Illustration by Popularium
You don’t really love someone until you’ve shared a moment of true fear with them.
I went to Big Sur with Angie and eight of her friends. Angie and I had camped all around California — Grouse Ridge up in Tahoe National Forest, Salt Point State Park, backpacking on the Yuba River — but always just the two of us. We’d proved very compatible even while roughing it, but camping with a big group of your girlfriend’s pals doesn’t come without anxiety.
But as soon as we set up camp and I met everyone, I let go of my anxiety. It was a friendly group, and this kid Seth had even brought special goodies: magic mushrooms and all the fixin’s for cheeseburgers. Wanting to show off some good Southern manners, I brought along a bottle of Old Grand-Dad Bonded bourbon.
We’d arrived Friday night, so we awoke Saturday bright and early. The payoff of Big Sur at first light is amazing. But our eureka moment of sunshine and sea was short-lived. By noon the sky was a mess of dark clouds.
Pine ridges cut sharp curves against the swirling gray sky. We climbed higher…
This wasn’t a group to get discouraged at the prospect of rainfall. Seven of the eight campers grabbed small handfuls of caps and stems and chomped down the psychedelic fungi, using peanut butter to mask the flavor. Then we left on a seven-mile hike, knowing full well the consequences of our timing.
The hike was breathtaking. Pine ridges cut sharp curves against the swirling gray sky. We climbed higher into the mountains. The dim light made the whole scene look like a movie flashback. Everything was muted, as if the greens and yellows of the forest had been squeezed together, compressed into a narrow grayscale spectrum. Then a cool wind whipped in from the west, bearing the smell of rain. Finally we saw it. A huge dark blur moved across the valley — not quickly, but steadily. Then it drenched us.
Thing is, when you’re camping and buckets of rain show no sign of stopping, there isn’t much to do except continue the adventure. So we did. Everyone grabbed a few extra mushrooms and we set forth in search of the Big Sur River. I brought along the bottle of bourbon and stashed it inside a hollow tree, declaring that Old Grand-Dad would be our victory toast when we returned. We all agreed to meet at the bottle on the way back.
The rain just kept coming. Buckets and buckets. Sheets and sheets. My jeans and hiking boots got heavier and heavier with each passing minute. I looked at Angie and she was as soaked as I. Her hair was plastered to her face and neck. Her eyes looked so big, and she blinked them frantically as the rain wet her face. Her eyes were so big and so green. She shook her head and her hair whipped back and forth. She said something to me but I couldn’t hear her because the rain was so loud and her eyes were smiling and everyone was running to the river and I was running too and the trees were all leaning to the left and thunder cracked and each leap felt like a hundred yards.
Every few hundred feet the bank would become impassible and we’d have to ford the river, jumping from slick stone to slick stone.
We stood in front of the river shoulder to shoulder and caught our breath. I inhaled through my nose and traced each particle of oxygen as it shot through my sinuses, down my throat, and into my lungs. Angie grabbed my hand, hard. We breathed in unison. Then we turned right and headed upstream.
“We have to get to the falls,” Angie howled over the wind. She let go of my hand and accelerated to a trot. Four of the others followed us. The rest headed back to camp. Someone’s trip had gone the wrong way, and they needed to head back down the mountain.
With Angie leading us, we moved quickly against the current. Every few hundred feet the bank would become impassible and we’d have to ford the river, jumping from slick stone to slick stone. The rain was coming harder now. It wasn’t easy to see, and the river was swelling. Angie moved so fast that it was a struggle to keep up. More than once I’d skid across a stone as I landed, catching myself with a hand but totally submerging one of my boots. The frenzy of crossing the river had me panting. No one had spoken in what felt like four hours, and the only sound I could remember was the dual roar of the rain and the river.
“Angie wait! Wait a sec!” Sam shouted. “Stop!”
We stopped and waited for Sam to catch up. The other three were across the water, looking at Sam. He was heaving for breath.
“We have to stop, we’re too tired. We’re heading back. You want to come with?” he said. “You guys should come with.”
I can’t say if it was the sound of the water, an effect of the ‘shrooms, or simply the empty echo of so many minutes without human speech.
But we weren’t done. Angie and I shook our heads and wordlessly turned upstream.
We pushed on for another half mile and then came upon a stunning sight. A pile of fallen trees, at least twenty feet high, lay across the narrow river. It wasn’t a dam, though; the water still flowed beneath it. The black wood glistened in the rain, some trunks four feet in diameter. Without hesitation we climbed the pile.
As I stood twenty feet above the river, I could hear a ringing in my ears. I can’t say if it was the sound of the water, an effect of the ‘shrooms, or simply the empty echo of so many minutes without human speech. The world surged around me. I could only focus on one thing at a time, but each focal point became painfully important in that moment. When I focused on the fallen trees, my feet slipped a little. When I focused on Angie pressed into me, I could only see her eyes or watch her shoulders rise and fall with each breath. And when I focused on the forest in the background, the blurry mass of trees that would soon be just logs in the river, I panicked. I could barely see the forest. The sun had set while we perched on the giant broken bird’s nest.
“We have to go.” I shook Angie as I said it, and I couldn’t tell if I was whispering or screaming. “We have to go now, it’s almost dark.”
The climb down off the pile was far more treacherous than the climb up. Hampered motor skills, less light, and the creeping voice of doubt.
We were so wet it’s impossible to describe. As we started back downstream I could feel the chatter of my teeth everywhere in my body. The temperature was falling fast. I started to get a sickened knot in my stomach. I couldn’t stop the stream of terrible thoughts: What if we don’t make it back? What if she slips on a rock and hits her head? Could I carry her? Could she carry me? Will we even find the trail if we make it that far?
I started speaking aloud, saying things like, “We’re OK, we’re OK… A little further now, a little further now.” We came to a spot where a large boulder created a few feet of overhang and I dragged Angie under the makeshift shelter. She saw my face and immediately started talking at me.
“Hey, we’re OK, OK? Look, we’re going to make it. I know it’s dark, we’ll just be careful and we’ll make it back. Everyone will be waiting for us at the bottle of bourbon, we’ll find them there.”
Her words had the sentiment of a soldier talking to his doomed comrade in a foxhole in a World War II movie. But the more she talked, the less I felt certain I would die. She talked about cheeseburgers, hot melty cheeseburgers. And fire. Standing next to the fire and getting dry. Remember dry? “How many cheeseburgers will you eat? I mean, come on! Cheeseburgers and bourbon. That will warm you right up.”
The idea of all those warm, welcoming things turned the dread in my stomach into a fireball of happiness. All of a sudden I was a cackling fool, laughing like I’d never laughed in my life. Angie was laughing too, wheezing for air. The laughter built into a manic frenzy. I was just looking right at Angie and she was looking right at me, and we were both laughing. Her smile, her greenest green eyes, it all made me feel warm. My skin prickled. I squelched my toes around in my wet boots. I was still laughing, but I’d forgotten why.
Then I looked around. I was still under a rock, on the side of an overflowing river, in the pouring rain, at night. The laughs slowed and turned to deep, gasping breaths. Then without warning, a flood of tears overcame me as violently as the laughter had. I was shaking, sucking at the air and sputtering as I inhaled water through my nose.
Things were not OK. We did not know the way home. It was blackest night.