Thursday, April 30, 2020

Lost Again

I grew up doing everything pretty much on my own. For a brief period after Dad died, my mother had re-married and I went from being an only child to being one of six kids. I got along okay with the others, but you couldn't say we were ever friends. I had a few very good friends with whom I went camping and fishing quite a bit but, primarily, I liked being by myself.

I know now that adults around me felt a little sorry for me because of my solitude, which they assumed was involuntary. They couldn't have been more wrong. I often elected to go off by myself when I had ample opportunity to be with friends. Especially when I was in the outdoors. To me, fishing, hunting and hiking were very solitary pursuits. I enjoyed my lone bicycle trips to the lakes, rivers and streams around Yellowstone to fish, hunt or just be out there.

Once I could drive, it was just that much better. I had a Toyota pickup with a camper shell on it, and I went all over that country. I got spectacularly stuck a few times and lost a couple of times but I always managed to get back in time to get to work. If my mother had known how often I got really lost in the woods, she wouldn't have allowed me out of the house without a bell around my neck!

I always explained my inability to find either my truck or the road it should be parked on by emphasizing the structural instability of the Yellowstone area. There must have been a localized earthquake that had moved the road to a different location. When I went hunting, I'd hunt elk and deer when I left my truck, then hunt my truck for the rest of the day.

I always figured that the early mountain men got lost all the time, too. It just didn't really matter to them because they didn't have any place to go back to, anyway. They weren't lost. They were exploring.

This tendency of mine to discover that whole drainage systems had changed around and that the sun was now setting in the south has plagued me to this very day. I just make allowances for it. If I'm only going for a short hike, I try to stay in an area where even a major shift of the local landmarks will not turn me around completely. I aim to get back to a road, not the truck, a line, not a point.

Two Top
Back in June of 1981, I had one of my more memorable hunts for my pickup. I was home on leave from the Air Force and decided I would go backpacking for a night or two. I drove up Mosquito Gulch and turned up the draw by Johnson's cabin, parking my truck about a mile up the dry stream bed, southwest of West Yellowstone. I then shouldered my pack and started trudging up Two-Top mountain.

Now most folks who've been up on Two-Top go up on snowmobiles in the winter because the view is fantastic and the wind up there moves the snow into weird sculptures; smal1 pine trees totally obscured by wind-scoured snow. But, in the summertime, nobody goes up there. I'd hunted the area before and there was an old sluice box I'd found once that I wanted to find again. Who knows, maybe old Johnson (if that's who'd built the sluice) hadn't found all the gold in the creek. 

It was a fabulous hike! I remember that it was hot and even a little humid. The hot sun brought out the odors of the grass, willows, pines...even the scent of the bark of the trees could be picked out. The loudest sounds were the sounds of my footsteps and the hum of the mosquitoes. The mosquitoes were so bad that I put on my rain jacket, thus covering myself, except for my hands and face, in clothing. I could still hear them popping against the back of my head, buzzing around and calling me names. No insect repellant could deter a Montana mosquito for long. They're tough, determined and they outnumber us so I think they'11 eventually take over the world! When I turned around to look back over my shoulder, there was a cloud of the greedy little buggers right behind me! So, I didn't look back very often, which is a big error in back country travel. If you think you might ever want to go back, you'd better look back once in a while so you'll know how to get back.

Up on top, there was a nice breeze blowing, so the mosquitoes gave up on me and went buzzing away, looking for other prey. As I stood quietly in a little bunch of "jack pines" I heard something in the clearing behind me. An elk calf, not much bigger than a small deer, was walking up to see what I was! It'd never seen people before and, since it was months before hunting season, mama must not have discussed the hazards of getting close to us world leaders. I got several really good pictures of the big, curious eyes, long knobby knees and puffing red sides of the young "Mountain Ghost". Suddenly, I heard Mama snorting, somewhere out of sight. The little one turned and raced clumsily across the clearing and back into the timber towards Mama. I never did see the mother because I'm sure she knew men aren't the safest of companions.

I tromped around for quite a while, finding the remains of the old sluice box. Couldn't pan out any fortune in overlooked gold, though.

I was planning to camp near the creek, but from the high vantage point of Two Top, I'd seen what looked like a really interesting storm blowing in. After reflection, I decided that the better part of valor (and of creature comforts, but we Mountain Men don't admit needing these) was to hike the two or three miles back to my truck and give up this camping idea in favor of a warm bed and a morning fishing trip. When you live next to Yellowstone Park you can make these spur of the moment decisions, you see. So, I headed up over the top again and back down, gleefully hurrying along towards my nice dry truck before the sky got around to falling on me.

I'd been hiking downhill about a half hour, daydreaming and just enjoying the mountains: the clean, fresh smell and sight of my world that I'd been missing for so long, when I got the feeling that all was not right with my world. It's hard to explain that sudden realization that, for all intents and purposes, you 've slipped into another dimension.

