You’ve seen that part in the movie, the part when the angry bees or wasps or hornets—their nest unknowingly jostled by a passerby—descend upon the unwitting actors with a rage befitting Old Testament God. The swarm, a black, vibrating cloud of sound and needles strikes blindly at our characters, leaving them swollen, itching, and useless. This is Laurel and Hardy, Marx Brothers, Keaton stuff, gag stuff, set up stuff, the stuff of make believe. Surely these tiny little arthropods have better things to do than risk their lives in a Kamikaze assault on travelers who have no wish to do them harm. I am here to to tell you that no, these little airborne vehicles of misery absolutely do not have anything better to do. As it happened, our expedition had the chance to discover that these little yellow venom missiles love to get up early and they love to sting you over and over and over again.
My best guess is that while the sun rose to meet our early morning march, the penultimate morning of our trip, our earliest morning, and the morning of what would become the longest and most arduous day of our trip, one of our party managed to jostle the ground-based hive of a Ground Hornet colony. Unaware of this occurrence I thought nothing of the hornet as it landed on my hand, “Good morning mountain friend,” I thought, “please explore my knuckle hair, I know you are only passing through and mean me no harm.” This little creature, seemingly in compliance, quickly flew off—but just as quickly returned to the crotch of my right elbow. “Strange,” I thought, “I thought you had seen enough of my body to understand I mean you no harm.”
Pain is not immediate. There is a delay when injury occurs: the neurons fire in their chain, carrying the newsflash to your brain. Then your brain has to process this news and send a message back to the point of injury: “React damn it, react.” In retrospect, I probably watched as this lace-winged flying monster sunk its poison-tipped keister dart into my sensitive arm flesh. By the time the pain set in I sensed similar notices being relayed from various areas of my legs. At this point, other members of our group were reacting with shouts and gesticulations.
Steve was the most susceptible to their poison, so it only made sense that he had the most stings (double digits if memory serves). He would later note that though the swelling made it feel like he was hiking on watermelons, the incessant scratching from the trail’s overgrown brush along with the periodic whack of a leg against a pedal actually helped to quell the irritation. Folks, you can’t account for being unaware of jostling awake the sleeping nest of some ornery mountain rock hornets, but if you take a trip like this one, then you should probably expect it.
When we surmounted the final peak we took some time to relax in the warm mid-day sun near the wreckage of what must have been either a hermitage or storm shelter. Confident that providence had delivered us to the rally point for the promised epic, gravity-powered thrill ride that would deliver us to our destination on the coast, we eat most of our provisions, gorging on a cornucopia of jerky, peanut butter, cheese, honey, mixed nuts, and tortillas. In the distance we could see the ocean, a thin blue crease under the squat white haze of low-level clouds. As we ventured off the top of the mountain, the trails appeared to be clear cut and defined. Maybe we had made it to the promised land, maybe we were truly on our way home. Those few moments of bliss as we cascaded down the open trails of the upper reaches may have been the most devastating of all—you see, those open trails didn’t last long. The trail became choked with blow down, and as the trail took us off the high ridge and down the side of the mountain, overgrown vegetation blocked our way. We were pushing our bikes downhill. We came to a little makeshift shelter built in the middle of the trail, a last resort kind of shelter, a Wicker Man/True Detective/occult kind of structure. One that was most likely built by a deranged mountain killer on the run from a recent savage attack on some newlyweds or a Boy Scout troop. This thing sent chills through the group.
Later, Bo’s derailleur would explode and David would flat. Everyone except for Jon and Chris would crash. Despite these setbacks, we were heading downhill and though the path was clogged the group was able to ride through some of it, offering our flayed and burned shins as tribute. Then the trees fell away and we were spit out on to a scree field covered with 10-foot high buck brush. The trail was a hedge maze as it wove through walls of flora until it just stopped. This was a BUMMER, the low point, and a very honest feeling of being truly fucked was felt by all, even Jon. The trail just vanished. In the distance, on the next ridge down we could make out a scratch line, we could see our descent—how to get there? Our topo had long since become useless. Jon began to throw his bike downhill, over the tops of the buck brush, but within twenty feet realized the futility of his attempt. He had been throwing his bike with the grain of the vegetation, and we struggled for an hour to wrestle his bike back from the point that took him five minutes to achieve. We were fucked. Experiencing explosive vomiting and diarrhea while on a first date fucked, blizzard layover in Chicago fucked. No way out. A few of the group doubled back looking for divergent trails while most of us sat in shock cursing the mountain, each other, and ourselves.
It was Rally McNally how provided the path to our salvation. Going to ground, Rally noticed that the trail, hammered into the mountain by the labored pounding of mule hooves, still showed faintly and it drove straight ahead, directly through the buck brush. Standing our bicycles on their rear wheel they became formidable plows, pushing aside the brush with relative ease. A couple hundred yards further the brush relented. We pushed our bikes most of the way down the promised five thousand feet. When we were able to ride we crashed. Lyle and I, on separate occasions, both managed to fly at least twenty feet down the side of the hill.
At the tail end of our trip, our group was presented with a very special opportunity: when the five thousand feet of extremely non-buffed out singletrack deposited us along the edge of an MSOJ river we had thought, based solely on word of mouth, that we would be very very close to the trailhead, a paved road, and subsequently the river raft guide we had hired to shuttle us back to our cars. The special opportunity came in the form of a seventeen mile slog to the nearest trailhead. Fortune had trained us over the past couple of days for this experience; we were nascent experts, we understood the subtle nuances of hike-a-biking. Or so we thought.
Hike-a-biking in an alpine environment is markedly different from hike-a-biking along the rocky edge of a riparian zone. A thin layer of water, impregnated with primordial growth, creates a slick film over the jagged and unpredictable rocks that make up your tread. The game changes from a somewhat comfortable, doable hike-a-bike to a new, different challenge: “carry-a-bike.” Adding to our good favor, night was falling and we had eaten most of our food. We labored. Gradually, the jagged slimy rocks gave way to a more codified and traditional trail system and we were able settle back into a hike-a-bike technique. Since this was the river that would eventually rendezvous with the paved road we sought, we were constantly surprised as the trail left its banks, leading us up extremely steep switchbacks only to lead us right back down to the river’s shores. Night had fallen, and with it a bright full moon had risen. We walked in the black and blue world of moonlight. Jon and Rally had gone ahead in hopes of meeting our transportation. The rest of us, only a few lights between us, marched on. We debated the worst bands, we played Would You Rather, and we clipped our calves on our pedals over and over again. Daniel, his selection of cameras not equipped with the needed features, lamented his inability to accurately capture the moonlight as it reflected off the many stream crossings that we struggled through. It was beautiful.
These tributaries, cold, rushing, ankle-knee-thigh deep waters—though they provided the canvas for the moon’s reflection—were not welcome obstacles. We hiked through an unknowable number of them, but eventually the trail began to gradually rise away from the river. The moon illuminated our narrow path as it traced its way along the steep side of the river valley.
We are always looking for a reason, one we can put into words, something to wrap our heads around, figure out. I can’t say that I won’t, that I don’t, but at the moment I didn’t need one.