River People

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

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Going into Sykes in Big Sur was always fun. I tried to capture a trip here. This story follows "The Poet's Club" and you might read that first to get some background.

River People

It was a slow Friday night in Santa Barbara and Molly relished the thought of not having to be anywhere or do anything. She was free for almost a week. It was the forth of July weekend, and Molly didn't have to be back at work until next Thursday, a gift arising from the forth falling on a Wednesday. Feeling especially languid, she had purchased a bottle of Wild Turkey on the way home from work and now, sipping a tumbler full, drifted into a Zen like state of laziness. She would make plans tomorrow. Tonight, she would enjoy the glass of Wild Turkey and then sleep.

Jane had gone down to the valley to visit her parents for the week. She had ridden down on her Honda and Molly suddenly realized that she was probably going to beg for money. Riding South into the Valley, on the five lane Highway 101, on a 750cc motorcycle, was anything but fun. You only did it if you had to make the trip on three dollars. The gas money. Otherwise you took the bus or rented a car. Molly felt a stab of guilt as she realized that she should have offered to drive Jane. But then she too would be stuck in Van Nuys tonight. Or else fighting impossible traffic to get back.

Jane had been laid off from her shitty temp job out at Delco last Wednesday, but Molly hadn't expected her to be this broke so soon. Didn't she get a couple of weeks pay along with the kick in the ass? Molly hoped so, and made a note to ask about this.

She heard someone on the tiny common wooden porch of the duplex. Nell's face resolved itself out of the darkness and pressed itself up against the screen. It hung there amid all the bugs attracted by the living room light.

“Can I come in?” Nell asked. She then opened the screen door and entered without waiting for an answer.

“Pete's home”, said Molly. “He's next door now.”

“I came to see you”, said Nell. “Fuck Pete. I don't want to see that over grown punk.”

“Cool!” Said Pete through the thin walls of the duplex.

“Do you want to go get a drink?” Asked Nell. “I need to get out. I feel stuff closing in.”

“No”, Molly answered. Santa Barbara didn't have much of a bar scene in those days. Maggie McFly's with the four or five horny drunks lounging around, The Office, a bar packed with hard core drunks, half of them one step away from the sleeping on beach, and the other half actually sleeping on the beach, and an Irish Pub down the street, which Molly couldn't afford.

“Here, I have a bottle of Wild Turkey. Let's start there.” Molly suggested. Nell nodded.

Molly went to the kitchen and got the bottle and an extra glass. As she returned to the living room, Pete pushed through the screen door with a whiskey tumbler in his hand. He held the tumbler out to Molly and she filled it. He then nodded at Molly and left, wordlessly going back to his side of the duplex.

“Pete's such a dickwad”, said Nell, a little louder than necessary.

“You two have a fight?”

“No, I just figured out what a selfish bastard he was.”

“She was slobbering drunk when she did it.” Said Pete through the wall.

“Fuck you, Pete. I'm talking to my friends. My real friends.”

Nell waited. Hoping that Pete would take the bait. He didn't. And after a few moments Nell sighed and focused on the Whiskey.

“I don't know why I go on with this”, Nell began, but she was interrupted by the sound of a van pulling up and turned to the screen door.

“Come on, let's go”, said a voice both recognized as Martin.

“Oh, fuck you dick brain”, said his girlfriend Annie. We heard footsteps coming up the walk. Martin had his hand on the back of Annie's neck and guided her up the stairs. He gave two knocks on each of our doors.

Peering into Molly's half of the duplex he asked, “Can Annie stay here for a while? She needs to calm down.”

“Go to Hell”, said Annie, half turning her head.

“I guess”, Molly said.

“Good”, said Martin, half shoving Annie through the screen door and leaving.

Once inside the duplex, and with Martin gone, Annie changed. Her face lit up and her eyes kind of looked off in different directions. She was pretty, with curly brown hair and a nice figure, well dressed in a really nice long skirt and some sort of flowered top. But Molly knew the look, she was crazy loaded.

“How you guys doing”, she asked with a big grin on her face. She carried a huge purse, the sort of thing that you carried a picnic to the beach in, and she began digging in it with one hand, much as a dog might dig in the garden. She extracted three tall cans of Bud and offered them around.

“No thanks, we've got whiskey”, Nell said.

“Oh my god! whiskey?” Annie asked.

