The Aliso Loop Trail

My steps feel unfamiliar in the new boots as I step into the shade. It’s cool here where the Aliso Loop Trail begins, and the path is well-beaten and wide beneath the spreading oaks and sycamores of southern California’s Los Padres National Forest. The air smells brightly of sage and mugwort and dried oak leaves. Not even 50 steps in, the dogs, Rocco and Bella, stop dead in the middle of the trail, staring at full alert toward something I can’t see around the first bend. I call them, but they give me only a glance before turning back to stand their ground. I walk closer, talking to the dogs, hoping to stop them from running toward whatever is ahead.

Three men on horseback are on the path, waiting for me to control the dogs before they can ride forward. Rocco and Bella reluctantly allow me to grab their collars and move them off the trail — Rocco strains and twists his big brown body hard to get away, Bella snarls her Terrier ferocity, but I hold on and talk to the dogs, as the three horses shy and dance past us, as the men speak to each other fluently in Spanish, a language I don’t understand.

I know that it’s hunting season here on the Los Padres. Occasionally, you can hear shots ricochet across the slate-covered backcountry, and I’m worried about Rocco who looks, from a distance, like a small brown deer when he crashes through brush. I wonder if we should turn back, and if we didn’t need this hike so badly, I would. But we’ve driven 45 minutes just to get here and Rocco and Bella have been pent up all week in the backyard while I’m away working at my desk job, commuting, getting through grad school. We are an odd crew — two young, energetic dogs and one 57-year old stressed-out woman. Each of us needs this hike — we need the exercise, the time together. We need the open space.

Once the men are past, it’s very quiet. As soon as I release the dogs, they race ahead, and all I hear is the mid-morning insect buzz and a couple of raucous crows. Pricks of sunlight shine down through the oak leaves, reminding me of stars. I hope that we’ll have the rest of the trail to ourselves.

The Aliso Loop Trail is so familiar that I could hike it half-asleep. In fact, twenty years ago, the Aliso was my backyard. I worked and lived here in the Forest in my thirties and forties, and trained every day on the trails so that I could pass the step test to become a wildland firefighter. Back then, my ears pounded with blood as my feet pounded up the steep switchbacks, my breath striving to match the pumping of my arms. Sweat flowed so freely. Colorful sprays of red Indian Paintbrush, Poison Oak, white Mariposa Lilies were just part of the shady backdrop flying past. Spidery Chemise, blue Lupine, even rare purple Anemones, were just a blur as I ran across the open hillsides, thinking adrenaline, heart rate, muscle mass. Thinking momentum and goal. I grew strong and fit, and I was beginning to buy into the idea that I could become whatever I wanted if I just worked hard enough.

Now, in November, this year’s wildflowers are long gone. The creekbed that crisscrosses the Aliso is dry, so I walk easily across the white rocks, stooping to pick up a hand-size stone. Rocco and Bella, afraid of nothing, charge up and down the browning hillsides, chasing squirrels, birds, lizards. But I keep an eye out for snakes, remembering times when I’d see gopher snakes stretched full length across the path, heads and tails hidden, luxuriating in the warmth of the earth. Back when I was training, I’d taken to running with a rock in one hand because I was afraid of rattlers and wanted something handy to make a distraction should I meet one. As it happened, the only rattler I ever met on the Aliso was hiding in a bush three feet off the trail, and I wouldn’t even have known he was there except for the dry clicking sound the ‘bush’ made as my dog and I ran past. I kept up the habit of carrying a rock though, and always like the heft and feel of its dry weight in my hand.

The trail rises up the side of a valley that holds us all in its heat, like a wide green vase with a heavy blue felted cloth stretched over its top. We are above the trees. Rocco’s tongue hangs, long and loose out the left side of his mouth, so I stop to pour the dogs some water from my pack. Rocco drinks greedily, pushing Bella out of the way. Bella waits for Rocco to finish, and I have to stop him and offer her some before he drinks the bowl dry. I think Bella, on her shorter legs, must be hotter, but she would probably die of thirst before asserting herself over Rocco, who she idolizes.

We’re held in a green vase, under a blue bowl. I’m walking an old trail but with tentative footsteps, feeling winded rather than strong. On this slope, catching my breath, stopping to look around, I’m struck by how little the last 20 years have changed the trail, compared with the pace of change in the outside world.

