Sunday, June 4, 2017

ERNIE COWAN Union-Tribune Outdoors 

Looking south over San Diego County from the summit of Toro Peak 


I climbed a mountain last week, not simply for the spectacular view, but to survey the landscape I’ve wandered for most of my life.

The highest mountain in San Diego is a little over 6,000 feet, but just a few miles north into Riverside there is a mountain nearly 9,000 feet tall that offers a commanding view of San Diego County.

Toro Peak is part of the Santa Rosa Plateau and stands guard over Borrego Springs to the south and Palm Springs to the north. Ona clear day you can stand at the summit and see from the Salton Sea, south into Mexico and west to the Pacific Ocean.

Mountains that I have climbed, like Cuyamaca Peak, Stonewall, Hot Springs, Sunset, Black, Sombrero, Whale and Angel, were easy to pick out on
 this clear day. Gazing out over the vast, curdled landscape, I was not seeing nameless mountains and canyons, but rather the geological pages of a human scrapbook. There, to my right, the San Ysidro Mountains, where I hiked 26 miles through spring rain and then desert heat while carrying a fragile, Native American clay pot that I found while hiking with the supervisor of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

San Diego County’s highest point, Hot Springs Mountain, was farther to the west and offered memories of a trip to the summit to interview one of the few female fire lookouts, long before watchful human eyes had been replaced by unblinking instruments. Today there are only ruins of the once important outpost.

I could see High Point on Palomar Mountain where lightning struck a huge pine tree next to me while I was fighting a small fire started during a summer thunderstorm as a young Forest Service seasonal worker.
Just beyond the broad plain of the Warner Valley and Lake Henshaw I could locate the meadow where I proposed and was later married to my beautiful wife, Kati. When I closed my eyes, I could see even more clearly the white, horsedrawn carriage bringing her to the shade of the stately oak tree where we exchanged vows. Friends still talk about our spring nuptials, referring to it as “a three rattlesnake wedding,” because of the uninvited guests that showed up.

A few miles away my mind’s eye could see the mountain-to-desert panorama where my mother’s
 ashes are scattered under a towering incense cedar tree.

In the growing shadows of late afternoon, the deep cleft of the canyon cut by the west fork of the San Luis Rey River brought back fond memories of a long day’s hike.

With our dogs, a hiking buddy and I had planned a short, 4-mile jaunt from Barker Valley to Lake Henshaw. Thirteen hours later, we reached our destination, but not before an exhausting day of climbing over and slipping off huge boulders into waist-deep water. We may have lost a few hours while catching some small native trout in this isolated
 mountain stream, but my soaked springer spaniel could not have been happier.

Look closely to the south, there is a little bump in the In-Ko-Pah Mountains called Sombrero Peak, obviously named because of its distinctive shape. Ona blustery spring day, a group of us hiked to the top of the mountain, but to survive had to cling to one another to avoid being blown off the summit in winds that I’m sure approached 100 miles an hour.

To the east I see the checkerboard agricultural fields of the Imperial Valley where I have enjoyed many
 opening day dove hunts with my sons and good friends. Those same fields have provided enjoyable birding trips in the winter months as we went armed with telephoto lenses in search of migrating sandhill cranes and resident burrowing owls.

The glory of a spring wildflower bloom may have passed, but thumbing through this scrapbook view before me I can see vast fields of purple sand verbena, dotted with the large, white blossoms of scattered dune primrose, or I imagine the yellow fields of desert sunflowers, or the reddish hue of the ocotillo forest as the tips of these buggy whips are ablaze with their waxy crimson flowers.

It’s time to leave my perch. I pause for one last look.

Before me is a scene that has not changed since the earliest visitors left the first human footprints centuries ago. The only difference is that each carried their own mental scrapbook.

As I left the mountaintop, I closed my scrapbook until I can return again with new memories and adventures
 to add.