Visited once in Fall, it was still hellishly hot and dry, so when my brother shared pics of the magical verdant ferny world he saw there two weeks ago I was inspired to revisit, now, in this sweet short season of wet in the near desert. Here on the eve of the Year of the Metal Tiger it indeed felt like the turning of the year, a bit of dry in the air still cool from winter, a soft caress on arms bare after months of long sleeves and wildflowers everywhere. For the first time in months a hat and sunscreen on my hike.
The route: park at Peak View because the upper day use lots are full. Eschew the touristy park shuttle in exchange for a few miles extra hiking. Head up along a rushing creek banked with fern to Bear Gulch, then up High Peak’s Trail stopping at the pass for lunch and condor viewing, then squiggy around the Peaks on the “Steep and Narrow” section of the trail to cruise down Tunnel Trail, stopping half way for a nap in the sun. It was a relief to run into no one on the backside of the mountain. I didn’t realize how quiet it was on that still, dry slope until I was tracking an odd whoosh-whistling sound and realized it was the air moving through the ailerons of the buzzards soaring a hundred feet overhead. I sat and listened to that coming and going sound for quite some time, saw the condor soar up and out west, and rested a nice while there on that rocky grassy bank halfway down slope. Sun starting to sink I set out downhill through the tunnel and to the Balconies Trail, which leads to caves that have been formed by large boulders falling down into a narrow gorge and piling up over the creek bed. You always need a light and this time of year, water shoes. I backtracked not wanting to hike out the remaining miles with wet socks. That meant more uphill but a fabulous show of cliff swallows chattering and diving against the red rocks lit up warm by the sunset. Dusk turned to dark as I walked, my eyes adjusting and feet finding the trail as I hiked out a last few miles along the creekbed with no headlamp, just silence, stars, and frogsong. The day: just over 10 miles and a 2,000 foot elevation change in 5 hours.
Back at the car I pulled out my cedar flute and played a tune to the sky and the frogs and the oak trees before heading toward home. Hungry, I stopped in Tres Pinos [pop. 500] at The 19th Hole who’s sign proffered “Booze & Food”. The place was hopping for the holiday weekend and the clientele wore Stetsons and Harley Davidson’s vests that looked like they’d been around since the 70s when earning one of those still meant something. They wore rhinestone belts and blue eyeshadowed eyes under big blond bangs. Whatever the outfit they stomped their boots vigorously on the hardwood floor as they laughed at something, slapping their buddy hard on the back. They ate large plates of steak and ordered five Coors Lights for the table. No Coors Light? Hell, five of anything will do. The walls were adorned with old rifles and arrows and the high ceiling was covered in dollar bills somehow stuck up there with tacks, each one hosting a special message or signature. Reading up on their history, they say “Once a saloon, always a saloon. Founded in 1883, The 19th Hole is an authentic saloon and eatery that has been in continuous operation for over 120 years. For our San Benito locals, anyone who visits has probably known someone who got looped, hitched, or both at this town favorite.”
Amidst the din I ordered the Valentine’s Special - a three course meal starting with ceasar salad, followed by a large plate of baked potato, brocoli, garlic bread and a grilled breast of chicken in a balsamic reduction drizzle. They made the night special ending the meal with a glass of champagne and a little round red velvet cake. The cost? $20. They eat well in the country. So did I.