Late last fall, I had a frightening, first-time experience at the end of a long day of hiking in Tucson’s Rincon Mountains. I’m fairly fearless when it comes to exploring alone in the wilderness, but this episode shook me to the soles of my hiking boots. It also knocked some cautionary sense into me and is one of the reasons we’ll do the Tour Du Mont Blanc with an outfitter and not on our own.
After four-and-a-half hours of solo hiking up a nine-mile ridge on an unseasonably chilly, drizzly day, I reached the Tanque Verde Peak. My climb began at 9 that morning, I reached the summit at 1:30 and after a brief rest to eat my sweet and salty bar and savor the view (luckily, the clouds had cleared shortly before I reached the top), I headed back down. Because I could count on gravity propelling me down in less time than it took to go up, I was confident I’d be back to my car with time to spare before the sun set at 6. Given the weather, which scared away most hikers, and the fact that it was a weekday, it was a lonely outing. I’d passed only two other hikers, both on their way down, over the course of the entire ascent. But, the solitude enhanced the experience: a long, strenuous hike with only my thoughts and the sounds of nature for company.
The return trail snaked west, out towards the distant city skyline and beyond it, the Tucson Mountains, thereby allowing me to track the sun’s decline as I made my descent. The morning drizzle had given way to partly sunny skies and the afternoon horizon promised a spectacular sunset. I must have had a lot to occupy my mind that afternoon because before I knew it, I was out of the alpine forest and back down to mesquite trees, cholla cactus and the mighty saguaro. The soles of my feet were just starting to whine and since it was approaching 5 o’clock, I figured I didn’t have much further to go. Any hiker on an out-and-back trail will tell you that it’s comforting on the return trip to recognize familiar rocks, trees, cairns and turns that were noted on the way out. As 6 pm approached and the sun continued to sink, the panic of having seen nothing familiar for the past 30 minutes steadily rose. The sun was almost gone, the temperature was dropping fast and I’d lost the trail.
As someone who often hikes alone, frequently for distances of well over 10 miles, my biggest fear is phantom trails. Those footpaths that beckon, seduce you into following them, lead you on, inspire confidence, speed and sure-footedness, and then drop you once you’ve committed. They simply disappear. I’ve had minor flirtations with such deceptive trails before, but always on terrain with which I’m somewhat familiar and where doubling back is never a problem. This time, however, I succumbed to the lure of the phantom path on a vast, unfamiliar ridge for almost half an hour and when I’d finally realized my error, not only the trail but the sun had also abandoned me. I swallowed the waves of panic rising in my gut and immediately decided that turning around was not an option. Doing so would put me further up the ridge and my chances of finding the true trail were slim. Far off in the distance – perhaps two miles or so -- I could see the red taillights that indicated a road and without more than a moment’s hesitation, I plunged into the brush to bushwhack my way back to civilization.
I could blame losing my way on full moon insanity, but I also have the lunar glow to thank for allowing me to see anything at all. And that included shadows that morphed into every nefarious shape and size my imagination would allow. The desert comes alive at night and thus I envisioned coyotes, javelinas, rattlesnakes and scorpions emerging with every step. I groped my way through whatever was in front of me and trying to maintain my pace, literally crashed through whatever was in my way. Since everything has barbs and needles in the desert, I knew that I would be a bloody wreck when (and yes, I did start to think “if”) I finally emerged on the road. As I steadily progressed, the ground suddenly dropped beneath me and I realized that what appeared from higher up to be a straight shot to the taillights was actually deeply undulating terrain. That meant more ground to cover and more opportunities for cactus to leave their marks. Needless to say, I did survive the hike, I did make it to the road and indeed, I was rescued. My husband Joe and brother Al both happened to call in succession just as I was losing faith that I would ever reach the road (thank you, Verizon, for your awesome reach). Joe kept me going and calmed my panic and Al, ever practical, said, “Mar, just call the police.”
Two hours later, embarrassed and bloodied, I was perched in the back of a squad car, providing my particulars to an officer who looked no more than 18. He’d contacted the Park Ranger who met us at the park entry, opened the gates and drove me the 5 miles to my car. Yes, it took me a few days to completely calm down; yes, I told Joe I would never again do a hike like that alone; and yes, I learned my lesson. The wilderness is wonderful and the rewards of solitude comforting, but there’s a limit to adventure and I had gone too far.