This is an adaptation of a story I wrote for Active Norcal. This version is more personal, and a bit more of a somber tone.
The relatively quiet Ishi Wilderness is in my backyard, but I’ve never had the chance to explore it. I left on a Friday afternoon, after stocking up on food and water, and impulsively decided to do an overnight trip to Black Rock Campground, which sits on the northern end of the desolate Ishi Wilderness.
The story of Ishi is, in this writer’s humble opinions, one of the great local legends that cannot be told enough. Feel free to read the full story of Ishi here, but essentially Ishi is described as one of the last Native Americans to live the “majority of his life outside Euro-American culture.” He outlived his family, and watched as the world he knew and the homeland of the Yahi people was slowly encroached upon and altered. In August of 1911, he emerged from the wilderness, much to the confusion to the settlers near Oroville, and was reportedly arrested ‘for his own safety.’ He lived the rest of his life in a room in the Anthropological Museum at University of California at San Francisco, until he died from tuberculosis (having no built-up immunity to the diseases that the Euro-Americans brought along them). He was studied and marveled at, written about and recorded. His legacy lives on, and provides us with a tie to our not-so-distant past.
I’ve only read one book on his life, and have never been to the namesake Wilderness. To get there, I drove through a quilted blanket of different lands. Ownership changed from National Forest to State Wildlife Area to the Sierra Pacific Company, to National Wilderness, and back to National Forest in a span of 20 miles.
I’d started the trip late in the day, and once again I found myself in a race against the setting sun. I was hoping to gaze upon the landscape in the light, but after crossing another border (this one marked by a map by the side of the road), I had to make a decision. Either stay, make camp here at the open area near the road, and seek out to Black Rock in the morning or risk losing daylight and keep on keeping on – with the hope that I would see Black Rock while there was still some light.
Of course I chose the latter, and continued through on the windy and rocky road through the forest. With the sound of my audiobook keeping me company (George Lucas: A Life if you’re wondering) I kept wondering about Black Rock.
I had chosen this destination for two reasons. There was a campground at its base, rumors of a waterfall, and a trailhead within close proximity. The trail followed Mill Creek, one of two main creeks in the Wilderness. (Also, after a little research I noted I’ve hiked along this particular stream before – Mill Creek Falls in Lassen National Park is indeed the very same Mill Creek that I was heading towards).
Finally, the road emerges from the forest and onto one of the sides of Mill Creek Valley. There is one wide spot in the road, with volcanic rock sticking out from under the road in a location that is clearly often used as a picnic area. I stopped here to stretch my legs and catch the last glimpse of the sunset. Facing west, the pink and orange hazy glow was picturesque. I looked east, following the route of the road with my eyes, and it was then I saw it – Black Rock.
On the drive up, I kept wondering how I would identify which of the many rocky outcroppings was the Black Rock. Now, it was clear and seems almost laughable that I wondered. It sat at the base of Mill Creek Valley, defying the rest of the natural contours of the area. Where the two opposing slopes of the canyon dropped in elevation to meet at the creek, Black Rock juts upwards, proud, defiant, and imposing. The creek itself winds around the rock, and the campground sits near the base. I could not see the campground from here, but knew that I would find it. It’s interesting – if Black Rock was in another setting, it might not feel as dramatic as it is not even 3,000 feet high in elevation. However from this viewpoint, after a bouncing ride and not seeing another human for an hour and a half, Black Rock was positively majestic. The last light of the day basked it in warm light, and I knew that I was looking at a sight that generations of humans had gazed upon. This Rock, this landmark, was tying me to the past in a way I could feel.
I returned to my car, excited to know that my campground was near. I followed the road down the sloping sides of the canyon as a full darkness descended. There were times when I slowed my car to a crawl to navigate the rocky road, but eventually I pulled into the campground (unmarked by signs, but clearly marked by the landscape). I spied a relatively secluded site, and parked to claim it.
Laying claim to this site proved unnecessary. With my headlamp, I walked around the campsite and found I was utterly alone. This thought proved to be both thrilling and – I have to admit – a little frightening. The rational part of my brain was thrilled for this is what I desired – an escape from crowds and from people. The irrational part of my brain activated my fight or flight response, imagining different threats that could loom in the wilderness, ranging from the realistic (bear) to less realistic (Jethro and his band of inbred and violent drug operators who maimed any individuals they perceived as trespassing). As the beam of my headlight scanned the empty and desolate campsite, innocuous objects seemed sinister. What I first took to be a grave site marked by a cross, was nothing more than a campfire stove. At one point, my headlight illuminated what proved to give me my biggest fright – a pair of eyes about 20 feet from me. Again – the rational part of me thought it must be a small mammal, but the irrational side swore they were the eyes of a mountain lion. Having sufficiently explored my surroundings, I headed back to my car.
