Early February–before my mid-month bicycle wipe-out–I was out on the mountainous trail alone. There are some truly awesome trails near where I live. Many of the houses in this area back up to the Santa Monica Mountains National Park, and with just a stroll down the street, I have access to trailheads and can always enjoy a great hike. On an exceptionally beautiful day, I did just that. I thought it’d be alright to head out alone since it was a weekend and there would likely be plenty of people on the trail. For whatever reason, that just didn’t seem to be the case. Once I set out, I soon noticed I’d only passed one or two people along the way. A couple of miles in, I decided to shorten the hike and head back. No sooner had I done so, my internal radar went up. I smelled weed. Not the fresh, green onion weeds of the spring but the burnt, dried weed whose gray fumes seep into the lungs for a natural high of a different sort. It was close and so were the voices of several young guys–late teens, early 20’s?
Fine. It’s California. Everybody smokes weed here, I thought. Then, I heard a howl–not a coyote howl, but a woo-hoo!-I’m-gettin-high-and-I-f#%in’-LOVE-IT howl. Concern infiltrated my mind. I veered off to the far side of the path and spotted up ahead three guys–one on a bike and the other two standing near him in a circle. The two who were standing were out of shape, not dressed for the trail like folks normally are. In my opinion, they were not on the trail for the exercise or the full-on nature experience, like most usually are. Then, someone howled again. Okay. Fear. These are party guys, I thought, and I don’t want to be part of the party.
It looked as though they were in the way of me and my path back. Then, I spotted between them and me a trail that headed up to a possible return path, one that I thought might run over the top of the hills instead of through the valley. I took the trail knowing that I would be right across from them at some point on a direct line of sight–on a triangle of sorts as I veered off to the right. It seemed like the better option, so I headed quickly up the alternate path. I knew they might see me, so I–equipped with a set of trekking poles–hustled up the fairly steep incline with all the power and man-itude I could manage, giving off as much of a tough-ass woman vibe as I could manage. I did so with a vigor beyond my stockpile of stamina at the time and a resolve beyond what I could actually muster within. A mix of control and fear fueled my feet and, before I knew it, I was at the top. My heart raced but I was grateful to have a bird’s eye view. But I also realized I was up there entirely alone at the top of a vast row of hills I’d have to traverse to get back to the car.
I continued on, looking over my shoulder every so often. [Mom, if you are still reading this, please do not freak out!!! I know, I know!! But, I’m okay!]
Once I headed over two hilltops, I realized that I could probably stop looking back and instead focused my attention ahead and on the sinking sun.
Two more hilltops and I came to a halt. A coyote crossed the path 15 feet ahead of me. Crap! On all the hikes I’ve done with my partner, he always wanted to catch a glimpse of the dozens of coyotes we hear hooping and howling every night, but we never did. My dumb luck that I would come across one when I was alone, and this one was so close. Yep. Lucky me.
COMPOSURE. GET SOME! I reflected on what my partner had advised when encountering certain animals in the wild, like the bear we ran into while backpacking through Yosemite two years ago. “Use your poles to look bigger than you are,” he’d said. “Alternate between waving them crisscrossed over your head to wide-at-your-side like you’re signaling someone from a distance. And make some noise! Let ’em know you’re there and you don’t need to be messed with. You’re big. You’re tough. Let ’em know it.” Crap! Yes, and do so without crapping your pants.
I made my way quickly past the location where the coyote crossed the trail, waving my arms, howling, and not crapping. I looked back over my shoulder as I made my way over the two hilltops. DAMMIT! I thought this trail was the OTHER trail. Two hilltops turned into roughly six hilltops and the sun permanently settled in some sweet spot I could no longer see.
Eventually I made it back to the car without a Werewolf-in-London event… no complete dismemberment by way of coyote. When I got to the parking lot, I saw my partner’s truck. I thought, How nice, he dropped by to see me at the end of his day. I dropped my poles into the back of my car and headed out again on the valley trail at a slow pace on the chance I might catch him heading back.
Back in the valley, there still were not as many people around as usual. I headed out about a mile and figured he must’ve been on the higher hill trail so I did a turnaround. No sooner did I do so when another coyote stepped into the path 15 feet ahead of me. This one, however, stopped and looked at me for seven extremely-long seconds, then wandered into the tall grass–the grass I would soon have to pass. I stopped where I was, turned around like I were a 360-degree slow-cam, and quickly surveyed for a stick or branch I could use as protection. I headed into a slightly cleared area where dead tree branches littered the earthen carpet below. I tested out a couple of clunky branches, snapping off smaller branches along their spines with my foot and leveraging my upper body for counter-pressure.
Moments later, I proceeded slowly down the path. My one stick was tall enough to serve as a walking stick; the other, a baton. I thumped the larger one heavily on the ground like a troll or elfin King commanding the attention of the clans. I thumped and thumped and picked up speed just about where the young coyote slipped behind the curtain of green grass. I power-talked my way through the area, “That’s right… I’m coming through… Here I am… Pay attention… Leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone.” I hustled my way back to the parking lot and vowed never, and I mean NEVER, to head out on the trail alone again.
If this all sounds a little too familiar, it may be because you’ve read my posting from about a year ago where I had a similar experience– FREE TO FEAR FEAR .
So, this is the second dumb mistake I’ve made since I’ve been here hiking in California. The third time is a charm, as they say, or the third one could be my biggest mistake ever. I don’t think I’m willing to find out which it will be. I’ll consider myself lucky or blessed for having avoided a dicey situation these two times and I will be wiser the next time around.
Safe travels, my friends. Get outside! Enjoy life! But, please make a point of being prepared and watching out for yourself!
Which would scare YOU more? Questionable people or wild animals?