We met at the trailhead at 5AM. It was a long hike, eleven miles, but I’d done Tom’s Thumb before, so I was pretty sure it would be NBD.
It was an out and back, and for most of the ‘out’ the sun was behind the mountain. We started with a group of 8, but my sister, who runs 7 miles every other day, quickly pulled ahead of the pack, followed by her bestie, and former Division 1 collegiate athlete, Jen. I trotted behind them, mostly keeping up.
The last time I did this hike was 2 years ago when I was running 12-15 miles a week and 4 months into a weekly long hike training program. I was also hiking with non-super athletes. We did things like Stop For Rest Breaks. This time was different.
About 3 miles in, the gap between me and Jen (behind Sarah) was starting to grow and I was breathing hard. I began to fantasize about hiking with my husband, who bitches bitterly, but gives me an excuse to rest occasionally. I looked up, and in the distance, Sarah stopped. Jen piled up behind her, and I quickly caught up, ready to complain about the pace and non-resting. I was bitter bitcher of this group.
“I don’t think this is the way,” Sarah said, looking toward a dip in path that went over a small wash. It was overgrown with trees and bushes.
“This has to be the way,” I said. “Where else would we go?”
“There’s… bees,” she said, and I paused, listening for a moment. Sure enough, I heard the eerie hum of hundreds, maybe thousands, of wings.
“This is the way,” a voice behind me said. It was a guy we’d passed awhile back who’d caught up to us. “They’re wasps. You have to go through them. They were worse yesterday. I turned back. But today I’m going through. You just have to keep your mouth closed and not swat at them. They’re attracted to the moisture in your mouth.”
“We have to walk through them?!” Jen asked. It sounded completely insane. We could see them swarming around in the wash. It was about 5 feet of branches and bushes and a little bit of water, covered in buzzing, stinging kamikazes.
“I talked to the park ranger about having them removed, but they won’t do it. If you want to finish the hike, you have to go through them. Do you want me to go first?” the guy asked. He was weird, but he didn’t seem like a complete lunatic, and we sure as fuck didn’t want to be the ones to test his theory.
“Yes please,” Sarah said.
The guy took a deep breath, clamped his mouth shut and walked down into the depression in the path. We collectively held our breath as he took three or four steps through the mass of insects, but they didn’t change pitch or fervor. The guy didn’t scream or fall to the ground writhing. On the other side, he shouted back to us (with more surprise and relief in his voice than I was comfortable with), “I made it! I didn’t get stung!”
Sarah, Jen, and I stood there for a few moments just looking at each other.
“I think I’m going to hold my shirt over my mouth,” Sarah said. Apparently we were going to do this, too. I was sort of hoping everyone would decide a 6 mile hike was decent enough for the day and pack it in.
“Alright, let’s go,” said Jen (she’s an attorney, so she has experience staying calm while under attack).
Sarah lifted her tank top over her mouth and plunged in. Jen followed quickly behind. Before I could lose my nerve, I held my shirt over my face, took a step, and closed my eyes, walking as calmly as I could.
Wasps dive-bombed my head. I could feel them bouncing off my cheeks. Their wings were in my ears. It took everything I had in me to keep from screaming bloody murder and using my arms like propellers to keep them the fuck away from my orafices. With my eyes still shut, I took three quick steps through the brush and was out on the other side.
Shaking with relief and residual terror, I opened my eyes. Sarah and Jen were standing there, also unscathed.
“That was horrible!” said Jen.
“That was the most terrifying thing I think I’ve ever done,” I told them, without exaggeration.
“You know we’re going to have to go through again on the way back, right?” Sarah said.