Los Padres National Forest is an enormous region, encompassing nearly 2 million acres and including no fewer than 10 wilderness areas. The wilderness I was heading into was the Sespe. It is home to Sespe Creek, one of the last free-flowing rivers in California. Due to its inaccessibility, it is home to a number of species that have been wiped out in the rest of the state. Not least among these is the California Condor. The California Grizzly managed to hold out in the area until 1905 which will give you some idea of the terrain.
It is above the north bank of Sespe Creek that one can see Piedra Blanca, a titanic line of fossilized sand dunes thrusting palely from the rising slopes. Their pallor is a stark contrast to the earth tones of the surrounding mountains. It is an otherworldly place especially early in the morning and evening when the formation turns ghostly in the pale light.
“According to local lore, Chumash Indians considered Piedra Blanca a spiritual place. Exactly what went on there beyond contemplation and stargazing is not known, but it is historical fact that the mountains in this area were the last stronghold of native sorcery and the last refuge of Indians escaping missionary influence.” (Jeff Meyers, Los Angeles Times, 1992)
It is also in this area that the missing defense attorney, Ronald Hughs, who represented the Manson family was found. His body was so badly decomposed, he could only be identified by dental records. A cause of death was never determined.
The plan was I’d drive up a day early to secure a campsite and my friend Jon would join me after work the following evening. We’d do some hiking, drink bourbon and explore a locale we hadn’t ventured into before.
Driving through Rose Valley, I turned right at the sign announcing Middle Lion campground and onto what was theoretically a paved road. In reality it was a rutted, potholed one lane spine of a thing that wound precipitously down to a grove of cottonwoods.
I pulled into the campground and noted to my relief that there were only two sites taken. It’s a tiny campground situated around an equally small cul-de-sac. At the far end was a beat up old pickup truck with canvas slung over the bed. A guy with long greasy blond hair was sitting in the passenger seat with the door open, two dirty pitbulls lounged in the dirt at his feet.
He stared at me as I assessed my site. It was not a sizing-up-the-newcomer stare; it was a steady, unrelenting thing. I ignored it and began setting up my tent.
The campsite itself was fantastic. A creek ran along the edge of it. The picnic table was located up a small rise about 50 feet from the tent area which was on the creek bank. Job done, I returned to my truck for gear. The guy hadn’t moved and was still staring.
Still. Whatever. Some people are socially awkward. I let it go and hefted my gear and headed back to the tent. The light was still good when I finished. No point in sitting around. I hopped back in the truck and hit the Piedra Blanca trailhead about a mile from camp.
I headed downslope toward Sespe Creek to explore. Thanks to heavy rains in the northern part of the state, the creek was full of water, a rare sight in these drought-ridden days. Deep pools of turquoise glistened under an old rope swing. I lingered for a time, taking pictures and content to bask in the silence.
Presently I heard voices coming down from the trail.
“Looks like we might have it all to ourselves!”
“Ah, no. There’s someone there….”
Two men and a woman came into view. The woman in her 50s shot me a once-over and said “I don’t care. I’m going in naked anyway!” And began shucking her clothes. The guys laughed and followed suit. Shortly afterward came a flash of white flesh that mirrored Piedra Blanca’s and a trio of splashes as they all leapt into the creek. I took that as my cue to head back to the campsite and see about dinner.
When I returned to the campground I discovered that the guy in the truck had moved his camp to the site next to me. I was now between the only two occupied sites. Ignoring a growing sense of disquiet, I started a fire and began to grill sausages and some peppers. I was rather proud that I had thought to bring a [rack you can close like a sandwich for grilling] and with food safely ensconced within, I held it over the fire. Everything began happily sizzling.
Just then my long-haired neighbor passed by. I noticed he had a pronounced limp, and three knives strung about his waist. He looked over at me, saw the apparatus on the fire and smirked. “Ooh, fancy cooking.”
I laughed awkwardly and wondered what he’d say if he knew I was drinking a wine from the Rhone Valley. The exchange was odd enough that I determined I had to make a connection with him before turning in for the night - for my own peace of mind. When he returned to his truck, I threw two sausages onto a plate and walked over.
