Thursday, June 30, 2016: 3:15 a.m.
“Baby seriously, try to breathe through your nose and keep your mouth closed,” I urge.
“I can’t! I can’t swallow, I have no saliva, and I feel like I’m crawling out of my skin!” Ron retorts. His dehydration is real, and we are nowhere near water until the sun comes up.
“Just hold on a little longer.”
About Fifteen Hours Earlier That Day…
We are heading out on a mountain bike trip to Downieville, California, Mountain Biking Paradise of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This place is a mecca: miles of well-maintained, flowy trails, some of which are Gold-Rush era; the gorgeous, wild and roaring Yuba River with its abundant, Eden-like swimming holes; and westward, sweeping views for miles. Woo-Hoo! It’s about a four and a half hour drive from our house in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and we’re scheduled for the 5 p.m. shuttle.
Shuttle? That’s the best part about Downieville! You pay $20, load up your bike, and get a ride up to Packer Saddle, the top of the trail, about 7,000’. From there, it’s virtually all downhill back to Downieville (elevation 2,966’) – about 17 miles, close to 5,000’ of it if you take the route we are planning to. Ron hasn’t been yet, and I’m excited to take him. It took me about two and a half hours the last time I went, so I figure we’ll descend in about the same time. We’ll have a nice sundown ride, followed by reservations for the night at Sierraville Hot Springs Resort in Sierraville.
About 12:45 p.m. we are finally on the road. I make a phone call to
Downieville Outfitters, the mountain bike shuttle company we are scheduled with.
“Hi, this is Katrin calling to confirm that Ron and I are still on the 5 o’clock shuttle for today, but are running a few minutes late; is that okay?”
“You two are the only ones signed up for the 5 o’clock. I’ll be waiting for ‘ya; no worries and no hurries,” he assures me.
A few hours of driving pass, and with each hour, the temperature keeps rising. There’s no AC in our car, either. It feels like an industrial-strength hair-dryer when you roll the window down. My temperature gauge reads 104℉ by the time we reach Marysville, a junction point on our trip. Driving as fast as we can, we power through the oppressive heat, eye on the prize of wind in our hair at sunset. We arrive in Downieville, finally, at about 5:15 p.m., and hurry to get our bikes and gear together. About 5:25 we are off, in that van driving up Highway 49 to Packer Saddle. The wind through the van windows feels like heaven driving up the shaded Yuba River canyon; finally some relief from the heat!
“Nice little Sunset ride, eh?” the driver asks. His long hair, mellow attitude, and reggae music fit the bill of a seasoned veteran of Stoke. What a neat job he has.
“Yep; his first time!” I reply.
At about 6:00 we arrive to the top of the trail, and start unloading our bikes and gear. The driver looks at us quizzically, as if we are moving a bit too slowly, and suggests, “You guys should hit it, yeah?” with a look of mild concern on his face. “Solstice was about a week ago, but it’ll be dark by about 9:30 tonight”.
“Yeah we’re good, thanks. Just taking a minute to make sure everything’s tight”, I reply. We don’t actually have that much gear: Ron is wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and a long-sleeve wrapped around his waist; a water-bottle, watch with a weak light, bike-pump, lighter, toolkit, tube, and patch kit with three patches are securely attached to his bike-frame. I have my riding pants, tank-top, and convertible wind-breaker jacket, with my EcoLips Mint Lip Balm I go everywhere with, 1-quart water-bottle attached to my bike-frame, and one Nutz Over Chocolate Luna Bar.
And off goes that van. “Have fun!” he shouts as he drives away.
We start off on the trail called Sunrise. We are only about three turns in when Ron exclaims, “I got a flat!”
I sigh in surprise, followed by mild irritation, but knowing how quickly he can patch a tire, I am not worried. He takes about ten minutes to patch it and let the glue dry, and pumps it up, but not too full; perhaps a bit lower pressure than normal. He drinks some water, and spills some on the ground accidentally.
“Hope I won’t need that later,” he jokes, as we get back on our saddles.
