I was nervous the night before this hike. Depending on how I used the mapping software, it would either be 20.5 miles or 21.5 miles. Either way, it would be the farthest I had hiked alone and with a pack that could support an overnight, if necessary. Without water, the pack weighed about 17 pounds, but since the last ten miles were going to be dry, I’d be carrying up to 5 liters in addition to that. And water isn’t light – 5 liters of it weight over 11 pounds.

Ambrose and I drove out to the Sheep Creek trailhead on Friday night. We actually drove past it since there isn’t a good camping site right at the trailhead. Not too far down the road is a primitive camping site that we picked to spend the night. It was crowded, but only near the river. We had a nice little spot where their music was audible, but not loud.

It wasn’t just nerves that I felt. I also felt a kind of quiet determination. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do this. I wanted it badly. I was even willing to get up at 5 in the morning to try and be on the trail before the sun rose. Not because Ambrose wanted to get a move on, but because I wanted to exploit all my available daylight.

Yes, I’d walked 20 miles in under 8 hours last fall. I knew my feet wouldn’t fall off. But that was flat ground and with a very light pack. This was going to be different. I had a mountain to climb and supplies to carry. There would be no bailing out.

The only way out was through. The only way I could end the hike was by finishing. Even if that meant spending the night out.

With that cheery attitude, I went to sleep.

And, in the morning, I got up and got ready around 5am without protesting one bit. Since I didn’t have to help strike camp, I just got dressed and packed up the few items that I’d removed from my pack for the night. As an experiment, I was bringing my cell phone with the Map My Run app activated. Although there is no cell phone reception out there, the app uses GPS and can get a signal. I figured it would be helpful to know my mileage as I walked, and perhaps encouraging to hear that voice calling out my miles and pace. Whether I’d take it on my solo trip… probably not, considering that the battery would probably die after one day and I’d be lugging a useless brick.

But for this trip, it seemed like the perfect thing to carry, and the weight wouldn’t be that much more than the Kindle that I happily carried on last year’s solo. Since Ambrose had used the camera as an alarm clock, I had to grab that as well. My pack seemed way too light, even with my sandal shoes – that Ambrose insisted I wouldn’t need – added to the load I’d weighed.

Good morning!

It was really dark. 

But not for long. 

Ambrose drove me to the trail head and then parked. Dawn was approaching, but not yet arrived. I wouldn’t need my headlamp to start my journey. The world was a softly lit grey as I started my app, stowed the cell phone safely in my pack and slung it over my shoulders. I hiked up the trail without looking back. I was an arrow loosed on its course, and I could go only one direction until I hit my mark.

The beginning of this trail up Sheep Creek was familiar to me. I’ve hiked the first mile or so many times over the last few years, the first 5 miles a few times and the first 7(ish) once. I knew to expect the trail to climb up and spill into the valley of the creek. It stays high above the water until nearly the second mile where a sturdy bridge crosses it. I sat on that bridge and had a snack, keeping in mind Ambrose’s admonition to keep myself fueled. He knows that my mistakes tend to happen when I don’t eat enough. And I know that too, I just forget it more often.

The sun is coming. 

The trail gets steep.

I had enough food for the day, but if I had to spend the night, I would have a lean morning. That was by design. I didn’t want to feel comfortable about not finishing in one day.

The familiar parts of the trail played that trick on me where the uphills go farther and are steeper than I remember. The downhills were actually a little easier than I remembered, since a washed out section had been redone. I clearly remembered both Ambrose and I falling on the ball bearing rocks at one point, but this time the rocks weren’t so bad. Judging by the amount of brush growing across the trail, I didn’t think that many motorcycles had been on the trail lately. Every time I walked through bushes, I talked to myself or sang (often loudly, sometime off key) in order to warn any bears in the vicinity that I was around.

I didn’t see any bears, but I did spot three distinct piles of bear poop. At least, I think it was bear poop.

Bear poop.

I remembered from my 7(ish) mile trip out a spot where the trail ended in water. So I brought my sandal shoes for that purpose. But when I got to around the 4 mile mark, where a log used to bridge the creek, there was no log bridge. And, of course, as I dithered about whether to try a boots on crossing or play it safe and go boots off, nature started calling. Urgently.

The sun is coming.

Overgrown trail.

Ball bearings!

So I shucked my boots off in record time, crossed the chilly creek and got them back on as quick as possible so I could go dig a hole. I found a fire pit and trash on the sandy far shore of the creek. I definitely have to go back with a trash picking up agenda.