“Don't give her any”, said Pete through the wall.

If Pete had said, “Don't jump off the roof”, Nell would have instantly been outside looking for a ladder.

“Here Annie”, Nell said, a little louder than necessary. Pouring a generous shot into a small vase that Molly had bought on a whim at the thrift store that week.

“Annie, want to come over and clean my house?” Said Pete through the wall.

“Sure!” Annie replied. She rose, exited Molly's half of the duplex and joined Pete on the other side of the wall. A couple of minutes later a vacuum cleaner started and Annie began singing lustily.

While this was going on, Pete came in carrying a USGS map. He spread it on the floor in front of the two women on the futon and asked, “You guys want to hike into Sykes hot spring tomorrow?”

“No”, said Nell.

“Is that where that guy is stealing food out of people's back packs?” Molly asked.

“What?” Nell asked.

“There's some guy living back there”, said Pete. “Been there for a year or so. He eats by stealing food out of people's packs.”

“Sounds scary”, said Molly.

“Yeah”, Nell added.

“Nah”, said Pete. “He never bothers anyone. And a lot of people leave food out for him. And he leaves them deer antlers and stuff like that in return.”

“It's just a campground?” Asked molly.

“No, it's a really nice part of the river you can swim in and a hot spring that you wouldn't believe.”

“How far in is it?” Molly asked.

“Really far”, said Nell. “It's a hot, dusty hike that goes on forever.”

“About ten miles”, said Pete. “It's really worth it.”

“So how do we do it?” Molly asked. “It's four hours to Big Sur. Can we make it in by nightfall?”

“Probably”, said Pete. “But there's camp grounds along the way if we don't. Terrace Creek and Barrow Flat. But we don't want to stay there unless we have to. We want to get to the springs.”

Nell interjected: “Yeah, Pete's such a man. He can't just relax on a trip. He's gotta push through and get there.”

Pete ignored her.

“I'm game”, Molly said.

“Yeah, I guess I am too”, said Nell.

Annie shut off the vacuum, entered the duplex and asked for another glass of Wild Turkey. She then returned to Pete's place to wash the dishes. Booze had a weird effect on her. While most people went to sleep when they got massively drunk, she got bright and perky with boundless energy that needed to be burned off. The three could hear the water running in Pete's place and Annie had resumed her singing.

There was a knock at the door and Martin came it.

“Annie's next door”, said Pete.

“Thanks”, said Martin.

We heard Martin through the wall, “Let's go”.

“No, I'm not done.”

“Mark and Gina said they need you.”

“They did?”

“Yeah, let's go.”

Annie stuck her head through the screen door and said, “Bye you guys!”.

Out on the porch Martin said, “Thanks guys”.

“Shall we meet here at 9:00?” Pete asked.

“Yeah, that's fine”, Molly replied. “We taking your car?”

Nell slept on Molly's floor that night and they both rose about 7:00 the next morning. Nell went home to pick up her stuff and Molly set about getting her gear in order. She did this by laying everything out on the living room floor, in a certain order, so she could then see what she was forgetting. Flashlight, mess kit, canteen, plastic tarp, toilet paper, matches, paper towels, clothing, instant coffee, Swiss army knife, plastic cup, sleeping bag, insolite pad, etc. She than began stuffing her pack. She sat it on the porch and went to get cleaned up for the trip.

When she returned, Pete had put the pack in his trunk and was sitting on the porch drinking coffee. Molly joined him. It was one of those cool, sunny Santa Barbara mornings with dew still in the shady spots of the grass. The old part of Santa Barbara, where the duplex was located, was overgrown with exotic plants and flowers. And the two could smell them on the light ocean breeze.

“Nell's going to be an hour late”, said Pete.

“How do you know?”

“Because she knows I want to leave at 9:00 and she's pissed.”

And, just as predicted, Nell pulled up just before 10:00. “I had to stop and get cigarettes”, she explained.

“Where? Ventura?” Pete asked.

“Pete, it's too early for you to start being a dick.”

Pete got Nell's pack in the trunk and we all got in the car. Pete started the car and then just sat there.

After a few minutes in the hot car Nell asked, “Why are we just sitting here?”.

“Car has to warm up.”

“Pete, it's hot! Let's move!”

Molly was sitting in back and she opened the door to let in more air. After about five minutes Pete figured that Nell had been sufficiently tortured and they pulled out.

