Just six more days left in the field season was still enough time to experience a whole summer’s worth of near-death and depression. In fact, that all fit snugly within about 12 hours.
I arrived at our next camp site and was pleasantly surprised. The small lakeside grounds were quiet, lush with chaparral shrubs, and brimming with birds. The cheerful camp hosts greeted me and offered a number of suggestions of where we ought to settle, and I opted for their top choice – a large site nestled beneath the massive boughs of one of the biggest Valley Oaks I have ever seen, its trunk easily 4-5 feet in diameter. We pitched our tents beneath the branches, where the deep shade and light breeze blowing off the lake were a welcome reprieve from the heat of the valley.
Our first evening was perfectly calm. Serenaded by quiet neighbors and the distant chuckles of ducks settling to roost on the lake, I easily fell asleep.
I think the first crack must have been what woke me. Logic says it was one of the loudest sounds she’s ever heard.
I was still half asleep for the next second or two, but the chorus of snaps and cracks finally dragged me into consciousness with a sudden realization: a branch was breaking. A BIG branch was breaking. I braced for the impact, and felt a rush of relief when I didn’t hear it smash into anything car-like. This temporary calm was followed immediately by panic. I jolted out of bed, grabbed my flashlight, and stuck my head out of my tent.
Across the campground was Logic’s tent, engulfed in a small forest of oak leaves. I called out to see if she was alright. Fortunately, she was.
Even from a distance I could see how narrow a margin that “alright” had been, but it wasn’t until I was standing over the fallen limb that my heartbeat really picked up. The massive chunk of wood – a small tree trunk in its own right – wasn’t just lying against Logic’s tent. It was actually crushing one corner of it. The corner which was, thankfully, on the opposite end of where Logic’s head had just been.
We hastily moved both our tents out from underneath the remaining branches looming sinister above us and, deciding there was little more we could do that night, tried to get back to sleep. Even with the threat of death no longer directly above my head, I had difficulty settling back into bed.
It was in this anxious and sleep-deprived state that I met my next survey site, Caliente Creek, at dawn the following morning.
How could my spirits not be lifted by the inspiring vistas?
The serenading of train horns every ten minutes?
The clever installments of modern art?
More than anything, the place just made me uncomfortable. Like there was an itch under my skin. For as long as I could see my car I kept looking back, as if requiring reassurance that it was still there. I finished the survey in record time – partially because there were hardly any birds – and hurried back to camp.
In the daylight I was able to survey the damage a little better. The branch that fell was easily 14 inches across, and its leaves now blanketed the majority of our campsite.
It dropped without wind or warning. Just a huge crack out of nowhere, and down it went.
When our camp hosts came over to inspect the carnage their eyes shot wide with shock and they began repeating the same line we’d already exhausted the night before: “You could have died!”
I sought out the clearest section of table amidst the wreckage and tried to occupy myself with data entry until Logic returned from her survey near the town of Edison.
The first words out of her mouth when she arrived were “Someone broke into my car.”
We stood together beside the empty window rimmed with shattered remnants of glass, me stunned to silence, Logic ranting an impressive tirade on the indecency of humanity.
We voted against our usual lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Instead we got some incredibly unhealthy hamburgers. And pie.
The hour long ride to Bakersfield gave Logic the chance to vent a good amount of well-justified frustration. The heavy food left us in such a haze we hardly cared about the rest. Our last stop was Target to get some supplies, then we returned to camp and did our best to cover the car window for the time being.
We spent the following two days living in constant dread of the next catastrophe, rushing through our surveys and spending the rest of the afternoon willing night to fall quickly. Fortunately, the rest of our time here was uneventful.
With our final surveys complete we raced back to camp, loaded gear in our car, and hastily set off on the journey to our final survey sites of the summer.
What a relief to finally have that dreadful place far behind us.