Pinnacles National Monument
San Benito, California

November 3, 2000

Having played in the big city for a sufficient amount of time to get on my nerves, Laura gave me a treat. She drove out to the Pinnacles National Park, southeast of Monterey. We wandered past large fields of artichoke and cabbage, filled with the migrant workers all seemingly in a permanent bent-at-the-waist position. I have no idea how those people can stand in that awkward position for hours on end while they pick whatever there is to be picked. The park we were heading for is a product of some rather interesting geographical activity. Slightly inland from the California coast, lies the San Andreas Rift which is a series of faults. It was created when the Pacific plate collided with and wrenched off a portion of the North American Plate. The points where these plates come together are likely places for such things as volcanoes and earthquakes. In a land which generally is considered Chaparral country where brush and meadows predominate the landscape, suddenly there is a great upheaval in the land, appearing as super large boulders jutting out of the ground. The Pinnacles are the remainder of a once mile high volcano that formed millions of years ago along the fault line. Over the years, the remains of the volcano had been worn down and formed what is now a most unusual area of land. We studied the field map for a while and selected a short 2 mile trail along the west fork of the Chalone Creek. There was this "little caution note" at the bottom of the trail description marked "strenuous - flashlight required". Well, OK, toward the end of the trail was an area called the Balconies, and here was the Balconies cave. We had been on cave trails before, down some dried up riverbed over a few river stones and out the other side. If the river happens to take a turn midway through the cave, it can get dark so a flashlight is a welcome asset. Thus was my mind-set as we set off on the well-marked, manicured path that led alongside the dry riverbed. For 6 tenths of a mile it was just beautiful. All shapes of rocks loomed overhead as we strolled along the path checking out the strange trees that were different from any we had seen so far. Soon we were at a small wooden bridge with a well groomed park sign advising one way to the caves, and another to the cliffs. Laura elected the cliffs and off we went. Quite suddenly the ground rose, and remained a hearty incline for the next half a mile. There were plenty of rest stops along the way and we noted that the well manicured path was now truly, just a trail, and one that was steadily getting smaller as the edge became more vertical. I found myself hugging the inside of the turns. One in particular just jutted out into a switchback leaving me standing on the edge, on one of those magnificent rocks, that would have been a delight for any professional rock climber. Wow what a view! If seeing the surroundings was great from the ground, it was spectacular from this height. Once in a while an excellent specimen of humanity would pass us by jogging either up or down in some effortless-seeming motion which was just short of disgusting. Having reached the other side and worked our way down to the creek again, we stopped to talk to one of these physical specimens who was sporting a well used Nikon camera. I casually asked him if he had gotten any interesting shots on this trip. He described the delightful very large brown Tarantula he had found on the trail not far from us. This was of definite interest to Laura who quickly returned from her trailside rock hunting, back to the middle of the path. The three of us started off together, but were soon left behind by the bounding naturalist who tossed a fleeting warning as he disappeared beyond the boulders. "Be careful, its quite strenuous in the cave". Within minutes of this warning, the path we had been following disintegrated into the dry creek bed which led us between an ever decreasing space between giant boulders. One quick turn to the left and we walked up to a giant iron gate structure. Again the warning to have a flashlight was printed boldly on the front of the gate. No problem I had one. I looked at Laura, she shrugged as if to say "So what are we going to do, turn back two miles?", and we slipped through the gate. The short walk through this area, that I expected, dragged on minute by minute until we reached the end of the riverbed that I could see. Here eons ago as a result of some tremendous earth shaking, boulders had fallen into the pathway blocking it. We stopped to look over the situation and consider our alternatives. I climbed up on top of one of the boulders and found that a small stretch of dirt ran off into the opening of a cave made up of similar boulders. Right in the middle of the dirt was a footprint of a shoe I believed had been left by our tarantula-finding friend. By this time Laura had worked her way up on top of the boulder and we looked into the darkness. The idea of climbing around on rocks deep underground was not one that appealed to me, but walking two miles back over the top of the cliffs was less inviting. We now moved forward with determination. I went ahead with Laura holding the flashlight. On the first turn we lost all outside light. The ceiling came down to four feet and the walls came in sharply, but the river was back and the ground was flat. On and on we went, minute by minute. I was expecting to see the light of day on the far side at any time. The path twisted this way and that until I had lost all sense of direction. Suddenly we found ourselves in a boxcar size cavern. We could stand up and look around, we walked to the back wall and there seemed to be no exit. The first twinges of panic crept into my mind as I thought that I might have made a wrong turn somewhere and the idea of backtracking was somehow frightening. As before, I searched the sand around the base of the rocks near the back. At a point on the left side was the all familiar footprint I had been following. But surely he hadn't climbed up over the cave wall into that small cubby hole above me. We stood there looking at the footprints and coming up with no other plausible explanation I took the flashlight and finding a hand hold hoisted myself up into the opening. To my surprise, it continued on, narrow and winding as it curled upward and to the left then ended in a blank wall. Not wanting to leave Laura in the dark, I worked my way back down and holding the light waited for her to climb up to my perch. With this accomplished I returned to the far end and found that the only opening was above me, with the telltale footprint in front of it. "This is ridiculous" I thought as I studied the rock formation for handholds, "Two old farts crawling around in the dark like a couple of kids." I sat for a few minutes thinking of anything that could be done, but like the chicken and the pig, we had moved from dedicated to committed. I clenched the flashlight in my teeth and grabbing onto near nothing give a grunt and hauled myself up, half expecting myself to remain planted on the wet ground. Somewhat to my surprise I found myself up on a ledge with yet another rock to climb and so it went for 20 feet or so until, at last, a glimmer of sunlight shone brightly ahead. Now, I want to tell you that that was a very pretty sight. I felt all the tension leaving my body as I stared up trying to find the opening, which was just out of sight. What jubilation I felt came to a crashing halt with the realization that Laura still had that climb to make. If she couldn't make it, we were destined to backtrack through the entire cave and then over the bluff. When I got back to her, she must have been able to read my face in the glowing of the flashlight. She grabbed on to the nearest rock and up she came like a mountain goat. As she neared my perch, I couldn't resist. It had to be recorded. Out came the camera and flash, one of the most beautiful pictures of Laura was preserved for all posterity. Although the rest of the climb out was just as strenuous, somehow the sunlight streaming down on us made it all seem easy. Soon we were standing against the large iron gate at the other end of the passage, very happy to be out of there and on our way back.

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