Still working on new California stories. Here’s another piece published on matadornetwork.com
Travel isn’t always about pleasure.
While I work on my new stories from the California back country, I’ll be posting links to some of my published work for Matadornetwork.com.
Here’s my first piece from last March. It was fun to write and just as fun to read the comments!
Kyle is up first having set his alarm. It’s 6:30 am on Sunday December 15th 2013. Zippers zip as Paul and I wriggle stiffly out of our sleeping bags. Kyle boils us water for coffee while we lace up our boots. Erik and Luke are dozing in their bags a few feet away. The air is cool and the light soft under the canopy of California Bay Laurel trees. Stretching my legs, I feel a deep ache in my hips, and the balls of my feet from hours of boulder hopping yesterday.
From the ashes of our campfire, Paul pulls out a tin foil covered object: “My sweet potato, I had it in the fire overnight,” he says. Paul and I wolf down the smooth yellow flesh, sucking in air to cool our mouths as we eat. After cinching down our packs and swinging them onto our shoulders, we drink our coffee and say our goodbyes to Kyle. Soon we’re scrambling up the crumbly shale mountainside behind camp. We connect with the washed out trail which skirts the edge of the cliff, high above the creek; every step is made with calculated caution. While scanning the creek bed below, we continue yelling for Willow. We see and hear nothing. A sinking feeling pulls on my insides. I sigh heavily and blink profusely.
A pumpkin colored morning light bathes the dry grass and Manzanita bushes as we push on. We hit our pace and are soon crawling under brush to make progress. After almost an hour, Paul and I emerge onto the old road across Grizzly Falls. We rest next to the twisted I-beams and weathered concrete―skeletons from the Sespe’s industrious past.
In the harsh morning sunshine we shimmy and slide down the stacked boulders of the dry waterfall until we reach Sespe Creek, a hundred feet below. The tension builds as we cross the creek and hike intently through the sand. In minutes we’ll be at Sandy Camp. In minutes we’ll either find Willow or not. We yell out his name as we march at a feverish pace. The deep sand consumes the energy of my steps. I stem between two boulders and drop into the dirt. The weight of my pack jars my knees. I round the corner and jog up to the campsite.
“Shit! Shit! Shit!” I say in a panic. The camp is empty. Paul is soon at my side.
“Hey, hold on,” he says excitedly. “Look at this.”
A long broken branch with a sock hanging on it is propped up against a flat faced hunk of sandstone. The sock has the black and yellow Batman symbol on it. My eyes shift to faint words scraped into the rock.
Paul and I step closer.
“WILLOW WAS HERE”
“Yes! He’s OK! He’s OK!” I slap Paul in the chest and give him a massive hug as a thousand pounds falls off my shoulders. Paul is startled by my emotion, but quickly returns my embrace with joyful relief. We’re still smiling as we scan the sand for signs of Willow having been here. “It doesn’t look like anyone’s slept here,” I say.
“No it doesn’t,” Paul says.
After a few final yells for Willow, we spend our time sunbathing and eating our remaining food―consisting mostly of small packages of nut butters. By the time Luke, Erik and Kyle arrive it’s doubtful we’ll have time to finish our intended route down the creek into Fillmore. The four mile Tar Creek route will be our fastest exit. While I’m relieved that Willow is accounted for, many questions peck at my brain: Why didn’t he stop at the West Fork? Why didn’t he communicate with us? Where is he now, and is he hurt? Time drags on at a snail’s pace until Erik, Kyle and Luke arrive. We show them the rock.
“What the hell?” Kyle exclaims, pushing his glasses up on his nose. “Well there goes our trip.”
“Huh,” Erik shrugs, looking at the words scraped on rock.
“That trail was rough man,” Kyle says to me. “Luke took a pretty good fall and kinda messed up his knee.”
“Yeah, I’ll be alright,” Luke says. “I bashed it on a rock. I’ll be movin’ slow, but I’ll be OK.”
