Rabbit Hole

It’s complicated, right?

There’s the election, which has made me a little catatonic. There’s the fact that my father died, in mid-October, an event both difficult and lovely, if you know what I mean. He was ready, so ready. He was resolved and calm. In fact, during his final week, he crossed a threshold back to his sweet, gentle self, a transformation that made me understand just how difficult these years since mom died have been for him; how much he struggled, and how that struggle surfaced in his irascibility and selfishness. Suddenly he smiled, he reached out, he gave and accepted warmth. And we were lucky enough to surround him with family that final week together in a comfortable, loving setting. No hospital room, no tubes and interventions, just an 89-year-old body accepting the inevitable, and the will to go.

Of course, too, the usual clamor of life – making ends meet, paying property tax, teaching classes, finding and writing stories, feeling our way into our empty-nest (at least sporadically) phase of life, making plans, being social, being political, being sane. The juggling act that sometimes feels like it is taking place on a tightrope.

But then, it isn’t complicated in the least. As when, the first weekend of November, just after my 64th birthday, I noticed that the gauge on the Smith River was high enough to float, and that the weather for the weekend looked good, and that my Thurs. classes weren’t meeting, and we loaded up the boat, drove to the put in and slipped away, or back into, for four days on a stream where the float season usually ends sometime in July. Jesus what a window of beauty. Long, cold nights set off by deep-blue days in the grip of limestone canyon walls and chuckling current; four days of reset button, where the order of things shuffled back into place and the timeless, seamless power of the world, the seasons, the night skies, the unfurling water, the soaring birds, the sharp, fall light – all of it came back into focus.

There is so much more, so many events, from the summer that remain unrecorded, except for the memories, the marks on maps, a few photos, the images that come stabbing back at unexpected moments – how suddenly I’ll find myself in a snow squall on top of a pass in the mountains of Utah with the world rolling off into the foggy distance when I’m walking down Main Street on my way to a coffee shop, provoked by, something – a smell, a sharp sound, a movement at the edge of vision.

But here, a fragment from the summer, at the end of our week-long hike across the Highline Trail in northern Utah. It was a journey back in time for me, to a mountain range I spent months at a time in during my early twenties. This piece takes place on our final day, when we fell down another rabbit hole and only re-emerged near dark when we finally fumbled our way out again.


Should have paid attention. Should have known better.

At dawn, for instance, sitting in camp waiting for light to strike, when I notice how far north the sun is rising. Odd, I think. Must be my orientation. Or, on the previous afternoon, when we noticed a couple of horse riders crossing the same ridge farther up the basin. But then, from the ridgeline, looking down at the lake I expected to be there, I discounted it. Must have been herding up some stray sheep. Or, last evening, watching a band of elk graze uphill toward the ridge, feeling a strange need to follow their line. Weird.

But we know where we are. Lake Wilde, 3 or 4 miles from the trailhead at the base of Leidy Peak, a week in and nearly 80 miles from our start at the western end of the Highline Trail. Seven days spent along the spine of the Uintas, at or above tree-line between 10,000’ and 12,000’. A handful of peaks. 9 passes. Feeling pretty good for a couple of Social Security types.

Of course we study the map, as we have studied maps along dozens and dozens of trails over 40 years of backcountry travel. My eyes rove over the terrain – neighboring drainages, peaks, isolated lakes, places to go next time. No GPS crap for us. Seems like everyone we’ve seen along the trail has been riveted to their device, spitting out mileage, time moving, time sitting, waypoints, elevation. No thanks. I don’t even like wearing a watch.

Since passing the wilderness boundary, a couple of days back, the trail has become more sketchy. We’ve had to stay focused, match landmarks, search for cairns, discount the ‘helpful’ rock piles people leave, thinking they are on-route when they are not. A little challenging, but not bad. Last night I wandered past the end of the lake, along the slope we would follow toward the trailhead, looking for sign. Didn’t find much – a vague tread here and there, some cairns.

After breakfast we set out, aiming for the rounded mass of peaks, working our way gently up the ridgeline toward it. “We’ll be out before noon,” Marypat says, securing her poles.

Fateful words. Because now, 10 hours and maybe 10 miles later, it’s evening and we’re back within a mile of that same lake, having spent the day tromping around with our packs on, growing increasingly frustrated and confused. Damn!

In that disquieting trip down the rabbit hole, we persisted in trying to make a not-quite-right landscape line up with the map, like forcing the wrong pieces into a puzzle. We climbed the peak, walked around the peak, found cairns – some quite substantial – and tried to figure out where they led. We circumnavigated a mass of peaks, staying above treeline, looking for roads, parking areas, lakes, drainages. We stumbled across boulder fields, retraced our steps, looked from different vantage points. All the while we kept assuming that we were within a maddening mile of our car, and that somehow we just weren’t seeing things right.

