A near emergency
September 12, 1996
6 a.m. (Mountain time): Paul's alarm goes off. Mark had him set it so he could wake up early and set out riding before the rest of us. Afternoon thunderstorms are common in this part of the country, and we've twice found ourselves soaking wet riding through them because we got a late start and rode too slowly. Mark, admittedly the slowest rider, decides to leave early to help us arrive before the afternoon's dump.
8:30 a.m.: The rest of us wake up and start packing our things and having breakfast. There's a great deal to get done, though. Between doing leftover dishes, sweeping, and a couple of emergency splices to some of our recharging gear, we don't get under way until around 10:30.
10:45 a.m.: The skies look friendlier now than they have in a day or two. It's relieving. The lack of sun makes it difficult to recharge equipment and do the updates.
10:50 a.m.: We see a sign written on a small piece of paper stuck on stick on the side of the road: "HELP. I need the modem." Just off the side the road is Mark, sitting at a fire waiting for us to show up. He had pulled over in a good clearing to send some material, but needed the modem--which was in one of our bags.
12:30 p.m.: Finally, after making considerable headway with the transmissions, we get back on the road. We share frustrated grins as we realize we're now, again, behind schedule and will likely be forced to ride through another afternoon thunderstorm. Sure hope it's reasonably mellow.
2:30 p.m.: The riding is actually fairly monotonous about now. But the addition of cows has made the trip somewhat more lively. At one point Mark and I were riding along at a good clip. Looking ahead, I see a calf on the left side and a heifer on the right. Just as we start to pass them, the calf makes a dart for mom and jumps right into Mark's path. Mark goes into emergency braking action and his rear tire kicks out to the left. The calf pops over, unsure of what's going on.
3:30 p.m.: Things are getting a little ugly. We're on a high, exposed mesa with little in the way of trees--and the skies are clearly fixing to dump on us and fire some lightning off.
3:40 p.m.: A bolt lands about a quarter mile to my right, at just about the same elevation. The light and thunder scare the spandex-with-chamois-padded-butt pants off me.
4 p.m.: Mark is maybe a half-mile behind me when I run into Annabel and Keil. The lightning has really started to concern me. We're up high on lightning-rods cum bicycles with little cover. We hunker down in a scrap of aspen for a short spell trying to stay somewhat dry. When the rain abates a little, we take off again, nervously riding fast from grove of trees to grove of trees. As I pass each high point my heart races a little faster and I pedal hard to find a low again. All the while, thunder and lightning pounds all around us. It's loud and it's close. The cows covering this range area have started freaking out in true Western style. I hear nervous mooing coming from everywhere.
4:15 p.m.: Keil, Annabel, and I come to the Uranium Road junction. We've only about three miles remaining to the hut, but Paul is nowhere to be seen--which is odd because he had jetted out in front of us some time ago. The three of us just decide to wait for a bit and see if Mark shows up. After a few minutes, we decide we'd like to just get to the hut for now and then come back for him. In the meantime, I put a large X made of stones in the path of the wrong road and construct a large arrow with logs and rocks to point the right direction, just to make sure Mark follows us. From the junction, the road changes from gravel to graded clay--a disaster right about now. The mud is flowing thick and the riding difficult. In about a quarter-mile my front and rear derailleurs, chainrings, and cassette are coated to the point of near uselessness. They slip with every few cranks and I can't shift the front at all. As we ride, I nearly wreck numerous times just from hitting deep slicks of red clay mud. After three miles, we're coated.
4:45 p.m.: We arrive at the hut. The storm, which seemed to slacken momentarily, is now again raging. Lightning keeps slamming the surrounding hills. Keil, Annabel, and I ditch the bikes and get the thick layer of caked mud off of our legs. Once we're back together, clothes-wise, I run up the road to mark the road down to the hut. I throw my bicycle helmet on a post and make a huge arrow with sticks and rocks.
5:30 p.m.: Mark still hasn't shown up, and he was only supposed to be short distance behind us. Even more bewildering is the absence of Paul. He had clear directions to the hut and a key--and at last sight was way ahead of us. How he could have failed to arrive first, we have no idea.
6:50 p.m.: Mark and Paul still haven't shown up. I start to get concerned and decide to go looking for them. The mud on the road is now so thick it renders my bike useless, so I begin walking the three, muddy miles back to the camp at Uranium Junction. We figure if the two of them got lost, they'd head to that area, where hunters could offer shelter for the night. They wouldn't want to be out in this storm.
7:55 p.m.: After 3.1 boring miles of muddy hiking, I arrive at the camp. It's nearing darkness. I approach a camp and see two clear veterans of the area cleaning a few grouse. We chat for a bit and I explain the situation. No, they hadn't seen Mark or Paul. One of them, Jim, volunteers to drive me around to see if we can find them. After checking with the rest of the hunters camped here, Jim and I hop in his four-wheel drive and off we go. Jim's a hero. The man is a 70-year-old, grizzled, hippie-hunter. He clearly knows these mountains like his own home. We drive around up the road and back, ask a few other hunters what they've seen, and then, as nightfall makes searching impossible, he drives me back to the hut.
8:30 p.m.: I hop out of Jim's truck and walk back to the hut. After a brief conversation with Keil, Annabel, and Jim, we decide there's nothing we can do for now. We decide to get up tomorrow and search again at first light, then if we still can't track them down, we'll call the local search and rescue units. We can't quite believe it's looking like it might get that serious.
9:50 p.m.: I finish a can of chili and cup of tea and sit back on my cot. Keil and Annabel and I mull over the possibilities. They're almost certainly in no real danger. Although it could get really cold here at night, the area is blanketed in hunters right now--well-equipped campers who usually possess a classic sense of American duty. All they'd have to do is bum a spot on a camp trailer floor. Of course other scenarios play out in our head--they could've panicked and hitchhiked into town, or decided to try and bivy out in the wet cold. They have almost no bivy gear, though, plus we're sure they're not together. The outlook looks grim. But, with full dark here, there's absolutely nothing we can do. Keil throws another log on the fire. I have some Corn-Nuts. We anticipate a fitful night of sleep.
10:34 p.m.: I hear shouting outside the cabin window. I stick my head out and holler back. Nothing. A few minutes later, a shout again. I yell once more and this time it's returned. Sitting on my cot in just my underwear, I throw on a pair of boots sockless and my parka, grab my headlamp, and run out to investigate. Sure enough, it's Mark and Paul, together, dropped off by a couple of hunters.
11 p.m.: We've got the two wanderers in the cabin now, dry and sort of clean. The separation story is, again, convoluted. Paul, in the lead, had misread the directions and gone off down a trailhead right at the Uranium Junction. While he was down the trail, off-route, exploring, Keil, Annabel, and I showed up, waited for a spell and, leaving an arrow for Mark, headed on. Then, as Mark was coming up from behind, Paul emerged from the trailhead having not found the hut. Mark and Paul then hooked up--with the rest of the group well ahead. The two of them then went back down the trail in search of the hut again, while Keil, Annabel, and I were at the actual hut. They poked around down there until well after dark--Mark even made a fire to warm up because he was wet and getting chilled. Finally, after catching a ride with some hunters and getting directions to the hut from a fisherman, they found the us. Note to travelers: Stay together. Stay on the main road. Trust locals.
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