While the new arrivals rest, I filter water for the hike out. By the time we shoulder our packs and hit the trail it’s 1:30 pm. I feel light as a feather charging up the switchbacks. The fear that Willow is back in the wilderness alone has been lifted. Not to mention that the weight of the food in my pack is gone . The hike out is a sweaty, sticky, huff and puff affair as the afternoon sun mercilessly bakes us. After crossing Tar Creek we take a short break, and then hammer out the last mile and a half of hills.
By late afternoon, Paul, Kyle and I are walking the final hundred yards down to the dusty trail head parking lot. The puffs of cloud in the sky, and the straight lines of Fillmore far below soak in a magical sunset light. We flop down on a patch of dirt next to dry brush and give each other sloppy high fives. Kyle turns on his phone to call his girlfriend Dyanne to come and pick us up.
“Whoa! I have like ten missed calls from Anita. I’m gonna call her back.” He presses the call button.
Paul and I listen intently to Kyle and my wife Anita’s conversation. Kyle’s face changes back and forth from looks of disbelief to amusement.
“So Willow texted Anita around noon today. He says he drank some creek water, got sick and had to get out ASAP. Anita and Dyanne are on their way.”
“Ok, but why didn’t he tell us, or come and find us?” I say back.
“Who knows, man? Who knows?” Paul says, sitting in the dirt with his head hanging low. Erik then appears, plodding down the last few yards of dusty path. Now only Luke remains on the trail
Half an hour later, with the moon rising and sunlight fading, we hear the grumble of a diesel engine. Kyle’s brown 1980’s Ram Truck comes charging up the road. Dyanne and Anita are smiling as they bounce about inside the truck as it rumbles over ditches in the road. The doors swing open and they hop out from the high cab. Kyle and I are greeted with hugs and kisses from our ladies.
“Sorry but the beers are all shaken up,” Anita says. “We put the cooler in the bed of the truck and they spilled out while we were driving.”
“I don’t care. I just want a beer,” I say.
Soon we’re all guzzling foamy Sierra Nevada and Samuel Adams beers, and by 5 o’clock Luke appears on the northern horizon. He’s limping and covered in sweat. “Man, I’ll admit, that hike kicked my ass!”He says shaking his head and smiling.
Someone hands him the last beer and we share the latest news.
We mull over the Willow situation and decide to give him a call. We put him on speaker phone and he shares his story of running out of filtered water and drinking from the creek. How he fell ill and made his way past the West Fork to the Sandy Camp. How he spent the night and then woke up early and hiked all the way down Sespe Creek into Fillmore, eschewing the easier Tar Creek trail.
“We’re all just happy you’re OK, man. But why didn’t you tell us? How come you didn’t stop at the West Fork? We were looking for you, yelling your name,” someone says. The rest of us wonder the same things as we listen in.
“I was fucked up man. I just had to get out. I was really sick and just started hiking out.”
We had been through the contours of the Sespe both physically and emotionally. We had passed dusty, dry landscapes, riparian scenes and never ending boulder fields. It was a trip full of fireside shenanigans, perfect weather and magnificent scenery. But by the end, legs ached and minds wandered about the fate of our friend. We were in our element, in our favorite place, and the idea that the unthinkable had happened was shattering. But Willow was fine. He wasn’t lost or injured, but―a little worse for wear― actually at his house in Fillmore. The rest of us were perplexed―angry about Willow’s decision. We had experienced 24 hours of unnecessary stress and worry. What if one of us had been injured while searching for him?
Personally my resentment was, and is, second to the fact that my friend is safe. The fact that our trip didn’t become yet another tragic Sespe story is enough consolation for me. Only Willow will ever really know what went through is mind that December afternoon; what drove him to leave us uninformed of his whereabouts.
I do know where that Batman sock is though. It’s hanging on the wall in my office. It serves as a little reminder that no matter your outdoor experience or fitness level, you can’t tame a rugged wilderness. On the contrary, you’re tamed by it.
And it reminds me of that time Willow disappeared in the Sespe.
