A Weekend in Cleveland National Forest

We’ve been looking forward to this trip all week, in hopes that we found a campsite that won’t let us down as unfortunately Joshua Tree had done just two weeks ago. But also, so we could try out our new tent — a Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL 2 (high-volume, ultralight) versus the Arete ASL 2 (all-season lightness) with one door instead of two, which increases ease of access and limits dirt coming in.

Our old tent, if that’s the case, of a decade in tent years (which REI confirms is any gear over five years old) had seen its share of weather and wear and Caleb was done patching and stitching it together so we opted for something 2.8 pounds lighter versus the newer model of Arete that was released in 2018. The weight difference might not seem like much, being taken from the car, but we plan on doing a very long thru-hike in the future and every ounce will matter on our backs.

Part of getting older is having the ability to look back on how long you’ve been doing stuff you love and I’m glad that we are still fortunate enough to have the time, money, and health to take these trips. I’m also grateful for early days off work so we can get going sooner, though it helps that we’re going against traffic congestion too.

The last 4.5 miles to the Cibbets Flat Campground promise us that the short hour on the highway will be worth the journey as the trees and clouds tell me there’s a chance our tent will have shade versus the ultra hot Jumbo Rocks Campground that takes 3.5 hours to drive to only to leave everything to melt in the mercy of the sun. Ok, I’m done comparing the two campsites. Let’s get back to Kitchen Creek Rd.

I am known to take pictures while driving, regardless of the country, conditions, or company that I’m in but I don’t text while driving so I wouldn’t know that our phones had gladly lost signal at some point between home and our temporary reprieve from the demands that noisy notifications can place on us with the expectations of others to constantly respond.

I love being social but I also think there’s a time and place for being on the phone, unless I’m away from Caleb and then the rules change completely, whether I’m at work or visiting my dad, my husband is my priority, so camping with him means I have everything I need and can hit pause as we soak in nature and all it has to offer before work requires our return to the city and its stipulations.

Caleb will set up the camp bedroom while I prepare the food amongst our friends the ants and yellow jacket wasps after watching some activity on squirrel rock. I will move us to another table for dinner and be watched by a California scrub jay as we get some pre-hike calories ingested. We walk along the road for half an hour looking for the PCT, as we had passed a portion that goes over the road, but it was further than we realized, so we will save it for tomorrow.

Back at camp, Caleb will put the rainfly on the tent just in case and that’s when I find the trail that leads to the PCT from the camping spot next to ours. I read some of the trail log before seeing a hawk grab his dinner and I’ll return to watch the clouds turn from yellow to red to gray with Caleb. As the bats come out, the buzzing stops and the familiar chirps of the night start. These are the sounds and sights of camping as they should be as we sip spicy cocoa in the dusk.

We wait for the stars to emerge, but as they choose to remain hidden in the early evening, we will turn to reading as a way to keep our eyes and minds busy instead. We move into the tent to escape the little winged creatures that my headlamp unwillingly attracts but as the night grows darker around us a peace settles in and we are lulled into a passing slumber.

SATURDAY

We are woken around 2am to winds that sound like they will bring rain, but they don’t, so Caleb opens his rainfly door again to get more airflow in the tent. I enjoy that we can get a cross breeze more easily instead of having just the one door or relying on the vents at the top, which do help release humidity. I’m woken again around 5am to the sound of crunching dirt and again when Caleb gets up.

I climb out of the tent when there is twilight to do so and I’ll boil water for our cold granola, which turns out to be beneficial as it’s softer in my mouth that just had a bone graft done on Tuesday. I’ve still got stitches in and was told to chew on the left side, which seems unfair as I try to give my mouth equal chewing capacity, so for now I have to take smaller bites as well.

The morning starts off cool, around 61 degrees, and the ascent is constant. We’ve got long sleeve shirts on to protect against the sun but they won’t make it on our backs for the length of the hike. We walk through the small opening in the fence from the campground that leads to a dirt road that will take us to a good break point in the trail. There is some shade and rocks for resting and stretching.

We choose to go left, which is a continuous climb up 1,205 feet of mountain and with a temperature gain of 20 degrees becomes a more sweat-inducing pastime. I find little details in the passing plants and rocks worthy of stopping for a photo and appreciate the mass variety of shapes and colors to entice my eyes to take note of their beauty and contemplate their journey as I continue on mine.

My camera seems to double in weight as we decide on a turnaround point. We are offered more expansive views as the valley opens up below us. I love that a hike is two adventures in one as each direction has something to offer… like shade when we return to camp after seven miles, so we can go into town for the Chula Vista Lemon Festival taking place in what was once known as the Lemon Capital of the World — one of three in California along with Florida, Mexico, and India.

