I arrived at the jeep road just after 5pm. Where the jeep road met the trail, it angled uphill towards the Pueblo Summit and down towards Smith Creek Road. I sat with my feet propped uphill while I leaned against my pack and ate snacks. We had a dinner to cook, but we weren’t planning on eating it until we got to the car so snacking was essential.

Ambrose had to come down from there eventually. 

I waited and ate and read. I was sitting on some grass at the side of the road facing the trail. I could hear Ambrose approaching, but I stayed sitting. I figured he would want to take a break when he got there, but he didn’t.

He came around the corner and kept walking on while I scrambled to get my boots back on and my pack situated. I couldn’t blame him for moving on; there was no water here. So we hiked down the jeep road. It was definitely not a road our car could handle, but that wasn’t the plan.

I passed Ambrose quickly, but stopped soon after that because I saw a campsite and heard water. I dumped my pack and found that there was indeed accessible water and quite a nice little campsite set up. I got out the pot and my water bags to start filtration. Ambrose caught up and took a seat on a convenient log.

Behind Ambrose on the jeep road. 

A nice little camping clearing, with accessible water just across the road. 

Then we discussed our plan again. I would head down the jeep road at a zooming pace and get to the car as fast as I could. Ambrose would come down at his own pace and take his time. When I got to the car, I’d try to drive it up the road as far as I safely could and pick Ambrose up where he was. Ideally, I’d be able to drive up to where the jeep road met Smith Creek Road and save him over 3 miles.

Worst case, he’d have a long hike.

He insisted that I drink a pint of coconut water before I left him. I felt so optimistic that I would be able to bring the car to him. I’d be the rescue ranger hero of the day. All I had to do was move my feet as fast as possible.

Just before I left, he asked if I wanted to camp there. I almost said yes. It was after 6 in the evening and we were at a lovely little campsite with easy water access. We could easily spend the night and finish the last of the hike in the morning. But the siren song of the car was calling me. There was coconut water there, not powdered, but cool and fresh. A big tent, a cushy sleeping pad and clean clothes…

I headed down the jeep road as Ambrose continued to filter water into his bladder. I was going with what I had because I figured I’d have plenty to get back to the car at my zoom speed. I felt a tug in my heart as I left him behind. I had to trust that he would be able to get himself at least down to the road, and, possibly, all the way back to where the car was parked, without me there to chivy him along and keep his spirits up.

Clearly, the jeep road was being maintained. 

I could still see the sun through the trees, but it was inexorably setting. 

Muddy water on the road. 

The road had trouble deciding whether it wanted to be rocky or muddy. I used my mismatched trekking poles to keep my ankles from turning on the rocks and to speed my steps along. There was clear evidence of recent maintenance in the stacks of sawed logs at the side of the road – what side there was of the road.

Every time I stopped to take a picture, I was conscious of the angle of the sun. Most of the time, I couldn’t see the sun because of my position snugged up against a westerly ridge, but when the road turned I could see it starting to turn the golden of pre-dusk. I had studied the map, but I was mostly relying on the GPS at this point, because I figured my map case would slow me down. I had actually stowed the map case – I know now I should have left Ambrose the maps, since I had the GPS, but I didn’t.

It looks like it could be lived in, if not currently occupied. 

I think that log on the left is supposed to be a “bridge.”

There was an old mine on the road and I started to see structures through the trees as I made my way down. Old cabins, in various states of disrepair. I wanted to go and explore them, but I didn’t know if they might be occupied or private property. Plus, I was in a tiny bit of a hurry.

I did take pictures of most every building I saw.

Another fairly intact structure. 

This one looks like nature has defeated it. 

The sun’s still shining. For now. 

Although the road on the map did not divide or deviate, I ran into intersections. Some of them were like driveways, and I knew not to take those, but others were more like roads of their own. I chose the roads based on what I considered logical at the time, and I dragged my trekking poles in the gravel to show Ambrose where I had walked.

Nature wins again. 

The largest structure I saw. It was near a road leading off the to the left, possibly a driveway.