In June of this year, Mike Herdman, an Arcadia, CA firefighter and avid outdoorsman, disappeared in the Sespe Wilderness. He had been backpacking with fellow fireman Taylor Byers. The two were in the middle of a 4 day loop that Herdman had supposedly completed on multiple occasions. According to Byers, who was found by fisherman two days later, he and Herdman were sitting fireside at night when Herdman’s dog Duke ran off into the darkness. Barefoot, Herdman gave chase. That was the last time anyone saw Mike Herdman alive.
After an 11 day search across rugged backcountry, involving local Search & Rescue and multiple firefighting agencies, Herdman’s body was spotted by a helicopter on June 27th. . . a thousand feet up a cliff side and a mere 1/4 mile from his campsite.
Blunt force trauma was named the cause of death; injuries typically associated with a fall. Last week Herdman’s toxicology report was released. Traces of alcohol, Adderall and Ecstasy were found in his body. Duke the dog was eventually found 6 miles from the campsite.
A person in an unaltered mindset would never climb a cliff in the dark, barefoot and hours away from help. Unless they felt in immediate danger with no other options. It’s that simple.
Enjoy the wilderness. Have fun. Hell, have a few sips of whiskey. But be safe, know your limits and remember where you are.
Wild places are unsentimental and brutally unforgiving.
The “American Riviera” has plenty to keep you occupied: glorious beaches, the Santa Barbara Mission, the Santa Barbara Zoo, shopping on State Street and bars (Blue Agave, SoHo) and restaurants (Bouchon, Cielito) aplenty. If you’ve never been to this palm and Spanish architecture haven, then sure, don’t miss the hot spots. But if you’re looking for a low key, unpretentious day trip getaway, then read on.
Drive through the Oak tree shrouded Mission Canyon neighborhood and past the Santa Barbara Mission itself, and (while still fantasizing about living here) turn left into the Botanic Garden. The grounds are sectioned into six distinct native California botanic environments: redwood, meadow, manzanita, desert, canyon and arroyo. There are also three different trails (5.5 miles in total), a home demonstration garden and an authentic Japanese tea house garden. Dogs are also welcome. Leashed of course. I visited in May and the native flowers were abloom in bounty: blazing orange California poppy, violet lupine and the “Queen of California Wildflowers”, the majestic Matilija poppy.
The redwood grove offers a fresh slice of cool shade under the canopy of native giants, if only for a moment. Astride Mission Creek, which bisects the property, the Mission Dam and Aqueduct system offers a glimpse into early California development. The Chumash Indians built the structures in 1806-07 under the supervision (the labor was most likely forced) of the Franciscan padres.This system provided a reliable water source for the nearby Mission community.
Another highlight is the Manzanita section, which boasts a stunning 60 varieties of the gracefully posed red barked bushes and trees. The Botanic Garden also offers ongoing classes, lectures and demonstrations. A Bonsai tree exhibit and trimming demonstration was on when I was there.
With the ongoing drought, it’s a better time than ever to visit. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to rip out that water-hogging lawn and plant some beautiful native and drought resistant species.
Address: 1212 Mission Canyon Rd, Santa Barbara, CA 93105
Phone: (805) 682-4726
After getting your photosynthesis fix for the day, cool down at the Telegraph Brewing Company with a refreshing and unique beer. Telegraph crafts their brews in small batches using copper clad equipment with a focus on regional ingredients. The brewery is tucked away in an industrial area, inside a long Quonset hut style building. It’s identified only by a small wooden sign.
Inside, a small bar and communal seating add to the simplistic style. Local art graces the walls. A 20-something crowd sets the laid back vibe. On our visit, my wife, Anita, and I ordered a flight of samples having never been there before. Our choices: Ravena Stout, Prime Meridian, Los Padres Saison, Cipher Key Session Ale and the California Ale. While the beers certainly had unique notes to them and plenty of flavor, I found them a bit watery. The Ravena Stout was memorable, being both creamy and smooth. The Los Padres Saison was everything a farmhouse ale should be: sweet yet sour, with pepper, clove and a hint of lemon.
