Okay, yes, technically it is called Pilot Rock, but “The Rock of Pilots” just sounds so noble doesn’t it, as if it is some patron saint of those who have chosen to live their life defying gravity and living like the birds do? This hike is one that I had never attempted before. True, on my ventures south on I-5 from Ashland I had seen it jutting up out of the landscape like a defiant fist raised in the air, but I had never quite attempted. I spent my Memorial Day remedying this. I do appreciate the fact that most people spend their Memorial Days in three ways: 1. Honoring those who serve or have served in the armed forces and have given the ultimate sacrifice. 2. Barbecuing with the lads and getting drunk. Or 3. Ridiculing those who would rather drink than honor veterans. Whereas I recognize those who have served, with one grandparent serving in the 3rd Division during WWII and several uncles fighting with the 442nd, I chose to spend this past Memorial Day putting off homework and studying in order to finally experience Pilot Rock. The directions are easy enough: – Take I-5 south of Ashland -Take exit 6 towards Mount Ashland, but rather than turning off towards the lodge, continue straight south -Turn left on Pilot Rock Road (with its less than glamorous name of BLM 40-2E33) -Follow this gravel road until there is this opening/quarry like parking area appears on the right. If you choose to go on the holiday, there may be numerous cars that when you choose to do the math of how many people you saw on the trail versus number of cars, you may be confused -Facing the entrance of the parking area, there are two large boulders on the left that lead to a trail -Follow the trail -The large rock ahead is Pilot Rock. When you come to its base, rather than try to circumnavigate its surface looking for an easier path up, the path is straight up the rock. There is a semi-established route that people go up/down, that may be hard to see when no one else is hiking I added this last point because, although the path was well populated, when I came to the physical base of the rock, no one was around. I decided to go around the right, thinking that this was the right path. I ended finding a path and circling around the west face of the rock, but in time there was a spot where I had the choice of going straight up the rock, or hanging onto the rock and inching onto a ledge where there was nothing below but a steep face and no doubt a painful fall. As I had my backpack on my back and Camille on my side (Camille, of course, being the name of my Canon t5 camera), I opted to not risk everything. There was one point when sidling back to the path where my camera grazed the rock I was holding onto, just enough to hit the button that releases my lens cover. Luckily, it only fell a few feet down to the ledge below me, so I was able to retrieve it, but I must admit there was a split second where my mind envisaged it cascading and tumbling down the face of the rock. Alas, I obtained it, protected dear Camille’s lens, and went back to where the trail meets the rock. Here, I saw people coming down the established route, and these people were my lanterns in the night in the sense that they guided me on my quest for the peak.
From the base of the rock, a climber has to do a small bit of bouldering and balancing on their way to the peak. It is advised that small children or accompanying animals (for I did, indeed, catch a glimpse of several canines, my favorite being a pug/Chihuahua mix) stop at the height of the trail, and enjoy the view from there. For everyone else, though, climb on! Let fear not hold you back, for what good is the hiker that is so close to the peak but cannot continue for fear that gravity may win? Test each rock before putting weight on it, have someone behind to stop your fall, trust in your strength and balance, and forge ahead. The view from the top is worth it. The view from the top, dear readers who have not experienced it, is incredible. Southern Oregon and northern California are conjoined, the boundaries on maps disappear, and all the surroundings sprawl and stretch as if mother nature was just waking up from a long nap. Forests reach far out past view, gentle hills ebb end flow into the horizon, the azure skies are welcoming and cool. The breeze at the top offers a cool respite from the warm hike.
I am not sure what I expected the top of the rock to look like, but this wasn’t it. The highest points were a thin stretch of land, like the spine of some immortal creature. I walked down it for a bit, not down the rock mind you but down the spine, to another flat spot where it seemed people avoided on general principle. After all, if you weren’t on the very top of Pilot Rock, why go?
But I had been to the top, I had seen it and felt the rush as I saw the edge and felt the wind. So why not go to this spot, not quite secluded but not quite populated. Still in plain view, I set down my backpack, cracked open a Deschutes Chainbreaker IPA (really solid stuff), and ate some leftovers from a meal, a picnic atop Pilot Rock. I had been quite stressed out, not with hiking, but with the weight of a thousand ignored assignments, and I tried to do some meditation. Now, I have never really done meditation, however I had taken a few classes and did more of a guided thoughts practice. Essentially, I tried to focus my mind simply on the breaths I was taking, following the path as the air led into my lungs and out my mouth. I tied the ebb and flow of these breaths to a mental picture of an ocean, with the tide rising and falling with each inhale and exhale. If any stray thoughts threaten to break my concentration, as cheesey as this sounds, I imagine them as helium balloons, accept them, and simply let them float away. I don’t know why this works for me, but it does. It is a calming sensation, closing ones eyes sitting 5,900 feet above the ground. I felt reenergized, and truly awake. When I decided to leave the top, I noticed that I was the only one up there. Apparently by some unspoken decree, it was time to leave. On my way down, however, I did see two aquaintences from school and work. Joey recognized me first, he being one of the first people I met at my new job at the YMCA, however I didn’t recognize him without a beanie and a brightly colored YMCA shirt. I realized that his hiking companion was a gent named Jordan whom I had in a Social Media class, who sports a red stubbled beard, and a beautiful Nikon camera. They were hiking to do time lapse photography, we shared words, and parted ways.The hike back to the parking lot was largely empty, except for me spotting a pug/chiuaua mix that was adorable, and perfectly distracting from the man peeing in the bushes not 10 feet away. Other than this the trail was empty, which surprised me since a good 12 cars still resided in the parking lot. I didn’t think too much of it, and headed down the hill, with the sun getting low on the horizon, my gas gauge getting low towards ‘empty,’ and my energy getting low from weariness. Being atop the rock was a bit like a dream, feeling above the clouds and below the heavens. My shoes, a now pitiful and abused pair of black vans, served me surprisingly well. My camera, Camille, stayed safe under my shoulder or up to my eyes the entire trip. My soul, nestled in my small body, felt simply ready, ready to take on the world once more. All it needed was an escape.