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.