The steep part of the ridge should be on my right, not my left! The timber should be older growth, farther apart with more clearings and "parks". Apparently, while I wasn't watching, the earth has shifted again and I was on the wrong side of it. But, not being easy to convince, I decided that I just needed to keep going a ways and everything would change back again. So I did, but it didn't. Things got worse and I was soon on fairly level ground and surrounded by really thick four to six-inch diameter lodgepole growth.

That means a visibility of about twenty feet and a kind-of greenish twilight to see by. What finally made me decide that I needed to re-think my strategy here was, just at the edge of the visibility in the green, soft light and dark timber, I say a big, black something! I stopped to try and see exactly what it was. It snorted or growled or some such noise (since my hair was standing so straight, it had pulled my ears out of sync), telling me that, whatever it was, it most likely wasn't a tree!

There were some fairly uncomfortable possibilities. Moose? Not good. Moose can be very cranky when disturbed and I think, whatever my real intention, you could say that I was disturbing it. Bear? Definitely not good for the same reason as the moose. If it was a bear which (After those few split seconds of contemplation) I though it probably was, Was it a grizzly or a black bear. You see, there are degrees of terror. Although stumbling over a black bear or moose ranks right up there, annoying a grizzly is a real chart breaker!

Anyway, I stood frozen for about twelve years. Probably ten seconds in real time but I aged at least twelve years! (Gibson's "Theory of Relativity", write it down.) and whatever I was terrified of (I still don't know) stood there watching me.

Have you ever felt real terror? I don't mean being caught under the sheets with Dad's girly magazines and a flashlight. I mean feeling all the strength rush down your body and out your toes, leaving your whole being empty and cold. It's a physical feeling of a warm wave rushing down through your chest, stomach and legs, leaving ice behind. I don't know if you can physically function when that feeling comes over you or not. I don't think I can. I think, when that happens (and around the places I went in Yellowstone land, the feeling came frequently), I couldn't do anything but watch the proceedings.

Finally, my not clearly discernible companion decided I was petrified enough and it faded into the forest, going in the same direction I had been. Thus helping me to decide that it was time to retrace my steps. If the big, black blob was going south, I was going north!

I'd pretty much decided that I'd gone over the wrong ridge line, putting me into the Idaho side of the divide and, to get back, I just had to go back uphill till I got to familiar territory, then start over again. So, I started climbing back up the hill. The conditions were still pretty nice, but the signs of a major storm were building around me.

A pretty stiff breeze was starting to sigh through the fluffy tops of the tall lodgepole pines. Once in a while, I'd hear a sharp “crack!” as a branch broke from the topmost reaches of the trees .

About halfway up the ridge, I came to the edge of a small park. You find these little clearings all through the mountains. An island of sunshine and grass suddenly appearing in the midst of timber as thick as needles on a porcupine.

In this particular clearing, on this particular day, were two young bull elk. Both were what we call "spike" bulls. Both animals were gorgeous, a creamy, reddish gold color, almost shining in the still, bright sunlight. Their antlers were still covered in velvet, giving them a soft, almost unearthly look. Both animals saw me at almost the same time that I saw them. We all stood frozen in time for a few nano-seconds before they exploded into violent retreat.

I don't know why but elk don't seem to like to run away without causing heart failure in their pursuers. Elk can ghost through the timber without a sound, gliding, antlers and all, through thickets of trees and brush without stirring a leaf. But they can also go crashing through, twigs and divots flying, sounding like a big car wreck. It seems like, when I try to follow them, I always sound like the latter.

I kept on going up to the top, gradually entering familiar territory. By that time, the storm was coming in fast and you could tell it was gonna be a real downpour. Since I was back in an area I knew, and certain I could now find the truck with no trouble, I debated retreating back to the truck as quickly as possible. But I knew it would take me at least half an hour, maybe forty-five minutes to reach my vehicle and by that time I'd be half-melted by the drenching rain on the way.

Black clouds had obscured that bright sunshine which had been out only moments before. The wind was screaming through the trees and any branch not firmly attached was flying through the sky. When the first few rain drops began splatting down around me, I knew it was too late to head for home. My inadvertent visit to the Idaho side had insured that my over-night trip would be overnight.

I raced through the sudden downpour to a high spreading blue spruce tree near the top of the ridge. It was much shorter than the tall lodgepoles around me so, hopefully, I wouldn't be zapped by lightning. But it was great shelter because the branches were thick and spread out like a hens' wings waiting for her chicks. This chick dove into the tree's cover and cowered there, watching the rain come whooshing down!

Some Rocky Mountain rainstorms are quick showers, just giving a tantalizing glimpse of what a nice cool rain could do. Others are sudden bursts of roaring water, quickly over, as if God threw out the dishwater onto us. Others start with the initial deluge and then continue to pour down for days. This turned out to be one of the third. Just my luck.

Within minutes, everything I carried, even under the spreading branches of the spruce, was soaked. Even things inside my backpack took a drenching just from the rain water splashing up from the ground as the drops slammed down and then bounced back up.

Oh well, I just had to make the best of it, so I huddled under my rain jacket, holding my sleeping bag under there with me, trying to keep it as dry as I could.