Chula Vista held the honor from 1888 when the Sweetwater Dam made the area more conducive until the housing boom of the 1950s wiped out the lemon groves. Today, we get to join some 30,000 people in celebrating everything lemon for the half mile of vendors, artists, stages, and contests of eating, wearing, and making lemon-themed consumables, crafts, and clothes.

This festival has been taking place for 25 years now and we’re given seven hours to celebrate on Third Avenue. We buy two loaves of sourdough, one olive and one Oreo, after walking the event which was bigger than we thought it would be. I don’t know why we had expectations with a lack of historical knowledge and no idea how current events would effect the turnout either. We were much more pleased with this gathering than the Fallbrook Avocado Festival in April.

We’ll stop by the house to slice some bread to take with us along with the ENO DoubleNest printed hammock — that Caleb’s sister gifted him some time ago, but we didn’t have the straps or place to hang it until now — and an adult coloring book to take back to a still wet camp from the afternoon rain. Caleb sets up the hammock on a large tree and its sturdy branch but moves it between two smaller trees so we can lie in it together without our bums on the dirt.

Having skipped lunch we’ll make dinner early and read while we pick off ants that find their way amongst our soft body hairs and cause a tickling distraction. We’ll go for a short walk around camp as there’s a bridge to other empty camp sites and then return to our spots in the hammock to watch squirrels, swat flies, and toss more ants while we turn pages (physical and digital) and sip hot drinks. The sunset isn’t as colorful as last night but the bug sounds and bat sightings are on time.

To live at this campground for a month, paying nightly, would cost us a third of what we’re paying in rent now and a third of our rent in the place we’re moving into if the campsite raises their rate from $14/night to $20.. as there was a sign on the vault toilet door suggesting just that. It makes sense to me why former retirees become camp hosts so they can spend their time camping and getting paid for it. I’d gladly do seasonal work and appreciate the changes moving to different parks would bring.

This is what I’m thinking about as darkness takes over the sky. I could get used to weekends like this and covering another four miles after our hike puts us to bed happy and ready to get rest for going south on the PCT in the morning.

SUNDAY

I’ll make us breakfast while Caleb packs up the tent. We go on a beautiful hike for hours, mostly downhill going out, but weirdly there are no photos to share of this, minus the one looking back on camp and one of me in the hammock… where we’ll sit until the sounds of thunder and the promise of the daily afternoon downpour send us back to the house.

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Sunday in Stelzer Park

Caleb wakes me with kisses and everything is right with the world, at least in mine for the moment. It’s these tiny gestures that will stick in our memories and remind us of just how much we love each other and that we share the joy of spending time together.

We leave a bit later than planned but as the trail isn’t far from the house nor an all day excursion, we’re not in a hurry either. We wait for the ranger to return so that our fee can go in an envelope in the door and proof of payment on our dash.

The entrance has a pond in the shade with chairs that remind me of happy memories of my preadolescence when I would sit between the trees by the little waterfall that our pond had and escape reality with a book in my hands and a dog or two nearby.

There is also a playground and picnic tables but as we’ve already eaten and haven’t come for the swings we continue along the clearly marked trail. There is a loop and two peaks to be completed, which should total about 3.4 miles and at least 620 feet of elevation gain.

This route will cover the Wooten Loop Observation Deck — easy to access and a place to sit, the Kumeyaay Promontory — wider views with lots of power lines, and the Stelzer Summit — that is more fun to climb than it is to baby step it down sideways.

All this activity works up a sweat on this 86 degree day with 64% humidity. It’s not until we’re in the middle of the steep trail that we think to activate the hike tracking on our new Garmin Descent Mk2i dive computer watches that auto tracks steps and logs more data about other activities too.

The afternoon will be spent washing our salty bodies, refueling our hungry stomachs, and packing gear for a hiking excursion next weekend to try some new things — tent, camping spot, and a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail.

I’ll read from A Perfect Red by Amy Greenfield while we do our laundry and then join Ryan and Fallon with their friend’s recently 21-year old son, Jared, for dinner at Mike Hess where Caleb buys the kid a beer because we all remember being there — young and on top of the world that is.

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When the Tattoo Festival Comes to Town

Caleb has been talking about adding to his collection and so I thought we’d have a look at some of the famous artists that would be at the San Diego Convention Center for the weekend, big TV names that we don’t know and other local celebrities that we’ll never meet. It was interesting for me to see so many different types of people in the same room for a shared theme; that’s how it works — ink for mom, religion, love, tradition, death, inspiration, prison, and occupation, etc.

fire cupping

I haven’t been in many tattoo parlors and I know now just how much they vary, so it was nice to be invited into the personal space of so many arms, legs, and asses getting their mark. The first walk through the event, we focus on the shirts, inks, jewelry and other booths that are set up as this profession does seem to be more of a late night situation and it’s the weekend, so people will come in later to spend the afternoon on someone’s table or bent over a chair.