We find our Flow and hit the next fork in the trail, Butcher Ranch Trail. We are happily flying down perfect curves. This is what we came for! We take a short break at a trail intersection to take in the gorgeous scenery before continuing on.
About twenty minutes or so later, we cross a particularly rocky section of the trail. Sharp slate rock outcroppings stick up like dull razor blades; still sharp enough to cut. That’s when I hear the distinctive “Pop!” of a punctured tire.
“Ah crap, another flat!” I know that sound: it’s a pinch-flat, likely from his air pressure being too low. The rock basically pinches the loose tire and punctures it like a snake-bite in two places. He still has two more patches in his patch kit, but in this steep mountain valley, under these looming, giant evergreen trees, the sun has already set behind the mountain. Time is not on our side. He gets a patch on one of the holes, and starts on the other.
“You’re doing awesome,” I encourage. After the patch-glue dries, he starts to pump up his tire again. The tiny bike-pump makes it extra difficult to pump up the tire quickly, but he keeps pumping away at it as the tire is coming back to life. Then – another POP!
“God!” Ron bemoans. He takes the tire off the rim, again, and takes the tube out to examine the patches. One has stuck, but the other has busted – torn in two. Here we are, no patches left, just what’s on the tire. He is using his toolkit knife to gingerly cut the patch off, hoping to reaffix it.
It’s about 7:30 p.m. now, light fading by the minute. He reapplies the make-shift patch, and we wait a few more minutes for the glue to dry.
“It’s hard without the direct sunlight; it’s not drying as fast,” he says. About ten minutes pass, and he starts pumping up the tire again. It seems to be holding. My faith is resolving that we will be on our way in no time.
It’s about 8:00 p.m. We’ll make it down by dark if we leave right now.
Then: yet another POP! We can hear the air hissing out of the tire, and look at each other with a bit of concern.
“Shit!” Ron exclaims. “That’s it for the patches,” he sighs. But my husband, ever the resourceful one, moves to plan B: advice he’d read from mountain bike forums about fixing a flat in dire need. He starts gathering pine needles, cones, small sticks, grass, any non-poky vegetation he can gather, and begins stuffing it into his bike tire.
“I read about it online,” he assures me, as I look at him with mild question in my eyes.
It actually works, for about three minutes. Until it completely flats out, and his rim wobbles from the speed, causing him to nearly crash.
“Ugh!” he sighs defeatedly.
It is definitely getting darker. It’s about 8:30 p.m. now. I look at my trail-map, and see that we still have about eleven miles left to go. We haven’t even reached the Pauley Creek crossing.
“Baby, why don’t you ride my bike, and I’ll run alongside your bike?” I offer. Since I’m a runner, I know I can do it. “We still have eleven miles to go, and we’re not going to make it out by dark at this pace”. I am getting just a little bit worried.
“It’s okay; I’m just going to take off the tire and ride the bare rim at this point. It’s pretty much our only option”. He takes his tire out of his back rim, and we start nursing our way down that trail, his metal rim making so much noise over the rocks and roots of the trail. We are actually moving, though.
Luckily, Ron spots an unopened plastic water bottle on the trail. Seeing as how we are both almost out of water, I feel some sense of relief. He drinks a bit and saves the rest. We may not be getting out of here in the daylight, but we should be able to keep going in the dark, right?
We finally hit the Pauley Creek footbridge, and an uphill section lies ahead. We have switched to walking our bikes about fifteen minutes ago, when it just became too dark to safely maneuver. I can see a few stars peeking out between the trees above us, and the alpenglow is fading quickly. It’s a New Moon, so there will be no moon tonight. I remember that and feel a pang of panic in my stomach. I am despondently starting to realize that we might not be getting out of here tonight.
We cross the footbridge and start walking our bikes uphill, about one mile from the next trail junction: Third Divide and Big Boulder Trail.
“It is really dark,” Ron says, stating the obvious.
“I know, Honey, but we have to keep moving. We have no choice,” I reply. I am leading the way, trying to keep a clear picture of how this section of the trail looks in daylight the last time I rode it. And then it hits me: it is certainly darker than I’ve ever experienced outside in nature, short of being in a cave. Like someone poured a bucket of black paint over the landscape and buried us in it. It is nearly paralyzing.
