Little Feet, Big Shoes
The morning light coming up over the Mogellon Rim set the tone for the hike, lighting up the juniper and the cholla as we crunched the loose rock under our feet. Our hands immediately felt the cold and numb, something our bodies are no longer used to living in the Valley, wishing we had thought ahead and brought some gloves. Our cold quickly disappeared as we pushed through one curve after another, working our way through the narrow red rocked canyon and farther and farther away from civilization. The trail winded up the ridgeline exposing the canyons many layers that have been crushed and shifted through fault lines and natural erosion. Down the gorge we were following there were small pools of standing water but nothing flowing. This area was decimated by the Willow fire of 2004 which burned thousands and thousands of acres of the Mazatal Wilderness Area where the Bernhardt trail resides. Very little tree cover showed but fresh underbrush that had grown back over in the last four years. We passed dry waterfall after dry waterfall making us both wish we were doing this hike in February when water would be flowing. "Seasonal" water in Arizona means February-March. Everything else is dry and you might as well bring enough water. This of course is hindsight talking...
The canyon continues to climb higher and higher at a steady pace. Neither of us seemed to notice it as we plugged away with our trusty trekking poles yelling out to each other new and ridiculous ways to justify bringing the cursed "tourist sticks." "You could stab a rattlesnake and use it as a spit and cook it!" I said jokingly. "You can keep your pace, take the weight off your back, use it for a weapon, fight off ferocious bears!" fires back Noelle. Two seconds later we step over a pile of bear scat. This isn't the best sign starting out a hike but we aren't in Alaska so our concern is limited. We start to wonder how in the world this trail is going to take us out of the increasingly claustrophobic canyon as it appears to be dead ending. Just as we opened our mouths the canyon cut sharp to the left and the trail followed, bring us steeply over the next mile to climb to an incredible view of the Mogollan Rim and the entire area below. Breathtaking but we knew it only got better and we're timing ourselves so we had to move along. At mile three we were out of the canyon and into the burn zone. A massive valley opens up with rolling hills that at one time were covered with juniper, ponderosa pine and lush forest vegetation. All that was left now was tinder and burnt tree trunks that were dry enough for a second forest fire at the drop of the match. The grass was so dry it would torch the entire area in an hour. The wind whipped through the valley giving you the distinct image of just how these massive fires spread so quickly. Dry, brittle wood litters the ground waiting for the next fire. We follow this eerie area along the ridge in a gradual grade just clinging to the side of the ridge back and forth. We walk over various kinds of scat, bear, elk, white tail deer, and raccoon. All using the same trail as we are, just hoping for the easiest route. At around mile 5 we come across a lone hiker. Young, able and piled high in gear reminiscent of the hikers you come across alone on the Appalachian or Long Trail back East... A four foot tripod sticks out of his pack on his back. We stop and exchange pleasantries for a second and he warns of fresh bear scat from this morning on the trail ahead. We thank him and say our goodbyes and I immediately begin to scan the horizon in a new found level of nervousness and take a better lay of the land. High underbrush, mostly consisting of berry bushes, low level chaparral and burned mesquite. One blind corner switchback after another left us peering around the corner like a bunch of scared kids hoping we don't see a bumbling black beer sitting in the middle of the trail. One drawback of the trekking pole is it gets you into suck a rhythm you just go and go and don't look up. You start to get into such a zone knowing you have a lot of miles to cover you are only concentrating on the ground in front of you and stop looking around as you walk. That all stopped after the fourth or fifth time we saw bear scat on the trail and had confirmation from what appeared to be a seasoned hiker. I take a look across the open ridges, brush lines, ravines for any movement and take note that we are downwind of the trail we are headed to. We are only at mile 4 though; no reason to stop but definitely a little more on edge than five minutes before. 13 miles to go.