Everything was already so wet that I couldn't get a fire going with either matches or a butane lighter. I had forgotten to bring any highway flares so I was stuck with going through the night without a fire.

When one of those long lasting mountain washing storms catches you like that, about all you can do is stretch out and wait it out. That's what I tried to do. As darkness closed in around me, the rain slowed to a steady downpour, like being under my uncles' sprinklers at full blast, for miles around. When darkness did settle in, it was a total darkness in which I literally couldn't see my hand. I know because I tried. There's no ambient light in those high mountains, miles from any artificial lights and with the stars blocked out by the thick black clouds, it was dark!

And cold. I was at about 8500 feet elevation, wet, cold and starting to shiver. Water was running along the ground into my shelter, further soaking my sleeping bag, as rain water dripped down through the branches, soaking one from both above and below.

I tried to sleep and did finally manage to drop off from sheer exhaustion but about one o'clock in the morning I woke up shivering. I was so cold my teeth were chattering, my down sleeping bag was soaked and thus useless. I had no dry clothes, no fire and no way to get warm. Since nature abhors a vacuum, I could only get colder as time went on. This was becoming an extreme case of hypothermia, getting worse and could, probably would, result in my death! Now, I like being in the mountains and if I had to pick the where of my eventual demise, I couldn't choose a better place, but I'd be embarrassed to let myself meet a tenderfoot tourist's end. So I decided I'd better just "saddle up" and start hiking.

I knew the walking would get me warm and I could be back in West Yellowstone for breakfast. I didn't dare try going back to my truck. If I had gotten lost in the day time, I could really get screwed up in the dark. No, it was only a few miles down to the Madison Fork Ranch and then to the highway, only two miles from town, and there was a pretty clear trail all the way. With my big police-style flashlight I knew it would be easy to find my way and the long hike would surely warm me up.

As I started out, I realized that it was a little harder to keep track of the east trail than I had expected. The steady downpour swallowed my flashlight's beam, resulting in a glow around me which illuminated very little. But, I did find a good trail heading down...almost a road. I kept to it, walking quickly, still shivering but getting better.

The next few hours are a memory blur. It was beginning to get light when I came to a hip-deep creek across the trail. "Oops. This shouldn't be here!" Again, the world had shifted around me, creating a new watercourse. Actually, after I got home and broke out my maps, I realized that this was Tygee Creek.

I'd kind-of figured that at the time. I realized I was on the Idaho side of the divide but a long way from West Yellowstone. Nearly as I could remember (if memory is a measurement of intelligence, I'm in trouble), it wasn't too far to Sunset Lodge from here so I might as well hike on down to there. So I kept going and going...and going, just like the Energizer bunny!

A road so wet and muddy that it was easier to walk on the steep bank beside the road, because my
feet sank over the ankle in the mud of the road at each step. Finally, as I came down from the mountain elevation, the roads' character changed to gravel, giving me a much better walking surface. The rain had stopped and now it was getting hot. I kept on walking. That one sentence pretty well covers what I did for the next few hours. I kept on walking. Finally, I was down onto the edges of the Henry's' Lake Flats and, far in the distance, I could see cars on US 191, the highway to West Yellowstone. I kept walking.

I finally got to the highway and started walking northwest towards Montana. An Idaho State policeman gave me a ride to the truck stop at Valley View, and from there I hitched a ride with a hippie (from riding with cops to riding with hippies. Also a cultural journey!) back to West Yellowstone.

My Mom was cooking at Hams Cafe, a truck stop in West Yellowstone, so I had my benefactor drop me there for a meal. When I walked into the kitchen and Mom saw me, mud to my knees, raincoat over super sweaty clothes, hair plastered to my head, most likely a blank, exhausted look on my face, she became very concerned. She looked at me with compassion and caring in her eyes and, very briskly, asked, "Where's the truck?". I was obviously okay since I was standing there so it was time to worry about more obvious things.

Later, my Uncle Dean and I hiked up to get the backpack and sleeping bag I'd left under my fir tree and to bring my truck back into the land of the living. So, all ended well and gave me a good story.

The Moral?

I don't have one. Although this is my most profound example of being "turned around" in the mountains, it's not the first and most certainly won't be the last.

I've spent much of my leisure hours hiking in the mountains and forests of southwest Montana, and I've been lost before, to one degree or another. I expect to spend many more hours in those same mountains and I expect to be lost again from time to time. If you keep your head, it's not that big a deal.

It has been a big deal, I know, to many people in many places. People who never made it out. So I take precautions.

I never go hiking without survival gear. Just a small belt pack carries extra food, first aid supplies, clean socks and fire making supplies. Ä good knife and waterproof matches are on my person at all times so that, even if I lose my little pack, I'll still have the means to take care of myself. Also, I try to always have a map of the area and a good compass also on my person. That way, several times, I've been able to realize the mistake I made and thus arrange to rectify it.

Mostly, although I'm as attached to microwave ovens and central heating as anyone, I am comfortable in the forest and I learned long ago that a few nights sleeping under a tree are just mildly uncomfortable, if you just keep your head and make the best of your situation.

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