View from the Espinosa Trail
The wind in the mountains was intense. It rocked our little car and pushed at the big rigs we nervously passed. We were relieved when we reached our exit. “The wind is so bad, all these people are parked by the side of the road,” R pointed out. That didn’t seem to make much sense. Turning my head back towards the highway, I saw the real reason. The onramp was blocked by a fire engine and police cars. A big rig had toppled over and was lying on the grassy slope between highway and onramp like a beached whale. We pulled over to look. The wind threatened to rip off the car doors and billows of dust rose from the sides of the road.
We got back in the car. The wind dissipated as we descended and moved south. The Horsethief Canyon Trailhead was fine. I meant to hike Horsethief Canyon, but the generically marked “Trail” signs led down into the canyon where they got a bit more specific and said “Espinosa Trail.” I guess the Horsethief trail was the dirt road we had originally been on. Maybe next time…
The steepest part of the trail (at least as far as we went) was the beginning. But it was pleasant. The southern crawling sun made the oaks and manzanitas that lined the trail cast comfortable shadows. The manzanitas were in flower and in some places the trail was covered with the fallen white teardrop flowers.
It seems the more I learn about nature, the less I know, and the more questions I have. This is a good thing. Curiosity adds a lot to the outdoor experience. It seems that when you become an adult, you are not supposed to be curious anymore. You are supposed to know all the answers or at least be able to fake it.
Questions and curiosity are actually signs of willingness to learn and an attempt to understand. Perhaps real ignorance is not asking and not seeking to understand, but instead assuming or acting like you know. Maybe if more people asked questions of each other, we’d understand each other better.
Anyway, I started thinking about this because I like wondering about things as I wander: why an animal or bird behaves a certain way, what made a specific track, what a particular plant is and is it edible…
During a workshop on teaching reading, the instructor encouraged us to have our students ask questions and make predictions as a way to get them more actively involved in the text. Perhaps asking questions makes me feel more actively involved in the world around me.
Kestrels vs. Red-Tailed Hawk
Once in the canyon we witnessed a red-tailed hawk getting attacked by a couple kestrels. We surmised the kestrels were defending territory where they wanted to nest. Once the hawk left, the kestrels flitted about the hill, perching on high dry branches, surveying the area. Smaller birds fluttered and hid in the large oak trees.
The trail continued through the oak forests in the valley and then arrived at a dry stream bed walled by large water streaked boulders. It seemed like a lot of people turn back at this point because the trail suddenly got smaller. We followed it up a hill and then turned off of it onto the Secret Canyon Trail.
The trail at first threatened to be hot, going along the western hillside above the canyon, but there were plenty of sugar bushes, ceanothus, and manzanitas to provide patches of shade, and eventually the path turned and the hillside blocked the sun’s intensity. There were even spots where ferns grew in the shade at the foot of lichen and moss dotted rocks. I had hoped that we would be able to see where a path led from the Horsethief Canyon trail to Pine Creek and then make the hike into a loop, but I couldn’t see a sign of it. Or maybe we didn’t go far enough. About 2 hours into the hike, we found a shady spot next to the mostly dry creek. A few butterflies fluttered about the barely damp mud. We rested a bit and then turned back.
On the way back R found a strange hollow seed pod. We tried to determine which plant it came from, but couldn’t. The plants in the area were all familiar oaks, manzanitas, and sugar bushes. With the wind as it was, it could have blown from anywhere. It looked like a small piece of a loofah with spines. R speculated it came from a vine we saw on some of the trees, remembering he’d seen spiny fruit hanging from similar plants on other hikes. At home I looked it up. R was right.
What is this? A seed pod from Marah macrocarpus.
Our mystery pod was a dry skeleton of the wild cucumber (Marah macrocarpus) fruit. Of course, upon finding this out I wanted to know if one could eat a wild cucumber. The answer is no. In fact the name Marah means bitter[i] and though various parts of the plant were used for medicinal purposes by Kumeyaay, Luiseños, Dieguenos, and other So. Cal indigenous peoples), none of it was eaten. However, the name isn’t a complete misnomer since the plant is in the Cucurbitaceae family which includes cucumbers, melons and squashes.[ii]
So, if it wasn’t eaten, what was it used for?
