by Padma Samten
After spending Sunday night at Pickett State Park, my companions and I began our hike at 8:30 a.m. As we broke camp the sky was clear but soon clouded over as we trekked along toward the Sheltowee Trace. Our route was simple: follow the green-blazed Hidden Marker trail to the brown one, the Rock Creek Trail, and end up on the Coffee Trail (orange). Easy enough, I thought. My bag was packed awkwardly and I was in lousy shape, but my knees did well (they'd been injured years before) so I was able to keep within about twenty minutes of the group, catching up during breaks.
That afternoon we came to a river crossing that involved scrambling over a beaver-like collection of tree trunks. Crossing was a four-limbed workout and got my adrenaline going. I looked up and saw Shugchang and Jenny heading left after they'd made it up the bank. Then I bent down to the task at hand, carefully placing a boot here, grabbing a branch there, sometimes swinging, sometimes crawling. Dondrub and I got to the other bank at the same time and we took a left, noting our friends' boot prints in the mud as we set out with vigor to catch up and put that adrenaline to work.
The sky is threatening rain. We're legging it down the path with an urgency--neither of us had a tent-- our friends had them. We zipped past some blue trail markers indicating the John Muir trail which was not on our route at all. I figure it has somehow joined our trail and give it no more thought. I would not see my friends again for several days. Although I'd spotted them going left, they'd quickly realized that was the wrong direction and doubled back to the right, unseen by either Dondrub or I, who had still been busy negotiating the passage.
We've already put in about ten miles on this, our first day, my pack is starting to bug me and my feet are cold and achey. Rather than resting to clear our minds and take stock, we push on and pass an old railroad tunnel just off the path. We're bent on catching up with the others so as to make camp and eat dinner. It begins raining. The signs indicate we're on the wrong trail, but headstrong, we still don't add it up. Dondrub has gotten out ahead of me and we're having to cross and recross the stream repeatedly. Finally I give up taking off my boots and splash on through. I want to catch Dondrub to tell him we're lost and that we ought to make it back to the tunnel before we're soaked. This takes a while.
It's cold, wet, raining harder now and the stream is chilly. I'm glad for my high tech gear, it's keeping me warm and dry but that feeling of being left behind-- a little scared, disoriented and pissed, is discouraging. Makes me feel cold inside. So I start doing the Green Tara mantra, remembering the Saviouress--fearless bringer of courage. Quickly that cold feeling in me is replaced with a warmth, a can-do attitude. I'm determined, not only to get back to the dry tunnel, but to figure out what the hell happened and what drives us to ignore distinct signs that scream we're off our route and keep lurching ahead!
Soon I catch up with Dondrub who doesn't need any convincing to turn back. We find our way to the railroad tunnel and build a small fire to dry off. Nice. It's alright except for that knot in my gut; how did we space out like this? By now the rain has turned to snow and our companions have long since made camp, no doubt wondering whatever became of us.
Dondrub, who was less soaked than I, was willing to backtrack from the tunnel to see if he could find their camp. Fine, I'll make dinner. It was snowing gently outside when he left. I hoped he would not crap out in finding them because we could easily catch up early in the morning after our things were dry. Meanwhile, he was diligently sloshing along the trail, past the river crossing, not far enough to find their camp, and turns onto another trail. He's hoping that they must be just ahead, just keep on trucking.
Suddenly, he comes upon a large cave mouth and notices campfire flames dancing inside. Ahaa, found 'em at last, he figures. He strolls in, sees a figure about forty feet deeper in the cave and calls out, Hey you guys!
I was contentedly sitting at the fire, hoping that Dondrub's not being back yet meant he'd found them. Suddenly I hear footsteps at the other end of the tunnel. Turning around I hear Hey you guys! And there's Donbrub, dripping and bounding my way. "What the hell are you doing?" I ask and it dawns on him that he's only found me from the other end of the tunnel. He needed no explanation for the dumbfounded look on my face! We both laughed it off but I was feeling bad that the mission was a flop.
The next morning, we break camp, find our way to the truck, study the map inside and decide to try to head them off further up the trail. We make a mad dash up some hills, along a high ridge, and down to the Great Meadow Campground where we figure our friends will pass along the trail. Dondrub gamely sloshes across one last creek and leaves the note in a zip-lock bag. It says that we're beating a retreat to regroup, repack and rejoin them three days later at the Flat Rock Baptist Church rendezvous point. Unfortunately, they had passed the spot where we left the note two hours earlier so we missed them again. By now they must have figured that we'd bailed out.