“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.