It's 15 minutes till midnight, Feb. 9, 2009, and I'm alone on the trail, half way up Cowles Mountain. In the ravine to my left, coyotes have begun to howl. Sounds like a half-dozen or so a few hundred yards away. I'm armed only with a cell phone and canteen, but I'm not scared because they're not interested in me: They're moved by the full moon. I think they know I'm here for the same reason.
When things don't wind up the way you'd hoped they would, you can do things to ritualize your need to heal. For me, it can mean going places alone. My solo trip to Thailand in 2004 was such an adventure, and this decision to hike the 1.5 miles by myself to greet the full moon at the top of the tallest mountain in San Diego was similarly motivated.
When you hike alone at night, your senses are heightened and you focus on each sound and movement. The past falls behind you, the future is as tangible as math and you live unencumbered in the present by anything other than your next step through the darkness.
That's why my mind is empty the night the coyotes are howling at the moon.
Then something else happens: At midnight, the coyotes, in unison, as if on cue, stop howling. The last howl echoes off the moonlit granite slabs that line the final approach to the summit. It should be a disquieting quiet, but it feels more like reverence.
I just hope they like the hits of Al Green sung loudly and poorly, because that's what they're going to hear on my way down. I think a healthy distance will keep us in good stead.
I grew up within walking distance of Cowles (named after 19th-century rancher George Cowles, and correctly pronounced "coals") and have hiked it as often as I've done just about anything. When I was a kid, SDSU students had fashioned a giant letter "S" out of boulders and painted them white—the "S" was visible from a great distance and the nickname "S Mountain" began to stick; Mission Trails Park caretakers eventually erased it.
On the rare morning I was able to wake up early enough, I'd hike through the dawn mist to experience the sunrise from Cowles Mountain. I like the feeling of laying on one of the flat rocks at the summit overlooking Santee to the north, feeling the smooth stone warming under the rising sun.
Over the years, the hike has become so popular that if you go on a Saturday afternoon, it can be too crowded to enjoy. People use it as an outdoor gym, and that's fine, if you don't mind the dogs, runners, loud talking, litter and constant scrambling on the trail to accommodate the crowds. I do.
So, for me, the ideal Cowles Mountain hike is at midnight under a full moon. Because the trail is so heavily traveled during the day, there's no over growth, so when the moon is high enough, the trail is illuminated with a white-blue glow all the way up. You don't need a flashlight.
I've done the midnight Cowles hike alone, paired with a friend, and among groups of friends. On only the coyote night have I been the lone midnight moon hiker. A couple weeks ago, five friends and I encountered only about a half-dozen fellow moon hikers. There's a camaraderie among us, but because it's midnight under a full moon, you have to give each other space—and expect an occasional strange encounter.
On one moon hike with a group of six female friends, we noticed a tall young man with an obviously military haircut, dressed in dark, heavy clothing, standing a few yards off the trail on a boulder, staring off into the night sky.
As I passed him, I asked, "How are you doing?" He didn't look at me, just held his grave stare into the past and said, "Better than I deserve." I gave him back the solitude he required to wrestle with his demons and walked on. People bring problems to the mountain and, hopefully, leave them there.
On one midnight Cowles hike, I had a police helicopter fly in very close and check me out—very Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A few times I've come in contact with small groups of rebellious youngsters getting their drink on, or just getting away from the civilization that's letting them down. Once, a couple of pale, skinny, goth-looking teenagers on their way up, passing me on my way down, asked me where a good place would be to perform a ritual. I recommended the summit, but I get the feeling they didn't make it that far.
Speaking of the summit, there's a monument that gives a brief history of the mountain, and the tradition is to touch it when you arrive, so if you make the hike, you might want to remember the hand sanitizer. There are also some unobtrusive signs that label the view in different directions, so you can make out Downtown, the Coronado Bridge, Mexico and various peaks in the mountain ranges to the east. My friend Braden tells me that on a clear day, you can see 10,000-foot Mount Baldy, the highest point in Los Angeles County.
But I rarely go there during the day now. I prefer Cowles late at night, as the waxing gibbous moon, slowly rotating toward the top of the night sky casts its mysterious glow along the trail, guiding the coyotes and the brave, lonely seekers and night owls on their way toward a destination shaped as much by what they bring to the mountain as what they find there.