Address: 418 N Salsipuedes St, Santa Barbara, CA 93103
This place is as authentic as it gets. It’s not much to look at, but then again these places are usually the best. Here, it’s all about the food. Inside you’ve got TV en Espanol and a salsa bar that you’ll not soon forget. The al pastor super burrito is well, super; bursting with pork covered in zesty red sauce. The tacos don’t disappoint either . Wash it down with a tamarindo Jarritos or a creamy horchata.
Address: 836 N Milpas St, Santa Barbara, CA 93103
La Super Rica’s down the street is another option. Word has it that Julia Child called it her favorite Mexican restaurant, and we know she has good taste. I haven’t been here in years, (because I’m an idiot) but this turquoise trimmed staple of the Santa Barbara food scene is guaranteed to impress. The frequent line of people out the door indicates good things await inside.
Address: 622 N Milpas St, Santa Barbara, CA 93103
Botanical bliss, local beer and some of the best Mexican food this side of the border; Santa Barbara is the quintessential day trip destination. And then of course there’s the beach, the wine and the glamour. . . if that’s what you’re into.
My heart is thudding against my ribcage. I’m dizzy and short of breath. I had just downed a large cup of coffee, smoked an American Spirit and had had a pinch of Copenhagen in my lower lip, when the current reality hit. My brother Paul and I are now springing between boulders in the soft and deceptive dusk light. We’re on our way back up the Sespe Creek from our camp at the West Fork. Deep in the Los Padres National Forest, with the inky night seeping in, we begin searching for our missing friend.
Heading up-creek at a frenzied pace, my head throbs as adrenaline, mixed with caffeine and nicotine pulses through my bloodstream. A tidal-wave like peak of angular, striped sandstone curls high on our right, and ahead across the creek, Grassy Flat awaits.
“Willoooooooow!” Paul shouts into the canyon. Only his echo responds.
“He’s gotta be out here man. I mean, how could he just disappear without anyone seeing him,” I say as we weave carefully through the spiky, crotch high California Gray Rush bushes on Grassy Flat. We had been over this exact terrain hours earlier, only under much jollier circumstances.
“Willoooooooow!” Paul yells out again. “I know. It just doesn’t make any sense,” he says.
Six of us were in the middle of a three and a half day trip from Piedra Blanca, down the Sespe Creek into Fillmore. Paul, Kyle and I had arrived at the West Fork camp around two o’ clock that afternoon. The hike down had been a manifestation of the Sespe dreams I so often have in my sleep: crisp winter light, narrow canyons ever grander around each bend, and my body flowing through the polished sandstone wonderland with the fluidity of the creek itself.
We left our camp above the Alder Creek tie in around nine o’clock that morning, and had agreed to stop for lunch at the West Fork. Kyle, Paul and I led the charge with Willow right at our heels. Erik followed, with Luke at the rear. Our route was simple and obvious: down the creek by the path of least resistance; animal trails, gaps through boulders, walking in the water. Our goal was even simpler―cover as much ground as possible before dark.
Kyle, in his red shirt and Bass Pro Shops baseball cap,had sported a quiet grin of contentment throughout the entire day of marching. And I can’t blame him, as we passed through the Sespe’s most captivating scenery. Including the Sidewalks and the legendary Narrows, where we sloshed through the waist deep creek with packs held high overhead. The three of us frequently exchanged boyish grins over those few hours. And I believe there’s nowhere else we would rather have been.
Someone yelled up from the creek.“Heeey! Hey, up here!” Paul, Kyle and I called back excitedly. At that point we had been lounging and snacking at the West Fork camp for an hour or two. We hopped up and trudged down the creek’s banks through a deep carpet of crunchy dead Sycamore leaves. Between the trees, brush and rounded boulders, Erik emerged from the Sespe Creek proper. He was tired, weary and had run out of water. We had two water filters. I had one and Luke the other. Escorting Erik up to the camp, we chatted about the magnificence and challenge of the day’s landscape.
“Have you seen Luke or Willow?” Paul asked Erik curiously.
“No,” he said, “I saw you guys and Willow ahead of me around nine-thirty, ten this morning and that was it. Luke was behind me, and I haven’t seen him since this morning either.”
“So you never passed, or saw Willow?” I asked Erik, whose brown eyes had lost their normal mischievous sparkle.