“Hey, dude. I can’t eat all these. Wondered if you were hungry.”
He looked at me for a moment as one of his dogs padded over to see what was going on. “Sure,” he said. He didn’t take the plate, just the sausages. As he did so I observed that his hands were several shades darker than the rest of his arm there was so much dirt on them. Without another word, he climbed into his truck, sausages literally in hand.
I stood for a second at a bit of a loss and then returned to my camp, objective complete. Sort of. I guess.
The sun set, the light faded, the fire crackled merrily and I began to relax. I was reading when my neighbor passed by again, his dogs trailing him, dragging their leashes.
He entered the campsite on the other side of me and a second later laughter erupted. I could hear a little of what they were saying as they made no effort to keep their voices down. It was racist, misogynistic and crude. Well, hell. They know each other. All my relaxing came undone.
I poured another mug of wine and repositioned my chair so I could see both other campsites and resumed reading. Several minutes later, one of the dogs walked up to my fire. He circled around it, and walked over to me. I gave him a couple scratches around his ears. He must have appreciated it because the next thing he did was wrap his front legs around one of mine and began making sweet sweet love to it.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” I attempted to extricate myself. We tussled for a bit and I finally managed to get free of my amorous friend. Scooping up his leash, I led him to the laughter.
My neighbor and the resident of this campsite sat by the fire. The new fellow was lean and wiry, his skin the color of old leather. Looked as though he’d spent much of his life outdoors.
“Hey, your dog came for a visit. He’s pretty friendly. Well, really friendly.”
“Was he getting rapey again?” he grabbed the leash from me and jerked on it. “ZANGIEF! I told you to stop doing that! You fucker.”
The wiry guy motioned to a chair. “Join us, man.”
I reluctantly sat and we introduced ourselves. Long-haired neighbor was Patrick from Ventura, lean neighbor was Rick lately of Ojai, originally from Granada Hills. Rick divulged he was homeless and living out of his truck.
“Like whiskey?” Rick asked.
Patrick limped over to me with a shot glass. I gave it a sniff, then drank it.
“Yeah, man. Black Velvet.”
Rick began to regale me with stories of run-ins with the law, the guns he’d owned, how he’s not afraid of the cops. One time when he was in the backcountry, he stumbled onto an illegal grow op. Couple of Hispanic guys came out to “greet” him, armed. But Rick had an Uzi (so he said) and they stared each other down until everyone decided it was in their best interests not to have a firefight.
He told me about this neighbor who was abusing his girlfriend when Rick still lived in the valley. Called the cops any number of times but they never did anything. One night when a fight at their house spilled into the front yard, Rick stepped out into his, took a bead on the man with his .223 and dialed the police.
“That asshole is at it again,” he told them. “If you don’t come down here and deal with it, I will. Easier for me anyway - can just put a bullet in him. You don’t have that luxury. Your choice.”
He said the police showed up in record time. There ensued a standoff with them confronting him and Rick telling them it was his sovereign right to have a gun on his property and that they could fuck right off.
Patrick had been bringing me shots while this was going on. And, when the story concluded, the two of them lapsed into more joke-telling. Some of it, again, horribly racist. Actually, most of it. I resorted to shaking my head and saying weakly “Oh, that’s terrible.” and “Wow…” I didn’t want to piss them off - after all I was in the middle of nowhere with these guys but there was no way in hell I was going to laugh.
Patrick gestured to a pot on the fire. “I took your sausages and threw in vegetables if you want some.” Flashback to him grabbing them with his filthy hands.
“Pretty full from dinner still,” I told him.
“I’ll fix you a plate.” I eyed the pot with despair. The ‘stew’ was bubbling vigorously and I prayed the heat had killed off anything that may have been living in it.
He dumped a glob on a paper plate and handed it to me.
“Shit,” he said, staring into the pot. “Forgot my spoon.” He shrugged after a moment. “Oh well. Guess I’ll caveman it,” and plunged dirt-encrusted digits into the stew. Peas and gravy oozed between his fingers as he brought it to his mouth. His dogs moved in to lick up the droppings.