The trail to this point was very straight forward. Narrow but clear. The fire had knocked several trees over the trail but for the most part it was a quick walk with no route finding. That ended at mile five. The trail spilt off and moved down the valley to the west to continue the loop around the entire mountain range to the North and then back to the southeast where the car would be. At mile 6 we run across a beautiful camping spot all set up with rocks bracing a long log for several people to sit on and a fire pit already dug and built up. Water seemed to be an issue but then we noticed a dry creek just a few hundred yards away. Again, February or March but certainly not any other time. There wasn't a drop of water anywhere and not even a sign that there has been for months. Maybe on another trip we thought. Farther along the trail it follows the river more and then the river digs deep into the canyon walls creating a short slot canyon before it widens out into a massive valley of rolling hills and rugged mountains all covered with half burned trees. Repeatedly we came back to the thought that, "Wow, I wonder what this looked like before the fire?" We'll never know, it will take a hundred years to replace what was once here. Seeing one tree burned from the ground to the tips of every branch yet still standing, you couldn't help but think you were walking through miles of graveyards. Death all around us. No other humans, no animals, nothing. No sounds permeated the valley, nothing but the wind whistling through the brittle grass, the crunch of our boots on the loose rock and the sound of Noelle, "You could use it as a splint or make a gurney……"
The trail crosses one dry river after another. Runoff from the steep mountain ledges carved into the ridgeline forming riverbeds at every switchback. We were looking for Rock Creek and at Rock Creek we were to turn right (east) up the trail along the river to meet up with Hopi Springs trail to take us back to the car. We came across one of the MANY dry creek beds and saw a cairn on our side of the river, another across the river and the trail leading onwards to the north in the direction we have been heading. We look around the river for additional cairns that might lead us east but find none so I lead us along the marked trail to the next river. We decide to grab some lunch at mile marker 9.6 on the GPS watch which would match the distance from the top of South Rim to the Phantom Ranch checkpoint in the Grand Canyon. So at 9.6 we take a breather on the rocks in a dry creek bed next to a cairn. We broke out the Jet Boil and made some delicious beef stroganoff and lasagna with meat sauce in 3.2 minutes. Ate and apple, trail mix, a red bull, some water and anything else my hands touched. Everything tastes better when you have worked for it and we'd already climbed a good bit of elevation and put a good distance under our feet. I took the time to change my socks and couldn't have been happier with the decision. Your feet are the most important part of your body as a hiker and I felt like a new man with some hot food, water, dry, fresh feet. It's the little things.
Noelle becomes to get a little uneasy after lunch. In part from the energy drink which wasn't sitting well and in part with a general feeling that we were not going in the right direction. It's that uneasy feeling that your gut is telling you something is wrong. Given we have not found a single trail leading us onwards we keep on with the trail to the next river and then the next river. We cross another river and turn upwards to the west with the trail. Noelle is getting increasingly nervous and admittedly is freaking out. She was the map keeper and based on the crude map of the area our turnoff should have been somewhere around where we had lunch. Yet now we are headed west when we should be headed to the north or north east. Trails don't always take you straight in the direction you are headed and often times you have to go south to go north and east to go west. It's the nature of the trail and you have to trust it to get where you need to be. I pass this along to Noelle and ask her to just trust the trail and it'll be fine. The trail had all but disappeared after the first thirty minutes of hiking after lunch. We start shuffling through tall grass, cacti and broken, dry, charcoal brush. Every step is one step closer to a snake bite and my trekking poles have now become a blind man's walking stick, gingerly slapping the grass in front of me hoping to startle whatever might be there before it is startled by my legs. We crack our poles together and talk loud and whistle as we walk. The bear scat hasn't ceased and we only get farther from people and more into the unknown wilderness, higher and higher into the forest. As suddenly as we had found the trail we lost it again. This time to a wide rock field free of vegetation save a few sparse pieces of brittle, yellow grass. Nervousness and doubt creep in as the trail eludes us again. Frustration replaces doubt until I spot an obvious cairn of rocks out in the distance. I excitedly yell back into the wind, "See, we're on the right track! Just trust the trail!!" as Noelle breathes deep and chugs on, not nearly as excited as I am. Pushing through another section of high brush we break through to an absolutely incredible vista. Unbroken, vast wilderness, void of human existence. The sun is high above us to the southwest shining down on the barren, burned mountains below. We look past and behind where we had come and shake our heads at the sheer number of switchbacks we just went through. We are at mile 11 by now, only six more miles to go. Noelle is