I did consider stopping to wait for him, because technically it was a junction and I wait at junctions for my hiking partner.

But I hiked on. Because I would serve my hiking partner better in this case by getting to the car and driving it back to him. I trusted that he would follow my scrape lines in the gravel and not get too lost. I made sure they were really long and big, as obvious as possible.

I crossed little streams that crossed the road and took pictures near the mine. Of course, the pictures weren’t always the best because I was not interested in moving slowly. I would stop, snap, and if the picture was blurry, oh well, I could get one next time.

As I passed the last house like structure off the road, I saw a sign for the Smith Creek Cut-Off Trail. Logically, I thought, this would be something that I could hike and avoid the long detour that cars had to take staying on the jeep road. I knew from the map that I would be hiking far away from my destination only to double back once I reached the main road off the creek. But I didn’t want to explore an unknown trail by myself. I stayed on the road and wondered if Ambrose would try the cut-off.

If I had been hiking with Ambrose, we probably would have chanced it.

My resolve was immediately challenged, because the road crossed another body of water and then went uphill. I really felt that the road should be going downhill all the way, but according to the GPS, this was not an unexpected thing. I made my way up the hill and decided I’d turn right around if it didn’t turn back downhill right quick.

Why is the trail going up?

Okay, good, it’s heading down again.

It took a little longer than I wanted, but the road did trend down again, and turn west. The sun was low enough by now that I didn’t have any in my eyes as I made my way to the junction.

The junction was not what I expected. I thought I’d see a main road going west and east; instead, to the west the road was ATV only and to the east it wasn’t much better. The wear on the gravel and dirt of the road showed that more vehicles went up the jeep road than down the ATV section. Or they turned around using the jeep road. One or the other.

Almost there. I’ve got to be almost there. 

This is not the junction I thought I was looking for… 

Maybe an ATV will come roaring up the ATV trail and give me a ride?

I sat down and took a break. It was almost 7. The sun would set before 9. I had 3 to 4 miles to go to the car. So I didn’t take a long break. And (much to Ambrose’s later disappointment) I didn’t take another GPS fix for the rest of my hike. I stuffed some gorp in my mouth and looked at the junction, hoping to see signs of people, perhaps friendly people, riding ATVs and willing to wait for Ambrose to get down and give him a ride back to the car.

Such people did not materialize in the few minutes that I sat on the side of the road. In fact, no one materialized. I stood and set to walking.

I figured that I’d need at least 90 minutes to get to the car. I can do a 20 minute mile, but I had a heavy pack and it had been a long day. I wasn’t anticipating making that pace with my current state of footsore tiredness. Knowing that I could maintain a pace of 30 minute miles helped me focus through the pain in my feet. I kept my head down a lot while I walked.

But there was still a lot to see, even without looking too closely at the ridgelines around me. I could see the road ahead of me, gently rolling. The trees and brush forming green canyon walls on either side. The murmur and splash of Smith Creek. A sidestream incongruously crossing the road just before a newly constructed bridge.

Head down hiking time down the road. 

Water before a bridge. 

A nice, new bridge on the road.

I saw a camping spot for horse parties, complete with hitching posts, and another sign for the Smith Creek Cut-Off Trail. I kept an eye out for places to turn the car around when I drove it down to get Ambrose. I also looked at the road itself, eyeing places that our Ford Focus might not get past. When I saw those I tried to re-calibrate how far down the road I could come to get Ambrose.

Hitching post at a horse camping spot.

I should have taken the cutoff trail!

I re-calibrated a lot. Especially when the road was no longer hard packed dirt, but loose dust that buried my boots a few inches and floated around me in clouds with every step. I began to worry about driving that road in the dark.

I limited my water intake to make sure that I had enough to get me to the car. I only drank every 30 minutes. It gave me something to look forward to.

When I saw an old cabin slowly returning to nature, I had to stop and take pictures, but I lost some to my haste. I wanted to look at them more closely, to examine their interiors and see what I could see. But I wanted more to get to the car before dark.

The golden light of sunset paints the tops of the trees. 
The road just keeps going, and going, and going. 
Nature always wins. 