We take this time to walk among the small market that has been barricaded in the street before getting two versions of the same coffee, the vanilla macadamia nut being better than the chocolate, from Chocolate Cremerie. Had we not been about to get lunch from The Blind Burro, I would have tried a few of their delicious looking gelato flavors too. Caleb will have the coffee-rubbed salmon tacos, and it’s crispy spiced cauliflower tacos for me with bacon-wrapped jalapeños to split.

cutting the tip and fitting through a tennis racket

pony up between barbed wire and the fish hook pick up

Our second walk through brings entertainment on stage with a woman who has a knack for making young men blush and the audience laugh and cringe. We will walk the booths again and no one is able to grab Caleb’s attention enough to get a tattoo here, though I appreciate the artwork of the Petunia twins who are based in Los Angeles I’m not paying for their time today. We enjoy the walk back to the car.

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A Short Part of Sunday

We enjoy a cloudy hike in 80 degree weather before a late bread-filled lunch on the beach.

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Number 138

Caleb wakes again to the sounds of glass breaking against rocky ground and a metal fire ring, so he’s up again to calm these people down just to get back in the tent in time for the rain to start at 2am. We left the rainfly in the car and the screen door on the tent isn’t holding any water back. I struggle to hold part of the tent door over the opening while Caleb throws the rainfly on and dries off with his shirt inside the now humid sleeping compartment.

a five-stripe or black-throated sparrow

Even after all this, Caleb is up with the sun and getting beautiful photos while he lets me sleep, which we both know is a role reversal of how our trips usually go. He gets me up and we leave the tent to dry, though we’re not staying here another night and chancing an encore of last night’s events. We’ll hike the Skull Rock Loop in the opposite direction and find the marked trail way easier to follow.

This is a great start to our morning and there is only one other person out on the trail with us. Breakfast has soaked properly upon our return and we take it with us as we drive into Twentynine Palms for gas, water, and the cultural center that opens at 830 to renew our park pass that expired in May. Lucky us, the farmer’s market is already set up and we get some Brazilian lemonade, evaporated milk being the key ingredient, to add to our list of new things tried.

We’ll carry our 32oz cup around while we look at clothes, vegetables, jewelry, and job opportunities with paid training. The milk balances the sour but I’m grateful we shared the large, easily fermentable, drink before the heat made the lid pop off. Inside the park’s new visitor center is an exhibit about Key’s Ranch and we’re told we have to get our pass from the ranger booth at the park entrance. We buy a new adventure edition atlas and drive back south.

We turn around because we forgot to get water and then we will u-turn again before the park to visit the Sky’s the Limit Observatory and Nature Center that’s been here since 2010… talk about leaving something to come back for. Mike is quick out of the shade to hand us a postcard and offer a tour of the orrery and point out other structures over 200 yards in the distance that represent the rest of the solar system from where we’re standing next to the pinhead replica of Earth on an easier to grab globe so he can keep up with its orbit every four days and move the first four planets accordingly.

La Quinta Cove Oasis

Back in the park and we stop at the first trail we see and wander out some while the temperature is still in the 80s. We spook a family of quail and stumble upon some baby coyote melons growing in the rough sand. We drive back to Jumbo Rocks for our tent and the quiet makes me want to nap but Caleb says there’s not enough shade or breeze for that.

The heat continues to increase and causes the clouds to leak a bit as we make our way south to the Cottonwood Visitor Center where we dump sand out of our shoes before going to the picnic area for lunch. This idea of giving us energy for hiking only fuels us to find a small hotel room with the A/C blasting on the bed for over an hour so we can regain brain function for the remainder of the day.

Yuan Dynasty — blend of Mongolian and Han Chinese elements

Our camping spot was $20/night and our room cost us less than that thanks to a loyalty program. With a nap in we’re able to drive to La Quinta Cove Oasis for a short exploration of the beautiful desert in all its 105 degree glory before Caleb starts looking up museums. The first one is now a medical plaza but the Museum of Ancient Wonders is still open and being watched over by two guys — one you pay and the other gives us a guided tour of the Cathedral City exhibit leaving the numbered fossil timeline, Asian guidebook, and solar system walls to do the rest.

Toraja ancestor figure, Ifugoa people statuette (Bulul), no info, Batak people ornament (Singa)

We made it to the museum just before their one-hour before closing entry policy so they’re packing up to leave behind us. Dinner will be picked up from a place with the word bakery in the name, but they specialize in cakes, not delicious breads. Caleb got a turkey rueben and I got a slice of deep-dish marionberry cheesecake so we could both try something new, even if mine will be breakfast. After a shower my hair feels more gross and after a little bit to eat I’m definitely ready for sleep.

Venus of Willendorf

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