The first thing to greet me on my way to Lost Valley in the San Rafael Wilderness was a furry deer hoof still attached to skinless leg bones. The rest of the animal was not to be found. It was either a clue of life circling, or a foreboding omen. The air was humid and the skies stormy, the last clouds clinging to a day that followed a night of rains. I left town on account of feeling particularly lost in that moment of life, tethered to a balloon bouquet of stressful commitments and confusions, each rapidly inflating with quickening changes, their strings and paths entangling, my sense of direction and faith faltering.
I went to Lost Valley, a place I had been once before after a steep descent from the East Hurricane Deck Trail. The miles of sandstone belting the valley, and the many boulders and rock caverns hidden within, left an impression on me. Close to 100 years ago now, they once planned to build a road through the valley that would connect Nira campground to the Sierra Madre Mountains on the opposite end of the wilderness. That plan vanished, like the homesteaders who vanished along the Manzana and Sisquoc, leaving hints of existence behind.
Others have lived in the Lost Valley, that being the longtime residents and roamers who first claimed this region — or at least they left their mark there. A heavy feeling of what once was sweeps through the San Rafael Wilderness. It radiates in the paintings of departed ancients, it travels in the wind through scorched manzanita and burnt oaks, and it lingers in the dry silence of rocks unmet by water in months, or years. But there is also a powerful feeling of what remains for eons, in the towering architecture of the sandstone rocks and the mighty Deck, the whisper of the grass and digger pines, and in the repeating songs of owls along the creek bed and of crickets under stars.
It’s a good place to contemplate stillness, sit back, and watch the cycles of thought. They come and go like the roads people planned to plow. They leave as easily as leaves in fire. Nothing much moves in Lost Valley, except the occasional lonesome crow, or the bats flitting out of caves. The caves conceal many little brittle bones, skulls of rats or bats. I explored them with a boundless sense of discovery, and left my stress to die there.
I climbed to the top of one of the rocks in the valley, and watched as the storm passed. The sun sank and softened the barren intensity of the land. The bands of rock became aflame in pink. A slow and fiery meteorite, paralleling the sun, broke into a smaller piece, and then a smaller, and then dotted out. Up on the rock, for a short while, I was happily no one. I was a human animal amidst a looming landscape, one bigger and more long-lasting than I.
I laid down in the grass and watched the stars come out. The stresses that had so strangled me loosened and left one by one. I was able to think a little more deeply, about who I was beneath it all, about who and what endured below the endless rush. I thought of others, I came to terms, I forgave. And lying down, my mind went deeper still, to lie in sync with the stillness of this lost and lonesome place, and to smile at the stars above, thinking: The universe is beautiful.