Emery Cookston - Whole Earth Ambassador 2019Posted by Whole Earth | 08.30.2019
Unexpected Detour – A Cautionary Tale
Emery Cookston is manager of Whole Earth’s Post Oak store in Houston. He’s a dedicated long distance hiker, spending as much time as he can manage on the Pacific Crest Trail each year.
Phelps Creek Trail. It was the first trail marker I’d seen since I started the day. I felt relieved that it offered a kind of certainty, an answer to a nagging suspicion I’d been feeling for hours: I was lost, alone, surrounded by fire.
This wasn’t the first sign I’d come across. In fact, I’d passed two makeshift signs earlier in the day with maps crudely stapled in place as if to designate the urgency of their message. They were outlines of the Lost Creek Fire Closure.
The first sign gave me enough pause to force a break and spend time checking maps, confirming my position. Well, as best I could as my “maps” were really just pictures. This was a detour so none of the maps I’d brought had this section on it. I’d stopped at a ranger station a couple of days prior and taken pictures of the maps designating the safe zone around the fire closure. Looking at these maps now was pointless, since I’d hiked well off them by 11am, and now none of the geological landmarks matched up. So, I did what all intrepid adventurers do: I convinced myself I was somewhere else. My Boy Scout skills were rusty, but this was surely the correct direction. I was heading southbound. I’m a SOBO (southbounder,) and it seemed right to me. So, I headed forward. Right Foot. Left Foot.
The second sign came hours later, after a rough descent. Super steep and loads of elevation. It felt as if I’d just lost the 3000 feet of elevation I’d gained to meet the first sign. I passed a small campsite at the foot of a huge plateau below a snowy pass. I finally took a moment to look back and followed the snowmelt from the pass as it fed a small pond, which fed a stream that wound through the grassland atop the plateau. Again, the water changed and split into two distinct waterfalls that cascaded into more and more streams as it traversed its way down the plateau’s steep slopes. I stopped for lunch.
After lunch, I continued my descent from the campsite through a meadow. To my right was a familiar stream. I took comfort in having now traversed the entire life cycle of this stream from its snowy conception, past its gestation as a pond, to its transformation from a small trickle into a roaring spectacle, only to now find it as a gentle flow. There was a kinship in those droplets since we had both completed the same descent and were finally able to slow our pace and take in the scenery. At the end of the meadow, I found another campsite just past the remnants of a frontier house. I smiled as I walked through and imagined what it would be like to live in this valley. Alone save for my thoughts and the friendly stream, I ran into the second sign.
It was at the southern end of the campsite, as if to warn people heading north of the fire danger ahead. Luckily, I was heading south, so I was going the right way. Still, I felt compelled to stop and take a picture this time. It was, after all a map, and I had begun to feel doubtful, having had no confirmation of my location for some time. This would either serve as a fun souvenir or a functional tool should I discover I was not where I thought.
I continued south, exiting the meadow into a forest. It had been nice hiking in the open environment of the meadow. I could see the valley all around, but now I was surrounded by mature pines with tall barky trunks reaching into a dark canopy. Even the stream had changed. I still followed it, this time much more closely. Just a few feet from the trail, steep banks led to a quick-moving body of water, no longer a stream, but not quite a river.
Maybe it was the sudden change of light, or the louder, stronger stream, but I began to feel more and more uneasy. The trail was flatter here, with more dirt than the rocky trails of my descent, or the grass-filled terrain of the meadow. There were small mud puddles, and I inspected the various footprints leading into and away from them. Were they recent? They didn’t seem old. What did I know about these things, anyway? It was becoming more and more relevant that I hadn’t seen another person the entire day. Odd, considering this detour should serve as a kind of bottleneck for several trails.
I found myself pausing with more and more frequency to perform my rudimentary footprint inspections. I’m no tracker to be sure, but I do work in at Whole Earth. I know shoes. I was trying to differentiate hiking boot treads from the utilitarian treads of work boots. The kind I figured a firefighter would wear. They were all different, and some identifiable: Merrell Moabs here, Asolos Renegades there. This seemed to me a good sign as I imagined all firefighters wearing “Department Approved Hike/Fire Boots” tested and sanctioned by the US Forest Service. Variety meant other hikers, and other hikers meant safety. I was where I hoped I was, and if I happened to run into someone else, well, maybe they would have a map.
I was a little over two miles into the forest when I saw it in the distance: the clear sign of a trail junction. Surely there must be a marker, or maybe the trail will correlate to some landmark on one of my maps. As I got closer, I could make out that this trail headed west away from the now swollen stream and something else. A sign, a trail marker? Best not to judge until closer inspection. A branch can look like just about anything, from a marker to a snake. But sure enough, it was as I suspected: a trail marker. It was facing west toward the other trail and clearly meant to designate the trail I’d been hiking down. I couldn’t read it until I was right on top of it. I stood in the middle of the junction and made out Phelps Creek Trail painted clearly in white lettering.
Phelps Creek. Why did that sound so familiar? I checked my maps. While my trail maps from the ranger station had no information about this trail, the Fire Closure Warning map proved to be more useful. Down the center of the fire closure the words Phelps Creek were clearly printed in the italics to designate a geological feature. I followed the creek north towards the top of the map, and, unsurprisingly, it snaked out of a wooded area into a meadow – Spider Meadow. Spider Meadow lead into a steep ascent through a narrow, rugged pass that wasn’t a pass at all. It was a gap, Spider Gap. I now remembered the word I’d been looking for -- a body of water between a stream, but not quite a river -- it was a creek. I had been following Phelps Creek.