We stopped at the Morro Bay Albertson's for food because they sold those little single serving plastic packets of mayonnaise and mustard by the pound. Great for camping. Next stop was the liquor store.

“We might be in for for four nights, I'd say we all get a fifth”, said Pete.

“Give me that fifth of Kentucky Deluxe”, Molly said to the clerk at the counter.

Pete wrinkled his nose.

“It comes in a plastic bottle. That's a lot lighter and I can burn it. Not carry it out.”

Pete shook his head and ordered a fifth of Jack Daniels.

“KD is cheaper too”, Molly said.

“I figured that was part of it”, Pete replied.

“Aren't you going to get anything?” Molly asked Nell.

“No, I'm going to detox. Clean out my system on this hike.”

“Give me another fifth of the Kentucky Deluxe”, Molly told the counter guy.

With all the screwing around they didn't get to Big Sur station until 4:00 that afternoon. They got their permit, got a campsite in Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground and headed out to the River Inn for dinner. After dinner, and several pitchers of beer, the three returned and “Threw Down”. Their term or art for spreading their ground cloths, foam pads and sleeping bags but not bothering to set up a tent.

In the morning, Molly and Nell disrobed and got into the Big Sur River to clean up. Pete stood on the bank.

“Why don't you come in?” Asked Molly.

“No public nudity here”, Pete replied.

“No pot allowed either. But hey!”

“I got busted way up in the Sierras. Took a bath in a little pool and a ranger busted me. First tried to write me up for lewd conduct, but when he cooled down he ticketed me for public nudity. Lewd conduct would have made me a sex offender.”

Molly and Nell believed the story, they'd heard of prick rangers, but those types were rare and the two weren't that worried. Must have made a big impression on Pete though.

The first leg of the hike was a four and one half mile climb through the chaparral to Ventana Camp. Spectacular views of the coast were often visible here. Stuff you normally only see in movies. There were many small wildflowers and Molly and Nell decorated their hair with them, which gave them a very hippie look.

After this, the hike was up a canyon on a trail well above the river. Kind of hot and dry and often a bit boring.

“I told you this hike sucked”, Nell said to Molly, loud enough for Pete to hear.

They descended to Barlow Flats and then crossed over a last ridge to the Sykes turn off. They descended to the river and claimed a riverside campsite. A reward for being early. Hot, tired and dusty, Molly stripped and jumped into a nearby pool in the river. Pete and Nell followed.

Pete and Molly then initiated the tried and proven cure for sore hiking muscles, a few shots of whiskey and a long rest on a warm, flat rock in the middle of the river.”

Nell waded waist deep in the water towards Pete's rock. The water was crystal clear and the bottom made up of small, smooth flat stones. The water cool but not the biting cold of a higher mountain stream.

She said, “Pete, a shot of that whiskey would be wonderful”.

“No, you were going to detox and not drink.”

Nell didn't want to argue and instead waded up to Molly, “Did you hear? Pete's being a total prick again. Could I have a shot of your KD?”

“Look in the top of my pack. There's a fresh bottle on top there and I'll sell it to you.”

“I don't want a whole bottle, I just want a shot. I really do want to detox.”

“One!”, said Molly, holding the bottle out to Nell with her left hand and holding one finger on her right up in front of Nell's nose. “Just one, and if you want more you buy that bottle.”

Nell took the bottle, took a shot and then bought the bottle in Molly's pack about ten minutes later.

This was before Giardia became a problem and one could still drink from the river without fear. Molly and the rest enjoyed watching their pee turn from almost clear to a deep, dark yellow as they drank the mineral laden water.

The three were good at finding wood and, even though Sykes was popular, and well picked over, they soon gathered enough to cook with. They had requested a pack of frozen stew meat from a clerk at the Morro Bay Alberson's and he had got them one out of the back. Wrapped in a large towel for insulation, it was still fresh and cool after the long hike. They also had cherry tomatoes, bell peppers, onion and large mushrooms. And a bottle of Italian dressing for marinade.

“Shish Kabobs!”, said Nell as she began cutting and peeling small waters sprouts to use for skewers.

Pete and Molly built a rack where the skewers could span the fire and then built a fire in the middle. Over the following days it would be dried food with a few cans, but tonight they would eat well.

“Oh, that smells wonderful”, Nell said, as the marinated kabobs roasted over the coals.

