Sunday, September 25, 2011

The 20-Mile Hike


pretty sure i died on that hike. pretty sure it was a bad idea, and this is where i need to clarify that it was not my idea, because i generally don’t have bad ideas as long as we don’t count a few unfortunate hairstyles in high school. (ok, maybe last year’s brazilian blowout was also a bad idea.)

my best friend, Jon-David, was in LA for a weekend, his birthday weekend, a weekend he had been aching to spend reliving childhood events, chiefly among them a camping trip to Ojai. unfortunately, a google search uncovered that his childhood campground no longer existed, but there was one nearby we could hit up, so we decided to hit it up, just the two of us.

the night before we left, we had a lovely birthday dinner for Jon-David that featured adult things like flights of wine and sashimi tartar appetizers. the food was divine and, given that we’ve been best friends for more than 20 years, the company was also divine.

after dinner, the wine kept flowing, the laughs kept following and the reminiscing began. helping usher in the memories were several photo albums i had of the time we spent gallivanting through Europe. we were living a veritable coming-of-age film back then — our college years spent glued together like two halves of the same soul. with credit cards in hand, we traveled every summer, spring break and winter recess to faraway places to discover what it meant to be alive.

as jet-setting new adults, we had no parents to meddle nor curfews to obey, only lessons to learn against the backdrop of ancient buildings and memorable strangers, and through the childish mistakes that are easy to make when you’re convinced you’ll live forever.

“remember that time we smoked hash, became paranoid and then got lost in the medina in Morocco?”

“how about that time we spent two weeks living above a gay bar in London? didn’t the manager of that bar have HIV?”

“remember those 10 days we spent in Amsterdam, how they were during the coldest winter of the century? all the canals were frozen.”

“remember that anti-semite in Madrid who told us that the problem with America was that the jews control everything?”

those were the days, my friend. those were the days.


the following morning we made our way to the campsite with borrowed gear, packaged food and a gallon of water, pitching our tent about 15 miles north of Ojai in a place with no cell reception and a starry sky that went on for miles.

that night, we made a fire, spread cheese and tapenade on baguettes, drank wine and talked about life — another divine night cementing a lifelong friendship. we were both 35 now, our faces lined and humbled by life, far from the 8th-graders who became fast friends when seated together at the back of the class. but the conversations were still quick, the jokes were still plenty, the shared interests still many. we had become more family than friends.

the next morning the 20-mile hike began.

i should stop here and say that i knew this hike would last 20 miles. i wish i knew why this seemed reasonable to me at the time, but i’m not really sure — probably because 20 miles sounds easier in theory than in practice and Jon-David has always had a way of convincing me to do foolish things. i had been hiking fairly regularly through the summer at my local trail so i felt pretty fit and figured those extra miles would make for great exercise.

plus, Jon-David promised there would be natural hot springs awaiting us at the 10-mile mark, which we would enjoy for a few hours before turning around and hiking back. so with some SPF 55, a gallon of water, a change of clothes and snacks for lunch, we set off at 8:30am.

the first hour seemed to fly by. the trail offered little shade, but was fairly flat and direct, at least at first. we were hiking along a creek and frequently encountered running springs, shallow pools and swimming holes, which proved useful when heatstroke threatened and there was cool water to dip our heads into, but that came later. at first, we were super hiking machines, chatting as we walked, and beyond an unfortunate encounter with a persistent bug (which i ended up swallowing), all was well.

then, time passed. the miles added up as our feet wore down. the hike became hilly and the air became hot, heating our bodies up with it. and then came the death blow: we lost the trail. correction: Jon-David lost the trail as he was hiking in front to “make sure you don’t step on any snakes, Milla. i know how you are.”

by mile 9 we were trailblazing through brush that was full of bees and poison oak, saying often, “i think i see the trail up there! let’s just cross these thorny bushes. do it fast and it won’t hurt.” this must have gone on for over a mile. ultimately, it landed us in the creek, where we crossed slippery rocks in merciless heat — the reality that we were lost sinking in like our sunburns. and the hot springs? WE NEVER FOUND THEM.

what we did find was a swimming hole near a shady spot at the end of the creek, where we stopped for lunch and a dip in the water. maybe collapsed is more accurate, as we had been hiking for three hours at this point.

“i’m going to kill you and let the mountain lions eat your sunburned body for dinner,” i smiled as i took out the pita chips and hummus. we had hiked 10 miles at this point (maybe 11), and my feet were already lined with blisters.

