Wilderness plans don’t always pan out. Sometimes the weather takes a turn, sometimes schedules don’t work out. And, sometimes, things just go awry in unexpected and undignified, foolish ways.
On a recent, almost fully bluely moonlit night, I took to the Willow Creek trail in Big Sur’s Silver Peak Wilderness, already anticipating what glorious photos I might capture of the redwooded watershed. I awoke to find my film camera malfunctioning, whirring helplessly, mysteriously and irreparably kaput. Not only this, but my wallet was suddenly gone, fallen who knows where from a pair of too raggedy pants. This attempt to relieve myself of any sense of worldly responsibility and return triumphantly cleansed had instead provided me with a headful of stress.
It’s the funny thing about wilderness explorations, and we fools who write about them. We leave city life to refill our well, to readjust our minds. But on our return, we’re tempted to gloat. To go out is to earn the merit badges of solitude and strength. We hit the trail with the aim to return as Buddha, witness to holy Nothingness, and have desktop-ready photos to prove it. We recommend solitude for everyone only insofar that we may still stake a claim in it, without anyone else’s interference upon our campsite or treasured trail. And for all our reverence of the mystery of nature, there is perhaps in some of us a note of entitlement to the luxury of allotted natural bliss we feel we ought to receive, or even deserve, without sacrifice.
Thankfully, nature sometimes provides you the opportunity to make a total buffoon of yourself. Worried about my lost wallet, I had trouble fully appreciating the woods and willows. Thoughts turned to self-punishment, imagining what other disasters my attempted escape had inspired back in civilization. Family, friends, coworkers would all come to realize the glaring flaws in my being, and I’d return the next day disowned and unemployed. Worse yet, none of the clothes I carried seemed to fit, or all had glaring malfunctions, and I had brought all the wrong gear.
My friends, at least, forgave me, and we went up Willow Creek. We left our shoes at a granite gorge and discarded our cares as well. We plunged waist-deep through pools and clamored up, down, and over huge fallen trees. A resplendent green magic pervaded all around. I was relieved of the need to be anyone for a while and entered into a state of beyond. We explored for some time and intended to venture miles up the creek, but true to the not-completely-carefree theme of the trip, a member of our party endured a deep cut on her leg, and we decided to turn around.
In the fading hours of the day, we climbed the steep and soft slopes of redwood duff and watched and listened as layers of light and sound left Willow Creek canyon. The final birdsongs of the day echoed between the trees, smoothing all into a state of equipose. I left the next morning feeling reassured of the healing intent of these trips and the great healing powers of nature. Besides, the people of Big Sur are good, I figured, and it’s a magic landscape; magical things happen. And, yes, the wallet did find me, thanks to a kind soul at the Lucia Lodge, who called to notify me someone had returned it — minutes after I had gotten my license replaced at the DMV.
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And sometimes when you truly, truly need the peace you want, you don’t get it. I had worked 12 full days in a row, and at the tip of that stressfully long week, our beloved family dog died, suddenly and without ceremony. I felt I deserved a day of rest after this.
Rejoining the indefatigable Willow Creek duo, we set our sights on an overnight at the mythic Painted Rock Campground in the Sierra Madre Mountains. We were ready to brave the heat and hike the many-mile dirt road from the locked gate at McPherson Peak, and we figured we could do it if we left Santa Barbara after lunch. I was concerned about having a flat, given that my car manufacturer sacrificed the life-saving feature of a spare for the convenience of a tenth of a gas mileage of fuel efficiency. I mildly offered an alternative, less dicey road to a trailhead in the Dick Smith. But really, our minds had been set a long time ago. Being that it is a sacred site, it’s very possible we rushed in without enough reverence, respect, or patience in our hearts, and we set ourselves up for a cosmic thwarting.
Twenty miles up the rough and rocky road, all seemed well. The views were expansive, and our spirits, too, as we took within one vista the San Rafael and Santa Ynez mountains, the Channel Islands and ocean, the Santa Rita and Purisima hills, the Carrizo Plain, and Mt. Pinos and a distant Sierra Nevada. For a moment, I felt I had risen above my stresses, all left behind as we kicked up dust, until I needlessly gunned the gas in overconfidence, and we heard the telltale sound of harsh reality flapping against the road.
We had a flat with no spare on a dirt road with very scant cell phone service. Options were few, and none of them especially appealing. We could drive forward a few miles to rugged Bates Canyon Road and risk riding down on our rims, thereby ruining the vehicle and/or our lives. We could hike back into town, maybe 25 miles away. We could find cell phone service and beg a tow driver to visit us, or if no one wanted to take a flatbed up the road, we’d try begging a friend to bring a spare from S.B.
I felt quite defeated, and responsible, having sensed the possibility this could happen but bringing it on us anyway. It was so typical of what felt like a three-year-long life pattern of being kicked while I was down by unpredictable events, my dog’s death being an almost comical punctuation point at a long string of recent losses and tragedies. And the solace I so sought was deferred once again. I walked past the road, to the ridge, and hung my head.
We found cell service a ways off the road, and we tried to explain to multiple agents and towers where the heck we were, a difficult task even with Google Maps and compass coordinates. Some of the phone calls lasted nearly half an hour as the agent tried simply to locate us. “You’re in a real predicament,” said one tow driver. “You guys are nowhere.”
Thankfully, mercifully, an angel of a man had nothing better to do on his 24-hour shift and was curious to see what was up Sierra Madre Road. He’d always wondered. He probably didn’t anticipate the fact that it would take over two hours to travel 20 miles of dirt, climbing ever slowly and precariously in a huge flatbed on the narrow, twisting route, with cliffs on both sides, easy to miss in the dark.
Meanwhile, we waited on the ridge, and the temperatures plummeted 40 degrees. While shivering away, we saw the most miraculous sight. The moon rose red and mysterious over the distant Sierra Nevada, still nearly full and rusty colored after a recent eclipse. It was one of the most beautiful and mystical moonrises any of us had seen.
Our rescuer showed up. The first thing he said was: “Really!?” We admitted it was hard to believe, and we had majorly screwed up. We admitted the poor planning and were immensely grateful and humbled that he’d ventured so far up the risky road. He hitched the beat-down car to the truck, and we worked our way slowly down the mountain. He told us tales of recent fatalities he’d had to clean up, of people driving tragically recklessly, and suddenly our mistakes and misfortunes seemed very small by compare. It takes an uncommonly dedicated and selfless kind of person to risk his vehicle and make a five-hour trip up and down a road with no additional thanks asked in return, and our driver was that kind of man.
And as we settled down into Motel 6 at 1:30 a.m. with the pre-9/11 feel-good-club naïveté of Groove, things didn’t seem so bad after all. We didn’t get the escape we designed, but we got an adventure all the same, and life provided what I needed in its usually strange and merciful way.