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.