When the vernal equinox ticked over late last April, a hearty crew of backcountry wanderers were bedded down amongst the palm trees and cobbles of Hot Springs Canyon, deep in the Sespe Wilderness. It seemed appropriate that spring should, in fact, begin at the Springs.
My first visit to Sespe Hot Springs — ostensibly the one that should have left the most indelible impression, I suppose — was in the years before the formation of the wilderness. Mickey McTigue’s mountain biking guides were the local authority in the area, I was 12 years old, and I was following in the wake of the infamous and inimitable Billy Monster. 10 years my senior, he was (and remains) nearly impossible to pace. I remember only snippets of that first day, primarily the secreting of his red ’69 Bronco in an orchard in Fillmore, and then shuttling up to Lion Camp (there was no Piedra Blanca Trailhead back then, if you please). The usual unsavory characters and cut-off denim shorts, beer cans, and the squeak of my OD-green Kelty frame pack as we walked that long road downstream.
Billy and his similarly-aged trail pals dusted me, but stopped often enough I would see them every mile or three. I vaguely recall a crossing here or there, but on the whole I remember nearly nothing about the actual walk. Somewhere toward the end of the 15-plus miles my brother maintains I stated something along the lines of “I’m getting pretty tired, Billy,” to which he laughed at my stating the obvious.
After Lion Camp all I recall is lying down on my closed-cell foam pad beneath a huge palm tree set amongst sand and cobbles. Some time later somebody woke me, handed me a plate of something (which I ate), and then in the wee hours of the morning I awoke, shivering. I groggily unpacked my sleeping bag and crawled in, and then what seemed mere moments later, I was being roused for breakfast.
I never saw the Hot Springs. We headed toward the abandoned Sweetwater and Alder-Sespe camps that day, fishing and sleeping on the sandy banks of the Sespe for two nights before egressing via the Van Trees property downstream of the Devil’s Gate.
These days, I don’t miss many details (or least I like to think I don’t). But perhaps more important than my obsession with my minutiae is the simple fact I now carry a camera.
The “dream team” that had assembled for this sojourn into the heart of the Sespe were coming in from different directions, and at different times, so it was a trio of us (John RP, the Expat Eldon Walker, and myself) who headed out from an empty Piedra Blanca one sunny Tuesday morning.
The rains that had inundated this stretch of the Sespe watershed only two weeks before had put enough precip in the hills that the crossings all had ample water, and we enjoyed an easy 10-mile mosey toward Willett Hot Spring, pausing for a lunch and a beer (and lots of photos … mind you, we’re with the Expat here) at Bear Creek.
We took some notes along the way where the rains had brought stretches of the trail down, but on the whole it was an exercise in reminiscing about previous Sespe trips during previous stages of the Sespe route’s history: 4WD route, mountain bike route, wilderness hiking route.
Back in the Day
The Lagomarsino Cabin at the Willett campground was in the best shape I can recall ever seeing it; we camped at the larger lodge site that night but lounged the next morning about the cabin and enjoyed some lazy morning coffee.
We continued downstream, deftly navigating the surprisingly water-abundant crossings to keep the boots dry as best we could, and arriving at the site of the old Hartman Guard Station with hopes of finding a monument that has eluded for some time. Upon arriving at Hartman, we found the massive oak — scarred in the Day Fire — had succumbed to its injuries. I thought the tree had come through relatively unscathed, but alas. The remaining table is no more.
Continuing eastward — just as were beginning the final climb toward Coltrell Flat — Bryan Conant (he of the cartographic infamy) caught up with our crew, and so we enjoyed his company as we continued our march toward the Hot Springs.
After spending a disproportionate amount of time photographing various corners of the forest (see the Expat’s superior flickr album from these days here), we finally moseyed in to the Hot Springs camp that late afternoon, where we rendezvoused with Hiker Kim and Ste. Jo, who had approached via the Dough Flat trailhead. After setting up camp and the subsequent general lounging, we six were in short order also joined by EP from Ventura County Canyoneering, Lee C., and Jack Elliott — the Yankee Barbareno. The gang was all here!
I remembered with some clarity my decades-old memory of sleeping beneath the old palm, and so set up my bed in the same spot.
After dinner and a few beers, we all set to slumber. Whilst some of the crew were further afield in tents and minimalist shelters, a number of us were laid out under the stars, assembled along the periphery of the largest palm.
At precisely 12:01a, a rising shout culminated into a blood-curdling scream, and we all started awake with a shock.
“What the f— was that?!?!” came the first retort. The sound couldn’t have been more than 20 or 30 feet to my east, and my first thought was that somebody was being hauled off by a mountain lion (or worse).
We took a quick head-count … The Barbareno, Dr. Map, Eric, and John RP were all accounted for in the immediate area, but we were receiving no signal from the Expat, whose 80s-era Sierra West looked intact from my vantage point. The nearest three of us shouted at Eldon’s abode for several moments before we received a very groggy and indifferent “Yes?”
“Eldon, are you alright?”
“Fine.” (I could tell from his voice he was just waking.) “Why?”
“We heard somebody shouting,” I replied (actually, “screaming” was more accurate, but I didn’t want to sound altogether overly dramatic).
“Oh,” he replied casually. “Well, I’ve been known to do that.”
We three sat, struck for a moment. “Um, okay. Goodnight.”
I settled back into bed. But every time Eric stirred, I started. And I’m fairly certain that every time I stirred, he did the same. It was a sleepless night for a few of us.
The next morning, we were all busting the Expat’s chops about his crazy nocturnal vocals when finally he said something along the lines of “Wait, ‘screaming?’ I thought you said ‘snoring.’ I don’t scream in my sleep, [his lovely bride] would surely send me into the yard with the dog without supper for such discourtesy.”
That actually seemed more plausible than a human making that god-awful sound. So for the rest of the trip we all posited numerous theories, from the ghost of Ronald Hughes, Chumash spirits, to mountain lions. The Expat later provided links that I feel further supported that latter theory, though there isn’t a unanimous consensus in the crew as to what we actually heard that night. Whatever it was, it was mere feet from the Expat’s tent. Which isn’t very comforting at all.
Nocturnal predators/spectres be damned! Based at the Hot Springs for two nights, we nine enjoyed a fine time of exploring nearby canyons, day hikes along the ridge, and general comraderie. And beer.
And the realization that sometimes the devil isn’t in the the details, but rather in the details one must exclude from public forums.