Alexander Cockburn and Bruce Anderson, legitimate recipients of mailings from the American Association of Retired People, hiked the arduously magnificent Sinkyone Wilderness Trail last weekend in record time. The sprightly seniors got from Bear Harbor at the northwest tip of Mendocino County down the rugged coast trail to Usal in 25 hours, a mere 11 of those hours upright and on the move. Traversing the precipitous path that winds along the ridge tops above the Pacific at a steady better than one mile plus an hour, the intrepid pair emerged at Usal at 11 a.m. two mornings after setting forth from their base camp at Bear Harbor.
It was Cockburn's Sherpa-like combination of sure footedness and determination that ensured the elders' mastery of the nearly 18-mile hike. He often slowed at the crests of the trail's endless ascents to patiently encourage the plodding Anderson, "Just one more ridge, only one more until we get to our camp site," inspiring Anderson to concentrate on the climb rather than expend scarce breath on a litany of excuses, including an alleged hernia and "all this junk I'm carrying."
It's a tough walk, but the raw, mostly unvisited beauty of the place makes whatever pain one pays to get there well worth it. The Sinkyone's sheer cliffs disappearing into the Pacific, the groves of enormous redwoods approached from above as the trail winds back down to the sea, the many untouched streams, the majestic rock formations, the sea birds, several species of hawk and, in our case, an intransigent elk, is natural magnificence no longer available to the Winnebago people. If you can't walk you won't see it.
The Sinkyone Trail, however, is only for the fit. Realistically, the half-fit like me should spend the recommended three days and two nights on the trail. The unfit should give it a week, maybe two weeks because it's up and down the whole way, and lots of the ups are very steep ups some of them as lengthy as thirty yards to forty yards up before there's a respite of a few flat feet of switch back.
Cockburn is fully fit. He also has the right equipment, meaning his gear is lightweight as per the recommendations of our mutual hiking guru, Ray Jardine of Beyond Backpacking: Ray Jardine's Guide to Lightweight Hiking, and spare me the gags that the book sounds like it's doubly appropriate in our case.
Ray, and his wife Jenny, would certainly hike the Sinkyone at their "usual 2.75 miles per hour." They spend much of the year backpacking and are that rare thing in America — people who know what they're talking about because they've done it, and done it wrong until they learned to do it right. Ray tells us that his first go at the 2,700-mile Pacific Coast Trail his pack "weighed about 25 pounds." On his third go at the Pacific Coast Trail, which he and Jenny did in the amazing time of three months and four days, "our packs weighed less than 9 pounds "
I've read my Ray, but his only advice I seem to have recalled is the section on footwear and his recommendation that one's circulation is enhanced if one sleeps with one's feet slightly elevated after a long day on the trail. Immediately upon reading The Ray Way I hauled an eight-foot 2 by 4 into our bedroom and placed it beneath the casters at the foot of our bower. That night; my wife was no sooner perpendicular than she yelled, "What on earth is wrong with the bed?! My toes are higher than my eyebrows. Whatever you've done undo it right now!"
Which I did because it belatedly occurred to me that Ray's recommendation to elevate your feet to aid blood flow probably applied to backpacking, not the in-home slumber of the sedentary. A strenuous perpendicular day of hill hiking does cause one's blood to linger in the lower torso, making it harder for your big red pump to get it flowing again efficiently for the next day pounding up and down a severe hill path.
I had the wrong pack and the wrong sleeping bag for the Sinkyone. Inside my wrong pack I carried the wrong food. "Wrong" in backpacking is a synonym for "too heavy" or "stupid." I was both. I might as well have stuffed my wrong backpack with stones. Instead, I packed it with six pints of water, Safeway "energy bars" and a Big 5 sleeping bag that all by itself weighed 10 pounds. (Energy bars? Take a pound of sheet rock paste, mix in three raisins, four coconut flakes, five peanuts, and a dribble of molasses and you'll need a portable nuke to get this choking glop even halfway to your gut.)
I'd intended to have my dog Perro hump the water; I even bought him a dog pack and worked him out one day with four bottles of Aqua Corporate. Perro was cool with the load; he didn't try to shake it off or otherwise complain that he was functioning as a pack mule. But as we walked experimentally along the road that runs through my neighborhood, an older lady I've seen around Boonville but don't know slowed her passing car and even more slowly staying abreast of Perro and me, asked rather officiously, "How much weight is your dog carrying? It's not too much, is it?" There's something about me that seems to cause concern in random busy bodies. It was a temptation to reply, "Solid lead, Toots. And look at him. He wants to run!" But I settled for, "Four pints of water is no sweat for a 70 pound dog." One last skeptical lift of the eyebrows and off she went.
