Point of views

“Yes!” I happily grunted out loud, “no one here.” It was a small kind of victory. I had just reached a spot in Caspers Wilderness Park referred to as “The Gazebo,” an open-sided wooden ramada that sits on a hill at a trail junction. My overt satisfaction was born of a historical (and, admittedly, probably constitutional) grumpiness over having often hiked three and a half miles - the last mile or so gaining over eight hundred feet in elevation - to get to this lovely location only to find it already occupied.

I’ve shared the Gazebo in the past, but to say I welcome company would be too brazen a falsehood even for me. For some reason I covet solitude there. Despite my apparent genetic lack of empathy, though, I’ve always understood the attraction of the Gazebo. It’s a great place to rest after the sturdy climb. It’s open and airy, yet still provides a bit of shade on warmer days. And although it’s not the highest spot around (the Santa Ana Mountains to the east rise much higher), or even in Caspers (that point lies a few hundred yards up the trail), it offers excellent vistas of Orange County, the ocean to the west, and even L.A. on a clear day.

Normally, my favorite part of the scene is the more proximal aspect of Caspers spread out below and around me. One can see nearly all of the park from here, and I prefer this narrower focus. Sometimes I try to pinpoint the area in Bell Canyon where my wife, Laura, and I took our two kids on their first mountain bike ride. They stood about as tall as a coyote and were excited to ride their miniature versions of Mom and Dad’s bikes. Of course we only got as far as the first steep rise in the trail before their little legs gave out and they realized all at once how interested they were in anything other than being just like Mom and Dad. I also imagine I can see the bench on East Ridge where Laura and I always took breaks when we were first hiking, and that we now almost always pass with smug self-satisfaction (“Remember when we used to have to stop there?”). Many more events bubble agreeably out of memory as I scan the terrain: a standoff with a skunk, the delight of spotting a grey fox and her three kits, the strikingly fresh-looking set of cougar tracks that we followed with excitement (and a touch of trepidation), and those rare days of running water in the creeks.

On clear days I’m almost sure I can pick out a dark cleft on the other side of the canyon that hides a secluded sandstone gorge we once investigated. We struck out off the trail in an impulsive act of disobedience, and tore up clothes and skin on our way to the small, eroded gully with sandy towers and fins that crumbled as we touched them. It was a beautiful, fragile, untainted setting. But in the end, it was also a disturbing experience. When we finally restrained our enthusiasm and stopped to think, we knew we shouldn’t be there and left immediately, more than a little chastened.

But today’s visit to the Gazebo is different. Sitting on the picnic tabletop with my feet on the seat, imperiously surveying my domain, I realize that the wide-angle perspective is intruding on my narrow focus - and has been for some time. When I look to the west I can no longer restrict the aperture of my attention to the park’s boundaries. There’s a white scar on the land just beyond West Ridge (the western limit of Caspers) which imposes itself on my thoughts. Houses are coming, and along with them pavement, pets, cars…and people. This encroachment will inevitably result in less wildlife in the park, and more invasive plants choking out the natives. There will be reduced wilderness in Caspers Wilderness Park. No one will intend the damage, but it will happen nonetheless. And lately when I turn to the east I look beyond the borders of Caspers toward the Santa Anas. They represent a powerful bulwark against civilization and connect the relatively unspoiled, open spaces of the mountains with this much smaller county park, enabling it to inhale and exhale the wildness that keeps it vital. But those mountains are dry, and will continue, regardless of the occasional rainy cycle, to get dryer. That means that this huge backyard which allows Caspers to breathe, also offers a greater opportunity for a spark to grow into a scourge. It’s an inevitability that fire will come, more often and more destructively, to my little hilltop hangout.

As has happened during my recents visits to the Gazebo, my widening focus is eventually forcibly blown open by political realities. The local reality is that development rules. We have a state reality in which commercial agriculture wields a big enough stick that the rest of California seems destined to defer to the demands of an industry hell-bent on growing crops where it almost never rains. Of course there’s the all-too-familiar federal reality - an electoral system substantially held captive by moneyed interests. And reducing carbon pollution so that weather patterns remain stable enough that the oceans don’t warm, the clouds continue to form, and there is still a bit of water for a small wilderness park in Orange County, doesn't appear to be what interests the moneyed.

These days, as I sit on this breezy, bright crest of a little hill in a little place that I love, I wonder about its future. I watch the world turn below me, think about how some of it is turning sour, and look for answers. I’ve had no “Eureka!” moments yet, but one thing I have decided is that while there is insight to be found in contemplation, answers are not waiting for me up here. Isolation, attractive as it may seem, amounts to abandonment. There are three trails leading away from this porch parked on a narrow ridge. They head out in different directions, but they all eventually descend. Each drops back down into the real world, a place where important gains are made only by those who link their own futures with the things they care about. I’m confident there are people like my wife and I down there; people who, having discovered an exquisite little sandstone chapel somewhere in the untrammeled brush, decide it’s critical that certain areas should never be touched by human hands, or even seen by human eyes. People who understand that we can never truly protect wilderness unless some portion of the wild remains utterly and consistently apart from us. Those places are an expression of our will to set limits on ourselves, and those limits allow other, less restrictive incarnations of wildness - parks like Caspers - to exist and sustain.

“So maybe,” I think as I jump off the table and begin to gather up bits of gear, “it’s time I found a way to tie my future to this place that I care about.” While the conscious connection of my prospects with those of Caspers may seem an insignificant first step toward an uncertain resolution, it represents a much larger and unavoidable fact: all of our futures depend upon wilderness. That relationship is not optional. Though this may seem an obvious truth, for some of us the focus has been too narrow to bring it into sharp detail.

“Maybe,” I think, allowing myself a bit of optimism, “my first step on this return from the Gazebo will be the start of something worthwhile.” But to be completely honest, I’m also thinking about the people I heard coming up the other side of the ridge. The effrontery of their infringement on my privacy would normally be cause for some griping as I head back down the trail, but today I don’t really mind. I guess I can learn to share the Gazebo. The views really are quite expansive.