Armed with this realization, I quickly identified my location: I was right in the middle of the map, inside a bold red line in an area filled with red hatch-marks. I was in the middle of the Lost Fire Closure, the exact place I had been trying to avoid. The gravity of my mistake began to sink in. I dropped my pack and collected my thoughts. I was out of rolling papers, so this would be my last cigarette. If I was lost, I might as well temper that realization with some nicotine. I ruminated on my predicament. I couldn’t stay; I was surrounded by fire on all sides but one - North. This meant I had no choice but to follow my friend the stream that was really a creek back north through what I now knew was the “Realm of Spiders” back up and through the pass that was really a gap that was also named for those nefarious beasts.
I let it sink in and did what any intrepid adventurer would do: move forward. Right foot. Left foot. I only had a couple hours of daylight left and I had about three miles back to the campsite at the base of the plateau. As I passed through Spider Meadow I marveled at the view before me. Although the terrain was named for arachnids, there didn’t seem to be any in sight. Instead there was a beautiful grassland split by a winding creek that led up to a tree covered plateau bordered by three waterfalls leading into a snowy gap. It was beautiful. It looked hard. I took no pictures as I pressed backward, now forward, as I raced the sun to the campsite.
I arrived with less than an hour of daylight remaining, thirty minutes till sunset and another twenty until true dark. I hurriedly set up camp. I barely had time to set up my bear line and start cooking dinner before it became dark. I’m used to cooking in the dark. It’s the one area I really refuse to compromise when it comes to equipment. I like cooking as it’s the best gratification after spending a long day of hard miles solely thinking about food. Tonight though, I dreaded it. See, normally even though you may be alone in the woods, you’re rarely ever truly alone. There are some other hikers within a mile or so of you. There are only so many water sources and so many flat areas to camp.
Tonight though, I knew exactly where I was. Inside a zone that had been closed to the public for weeks. The closest possible people were at least four miles away over a treacherous geological formation. It would take me at least half a day to reach anyone. On top of that, the creatures of the forest naturally avoid humans; but since there had been none for weeks, I was surely the only person in town. The animals might have returned to reclaim their favorite spaces from the stinky people who had pushed them out.
I was very aware of this as the aromas of my meal wafted through the campsite. I heard a rustling and turned my head while simultaneously turning my headlamp to max brightness. Nothing. Well, something. It just didn’t want to be seen just yet. I hurriedly ate my dinner, but I still made time to make a cup of hot cocoa. Even though I was creeped out by my aloneness and feared not actually being alone, there was always time for cocoa. It made me happy, and I felt a little calmer knowing dinner was done.
I made the journey into the dark and hung my smellables at the proper 100 feet away from camp. There was no real difference between here and the camp, and yet I always feel more exposed. Especially in the dark. I hurriedly returned to camp and quickly got into the safety of my tarp. I lay there in the warmth of my down quilt in comical garb of all down, pants, jacket, and beanie. I decided to read as it was still early, and I needed something to distract me. It was at this point that I realized how exhausted I was. I had experienced over 7000 feet of elevation change that day over snow, rocks, and forests. As I read, I was suddenly jolted from my pseudo-slumber by a rustling. I quickly turned on my light and this time was able to spot the creature responsible. It was a mouse. Even though I had stashed all my smellables, the smells from dinner had obviously attracted this guy. I shooed him away hoping he wouldn’t return to do something nefarious like chew a hole in some crucial piece of equipment or even worse, return not as a mouse, but a bear.
I awoke early. I decided to do a cold breakfast of granola and milk with fruit, all dried of course. I wanted to get out quickly, to shake this state of lostness and enter the world of “found.” I still made coffee, though. In fact, so long as the day can begin with coffee and end with cocoa then things can’t be all that bad. I sipped on my cup as I surveyed my equipment before leaving. I finished my coffee in a big gulp. This day was coming whether I liked it or not, and better to just get it over with.
I packed my gear and surveyed my camp making sure as to not leave any speck of trash or equipment behind. I struck out north to begin the over 3000 foot ascent into Spider Gap. I didn’t even notice the stream or waterfalls as I had a singular mission: Make Miles. Get Found. Even though the terrain was just as steep and rocky as I remembered, it didn’t seem so hard this time around. The faux trails I had taken down the steep terrain of the plateau now gave way to much easier trails, clear as day, with more reasonable well-travelled terrain. How could I have missed these going down? No matter, I took this small victory and booked it as fast as I could. Up to the top of the plateau to the pond of Phelps Creek’s birth then up the steep, rocky ascent into Spider Gap. I followed the snowpack up the now obvious trails through the winding cliffs and peaks as fat ole marmots screamed at my arrival, yet made no move to evade me as they lazily sunned themselves on their rocky perches.
In the distance I saw it. The first sign which I now realized was trying to warn me that I was heading into a no man’s land. I reached the sign and dropped my pack. Finally, I was as close to found as I had been in the past twenty-four hours, and I felt relieved. I dug out my sharpie and put a star coupled with a note on the map clearly designating the reader’s location and explained the need to go back. Hopefully no one else would make the same mistake.
As I returned, I marveled at my stubbornness, and it became more and more apparent how obvious my mistake had been. Why would no one have mentioned kicking holes into a snow covered pass or glissading down the other side? Why no mention of the picturesque waterfall that fed the several lakes below? Maybe it was just the beauty of it all that allowed me to delude myself into pressing forward, ignoring all signs that something was not right
I finished the day back on the PCT. I shared my camp with a couple of Brits who were heading northbound and were excited about ending their months-long thru hike. I relayed my story as we ate dinner together and we laughed at my stupidity. They even gave me five rolling papers to ration with my tobacco until I reached the next town over a hundred miles away. I spent that night content. Not worrying about the sounds in the woods. I was safe, I was found.