But I decided to pack the water myself, a mistake I won't make again. I abandoned the sleeping bag after the one night I slept in it, shucked the so-called energy bars of their wrappers and tossed them, ditto for two large bags of salted peanuts, and hung one of the two sweatshirts with the abandoned sleeping bag on the outhouse of the campground for whomever might find some comfort from them.
I wanted to leave my pack too, but I still had another half day to go. It seems to have been inspired by the Rubik's Cube. It makes no sense. Festooned with dangling straps, hidden pockets, zippers to nowhere, and a neck rest-like hunk of cloth at the top that was absolutely useless, the whole thing weighed another 8 or so pounds. As a kid in the Marines I routinely carried 60 to 70 pounds of miscellaneous gear, along with a mortar base plate or a .30 cal machine gun or some other excruciatingly unwieldy item, but my Sinkyone load, even given my accrued decrepitude in the years between young and dumb and old and dumb, seemed heavier than the one at Pendleton in 1959.
It had occurred to me before setting out that for $50 I probably could have hired a high school kid to carry all my stuff for me, but I'd probably get the wrong kid; he'd want to talk, or he'd address me as "Yo, dude," or I'd hear his music leaking out of his Walkman. And I'd have to kill him and take a couple of hours to hide his remains, thus throwing our trek way off schedule.
Cockburn was outfitted Ray's Way, which is the way to backpack, and it's an economical way to backpack. Ray's designed a pack that weighs 13 and 1/2 ounces. He's also designed what he calls "a two-person sleeping quilt that weighs 1 pound, 15 ounces." And he carries "a silicone tarp weighing 1 pound" instead of a tent, which typically weighs almost five pounds. These three items alone save us 20 pounds and $1,117.
The Sinkyone trail is in pretty good condition considering the steep terrain, but there were areas where we made our way around downed trees or along the sides of what can be called cliffs where the trail had crumbled into invisibility. Experienced hikers and backpackers like my friends Don and Mary Morris wear hiking boots "for ankle support" in rough country but, as per the second piece of advice I managed to internalize from Ray's Way, I had no problem with my feet or with footing in a pair of Big 5 hiking sandals that set me back twenty bucks. Ray's lightweight back pack and my Big 5 sandals, are clearly modeled on their Native American originals. The pack is basically a big bag with shoulder straps, a modern update of the packs you see Indians carrying in old photos. The rubber hiking sandals come with raised heels, thick soles and velcro straps. Of course the Indians didn't make their packs and moccasins from cancer causing industrial materials, but they did design their packs to comfortably carry significant cargo many miles and their footwear to comfortably carry them many more miles. Indians out to be drawing residuals from this stuff but for now they'll have to be content with casinos.
There was no one on the trail but an obtuse Elk. Neither of us having had prior experience with this particular beast, as we descended the trail to where this splendid animal blocked the way, we saw that he was aggressively thrusting his huge set of antlers into the trail side as if it at a foe. Was he getting ready to make a run at us? I leashed my Perro and Cockburn slapped a line on his Jasper as we conferred, hoping the elk would move on. Which he eventually did, but only to a vantage point a few feet above the trail from where he watched us scurry past and on down to Anderson Gulch Camp, the Sinkyone's least attractive camp site, and its only camp site without easy access to the sea.
The Sinkyone camp sites, with the exception of Anderson Gulch, were once bustling little mill towns, each with its optimistic clusters of pink ladies, lilac, lilies and, at Bear Harbor, the beautifully made remains of a stone wall that once enclosed the down stream end of a pond. Even the ghostly remains of long abandoned towns are a reminder that to the generations now gone what things looked like was assumed to be crucial to public morale. It mattered that buildings and towns were attractive. Ask a Ukiah business mogul why the town's main street is six miles of visual horror and he'll look back at you and say, "What's wrong with it?"
There's water throughout the Sinkyone. An empty pint bottle or two and a well-filtered little stream pump is all you really need to carry on the trail; you can refill at the many cascading streams bisecting the endless climbs and descents between Bear Harbor and Usal.
The stream at Anderson Gulch is the site's sole attraction apart from its isolation and the sound of the surf an impenetrable mile to the west. After re-hydrating for an hour, I was asleep by eight but wide awake at ten as the brightest moon I can recall shone down through the unsullied night air with search light intensity. The dogs had us awake again a couple of hours later when their barking deterred a four-footed intruder.
