(. . .continued from Astray Again on White Mountain I)
“The general rules of life clearly state that if you’re ready for something, it won’t happen and if you ain’t ready, it sure will happen!”
—Mykel Hawke, Captain, U.S. Army Special Forces
And so it is I come to be wandering a darkened mountain slope searching for the trail without any of my usual basic supplies; no headlamp, no warm clothes and no emergency vacuum-metalized polyethylene blanket. I don’t have my GPS because I feel it is a crutch, a form of cheating. It represents in some sense the very sort of mind numbing creature comfort of civilization which I seek to escape when I walk into the woods.
I’m straining to see in the the faint trace of remaining twilight. It will be pitch black in minutes. I decide to walk on through the brush in the direction I think I need to head, but meet overhead chaparral within yards. I might as well try climbing through a tangle of barbed wire. I cast a long thoughtful look down the ridge, and decide to follow it.
I have no idea where the trail is other than it’s somewhere close by lost in the deepening darkness. I do know with absolute certainty, however, that the ridge leads to the road. If I follow the ridge for a couple of hundred yards it will lead me to the road just a short walk below where I parked. When it gets totally dark, only a crescent moon rising but not until well after 11 pm, and I can no longer see much of anything, I plan to guide myself along the ridgeline by referencing the lights of Santa Barbara far below on the coastal plain.
I settle on the plan and start barging down the sloping ridgeline through knee to waist deep brush, while wondering how thick it will get, and if in darkness I’ll have to resort to brutal, bare-handed bushwhacking. Later in the night, I find deep bloody gouges on my shins testifying to my hurried charge through the brush and the pain numbing adrenaline that was coursing through my body.
I bust my way through the wiry chaparral moving farther down the ridge following the line where the shorter fire regrowth meets the wall of older, unburned overhead chaparral. I come to yet another impenetrable wall of brush. My plan is already failing. I retrace my steps as best I can in the dark and try again but end up in the same dead end. Standing there contemplating whether to try climbing over and through the brush, I can see another slight rise in the mountain in the direction I want to go, which means that’s not the way to go. This is bad. And getting worse.
I decide to turn rightward, and head down toward the southern edge of the ridge, toward the sparkling city lights because it’s the path of least resistance. A burst of confidence rushes over me. I feel that the trail in fact runs below me, and that I was too high on top of the ridge, and that I’m not as far down the flank of the mountain as I had previous thought. I had been looking for the 90 degree turn in the trail northward back to the road, but I was still way too high up the mountain. The trail is still far down the ridge. That’s my reckoning and I go with it.
Within twenty yards I break out of boulders and waist deep brush and onto the trail. Despite several wrong decisions, I had worked my way through the muddle based on my memory of the hike in, the rock outcrops passed and the lay of the land which were still discernible in the darkness, and a vague feeling of where the trail should logically run. I hurry on down the ridge trying to remain on what little trail there is and thinking how close I came to being stuck on the mountain. I’m elated. I keep walking quickly, but my good feeling shrivels as I realize just how high up the mountainside I am and how far off the mark I had been. I still have a long ways to go down the ridge before the trail cuts northward toward the road, wherever that may be.
My I made it! feeling turns to Not so fast, jackass, you still very well may not find your way back. And indeed, I lose the trail. Once more I’m barging through the brush up and down and over and back and around trying to find it. It’s too dark to see any path at all and I’m just searching for something, anything that might clue me into to where I need to go. I don’t know if I passed the turn off to the road or if I need to continue down the ridge. It’s the most difficult position I find myself in thus far: Do I continue down or return back up? Eeny, meeny, miney moe. Which way do I go?!
After two unsuccessful pushes farther down slope I run uphill trying to find the last place I felt like there was possibly a trail. I see a tunnel heading into the brush, a black hole, and I charge over and into it. It’s an instant dead end. But as I stand up from my doubled over position and cast a look out of a break in the brush I see the road. And my truck. It’s right there not much more than a stone’s throw away. It’s a huge break. Even if I don’t find the trail now, I’ll rip myself to shreds if need be to get through the chaparral and down to the road.
I run out of the brush tunnel and head up the slope once more tearing through knee to waist deep chaparral. I come to an area of tall, thick brush and spend a few seconds wondering which way to go. I pace back and forth trying to find a passable route before jumping in without regard. I tear through into more open terrain and work my way along the edge of overhead chaparral when I come upon a piece of trash. It’s an old wad of white paper gleaming in the blackness.
Where it not for the piece of paper I likely wouldn’t have seen the trail. It was too dark, the trail an unmarked obscure hole through the overhead brush. I remember seeing the trash when I first came in. I step over the paper and into the brush tunnel, and slide down the gravely ravine through the leaf mulch, and break out onto the asphalt of Gibraltar Road with a nervous chuckle of relief. I raise a clenched fist in the air and pump it back and forth in triumph as I walk up the road.
“On my way home!” I text my wife. “Fell asleep. Woke up, sun was setting. Lost trail in dark for awhile.”
“Great to hear,” she replies.