“Naw man, he must’ve posted up somewhere and waited for Luke. Maybe we just missed each other.”
“Weird…Or maybe he just kept hiking past the West Fork?” I thought to myself out loud.
There was really only one way down the narrow canyon. Whether following the water or using animal trails along the sides, one would hear and see another person in the vicinity. So how could Erik― who had been behind Willow― not come across any sign of him? Did he take a break and fall asleep somewhere out of sight? Was he unconscious after falling into a pit?
“He’s gotta be with Luke,” Kyle chimed in. “They’ve been hiking together the whole trip. He probably took a break and waited for Luke to catch up.”
The four of us decided that that was the most logical of explanations. We had all spent plenty of time backpacking in the Sespe over the years, and figured Willow was likely to appear at any moment.
Three o’clock then turned into five. With light fading fast on a December afternoon, we began to worry. Then we heard it―someone shouted up the West Fork Canyon from down in the Sespe. The four of us shot glances at each other. We all shouted back, rejoicing that everyone had made it. Within minutes, Luke lumbered into the campsite looking every bit as tired as someone who had hiked for eight hours.
“Where’s Willow? Someone asked him.
“I thought he was with you guys,” he answered, his tired eyes becoming sharper and his lips tightening under his thick beard.
“No. We thought he was with you,” I said back.
“You guys better not be messing with me. C’mon out Willow! I know you’re here!”
“Count the packs!” Kyle said emphatically. “He’s not here!”
“If you guys are fucking with me, I’m gonna sock all of you down!” Luke responded, now visibly concerned.
We shook our heads and looked at each other.
“He could be lying out there hurt man,” Paul said. “We should back track and see if we can find him.”
Paul and I volunteered to head back up the canyon in an attempt to locate Willow. Luke had just arrived, Erik’s feet were blistered and Kyle wasn’t as familiar with the area. We slipped on our headlamps and galloped down into the creek. Leaves and brush crunched underfoot and our pale lights flickered up and down as we ran. “This is fucked up. We gotta find him,” I said to Paul between breaths.
It’s now dark. “Willoooooooow!” I yell at the top of my lungs. Paul and I are sitting on a sandstone block on Grassy Flat overlooking the creek. My throat is beginning to feel raw from all the yelling. In the dark, the next section of the canyon would be dangerous to attempt, headlamps or not. “He’s gotta be out here,” I say to Paul, my mind roller-coaster-ing through possibilities. “He’s probably camping out downstream at the Sandy Camp. But what if he’s not? What if he’s hurt? What if he’s lying face down in a pool of water?” I continue in my hyped up state.
“What if a mountain lion got him?” Paul says stone faced, gazing up the murky canyon.
We sit for another 20 minutes and trade off yelling and then listening for a response.
We hear nothing but the gurgling creek.
Now frustrated and somewhat panicked, Paul and I hoof it back towards the West Fork. We meet Kyle and Luke in a clearing between boulders and relay the news.
“Let’s check downstream a bit and yell for him there,” I suggest.
Again Paul and I leap between rocks before coming to an impasse: the creek widens and offers us no dry route. I’m short of breath and suddenly exhausted. The day’s hike, coupled with the sudden frantic activity and ingested stimulants have me crashing hard. We reconvene with Luke and Kyle upstream after more futile shouting of Willow’s name.
Our heads hang low and pale conical beams of light from our headlamps illuminate our filthy boots. The night is noticeably warmer than the previous two. Sweat stings the scratches criss-crossing my shins and forearms.
“Well we don’t want anyone getting hurt in the dark,” Luke says. “Knowing Willow, he just kept hiking and didn’t even see the West Fork. He’s probably downstream somewhere.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” I say. Luke’s words are calming, and since he knows Willow best, I decide it’s a reality worth having faith in. But dark images of a mountain lions fangs and a crumpled, limp body in the rocks, infects my mind.
Back at camp, Erik has the fire going and we settle down for dinner. Mulling over possible scenarios we eventually decide on a morning search plan.
