Hiking Holy Jim Falls

I'm not sure I'll do a very good job at writing this story... it happened only 3 days ago... and I remember parts of it like they happened just now... yet somehow it also seems like the whole thing is from the more distant past, and I've been recalling the events over and over for years. This may be due, in part, to the fact that I have replayed some of the images from the trip (not intentionally) so many times in the past few days it's hard to imagine how short a time it's really been. Some people would probably think I'm making a much bigger deal out of this than it really is, it's easy to downplay something that happened to someone else, but to me it was a significant event... and I'm sure Bonny considers it even more so... The day after Christmas, Bonny and I decided to go to REI first thing in the morning to check out what we hoped would be an awesome after-Christmas sale, and afterwards we planned on going on a brief and easy hike/walk down at Holy Jim. Lan was working so he couldn't go, but he gave me some cash to pick up some trekking poles if they were on sale, or anything else that he might like if the price was really good. I myself was hoping to grab a pair of trail running shoes, or possibly some trekking poles or snow shoes if they were on sale. The sale ended up being quite a disappointment, though, covering only a few areas with a slim selection of discounts. After two hours of perusing we left a bit dejected, without even stopping to grab kielbasa sandwiches from the kielbasa guy on the way out, though it would have been quite a treat to have one on a weekday.

After leaving REI we met Lan for lunch, taking him to Philly's Best for some delicious Philly Cheese Steaks. Damn good are those. After lunch we dropped off Lan and realized we needed to go back to REI for an Adventure Pass, required to park in Cleveland National Forest. We picked up two year-long passes for $35 (I think it was $35, the second is only $4) and drove down to Holy Jim.

The road in to Holy Jim is a favorite for local truck and SUV owners, especially after a rain. The road itself is quite a ride, but the real treat for most are the smaller roads/trails with more difficult 4WD tests branching out all over the place. We drove straight in, tearing though the huge puddles that spotted the road every few hundred yard or so, cutting up arcs of brown water that splashed along the doors and windows. We parked the Trooper in the main parking area for hiking, strapped on our Camelbaks and began our little hike. I paused to consider bringing the first-aid kit, but decided it was unnecessary as Bonny had told me this trail was much more of a walk than a hike. I ended up taking along the walking stick I picked up on the creek bed of Little Sur Creek during the Thanksgiving backpacking trip, just for the hell of it.

The beginning of the hike, before the actual trail starts, passes a bunch of small houses and cottages. We walked past these houses, talking and enjoying the rather cool and very damp day, making our way to the trailhead. Once on the trail, I realized how great Gore-Tex is, as we crossed the stream that the trail more or less follows time and time again. Bonny's new hiking shoes also featured Gore-Tex, and though they were low-tops, they were high enough to keep out the water when we needed to actually step through a few inches of it here and there.

Bonny and Lan had hiked this trail once before, and Bonny told me when we had gotten to the point where she thought they had turned back. We continued, wondering if there would be anything interesting up ahead, since neither of us had been here and we had no idea where this trail would lead. I now know that the main trail takes you all the way up to Santiago Peak, a hike I hope to do fairly soon. The trail was littered with brown and orange leaves, and thoughts of autumn in New York fluttered around in my mind, giving me a bit of a nostalgic feeling. We were soon greeted by a signpost, showing that if we continued we would be going on some trail of a name that I have forgotten, and if we turned right we would go to "waterfall". We obviously chose "waterfall". This led us on a smaller trail, still crossing the stream back and forth, until it came to the waterfall itself. Holy Jim Falls is an 18' waterfall, and luckily for us it had just rained and the water was flowing nicely down to the shallow pool at the bottom.

I took a few pics of Bonny at the bottom of the falls, then for some reason I got the feeling that I had been to the place before. I told Bonny that I had not only been to the falls before, but I seemed to remember climbing somehow to the top, though I wasn't all that sure of myself. She seemed to like the idea and so we started to climb up a path to the far left of the falls that looked like it was caused by erosion of the rock and soil down that section of the hill. I left my Little Sur Creek walking stick at the bottom of the falls, likely never to be seen by me again.

The path we took up the hill was not too difficult, though the slate rock on some parts of it broke away a bit too easily for much comfort, worrying me about sure footing on the way back down. It was at this point I realized I had never been to this waterfall before and I had either confused this place with another or my brain had somehow made up that memory in order to make the hike more interesting. I decided it was against our best interests to tell Bonny about my revelation at this time, because I wanted her to believe that I had done this before, which would mean that we should be able to do it again, which would keep her in confident high spirits. We then took what appeared to be a natural little trail/path across towards the waterfall, and realized we had climbed well about the top of the falls themselves. This little path took us to a very narrow ledge type descent path along the face of a small cliff. I stayed close to Bonny and we very slowly descended to the bottom of the cliff, taking great care and time, without mishap. Going down is always the hardest, so I wasn't too worried about the return climb, and I showed Bonny how easy it would be to scramble back up by going up and back down the last bit of rock face, which was the trickiest to manage. From here it was easy to see how to get to the top of the falls, and with a bit of balancing and rock hopping we were soon there.