“this was a bad idea, but it’s a really great adventure,” he replied with forced enthusiasm.
“that’s what they’ll be saying at our funeral.”


we ate lunch in disbelief, all the while bemoaning the nonexistent hot springs, the missing trail, the long hike back, the burning sun, the dwindling water supply. we had officially gotten ourselves into trouble, just as we had countless times before when we were kids, unfazed by consequences, living only in the moment. but at 35, we were fully aware of our mortality, a mortality that was making itself evident in our swollen feet and aching muscles.

“i don’t think i can do the hike back.”
“we don’t have a choice.”

and there was the crux of it: we had no other options. it’s amazing what that can do for one’s stamina. so we picked up our unsteady legs, trailblazed the couple miles back toward the trail and hiked our asses straight to the car. the high-noon hike took three and a half hours, a time when we were teetering near delirium, stopping often to rest under slivers of shade, our thirsts unquenchable, our bodies in protest, the sun amplifying each discomfort.

we hiked mostly in silence, with our few attempts at conversation devolving into expletives and the conclusion that it took too much energy to talk or think. the only thing i thought as i stared at the back of Jon-David’s neck was how his skin looked like roast beef. i know mine did, too, despite the sunblock. i swear i heard it sizzling.

as the first stretch was the easiest, the last stretch was the hardest, full of slipping on rocks that we crossed with ease just hours earlier. we ran into a few running streams and debated drinking their water once our supply was depleted, deciding ultimately to pass and save ourselves a case of dysentery.

the last half mile offered the most agony, as my body started to shut down prematurely with the knowledge that it would soon find relief. with my back muscles spasming and legs shaking, i walked those final paces to the car short of breath and certain i would pass out from heatstroke. it was 4:30pm by then, and we had spent 6.5 hours hiking.

“there’s water in the car,” i wheezed. “you take the supply in the trunk and i’ll take the stash by the front seat.” as i downed the 90-degree water that had been sitting idle in my car’s cup holder for six months, i realized that Jon-David would miss his flight that night (which he did, but thankfully made the next one) and that i hadn’t needed to pee once despite drinking about a half gallon of water.

our first stop was the grocery store, where we each bought fruit juice, iced coffee and water. i had finished the fruit juice before we even got to the checkout, with the coffee following immediately after. we must have looked like two prisoners of war — reddened to a crisp, smelling like a sewer and hobbling around awkwardly on legs covered by scratches. we locked arms at the register and exchanged the signature glance we’ve shared too many times before: “what the fuck was that shit?”

we drove home triumphant, in laughter.

the next two days i spent in bed, hopped up on vicodin. the soreness was unlike anything i had ever known before, with every single muscle in my body mad at me, including my ribcage, which made me wince each time i took a breath.

i had a blister the size of a gumball on my big toe, a cold sore the size of a dime on my lip, a rash on the inside of my legs that made it impossible to walk normally and dirt under my fingernails that wouldn’t budge for days. every shower taken during that time was a cold one with minimal water pressure. i ate mostly soup and left my house as little as possible. it took five days before i felt fully recovered.

was it worth it? nope, not even a little bit. would i do it again? not a chance.

but if i had to do it again, there’s no one else i would rather take besides my best friend.

(happy birthday, Jon-David. let’s never do that again.)



Cassie said...

Fucking Awesome.....
Ask Michael about the time we went hiking.... Haha

Michael Landis said...

Wow. That puts our lost hike to shame.

Jon-David Settell said...

Um, excuse me. Last time I checked we were planning on hiking to the 9 mile point and camping this spring. I can see I have some work to do, in terms of laying on the charm and hyperbole. It'll work, I'm sure, as it usually does. Don't forget, after the elusive Willett Hot Springs comes the even more fantastic Sespe Creek Hot Springs, only an extra 5 miles away.

And love, you are a bit of a drama queen. I think you spent a little too much time with me. It wasn't that bad. There was fun! An exciting hunt for mysterious hot springs! Private swimming holes! Adventure! Shiny snakes! Ok, it was pretty bad at times.

Some things never change. We still get into, and safely out of, the worst kinds of trouble. Despite it all, you are still my favorite partner-in-crime, and not just because I can usually talk you into most of these adventures. That helps though, I admit. :) Love you tons, fellow adventurer in life.

PS So can I get a re-do on that awful shot of me in Times Square? Or is that payback for the blisters and body aches?

Anonymous said...

Great fucking story !!!

lacey said...

omg! you both are insane, but I'm glad you are both okay.

Anonymous said...

Lucky. You. Two. Are. Not Dead.