Lost in the Bighorns

Having no destination, I am never lost.

Teepee Pole Flat

Well, okay, I was not exactly lost. But the trail that was supposed to take me back to my waiting vehicle at Paint Rock Lake could not be found, and I was on the last day of a three day hike, scheduled to be back to work the next day. I had two choices. I could take a compass heading and make my way up the tree covered slope, where I hoped I would be able to find the lake and my truck. Or I could do as my father had taught me many years ago: follow the river until it leads you back to a point you recognize. In this case the river was Paint Rock Creek, and the recognizable point was Teepee Pole Flat, where I had spent the first night.

Even then I was following my penchant for exploring the little used trails. This portion of the Bighorns is used for grazing cattle and falls outside of the more popular Cloud Peak Wilderness Area. I had my dog Willie with me, who was only a year old at the time and not particularly happy about hiking, especially after he had to start carrying his own pack. He is the only dog I have ever had who did not seem ecstatic when we hit the trail together, showing no interest whatsoever in chasing squirrels or other kinds of trail entertainment, but instead plodded along beside me. When we arrived in camp and I had finished setting up the tent, he would press on the zippered door with his nose until I opened it up for him, then he would stretch out on my sleeping bag, the best part of hiking. . .a comfortable place to sleep in the sun where the flies and mosquitoes did not bother him.

Once I had decided the heavily forested slope looked too steep and precarious to ascend with my dog, who was not at all happy about this situation, we turned to the north and began to follow a faint trail that skirted the east side of the stream. At first I congratulated myself on my wise choice, for clearly other hikers before me had taken this route. But as any hiker knows who has followed an abandoned trail, it became fainter, steeper, and eventually was nothing more than a river bank, along which I scrambled over trees, waded through cold water, and stumbled upon large rocks. I reasoned it was about five miles to Teepee Pole Flats, considerably longer than the route I had planned, and the lack of a trail made for slow going, adding several hours to my hike in the waning daylight of an August day.

When the meager trail at last flattened out, and I recognized the broad valley where Indians had once camped and harvested teepee poles from the abundant lodgepole pines, I knew that I could not make it back to the trailhead before dark. Again there was a choice to be made. I could make my way by flashlight five miles to where my car waited by the lake, risking a fall or an encounter with a mountain lion, which I knew to be abundant in this area. Or I could simply pitch my tent, watch Willie spread out gratefully on my sleeping bag, and return the next day, recognizing that in doing so my friends and family would likely be alarmed when I failed to show up for work in the morning. I did not carry a cell phone in those days. There would have been no point, as no signal was available, nor did I carry any kind of emergency beacon. The world of electronics had not yet made its way into the backpacks of most hikers. As I had been for a lifetime of hiking, I was on my own.

I met a horse packer who gave me some packets of chicken noodle soup, so I had a meal for that evening in camp and for breakfast the next morning. As I crawled into my sleeping bag next to Willie that night it occurred to me that I was officially “missing,” that I had not called the friend I had promised to inform of my return and that she would be wondering and starting to worry. This seemed like a heavy burden to bear, and I questioned the wisdom of my decision but still did not feel comfortable hiking out by flashlight, and so I drifted off to sleep in my tent next to Willie, a woman missing in the world at that moment but not missing at all from the life I loved.

The following morning I awoke early, eager to get to a phone as quickly as possible so that I could alleviate the worry I knew my friends and family were already going through. After a hasty breakfast of soup I was on the trail and made it to my waiting vehicle in about two hours. It was not a long drive from Paint Rock Lakes to my home in Shell, a small ranching community on the western edge of those mountains. I was tired and hungry and hastily grabbed a sandwich, then sat down at the phone, the red light of the answering machine flashing ominously.

One by one I listened to the messages, each one growing more panicked as they progressed:

“Colleen, did you know you have a 9:00 patient today? Where are you?”

And then another one from my secretary: “Colleen, we’re worried about you. Call as soon as you get this message.”

One by one I could follow the progression of the search, beginning with a call from my father, my brother, secretaries and friends at other clinics where I worked, and finally this one from the local sheriff’s office in Greybull: “Colleen, we’re looking for you.”

It was humbling, especially when a therapist friend from one of the clinics left a tearful message. I should not have been surprised, but I was. I thought about who to call first and decided on my office. When my secretary, Serene, picked up, and I told her I was safe, I immediately heard this background conversation: “It’s Colleen! She’ safe,” followed by a cheer in the office.

My brother, I learned, had already begun to make plans to fly to Cody and join a search party. The phone call with my father was the most difficult one of all. Well into his eighties by that time, I could sense the helplessness in his voice, the relief that I had walked out of the wilderness in one piece, and that his little girl was safe once again, the little girl who had taken countless solo trips by that time, and yet appreciated probably for the first time the anguish that had created in him over many years, anguish that he nevertheless put aside because it was what I wanted to do. I shed some of my own tears, greedily consumed another snack, and then went to bed and slept for the rest of the afternoon, grateful, Willie curled up next to me.

I joked with my secretary when I called shortly before the office closed that I felt so bad I should “just eat worms.” The next day when I walked into my office, well rested and contrite, a chocolate cake greeted me on my desk, a “dirt cake” as Serene called it, with Gummy Worms crawling across the frosting.

Several years later after I had retired I bought my first satellite phone when my daughter and I section hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, a concession to our husbands, though I did not really mind. Four years later I upgraded the device when I decided to hike the Pacific Northwest Trail. The new Garmin InReach allowed me to text with anyone who signed on, and many of my friends and family members were eager to receive updates about my whereabouts. When I went for more than a few hours without contact, invariably the message would come through, “Are you all right?” Initially I found it annoying, but always I would return to that afternoon as I sat and listened to the outpouring of love recorded on my answering machine. Yes, I am all right. I am more than all right. I am never really alone when I am hiking, and neither are you.

Published by Colleen Drake

Colleen Drake (AKA Teacup) has over sixty years of hiking exerience (yes, I'm really old) and has seen some pretty big changes over those many years. Join her on the Solitude Trail & share some of these adventures while exploring with her the value of solitude in the wilderness.

One thought on “Lost in the Bighorns

  1. Hi. The hike back to tent pole flats sounds pretty arduous. Not hiking out despite the inconvenience to others was a wise choice. ❤️J

    Sent from my iPhone



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