I saw an abstract online which asked more or less the same question. According to the abstract the remains of the wild cucumber plants have frequently been found in archaeological sites, which seemed strange since it wasn’t eaten and usually medicinal and sacred uses destroyed the remains.[iii] Since reading the actual paper wasn’t free, I looked for other sources.
Medicinal uses included boiling leaves and using the oil to treat hemorrhoids,[iv] and using the root as a purgative[v] [vi]. The seeds were used by the Costanoan Indians to treat skin problems,[vii] the oil from seeds was used for hair and scalp health and to encourage hair growth by the Mahuna[viii] and Ohlone,[ix] who also made a healing salve from the ground seeds, and the plant juice was used as a parasiticide by the Mahuna[viii]. Non-medicinal uses included grinding the seeds into makeup[iv] or a base for paint,[vi] which was used in pictographs,[x] using the root as fish poison,[x] and using the root for soap.[vii]
And the indigenous people also used it as a loofah (though I assume they removed the spikes first)[xi] The resemblance to a loofah is not random. In fact loofahs are also in the Cucurbitaceae family and are the fruit of Luffa aegyptiaca and Luffa acutangula.[xii] Unlike the wild cucumber, the Luffa plants’ fruits are edible.
After we finished our hike, we started to worry about the likelihood of getting crushed by a toppling big rig on the way back. However, I figured as long as we stayed in the right lane, if they fell over they’d fall towards the left. Strangely we didn’t see any on the road … until we got to the rest stop. The police had blocked the road and were directing all traffic through the rest stop. All the big rigs (as well as RVs or vehicles with large trailers) were being forced to stay at the rest station. Only cars and pickup trucks could get through. The big rigs filled both sides of the rest stop as well as the road leading into the rest stop. This leads me to another thing I like about nature: the blatant disregard to deadline driven modern life. I’m sure the big rig drivers and their employers were freaking out at the delay. I felt sorry for them, but at the same time, it was better to respect the wind than end up toppled over on the side of the road.
To reach the western trailhead of the Espinosa trail, take the Japatul Valley Road exit from I-8 (same exit as hwy 79) and go south on Japatul Valley Road. At about 5.5 miles there is a fork in the road. Go left on Lyons Valley Road. About 1.5 miles farther turn left into the Japatul Fire Station turnoff. You’ll see a parking lot for the Horsethief Canyon trailhead. Parking requires either an Adventure Pass of purchasing a $5 parking permit, presumably from a National Forest station (Nearest one at 3348 Alpine Boulevard, Alpine, CA 91901 (619) 445-6235). If you like hiking, it is better to just get the annual pass. Walk up the gated dirt road (Horsethief Canyon). Follow the signs for “Trail.”
James Lightner, San Diego County Native Plants
(San Diego, CA: San Diego Flora, 2011), pp.272–273.
Steve L Martin,”The Use of Marah Macrocarpus by the Prehistoric Indians of Coastal Southern California.” Journal of Ethnobiology
29, no. 1 (2009):77–93. http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.2993/0278-0771-29.1.77.
Philip S. Sparkman, “The Culture of the Luiseno Indians.” University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology
8, no. 4 (1908):187–234 (p. 229). Quoted in [v]
Barbara R. Bocek, “Ethnobotany of Costanoan Indians, California, Based on Collections by John P. Harrington.” Economic Botany 38, no. 2 (1984):240–255 (p. 24). Quoted in [v]
John Bruno Romero, The Botanical Lore of the California Indians.
(New York: Vantage Press, Inc., 1954), p. 38. Quoted in [v]
Mary Forgione, “Herbology class unearths smorgasbord of edible plants,” Glendale Daily News,
7 May 1992, p. 10. Quoted in [i]