We sat on the top for a while, listening to the water, looking around, chatting and laughing a bit, enjoying the scenery and the moment. I couldn't have been happier as I thought of how great it was in SoCal to be able to do this type of thing the day after Christmas. I picked a piece off the top of a tree that grew from the bottom of the falls, joking to Bonny that it was proof we made it to the top, how else would I have gotten it, right? After hanging out up there for 15 minutes or so, we set out back the way we came, because it was an hour from sunset and Bonny asked if I had brought my headlamp, which I admitted that at I had stupidly forgotten at home.

As we climbed back to the high point of the "trail" that would bring us back to the bottom of the waterfall, we saw that there were a couple of teenage boys climbing up a rather difficult looking section of hill straight up towards us, cutting out the more roundabout (but easier) route that Bonny and I had taken. I immediately felt a bit worried, as I always do when I see someone doing something dangerous, especially young people. I then saw that there was a man who appeared to be in his mid-thirties with two younger children coming up the way we had come down. It seemed like quite a trip to make with the little ones, especially down the upcoming cliff face, but the man seemed confident as the three of them made their way up to the point we began our final descent. As if as some kind of forewarning of things to come, a small chunk of slate rock broke free under my foot as I climbed down a small ledge, and rolled a few feet in the direction of the hikers. It gave me a bit of a start, even though it was barely the size of a child's fist, but I was quickly relieved to see that it stopped not a yard away from where it had come loose. As he got closer, I asked the man if he had brought flashlights (not that I had any myself) because it would be getting dark very soon, and he pointed to his backpack and said he had some, and he thanked me for asking. Up until this point I had mostly stayed just in front of Bonny on any descents, and just behind her on any climbs. When the gentleman and his little hikers passed us, though, I stepped aside for them to pass, and Bonny passed me before I got back in line. I thought nothing of this of course as I followed her down the steep hill face.

This is the point of the story where things seem to go to a vividly clear slow motion in my mind. Bonny had gotten a few yards ahead of me, probably because I kept glancing up at the hikers as the two that had gone up the short route backtracked along the path to meet up with the man and his boys. I then became focused on helping myself down a ledge, and it was at this point that I heard the first thud of the rock as it began to roll down the hill, directly towards Bonny. I didn't know this at first, and I turned upwards quickly, my eyes immediately darting to the rock, which seemed to be about the size of a volleyball, coming amazingly fast down the very steep part of the hill. I turned to Bonny and yelled something to her, and she turned toward the rock either in response to whatever I yelled or because she too heard it thudding down the hill. The section of hill it traversed was so steep that it bounced only a few times before reaching her, smashing one last time on a small boulder right next to her, shattering itself into a few smaller pieces that tore into her as I watched, horrified. The next few seconds are an entire loss to me, I don't remember anything about what happened between the moment the rocks hit her and the moment I first saw her face, from where I was then standing, just below her on the hill. She had her hand up to her cheek, and blood was already coming through her fingers, and she said, "I'm okay Vu." Not quite yet having my wits about me, I yelled, "No you're not!" as she took her hand away for a second and I saw the gash in her cheek. It seemed huge. "I'm okay," she said again, and then I snapped back into conscious thought and said something along the lines of agreement. She asked me to hold her for a second, and as I gave her a brief embrace the man called down from the top of the hill asking if she was ok. I let Bonny go and yelled up to him asking for a First Aid kit, which he replied that he didn't have. I then yelled something to the effect that he had better give me something, and I turned back to Bonny to search her Camelbak for anything to use in putting pressure on the wound. I found some tissues in a plastic pack and removed them and gave them to her to put on the cut on her face. While she held that there and I tried to look her over to see if I could see any other injuries, the man called down to me that he had a shirt we could use, that he must have pulled from the backpack he was carrying. He tried to throw it down to me, but it only made it halfway down the very steep section of hill that the rock had come down. Before I could think of what I was doing, I had scrambled up to the shirt and turned around, just as Bonny realized I was halfway up the hill and called out to me, asking where I was going. I came to the quick realization that I was in a very dangerous spot, and the descent from which would not be easy. Bonny started to come my way, though, and I somehow just ran and stumbled down to her without mishap. I looked at the shirt to make sure it at least appeared clean, then took the tissue paper from her and put the shirt on her face, and she held it there. We then immediately started walking back toward the car, leaving the man calling down asking if she was ok, fated to forever wonder what his kids had probably unintentionally done to some unfortunate girl whose name he'd never know.

The journey back to the car seemed much longer than it was. We were lucky not to run into any problems along the way, Bonny having taken to walking straight through the stream crossings mostly without the use of stepping stones, regardless of how much water may have gotten in her shoes. She said they didn't even feel wet, so I suppose she wasn't at all bothered by it, or maybe the discomfort of wet feet was so overshadowed by her other pains that she didn't even notice. As we started walking away from the falls, I told Bonny that when we got back to the car I had "sutures" for her face. She seemed a bit put off by this, but said "Okay" regardless, though in a very unsure tone. About that time she realized that her finger, which we had already seen was gouged near the tip by a rock, really hurt. Se thought it might be broken, but I couldn't tell since it just looked swollen. We continued to briskly walk for ten to fifteen minutes more when out of the blue, she said, "I don't think you need to sew my face, Vu." I couldn't help but laugh. What I had meant by "sutures" were the Band-Aid butterfly sutures, and she had of course thought I meant that I was going to try and sew her face up. During the entire walk back I was consumed by thoughts of what had just happened, playing the scenes over and over again, thinking about how she would have to live with this scar for life, thinking of how she would react when she first saw herself in a mirror, thinking of how she was with me, and something bad came along, and I wasn't able to prevent it. Aside from my fear of her potential panicked reaction to seeing how bad the cut on her face really was, the thoughts of my failure to protect her dominated my mind. It was harder to deal with than I would have thought.

