I used to work on an organic farm in California, living in a barn full of horses and riding tractors through fields under the warmth of a gentle fall sun. I was a Beatnik then more than now – among hippies and flower children, believing everything I was told and digging all the world in some glorious young innocence.
I was obsessed with Kerouac and Ginsberg, and with the notion of wilderness. I read too much for my own good; my head full of dreams and naïve thoughts. I’d read Into the Wild, a lot of London and some Thoreau. I was obsessed with Big Sur and becoming free of the constraints of humanity. I loved the idea of the writer disappearing into nature.
When I came upon a bicycle one day I realized that I had the chance to disappear for a while. I told my boss at the farm that I was going to wander into the wild and he laughed and said “ok” and gave me fifty bucks to prevent me from starving.
I cycled up the coast and into that vague and indefinable place – the greatest meeting of land and water. Immediately I began redefining my idea of “awesome”. Everything I’d previously been impressed by just died as I saw the earth crashing into the sea. Green mountains of redwood on one side of me, shooting towards the sky; the bluest waters ripping into the cliffs way below, and a tiny insignificant road winding along it. Cars and motorbikes cruised up and down the highway at remarkably slow speeds, as drivers became too entranced by their surroundings to watch the road as it wound around the scenery.
When I reached a campsite I turned and paid for a night, and then set up my tent at the furthest site from the road. It was night by this point, and I made a fire and sat listening to the sounds of the forest. I imagined the bears and cougars, the condors and deer; just beyond the camp limits lay the wilderness.
In the morning I rose and set off for nothingness. I chained and hid my bike in a bush and wandered into the great unknown. I imagined disappearing for weeks on end, living off my wits and nothing more. Fuck the fifty bucks!
The first thing I wanted to do was climb a giant mountain. I found one nearby, and took off without planning a thing. I didn’t know when I’d be back. If I found a place to do it, I’d stay in the wilderness, and if not I’d find my way back to the campsite and stay there.
It took me eight hours to climb that glorious mountain. From the bottom it looked small and unassuming, yet every time the trail cut back on itself the peak rose, shifted or vanished and another appeared. It was like a cruel illusion as I spent eight hours climbing towards something I wasn’t even sure was there.
Soon the clouds were below me and the blue of the sea merged with the blue of the sky and I couldn’t tell where the Pacific met the coast and either met the sky… It all blended together into an indescribably pleasant watercolour-like scene.
It was silent up there without people or cars. The wind moved the trees but they didn’t say much. I could hear what sounded like a stream but it was coming from about a mile down and must have been a ferocious river to have carried its sound so far.
Part of me wanted to stumble upon a bear just for an adventure. I was a stupid kid and such things ran through my head without any real concern. I’d probably have died laughing if it happened, just imagining all my friends back home getting the news that after all my dumb wilderness-kick obsessions I’d gone and gotten eaten by a bear…
I found a beehive dug up and big paw prints in the dirt and suddenly the prospect of a bear didn’t seem so amusing. I walked faster, realizing that at eight hours up I’d probably be walking down in the dark and the trail wasn’t much more than a goddamn deer track along drops of incalculable height.
I saw a big green snake shoot across the path at one point and I chased after it, wanting to have a better visual than the blur of green I’d seen shooting across the brown dirt, but I couldn’t find it and in hindsight that was probably for the best.
The only animal to sink its bastard teeth into me was a tick. Imagine that… Bears, cougars, snakes, spiders… All the dangerous things in the woods and I get bit by a wretched little tick. I was paranoid and checked my skin every hour, and one hour I found a little black bastard leeching off my leg, so I took my lighter and my knife, burned the blade as hot as it could go, and dug the fucker out. I still have a hole in my leg to remind me.
When I finally reached the top I was more exhausted than I’d ever been in my life, yet when it came into sight I simply ran flat out for the top. I charged up the rocky slope and tried to jump onto the biggest stone on the mountain. The peak of the mountain was way above any other surrounding peak, but I wanted to stand on the top of the top.
There was, however, another visitor. Sitting atop the final stone – that last step in my long accent to the achievement of a lifetime – was my greatest fear, a spider. Not just any spider, but a giant black tarantula sat there, staring back at me and refusing to move.
“Please,” I begged it. “Relinquish your stone for one second!”
He would not budge, and I came to accept my limitations, and walked back down the mountain in the dark. After half an hour the driving rain began, and lightning illuminated the true peak for most of my journey back to camp.