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When I was in the first and second grades, I lived in Spring Valley, California, in a house right next to my cousins. Mt. San Miguel loomed over us in the south as a magnificent tower, and I would imagine a magical kingdom of kings and queens and castles in a far away land. Over the years Mt. Miguel did not seem to get smaller as I got taller and older. It still looms high in the skyline to the southeast of downtown San Diego. I live about twenty minutes north of Mt. Miguel and can see it any time I am on the freeway.
In last couple of years, and especially this last year, since I am only working one job, Saturday has become my hiking day. On a recent Saturday I had a meeting in the vicinity of Mt. Miguel, and I wanted to use the opportunity to hike up the mountain. I usually hike on the weekend with friends, but this was going to have to be a solo hike because of the logistics, so I arranged with one of my hiking partners to be my phone buddy and would check in with her periodically.
I changed into hiking clothes after the meeting and drove towards Proctor Valley Road. I had read on the internet blogs that it was difficult to find the trail, but I followed directions, parking in a residential area, walking about 1/4 of a mile east and seeing a tiny dirt path heading off into an empty field.
I was totally on my own, no map, no previous experience on this trail. Within about twenty feet I ran into a fork in the trail. There were no markers. Mt. Miguel loomed straight ahead of me across an empty field to the north, but the path went either east or west. To the east, would it then lead along the fence and then to the north? To the west, it headed straight up a little knoll. Would that turn north and head up the mountain? I chose west just by hunch. I was right.
Sorry, friends in the South Bay. This was not a pretty hike, not this time of year. It was like being on a military base, everything the color of grey or faded army fatigue-green. But I was excited. This was an adventure. I was going somewhere new, by myself. I could take a long time taking pictures, or go fast pushing myself to the max (my “max” is the average hiker’s “slow”). I entered the trail at 1:10 in the afternoon and told my phone buddy I would turn back at 4 pm—I had nothing to prove by getting to the summit; this was just a fun discovery hike. I could come back later with my friends and go all the way to the summit.
Mt. Miguel, now filled with radio and cell towers, actually has two summits. The first summit has an American flag proudly displayed and views of the entire South Bay communities, the Pacific Ocean, Mexico, Sweetwater Reserve and downtown San Diego.
The hike to the flagpole took me two hours. There weren’t many people on the trail, but I asked those descending if they had seen any rattlesnakes, or if I was on the right trail, etc. (no rattlesnake sightings) The trail in the beginning was rather wide, without many rocks–easy walking.
After an opening in a barbed-wire fence and passing a large power line tower, the trail goes straight up. I stopped about halfway up and rested on a rock, took a water break and enjoyed the view to my south of Otay Lakes. The visibility was not exceptionally good on this particular day, but the weather was perfect—about 70 degrees with a cool breeze coming right off the Pacific Ocean.
The last half of the trail to the flagpole was even steeper with large rocks to climb over and trails going in every direction. Most of the time I only knew I was on an” okay” trail by the footprints in the dirt. I could have never made this trip without my hiking poles and hiking boots. Many a time the boots and poles kept me from slipping as I climbed up and down and over boulders on the trail.
I took a lunch break at the flagpole, enjoying the cool breeze, the waving flag and the peaceful isolation. The towers of Mt. Miguel still loomed above me to the east. I rested until 3:30 and knew I could only walk another 30 minute before turning back.
Just as I was leaving the flagpole, a gentleman and his two small children approached. I mentioned climbing to the summit of Mt. Miguel but getting back before dark. All he said was, “Gosh, you’re almost there, it’d be a shame not to try.”
That’s all it took. I got into some crazy thinking. I think a psychologist might call it denial. I had planned on turning back a 4:00 p.m., but I thought, well, maybe . . . I could walk until 4:30 and still make it back before 6:00, just as it was getting dark. The beginning of the trail could be easy in the twilight. Denial. Rationalization. I think this is the sort of thinking that led to some very strange decisions and consequences in my earlier years; but I digress—that’s for another blog. Full-blown in denial and challenge, I headed toward the summit of Mt. Miguel at 3:30, two and a half hours before dark. I had one hour to make it to the summit.
