Words by Kyle von Hoetzendorff, photos by Daniel Wakefield Pasley
You have 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 the 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 then risk their lives in a Kamikaze assault on travelers that have no wish to do them harm. I am here to to tell you that is not true, these little airborne vehicles of misery have absolutely nothing 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 just passing through and mean me no harm.” This little creature, in seeming compliance, quickly flew off but just as quickly returned to the crotch of my right elbow. “Strange,” I thought, “I had 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 news flash to your brain and then your brain has to process, and send the 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 could sense similar notices being related from different areas of my legs. At this point other members of our group were reacting with shouts and gesticulations, this was a full fledged panic, our voices pierced the din of buzzing wings and we sprinted up the side of the mountain in adrenal powered leaps. 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 brush overgrowing the trail and the periodic whack of his leg against his pedal actually helped to quell the pain. Folks, you can’t account for being unaware of jostling awake the sleeping nest of some ornery mountain rock hornets, but if you are on a trip like we were then you should 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 mountain 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 newly weds 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 became 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 20 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, or like 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 mules 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 and 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.
We lost the trail over and over again and when within earshot of the rushing waters of the river indicating the end of our descent, the trail opened up for at least 100 yards, a sample of what could have been, of what should have been.
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 single track deposited us along the edge of an MSOJ river we had thought, based solely on what we had been told, that we would be very very close to the trailhead, a paved road, and the river raft guide we had hired to shuttle us back to our cars. This special opportunity came in the form of a 17 mile hike-a-bike back 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 hiking-a-bike, 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 film of water impregnated with primordial growth creates a slick film that coats the many, many jagged and unpredictable rocks that you have to pass over. These circumstances have changed the game from a now comfortable hike-a-bike to a new, different challenge we called "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 our hike-a-bike technique. Since this was the river that would eventually rendezvous with the paved road that we were seeking, we were constantly surprised when the trails left its banks, leading us up extremely steep switchbacks just to lead us back down to the river's shores once again. 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, with 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, their cold, rushing ankle-knee-thigh deep waters—though they provided the canvas for the moon's reflection—were not welcome obstacles. We hiked through them and 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. I will remember that sight, the ribbon of dark blue against the black canyon walls, and a string of bright points, a few head lamps bobbing ahead of me in the distance. I will remember it captured like an image from a children’s book.
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 wont, that I don’t, but at the moment I didn’t need one.