I’m going to sleep tonight. On the way back to the car I see a cool gnarled tree:

And can’t help but snap a picture on the scenic drive out of the Sierras. Truly this is beautiful country.

This place is called “Success Dam.” I find that to be hilarious. Just say it out loud a few times. As a bonus, it looks great.

I make it out of the mountains and into the central valley, and stop in the first town with a traffic light. I had phone service so I made some calls and arranged to meet Tim in San Luis Obispo.

I took off across the valley and was quickly surrounded by seemingly endless orange groves. I mean, these things went for miles in all directions, literally.

There’s not much to do in the central valley, but it sure looks cool. Its so flat and clear for miles that the sky seems bigger. I passed a section of a grove that had been planted with saplings fairly recently, and tried to capture the “huge sky.” Probably failed.

After several hours of driving, I was back to the coast. I pulled into San Luis Obispo, dazed and weary. I wandered around downtown and walked into an empty bar to glean some info from the bored bartender. She directed me two blocks down to a local oddity: “Bubblegum Alley.” Apparently, the inhabitants of this quiet college town have made a weird and awesome tradition of accumulating their gum on the walls of a certain alley. This has made for a several-inches thick layer of multi colored gum fully covering both walls and floor of a 20 yard alley. There are people’s names written in gum, prom proposals written in gum, and even a mural for breast cancer awareness made entirely of gum, on a canvas of….gum. What in the hell is going on here?

After a few hours, Tim, my host, tells me to meet him at a nearby bar downtown. He is very friendly and brings me back to his house where I crash promptly on the couch.

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