feeling a little better as we look out over the view knowing the trail book description mentioned such a view. From here we should start heading back for sure we thought. Again, the trail eludes us as we cannot find where the trail continues until I finally spot a slight path under the cholla leading down to the north. I jump down the rock ledges to try out the trail. It quickly reaches a switchback and heads south?? We need to be going east or north at best not south. We search around in a circle looking for the continuation of the trail. Finally we decide the to take the southern trail for a while to see if it was just a switchback before going north or it would go south all the way. After a few hundred nervous feet it switched to the north continuing that way for quite some time. The sun was hot on our backs as we followed what was beyond a desolate trail. Trees covered the path every few feet forcing us to climb over, under and around each one. The trail was narrow, faint and making us uneasy as the sun was setting slowly behind us. It arched around the ridgeline holding high up on the mountain waiting to give us a look as it curved around the mountain. The trail was to meet at 14.2 miles with Hopi Springs so maybe this trail is to take us along this ridge to the north to that mountains edge before cutting sharp to the east?? When we reached the saddle of the two ridgelines our hopes were crushed. Another entire mountain line awaited us to the north with an entire mountain valley but still going north. We trekked on as we continued to be uneasy. We started to rethink each turn and discuss contingencies. What if 14.2 miles is the middle of the trail? What if we reach 17 miles and we are at a river bed? Do we turn all the way around? Did I bring batteries for my headlamp; I'm almost out from last trip? Thoughts ran through our heads and an uneasy feeling reached my stomach as I start thinking about how we even got here. Noelle could have been right from the start and I didn't listen to her thinking she was just freaking out…13.6 miles…..still on switchbacks but now we are going downhill???? Downhill?? Now this is bad.
How could we be going downhill at this point? Looking down the valley it seems to have a water source as it is far more vegetated than higher up where we were. The valley is narrow and looks like it opens up and out the trail. Maybe the trail head meets up down there and you have to walk back up and out from where they meet? The trail was certainly getting a little better, more groomed with erosion walls here and there. We had talked about how the first few miles from the other side of the loop should be in better condition and it certainly seemed that way. Our spirits lifted with each sign of human life, my anxiety lifted with each human footprint. At the bottom of the valley the trail disappeared in the trees, the late afternoon sun shining down on a fallen giant of a ponderosa as I walk its trunk in search of the next cairn. One after another, a mouse following bread crumbs I lead us down the trail to 14.17 miles. A trail marker! We are on the right trail!!
The trail distinctly breaks off to the South and to the North or back where we came from with an old trail sign but not a label. We didn't expect a road map and head north after a hug and a high five. Morale is everything and we were excited to have some kind of confirmation that we were headed in the right direction. The sun was getting lower as it got closer to 4pm. We only had 3 more miles to go and after our recent boost in confidence we could just about run the rest. Another couple hundred yards and everything changed.
We were headed northwest almost immediately and after five minutes I noticed a pick axe. My eyes wondered further and realized it was a full campsite, no people but a frequently used campsite. This was a great sign; only 3 miles from the parking lot this totally made sense. Then I stumbled upon the sign. Apparently we did need a road sign because this one said, "Divide Trail." My heart plummeted to the bottom of my stomach. I felt like I had been swatted in the face with a shovel and then sucker punched immediately after. We were immediately in the shit. I hesitated to show Noelle but called her over and watched as her face turned white with fear and despair. We were in a bad situation.
"Let's work this out. We can't lose it over this. We can work with this." I tried as the one with composure. Noelle was being so strong but was clearly scared and the sun was fading fast. I raced ideas through my head and thought of every possible angle. Going back on the trial meant all those switchbacks up those two mountain ranges, through the trail less rock fields which would be dark by the time we got there, and then 10 miles back along the trail. It was only 430pm so we could be back in 6-7 more hours…the thought was demoralizing to say the least. We had gone from a mental image of 3 miles remaining to 15. An hour and a half to nine hours. There had to be another way. Noelle threw out camping at this site and resting for a while to think things out. I quickly dismissed that idea as we were losing sun and needed to get out of this canyon and at least back into the next range before sunset. The ridge in front of us is open of trees and looks climbable. From there we could run the ridge back to the rock field and possibly see the switchbacks we missed and cut down the mountain and save hours off our time back. My mind scanned memories of survival articles of people going off the trail. Rescuers not being able to find them because of it. I asked Noelle what she wanted to do and she agreed. Let's climb the mountain.