There used to be a log bridging this stream crossing.

I also sat on a log after my business was complete to put sunscreen on and eat another snack. My plan was to make stops every two hours at minimum, because even a short pack off break could be revitalizing and get me through the long day.

A striking view.

Rocks! And that grass is so tall.

Where exactly is the trail under all this green?

It’s like some giants dropped their rock-lego sets.

I didn’t take as many pictures as I usually do. I was pretty sure I could finish in about 12 hours, but with only 15 hours of daylight to work with, my margin of error wasn’t large. Taking pictures doesn’t take a lot of time, but it does interrupt focus. So it was only when the landscape startled me out of my course or when I had already stopped for another reason that I took pictures.

An old washout.

The trail and the stream come close.

I passed by what I thought was the trail junction where Sheep Creek and the east fork of Sheep Creek split. It wasn’t anything like I remembered it. Where my mind recalled an easy crossing and a brushy trail, I saw a huge washout with flags marking where the trail crossed the creek.

Might be a trail junction under all this washout.

As I kept going up the east fork, I had to be cautious because the trail was very close to the washed out water. Not much of the trail was left at points, and I had a few places where I wasn’t quite sure which way the trail went. But I made it past that part, only to find a real break in the trail.

What was now a trickling stream that joined the creek had, in the not too distant past, been a raging river. The trail had a false bridge of a log across it, but I walked down into the mini-gorge and had a seat for more food and a refill of my water bladder.

Not going to walk across this log.

In hindsight, I shouldn’t have filled my water bags at this stream. I had a few more to cross before I got to my waterless section. But on the map those streams were marked as intermittent, and I didn’t want to take the chance. So I filled my bladder and my 1 and 2 liter water bags, bringing my pack weight way up.

Down into the (mini) ravine!

Then I had to navigate to the other side of the hole I was in. The far bank had large rocks sticking out of it, but none that looked especially stable. I decided to toss my pack up the other side, a little higher than my head, and then scramble up without the weight. Of course, the pack ended up being exactly where I wanted to put my leg when I was scrambling, but I was able to shove it out of the way and make it out.

Trail… ish.

Am I lost yet?

Are these edible?

The trail hugs this huge boulder.

It’s possible that I wasn’t eating enough at this point. Or that I was dehydrated a bit. Because it was at this point that I started feeling a bit lost. Yes, the trail kept going forward, and I didn’t lose it, but I knew that I had a junction to reach where I would head up. And I was paranoid about missing it.

I examined my maps a few times, counting stream crossings and trying to decipher the rock formations that began to appear near the trail. I wanted to reach the trail crossing before I ate lunch. But I couldn’t. I needed to eat. The problem with stopping though was the profuse amounts of brush growing right up to the trail. Much of it had stickers. Where the stickers were below my knees, the gaiters deflected them, but they grew up high enough that I got them on my thighs and even my arms. It was becoming second nature to brush them off while walking.

A large log to navigate.

Just a wedge? Couldn’t have cut all the way through and made it easy?

The golem is just resting.

Burned trees. Am I close?

I compromised by stopping under a tree that shaded some rocks. Mostly bush free. I still put down my plastic before sitting. And I made sure my pants were sticker-free. Then I got to eating – a tube of peanut butter and honey and a Spam single. I had another Spam single, but I wanted to get to the Sheep Mountain saddle first.

If I could just find the trail up…

I crossed two more little streams, thinking I must have missed the trail. The only other time that I’d seen it, it was much earlier in the year. I remembered mud and burned trees. All I saw was green except for the burned trees. I had a hard time keeping to the trail, let alone finding the junction.

So when I came upon a line of three burned trees that had red ribbons tied on them, I thought that it had to be the trail. But I looked and looked and I just didn’t see a way up through the brush. So I walked on. I figured that even if I missed the trail, I could keep going and eventually pop out on Roaring River Road farther down, where Ambrose and I had camped before. No harm, no foul.

And as I hiked on, up and then down, above a new stream roaring down, I knew I had passed the intersection. I kept going for a few steps. No harm, no foul. No mountain…

No. I would climb to the saddle of Sheep Mountain. That mountain was mine to conquer, and all I had to do was find the way.

Coming from that direction, it was terribly clear that if I had gone about 10 steps beyond the be-ribboned trees and then turned around, I would have seen it. I shrugged off the extra distance that I’d hiked and started up the switchbacks.

Going up!

And up…

And up.