About dogs and the Sinkyone. Our two dogs were (and are) fairly well-behaved, which is what every dog owner says about his or her pet whether or not the dog happens to be leaping for your throat or doing somersaults to entertain the visitor. But our dogs do what they're told. They weren't going to disappear over a thousand foot cliff in pursuit of a chipmunk, and they had no apparent interest in taking on the elk.
Cockburn's Jasper is a large, two-tone brown mutt with bobcat-like springboards for hind legs; he was better behaved than Perro who seems to be kinda nuts, frankly. Perro was consistently sexually stimulated by Jasper, which I found perplexing because Perro is (1) neutered and (2) he had never previously indicated sexual interest in any other animal in or out of his species, male or female. And he spends quite a lot of time gamboling, wholesomely gamboling so far as I know, with my neighbor's female Pit mix. But at irritatingly numerous junctures along the trail, typically at the objectively most asexual interludes like, for instance, the top of an exhausting thousand foot climb or as even he made his way carefully close to the bank of a spot where a misstep would have unhappy consequences, Perro would try to hop Jasper! These sexual attempts on poor Jasper were, as the Appropriate Police might say, about as appropriate as a human being suddenly sexually hurling him or herself at a member of the local school board in open session. Apart from his periodic sexual assaults on Jasper, Perro and Jasper were net assets in that they kept whatever worrisome predators were in the area away from us.
Dogs aren't supposed to be on the trail. But the Sinkyone's "signage" was contradictory and sometimes funny. At the trailhead a sign warns that dogs must be leashed. Yeah, right. You're going to hike a wilderness trail with your dog on a leash like you're walking him down Market Street? Then, a little farther in, another sign says, "No dogs on trail."
Too late, Governor; we're on the trail and the dogs are on the trail with us. There was another sign at the Usal end of the trail warning hikers to "respect the cougar community" or something like that. Cockburn remarked he'd seen a sign at another state facility that reminded visitors to take pains not to disturb the "rattlesnake community." What's next, Del Webb retirement clusters for nature's most solitary creatures?
The only aspect of the Sinkyone we both lamented were the patches of pampas grass thriving towards the Usal end of the trail. Our transport officer, Catherine Zakoren, is a knowledgeable and long-experienced botanist. She is also the great granddaughter of the only physician in all of Russia endorsed by the great Chekhov who famously said that Dr. Zakoren was the only doctor he'd ever trusted. The great granddaughter of Chekhov's doctor, I'd say, is more likely to possess reliable information than CDF.
Cockburn had said the ineradicable pest plant had been introduced "probably by someone in Carmel or some place like that who thought it was beautiful," and had spread from there to even the wildest parts of Northern California. Carmel was fine with me as an incubator of botanical evil, but I was even more pleased when Catherine Zakoren-Chekhov came up with a much more gratifying villain — Caltrans. She said Caltrans had introduced pampas grass "back in the early 1950's to stabilize road banks." Whomever or whatever is responsible for pampas grass, an acre of lime green mounds with bushy white pompadours look like giant infected eye sockets set in the otherwise healthy skull of a vast green giant.
The Usal Road is easily the least interesting 30 miles of road in all of Mendocino County. It's about as interesting as driving through a train tunnel. Over its entire well-maintained dirt length there's only a few brief few yards where the ocean is visible through the scrubby, stunted trees lining both sides of the road. It's very narrow in many spots, too, so one must be alert to oncoming vehicles moving too fast for conditions. A couple of teenage girls almost barreled into me on one turn, and would have, if I hadn't been moving at a prudent 20 miles per hour. The kid at the wheel of the Land Rover or whatever the thing was — big, box-like and way up off the ground — skidded to a stop a few inches from my front bumper clear over on my side of the road. She glared at me like I was her father or, perhaps, Jason, her boy friend. (Are there disproportionate numbers of Jasons and Stacys in the youth population or do I just happen to meet a lot of them?)
And CDF's map says there's a 1.3 mile trail from the Usal Road down to Needle Rock just north of Bear Harbor, "which was the original wagon road on Mendocino County Road 431." The trail may be there but it's not marked on Mendocino County Road 431, aka the Usal Road. Cockburn had hoped to walk down to the ocean on the old trail but we couldn't find its starting point. Its end point down below at the edge of the Pacific is marked, but it's marked on a leaning, undersized post hidden away in the roadside brush.
A very nice man by the name of Bieber, who functions as a kind of docent at Bear Harbor, told me that "the purists" wanted not only to eliminate the restored old ranch house where he and his fellow docents live, they wanted all the other "unnatural" signs of man's intervention erased from the Sinkyone.
Maybe the purists can begin the restoration process with a frontal attack on pampas grass, but between the malign neglect of government and the pampas grass marching north from Usal, better hike the Sinkyone while you can.