15.2 miles in we were tired. Not so much physically but definitely mentally. Add in the fact that we just assigned ourselves a task of 1800 vertical feet in less than a mile and racing against the fading sun, it nearly took it out of us. The first few rolling hills off the trail might have been the worst. Thinking through everything I have ever read about survival situations nothing stood out but Cody Lundin's survival book, 98.6 degrees. His mantra of staying cool and recognizing fear in yourself and others and controlling that fear before it consumes you and leads to poor decisions was flying through my head faster than anything else. Noelle was visibly shaken, a tough, tough woman putting every woman I have met to shame. "I'm sorry I'm freaking out, let's just keep going." She apologizes. "You are doing great; let's just follow this river bed until we reach the base of the mountain." "Ok."
The going was slow and painstaking. The rocks were huge and the hiking began climbing. Our pace plummeted to a crawl, I could feel my heart racing, wondering what the heart rate monitor would read when I got back. We both are stumbling and mis-stepping on rocks, both fearing a reckless injury and putting more care in each step. Every few feet I stop and allow Noelle to catch up. My adrenaline was flowing and I was on a mission to get up that mountain. I was no longer tired, thirsty or hungry. My body recognized the situation and was giving me everything I was going to need for the immediate time. So we plugged along a few bursts at a time. Noelle would apologize for not being strong and I would laugh at such a ridiculous statement. She was stronger than just about anyone I had ever met before. Who else could be dealing with this as well as she could? Just about anyone else would have just given up and sat down and cried. Not Noelle. She trudged on, one step at a time.
It was getting cold. The wind was picking up as we reached higher and higher and out of the tree's protective cover. All around us we had views for miles and miles. Mount Humphries, Arizona's highest, was within clear sight, the Mogollon Rim off to the north east and the sun setting to the southwest. Absolutely breathtaking at any other time but there was enough to be taking our breaths and I didn't even stop to take the camera out. Looking out over the mountains I watched for a few seconds as the sun hit the horizon. "We have to hurry Noelle! We need to get up there in 15 minutes to see anything!!" I pushed and pushed up that mountain, contemplating making a quick push through the rocks and running to see what I can before losing the natural light but thought better of it for Noelle. We would go together. She catches up to me as we crest the ridge and reach the peak finally. The sun has set but there is still some remaining light, enough to get our bearings and make some decisions. Walking south down the ridge towards our original trail we fall down and into a part of the forest with live trees. We suddenly cannot see anything to the east, our destination. The trees have been burned to a crisp for the last 16 miles and now when we need to see through the trees they are alive and thriving. Perfect.
We decide to make a quick stop while we have light and take stock of our situation. We don our previous layers to combat the quickly lowering temperatures and the biting wind and break out our headlamps. I find my new batteries and make the replacement now before I have to. "How much water do you have?" I ask Noelle. "A little left. Enough." "I only have a little as well. I didn't even drink anything going up the mountain." I relied. I look around for places to camp if we have to. Our choices we have are to run the ridge to the south and use the remaining light until we reach our trail and then head back in the dark or head east down through the forest until we can see the valley and get a better idea of where we were and if we can cut through the valley. We knew the direction we needed to go but really didn't want to have to walk all the way back around if we could do five or six miles to the car given the choice. We head downhill, east into the forest.
"I have to say, I feel much more comfortable on this side of the mountain." I said with renewed spirits. "I do too, just being this much closer to either trail makes me feel better." Noelle said. I lead the way through, keeping Noelle close behind me in the suddenly dark pine forest. The going was quick for the most part, downhill, open forest, minimal underbrush and what underbrush there was I just stepped on and crushed to sawdust it was that brittle. Going into a forest with rock ledges at high elevations at dusk immediately raised my adrenaline again but with new reason. Nocturnal predators hunt mainly in the first few hours after sundown and before sunrise or at least that is what I had running through my head. Either way, I was on alert. Further down the ridge we saw openings in the tree line and a view crept out. We immediately spotted the peak we were circling around and knew we were not far from where we needed to be. If we could keep going down this ridge and up the saddle to the next we would be right there. We could be there in an hour. Suddenly hope was renewed and thoughts of the warm, safe car emerged and everything was ok again. A hundred more feet and we could see city lights!! Gisela, the town that was only a mile from the trailhead turnoff was within sight! The 87 highway cars headlights spotting out the winding mountain road. If we just follow this ridgeline down we can swing around this mountain to the valley below and keeping the ridge on the right and city on the left we are back at the car. Worse comes to worse we can at least walk to the 87 and then backtrack down the road to the turnoff and reach the car that way. Problem solved. Now it is just a few hours of hiking and we're set. A few minutes more and those thoughts vanished and were replaced with depression, fatigue and hopelessness.
