The thought came as a grudging admission, and I was annoyed with myself for even admitting it. I stood, completely alone, in the middle of dense underbrush, trying to figure out where I was, where I had come from, and where the trail had gone.
Ahead of me, the hiking trail I had been following in Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona, became non-existent – or rather, it was still there, sort of, but it was now clear to me that this “trail” was not a trail so much as it was a swath of trampled brush, probably created by a large-ish mammal.
I did not let myself think for too long about how large of a mammal had done the trampling. Another lost hiker, I reassured myself.
Swallowing a surge of panic, I forced myself to stop moving forward and to think. I had food in my pack, enough for a sizeable lunch and some snacks. My pack was also full of water, probably close to 2.5 liters. Also in my pack was my first aid kit, a jacket, and an emergency blanket, as well as a very loud whistle. I had my cell phone, and – I yanked it out of its pocket and glanced at it – hallelujah, there was a signal. I was fine. Lost, but fine.
I stood very still for a minute, listening to the woods around me. It was mostly quiet; I heard a soft rustle here and there and overhead, as small animals and birds moved about unseen. I heard no other big noises to indicate that there were any other hikers around, and I hadn’t seen any other hikers since I had set off from the trailhead an hour earlier. Of course, there had been cars in the parking lot, and the trail was out-and-back, so I was bound to come across someone at some point.
If I could get back to the trail, of course. Which I would, no doubt. No doubt, I reminded myself, sternly.
After I stopped hacking through what I had realized was not the trail, I turned one-hundred-and-eighty degrees and looked at the direction from which I had come. I could see where I had contributed to the trampled brush. Also, I had been following a small stream for a while, and had crossed a creek a while back. When I thought about it, I was positive I had been on the trail before crossing the creek. Therefore, logically, I must have lost the trail by coming out of the creek in the wrong spot, and all I had to do was follow the stream back to the creek and find the trail again – or, if I couldn’t, find the trail I had come from and head back.
Having made that plan, I started forward, but then stopped. I heard voices.
“I don’t know, is this the trail?”
It was a man’s voice, and I heard crunching and cracking like someone was walking on brush, like I had done. A woman’s voice answered.
“It has to be, doesn’t it? The book says to follow the stream.”
After a moment, they pair came in view. They were on the other side of the small stream. I called out, and they stopped and scanned the woods, finally locating me through the trees.
“Are you on the trail?” I asked.
“We think so.” The man answered. “Or are you?”
“I’m definitely not,” I said. “Let me cross the stream. I’m sticking with you while we figure it out.”
The pair laughed. I waded across the stream, joined them, and we continued forward. After a few minutes, we crashed through the brush and onto what was clearly the trail. None of us were sure where we had lost it, but having found it again, we forged ahead to continue the hike.
Ed. Note: Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona is a wonderful, beautiful place. And some of the trails are not very well-marked. But getting lost could happen anywhere, so just be prepared and use your head whether you’re hiking alone or with companions.