July 16th, 2008
“Whooaaaaa!” I leap backwards high into empty space, nearly tumbling down the talus and into a dead bush. The rattler, tightly coiled, doesn’t move an inch save for its black tongue flickering in and out. Luckily for me it’s early in the day and the snake has yet to warm up. My heart beats like a galloping horse and reality sets in. We’re miles from anywhere and I realize the desperate situation a snake bite would have created.
“Holy shit dude!” bellows Clay, who is now at my side with his video camera and a stick which he prods the serpent with. The rattlesnake’s maraca tail raises and lazily shakes out a rhythmic “che, che, che, che” before it slithers under a fractured piece of brown sandstone. It’s our last day and we’re hiking out from The West Fork of the Sespe Creek….the worst is yet to come.
December 12th, 2013
I’m driving up Highway 33 in the mountains north of Ojai, California in the dark of a mid December night. I touch the back of my hand to the window ―the glass is icy to the touch. We’d decided to leave Thursday evening, giving us a head start on the three day weekend we had all somehow managed to get off. I can’t help feeling like a soccer mom ferrying a van full of giddy seven year olds to a game . In reality I have five grown men, our backpacks and Nadya crammed into my blue work van. Usually packed with loosely organized squeegees, beat up ladders and rags, I now carry a thousand pounds of boisterous human flesh. Nadya , Luke’s girlfriend has agreed to accompany us so she can drive my van back to Fillmore, 30 miles southeast of our drop off point, Piedra Blanca. I hear a “bing” and look down at the glowing dashboard. The battery light is on.
Roughly a month prior I had woken up one morning with the idea of repeating one of the roughest backpacking trips I had ever experienced. In 2008, my friend Clay Crosswhite―originally from Kansas―proposed we hike the 30 miles from Piedra Blanca down Sespe Creek into Fillmore. He knew my friends and I had grown up roaming the Los Padres National Forest, which the Sespe snakes its way through. I couldn’t resist. To me it represented the “ultimate Sespe experience” and I promptly accepted his invitation having never hiked it myself. The fact that it was July and temperatures would be in the scorching mid-nineties didn’t seem to dry out our enthusiasm. Our trip would comprise 15 miles of trail and 15 miles of quad and calve devouring boulder hopping down a creek. We had an evening and two days before work Monday morning.
Thirty miles―no problem.
The Sespe Wilderness (designated as such in 1992) lies within the Los Padres National Forest, north of Ventura County. The area covers a substantial 219,700 acres of the Los Padres’ total acreage of 1,950,000. Densely covered in chaparral, rocky outcroppings and deep canyons, the region is the fourth largest road-less area in the contiguous United States and the closest to a metropolitan area. The fact that this bush-land is only an hour north of Los Angeles is a testament to its challenging, jagged and harsh terrain. Sespe Creek also holds the distinction of being Southern California’s last undammed river, again due to the unforgiving landscape. The California Condor Sanctuary―situated within the wilderness― is a refuge for the enormous birds which balance precariously between extinction and survival.
Along with these ancient New World Vultures, numerous other animals can be found within the area: black bears, mountain lions, bobcats, rattlesnakes and coyotes to name a few. Unknown to many, the Los Padres was also home to Ursus arctos horibilis― the California Grizzly Bear― before they were hunted to extinction by 1905.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t somewhat relieved by this fact but I also feel I’m missing the “original” glory of the place. In his book, The Sespe Wild, Bradley John Monsma puts it simply “there used to be grizzly bears in the Sespe, and now that they are gone the place is diminished.”
Unique, inhospitable, temperamental and road-less. To the few who frequent its canyons and waterways, the Sespe Wilderness is a place of adventure and magic, a place to be fiercely protected at all costs.
And I think you can agree.
November 7th, 2013
I excitedly tap the screen on my phone on that inspired morning and send a text to Kyle asking if he’s interested in the trip. I had been extolling the grandeur of “Ojai to Fillmore down the Sespe” to all my backpacking partners long enough. Kyle quickly responds and after a few questions and answers he’s in. Kyle, a heavy duty diesel mechanic, was in my graduating class in high school, but only recently had become my hiking/beer chugging partner in crime.
A couple days later I text Paul―my brother ,frequent collaborator in backcountry shenanigans―and he too is on board. I figure three is a good number. We can pack light, cover ground quickly and if anyone happens to be injured or otherwise incapacitated, they won’t have to wait alone while the other gets help.
A few days pass, a week maybe. The phone rings. It’s Paul, “Erik is going too. I hope you don’t mind.”
Erik, a seasoned backpacker, traveler and always good company, will round out our group nicely.
Two weeks go by in a flash as they sometimes do and I’m at Luke’s birthday party. Kyle and I share our plans with him over a few beers, and with his bushy red-brown beard and a wild look in his blue eyes he proclaims, “I’m goin buddy!”
We clasp hands and shake vigorously. “Unite us. Unite us… Unite the clans!” he growls in his best impression of William Wallace from Braveheart. His flair for accurately and animatedly reciting entire movie scenes, jokes and literary quotes has always been our fireside entertainment―and this trip will be no exception.
July 17th, 2008
Clay and I had done it. We stood there at the end of Grand Ave in Fillmore, thoroughly worn out like a pair of old socks. After bushwhacking through thick, sticky chaparral and poison oak on our way through the trail from the Westfork we were met by house sized sandstone boulders and stagnant pools of algae clogged water.
“Why the hell did we take that trail?” I remember Clay asking. His hair plastered to his sweaty crimson face. Eyes empty with exhaustion. His towering, powerful stance reduced to a hunched, weary wobble.
We were plagued by sweltering heat and bloody heels. The tread of one of my shoes fell off completely, leaving me teetering back and forth as I walked. Our water filters, despite their amazing capabilities could not make the water cold, nor palatable. Earthy, swamp flavored water in our nalgenes bottles was solar heated within ten minutes of being pumped. The entire journey had been a suffer-fest. There were no jokes around the campfire…or any campfires for that matter. For two and a half days we marched, ate for sustenance and slept. But there we were on a paved road, scrapes criss-crossing our arms and legs, blisters rubbed raw and feeling like pieces of dried up, sun bleached dog shit.
December 9th, 2013
Six: The number of men in my cramped living room drinking bottles of IPA, Porter and Stout. As it turns out, Willow―real name Daniel― is joining us on our trip. Willow has been backpacking the Sespe since he was a boy and had earned his stripes while the rest of us were still playing tag. His step dad would regularly march him through the backcountry whether he liked it or not. He had always been small, hence the nickname “Willow” and had learned to fight at an early age. He was still short but now a stocky 200 pounds. Despite his affable nature, you don’t mess with Willow.
Paul, Luke, Erik, Kyle, Willow and I huddled around my Sespe Wilderness topo map, unfolded atop the cheapest coffee table they had at Ikea. We casually plotted our course while swigging beer and poking fun at one another. We would leave Thursday evening, hike 10.5 miles and spend the night at Willet Hot springs. The next day we would hike as far possible before dark. Sleep and repeat. Sleep and repeat again.
A solid plan, no doubt.
“This is gonna be an all-time classic trip!” someone says.
Continued in Part 2 of A walk Down the Devil’s Spine