After I saw the young bull moose calmly stroll past me that afternoon on Kamiak Butte, I figured the day could get no better and I should head back to the world. I lingered a few minutes, vainly trying to see where my ungulate friend had gone, but he had slipped around and into the woods. I gathered my gear, zipped up my jacket, and started back the way I had come. It was 1:40 pm and I congratulated myself on my good planning.
There are two paths to the summit; or rather one path that loops, providing two ways to go. I had thought of taking the longer back way down through the forest on the north side, but reasoned that it would be icy and dicey. I also wanted to get back sooner rather than later, and though the shorter southern route meant backtracking, it made more sense due to the time and conditions. I happened upon the trail of the moose, tagging along well behind him for a while. Again, I made an effort to leave as little trace of my passing as possible. Hopping from one bare patch of stone to another and skirting the snow engaged a part of my brain that seemed glad for the work.
All was well for a time, as the afternoon sun hung on the slope and I strode along the path. I made some delightful discoveries, like “The Three Amigos”:
and an astonishing structure whose purpose remains unclear to me:
It stood nearly as tall as I, probably 10 feet (3m) across one of the bases, and was obviously a constructed thing. A small, ground-level opening on one face could have let person crawl in, were they to push their pack in ahead of themselves. But I saw no artifacts, no tools or equipment, no evidence of use at all-save for its very presence. But (the eternal question) why? An emergency shelter? I gazed north across the plain and saw Kamiak’s neighbor, Steptoe Butte, straight ahead of me; due south lay the dark mass of the Wallowa Mountains. I couldn’t help but notice how very dry the wood was, and how deliberately it had been laid there, and I realized that if one were to light this mass on fire, two things would happen: first, it would burn for hours, if not all day; second, it would be visible for miles, and from the peaks both to its north and to its south. Was that it, then? A signal pyre, laid in readiness for some pre-radio disaster? Thus I named the spot Beacon Hill, if only in my mind.
On I went from there, flagging a bit but still in good spirits, looking to pick up the path on the other side. It soon began to dawn on me that I was not going back the way I had come. I was headed in the right direction, but the terrain was all wrong:
I was on the verge of the forest, not down in the hillside prairie. I went on further, hoping to see a cairn or other familiar landmark, but found instead a fence. A FENCE? Yes, a fence. Now I agree with the poet that “good fences make good neighbors,” but they are not exactly what one wants to see when trying to follow a trail that had not crossed a fence on the way in. I followed the fence north as far as I could, which wasn’t very far at all, into dense and denser woods; no way through there. I then went south, hoping to intersect the path, but I saw ahead of me only more fence and a wheat field. Here I will quote the brief, but cogent, passage I jotted down in my notebook at that moment:
2:50 OFF TRAIL
Mind you, I wasn’t lost-as such. I knew pretty much where I was. I could see the main road and a farm house from where I stood, and knew I was 12 miles north of where I lived. So “lost” would not be quite an accurate description of my status then. Of course, I was neither where I thought I was nor where I should have been, so that was a bit problematic. Neither was I quite sure of how to get from where I was (and arguably not supposed to be) to where I wanted (and arguably was supposed to) be. A dilemma, to be sure, but not quite lost per se, I told myself. I had become, and not for the first time, “spatially displaced.”
All of which merely begged the question, “Now what?” I paused to take stock of my situation. Half a liter of water; half of a Clif bar; a few squares of chocolate; pocketknife; whistle; first-aid kit; binoculars; nylon running pants; mylar “space blanket”; spare pair of socks; matches; a few hard candies; and a well-charged cell phone. Not much by my standards, but enough to work with for the moment. No map, though. Won’t let that happen again. I drank some water, ate some chocolate, and considered my options.
Next: Long Way ‘Round