On our way down we reached a dead end. The mountain was cut in two by the river through the years and led us to a 2,000 foot cliff to the river below. To our left we could make out the same leaving us with no option at all of going to the north or east. We had to go to the south, back our original way. Nothing could have been more depressing. It was around 6pm when we turned around to get away from the Cliffside. Dark except for the crimson sunset buried deep beyond the far mountains, the last light peering through the trees from the south. We talked as we walked our way towards the light, crunching more branches as we went, still clanging our poles, whistling as a habit now. We hadn't gone twenty feet when I saw the eyes.
Nothing in my entire life has frightened me in such a way. Nothing. Walking along the tiny game trail we discovered as easier than smashing tree branches we came upon an unknown creature. My first thought was DANGER. An inherent gut reaction that this is NOT a deer. I immediately ruled out anything hooved. The eyes were only a few feet off the ground and a mule deer or white tail or elk would have been easily four or five feet off the ground, not to mention it would have bolted after a few seconds. These eyes were different though. Green not yellow in the reflection off my headlamp. The outline of the creature's body was faint and indecipherable. Ears up and alert I hoped it was not a bear but knew it was not. A bear would be a problem. A very big problem but somehow at that moment I hoped it was a bear.
Noelle cannot see the eyes and asks why we have stopped. She asks what it is but I don't have an answer. Just then I knew. Staring straight at me I held its gaze, mesmerized and intrigued. Thoughts ran through my head as to what it was as I banged and clanged my poles together, swinging them high in the air in big effect. I yell for Noelle to do the same, make as much noise a possible, just in case. Then it dropped down. Not in a way any animal could do but only one animal. It dropped down slow and stealth like, never taking its gaze off me. I juke forward in anger, rage climbing inside me almost willing the animal to attack. My body starts to become overcome with the feeling you get of an imminent fight on the playground. If it attacks should I charge it or let it come right at me? Do I drop one pole and fight with one or stick with two? Where the hell is my knife?!! Two steps. It took two cat like steps towards me. The kind you see a lion take on Animal Planet. Two steps as its body stayed an inch off the ground. My heart sank in fear that this situation went for an extended delay to a newspaper clipping. "Get your whistle!" I yell to Noelle. I unclip my big rescue whistle and blow with all my might as I hear Noelle doing the same as we both furiously thrash about destroying all remaining plant life in the area. The animal stopped, stared and bolted. It ran off to the right of us, uphill, eyes never leaving us, its eyes glowing in our lights and behind us and out of sight. "Do you have a knife? Where is your knife?!! Get your knife out and don't take your eyes off behind you!!! Keep scanning the area, back and forth." I commanded. "What was that?! Was it a coyote?" asks Noelle. "No." I have her dig out my knife out of my side pocket and I promptly drop it in the leaves. "Are you kidding me?" I bend down and dig in the leaves, Noelle does as well and I finally find it. "We need to make a fire. NOW!" I spin around in search of a place to camp. Somewhere with protection to our back and a closed off area uphill from attack. This thing might be stalking us and we need to be able to have some semblance of protection. We decide to forge ahead and find a better area, Noelle looking behind and to all areas, myself to the front angles. Right by the same spot we just saw the animal we pass and further up we find an opening in the forest with a large thirty foot "field' of brush. Any animal going through that will make a LOT of noise regardless of species. That will be our back, these trees to our left and uphill block that angle, the trail we just followed is directly in front of us and the trail to our right is in full view. I instruct Noelle to spin in circles looking for the reflection in the eyes from any area. They hunt alone so it should only be one. I quickly dig out an area, clearing rocks and building up a fire pit. I'm nervous to start a fire in such a windy place on the side of the cliff with the area so sensitive to forest fire right now. We have not choice at this point. I build up the pit two feet high to hopefully keep the flame inside and the wind out and build a secondary ring around it to prevent inadvertent burning of roots or underbrush. With plenty of bone dry wood and a good match the fire was crackling in just a few minutes. I bundle up a good stack in the area and pile it high for use later. We strip our packs completely of all wrappers, food, candy, fruit and anything with an odor. We pile it all in a dry sac and together we walked a hundred yards down the trail and I swung the bag and tied it twenty feet over a tree branch. Just in case. We took our emergency blankets and my rope out of our packs and dropped them under a log a hundred yards the other direction. Walking back to the fire I set up our camp. Taking my adjustable height trekking poles I punched a hole through each end of the flimsy emergency blanket. Using athletic tape to secure and prevent further tearing we secured each end and held down the back side with rocks and dirt making a quick make shift lean-to that would reflect the fires heat off the emergency blanket and back off us and make a reflective, shimmering wall at the same time that would hopefully ward off any unsuspecting critters.