I am putting my arms out in front of me, feeling for clear space. I know that trees surround either side of this single-track trail, so if there’s a clearing in front of me, we must still be on the trail. It’s hard to tell, though. I stomp my feet and shuffle the ground, hearing no debris in my footfall. This must still be the trail. I drop to the ground, take off my gloves, and feel the firm, well-traveled trail beneath the palms of my hands.
“Yes! We are still on the trail. Just keep right behind me,” I console. He is right on my tail, trusting my every move to guide him.
“I feel like I’m blind,” he says. He tries, in vain, to use his watch light for illumination, but it’s completely useless beyond displaying the time.
Blind is an understatement. Vertigo is almost more like it. This complete, enveloping darkness is like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my life. It is hard to articulate, but it’s completely overpowering. I cannot tell which way is left, right, barely up or down. It is dizzying. I feel completely vulnerable and trapped in it. The mountains of Downieville are dramatically steep, blanketed in mixed-growth conifers, some of the old-growth variety. They shroud any ambient light like blackout curtains. So much for that hiking out in the dark idea I had earlier.
‘Why the heck didn’t I think to grab that mini-flashlight from the car earlier?!’ I internally scold myself. After all, I’ve done this ride before, and should know that it’s not just some out-and-back ride. This is a true Wilderness ride, bordering the Pacific Crest Trail that straddles the Sierra Nevada Mountains. You are on your own out here at this time of night.
We take about thirty minutes to lumber up to the top of the hill with a resting spot, complete with rope-swing and emergency backboard for trail rescues. We use the lighter to illuminate the trail sign, indicating we are at the next junction: Third Divide and Big Boulder Trail.
“I need a rest,” Ron sighs. He checks his watch, and it’s about 10:30 p.m. now. We have mere ounces of water left, and my Luna bar.
“I’m starving,” he says. I am running on adrenaline and too amped up to eat anything, so I give him my Luna Bar, which he inhales.
“I need some water,” he says.
“We only have a little bit left; we should really conserve,” I urge.
“Yeah, but you were drinking water on the whole drive up today, and I forgot to drink much at all. I’m so thirsty,” he sighs. He finishes his water, and I still have about four ounces left. Listening to the quickness and urgency with which he drinks makes me realize just how much more water we both need.
‘Damn that creek crossing! Why didn’t we fill our bottles then?!’ I think to myself. Add that to the list of Coulda, Shoulda, Didn’t. There is no way we’d make it all the way back down now in this darkness.
As we continue onto the start of Third Divide, I spark the lighter to be sure we’re still on the trail, feeling for the firmly packed ground beneath my feet and hands to confirm we are still on the trail.
“I don’t think I can keep going,” Ron concedes. This is not what I want to hear, and in my building stress, I drop the lighter on the trail. I instinctively remember my beloved maternal Grandfather, Dr. Daniel Meub, who gave me some great advice when I was a child and had “lost” something: ‘Whenever you drop something on the ground, don’t move; be as still as possible, without shuffling the ground at all. Then slowly scan the landscape and you’ll find it,’ he told me. It’s worked most times I’ve dropped something. I pat around carefully, and Hallelujah, feel that plastic Bic beneath my fingers.
We continue inching down the trail. The gas on the lighter is burning out, and Ron tells me to save the flame. We reach a turn just a few minutes later – a sharp right turn. I can’t remember now if we turn here, but it doesn’t feel like the trail continues straight with all the loose dirt. So I turn right on this trail.
We keep going for about ten more minutes, slowly moving along, totally blind. Crawling is almost more like it. The trail has gotten a lot thinner, and keeps crumbling beneath our feet. We are also definitely climbing uphill. This is not the right trail, I realize. We are on the Big Boulder Trail; we should’ve gone straight at the turn to continue onto Third Divide. The moment I realize this, Ron sits down on the trail and surrenders.
