Rocky Mountain Low
Pain screamed through my muscles with every step and sang its way through my leg bones like vibrations through the finest crystal. If they shattered, like I felt they must, it meant death. A slow, uncomfortable passing from this land of stark beauty to the next.
I’d only meant to spend a few hours on this mountain trail, circling the shallow bowl below me, and building an appetite only the outdoors could foster.
The clear skies and warm afternoon sun lulled me into wearing jeans, tennis shoes, and a T-shirt. I carried a heavy, rubberized poncho in case of the random afternoon shower. Things couldn’t have gone better, right up until I finished the graham crackers and sports drink I’d brought for energy and rehydration.
I filled my belly under birdsong and the dappled shadows of wind-tousled leaves. My eyes drifted closed to the buzz of insects, dropping me into the luxurious half-sleep of relaxation. I didn’t open them again fully until the noises stopped.
A gray the hue of a battleship had covered my heavenly blue parasol. Fat white clouds scudded rapidly into place, like chorus girls lining up for a number, and the air on my bare arms took on a sharpening crispness. Time for the march back to civilization.
By the time I realized I had left the well-trodden path, the skies had opened up. The land took on the uniform white of a padded room. Brown and ash-gray trunks provided the only relief. Forward, back, side-to-side, everything looked the same, as far as the eye could see. Even my growing unease couldn’t dampen the stark beauty of it.
I checked my cellphone, hoping to use the GPS or call someone to help me get my bearings, but no signal. The energy level of the battery dropped quickly, not meant for long exposures to the extremes of the worsening afternoon.
I marched back and forth in my best guess at the cardinal directions: North, South, East, West. My unease grew, and the cross pounded down by my soles quickly became a herringbone-patterned star. Soon, a desperate circle surrounded it all like a bizarre land rune from a video game. The aching slam of my heart against my breastbone provided the background score. I didn’t fear the coming night or the creatures that inhabited it, but if I didn’t find my way off this damnable mountain soon, my blood would thicken, my skin would lose its elasticity, and rationale thought would escape me. I’d heard these types of death weren’t so bad, but I had no desire to find out.
My muscled shivered in the deepening white, as much from terror as anything. I cursed a string of the foulest expletives I knew wrapped in misty breath. I’d come to the mountains to escape the death and violence of the last few years, only to face it from an unexpected source. Suddenly, Mother Nature looked less like a lady and more like a hungry tigress on the prowl for something fresh.
Hopelessness tore at me with frigid fingers. Common advice said to stay put when lost. Wandering could move you farther from rescuers, and a wrong turn here would take you into millions of acres of wilderness. But no one knew my plans. I felt certain the hotel staff would alert the authorities in a day or two when I didn’t return to check out. But at this rate, I wouldn’t last the night.
I cursed again, but this time I cursed myself. What fool wandered into the deep woods of the mountains unprepared for the unexpected? Only the most urbanized of city dwellers didn’t know better. However this ended, I’d done it to myself. My risk-taking, even if I hadn’t considered it such, may have finally caught up with me.
I forced myself to pause and calm my mind. Panic only ensured failure. And failure meant death. Even if I failed to find a successful answer, every problem had a best course toward a solution.
Common wisdom said to stay put, but I doubted my ability to do jumping jacks and other calisthenics all night. And to stop moving spelled certain doom. It not only shut down your body's motor, it framed your thoughts in defeat.
I picked a direction and started walking. Fast. Once the gray afternoon slipped into the dark mess of night, the situation would turn dire. Of course, I didn’t bring a flashlight. In addition to slowly joining the ranks of ready-to-thaw meals, I’d be blind. Blind, stiff, and blue, a fitting epitaph for my jackassery.
My heart sang at the sight of the dog tracks. At least I hoped I’d found dog tracks. Part of me, anyway. A bigger part of me welcomed the practicality of feeding the wolves over the embarrassment of hikers finding my corpse and realizing my disregard for the most basic of wilderness rules.
The tracks led me down a steep slope. I slipped and slid, barking my shins against saplings and bruising my bottom on the soul-sucking, chill earth. A sheen of sweat developed on my skin. Whether from exertion, exercise, or both, I had no clue. But I knew one thing for certain: it made this gambit all or nothing.
The slope bottomed into a creek that soaked me to the ankles. I ignored its stinging bite and rushed toward a distant break in the tree line. It offered my last hope. I’d leave the woods and break free of Mother Nature’s deathly fingers, or I’d lay down and surrender the last of myself to her.
The first cabin I came to sat like a black monster silhouetted against a darkening backdrop. I brushed away the white crust of evening from the windows with my hand, barely noticing the burning it imparted to my bare skin. I thought about breaking a window and sheltering inside, but the posh interior I spied in the failing light spoke to me. Well-off people owned this place. And the well-off never wandered very far from at least the basic amenities of civilization.
I took to the single-lane dirt track leading away from the structure at a jog. Battleship gray had faded to something more ominous, and I had little time.
Lights gleamed from the big front window of the next cabin. My legs went rubbery with relief. I forced myself up the wooden steps and pounded on the door.
“Can I help you?” the man who answered asked me. He wore a suspicious expression and sounded wary. If I looked even a little like I felt – dirty, scared, hurt, and exhausted – he had all my gratitude for not slamming the door in my face.
“Could you call a cab for me, please?” He gave me an odd look, and I told him the short version of my adventure.
“Let me get my keys,” he said. “It’ll surprise how close you came down to your car.”
A two-mile ride later, and my savior dropped me next to my truck. He refused payment and brushed off my thanks with the admonition to “carry the right gear, even on these short treks.”
I promised like an appropriately cowed child and waved goodbye. Once again, I’d turned something simple into a near-death encounter. And once again, I’d survived.
You’d think this would put me off this sort of thing, drive me into the safety of my urban world, but it didn’t. That mountain had challenged me, and I’d won. Wrapped in a flannel shirt and stocking cap, heater blasting away at the highest setting, I knew I’d never quit on winning streak.