The wind picked up and swirled the fire around and around sucking its warmth and draining our bodies of heat. The one remaining emergency blanket was surprisingly efficient but poorly designed. For a six foot man it is only six foot long. It isn't long enough to wrap around your body so you have to choose your upper or lower half. Obviously your upper half wins out and in turn your feet and legs are left to freeze. It didn't matter; there was no way either of us could sleep. I lay there in the dirt and rocks with the fire light shimmering off the forest around us, hoping that every time I did a check around the forest with my head lamp that I would see a set of green eyes 2 feet from my face, ready to pounce. My knife never left my grasp.
The night progressed as we waited for the moon to rise. With the moon coming up we would have enough light to walk out and attempt to find the trail back on the rock field and use our head lamps to get out. As the evening went on the temperature dropped more and more and the wind picked up even more. We were for the most part exposed on this cliff. Not more than a few hundred yards from the cliff face and at 7,200 feet in elevation it was a little cold for what our bodies were accustomed to. We spent the night shivering, shaking and alternating between being the freezing one who has to get up and fuel the fire. The fire became our beacon of safety. If the fire came out my reasoning was we would be more likely prey. It had to stay going.
It was cold and it was miserable. I woke up several times in a panic thinking I heard a helicopter. Thinking it was coming to pick us up. I nearly buried the fire at the thought. We are not incapable of getting back. We are physically ok just not in a position to get back just yet. Thoughts rang out by both of us about people's reactions to us not being home yet. Noelle worrying that her parents might delay their flight to New Zealand for vacation the next morning because she did not call them like she said she was going to and me when my boss realizes I didn't show up for work and then even more so when the meeting I run at 9am doesn't have its leader. People are going to be freaking out; we have to get back as soon as possible.
The night passed and the sun started to lighten the sky. We finally gave up on the fire and let it die out. I killed the fire the best I could without any water to quell it with. We spread it around and buried all the remaining coals and spread back out the rocks. I wonder if anyone will ever walk over this place again and think if someone camped here? I seriously doubt it. We collected our packs and our bear pouch of food and reloaded. It was 630am. 15 miles to go.
Back up to the summit we reached last night we headed south down the ridge back towards the rock field. I led the way as Noelle followed close behind. We were both feeling generally refreshed after at least giving our bodies a rest if not any sleep. Noelle's face was covered in soot and looked like a Charles Dickens character. She fired back that I looked just as bad but not very convincingly. We were on our way back and laughs only fueled the motivation. Down the ridge we had a great view of the area and I was certain we could follow this down to meet the trail. We passed a lot of places that in hindsight would have been better places to camp had we gone this way instead. Irrelevant at this point and we moved on, keeping a steady, fast pace through the trail less forest, over rocks, fallen timber and soft pine needles. We crest out on one of many summits along the ridge and I spot the exact spot we stood admiring the view of the surrounding area. Just a few more knolls and we are back to where we need to be. Once we reached the lookout Noelle was still not convinced it was the right place until I pointed out the south facing switchback we erroneously followed the day before. Finding the trail again was difficult and we struggled for the next mile looking all over for cairns to get us back on track. I led us back up hill to where I believed the trial led us before and despite disagreement from Noelle we found a cairn and the trail. We were off and headed back down the long road to humility.
We didn't stop for anything. We rushed and rushed, keeping a very fast pace. I had no water at all, just dribble in the hose. Noelle had some left so she conserved what she had. We split an apple which pushed me for a while. It was not hot yet so that helped. One step in front of the other, one pole digging in after another. I could feel my heels blistering up and tearing but I didn't want to stop. I could make it without stopping. We pushed hard for the first five miles, stopping again on the river we both thought we missed as the turnoff and still not seeing where the trail was supposed to be. Moving through the valley we saw no wildlife. Three times Noelle said she heard growling but I heard nothing. More reason to keep moving.