But there’s still a door frame here, a discernible structure through the ravages of time.

After 8, I passed a road that helped me place myself. There was a smell of a campfire or wood stove down the road, but I didn’t head down it. I didn’t know if it was private property or a campsite or what. And I was getting closer to the car. I starting noticing the ridgeline coming down on my right and hoped that it was the one near the car.

The side road helped me place myself on the GPS in better context. 

More old structures got a few quick photos, but I was motivated now. I had to be close. Seeing the trailhead where Ambrose and I had set off was almost anticlimactic. Just one more hill – which was a lot steeper than I remembered – and there. The car! A toilet! Before 8:30!

That house looks like it could still be in use. Maybe.

Why is this road still going???

Oh! Oh! Oh! I remember this part!

Just one more hill to the car. One. More. Hill. 

I went to the toilet first. Then the car where I changed into dry, clean clothes.

What a beautiful sight!

At last! The car! 

The effects of hiking with little water and little food caught up to me. I sat in the driver’s seat of the car, ate handfuls of gorp, drank a coconut water and took about 20 minutes to rest. And then I started the car and began my rescue ranger mission.

I drove slowly down that steep, curving hill to the trailhead.

And I hit a rock. I couldn’t get past it, so I backed up a bit and tried a different trajectory down the hill. Unfortunately, the road was so narrow, there weren’t that many trajectories to choose from. I hit a rock again, possibly the same rock, and felt the beginnings of panic.

The last thing I wanted to do was break the car out here, miles and miles from where we could get it serviced. And so I made a tough decision. I would turn back. Ambrose would have to walk himself out.

I backed up the hill, not without a few more moments of panic as I failed to fully account for the curvature of the road in my uphill reversal. But I made it. And I parked on the opposite side of the road from where we had been parked, because it was closer to the toilet and grassier.

I got to work so I wouldn’t have to think too much about leaving Ambrose to his own devices.

I pitched the car camping tent right next to the car. I inflated our car camping air mattresses and laid out the down comforter. Darkness fell.

I took a coconut water down the trail and sat at the trailhead. My headlamp batteries were running low, and I had somehow managed to forget to refill my spares, so I sat in the darkness before moonrise, listening to the water of the creek rush by, the wind rustling the branches of the trees and strained my dark adapted eyes for signs of Ambrose’s headlamp.

When I grew too cold, I set the coconut water on a wooden post near the trailhead and went back to the car. I wrote my fiction and read my books. I tried to keep my mind from imagining worst case scenarios.

Around 10 I decided I should cook dinner. I made a rice a roni type thing with tuna added using the Coleman stove set on the grassy gravel of the parking lot. Focusing on cooking helped me not to worry as much, but I was worried. I wondered if Ambrose might decide it would be better to stay the night somewhere along the road.

I ate as much as I could force myself to. I knew I was hungry, but my nerves made my appetite disappear. I set the pot on the passenger’s seat in the car when I had eaten all I could. It might still be warm when Ambrose arrived.

When the moon rose, I took handfuls of dark gravel from a pile near where we had been parked and made an arrow across the road to point Ambrose to the car. It showed up pretty well on the light gravel of the road even in the moonlight. With a headlamp on it, the sign was very clear.

I finished one book and started another. At nearly 1 in the morning, I decided I needed to try and sleep. If I was going to have to hike out in the morning to find my husband, then I needed to get some rest myself. I went to the tent and changed into long underwear for sleeping. I had accidentally left the car light on, but it helped me see, even through the tent wall.

And then I saw that there was another light.

Ambrose’s headlamp.

I scrambled out of the tent and did my best to help him. From when we started in the morning to the moment he arrived was almost 18 hours; the last 6 hours with no breaks and no food. He’d run out of water more than 2 hours before he got to the car. I gave him a coconut water and settled him into the driver’s seat. I took his boots off his feet and got him his sandals. I got him into the tent, got food into him, warmed him up under the down comforter and nagged him about drinking more when he started to shiver, just a bit.

I have never been so relieved to see him before in my life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *