May 14, 2013

Photo Essay: On Shaky Legs Down to the Grotto

"Are you OK? Do you want a snack?" one of my fellow hikers asked me once we'd gotten down inside the upper grotto at Circle X Ranch.

"Oh, no, I'm fine, I've got some food in my bag but I'm not very hungry," I said, wiping the sweat from my brow in the cool cave, which felt 20 degrees cooler than the ambient temperature outside.

"You should probably eat something," she said, explaining that our hike leader's girlfriend had noticed I was shaking a lot.

"Well yeah," I said, "But that was from fear."

I'd embarked on what had been designated a "beginner" hike with a group because it seemed difficult enough to navigate and intimidating enough to not want to do alone. I knew there would be some bouldering around the grotto, and some rock-hopping across streams to get to the grotto, which I'd rather do with a little help.

Though the rest of my group bemoaned the lack of running water in the dry stream, I was relieved that I wasn't going to slip again and fall - at least, not there.

I did not know I would be crawling vertically down a boulder, aided only by a stretchy rope tied to a tree. My inexperience in rockclimbing made my big hiking boot feel really unstable in the tiny footholds in the rocks, and I never knew where to put my hands. My body felt too heavy for me to hold up with my arms - even with a rope - and I kept worrying that I would fall onto my hike leader below and crush him, though softening my fall.

The hike to the grotto starts innocently enough, first through the lower parking lot and then down a driveway...

...which turns into a jeep trail past some wildflowers.

There are easy steps leading you down along this reverse hike...

...during which you lose elevation first and then have to climb back up at the end.

The aforementioned rope dangled from our hike leader's pack as we followed from behind.

I'd hoped it was just a precaution, not thinking we'd actually be using - no, relying on - it.

After a shady grove...

...with a few easy ups and downs...

...we emerged into a dry prairie, where sandstone formations loom in the distance.

Hiking through this former boy scout camp, you can see at once the natural splendor that was once home to Native Americans... well as to the Spanish rancheros that settled and worked here (particularly because of the abundance of grasses and water).

Usually there's still a lot of water there, but after a dry winter with very little rainfall, and an early onset of wildfire season, we're lucky Circle X didn't catch fire with the rest of the Santa Monica Mountains in the recent Springs fire.

The grotto itself isn't actually that far, and very easy to hike downhill to... the landscape changes and the ferns arise...

...and the rock outcroppings seem to indicate the end of the trail.

But no, you have to keep going.

You have to climb down and across.

You have to shimmy down a tree and get yourself down there.

Oh, shit.

For those of us lily-white city folk with soft knees and manicured nails, this is a challenge. And unlike our Cave of Munits hike where there was always some strong guy to grab my arm and yank me to where I needed to be, this time I had to get over my fears myself.

As I was struggling, I received lots of offers from the hikers above, and encouragement from the hikers below, to try to get me there. "I can do it," I declared. "Just gimme a minute."

They didn't realize it, but that was a huge accomplishment for me. Not long ago, I would've burst into tears and bawled, "I can't do it!" But I knew I could do it. I just needed to take my time to figure it out.

I was the first one into the upper grotto cave, feeling proud of myself...

...until the others arrived, concerned for my well-being.

I had embraced my fear of heights and falling.

Now I just had to worry about the boulder that had fallen on top of this waterfall 8000 years ago to form a cave. Would it move again? Geology is now.

We hung out there for a while, dipping our fingers into the water and eating our snacks, but our hike was not over. We still had to climb down to the lower grotto, whose waterfall is fed by the upper grotto.

The lower grotto is more of an open-air formation, the sun reflecting off the water onto the rocks...

...but you wouldn't want to go swimming in there.

At least, not now. It's pretty green and slimy. And full of tadpole-eating water snakes, and at least one salamander.

It's another other-worldly landscape.

I suppose when the water is really raging in a wet season, the Grotto is kind of an exciting place to visit. But when the water is down to just a trickle, it was calm and cool, a welcome respite from the hot day, and from the terror I felt getting there.

Even the lizards are willing to pose for a photo.

But all the way down there, at the bottom of the lower grotto, I couldn't help thinking, "We've got to get all the way back up there - the same way we came."

And we did.

And I survived.

But not without a little shaking from fear.

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