I came to the wilderness to escape. My mother’s health had been deteriorating – or rather it has been. Since she was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, we feared she had months to live. That was over a year ago. She has been undergoing regular chemo, which seems to have been successful in stopping the spread of cancer cells. She is tough, and has been an excellent patient. Recently, we found out that the chemo may have inadvertently caused a liver failure, which does not leave her with a lot of options medically speaking. The relative silver lining is that both of my parents are retired and have enough funds to live comfortably. My father has been doing a great job taking her to different appointments, trying to take care of her when she does not like to be taken care of, and keeping composed. Every now and then, it spills over. I know that it probably feels very selfish, but I just felt I needed an escape – a chance to be alone with the wilderness and try to process everything. (Loughrey men have many strengths – processing emotions does not seem to be one of mine). And yet here I was, alone and instead of finding comfort all I found was a hyperactive fight-or-flight mechanism inside of me. Of course, at that moment, walking through the campsite that seemed to be vast, empty, abandoned, forgotten, and desolate – I didn’t think all of these thoughts. I just knew that I did not want to pitch a tent right then.
Because of the darkness, potential real or imaginary threats outside, and my general weariness, I decided that I would rather spend the night sleeping in my car. The backseats of my CRV fold down, and I made a comfortable little bed for the night. I ended up using a little light to read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (ironically enough about the narrator and his companion attempting to hike the Appalachian Trail) and popping open a cold can of beer. After a little while I was comfortable and chided myself for being afraid of the wilderness. I feel asleep and slept soundly and quite warm (noting that I would probably be much colder in my tent!)
The next morning, I found my surroundings had changed. At night, the area seemed sinister and wild. In the a.m hours, however, I found I had gained company while I slept. When I fell asleep I was the only one in the area. However, in the middle of the night, around midnight actually, four vehicles had caravanned in and set up camp. Five tents now occupied the open camping area off to the west of where I spent the night. I met two of the inhabitants and their four-legged companion while walking in the morning, and they seemed pleasant and chipper. To be honest, I think they were as surprised to see me as I was to see them. Still, it gave the area a more jovial and welcoming feel.
I was eager to explore more of the Black Rock area. I walked with a small backpack up Mill Creek to where it wrapped around the base of the rock. On this side of the rock, closer to the campground and main road, a large pool had been created over the ages and I made a mental note to come back and swim during the warmer months. In addition, where the creek bent around the rock, it created a series of rapids that made it sound like I was near a waterfall. Still, the only trail I found was on the wrong side of Mill Creek – I wanted to get closer to Black Rock, not further from it. My morning hike turned into a morning walk, and I was forced to return to my car.
I hopped in my car and began driving and following the main road further into the Ishi Wilderness. It initially heads away from the area I had just camped in, but curves around the slopes of the low valley and ends up approaching Black Rock from the opposite side from the campsite. An extra large bend in the road creates a de facto parking area.
From this side, I was able to hike right up to the base of Black Rock. What I found surprised me – a small, almost hidden shallow cove. As I approached, the cove was somewhat protected by the landscape, and I made noise to ensure that if there were an animal resting in it, it would be scared off. Once again, my fears were misplaced. I found the space empty, except for a healthy amount of cow pies. Here was a shelter from the elements, perfectly carved out by nature. I stood in relative awe, thinking of all the animals that had called it home in recent years – and the different people that must have called it home in ancient times. I felt certain that Ishi himself knew of this location and sought this shelter from storms. The space felt safe, secure, and tranquil. In the morning light, and aged tree cast a cooling shadow over the area.
I explored the base of the rock more, but found that the crumbling volcanic rock did not make it suitable for climbing on or over. (Which probably is better for preserving the rock from humans, but less sturdy against nature). I walked along the hills in the upper Mill Creek Canyon, following trails that again most likely had been used by cattle most recently. Twice I found bear scat, but it looked so old that I did not feel any had been in the area recently. The sun was climbing in the sky now, and the cool of the night wore off and I found myself stripping off my outer layers.
Much too soon, it was time to go home. Out here – I was away from civilization, yes, but out of cell service. It was here the guilt set in. What if my dad had tried to call, because something catastrophic had befallen my mother? I did not tell them I was out here. What if something happened to my closest companion – Kiva, and I didn’t know? Who was I to be enjoying myself while all this imagined horror was occurring? Needless to say, I cut my hikes short. I headed back to my car, and followed the same road out that I took in. I did stop briefly to marvel at the sweeping vistas of the canyon. The lack of cell service only served to make this area more beautiful to be honest. If I came to nature to recharge, refuel, and reset, it only partially worked. The part of me that was plagued by worry – both rational and irrational, was still with me. However, my sense of smallness – when I realize how the scale of my problems are so small compared with geologic time frames, the size of the universe, the basic needs of survival, was restored.
Of course, once I returned to cell service, I found that very little had happened. The world kept turning, my family was the same as it was the night before, and the only notifications on my phone were benign.
From above, I would bet that Black Rock could be missed – it’s colors blending in to the landscape. From the ground, however, it stood as a proud landmark and a connection to the past. I remember reading how Ishi felt connected to this world – his homeland. I could almost feel that too, feel how easy it would be to disappear in these woods and fall in love with every inch of the landscape. As I drove out, I passed many cars and knew that this place was no doubt discovered by modern humans. I would hope that they all treat it with the same reverence and continue to enjoy the beauty and starkness of the landscape. I can’t wait to come back to hike more, and take more time to enjoy myself more.
Until next time, never stop adventuring.