Amy Hollingsworth, The Descent
I’m not the kind of guy who likes to go on long hikes because I’m just not the kind of guy who likes to be in pain. And trust me, those exist. You know, those guys who go to the gym and lift weights until they scream. Or those guys who give up hamburgers because their girlfriends said red meat is bad.
Except, apparently I am one of those guys, since here I am trekking with my buddies to the top of Santiago Peak in the dry, windy, February air. “Why do you even own a truck?” my girlfriend whined a few days ago. “All you ever do is drive to get a burrito when you’re stoned. Katie’s boyfriend has a truck, and he drives to the foothills and goes hiking all the time.”
She never would have shut up about it. What choice did I have?
The hike wasn’t bad at first. It wasn’t flat or anything, but it pretty much just felt like walking, and I can handle that. But my lungs started burning once we left the shady oaks and had to zigzag relentlessly along some grueling switchbacks. And my arms burned redder by the second as they were blasted underneath the obnoxious sun.
“Hey. The Santa Ana Mountains.” Halfway up the switchbacks, Mark had pointed behind us at a bunch of peaks and hills. Maybe if my chest hadn’t felt like I had a big vitamin lodged in there, I would have responded, “So what?”
Even when the slope became more gradual after the switchbacks, I could still barely catch my breath. And then my knees started to hurt. First it was just my left one, but then it was both. My head and stomach even started hurting like they do when I’ve played Assassin’s Creed for too many hours and I’ve forgotten to eat and pee.
Now, as we hurl ourselves upward off the fire road past the green-and-white sign that says “Upper Holy Jim Trail,” I realize that everything hurts. I can’t wait to be done with this so I can smile smugly in my girlfriend’s face and tell her that she’s the lazy one.
I’m in more awe of myself for choosing to climb up a goddamn mountain than I am of the beautiful mountain itself. You know, the tall oaks, the cozy cabins we saw on the first mile, the trickling streams, the expansive view, the blue sky. Apparently, once we get to the top, we’ll even be able to see clear out to Catalina Island. So it’s all great, I guess, but I’m struggling so hard to breathe in air and avoid sucking marble-sized gnats down my throat that I just can’t seem to notice how great it all is. A Ken Burns documentary on Netflix or Amazon Prime would be just fine for me.
Once, on a vacation, when I was ten, my father drove my family and me ten miles out of the way to see a rock in the shape of a sombrero. My sister and I just wanted to get to the motel pool. My mom was so anxious to get to the mini-bar that she was practically drooling all over her inflatable travel pillow. But we weren’t the ones driving, so my dad got his way.
Sure enough, that’s what the rock looked like: a bulging, lopsided sombrero with flecks of fool’s gold embedded in it. We all got out of the car and marched around the rock. My dad took some pictures and grinned. The rest of us all said, “Neat,” before scrambling back into the car. If we had been honest, we would have said, “Ten miles out of the way for this? Are you kidding me? And now we have to drive ten miles back just to get to the highway?”
So how is it that I grew up to be the kind of guy going on a sixteen-mile hike? Eight brutal miles up. Eight shin-splinting miles down the same exact path. (“Look, I didn’t say you had to climb the highest mountain in Orange County,” my girlfriend had said when I told her I was doing Santiago. “Why don’t you go to Laguna instead? Do some beach hiking. You can’t just go from being a lazy jerk to some pro-hiker.”) Well, that sealed the deal right there.
Anyway, seems like when I was ten, I used to know what I was about. I didn’t do dumb stuff unless my dad forced me to. Hockey lessons, for instance. Now I just say yes to stuff because it’s better than sitting at home. Well, I guess it is anyway. I try not to remind myself there are a lot of shows I could be watching right now. A lot of video games I could be playing, instead of shredding my calves on this new set of vicious switchbacks, steeper and more exposed than the first.
When a bicyclist whizzes past us coming down, his thick tires hugging the bumpy terrain, I admit out loud to my buddies that that’s impressive (I’ve seen something like it on a video game). Mark nods in agreement. Then Dylan goes into a story about his cousin who was riding a bike and got hit by a drunk driver and had to have leg surgery.