One step here on the Aliso is just as important as any other step. As I wind up a rocky switchback, carefully lest the slim path slide away beneath me, the full sun glares down on my neck. Yucca are clinging deep into the hot shale beneath the hot sun, an activity which they do every minute of every day, as long as they have to, as long as they can. It’s supremely quiet on this rocky mountain face. There are no quail skittering about, no deer on their way to water, no crow or ravens or hawk overhead. No breeze stirs the air over my arms. It is just heat, blue rock, gray yucca, and the tiniest lizard I’ve ever seen, maybe 2 inches long, scampers beneath the stone he was sitting on as I pass. Rocco, seeing the movement, immediately pounces back to try to make the lizard come out from its hiding place.

After a few more switchbacks, we cross over the shale ridge into the next valley; a whole new ecosystem of greener scrub covers the opposite hillside, which is topped by a vast horizontal sandstone rock face. Our mountains here in southern California have been forced straight up from the bottom of the ocean by the convergence of offshore tectonic plates. You can see tiny seashells embedded in even the highest ridges. Waves of heat rise up, yes even now in November, making the green chemise and golden sandstone shimmer.

Sweat is running down now. All three of us seem to have crossed that threshold to where mind, body and spirit are working seamlessly, settling us into the pace of the five-mile hike. We share another drink, Bella gets a little more this time, and I feel refreshed by the icewater cooling me from the inside. We are on the backside of the first set of hills, facing another taller and more forbidding, pathless set of hills, across a brush-covered valley. I twist the water bottle closed and stand with it in my hand, one foot resting on the rock I’ve finally laid down. I see how it is now, why so many people feel lost in middle age. None of the things you’ve ever learned serve to answer your questions: what’s next; what’s my life about; how do I live authentically when I have no idea what I’m doing and possibly never did? It’s probably easier to just bend your head and keep going, saving for the future or paying off the loans, than to take the harness off and walk away. Because the landscape you walk into when you leave the road has no trail. And after all, there are still people counting on you to stick around; there are still people who depend on you to keep working that day job. Wouldn’t it be the silliest thing in the world, just to quit, to take off in a new direction now, when your strength is low and your body is aging, when you still have years left on the mortgage, and no earthly idea what life is all about or where you would go or if you could even find enough to eat, or what you would do with yourself that would be so much better than this life? I laugh out loud and the dogs turn around to see what’s so funny. How do you explain to a dog that you’ve caught your 57 year-old self, sounding just as crazy as you did at 17?

The Aliso is a long loop of a trail, so that if you choose to walk the length of it, you never have to re-trace your steps. It may well be this loop-like quality, this experience of continuing while also returning, which gives the Aliso its special power to heal. All I know is that three who arrived here stressed to the limit are now smiling, sweating, growing stronger. The strength doesn’t come from our efforts only. Here on the trail, it seeps into us from the very rocks, from the trees and plants whose whole lives are spent in exactly these same spots, who patiently breathe for us even when we run by, too busy to notice. Strength comes from the sun bearing down and the blue bowl of sky that covers us, from the bare bones and ridges of hills covered with sage and yucca, oak and oats, from the smell of deer, the scampering of lizards. From the quiet endurance of the living world. This is the kind of strength we need — not so much the muscle to push through, but the willingness to meet what comes.

We wind our way across the last spine of hilltop, and pause to overlook the river a hundred yards below, with its aquamarine pools, and the tops of the oak trees that we will descend through to meet up again with the dry creek where we started. From far away, the sound of an airplane echoes against the southern hillside I’m facing, and then echoes more softly from all the other ridges nearby.

As we make our way down, I can’t pull out my camera quickly enough to catch Rocco and Bella as they run down ahead of me, so I opt to take a mental snapshot; Rocco running first, head high, his stride more right/left than front/back, and Bella, the brown spot on her white back moving smoothly and steadily along. I’m no more certain than I was earlier today about where my crazy life is going or how in the world I’ll find the energy to keep up this pace. But the heat and the sweat and the land have baked the heart back into me. And I feel such gratitude for Rocco and Bella, who pay no attention to words like ‘middle age’ or ‘stressed out’, but who understand perfectly the sound of the words, “OK, let’s go!”