After swooping through wide corners up the mountain, I turn off Highway 33 into Rose Valley and look down to see the tiny battery icon still glowing red on the dashboard.
“The battery light just came on.” I say to Willow, sitting in the passenger seat.
“When we stop, just keep it running.” He advises.
We romp down the dirt road, headlights cutting a path through pitch black. Five to ten minutes later we pull into the Piedra Blanca trailhead parking lot. An old truck and a VW Vanagon sit keeping each other company in the cold, quiet darkness. In a whirlwind of activity, doors swing and slide open and people clamber out of the van excitedly.
“The battery light came on while we were driving up here. I left the van running.” I somewhat reluctantly admit to Nadya.
“OK.” She says with a shrug.
We all stretch our legs for a moment before hoisting backpacks over our shoulders. Luke and Nadya embrace and share a few words. We say our goodbyes and watch her drive off. The red tail lights on the now unburdened vehicle grow ever smaller until they are swallowed by the inky night.
I pick up my pace and feel the frigid air nip through my fleece. I’m about a hundred yards ahead of Paul and Erik. Willow, Kyle and Luke― behind them somewhere. The nearly full moon lights my way and bathes the grassy hills and brushy flats in hues of silver and gray.
“Click click.” I press the button on my headlamp, turning it off.
I pass a couple dry creek crossings and remember the time we hiked this trail to the Sespe Hot Springs. Eleven times we crossed the swollen creek. Sometimes up to our hips. This year has been our driest on record and there isn’t a trickle of water to be seen nor heard. I press on, finding solace in my solitude and the cadence of my boots and breath. My pack fits snugly and is light on my back. Suddenly― a shiver trickles down my neck.
In a flash I envision a mountain lion stalking me from behind, pouncing onto my back and sinking its teeth into the exposed flesh of my neck. I whip my head around trusting my instinct.
I would experience this spine chilling sensation twice more on the trail that night.
Kyle, Paul and Erik eventually catch up and we hike past parched creek crossings and grimy smears of ice on the trail. Hiking in the crisp air and basking in the cool luminance of the moon we all agree that traveling by night was a good idea.
After a few more miles and slogging up gradual hills that crowned over onto flowing grassy slopes, we come to a junction in our path. Erik leads the way, hiking in the river bed over sandstone bowling balls and dry bushes with dead Sycamore leaves stuffed among them.
“You guys should check out this rock,” Erik shouts back. ” I found it the last time I was here. It’s full of fossils,” he says. “I think it’s right over here, yeah here it is.”
The rock was darker and more angular than its neighbors; brown sandstone with white shells compacted and crammed into its surface.
“My girlfriend Dyanne would love this. I gotta show it to her the next time we come up here.” Kyle says enthusiastically.
After admiring natures handy work for a moment―headlamps now on― we head up a side canyon into a tree choked creek bed. Swampy, muddy ground lays hidden under dead vegetation and thin ice. We push our way through, leaping and long-stepping over real― and imagined― pits. The world then opens up again and we are walking on an existing foot path out of the claustrophobic darkness.
Paul and I hadn’t been to Willet Hot Springs and enjoy the new ground under our boots. Erik and Kyle know the area well and lead us further up the canyon on the flat and wide bank. We pass haunting, decaying shacks on our left that sit in the half shadows of the night.
“Is that the cabin?” I ask, pointing to one of the creepy structures.
“No, no. The cabin is just up here.” Kyle reassures me as he adjusts his glasses.
The ground clears on our left after thick bushes and another set of shacks appear. A messy stack of logs sits next to a stone fire pit and a park bench. Behind, a sheet metal shed with a cobblestone base and a cow skull above the door presents itself as the obvious cabin.
“Hopefully we don’t have to clean it out,” Erik says. “Sometimes it’s full of rat shit.”
The four of us go in to find the space neatly organized and as clean as a backcountry cabin can be. Two wood framed bunk beds line the walls and lead back to a table, a folding chair and a small wood burning stove. A pack of American Spirits, some extra food and tampons among other things sit on the wooden table. Above, carved names and symbols scar the wooden beams. “Sespe Steve” and “Trail master Mike” elicit the most laughs. “Leave no trace” is scrawled on the door by someone who somewhat ironically left their trace. We lay out our sleeping gear on the questionable spring and wire mesh that stretches between the four bunk posts and joke about the beds collapsing during the night.
Now that we have stopped moving, the cold creeps in and we put on our thick jackets and hats. I finish the al pastor burrito I had started earlier on the trail. No longer warm, I taste the metallic saltiness in my nose as I wolf it down. After finishing the intensely flavorful burrito, I light up one of the communal American Spirits from the cabin and we talk and unpack as we wait for Willow and Luke to arrive.
Nearing midnight, we hear them coming up the creek and put our firewood gathering on hold to greet them upon arrival. With flashing smiles and congratulatory nods of approval we have now completed the first―and easiest― leg of our trip. People rummage through backpacks; some eat beef jerky, some smoke cigarettes. After a brief discussion we all agree on a late night dip in the hot spring. We head back down the path and then cut right, up a steep trail. Our legs are now stiff after ten miles and a period of rest. It’s safe to say the ten minute march is uncomfortable for everyone. The backs of my knees beg for mercy. The trail crests and we come upon a small tent pitched on a dusty flat.
“Hola, como estas? ” Erik says in a soft voice.
“Eaaahhhhhh.” A sleepy, deep voice moans back through the tent.
Snickering quietly, we pass the camper and start up into the trees and slippery rocks leading to the hot spring. Sulfur punches up my nostrils as we high step our way closer. A large, black plastic tub rests on a flat spot at the base of a rocky, scrubby hill. Within a few minutes, the six of us are sitting in the circular tub. The hot water is just right, and instantly soothing. An opening in the trees gives way to a brilliant night sky studded with stars and the water glows a cool green beneath it. We pass around a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, another of Jameson and a canteen full of Willow’s moonshine. His homemade hooch packs a punch but finishes with a lingering sweet, yeasty flavor.
The liquor makes its rounds while Kyle and Luke sing country songs and the rest of us laugh at their renditions. There are moments of silence in which we gaze up at space, catching occasional shooting stars in our tipsy, tired eyes. Time seems to have released its grasp over us and I feel completely unburdened, free from life itself. Our trip had only just started―we had miles of punishing terrain ahead―but we had not a care in the world. We were living wholly in the moment…..with a little help from our distilled spiritual advisors.