It took me a half hour to get off the ridge that hosted the flagpole, tricky with winding trails to the base of the Mt. Miguel summit. I stood at the base, the summit towering above me—the trail went straight UP, no switchbacks. It looked very challenging. It was. I had a half hour to make it. The trail, steep and rocky, was very difficult for me. My poles kept me from sliding backwards several times. I almost felt like giving up walking and just crawling, it was so steep. I heard voices above me, and soon there was another family, a man with two teenage boys. They told me I was about twenty minutes from the top. It was going to be close, but I thought I would make it. They also told me there was no one else behind them. I really concentrated, going as fast as I could without slipping. I had never tried so hard to combine speed and safety, but I had to hurry! The next half hour went so fast, I hardly took the time to look at my watch, I was concentrating so hard on hurrying and not slipping. Finally, when I looked at my watch, I was shocked! It was past 4:30 and I wasn’t at the top. I couldn’t go back now. I could see the towers, I could almost touch them. Surely I could make it in five or ten minutes. More denial. More rationalization.
The next half hour was the quickest 30 minutes of my life. I put one foot in front of the other, weary, tired, stressed, worried now about the trip back, but I would not turn back. I worried about coyotes, coming across them on the trail back. I was alone on a mountain and I knew I would not get down before dark. But, I foolishly kept heading upward.
I made it to the top, stumbling up out of a ditch and turned around to see the view. It was 5:00. It took me one full hour to hike what the father and his teenage boys told me would take twenty minutes. Shock! Fear crept into me for real this time.
While I was climbing and watching the trail, the fog came in behind me. The ridge to my west, where the flag was flying, was no longer visible. I was above the clouds and the fog was moving in quickly, higher and swirling around me. I am not a very fearful person. That is not necessarily a good thing; it causes me to take chances sometime I shouldn’t, but I don’t have a lot of natural fears. But right then I was full of fears. And they were no longer about rattlesnakes and coyotes. Those seemed harmless compared to trying to find my way down a steep mountain that I was not familiar with, with unmarked trails and no visibility. Fog and darkness—a bad combination. I quickly took a picture to show I made it to the top, sent a text to my phone buddy (too embarrassed to call her and tell her I was just now turning back) and hurried down the steep trail, fog swirling around me, dropping the temperature by ten degrees. It was still daylight. I whispered a desperate prayer, my heart beating with fear: “Lord, I know I have been stupid, but please protect me on this mountain by myself.”
Ever tried hurrying down a trail at a 45 degree angle? When I was a child, I would have just slid down it. However, this was rocky and I am not a kid, so I just did my best, walking carefully and quickly, my legs tired and wobbly by now.
About ten minutes from the summit, I was surprised by another hiker coming up towards me. I teased him and said, “Are we going to make it back by dark?” He answered, “I don’t know, it’s going to be close.” I said back over my shoulder as he rushed past me, “Well, I’ll be the one groping around in the fog.”
I continued hurrying down. When I got to the base, I had to go straight up the flagpole trail. My legs were working so hard, fog swirling past, but visibility was still good. It was about 5:45, twilight. I went up that hill as fast I could. Soon I heard a voice behind me, “Hey, looks like I have someone to walk down with me.”
That hiker, probably 30 years my junior, did not rush past me this time. He decided to walk down with me. Instead he was the first of two miracles that night. The second one: the fog lifted. Suddenly, just before the day disappeared into total darkness, the night was clear. We walked down the mountain on rocky trails with our flashlights, the sun setting behind the marine layer to the west, displaying scarlet splashes of an evening sunset. Above us the sky was clear. Soon we saw the stars and maybe Venus.
What could have been a disaster turned into a lesson learned. I may not be so fortunate next time to have a hiker willing to walk alongside me in the dark. I will say the lesson I learned is the sun will set when it is determined to set, and I have to turn back at a predetermined time. Those are the facts of life. I can’t race against time and think I will somehow change the forces of nature. Again, I know it was denial, rationalization and foolish. I won’t do it again.
On a residential street, we walked our separate ways to our cars. I thanked the hiker; his name is Bill. I told him he was my protective angel. He disappeared into the dark.
Back in my car, it was 7 pm. I was weary by safe. I sent a text to my phone buddy.
“Thank you Lord.”
I’ll still think of Mt. Miguel as a magical place with knights or angels rescuing damsels in distress.
A picture of Mt. Miguel taken a couple of days later from Pt. Loma near the Cabrillo Monument.
For anyone interested, this is an eight minute video I found on you tube of a ride up Mt. Miguel from the north (I came up from the southwest). http://youtu.be/ZwTavRl08CU