Mid-day came and went, and anxiety loomed at the edges of thought like an eclipse, threatening to overwhelm basic safety protocol and common sense. When we glimpsed a snippet of distant dirt road, Marypat argued for bushwhacking our way to it and figuring things out from there. I felt the same seduction, something tangible, that ribbon of dirt that had to lead somewhere, that might have vehicles, but then, I couldn’t bring myself to plunge further into the unknown, down into the forest, where we would likely lose the thread back to the last spot we had the trail. The knowledge that, no mater how turned around we were, we could still find our way back to a solid reference point, was my life raft.

More than once, I was reminded of Geraldine Largay, who wandered off of the Appalachian Trail in Maine, got turned around, and slowly starved to death over the next month. Her remains and a journal were found 2 years later less than 2 miles from the trail. Or of earlier explorers who lived in a constant state of geographic unease, and of the mental fortitude it took to stave off panic. I also thought of moments of geographic confusion in my life – searching for the outlet of an Arctic lake on a remote canoe expedition, or setting up an orienteering course in dense Wisconsin woods when I suddenly realized that I was completely turned around myself. I knew I was less than half a mile from a dirt road, but in those dense, trackless woods, I had no idea in what direction. Those were moments of barely contained anxiety, when I was prone to fantastic suggestion, not to mention stupidity.

It is as if, in those confused, unmoored situations, everything is questionable, nothing makes sense. If I don’t know where I am, what else is certain?

Here in the Uintas, it was compounded by the appearance of substantial cairns that must lead somewhere. We even found ourselves building a few rock towers at moments when we thought we were on the right track. At one point I had the absurd notion to take out the key fob and try to unlock the car doors, hoping to hear the car beep back at me.

“Where the hell are we?” we each said, at various points and with increasing vehemence.

Around mid-afternoon, I suggested my Plan B. “Look, we know how to get back to the trail. Rather than getting more lost, if we really can’t find the car, we should retrace our steps to the last trailhead, 10 miles back, and hitch a ride out. It would be a total pain, but it beats getting good and truly lost with no food.”

“No way,” Marypat said, at first, but as the day wore on, and our confusion deepened, she began to relent.

All of this confusion stemmed from our absolute conviction that we camped at Lake Wilde the night before. Every time we looked at the map, we began with that premise. I couldn’t get past that certainty. From there, nothing quite fit. Close, but not right.

Which brings us back to evening, back on the ridgeline above our previous camp, the ridge I’d watched the elk graze over, feeling the odd urge to follow. Too stubborn to admit defeat, we climb to the crest and look over. Marypat hikes to a nearby prominence to get a better vantage. I get out the map again.

Below me, another lake glimmers at the base of another ridgeline. Like mist dissolving in the day’s warmth, an idea emerges. What if, I think, that lake is actually Lake Wilde, and the lake we camped at was Blue Lake, one ridge over. A very similar topography, but not the right one. I orient the map, line things up, look in front of me, behind me. I still resist, but it starts to make sense.

When I show Marypat, she studies it for a long time, then nods slowly, ruefully. We are still so untrusting of terrain, of ourselves, of the map, that even as we start, we vow not to get pulled off into another goose chase. If it doesn’t really look right when we get there, we’ll still default to my Plan B.

We trudge toward the new lake. I lie on my belly to drink melt from a snow bank. We haven’t eaten since the half-cup of granola at breakfast. We are beat. But a quarter mile up the faint trail past the lake, lying on the ground next to a rock cairn, is an old wood sign with an arrow pointing east – Leidy Peak – 2. I prop it back up, make sure the arrow points in the right direction.

We set about getting food out, lighting a stove. Then Marypat makes her suggestion. “What if we eat some dinner and book out? Even if we don’t make it all the way, we can camp wherever.”

Twenty minutes later, daylight waning, we are hiking again under our packs. This time, finally, the landmarks align with the map. Lakes are where they are supposed to be. Still, every time something looks off, that eclipse of panic starts rising again.

More than a mile along, we come across a couple camped above the trail. We share stories. It turns out that they endured a similar day, following an errant trail sign, walking an extra 8 miles, questioning everything, before finally realizing that they had to bushwhack more than a mile up a steep slope to regain the trail. And they have GPS.

Twilight deepens. Cairns emerge out of the dusk, contouring around the correct peak. An occasional sign appears. A few times we lose the thread of trail, talk about camping, but then find another cairn, keep walking into the shadows. And ten minutes to full dark, when I push the key fob, our little Toyota chirps back through the gloaming, a cheerful and reassuring connection to the known, mapped world, and a reminder to pay attention to the damn clues next time I’m so wedded to the topo sheet.

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