New Year, New Adventures: Two Days on the Sespe Creek Trail
Words and photos by Myke Bartholomew
Day 1 – The Walk.
Some thoughts in life can only be heard at the tempo of a walking stick. So when I was invited to join a New Year’s backpacking trip in the Sespe Wilderness, I couldn’t round up my gear fast enough. Right on the heels of a fresh engagement and just over the hill of the annual holiday commotion, I reveled in the possibility of calmly resetting my focus and basking in the upcoming changes on the calendar of life.
We loaded up our packs on the trailhead just north of Ojai shortly before 11am on the first day of the new year. There were five of us total. And though we were an hour passed our anticipated departure time, everyone was in relatively high spirits. Our destination was the Willet Hot Springs, approximately 10 miles East along the Sespe Creek Trail. The rain clouds that covered the area the day before had moved on, leaving us comfortably in the bright sunlight of the crisp January morning. Though the sun shine was abundant, the overall temperature was not at all above ideal for a long hike.
The first target on our stroll was Bear Creek Campground. Located just about halfway to Willet, we set this site as a good place to break for lunch. After estimating the time it would take to arrive, we were optimistic there’d still be plenty of daylight to set camp at the hot spring. Over the first miles, our motivation created lively conversation and myriad laughs. As with any shared goal, camaraderie quickly developed, leaving awkwardness and unfamiliarity at the car. We discussed the profound observations and ruminations that can only be flushed out by open space and a rocky trail. I found it interesting how walking through the wilderness somehow creates a comfort to share anything with no fear of judgement. As though our words lift well beyond ears and evaporate into an invisible cloak of nothingness, never to be received by any soul who exists outside those moments.
The early leg of our trip passed with mild consequence. Beside some moderately muddied sections on the path, little else slowed us down. We approached Bear Creek just before 1pm and packed down for lunch. After a brief rest, we loaded up and ventured back onto the trail.
Though the beginning portion of our walk was littered with talk at a steady pace, our conversation and traveling speeds fluctuated intermittently over the second half. Our later miles proved to be a little more challenging. Steep switchbacks wrapped through the hills, seeming relentless and infinite. Curving, climbing, and descending, the trail was quick to remind us of how taxing a walk can be when supplies and shelter are fastened tightly to one’s back. The task became even more demanding in areas where the thick, wet mud suctioned our boots below ground level. In the harder moments, I found myself recalling inventory of my pack and reevaluating my decision to bring each and every item. However, I knowingly prepared as lean as I could and pushed on with eager hopes of a hot water soak after we reached our destination.
As we climbed to each precipice, we’d pause and look out over the far-reaching hills for inspiration. “Seriously so beautiful” seemed to be a reoccurring mantra while we waited to catch our breath. The way the backdrop of pale blue sky collided peacefully with mile high mounds of tree-covered dirt reminded us of how small we actually are. Far off in the distance, snow clung tightly to the tops and crevices of rocks, trying adamantly to outstand the warmth that would reduce its composition to water, eventually sending it back to Sespe Creek. Even without discussion, there was no denying the effects the scenery had on our well-being. The positivity and uplift we felt in those moments of absorption reminded us why we were on the trip and recharged the desire to continue forward.
Eyeing the sun’s decent and considering the daylight lost once it slid behind the mountains in the west, we set a steady speed to reach Willet before dark. At around 430pm, we made our descent into the valley of cold stones and shadows laying beneath the hot spring. The large, open area was overrun with rogue plants and scattered rocks, none less than the size of a bowling ball. In our peripheral, we could hear the trickling of the creek reminding us that we needed to filter water before it got too dark. Once we decided on a spot flat enough to accommodate our tents, we packed down and began to unload. We found an accessible portion of the stream to fill our containers and worked together to pump water for our evening meals and morning coffee. Upon our return to camp, we wandered to our separate corners and erected our shelters with a quiet focus. Though it wasn’t mentioned out loud, I know the four of us felt the silent pride of carrying all we needed for 10 miles to be here on this very evening.
With the last breath of light giving way to darkness, we convened around our stoves to prepare our ramen dinners. Beams from headlamps and spoken words filled the space between us unanimously. The discussion of making the ascent up another switchback to the hot spring tub arose and we all decided to build a fire and wait till morning instead. So after our meal, we started a mild blaze and stood beside it’s warmth, sipping whiskey and learning more about one another.
It wasn’t long before the miles and Seagram’s crept up on me like a thousand-pound boulder and called me to bed. The first to retire, I shook everyone’s hand and retreated to my tent. As I climbed into my sleeping bag I rested my head with the anticipation of a well-deserved sleep. The final lights of the day faded to black while I lay warmly in my clothes, listening to the laughter of my friends by the fire.