As they cooked, they could see a steady stream of hikers arriving and heading for campsites further in from the river. The trail was about 20 yards from their camp. They were grateful for their early start that gave them their prime spot by the water.

A lone hiker suddenly emerged from the trees. A rarity, as most groups consisted of two couples with a dog on a leash. A good old fashioned hippie from the looks of the guy. Long, curly blond hair, hemp pants tied with a sash instead of a belt, and some kind of rough woven shirt. He turned off the trail and approached the fire pit.

“Any of you know the time?” He asked.

“Yeah, it's 5:40”, said Nell, glancing at her watch.

“Thanks. My watch is dead and I never thought it would bug me not knowing the time, but it does. Weird thing out here.”

“Hey, that's why I come here, to forget about the time”, said Pete. “You in here by yourself?”

“Yeah, on a long stay. Got laid off up in Daly City and thought I'd spend a month or so here before going back up and dealing with it. Trying to cover all the major trails.”

Pete was interested, this had always been a dream of his. “How long have you been in?”

“Four weeks now. Plan to stay two or three more. Then go home and file for my unemployment.”

“Want a drink?” Asked Nell.

“Sure, I'd love one.”

Nell poured some whiskey into her tin cup and handed it to the guy. “What's your name?”


“You hungry?” Molly asked. We have plenty.

“You know, to be honest. I smelled your stuff and that's the real reason I came over. Haven't eaten all day. Been hiking off the ridge. And all I have left are some nuts and oatmeal.” He followed this with a big, self conscious grin.

So Molly and Nell made up a few more kabobs for seconds and everyone began to eat. After dinner, Nation tried to pay back the favor by sharing some pretty good pot he had.

The sun was going down and making long, cool shadows. Pete said, “It's about hot spring time”.

“Agreed”, said Nation. “But if I'm not too stiff to stand up, might have to sit here for the night.” With a loud, “Aaaaagh”, he then rose to his feet. The others stood as well and the packs were covered with a plastic tarp, as coastal fog and drizzle could be expected as the night came on.

The hot springs were about two hundred yards downstream from the camp, mostly along a well defined trail by the river. But about thirty yards prior to the springs was a deep pool up against a bluff. This was skirted on an eight inch wide section of soggy dirt at the bottom of a vertical bluff. Here, the group walked sideways with their backs against the bluff. It was still just light enough to see fish in the four foot deep pool.

There were two pools to the hot springs. The “cool pool” by the river and the “hot pool” about thirty feet up the bluff. The hot pool fed the cool pool with a small waterfall. Well made stone embankments surrounded both the hot and cool pools and the upper hot pool was covered by a fallen giant redwood that formed a roof over it. It was generally believed that Grace Slick was singing about Sykes when she sang, “Sulfur springs make my body float, like a ship made of logs from a tree”, in the song “Eskimo Blue Day”.

The four stripped and entered the cool pool by the river. Ten other hikers were there trying to loosen up after the ten mile hike. Introductions were made and a bottle of wine was passed around. Molly was worried about germs on the mouth of the wine bottle while everyone, including her, unknowingly caught a case of Chlamydia from the mineral laden, body temperature water. Five days of Antibuse. with no drinking, would be required to cure the venereal disease. The cool pool had caused many misunderstandings that had ended more than a few relationships.

It was a very congenial and well mannered group, bearing out the maxim that pervs don't hike. There were nude beaches in Santa Barbara that could be driven to and these were absolutely gross. Perverts hovering everywhere. But once you got more than a mile in, things became civil.

Dusk came on and there was talk about moving to the hot pool above.

“Are there candles?” Asked Pete.

“There were none in there this afternoon”, someone said.

“We have a few”, said Nell, “Here, I'll get them.” She arose, dried off, got dressed and started down the path.

Pete counted off several seconds and then said to everyone in the pool, “Watch Nell fall in the river”.

This was immediately followed by a loud, “Sploosh!” and a cry of , “Fuck you Pete”, from Nell.

Everyone laughed. They all knew they were being assholes and that made it even more funny, and harder not to laugh.

A soaking wet Nell returned a few minutes later with the candles. She glared at Pete.

The group moved to the upper hot pool and the candles were set around the edge and lit. The coast fog came in and a misty rain began. But it was cozy in the hot water under the giant log. Nell, Molly, Nation and Pete found places to wedge their heads in the rocks and floated high in the mineral laden water. They spent the night this way.

