Everyone asks whether we carry a GPS. We don't. We don't want to carry the darn thing, don't want to pay money for the darn thing, and would rather refine our navigation skills without it.
We don't need the darn thing, either. That being said, it would have come in handy the other day.
Somehow, we missed an intersection. Usually we stop at every junction and every point of confusion, take a good look around, carefully read backwards through the southbound guide-book directions, and make a careful decision. We agreed before we set foot on the trail that we would stop and figure whenever either of us had the slightest concern about our location. So far, that proviso had worked in our favor. Normally, we review the map and the landscape every 15 minutes or so to make sure we stay found.
This didn't happen the other day. We must have been in a hurry - the daylight was running out, we were 12,000 feet up in the air on an exposed ridge and anxious to camp lower, we were a day away from the luxuries of town.
At some point, we simply missed an intersection, or shrugged and kept going straight rather than turning. We charged ahead, wondering why it was taking so long to get to the point where we should start descending.
Perhaps it was because we were exhausted, worn out by Colorado's mountains and looking forward to Wyoming and its lower elevations just 80 miles away.
Whatever our mistakes, we weren't aware of them. We camped on the exposed ridge, finding a place just big enough for our tent, hopeful that the wind wouldn't become too rough for our ultralight shelter. We went to sleep feeling defeated because we seemed to only have made 22 miles, not the 25 that was our goal.
High on the ridge, we woke early to the unobscured sunrise. Off we trekked, taking a wrong turn within 15 minutes. Not a big deal, except that we had to backtrack more than a mile uphill. Uggh!
We continued along the ridge, only things didn't look right. Reason kept scratching his head. "The map doesn't fit our surroundings, " he insisted. We stopped, sat down, and ate breakfast, hoping that some fuel would help clear our heads. We oriented the compass and aligned the map, then looked around. Reason still thought things looked wrong. I suggested that we still hadn't hiked far enough. To me, it looked like we were supposed to be on the flanks of the nearby knob of Mt. Hyannis just before descending.
We - I - forged ahead. I had the idea that Reason was feeling badly about the wrong turn earlier that morning and that this was making him doubly skeptical. Still, the descending trail did not reveal itself as we approached Mt. Hyannis. We should be turning west and descending several hundred feet. Where was the trail?
We spooked a herd of elk. Not a one of them had any advice for us. They rudely ran away.
We looked west towards a parallel ridge, then looked down for any sign of a trail or cairn. It is not uncommon for the trail to be marked only with rock cairns or wooden posts on high ridges. In other words, on these high ridges, there is rarely a defined dirt path.
We couldn't figure it out, so down we plummeted. The elk had made it look so easy, but the slope was steep. I suggested that we stop again and think about what we were doing. "I don't wanna haul my *** back up this *&^%%$% slope if we're going the wrong way!"
Still, nothing made sense. We bushwhacked down a steep drainage, knowing that we would hit Arapaho Creek and intersect a trail that should take us back to the CDT. It was a long way down, hundreds of feet further down than we needed to go, but it made sense to find the stream and trail.
After an hour or so, we reach the stream... but no trail. In fact, the banks of the stream are littered with downed trees and debris. "I guess no one maintains this trail." The guidebook mentioned that the Arapaho Creek trail may no longer be visible. Ley's maps notes that the trail was visible a few years ago.
We look at the DeLorme atlas. There are two forks contributing to the main stream - maybe we are not at the main stream. We head towards the confluence, climbing over and under tree trunks and crossing back and forth over the stream.
Suddenly we see a small ridge to the west. Reason decides we should climb it to get a better view.
I start to fear that we are making too many turns. We've already lost track of the drainage we descended. We keep changing our goals and focus. Two bullheaded hikers, we've argued against each other and now we seem to be capitulating to one another to make up for it. None of this is good.
It isn't bad either, though. We know that if we follow the stream north we will reach a dirt road, and that that dirt road reconnects to the CDT, albeit adding many miles to our journey. We're both comfortable in the woods and we have plenty of food. We have maps and can always get to a road and stick out our thumbs. The stream is full of water. We are fine. For the first time, I realize that we are lost in the woods and it doesn't bother me at all. The CDT and its lack of defined trail have given me this comfort.
So, we trudge up the little ridge. We can't see anything, but we find - ta da! - a trail!
But is it the right trail? Probably? It is on the wrong side of the stream. We follow it south to where it should intersect the CDT. But the trail thins from a cleared dirt path to sparsely blazed trees, then nothing. And yet we reach a meadow and begin to climb, following the stream as indicated on the map. But where is the CDT?
Who knows. Every now and then a herd path appears in what seems to be the right place, so on we hike. We try to trace the trail on the land as it appears on the map, but there just doesn't seem to be any sign of a human trail.
Finally, we reach a ridge which should connect with the CDT. But where is it? We've been hiking for ten hours, we're exhausted from bushwhacking and confusion. We've each been penning angry letters in our heads to the CDTS, the CDTA, the Forest Service and anyone else we can think of to let them know what we think of their poor standards of trail maintenance. We whisper curses to mapmaker Jonathan Ley and the USGS for the lack of definition on their maps. We're so used to following cairns and going cross-country that we aren't really fazed by the lack of proper trail. Stepping over a blow down, I mention that it doesn't even look like a human has passed this way this year at all.
It turned out that I was right. Attaining the western ridge, we still don't find good trail. We follow the ridge as we should according to the map, but it begins to turn east. Not right at all. The ridge we want should be headed northwest.
"I don't think we have any idea where we are," Reason finally says out loud. It is now after 5pm. We started hiking before 7am. We head back up to a higher point on the ridge to get a better vantage point. We stop, eat, and pull out the maps again.
We notice a few things. The valley to our west drains to the north. That doesn't fit our Ley topos, which show a valley draining west. What is does fit is our DeLorme road atlas. I pulled it out to try and line up some signs of civilization. It suddenly becomes apparent that the stream we followed earlier today was parallel to the one we actually wanted. We'd been one ridge over to the east all day long! We just couldn't see it because the Ley topos we have cover such a small area and we literally couldn't see it until we reached the western ridge we'd been aiming for all day long.
We re-read the guide book and look over the maps again. It all becomes clear. We missed an intersection. Mt. Hyannis? It was south of us all day long! What we thought was Arapaho Creek was another creek - a parallel creek in a parallel drainage to the east of the one thought we were in! The paltry 22 miles we hiked the day before: more like 27!
We bail on the CDT, bushwhack down to the real Arapaho Creek, take the creek trail out to the dirt road and plan to reconnect with the CDT the next day. We've had enough of the CDT's brutality and we want to take a break from it. We don't care: as long as we walk continuously from Mexico to Canada, we are satisfied. The CDT isn't complete, anyway.
On our way down the beautifully defined creek trail, we laugh and shake our heads, reviewing our mistakes and analyzing our teamwork or lack thereof. We consider framing the relevant Ley topo map to commemorate the scene of our folly. "We'll call it A Tale of Two Drainages," declares Reason.
So that GPS? If we'd had it, we would easily have been able to locate Hyannis. Then we would have known exactly where we were. So far, though, this is the only time in our 6,326-plus mile history of hiking that a GPS would have come in handy.
And, if we hadn't needed to bushwhack down to the real Arapho Creek, we never would have seen that gorgeous stag peacefully sunbathing on the rocks above a waterfall.