I did not ever imagine over the 8 or 9 summers during the 1980’s when a small group of friends and I planned a yearly backpacking trip that I could possibly get lost. After all, I was hiking with guys with a lot of experience. Getting lost seemed the least of my worries. Mosquitoes and having to eat freeze-dried food were much higher on the list of unpleasant realities.
This happened on the first of three attempts we made to get into and spend some time in Evolution Valley, one of the prettiest spots in the backcountry of the Eastern Sierra. It probably remains so pristine because there is no quick way into it, at least not for guys like us who were not up to 10 mile, full-day hikes and 10-day trips. But when planning the trip in May we were always much faster and more ambitious than once we strapped on the 50-pound packs in August.
I officially became trail-stupid on the second day of the trip. We reached a stream that did not have an obvious safe crossing spot and had to stop and scout both up and down stream to find a suitable place. We finally found one upstream, crossed, and then stopped to pull out our rain gear as it began to drizzle steadily. I was a bit slower getting geared up, and Scott and Jan started back downstream to pick up the trail. I assured them I’d catch up in a minute.
I was probably two or three minutes back when I also headed downstream. Somehow, though, as I angled cross-country away from the stream, I missed the trail. Even though we were in fairly flat terrain there were enough hillocks to block my view of the other guys and in the open like that, they could not hear a thing when I called out.
I alternately decided that I was above or below the trail and then would adjust my direction, certain the trail must be just over the next rise. I would stay the course for 10-15 minutes at a time before I’d be forced to stop, survey the landscape and try to figure out “if I was the trail, where would I be?”
Like a man refusing to stop and ask for directions, I would decide on a new angle and plunge off once again, sure that I was just minutes away from the security of the trail. Even as I did it, I knew I was making a fundamental mistake. I refused the one sure way to get back on track, which was to go directly back to the stream and slowly hike up and down the shore until I saw the trail, the smart and sure thing to do. No, it was going to be just over that next hill. Keep moving forward.
As my misdirections continued, panic began to creep in. I mentally checked for how many of the “10 Essentials” of backpacking I had (things like firestarter, emergency blanket, food, etc.) and figured I was at about 50%. Part of backpacking as a group was to split up all of the “common” gear so I had the tent poles, but no tent. I had food, but Jan had the stove, and Scott had the cooking kit. As the hour got later, and the rain continued to fall, I began to think that maybe, just maybe, I would be spending a very cold, wet night exposed and on my own.
And then, as I was staring at my misguided path, I saw hoof prints. On previous trips we had seen, and often cursed, campers being packed in on horses, with guides, good food, and cold beer. We celebrated our manly misery and ruggedness as they passed us while secretly harboring intense jealousy that we hadn’t thought far enough ahead to book one of these trips ourselves.
I knew that these guided trips might go off-trail for a bit, but that they would always return to the trail for greater ease of riding. The path of hoof marks was easy to follow and when it suddenly veered to my right, I looked up and there, like a broad pencil mark traversing the rolling landscape, was my trail.
I had officially been lost for maybe an hour, but it had felt much longer. It was getting into late afternoon, and the steady drizzle had not let up. I knew the guys had probably found a campsite by now, and all I had to do was to keep plodding toward it.
It was funny how once the crisis was over, I quickly forgot about all of the dire circumstances that I had begun to imagine for myself, and the anger at myself for being so foolish and instead became fiercely focused on the keen skills of observation that I had shown and the clever deductions that had saved me.
I owe my friend Scott for many things. He brought me back to the wilderness, taught me so much about backpacking and about how to laugh at myself. We taught at the same high school for over twenty years and then played as hard as we worked. But my most enduring memory will be of that day, as I trudged along, tired and damp and weary. I looked ahead and there he was in his blue rain jacket, smoking a cigarette, and scanning the trail for me. He and Jan had set up camp and soon realized that something had happened to delay me. Scott volunteered to walk back up the trail, tuck himself under a tree, and wait. I was enormously happy to see him.
So as we ate and I told the story on that soggy night, we realized that we had collectively learned an important lesson. We now realized that we must always establish fixed stopping points where, knowing we would get stretched out on the trail because we all walked at different paces, we would meet up and carry on. We’d never again make the mistake of possibly leaving someone behind.
But what I quietly learned was a lesson in self-reliance. I had screwed up. I had fought through the panic. And, most importantly, I had figured it out and gotten back to camp safely.
But I had also learned that I was never truly out there on my own. If I had not been able to find my way, Scott would have been there to find me.
Next up! Scott Gets Abandoned—Or Thinks He Does!