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A rough road to paradise.

A lot of people who don't live in Southern California view it as one giant strip mall. They would no more expect to find wilderness here than to spot Henry David Thoreau roller-skating down Venice Beach. But if one definition of wilderness is a beautiful piece of country where stupidity will get you in trouble, San Mateo Canyon Wilderness in Riverside County certainly fills the bill. The wilderness, part of Cleveland National Forest, is a tumble of deep canyons and steep, rounded mountains that shelter hawks and lizards, sycamores and oaks. In the dry season, it's vulnerable to fires, like last October's Ortega blaze, which singed park land along Ortega Highway. But after a good winter rain, the mountains green up and arroyos that were parched in summer fill with streams and waterfalls.

It was one of those waterfalls that brought me back to the wilderness a few years ago. I was working on a Sunset article on the Southern California backcountry and wanted to get a photograph of Tenaja Falls, where San Mateo Creek spills over rock ledges into a deep, clear pool.

And so, one Sunday morning in February, I piled into a shiny red rental sedan with my friends Howard and Sharon, and Chad, a photographer, and drove up into the Santa Ana Mountains toward San Mateo Canyon, barreling along on a dirt road that was in much worse shape than I had remembered.

"Did you read that sign back there?" Howard shouted over the racket of boulders bouncing off our muffler. (Howard is a space scientist prone to an alarmist view of earthly events.) "It says vehicles with low clearance not recommended." "Don't worry, Howard," I responded.

A moment later, we heard and felt a tremendous thud. The instrument panel flashed bright red. Behind us we saw a spreading sea of oil and the shards of our oil pan.

We were 10 miles from our destination, and 30 miles from any place where we could find help.

Then, like apparitions, two vehicles appeared. Out of the canyon came a Forest Service pickup. A ranger got out, and I explained to him what we were doing with a disabled rental car and $10,000 worth of camera equipment. As I did, from the opposite direction came a second pickup truck, daubed with camouflage paint from bumper to bumper. The driver was camouflaged too. The only items not camouflaged were his mean-looking crossbow, two meaner-looking dogs, and his scowl--the kind remarked upon by the suspect's neighbors in newspaper accounts of crime. The ranger, who was obviously accustomed to command, announced that he would drive me to a phone. He turned his steely gaze to The Camouflage Guy.

"These people need a photograph of the waterfall. Take them there," he said.

The Camouflage Guy acquiesced. Howard and Sharon and Chad climbed into the pickup alongside the dogs, and waved nervously as they vanished in a cloud of dust.

"I don't know about that guy," the ranger said as we drove off. "Some of those hunters are okay, and some of them aren't. In Utah once, I was on horseback and I heard a whistling sound and next thing I knew I was pinned to a pine tree with a hunter's arrow through my arm."

"Interesting story," I said, wondering what I was going to say to Howard's and Sharon's and Chad's families.

The ranger dropped me at a telephone in a forlorn shopping center 40 miles away. I spent the next few hours shouting at a rental car agent at the company's Midwest headquarters.

"What is the nearest freeway?" asked the rental car woman.

"There is no nearest freeway," I explained.

"What is the street address of the vehicle?"

"There is no street address. There is no street."

"Take a taxi back to the vehicle. Remove the rental contract from the glove compartment. Deposit the keys in the driver's-side sun visor. We will retrieve the vehicle."

I skeptically started dialing taxi companies. When I told dispatchers where I needed to go, they hung up. Some hours later, after harassing every taxi company in three counties, I found one driver willing to come to our rescue.

Back we drove, into that beautiful country, on that terrible road. It was near dusk now. The sky blazed pink, and the same rocks that had finished off my rental car were hammering against the taxi. The driver's repeated threats to stop his cab and turn around sounded increasingly sincere.

But then we saw the stranded car, with Chad and Howard and Sharon waiting patiently beside it. Stanley and Livingstone had no happier a meeting. All that was left for us to do was to get back in the taxi and make the long rocky drive out of the mountains and then the longer drive to the airport car rental counter where, at 1 A.M., the agent paid the cabdriver his $200 fare.

Now, you would think that a day like this would inspire nothing but grudges. Howard and Sharon and Chad should hold a grudge against me for stranding them in a wilderness with a potential maniac. I should hold a grudge against San Mateo Canyon for showing me to be, at best, an injudicious driver. And the rental car company should hold the most serious grudge of all.

Such has not been the case.

Because we had a wonderful time. The Camouflage Guy had politely dropped off Howard and Sharon and Chad at the trailhead to Tenaja Falls, where they spent the day splashing and sunning on rocks. The falls were beautiful, they said, an assessment later borne out by Chad's photographs (one appears on the facing page).

As for me, San Mateo Canyon Wilderness is still a place I return to when I want to remember why I like Southern California. The first time I revisited it, I did so fearfully, expecting to see the rusted hulk of a rental sedan defiling the dirt road. But even though I never heard a word from the rental car company, it must have rescued the car. Now I go back with a clear conscience. It's a great place. Go there and you'll see. But be sure to take a high-clearance vehicle.
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Title Annotation:Western Wanderings; San Mateo Canyon Wilderness, Riverside County, California
Author:Fish, Peter
Article Type:Column
Date:Feb 1, 1994
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