“The desert is flat,” I interrupt. “What if next time, we hike in the desert?” Because we all know, unfortunately, that there will be a next time. Because we’ve set this stupid precedent. We told people we were doing Santiago. They’ll expect more from us. We’re hikers now, like it or not.
“What about the sand dunes in the desert?” asks Mark. “They’re not flat.”
“We’ll stay away from the sand dunes,” I say.
“What about the sun?” asks Dylan. “It might be too hot in the desert.”
“Well, it’s hot here, too,” I say. “And anything is better than uphill.”
“Sounds good to me,” says Mark. “Because this really sucks.”
Dylan and I nod in agreement.
As he’s rounding a switchback, Mark looks down to start searching his backpack for his sunglasses. He trips over a small rock and slips off the right side of the trail. He tumbles over the side of the mountain, down into the steep and endless ravine.
I hear plants rustling for a second. Somewhere in the trees behind us, a wren bubbles out a song. Then: silence.
We step carefully to the edge of the switchback.
“Mark!” shouts Dylan.
“Hey,” I call.
Mark doesn’t respond. Dylan and I look over the edge. No Mark. We stare stupidly at each other for a good five minutes. A young couple walks by. They’re both wearing thin flannel shirts, skinny jeans, and new-looking boots. They look sweaty and upset --- like they hate this mountain as much as I do. The guy’s got a thick, hipster ’stache. The girl is munching on a giant submarine sandwich, cold cuts and shredded lettuce flopping out the sides. Creamy avocado seeps out one of the ends. All of my snacks --- my protein bar and my beef jerky --- just went down the side of the mountain with Mark. My stomach rumbles at the thought of it, but at least I still have my water.
The couple doesn’t acknowledge us right away. They take a selfie first. Then the guy gives us a nod.
“Howdy,” he says.
“Help us,” says Dylan.
“What’s the matter?” asks the guy.
Dylan gestures. “Our friend just took a dive. A serious dive.”
The girl stops chewing and lets her gaze fall to the corner edge of the switchback. Right where Mark went over.
“Seriously?” asks the guy.
Dylan nods. “No joke.”
The girl resumes chewing and swallows. “Were you, like, close with him?”
“I worked with him,” I say. “Nearby cubicles.”
She takes another bite, ripping into the Italian bread with her glossy white teeth. She’s blond and pretty enough to be an actress. Like every girl in Orange County, so who cares? Plus, I guess I’ve got other things on my mind right now than hot girls. And maybe her legs aren’t that great anyway.
Her boyfriend moves closer to the edge and squats, looking down. He brings the hose attached to his REI backpack to his mouth and inhales some water. He wipes his mouth. “Can’t see him at all.”
“He didn’t even scream,” offers Dylan.
The girl joins her boyfriend, squatting next to him. “So…” she begins. She looks over her shoulder at me. I can see mustard and avocado clinging to her upper lip, like Exorcist vomit. “What are you going to, like...do?” she asks.
I think for a second.
Then a sense of relief washes over me. I almost smile. “It seems wrong to finish the hike now. You know. In poor taste. We’ll probably turn around.” I look to Dylan. He nods in agreement. The couple nods, too.
“We should all head down,” the guy says. “Get some help, you know?”
“Our phones probably don’t work up here,” I say. “Otherwise, we could call someone.” We all nod in agreement. None of us check our phones to be sure they don’t work, even though the guy still has his in his hand from taking a selfie.
“Don’t let us stop you from making the ascent,” says Dylan. “This is our problem, not yours.”
The guy waves his hand. “No way. We’re in this together now.” His girlfriend nods. They take one more selfie and then ask if they can take a picture of Dylan and me. We say sure. The guy tells us his Instagram name. He mentions he’s in a band.
Single file, we all start heading down the mountain. Dylan says we probably must have made it to about the six-mile point of the trail. And if that’s true, it means six more miles down. Which isn’t great. My knees swell just thinking of it. But twelve miles round-trip is for sure better than sixteen.