California’s Highway 1 is known for its cliff-edge ramble along a coastline that only grows rougher and more remote north of San Francisco. Eventually, even Highway 1 can’t cut the mustard and heads inland, thus beginning a stretch of coast so wild it can only be accessed by dilapidated dirt roads.
Over one hundred years ago, when horses could get you anywhere, there was habitation here, orchards and farms, timber and ports. Over time, when it became apparent that not just any old horseless carriage could make it over the grade, settlers left, leaving ruins behind. Hence the romantic name, Lost Coast.
We drive in a on a road I would have sworn was 20 miles long; it is apparently only 3.5 miles, but it takes 30 minutes to get to the bottom. At the foot of the hill are the visitor’s center, a handful of environmental campsites, the cliffs and the sea, and the barn.
No showers. No water. Very few people.
Lots of elk. Apparently in early rut this year.
After I passed him, the feeling faded. Then it came back. Worse. I chalked it up to edge-of-wilderness nerves, told myself to snap out of it, and kept on. Matt and I had walked this way before. I wanted to pass our last known point and stop when I found something outstanding to report back to him.
Thirteen elk, mamas and babies, snacking by the side of the trail. I paused, used the zoom, and watched quietly. Finally, I stood to go. The sun was going down, and I figured I had just enough time to get back to camp before dark.
I have no pictures of what happened next, because frankly I was too petrified. I was cruising along and happened to look ahead, to a curve on the trail. I then realized what I’d missed seeing earlier: Mister Elk. That was because he was on the trail behind me. Between me. And camp.
I looked up at him, and he looked down at me, and I backed the fuck up. Fast. Dude was huge.
Roosevelt elk are the largest of the four North American elk; I think this sucker was about eight feet high, including antlers. He likely weighed about 1000 pounds.
I backed up; he approached. I backed up; he approached. It was too steep for me to go off-trail, and he was apparently very committed to taking the easy way.
I back-tracked to an open space. I climbed a tree. I waited 20 minutes. No Mr. Elk. I thought possibly he’d gotten off the trail; I crept forward and NOPE, there he was. I backtracked more, I passed the women and children hoping they were his destination, and waited, ready to leap up another tree, for another 20 minutes.
No Mr. Elk. This went on for about an hour. The fog was thick, and I had no idea where the sun was.
When I left camp, I’d thought I’d be out for 90 minutes tops. This is possibly the most unprepared hike I have ever taken. Ever. I usually have everything, including band-aids.
This time, I had water and food, but I had no light, no jacket, and no hat. Oh, yeah, I had some sewing. Fat lot of good that did me. I figured if it got dark, I’d climb another tree and wait for Matt to yell my name and I’d just yell back, “ELK!” Matt’s a smart lad. He’d get help, and come out looking. But I really wanted to avoid that. I knew he’d be really worried about me, and soon. And I didn’t particularly relish the idea of his wandering about in the woods at night.
I crept forward. Every curve I couldn’t see around was a heart attack waiting to happen. I imagined I heard Big Mister around every corner, stomping a hoof in response to each of my own steps forward, until I realized it was MY OWN DAMN WATER BOTTLE gurgling in my ear. I felt like I was in Spinal Tap.
I snuck until I saw trees shivering. He was off the trail by about 20 feet, rubbing his antlers on the alders. I had to pass a rutting twenty-foot-tall male zombie elk with bloody fangs and a taste for human flesh. By 20 feet.
He watched me a little, and stepped slightly into the trees; I took a step forward. He nibbled a leaf; I took a step. Him, me, him, me. I never took my eyes off of him until he was out of sight and then I RAN. Not too fast. I kept thinking there might be another one. (I found out later there WAS.)
Mr. Elk was magnificent. Humongous. Sleek. Healthy. Graceful. Wild. Dangerous. I’d been told I should never approach an elk, let alone a male elk in rut. Back away. Get a tree between you. Climb it if necessary. I did that right.
I told someone where I was going, how long I would be gone. I took sufficient water and food. But I did not bring emergency supplies, and I did not listen to my instincts.
On the way back to camp, I couldn’t stop looking over my shoulder, even when I knew he was a mile behind, nibbling leaves in the forest. I didn’t stop to pee or drink until I was back at the barn. I did stop to take a few pictures, I did make it back by nightfall—and I DID have something major to report to Matt. But you know? I think next time I’ll just listen to my gut.