A two day hike along Sespe Creek in the Sespe Wilderness in Los Padres National Forest, California

Up the Creek Up the Creek

“Step ye gaily, on we go, heel to heel and toe to toe”. Des takes his courage, and his life, in both hands, and finds a treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Base camp on the Sespe

“Wah!” was the sound I made as I pitched off a cliff high above Sespe Creek, deep in the wilderness of Los Padres National Forest in California. I found myself upside down, sliding downhill on my back in a rattling raft of scree, limbs flailing like an upturned beetle. Oh, alright, it wasn’t a cliff like the Cliffs of Dover are cliffs, but to a man with vertigo it looked and felt like a cliff. When the scree stopped moving, my first thought, after relief, was: “Oh no, the wine!” For I was late for a wedding.

It had been a bad few days. It began when my wife and I missed the flight to LA. From a tense hotel room at Heathrow we booked another. We didn’t miss that one, just the hundreds of wasted pounds it cost us. From LAX, late at night, we drove a hire car north past Ventura to the country highway that runs beneath the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains.

By 2am, after much searching, and despairing that we might have to sleep uncomfortably in the car, we finally found a hotel that was not shut tight, and slept the fitful sleep of the jetlagged. Three hours later we were on the road again. The only open cafe was full of Hispanic farm hands, many wearing rumpled straw stetsons. They looked at us curiously. That the coffee tasted awful made it no less welcome.

Wedding crasher. A non-lethal Two-Striped Garter Snake (as far as I can tell)

Winding up into the mountains, we managed to find the unmarked turn-off to the trailhead. The car park at the end of the road felt desolate in the grey of an overcast early morning, and the thought of walking into this wilderness alone was scary, scary like wilderness is supposed to be. That’s why it’s called wilderness, I guess. As we shouldered our packs, heavy with wine, camping gear and emergency kitchen sink, we were relieved when another car pulled in, and a couple also on their way to the wedding joined us. We could never have followed the trail without them.

The day grew lighter through a silver mist as we stepped from rock to rock on the rough path leading down to the creek. As we crossed the gentle waters of the lower reaches of the Sespe, swarms of bees drank from the water seeping through the sands. The mist lifted. The heat grew.

We climbed through dripping green gorges. We pushed on past stands of extraordinary flowers, with no time to stare, no time even for a quick photo. We carefully avoided poison oak and ivy. We assiduosly avoided looking down from precipitous paths. We sweated across rocky plateaus. We ignored ghostly mines where, once, gold prospectors worked these stone-hearted hills.

Unfit, overburdened, already exhausted before we started, after several strenuous hours we were stumbling, as well as late, as we neared the wedding rendezvous. Suddenly, hurrying along a narrow path a hundred feet above the creek, my ankle folded like crumpling cardboard and flipped me down the scree. To my delight, I found the bottle of wine was intact. Less delightfully, my ankle was agony and already swelling. We missed the wedding.

The Sespe near base camp

I saw the pictures later in the album: the ceremony was held at a picture-postcard place, a spot where the Sespe falls, spilling in frothing bounds from a high rock plateau, into an emerald pool. Not for nothing is the word “cliché” also the French for “snapshot”. The hue in the ink-jet prints of this picture-perfect spot was so saturated, that the pool seemed other-worldly, the emerald not just green but glowing, as if shot with light. It seemed a faerie place.

Do fairies wear shorts? No? Then the eldritch air must be an illusion. For the photos also showed some of the wedding party, vows read and couple wed, whooping and bombing into the pool’s deep waters. Meanwhile, hobbling and hesitant, I had managed to slither, half seated, down the steep path. At the bottom, I reached base camp, which had been set up by the side of the creek some hundreds of yards downstream from the pool. Here I stood precariously and inelegantly trouser-rolled in the shallows, grateful while the oooh-yes cold water numbed my ankle.

As the light faded, the party gathered at the camp to, well, party. The wine I had so preciously portaged was opened. We were already drunk with tiredness, and after the first glass I felt as if I had been hit by one of those moving walls of water off Hawaii that you see in all the surfer films. Even sitting upright on a rock seemed impossible. The gloom of the gloaming had not yet become darkness when we left to sleep by a giant boulder at the water’s edge.

Suddenly the June sun rose brightly, brutally early, behind the ravine. Waking, I found an iridescent humming-bird sipping nectar above my head. It did what humming birds do, and darted deftly from flower to flower. This moment of charmed wonder was ruined when a throbbing pain reminded me that I was up a creek without an ankle, miles from civilization. This walk had been no walk in the park. I had hiked the Alps, but the Sespe made the mountain paths of manicured Switzerland seem like a ramble on the South Downs in Sussex. The Sespe is so unspoiled and wild that, up its furthest reaches, condors soar among the crags. Unable to walk properly, I wondered, not without some pangs of fear, how on earth I was going to manage the return journey, through this terrain, in time for the official wedding reception that evening.

The Sespe at base camp

The groom, a long-lost childhood friend, whom I had not seen since he left the UK many years before, was now a gardener for wealthy West Coast professionals. He had recently finished building a house, by hand, by himself, at Ojai, near the sulphurous San Andreas Fault. His new home proudly stood in several fruitful acres. Here a sumptuous barbecue was being prepared for all the guests who were too busy, old, young, unfit, or too sensibly wilderness-averse, to hike to the wedding itself.

After all the pratfalls, both physical and metaphorical, of the last few days, I was determined not to miss it. While the rest of the wedding party headed home at a cracking Californian hiking pace, we were escorted by two of its members who were happy to take it slow. Ungainly, clambering with the aid of two trekking sticks, it took me all day to get back to the car, but we made it to the reception. Unwinding as the wine and food and company worked their magic, I could finally contemplate the wilderness of the Sespe, and our trek in it, without twinges of trepidation. “Wow!” was the sound I made.


This piece was first written in a different form for the Independent on Sunday / Bradt travel writing competition. My thanks to Janice Booth of Bradt for her excellent critique. Several changes to the original were made in response to the issues she raised. The “improvements” are all mine, however, especially if they’ve made things worse. Mainly, the story was just too cramped at 800 words (now it’s roughly half as long again).
Des visited the Sespe in 2003. All information in this post was gathered at that time and has not been further checked or updated.
Photo credits: All photographs copyright of the author.
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