“I can’t go a step further tonight,” he reconciles.
And as much as I want to say we ‘have’ to keep trying, I realize he is right. This is untenable. I tell him then that we’re also on the wrong trail.
“FUCK!” Ron yells into the forest. Never has one word summarized how we’re both feeling so well. This is the moment we realize we are spending the night on this trail until the sun comes up.
I’ve done a lot of camping and backpacking in my life, but never have I experienced such darkness. I plop down on the trail with some relief, lying down out of pure exhaustion. It’s about 11:00 p.m. now. We’ve been going hard for hours, and it actually feels good to lie down. We are both completely wiped out, dehydrated, hungry, and cooling off by the minute. Although we are blessed with this heat wave, at 4,000’ elevation in the mountains the temperatures cool off quickly.
“Maybe there’s nightriders out here,” Ron wonders.
“I don’t think so, Honey. But maybe they’ll notice our car’s still parked in the lot and come looking for us,” I naively ponder.
I lie down halfway on the trail, halfway on my bike-frame, using my helmet as a “pillow”. Ron curls up with me to help keep me warm. We are both so tired, we just lie there in silence for a bit until about 12:30 a.m.
“I’m getting kind of cold,” I say.
“Let’s make a fire,” Ron declares.
We are in the midst of a five-year extreme drought in California, and the trails are quite dry. The last thing we want to do is start a forest fire, but we don’t want to risk hypothermia, either.
“Start gathering any tinder you can feel,” Ron says. We start feeling around for fallen sticks, pine needles, anything that feels like dried vegetation. We make a small pile on the trail, and try to light it with the dwindling lighter. But the lighter is dead.
Ron takes apart the lighter top, and somehow gets it to light the smallest hint of a flame. It immediately goes out. He then takes out his patch-kit glue and tire-tube, which are both toxic and flammable. He concocts a small tinder of rubber and glue, barely gets a flame from the lighter, and the mix lights up like a sparkler. It almost gets the tinder going, but starts to die out. Slowly but surely, the fire starts to grow, and we can actually see a tiny bit.
“Gather more sticks!” he tells me, and with a flicker of hope, I start gathering what’s nearby, adding it to the fire that is quickly growing. The forest is illuminated.
“We have FIRE!” he triumphs.
My faith is somewhat restored. The best part was now we could actually see the forest – the skinny trail on the steep hill we were on; the tall Pine trees towering over us; each others’ faces. We weren’t so “trapped” by the darkness anymore. And of course, we had warmth. Most importantly, perhaps, we had something to do.
I remember a quote from one of my favorite movies, The Flight of the Phoenix, which is about a small plane that crashes in the Gobi Desert, and its passengers work to rebuild the plane. There is a scene when they are deciding whether it’s realistic to rebuild the plane in the dismal, sand-ridden heat of the Gobi, and a character named Liddle suggests to the pilot:
“I think a man only needs one thing in life. He just needs someone to love. If you can’t give him that, then give him something to hope for. And if you can’t give him that, just give him something to do”.
That having something to do part really resonates with me right now. We have to keep that fire going. We have a purpose. Yes, we won’t be leaving until dawn, but at least we have something to help the time pass. I am inspired, and warm.
“I’m really thirsty,” Ron states. I have a tiny bit of water left, and tell him he can drink it since I drank more earlier that day. From my Wilderness First Responder course I took years ago in college, I remember our instructor discussing the obvious role that body weight plays in hydration. I know Ron needs more than me since he is bigger, so I settle on waiting until morning for a sip, parched as my own mouth is. At least we have some chapstick. He nurses the last sip, painfully so. I hear the lid unscrew, knowing there are only drops in there, which he tries, in vain, to suck out. It is a painful sound to hear.
“I’m really thirsty,” he says again.
“Close your mouth when you breathe; it’ll help conserve moisture,” I suggest. That’s what I’ve been doing most of the night. Now I am a little concerned about the water situation.
“I think I see lights!” Ron says. “Do you see them?”
I don’t see anything.
“No one’s there,” I rationalize. “It’s just your eyes playing tricks on you”.
Another hour passes of us keeping up the fire, trying to lie down on the trail to rest, although neither of us are sleeping. I am feeling surprisingly calm and faithful. I know we will make it through the night; that this is really just a major inconvenience. I look back to memories of 24-hour solos on backpacking trips, when we committed to staying in one area for a full day, without food. The first time I did it I struggled through the night, but the second time I found real serenity and strength from the experience. I know I can survive this; my experience has proven that. Ron seems to be getting more and more worked up, however. His respirations are shallow and faster; I can hear him breathing through his mouth loudly.
“Stop breathing out of your mouth; breathe through your nose,” I tell him.
“I can’t. I’m getting really claustrophobic. All I can think about is water. This is really hard for me right now”.
I sit there in closed-mouth silence, trying to focus on keeping calm and my heart-rate down. I feel like I’m meditating, sort of. The funny part is I am like a fish: I drink a ton of water everyday, and like to have a full water bottle with me at all times. I’ve used the same 40-ounce KleanKanteen for years. I am pretty good at calming myself, but not having water can make me feel uneasy. Somehow I am not at all anxious, just accepting the situation as it is. I realize I have absolutely no control, and surrender. Ron is getting worse by the minute, exhaling loudly out his mouth, which is stressing me out a bit.
“Baby seriously try to breathe through your nose,” I say, again.
“I can’t! I can’t swallow, I have no saliva, I feel like I’m crawling out of my skin!” Ron retorts.
“Just hold on a little bit longer.”
That last hour drags on like molasses, until about 4:15 a.m. – at last – there is a hue of dawnlight peeking out of the Eastern horizon! The fire is down to a crackle now, and I start burying it to be sure it’s all the way out.
“Jamba Juice,” Ron softly says. “How good does a Jamba Juice sound right now?”
“Iced coffee,” I smile. “Almost there”. Ron has calmed a bit, but is really, really dehydrated.
The very second that we can barely see, about 4:35 a.m., we are up and at ‘em.
“Let’s get out of this place.” We ride about 100 yards up the trail, when Ron stops and sits down.
“I need water. I can’t go anywhere until I get some water”. This is the weakest I’ve ever seen him.
“Wait here. I’ll ride back to Pauley Creek and fill our bottles,” I offer. I take off like a bat out of hell, riding back to Pauley Creek. I am buzzing from lack of sleep, adrenaline, the sweet arrival of a New Day, and the promise that we are finally getting out of here.
Arriving to the creek, which is really more like a river, I drink two quarts from a waterfall-esque section where, ideally, it’s cleaner than stagnant water. It tastes like a cold shower on a hot day, and I feel immense relief. I know about the risks of Giardia, but have read many reports indicating it’s not all that common in some parts of the Sierras anymore. Either way, we need water and are drinking what we have.
I fill our bottles, and set back up that hill, breathing hard from fatigue. I get back to Ron about fifteen minutes later, and immediately give him two bottles of water. When he takes that first sip from the bottle, I start crying with relief. I know in that moment that he is definitely going to be alright. Even he starts to cry.
“Oh my God! That tastes like life,” he exhales, drinking more from the second bottle. We both sit there, half-crying, half-laughing, realizing it’s all coming to an end.
“Let’s go,” he says, finishing his water.
We get on our bikes, his bare rim thrashed but still holding up, and start our way down Third Divide. We stop and refill our water bottles at the next creek we see.
Third Divide is my favorite section of the Downieville Downhill. You can really let it rip, flying down perfect trails. It’s a lot like our favorite spot, Soquel Demonstration Forest: flowy. Tired as I am, my bike is working fine, so I let it go and speed ahead of Ron, stopping to wait for him every now and then. Ever the thoughtful, loving husband, he encourages me to get mine. This little bit of downhill puts a huge smile on my face. I am charged.
We reach the end of the trail at Lavezolla Road about forty-five minutes later. Lavezolla Road is a dirt road with a few homes along it, and leads back to the town of Downieville.
“You wait here; I’ll ride and get the car.” It’s about 6:30 a.m. by this point, and Ron plops down to rest in front of someone’s huge ranch estate.
I ride the dirt road as fast as I can – the cold, morning air waking me up with each deep breath. I reach town and see a couple of women out for an early-morning stroll; they look at me as if they’ve seen a ghost.
I peel into the Downieville Outfitters parking lot, where our lone car remains, and start crying with happiness. I load up my bike, and drive back to the dirt road. This road is about four miles long, full of potholes and ditches. My Subaru Forester handles it fine, but I can’t go very fast over the terrain.
I finally make it back to Ron about 7:30 a.m. We load up his bike, and look at each other.
Holy Crap! We made it! No words are spoken, but it’s what we’re both feeling. We pull out of there with purpose, suddenly recharged and exuberant. We are high-fiving, reminiscing about the night, and feeling complete relief; laughing, even. We drive to the Coyoteville Cafe in Downieville, where we are greeted with looks from the locals, as if our evening saga is written all over our faces. That breakfast might’ve been one of the best ever – just eggs, toast, hashbrowns, and coffee, but pure heaven.
After breakfast, we head to the Yuba River for a cleansing dip. The sun is up, shining through the canyon on us. We are free to do what we choose, no longer hostage to the darkness. We take a dip in the cold water, feeling elated and refreshed, and say, “Let’s go Home”.
Later That Summer…
We went back to Downieville a couple of months later, but this time, we brought the Full Moon with us! We also took the earlier 2 p.m. shuttle with several other riders. In addition to our regular gear, Ron brought a backpack with six patches, two tubes, a flashlight, two Luna Bars, two apples, and a Camelback full of water. We’ve continued to ride there since, and every time we come prepared.
We learned many lessons from our night in the wilderness. I surely kicked myself for being an experienced outdoorswoman and ending up in this situation, let alone on my husband’s inaugural ride to Downieville. I’d ridden there before, and knew what we were into. However, I think we got through the situation with some Grace: the Grace of that heat wave (it only dropped to 50℉ that night); finding the water bottle on the trail; getting the fire going; never getting sick from drinking the river water. We had a few things going for us, and that fire was one of the best of them. Its warmth not only provided us with physical comfort, but gave us purpose and hope. That fire was a real gift.
I consider the roles that Faith and Fitness played in our outcome (I don’t mean Faith in a religious way, per se). I had Faith that we would make it, because I had the experience to know that we would. Faith is trust, like muscle-memory. I had Faith in our abilities, in our Fitness. I knew we were strong – not just physically, but mentally, and that helped get us through when we were certainly not having much of a Flow experience.
You can live in fear, or in faith. Fear may be helpful for preparation (as in, “I don’t want to spend the night in the woods!”), but it’s not helpful to endure a difficult situation. Fear wouldn’t have helped us get through that night. It was hard, yes, but I knew we would make it out okay. I’ve lived through enough outdoor adventures to know we would be alright; to know it was really just a challenge of waiting, not a life or death situation.
The experience was definitely a lesson in preparation, but I also think of it as a spiritual one. I don’t typically consider myself a person of strong faith, but I was reminded that night how faith and a positive attitude can help you persevere through a hard time. They helped me keep calm throughout the experience, and not focus on the negative. Visualizing our impending freedom from the darkness kept me motivated, and reflecting upon past challenges I’d already overcome helped keep my confidence up. All of the challenges we go through in life help to build a positive mindset that can be applied to future challenges – just hopefully not a repeat of this trip.
I may live for adventure, but it’s a lot more fun to spend the night in the wilderness when you’re prepared!
Morning after; dirty faces. I think Ron was still a bit delirious at this point.
Ron’s back rim; a pretty good testament to the brand for not failing (Specialized Roval)
The clothes we wore that night
On a later ride, we stopped to pay homage to our spot and took these pics of where we spent the night on Big Boulder Trail:
My original journal entry about the experience:
5 thoughts on “Downieville Blackout”
I loved reading this blog today!! Keep them coming– I was hooked this morning and didn’t get out of bed until I finished reading it! yeye!