“Stop. Wait a second.”
“Why are we stopping?”
“There’s a rustling in the bush.”
Jim shines a flashlight towards the direction of the noise. A pair of eyes is illuminated for about half a second, then disappears, as the creature scurries away through the hillside.
“What was it?”
“Was it a coyote?”
“Not sure. Maybe a raccoon?”
No one wants to think that it might have been a mountain lion.
This sort of exchange happens often during night hikes with our hiking group.
When my husband Dave and I moved from L.A. to Ventura County in March of 2014, we knew very few people in the area. One of the ways we knew we could make new friends, as well as get some much-needed exercise, was by joining a hiking group.
They’re not just any hiking group, though. On their web page, they describe themselves as “sleepyheads” who “hate getting up early to hike.” I am a morning person, but the thought of going on a hike at 5:00 A.M. before the work day even begins seems brutal. Dave is not a morning person whatsoever; this runs in his family. (His 85-year-old mother is a night owl party animal, who likes to stay up until 2:00 in the morning; when I told her I have to be at my job by 7:30 A.M. on week days, she crinkled her nose in disbelief and disgust.)
The group hosts various hikes throughout the Simi Valley/Chatsworth/Thousand Oaks area, and, despite their nocturnal focus, occasionally schedules hikes during the afternoons on weekdays and weekends. There are three levels of hikes – beginner, beginner/intermediate, and advanced – and two categories: conditioning hikes and social hikes. (I’ve never been on one of the conditioning hikes, but I always imagine ultra-sports-y types hiking at a rapid pace in Lycra shorts, pumping their fists in the air at the end of the hike and yelling “Whoo-hoo!”.) The social hikes are for people like me, who like to hike at their own (glacial) pace, rewarding themselves with chimichangas and cookies along the way.
Each hike is scheduled on the group’s web page, noting the type and level of the hike, photos, a detailed description, map, and directions. Members are required to RSVP.
The group emphasizes that the purpose of the social hikes is not to compete athletically, but to socialize and enjoy yourself while exercising at your own pace. A description of the hike will usually include something along these lines: “A beginner might find some of the steep hills challenging, and might want to proceed slowly and take breaks. That’s okay, because this is not a conditioning hike; it’s a social hike.” In other words – we’re not jocks. We’re not doing this primarily to strengthen our core muscles, or time ourselves running up steep hills. We are so not those athletic people in the Lycra shorts, pumping our fists in the air. I’m still very much that nerdy kid in junior high who hated gym and competitive sports, but loved to take long walks through the woods after school; these hikes are perfect for me. It’s for the mental relaxation as much as it is the physical exercise. Social hikers proceed at a moderate pace and wait up for the slower hikers (sometimes I’m the one waiting; sometimes I’m the one lagging behind). We talk to one another about movies, politics, our jobs, our families, our pets, the sights of the trail and surrounding mountains, and the animals we see along the way. (No mountain lions yet, fortunately.)
The Strange Shapes of Night
The night hikes usually begin at 6:30 P.M. In the winter, this means of course we’ll be starting in the dark, and we’ll be bundled up accordingly.
The mountains, rocks, and burned-out trees take on an ominous appearance in the dark. Nature, alive and colorful with flowers and cacti in the sunlight, becomes menacing after dark. Most people bring flashlights or head lamps, if only to avoid tripping over rocks (the appropriately-named Rocky Peak can be difficult to navigate in the dark. After one nasty fall, I bought a hiking pole for balance, and now I never hike without it.).
Occasionally during a full moon, when the path is bathed in natural light, we’ll stop and turn off our flashlights, to gaze up at the stars and the strange moonlit landscape around us.
After a good rain, the ground will be damp, and the air will smell moist and earthy. The hills will be fragrant with purple sage, white sage, fennel, sagebrush, mint, and pine. Our hiking leader likes to point out the different plants and their medicinal qualities, and how the Native Americans used the plants for their healing properties.
Hiking by Dusk
The summer hikes take on a different personality than the dark, winter hikes. It can often still be very hot when we begin the hikes at 6:30, and it stays light much longer. The knit hats, scarves, and gloves of the winter hikes are replaced by light t-shirts and shorts. There’s a more festive, relaxed spirit on the summer hikes, and the trees and mountains that appear so foreboding in the dark are golden in the sun; there’s less mystery and danger, and more of a lighthearted, summer vacation feeling in the air.
Feast by Moonlight
When we reach the designated spot for the snack share (usually about a third of the way through the hike), we eat. Our hike leader, Jim, brings a table cloth and a couple of small lanterns, and everyone brings food and/or drink to share. Jim’s specialty is chimichangas (they go quickly; after hiking for a few miles, most people are hungry for something more substantial than cookies and chips). I will usually bring something to drink, and so will a few others (it all somehow gets consumed).
There are the usual Trader Joe’s chips and dip and cookies, as well as homemade treats, like Adam’s cranberry sauce. Sharing food and drink with others in the mountains, under the moonlight, seems somehow like an ancient, primal ritual. (Or so it does, until Jim starts playing his often-mocked 80’s playlist on his phone.) We’re careful to pack out everything we brought, leaving no Daisy cup or wrapper or paper towel behind.
It’s March 20, and our hikes have been cancelled two weeks in a row because of rain. Of course we always need rain in southern California (despite the havoc it brings), but I miss our hikes. It’s my mid-week escape from the busy work week into nature (albeit in a controlled, safe environment), adding a bit of fun, adventure, and much-needed exercise to my routine. I enjoy the camaraderie, the beauty of the California hillsides, the socializing and the feasting – and now that it’s Daylight Saving time, I’ll be able to enjoy more of it during the daylight. Hopefully next week’s hike will happen, and when it does, the hills will be bright green from the recent rains, the wildflowers abundant, and the air fresh and clean.