They woke at gray dawn. A weird species of mouse was everywhere around the pool. They hopped about and looked like miniature kangaroos. Molly watched one a few feet from her head as it sat up on it's hind legs and starred back at her. She wished she had some food to toss to it.

They returned to the camp for a small fire and instant coffee to chase away the night chill. Nation had worked with assembly language and talked with Pete about processors, memory and other stuff that bored Molly. Pete and Molly were systems engineers, but Pete hoped to get into control systems before he left the profession. Molly just hoped to get out of engineering as soon as possible.

About one, when the sun was just getting hot, Nell, Nation, Molly and Pete joined a large group of maybe twenty people in a rocky area of the river. Again, the water was clear, the bottom was smooth gravel and the rocks rising from the water were warm in the sun. The crowd sat on the rocks, passed bottles around, smoked pot and talked.

A perfect afternoon Molly was thinking, just as four sheriffs emerged from the brush. It was definitely an “OMG!” moment for the group. They had felt themselves isolated in the middle of the forest. Pot, papers and pipes were discretely dropped into the running water. But being naked was a problem. Something you couldn't just hop up and fix when your clothes were a hundred yards away.

“Oh my God, I'm going to have to register as a sex offender”, thought Molly.

“You!”, said one of the sheriffs. Pointing at Nation, who sat on a rock at the edge of the river

“Get up!”

Two cops had appeared on the other side of the river to block Nation's escape.

Nation stood up and looked confused.

“Come over here”, said the cop.

Nation complied and two cops spun him around and handcuffed him.

“What are you doing to him?” Asked Nell

“He's been living back hear and stealing food from people for a long time”, said one of the cops.

“Yeah, for at least a year or so”, said another.

The cops read Nation his Miranda rights just like they did on TV, and then sat him on a large rock. Nation, naked and handcuffed, looked very forlorn.

A cop spoke into a radio on his belt. “We got him. About a hundred feet upstream from the springs. We're on the river trail.”

The same cop turned to Nation and asked, “Where's your stuff?”.

“It's at our camp”, Nell interrupted. “I can get it.”

“Go ahead”, said one of the cops.

Nell, barefooted and naked made her way back to the campsite as quickly as she could. She tore open Nation's pack and pulled the pot out of the top. She threw this into the bushes. She then dumped the pack and began sorting through the stuff as she repacked it. A cop came out of the bushes and watched.

“Just getting it packed”, said Nell.

“Uh huh”, said the cop. “Yup”, he added which somehow conveyed that he wasn't fooled. Nell handed the pack to the officer. He left with it and she quickly got dressed.

Back at the river five horses arrived. “What are they for?” Someone asked.

“He's under arrest. We have to pack him out. We can't make him hike when he's under arrest.” One of the officers replied.

Most of the crowd was dressed by this time. The cops were only after Nation and they didn't stop anyone from going back to get their clothes. Basically, the cops were in a good mood. Riding in here after some hippie trying to be Yogi Bear was a lot more fun that what they normally did.

The cops took off the handcuffs so that Nation could get dressed. They then put them back on, but in front this time. Warning him that any funny business would go badly for him.

Two four wheel ATV's then made their way down the river path. One cop on each.

“That Yogi?” Asked one of the ATV cops.

“Yup”, said one of he original four. “Got him cold.”

“Where are you taking him”, Molly asked.

“Carmel”, said one of the cops. “You can see him at the Justice Center after he's processed through. But you probably won't be able to do that until tomorrow.”

“Can you ride a horse?” One of the cops asked Nation.


“Well, then, you're going to learn. Put that foot in this stirrup.”

And with this, they loaded Nation into the saddle of one of the waiting horses. The other cops mounted up and made their way back down the rive path. Nation, gripping the saddle horn, turned for a last look at his companions. Pete gave him a Vulcan salute. He smiled.

The magical mood of the trip was broken. The three were also out of whiskey. And given this, they decided to hoof it out that same day. They packed and set out on the trail. Another group gratefully took their prime campsite by the river.

Nation, with the help of a public defender, was sentenced to sixty days of public service cleaning bathrooms and painting picnic tables in various national forest areas. Which got him on as a seasonal temp worker in the Forest Service. A position he later leveraged into a permanent maintenance worker position.


Submitted: April 14, 2018

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