Dehydration started to play its inevitable role. We were at eight miles remaining when I started to feel it. Eight more miles without water? We can do it. We still had an 8 oz. non carbonated organic energy drink. 4 oz each. It was something to strive for and we decided at the campsite at mile 6 we would share it. Sitting there for a short couple minutes we ate our last apple and shared the drink. Deliciously disgusting as it was I was glad I had it. Might have been better off with the apple but liquid is liquid. 6 more miles. Its past 9am. They would have called by now. People are going to freak out. I never miss work. Noelle at least works from home occasionally so it won't be immediately apparent she's missing. Me, they are going to know immediately. People knew I was hiking today but only a small few knew where and nobody knew the entire plan. Stupid. Planned for everything else but didn't even leave a hiking plan with anyone. Stupid.
The wall came when we reached the canyon again. I didn't remember it being such a big portion of the hike but nonetheless it took seemingly forever. One switchback after another switchback after another. It was miserably monotonous and my personal trail rating was plummeting with each step. The canyon, hills, mountains and trees were all ugly now, there was no beauty left in these hills. I was really thirsty now, thinking about that gallon of water sitting in that nice cool car waiting for us to guzzle it. I kept looking back and checking on Noelle, "How are you doing? How are your knees?!" "The half Ironman has nothing on this…." She replies in reference to the pain she felt after her half Ironman a few weeks ago. I agreed and marched on. Winding around the bed we came across our first human in a full day. An older gentleman taking some photos of the "beautiful" canyon. He asked how far back in we went and I could do nothing but smile. "Pretty much all the way and then some. Got off track a bit and did a few extra for the heck of it." "So you camped out then?" the old man said as Noelle caught up. Covered in soot and weary but not beaten, she says, "No, we stayed out last night." "Unexpectedly." The man stares at the two of us.
"Yeah, it was a bit of an adventure, 30 degrees, 30 mph winds, side of a cliff at 7200 feet, mountain lion stalking us. No big deal."
"I always carry a gun when I hike up here. Bears and mountain lions all over here. I haven't heard of anyone though that has run into a lion though."
"Well, now you have."
Two miles to go. Every switchback made me want to jump down the cliff and skim off the rocks to save the distance. Something made me think better of it. We reached the last few switchbacks when a few white tails came scrambling up the ravine and crossed the trail in front of us and up into the rocks. Only a mile back now.
Every reflection in the trees seemed to be the sun off the car windshield but never was. Coming around the last bend we came across the cattle guard gate at the very beginning. I waiting for Noelle to reach it and let her go through first. As soon as we got through I saw the truck and its recognizable red, white and blue colors. Nothing patriotic about it, this was Search and Rescue. I walked up to his pickup truck he was sitting in as he climbed out.
"I imagine you are looking for us." I said calmly.
"You Jeremy?" asked the Ranger.
"Yes Sir, I'm guessing someone ended up calling. We were afraid of that."
"Boss called, I just called your cell phone." Said the Ranger.
"Yeah, it's in the car, it didn't get reception when we came in so I didn't take it. We hiked out the Barnhardt but the trail is so bleak you can't see where to go and we ended up on Divide, climbed the ridge, ran into a mountain lion, camped out and waited for day light and walked out." I said regrettably.
"Yeah, the trail isn't too marked back in there. I'll call off the chopper then" as he reaches inside his truck for the dispatch radio. "I'll call your boss and let him know."
"Chopper?" "Seriously?!!" I ask incredulously, somehow thinking they would never really send one.
The Ranger just nods and disappears inside his pickup.
The Honda Element was surely a welcome sight. Naturally both our cell phones got reception allowing us to discover the depth of the madness we created. Looking over at Noelle's soot covered, dirty face and body I couldn't help but laugh. We made it back safe and sound, not without worry we were sure but we made it. 30+ miles later, no water, blisters, cold, face of a cliff and a freaking mountain lion. It was a scenario that we could have avoided maybe but we also could have handled much worse and led ourselves to a series of greater consequences. Instead we were able to make it out on our own feet despite several obstacles showing me that there is no tougher woman than Noelle Baca and there is way my feet are big enough to fit the shoes I yearn to fill. We made it but we'll never live this down.