When he was done, he wiped his hands on his pants, poured himself a shot and quaffed it. He thrust one to Rick and then brought me the third.
This one had a weird texture to it. I must have made a face because Patrick grinned. “Did that taste fuzzy?”
Alarms went off in my head. “Yeah…. What the hell, dude?”
“There was a moth in it.” Both he and Rick cracked up.
“Nothing wrong with some extra protein,” I quipped, laughing now that I was fairly sure I hadn’t been drugged. Besides, what’s a good clean moth after Captain Dirty Hands’ Patented Stew?
Sufficiently lubricated with whiskey, I ventured a personal question as Patrick sat down awkwardly, his bum leg straight out before him.
“So - uh - what’s with the leg?”
Patrick rubbed his pants in response, took a moment to reply. “I used to have a motorcycle. Was passing a car around a corner and went over the double yellows. Car came around the opposite direction and the next thing I know I’m laying on my stomach in the road and my leg is over my head…”
“Yeah, man. It was crazy. The doctors basically fileted my leg. Totally badass. The surgery picture is my profile pic on Facebook. Couldn’t save it. Got fitted for this thing,” he pulled up his pants to reveal a prosthetic. “No more bikes for Patrick.”
“That’s heavy, man,” said Rick, leaning back and retrieving an empty beer can from the ground. “Time for something a little different.” He punched a hole in the side with a knife and began piling weed on it.
The last thing I wanted to do was get stoned with these guys. When the can was passed to me, I held it slightly away from my mouth and inhaled, then passed it to Patrick - it was dark enough no one noticed.
The boys resumed their banter and I was gazing into the fire when I caught a glimpse of movement out the corner of my eye. I looked over and there was a man sitting up in the bed of Rick’s truck. A man no one had bothered mentioning previously.
“Uh, you know there’s a guy in your truck, Rick?”
“Huh? Oh yeah. That’s Mike. He’s been drinking whiskey since 10 this morning.” As if on cue Mike, lifted a bottle to his mouth and I caught sight of a long, matted beard glistening in the firelight. Satisfied, he flopped back down into his previous position.
The conversation ranged all over and I continued accepting the occasional whiskey offered by Patrick. Soon the topic became about the life choices they regretted, which ran the gamut of petty crime, broken relationships and jail time. And me - ever the bridge builder - felt the need to chime in.
“Yeah,” I chuckled ruefully. “I majored in music and look at me now. I work for a dog food company. Woo hoo.” I shook my head, a little tipsy and momentarily oblivious to what I had just gotten myself into. Because there are inevitable questions when you confess to your particular discipline.
Patrick looked over. “What instrument did you play?”
Fuck. I’d just walked into a trap of my own devising. I took a moment because I knew where this would inevitably lead and I’d done it to my damn self.
“I didn’t. Well, a few … badly. I studied voice.”
Here it comes.
“You’re a singer? Daaamn!” Both their eyes fixated on me across the fire. “Well, sing something for us.”
Goddammit. I tried to demure. They were not having it.
So I took a deep breath and sang something I wrote years ago. When I stopped, both were silent. Patrick got up and walked over to me.
Oh shit, here we go. I rose, trying to figure out if I could make it to the truck before they got me.
Patrick stared me hard in the eyes, then wrapped his arms around me.
“That was something, man. You could really do something with that.”
Caught completely off guard, I mumbled thanks and something to the tune of I probably should, shouldn’t I? And sank back down.
Then, as if nothing had happened, Rick told a racist joke and Patrick burst into laughter. The banter regressed and I bade them good night and retreated to my tent, mind whirling, but pretty sure they weren’t going to murder me in my sleep. Which was my goal since I’d arrived at Middle Lion. So, success? At least Jon would be here tomorrow and I’d have back up.
I was the first up in the morning. Given that Patrick and Rick had visited and drank long after I’d retired, it wasn’t too much of a surprise. I was content to have a quiet breakfast and was sitting at the table enjoying my second cup of coffee when everyone began to stir.
Rick began striking camp. He caught my eye and waved me over.