“The Fitz brothers are the quickest,” Luke says, “so they should hit the high trail early and see if Willow is camped out further down.”
“Yeah, and you guys can stay here for a couple hours and see if he shows up. Then come and meet us at the Sandy Camp,” I say.
“I have my SPOT,” Erik says. “Worst case scenario I can press the button and we can contact Search and Rescue. But I don’t think they’ll come out at night.”
“ Yeah, that might be useful but I think we should wait until morning and check downstream before we make a big scene and rack up a huge tab for a rescue,” Luke says nodding.
Around the fire a bit later, Luke and I are nervously smoking cigarettes. The five of us sip the remains of our Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam in an effort to calm our minds and medicate our muscles. Accepting the fact that we can do little in the dark, treacherous surroundings, we eventually bed down for the night. A sense of optimism seems to permeate the air and I peer through sleepy eyes at the glowing embers of the fire down past my feet. Perhaps Willow is doing the same down-creek at his own campfire. Perhaps not. The uncertainty sits heavily on my chest. Sleep does not come easy.
Local Motives is a new series showcasing interviews with Southern California artists, musicians and people up to something original.
For this post, I interviewed Ventura County artist Justin Pence. A friend for over fifteen years, Justin has always blown my mind with his highly detailed drawings straight out of his seemingly bottomless imagination. Enjoy!
“Ye see that bridge o’er yonder? . . . I built that with nuthin’ but me own two hands and me hammer. But do they call me MacGregor the bridge builder? . . . No! . . . They don’t.” Luke is smack in the middle of his signature joke as we huddle around our campfire deep in the Sespe Wilderness on a cold December night.
Our day had been relatively easy as far as Sespe days go and we had set up camp along the creek beside a small sandstone escarpment. We left Willet at the leisurely time of 10am that morning and after passing a frozen creek and marching up dusty, shale speckled hills, came to a fork in the trail. A rusted brown, bullet riddled sign offered us two paths― continue on to Alder Creek Camp and Dough Flat, or veer south and down the Sespe Creek, 15 miles to the appropriately named Devil’s Gate. The mere sight of the words had me giddy. Reaching the gate going down the creek meant you had survived the gauntlet. Heading up, Devil’s Gate marks the entrance to a labyrinth of boulders walled by steep cliffs of stone and earth.
Near the sign, under the shade of an old oak, Paul, Luke, Kyle, Willow and I reclined against our packs in the dry, crunchy grass. Strips of homemade beef jerky were passed around for all to sample and we stretched out our legs and backs, stiffened by the previous night’s miles. Soon we were in the Sespe Creek proper, hiking swiftly and soaking in unmentioned pleasures; sharp winter light glowing through orange sycamore leaves, gentle sounds of gurgling water over stones, whiffs of dirt, black and white sage and cool air on sweaty skin. A few hours passed and after hopping between rocks topped with clumps of sedge grass and wriggling through a thicket, Paul, Kyle, Erik and I leaped over the shallow yet wide creek onto the opposite bank. Carpeted in smooth pebbles, clear of vegetation and butting up to a wall of sandstone, it was the first suitable campsite we had come upon all day.
By the time Willow and Luke caught up to us at the site it was about two o’clock. I figured we had another couple hours at least of daylight and suggested we cover more ground. “My feet are killing me man,” Willow said wearily. His canvas combat boots had been torturing his feet since we left Piedra Blanca the night before. Having had my own experiences with flesh grinding boots I knew the feeling well and didn’t push my case.
While the rest of our crew situated themselves, I jaunted up the hill behind the sandstone wall to find a suitable poop zone. What I found literally stopped me in my tracks―a pile of half buried trash crowned by a piece of camouflaged cardboard. Upon further inspection I found it to be an “Eco-Toilet”: a piece of cardboard that folds into itself creating a small seat in which to shit in. Now I can see how this might be practical when car camping or at a music festival, but in the middle of nowhere? I mean how much more “eco” can you get than digging a hole, squatting and shitting in it? These are questions I was dying to ask the individual who dumped this dump box in a pristine wilderness. Then there was the pile of trash. The amount of garbage led me to believe it was left by more than one person. Again, around a popular campsite or swimming hole this is to be expected. But finding a mound of waste 15 miles in from any trailhead was simply baffling. “Pack It In, Pack It Out” clearly wasn’t a principal this “shit for brains” group practiced.