Ambrose and I had started up this trail before, but turned back when we started running into snow with over 1000 feet of elevation gain to go. We weren’t kitted out for snow at the time, and we didn’t know the trail well enough to follow if it disappeared beneath a blanket of white. But I didn’t anticipate running into any snow – not at this time of year and not after the low snow winter.

The start of the switchbacks was familiar, but I quickly lost track of where exactly we had stopped. It just kept going up, and my calves kept burning. I wanted to take a break. The sun was beating down on me. I pulled out a package of energy chews and started rationing them out. At every switchback turn, I’d stop walking for a few moments, eat two chews and take a drink. Then I kept going. And going. And going.

I mean, I knew it was going to take some time to get up there. I’d factored that into my calculations for how long it would take. But being there. Taking the steps. I just wanted to sit down.

When the switchbacks turned north, an icy wind cooled my face. But then I’d have to turn around and the wind blew on my pack instead. I missed my sun hat for the shade it provided. My skin felt overheated, and I tried to figure out if it had been too long since I’d put on sunscreen. I resolved to do it on the saddle.

The trail teased me by coming up on a false saddle. I could see that trees were growing lower than where I was headed, a sign of a saddle, but the trail kept going, circling around the peak of Sheep Mountain to come up between two high points. I pushed on, possibly beyond the point of sense, since if I were sensible, I would have taken a break at the false saddle. And then I made it. And the sun was behind clouds.

This is not the saddle.

Not at the top yet…

I made it!

And a nice little sign to mark the achievement. 

I put my plastic on a bed of gravel. It was so comfortable to lay down on. I wanted to stay there and rest. But I only stayed long enough to eat my Spam reward and, okay, a few minutes more than that. I took my maps out again to examine my route. All I had to do was keep going straight until I could turn right and then take the turn to the road, and camp and the steak that Ambrose would have waiting for me.

Ambrose had warned me that afternoon thunderstorms were in the forecast for nearby Atlanta, ID, and the sun was no longer just hiding behind the occasional cloud, but occluded by a blanket of increasingly darker ones. No problem, I thought. It’s all downhill from here. Except for those two or three uphills on the map.

Rain clouds.

It’s (almost) all downhill from here.

A bit less brush on this side of the saddle.

As I walked down the ridge, I could hear thunder. No rain was falling on me, but I was glad that I hadn’t continued on past the trail up to Sheep Mountain, because those canyons would be getting all of that rain I could see when the trail brought me high enough to see over the ridge.

Rain in the distance.

Rain a bit closer…

And then the trail switched to the other side of the ridge and I get battered by storm winds. Thunder crashed louder, but there was still no rain on me. Just rain the distance, to the south and the west, and far ahead of me to the east. It might have been my imagination, but after the next time the trail crossed the ridge, I thought I felt drops.

I stopped and dropped my pack. After I’d transferred the titanium pot I was using for a cup to the caribiner next to my trowel, I hadn’t worried about making noise for bears. The trowel and pot made beautiful noise together. But I had to silence them by taking out my pack cover. I would either forestall the rain by putting the cover on or be prepared when it came.

When the trail switched back to the windy ridge, the wind was even colder. And I came upon the strangest sight. Out in the middle of nowhere, on a section of trail that was dry for 5 miles in either direction, I found a fire pit with benches – benches with initials carved into them.

I guess it’s not so far from the road on a motorcycle.

That’s when the rain started. I took out my raincoat and kept hiking, but just a little ways down the trail I saw a deer standing in front of me. The deer was still for a moment, but by the time I’d pulled the camera out it had bounded down off the trail. And then it started… bleating. A few weeks ago, I woke up early when Ambrose opened the window over our bed, and I heard a sound like puppies were being hurt. A strangled kind of yipping cry. He told me it was deer, and, until I stood on that trail and saw the deer making that sound, I didn’t quite believe him.


The cold rain pelted me. I kept my hood up and knew that if I stopped hiking for too long I would get cold. I had to keep eating, but I didn’t want to stop long enough to dig out my peanut butter tube, and the bars would be difficult to eat while walking. I solved that problem by pulling a bar out of my hip belt pocket and biting off a quarter of it. I put the rest back as I chewed my way through it.

The rain moving away?

As the rain tapered off, nature started calling. Unfortunately, the terrain didn’t lend itself well to a pit stop. Where the land wasn’t steep, it was rocky and brushy. I compromised, stopping at a flat, though rocky, spot for my business.

One advantage to the rain was that the sun was no longer baking my bones. Staying cool was not a problem.