“I have some hikes for you if you’re interested.” I said I was and he rattled off a list. While I was taking notes, Mike clambered out of the pick up truck, completely ignoring me and went to the table for food. He was a stocky guy in his fifties, bald headed with a long salt-and-pepper beard. He was shirtless and, when he turned toward the table, I saw the tattoo. His entire back was covered with a burning cross surrounded by hooded figures.
I swallowed. “Uh, you guys taking off?”
“Got a roofing job in Ojai,” Rick said, rolling the tent up. “I need cash money, man, or I’ll be out of smokes. And … other things. Mike is heading up to the Sierras - got some business there.”
“Mining claim up in the mountains.”
“Really? You panning for stuff or hardrocking it?”
“Panning.” It was the first word I’d heard Mike speak.
My curiosity and interest piqued despite my reservations. Before I thought it entirely through, I blurted, “I’m a photographer. I don’t think many people realize traditional methods are still used for finding gold. Be cool to document sometime. If you were willing, maybe I could come up and take some photos of the operation, discreetly, of course…” I trailed off under Mike’s unblinking stare.
Seconds passed. Seconds that felt like minutes. Then:
Patrick ambled in, trailed by Seven and Zangief, breaking the tension. Zangief was dragging his heavy rope leash again.
Rick tucked the last bag into his truck and turned to us. “Just enough time for one for the road, eh, boys?” He dug into a pocket and pulled out a one hitter and lit up. He inhaled deeply, closed his eyes, turned red and doubled over in a fit of coughing.
“Jesus Christ!” he gasped. “I forgot how hard this hits!”
He convulsed into another fit, snot streaming in ribbons out of his nose. He wiped it on the back of his arm and handed the pipe to Mike. Mike took it without comment, took a hit and offered it to me.
“Ah,” I stammered. “A little too early for me, thanks.”
Mike looked at me hard for a moment, then passed it to Patrick who accepted readily.
When the weed was smoked, Rick and Mike made their farewells and headed out.
The sound of the truck faded into the hills and I was left in a warm cocoon of silence. And Patrick.
“Well!” I said, rubbing my hands together, eager to finally have some alone time. “I think I might go for a hike, do some exploring.”
“Or,” said Patrick, deadpan. “We could play a game.”
My hands froze. “Uh, really? Oh, um, yeah? What … kind of game?”
“Well, cribbage, of course.”
That’s how Jon found us when he arrived several hours later. He got out of his car, raised his eyebrows and held up his hands. I surreptitiously shushed him.
After we made introductions, Jon began to set up his tent. Through gritted entreaties, I convinced him to leave it so I could show him the amazing view up at the trailhead. In the truck, I filled him in on the previous night.
“This should be interesting,” he mused.
We returned to the campground. Zangief lay nearby, destroying a branch as thick as my bicep. Seven lounged in the shade, panting. And Patrick? Patrick was patiently waiting for us.
Jon finished setting camp. We sank into chairs down by our tents next to the creek. Jon started reading and I pulled out my notebook. Patrick quickly grew bored and began throwing rocks at cairns previous campers had built in the creek. The sound of Zangief destroying the branch competed with the music of the water.
Jon looked up with patient annoyance as another rock clattered across river stones and plunked into the water. “Hey, Patrick, maybe we can just leave those up. They’re kind of cool.”
Patrick dropped the stone he was holding and shrugged. “I need a beer.” We had already cracked a couple of ice cold Modelos Jon had brought with him. He went to his campsite and Jon and I exchanged looks.
“I don’t know, dude…” I murmured.
“Yep. Super relaxing.”
“Want one?” Patrick had returned with three cans.
Damn. To refuse would be ingracious, to accept would make me feel indebted. But what you gonna do? I accepted. He handed the beer to me. It was warm.
“Why I only drink IPAs when I’m camping,” he said, delivering one to Jon. “They taste good even when they’re warm.” He sank down onto the ground, prosthetic stretched out in front of him. He began whittling with one of his several knives.
“You married, Patrick?” Jon asked, lowering his book.
“Nah. Girlfriend. She’s a photographer.”
“Any plans to get married? Start a family?”
Patrick’s face contorted. “Fuck no, man.” His voice fell and he murmured, “Why would I want to bring kids into a world like this?”
Jon and I looked at each other, both struck by the sudden melancholy in our companion.
“It can’t be that bad…”
He barked a laugh. “Parents got busted selling drugs. My brothers and my sister and me got put in foster care.” He didn’t look up as he carved away at the stick.
Jon’s face was full of empathy. “I’m sorry, Patrick. That’s tough.”
“At least we all got placed in the same home.”
“That is good. Must have been a cool family for that to happen.”
Patrick barked a laugh, head bowed over the stick. “Yeah, right. Me and my brother walked in on ‘dad’ jerking off to kiddie porn one night. He didn’t see us so we snuck out.”
I exhaled sharply.
“We talked about turning him in. But would probably be split up if we did. So we never said anything. At least we got to stay together…” I had the feeling he’d left a lot unsaid. Patrick took a swig of warm beer, held it up. “Not bad, huh?”
The conversation wandered aimlessly for a bit. Patrick told Jon about losing his leg, regaled us with tales of fights he and his brother had started with other people.
The afternoon waned and we started working on dinner. Jon produced a bottle of bourbon. We poured ourselves drinks and offered some to Patrick who held out a tin cup readily.
We ate. Patrick also. We had more than enough. He also took our initial offer of a drink as an open invitation and helped himself generously and often to the bottle.
The day concluded sitting around the fire. Patrick stayed with us the entire time and both Jon and I were growing weary of it - primarily because we hadn’t had any time to catch up since he’d arrived. But Patrick was not to be subtly dissuaded, so we hung out until turn in.
The next morning came bright and cloudless. We made breakfast and were sipping coffee when Patrick rejoined us. We cleaned up and set out for the trailhead, figuring rightly that Patrick would not be so inclined.
We wandered down to the stream, threading through the riparian band of orange-skinned manzanita bushes and towering pines. Sespe Creek’s pools glowed a deep blue. In the 1800s the region must have been a marvel of diversity. Golden beavers, grizzly bears, California condors, steelhead trout all formed crucial links in the ecosystem. The beavers and grizzlies reportedly held out in remote corners until the early 1900s. Sespe Creek is one of southern California’s last free flowing steelhead waterways.
The trail crossed the Sespe at a shallow point. The north banks butted up against the mountains and the omnipresent chaparral scrubland that is typical of southern California.
The trail, sinuous, undulated to the banks of the creek and away depending on the terrain. Eventually its curves brought us to a series of deep pools. The pools were preceded by laughter and splashing. We soon saw small groups of people scattered about the banks making full use of all that water. If you haven’t lived in Southern California, let me tell you seeing that much water wild-flowing is a remarkable experience and something to indeed be celebrated.
We lingered downstream where the people noise was minimal, enjoying the serene waters, knowing that returning to camp would mean returning to our new friend. When we could dodge it no longer, we turned back toward Piedra Blanca and Middle Lion, Patrick, Zangief and Seven. Home sweet camping home.
As we drove into the campground we noticed one other site was now occupied. A woman in her thirties was building a fire.
“I made sure no one screwed with your camp while you were gone,” Patrick told us, walking over.
We thanked him, a little mystified about who he’d been protecting it from. He plopped down at the table, picking at his dirty nails.
“One of the sites at the entrance is taken now,” I mentioned as we busied ourselves with dinner prep. “She looks pretty well set up.”
Patrick was suddenly paying close attention. “Was she alone?”
“Um,” I hesitated at the implications of the question. “I didn’t see anyone else.”
At that, Patrick twisted his body toward the entrance and roared, “RAPE PARTY!”
“Noooooo! Patrick why would you do that?” Jon gritted, staring in disbelief.
“Not okay, dude!”
“What? It was just a joke.”
“Pretty sure she wouldn’t think so.”
“Whatever. You guys want a beer?”
“We grabbed a couple already.”
We finished dinner and the beers. Patrick went to grab another from his stash and Jon took the opportunity to surreptitiously pour us some rye from a bottle he’d been hiding since the bourbon of the previous night had largely been the province of Patrick’s thirsty tin cup.
