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230. Mississippi Lake (09/02/01)

Hikers (4): Damon, Peter, Steve, Taylor
Distance: 22 miles
Rating: 6 difficulty, 8 beauty
Park info: Henry Coe State Park east of Morgan Hill

Write-up by Peter -- Pictures by Steve

We've had a lot of newbies join INCH lately, but for some reason none of them were too keen about doing this hike. Even some of the regulars, such as The Man and Eugene, chickened out. Maybe it was the notice about "The Death March" that scared them away ...... hmmm. I did not try very hard to talk anyone into it because I didn't want to be responsible for dragging their asses back after they collapsed on the trail.

The four true hikers among us met up bright and early at 7 o'clock. We all knew we had to be on trail early in order to have any chance of getting back before dark. We jumped into the Mighty Tercel and hit the road. Much to Esty's chagrin, I called shotgun and so he was stuck in the back. Boo-ya!

Arriving at Henry Coe, we got our usual exclusive parking spot. As always, I took this to be a good omen. In this place, I'll take any piece of good news I can get!

Before the hike: Peter, Taylor, and Damon ...

... and Esty!

1, 2, 3, ... INCH!

Just as we headed out, we crossed paths with a group of backpackers coming in from an overnight campout. Their only words to us were: "Good luck!". I told Damon not to worry about it -- it's the traditional greeting at Henry Coe! At times like this, it's best not to let the fear show.

We headed along the Corral Trail and down the Pacheco Route towards Poverty Flat. It was a clear, beautiful day. Ordinarily, that's a good thing, but in this case, it meant it was going to be heating up very soon. Just another dose of punishment brought to you courtesy of Big Henry.

Taylor, Esteban, and D-Man were chatting away happily as we headed down towards the Flat. I was walking a little further back, choosing to save my energy for later. The downhill began to get steeper. I was already thinking about how tough it would be to come back up this thing. I tried hard to put it out of my mind. I guess I should have been concentrating harder on the trail, because about a quarter-mile before the bottom, I slipped on a steep switchback and twisted my left knee awkwardly as I fell to the ground in a cloud of dust. Ouch!!!! Damn, damn, damn! I had landed on a rock and scraped up the knee pretty good, but it did not feel too bad. I think my dorky knee braces (that everyone always makes fun of) had saved my ass. The others were up ahead and had not seen me fall, so I decided not to rest too long, so I cleaned up my knee, bandaged it, and hit the trail.

I caught up with the others at Poverty Flat, where Esty had stopped to take a restroom break. Side note: There are a lot more nice big restrooms at Henry Coe these days. I hope this does not encourage more people to go there. As for me, I prefer to commune with nature, if you catch my drift.

Back to the hike ..... we now took on the first uphill of the day, a short but nonetheless challenging portion that leads up along the side of Jackass Peak before flattening out and then heading down to Los Cruzeros. By now the sun was out in full, and I was starting to feel the heat. Carrying 5.5 liters of water in your backpack does not help matters!

I stopped at Los Cruzeros to rest my knee and adjust my backpack as the others began to head up the Willow Ridge. This is the single steepest section of the whole hike, so I figured I'd better not rush into it. As the others disappeared out of sight, Taylor called out to me to get going and I reluctantly geared up and began the climb.

The rest had helped a lot. I found myself going along at a pretty good pace and not suffering too badly. I knew it wouldn't last. At about the two-thirds mark, I began to slow down noticeably. By this time, I had cleared the densely-wooded section and could see up to the top of the ridge. I could see Taylor up ahead and Damon near the top. I figured Esteban had to be on the ridge by now. Seeing them gave me an added boost of energy and I picked up the pace.

I caught up with Taylor about a quarter-mile from the top. She was sitting on the ground, breathing heavily, and her face was red as a tomato. Big Henry was doing his thing! I rested with her for a little while, but didn't want my legs to tighten up on the hill, so I encouraged her to walk slowly with me up to the top of the ridge.

Up at the top, it was my turn to collapse. I barely had time to take off my backpack before my knees gave out and I bit the dust. I sat there panting (almost hyper-ventilating) for a couple of minutes before I was finally able to settle down and breathe normally. Whew!

Well, at least the steepest part was now over. From here, it was "just" another 4 miles under the baking sun along the Interior Route to the Lake. Taylor did not seem too enthusiastic about continuing, but I persuaded her that it would be worth the trip (I should run for office sometime).

We walked silently along the dusty fire road for the next few miles, up one ridge and down the next. Esteban was out in front, about one ridge ahead of us. Damon was trying to keep up with him, but starting to fade. He was stopping to rest more frequently, and Taylor and I kept catching up to him in tortoise-and-hare fashion. I lightened my load by stashing a couple of water bottles behind a tree to retrieve on the way back (this had disaster written all over it!).

A couple more miles to go ...... Taylor was pretty damn tired and starting to grumble. I kept promising her that we were almost there, but it was becoming a tougher sell since the lake was nowhere to be seen. I usually don't like chit-chatting on hikes, but in this case I had to make an exception in order to take her mind off the trail. I can't remember what the heck I talked about, but it seemed to do the trick. Before too long, we saw a sign saying Mississippi Lake was 1/4 mile away.

By the time we finally made it to the edge of the lake, Esteban was lying under a tree, too tired to say anything. We each picked a spot, threw off our backpacks, peeled off our shoes and socks, and lay down on the rocky ground. Oh, man! It felt great to finally stop walking. Some folks were starting to eat their lunch, but I was too damn tired to eat. Just let me rest -- that's all I ask!!!

We lay there silently for a long time (as is the usual custom at this place). No-one wanted to even think about going back. Esty and I had been through this before, but it was a new experience for Damon and Taylor. The dirty looks they were giving me said it all! My kingdom for a horse ...

Eventually, we slowly gathered ourselves and prepared for the trek back. This was not going to be pleasant, so might as well try to get it over with. Looking around, I noticed that a new restroom had been added very close to where we had been sitting. More restrooms!

The first few steps back along the Interior Route are always great ... your blistered feet feel like they're going to burn up, but then the numbness sets in and everything's OK!

We trudged along for miles, with multiple rest stops. I kept Taylor and Damon going with more lies about how we were "almost there". Hey, I had to do something otherwise we'd be spending the night out there! In reality, we were almost exactly on the time schedule I had originally mapped out, so I was not worried. I was even able to easily find the water bottles I had stashed earlier (I would have been in big trouble otherwise).

By the time we got back to the top of the Willow Ridge, Damon was running on fumes. Taylor was hurting too. Surprisingly, I was feeling OK. I figured Esty was probably at the bottom of the ridge by now, but seeing as we had plenty of daylight left, I encouraged my group to take a long rest. I knew the next portion was all downhill so it should go by quickly.

After a good rest and some snacks, we headed down the ridge to Los Cruzeros. As expected, this part was pretty much smooth sailing, but we nevertheless needed to take another break at the bottom before heading up the other side.

The next mile back up the Turkey Ridge was a killer, and the hot burning wind blowing into our faces was not helping. By the time we reached the intersection with the Pacheco Route, Damon and I were in bad shape. I was gasping for air, and he looked like he was about to faint. By contrast, Taylor was now fresh as a daisy and eager to continue on! Big Henry had stuck it to me again!!!

We rested for a while and I gave Damon some of my water. I was actually starting to think that he may not make it. The guy's in good shape and a lot more fit than me, but things are different at Henry Coe! It's all about suffering ...

We headed slowly onwards. I think I could actually hear my legs creaking. Fortunately, there were no long steep climbs in this section, just some small ups and downs before the final downhill to Poverty Flat. Needless to say, we stopped and rested at the Flat. I took my boots off for about the fourth time since the Lake and rubbed my aching feet. Did I mention we do this for fun?

Only 3.6 miles to go! Unfortunately, the first two miles are uphill. Ugh!!

We made our way up the switchbacks. I was going at a snail's pace, but Damon was falling further and further behind. Meanwhile, Miss Energy was pretty much running up the hill (and making helpful comments like "Come on, Schmoopie! What's taking you so long?"). Apparently the Interior Route was a distant memory.

By some miracle, I finally made it to the top of the ridge. I was just hoping that Damon would be able to make it fairly soon, otherwise I'd have to go back and look for his sorry ass. Taylor had plenty of energy, so she went back to look for him. I sat down in the middle of the fire trail and waited ... fortunately, he was not too far behind and the two of them showed up before too long.

The D-Man didn't look too good. He'd finished the water I'd given him, so Taylor gave him the rest of her water. He took a gulp and promptly threw it back up. Oh yeah! Welcome to Henry Coe, baby!

The good news was that it was fairly flat the rest of the way. Taylor was literally running circles around me as I trudged along. Every now and then I'd look back to make sure Damon was still alive. He was (barely).

I always take the longer way along the Pacheco Route back to the Ranger Station, just to get that final dose of suffering, but this time I couldn't bring myself to do it. I turned off on the Corral Trail and took the shorter route (Esteban's usual trail) back in.

Finally back the Ranger Station, I threw my gear on the ground and collapsed on the park bench. Esteban had been lying there for a while. Thank God it was over! A few minutes later, D-man made it in as well. He told me he'd hurled a couple more times along the way. Just another stroll in the park!

After resting for a while and enjoying some well-deserved snacks, we packed up to head out. Just then, the Ranger came by and asked how Esteban was doing. It turns out Esty the bastard had gotten a ride from the Ranger for the last mile and had not told us about it!! Black Leaf City!!!! Maybe even a double!

Getting into the Mighty Tercel was quite an ordeal. Both Damon and I had severe leg cramps and trying to squeeze into that little car was hell. Our legs just would not bend. The Ranger actually came by again to see what all the screaming was about.

It was dark by the time we finally headed out. We made a stop to enjoy a fine meal at Taco Bell on the way home (Damon was still too sick and had to save his tacos to eat at home later). Getting in and out of the Tercel once again was more fun than any human being deserves! I think we earned our leaves this time.

One of the famous tarantulas of Henry Coe

Epilog: A few days after the hike, my knee swelled up like a ripe melon and began to hurt like a mother. I could barely sit in a chair, let alone walk. A visit to the doctor confirmed that there was a lot of fluid buildup, but he recommended that I leave it alone for a while rather than drain it. He could not believe I had walked over 20 miles with that knee. As I write this about 6 weeks later, the swelling has finally gone down. The good news is that I avoided going under the knife again, but the bad news is that I won't be hiking Henry Coe again for a while!

P.S. Esteban bribed me with a beer not to give him a black leaf, but I have yet to collect. I will give him one more week to pay up, or else the black leaf goes on the board!

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