I had a moment of panic when the trail seemed to take a huge U turn. I didn’t think I’d missed a trail junction, but I also didn’t think that I’d seen such a loop on the map. I even backtracked a few steps, trying to see if there could be a junction I’d missed. Since there wasn’t, I decided to trust the trail.

I stepped over a few seeps on the trail that would have worked for water if I’d been in dire straits. But I still hadn’t finished the water I’d squeezed into my bladder. I was getting close though, so I kept an eye out for a good place to stop – preferably where I wouldn’t be sitting on stickers.

I chose a spot in a small copse of trees, sitting on a root and making sure to pull out my tube of peanut butter to snack on while I squeezed water into my bladder. Though I didn’t have much success squeezing the water at the same time that I ate. I had to take turns at my tasks.

A perfect place to sit and stop.

I didn’t linger after I finished with my water. I wanted to finish my hike. Especially because I was heading for a steak – a delicacy, I might mention, that I haven’t tasted since my birthday last year (9 months without steak!).

The rain started as soon as I started hiking again, but the thunder was no longer in evidence, so I continued in good spirits. It seemed like the rain was actually a blessing, because my feet were not suffering from overheating. Instead, they were starting to feel a little wet. I trusted in my boots waterproofing, but my gaiters were soaked, which was soaking my socks and that sock wetness was being drawn into my boots.

The rain doesn’t make for many photographic opportunities.

Almost to the junction.

I wonder how the sun would change this view.

I was starting to see the a road in the distance to my right. I was willing to bet it was Roaring River Road, past the point where I’d ever driven on it. And then I started spying trail to the right. I was confident that the intersection had to be coming soon.

By the map, it looked like it was a t-junction, but when I arrived it was a triangle junction. I saw a faint trace of trail angling off to the left, and I went right. Then I saw another turn to the left and knew that my angle to the right was correct.

This was going to be simultaneously the best and worst part of the hike. I hate steep downhills, especially when they’re on hard packed single track that tries to eat my boots. According to the map, I was in for some steep switchbacks down to the road. And I soon encountered them.

But with the aid of my trekking poles, I managed to make my way down the trail, knowing every step took me closer to completion. To the moment that I could sit down and stop walking.

I couldn’t hear the Map My Run app very well at this point. I’d hear it start, but I’d miss the total distance every time. I had to rely on my memory of what the last mile was to predict which one I was on. When I thought she said 20, I looked around at the grassy ridge and thought about how I could stop here if this were my solo trip. A doable distance.

But I had to keep going, for another half mile or mile and a half. Depending on whether the map I’d done with “follow roads” or the one I’d done manually was more accurate. With my pot and trowel silenced, I started to sing again when the trail spilled me into a bushy valley. I had to be close. I was so close.

Oh, I’m getting close!

Oh! Oh! That’s the road!

And when I could see the road, I started yelling, “Marco!” at the top of my lungs. But I didn’t hear Ambrose return a “Polo.”

I took a few moments to take pictures of the trail head. There was this weird set up of orange rope on the trail register, and I didn’t know what to make of it. I figured I’d ask Ambrose about it. But I also figured I should have seen the car by now.

But it wasn’t there.

The rope was supposed to get my attention. It would have, eventually.

Ambrose walked out from his hiding place in the trees and told me to go look in the trail register. He was carrying a coconut water. My brain wouldn’t process. I walked over to the trail register and opened it. A note. “Jeanne – one hour to the car – keep walking  – down the road” No. No, that’s not, that can’t be – an hour???

My road continues.

I turned to Ambrose. It wasn’t right.

The road was closed.

There was no car. No camp. No dry tent.

No steak!

I wanted to sit down and cry. My feet hurt, my body ached, I was supposed to be done, right here, right now! Keep walking? Are you kidding?

But I just kept walking. I walked with my husband (though I wouldn’t have let him take my pack even if he offered – which was why he didn’t offer). I did drink his coconut water and eat some of his peanut butter and honey. But I carried that pack and carried myself another 3 miles down the road to the car.

Almost there – I can see the car.

If I’d had energy to spare, I would have screamed “Khan!” at this sign.

At that point, I was done. 23.72 miles!

My clothes were completely soaked, and I had a car in which to change – not a tent as I was anticipating. But we made it work, with Ambrose using a blanket to shield me at one point when a car drove by.

I wore damp long underwear and sat in the car wrapped up in a down comforter while Ambrose drove us to a camp site.

And then, I sat and waited while Ambrose cooked. And finally got my steak.

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