Bonny, on the other hand, was in high spirits, genuinely happy to be alive. I was so amazed by how strong she was, how level-headed and absolutely positive she was. She even asked me if I was still having fun, saying that aside from the blood and the pain and whatnot, she still was. I saw the day as something I wished had never happened at all, willing to trade the fun and enjoyment we had during the first half of the day to avoid the fear and pain involved in the second. Bonny didn't seem to be thinking this was at all, and that's probably a good thing, otherwise she may have reacted to her injuries the way I had feared... with panic and fear. I was so afraid that she was just in denial of how bad the cut on her face was that I actually ran up ahead of her when we crossed paths with an older couple and told them not to say anything about how bad her cut was lest she start freaking out. I know better now, but things seemed different at the time.

When we got back to the car, there was a girl pulling her truck out from the spot it was parked right next to the Trooper and I walked up to her and asked if she knew any first aid and if she could help me clean up Bonny's wounds. She said that she didn't have too much experience with this sort of thing, but she parked the truck and came over to help anyway. I had come to the conclusion that I didn't want to touch her face, which had long stopped bleeding, because of potential cosmetic problems. I didn't know if washing it out or using the alcohol of antibiotic wipes or cream that I had in my First Aid kit would potentially cause more scarring by not allowing the wound to heal as cleanly as possible. The girl agreed that we shouldn't touch the wound on Bonny's cheek, so I cleaned up her finger, gave her a bit of gauze for it and for her face, and we hopped in the truck and took off.

The rest of the story involved calling the insurance company to find out if she could go to a local hospital instead of her own, all the way up in Brea... getting approved to go to Irvine Regional... calling Lan to come to the hospital... and checking in to the emergency room. After triage they took her in immediately to a hall bed, the rooms all being full. She waited while the doctor, a plastic surgeon by the name of Pham, came in, apparently from home. He seemed optimistic about the hope for minimal scarring on her face, due to her skin type's healing qualities and the position of the cut which ran very close to her "smile line". The finger, according to the X-rays, was broken, and there was a chance it would need a pin inserted to ensure proper healing (she did get the pin inserted a few days later). Sitting in the waiting room, mostly by myself, I couldn't help but close my eyes and resume the bad thoughts I had during the hike back to the car that I had put on hold for the drive to the Hospital and the process of getting Bonny checked in. It wasn't fun.

We finally left the hospital, Bonny's right cheek puffed up from the anesthetic Dr. Pham injected into the cut before he began the multiple layers of stitches that led up to the final tightly woven external stitch. Lan and I took her home to her parents, who were surprised to find out how bad things really were, Bonny having only told them on the phone that she had cut her face a little and hurt her finger, so as not to worry them unnecessarily until she got home. We stayed with her for a little while then left so she could go to bed, and I drove home thinking about the day, and thinking about the future. I thought about how bad things would have been if her injuries had been worse, and had actually been life threatening. I thought about how unprepared I was for that sort of event if it were to happen, not just in the fact that I hadn't brought the First Aid Kit, but in the fact that my knowledge of how to even administer first aid was so limited. I thought about how the rock could have been a couple inches up or down or to the side, and what horrible injuries she could have sustained as a result. I thought about all these things, but mostly about how useless I had been at the moment I wished I had been the most useful... the moment the rock came down the hill. I though of how the same scene would have actually played out in a movie, or in a book. In a movie I would have leapt from where I stood and either tackled Bonny out of the way or just blocked the rocks with my body in mid-air as I flew past her. Taking real life physics and knowledge of time into account, I realize that these things weren't possible in the real world, but that night I could do nothing to stop these absolutely ridiculous thoughts from plaguing my consciousness, filling me with guilt and feelings of worthlessness.

Now, a week later (it has taken me 5 days to finish this story), I still have feelings of guilt, but they are more realistic. Mostly I have taken from that day a bit of reality, and a few pointers for future Adventures. I need to learn First Aid... having some gauze and Band-Aids in a kit is not going to save someone's life. I also need to go out more prepared... no more being lazy and forgetting things like flashlights and First-Aid kits. Mostly, though, I think this was another event in my life that helped me to appreciate life itself a little more, and appreciate the enjoyment and happiness that I have when I can have it, because it can disappear at a moment's notice. This statement may sound a bit sappy and preachy. It may also seem that I have tried to make a much bigger deal out of the events of that day than there really was, but this is an accurate and honest record of my memories and feelings about December 26th, 2003, so I couldn't write it any other way.