“Oh, booze!” Patrick had returned and noticed.
Jon sighed. “Want some?”
Patrick proffered his cup and Jon raised the bottle he’d hidden on the bench next to him.
Resigned to our fates, we settled in for the evening. Tomorrow we’d be heading home. As was his habit, Patrick dipped deeply into the rye and it was obvious he was feeling pretty good as evening fell. The campground had gradually filled up until all the sites were occupied. It took on a different tone - there were families and the comforting sounds and smells of dinner around fires.
In the lantern light, we shared stories of childhood - stupid stuff we’d done, scraps we’d gotten into, etc. Patrick made a comment about how he hadn’t been in many fistfights but he’d stuck his knife in a few people.
Jon and I stared at him.
“Whaaaa?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, taking a healthy swig of rye. “This one time I was smoking weed out on these railroad tracks by this dead dog.”
Jon laughed. “You have a thing for dead dogs or what?”
“No, man. It was dead. I felt sorry for it. It’s not weird; it’s sad. Anyway I was sitting by the dog and this older guy came out of the woods and walked over to me.
‘You wanna go for a walk?’ he asks.
‘What the fuck? No.’
‘Come on, man. Let’s go for a walk.’
‘It’s just a walk - what’s the big deal?’
And that’s when I figured it out. I knew what was going on. So I ask him.
‘What do you want?’
‘Just a walk.’
‘What do you really fucking want, motherfucker?’
‘I want you to suck my cock.’
Now I sit there for a minute, thinking about what I’m going to do when it occurs to me that there are younger kids out here and this guy’s a perv. If I don’t do something, he could hurt one of them. So I say,
‘What the hell. Let’s go.’
So he leads me into the woods and keeps walking. We get deeper and deeper in and then he turns around and starts unzipping his pants.
That’s when I punch him in the face. And when he begins to fight back, I pull out my knife and I cut his fucking throat.”
Stunned, I searched for anything to say. Finally I stammered, “D-d-did he live?”
Patrick scowled at me. “How the fuck would I know? I got the hell out of there.”
“There may have been a news report or an article about an attempted murder…” said Jon helpfully.
Patrick regarded us both from across the table, his eyes gleaming in the lantern light, lip curled. “Let me tell you something. A lot of shit goes down out here that no one ever hears about.”
By now my heart was racing and I was grappling with what to say or do when Jon yawned and stretched. “On that cheerful note,” he said. “I’m going to bed.” And left me alone at the table with Patrick.
I don’t remember what stilted small talk occurred after I felt I could make my own awkward good night but I cut it as short as I could.
I turned off the lantern and, as I was walking away, he called after me, “Fine. Go to sleep. But you’re singing for me again tomorrow.”
I looked back. He was sitting hunched at our table, watching me. I crawled into the tent, not bothering to change, fumbled for my hunting knife and the hammer I’d brought for tent stakes and lay there in the dark with one in each hand, waiting.
I knew if I heard footsteps coming down to the tents, I had to get out as quickly as possible and put up at least a token struggle.
And then it started.
Patrick was smashing his tin cup on the table, alone in the dark.
It went on for an eternity. Finally someone in one of the other sites got up to investigate. Their tent unzipping broke Patrick’s concentration.
The banging ceased. Then Patrick screamed into the night, “I HEAR MOVEMENT!!!!”
The campground went dead silent.
Bang. Bang. Bang. Over and over and over.
I don’t know how long it continued. It felt like forever as I lay there waiting for whatever was next.
Finally, it stopped. The sudden lack of noise was the auditory equivalent of falling off a cliff. I searched frantically for approaching sounds but could detect nothing. I must have drifted off because the next thing I saw were the shadows of leaves waving lazily above me in the morning light.
Jon was already up and we exchanged disbelieving looks as we broke down our tents.
We were lingering over breakfast, finally having enough space to sit and talk quietly, when Patrick staggered blearily into camp. He saw our tents were gone.
“You guys leaving?”
“Yeah, dude. Need to get back to LA.”
“Oh,” he was clearly searching for something to say. “I, uh, just wanted to let you guys know … I had a really good time this weekend.”