After relieving myself self-righteously in proper backwoods fashion and gathering hard to find firewood, I rejoined the group at the pebbly bank. With our wood neatly stacked and bedding arranged, we began the ceremonial rounds of Willow’s moonshine and Jim Beam. Darkness fell early in the canyon and we had our insides warmed by sprits and our outsides warmed by fire just as the chill began to creep up sleeves and down collars. Then came dinner: most of us had freeze dried meals and sat hungrily as water boiled on our little growling stoves. From his small pack, Paul produced a steak and a package of sausages.
“Jesus man,” I said. “You don’t mess around.”
“That’s not even the half of it,” he replied with a grin.
Paul then showed me the veritable larder that was his backpack: another steak, another pack of sausages, an avocado, a sweet potato, a stick of Calabrese salami, various nut butters and a sizeable wedge of Jarlsberg cheese.
He had the fats section of the food pyramid more than covered.
The rest of us ate steaming rehydrated lasagna or some such concoction out of plastic bags while Paul offered us bits of his sizzling rare steak and smoky sausage that we then tossed in with our goop. Sufficiently stuffed, we built our fire back up to a roar and gathered round for that most precious of camping experiences―fireside banter.
“I’m sorry man, but you just look like a homeless guy.” I said to Erik, who sat smiling through his thick brown beard, with a black plastic bag between his legs and wearing fingerless gloves and a beanie.
He chuckled deeply and shook his head, his eyes glowing in the fire light.
The hours passed easily as we relived old memories, insulted one another and sipped on booze while Old Crow Medicine Show and Johnny Cash twanged out from Erik’s small black speakers. And just as we started to slide down deeper into our sandy seats, Bob Marley’s Rasta Man Vibration came on. As if choreographed, the six of us sprung to our feet and began skanking and singing along with broad smiles bisecting our tiny eyed faces.
Before long we were back in the dirt telling jokes, including some so hideously offensive that they will stay buried in the Sespe with the ashes of that fire pit. This leads us back to where we started― Luke’s MacGregor joke.
“Ye see that barn o’er yonder . . . I built it with nuthin’ but me own two hands and me hammer . . . but do they call me MacGregor the barn builder? . . . No! . . . They don’t,” Luke continues in his hilarious and quite accurate attempt at a Scottish accent. Aside from Kyle we’ve all heard it, yet listen in for Luke’s delivery is magical. I won’t ruin the joke for you by sharing the punch line but the internet has its versions. Just know that whatever you find won’t be as good as Luke’s. I know, I’ve looked.
We babble on into the night and Willow beds down first. Within minutes he’s snoring in a rapid fire staccato of snorting grunts. The five of us still conscious but fading, decide he sounds exactly like a bear cub. One by one, we slide into our sleeping bags and Kyle into his hammock which is tied between two small trees.
I wake up shivering and feel the cold permeating from the ground through my air mattress. Like an icy hand, the chill crawls in the face gasket of my mummy bag. I’m wearing thick socks, long johns, pants, a t-shirt, a down jacket, gloves and a beanie. I pull the drawstring, synching the hole even smaller until only my nose pokes out.
“Wake up fuckers!” Kyle yells. I can’t see him as I’m still cocooned in my bag. It’s early.
“Someone’s lookin’ to get their ass whooped,” Luke grumbles from inside his sleeping bag a few feet to my right.
Soon we’re all on our feet rooting around in our packs in that groggy, clumsy way people move in the early morning. Coffee comes first for me: I boil water in my Jetboil. Add heaps of the heavenly smelling coffee grounds. And wait a minute before slowly pushing the French press filter down. Five minutes later my caffeine addicted body is ready for the day.
It would end up a day that I’ll never forget. A day which challenged not only mere physical endurance and grit, but that by nightfall left us with emotions running high and many unanswered questions. On our third night, we would be one man short of six.