Far Out Camping

Nelson is a freelance writer who lives in Los Angeles

It was the height of summer, when even the one-story beach towns seem to bake in the heat, and become stifling and claustrophobic. Camping isn't on everyone's mind, but it seemed to us there wouldn't be a better time to escape the city for some solitude.

After endless checking of schedules, five friends finally agreed on a particular three-day weekend. We all wanted a close and inexpensive getaway. But above all, we wanted some peace and quiet: no campers next to us with barking dogs, screaming children or country music blaring from car speakers late into the night.

Being flexible, we drove to the Big Bear Ranger Station on the north side of the lake, amply loaded for three days of camping, with the hope of finding a wilderness campground uncluttered by crowds. Along the way we drove through one of the better known campgrounds, Serrano, which offers full amenities on the shores of Big Bear Lake, but is also close to the main road and appeared drab while offering little privacy. I felt a bit disappointed at the thought of camping there for the weekend.

We went into the ranger station and voiced our desire for a more remote site--one where we could have a fire, do some uninterrupted hiking, view-gazing and lazy daydreaming without the noise of cars, the sight of buildings or blare of radios. We also hoped to be far enough from others that we wouldn't have to feel guilty about our clamor disturbing their desired relaxation.

The ranger had the perfect solution for us: " 'yellow post' camping." She explained that there are about 30 yellow post campsites spread throughout the San Bernardino Mountains and that they are free. These campsites have only one fire ring, one picnic table, no toilets and no running water, but seclusion is what they're all about. Some have easy access and others are recommended for four-wheel-drive vehicles only. We looked at four or five photos and decided on one that seemed ideal. The ranger gave us a permit for three days at the site, a permit for fires and a map with detailed directions on how to get there.

Five miles up a washboard dirt road and a few wrong turns later, we managed to find the site and our own little piece of paradise. Nestled between huge granite boulders that glistened from the quartzite and an endless display of California pines, the site was so quiet and secluded that we couldn't help but succumb to the illusion of being a million miles from civilization.

(Yellow post campsites, unfortunately, cannot be reserved by telephone in advance. You can only get one by going in person to the Big Bear Ranger Station, on California 38 three miles east of Fawnskin, then proceeding directly to the site. So come prepared to camp. Although not nearly as popular as "full service" campgrounds, yellow post sites sometimes fill up on weekends, rangers say.)

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Camping where there are no facilities may seem a little rough. You have no toilets, no running water for showers, no place to wash hands, and the dirt collects on body and clothes with amazing speed. But the trade-off is overwhelming. In the morning you can get up and watch the sun slowly illuminate the forest, or just lie in the tent listening to the sound of bird serenades and the day coming to life.

Some of us rose early to catch the peaceful sunrise while others slept until the crackle of a small fire and the dark aroma of coffee woke them.

With one burner and a small fire, we managed three days of amazing camp food. For breakfast there were choices: bagels and cream cheese; blueberry, bran, poppy seed or chocolate muffins; oatmeal; plums, cantaloupe, honeydew or apples; eggs and bacon fried over the open flame; and regular or Swiss mocha coffee. Lunch was a choice of sandwiches, but dinner was the real treat. Friday night was fresh fish wrapped in tin foil with mushrooms, green peppers, red peppers and garlic, all doused in a bath of fresh lemon and put in the coals of the fire for half an hour. Served with Caesar salad and a bottle of B.V. sauvignon blanc, it was a camp meal unlike any I'd known. Eating such a fantastic meal in the wilderness around an open fire with friends is a primal satisfaction hard to match.

During the day we ambled aimlessly through the forest without any idea what we'd see or where we were going. Saturday we hiked through a woodland of deciduous trees sprinkled through green pines. We stumbled onto the edge of the YMCA's camp at Bluff Lake, a high-meadow lake garnished with golden grass and circled by forest. Later, we popped into a flaxen meadow rustling in the wind, with the moon hung like a contradiction in the crystal blue sky. The quiet mountain and mirror-like quality of the lake set us to reflecting on many things.

Sunday's hike led us through more untrampled forest up to a mountain peak that offered an endless sweeping view. The ridges below slowly stairstepped, descending toward San Bernardino. The mist of the morning shrouded the hills, blending them in faint definition like a soft dream, with the San Jacinto Peak looming far off as the royal crown.

There was little to do except sit on a boulder, soak in the view and contemplate the beauty of the world.

In the evenings we'd gather dry wood from fallen trees and build a fire to ward off the chill of night. The sky was dark and crisp with stars scattered above like an explosion of diamonds. Shooting stars gave us all many a chance for making wishes meant to come true. The conversations would run their course, we'd put out the fire and then retire to tents with warm sleeping bags and a night of uninterrupted dreaming.

In fact, yellow post camping in Big Bear turned out much like a peaceful uninterrupted dream. Sunday afternoon we left our mountain hideaway, carried out the trash and headed to Buenos Tacos & Burritos in the town of Big Bear for a surreal burrito called the "Big Juan," possibly the world's largest, and then left for home with spirits high, bellies full and smiles on our faces.

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Budget for Five

Food: $225.00

Gas: 15.00

Lunch, Buenos Tacos & Burritos: 25.00

FINAL TAB: 265.00

Big Bear Ranger Station, California 38, three miles east of Fawnskin; tel. (909) 866-3437.

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