On this sunny spring Saturday, everyone has the same idea -- to soak in the hot pools at the edge of the Mojave. So when the hikers come around the bend, my heart goes out to them. I see their crests fall, their ultra-light packs get heavier. They stop and check their maps to see whether they're really still on the Pacific Crest Trail in an official wilderness area. Through their eyes, I see the hodgepodge of humanity already funneled to the hot springs by trails from all four directions.
The inevitable sun-weathered old guy pads along the trail with nothing but a T-shirt, tennies and a can of beer. A motley crew sits on sandy blankets in the shade of a shrub drinking Bud Lite and sorting through their 7-11 trash for leftover fast food. Across the creek, a few cholos in cutoff saggin' Dickies smoke pot and watch a raven on the cliff. A troop of tuckered-out Boy Scouts arrives and commandeers a rocky knoll by the creek. As the 12-year-old Scouts glance furtively at the nudists and pray they'll be allowed to keep their shorts on, their leader magically pulls a full-sized Coleman stove from his pack, sets it up on four legs, and starts frying bacon and eggs in a skillet.
Just then, six horsemen and a pack of dogs slide and skitter down the Bowen Ranch trail. The cowboys wear six-shooters in holsters and spurs on their boots. One has a shotgun in a scabbard and a bandana over his face for the dust. Somebody says, "What the hell, are we in a movie?" But the guns are real, and suddenly there's an edge to the scene. They thunder up to the springs, tie up their horses, strip naked and jump right in, wearing nothing but ten-gallon hats. One cowboy tosses his chaps into a small hot pool.
"That new leather's like a damn suit of armor," he says to no one in particular. "Nearly cut my balls off." His sidekick chuckles and starts to reply but just shakes his head instead.
The cowboys are cool and easy as they tell the other soakers about how they're training a temperamental young horse to the trail. They tell stories about horses spooked by snakes and bears and threats unseen. They all agree that horses are neurotic basket cases but loveable nonetheless. They relate the history of the ranches in the desert hills. I come to realize that the cowboys might be the only people here who don't mind the crowd. They didn't hike in hoping against hope that they'd have the place to themselves, that the rest of Southern California would have gone to Disneyland or the beach instead. It's just the usual stop on a long ride for them, and they take what they can get.
Meanwhile, the pack of dogs is casing the joint, scaring little kids whose parents dash around lifting the littlest ones off the ground. Suddenly it gets loud. Infernal growling erupts as the pack gangs up on a hippie couple's long-haired shepherd mutt. The couple leaps naked hand-in-hand from their pool, skating across the slippery granite and screaming at the cowboys to do something, do something! They reach the edge of the seething mess of dogs and then pause, thinking better of wading naked into so many snapping teeth.
The cowboys barely glance at the chaos. "They're just sorting out the alpha male," they say to everyone. "It's all about the alpha male."
The dreadlocked hippie man looks back at the cowboys, wanting to believe them about the dogs but uncertain. He opens his mouth as if he wants to explain his more evolved notion of masculinity.
The woman manages to get a hand on her dog's collar but can't drag the mutt away from the pack what with bare feet on wet granite. But now the dog seems less afraid, and the pack is losing interest and sniffing out clothing piles instead. The couple gives up and comes back to the pool. The mutt, jumped into the pack, becomes its newest member and races out on patrol.
I look back to the Pacific Crest Trail hikers. They've been watching all this and muttering to themselves. Should they stay or should they go? But they've been on the trail for days, and the pools are too enticing to pass by. As they approach, one of the cowboys welcomes them with an exaggerated cowboy drawl. "Come on in, pardners. Plenty room fer everbody."
We all scootch over, and the hikers slide slowly up to their necks into the hot water. They sigh and close their eyes as the long trail miles and the local chaos disappear. Enough room for everyone.
Brad Monsma lives in Ventura County, California. He is the author of The Sespe Wild: Southern California's Last Free River and president of the board of Los Padres ForestWatch.