Last week, I had a humbling encounter with the vast and uncaring majesty of nature. 

I was in Salt Lake City for a three-day conference on the law, technology, and practice of redistricting — my main legislative project this year.   

The program ended at 2PM on Friday.  After a couple of phone calls, I still had seven hours to kill before heading to the airport – seemed like just enough time for a long run, a dinner with a colleague and, perhaps, a short nap. 

The trails app on my phone said that the summit of Black Mountain offered spectacular vistas. The trail head was not far from the hotel.

At home in Boston, I am accustomed to taking long runs every week or two.  With a T-pass, a credit card, and a cell phone, I consider myself ready for anything.  The only things I fear are ticks, drivers, and the sudden urge to go to the bathroom.   

When I left the air-conditioned darkness of the conference hotel at 2:30PM, the temperature was 91 but the humidity was low.  I felt like I could exercise. 

I bought some sunscreen and applied it liberally.  I stopped at a supermarket and packed 4 large bottles of fluid and some energy bars into a couple of bags I could carry in each hand.  

Following my trail navigation app, I walked to the trail head. I found that it was closed to pedestrians – reserved for use by mountain bikers headed downhill.   My app suggested I could follow a park road in and then loop back on a trail to reach the Black Mountain summit and return downhill to the trail head. 

An aging uniformed security officer supervises the gated entry to the park road.  He waved me through.  The well-maintained road runs up City Creek Canyon.  Repeated reminders guide pedestrians and ascending cyclists to the creek side of the road, out of the path of descending cyclists on the other side.  I saw no cyclists on the road, but there were a few hikers. 

The creek is an element of the city’s water supply and the park balances recreation with protection of the watershed.  There are camp sites spaced every quarter mile or so, each equipped with a clean restroom and a bear-proof trash disposal container. 

I ran six miles up the modest grade.  Golden brown grass gave way to forest.  At the end of the road, I passed some families who were setting up a gathering in a large picnic area.  I continued onto a well-worn trail. 

My app seemed to tell me that I was on course and should soon be able to turn right and start the loop back.  I was a little concerned about time and texted my colleague to push back dinner. 

Sure enough, a trail signed for “Smugglers Gap” appeared soon on my right and I headed upwards.  I slowed to a walking climb as the grade sharpened.  A spider web across the trail told me that no one else had been through recently. As the trail continued to switch back and rise, I started to worry more about return time and texted my colleague again.   

Perhaps due to sunscreen and sweat on a light sensor, my phone screen became too dim to read.  From what I could remember, the segment to the summit from the road end looked short on the app.  The unmarked trail remained easy to follow.  But through the trees I caught alarming glimpses of continued ascent with no summit in sight. 

I persisted against better judgment and eventually, I broke out of the trees onto a rocky ridge.  The trail disappeared and reappeared among the rocks, but the direction of continued ascent was obvious.   

Finally, at the summit, I could see Salt Lake City, 4000 feet below and all too distant.   I realized that to return to the city as I intended would mean scrambling over rocks for miles along the ridge line. 

Stretching in the other directions, all I could see was green mountains.  After another quick 360 and an unsuccessful attempt to make my mostly-dead phone take a photo, I reversed direction to return the way I had come. 

Clambering down the rocks, it occurred to me that if I broke an ankle or hit my head, no one would find me for a long time.  

I lost the trail.   The ridge line was clear enough, but it extended as far as I could see out into the wilderness.   I began to feel I had gone too far back along the ridge.  I reversed direction again.  I lost confidence that I would find the trail off the ridge to the canyon floor.  The light was starting to fade. 

I decided to beeline down through the trees.   The brush was soft enough, but the slope steepened, and I found myself surfing down the pine needles.  I sat down for fear of falling forward and I kept sliding.  I could see the forest giving way to rock scree ahead and navigated sideways to stay among trees.  I dropped my phone on a bad bounce and heard it disappear down the slope.

I thought I might have to keep sliding forever, but finally, I saw the trail crossing below me.  Grabbing brush, I swung onto it and started running again.   

I hoped I might bum a ride when I got down to the road and be almost on time for dinner.  Scratched up and covered in dust, I didn’t appeal to the few drivers I encountered.   I couldn’t blame them.  I ended up running another six miles back down to the road gate where the park guard persuaded a departing driver to give me a lift downtown.   My colleague was kind enough to still be waiting for me. 

City gives way to wilderness much faster in the west.  The rules are different – credit card and cell phone aren’t much help.  I could have been another one of those stupid, expensive, in-over-his-head summer statistics, but I was able to follow my father’s eternal advice: “Stay Lucky.”   

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

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147 Comments

  1. Glad you made it back well and safely! I think you did everything right – plenty of water, snacks, cell phone – but just went too far before turning back. It could happen just as easily on the east coast, but here there are more people to ask, generally more obvious trails, and often helpful cairns or signs posted where needed. The West is a wilder place. You are much more on your own. I keep up on some youtube channels by people living in places like Wyoming and Alaska. Even if just going on a day hike, they take additional gear like a basic tent/piece of plastic, rope, matches, water purifier, and windbreaker with warm hat, gloves, and sox. I would suggest at least taking a few space blankets in your suitcase for the next adventure! Compact and lightwight – easily available
    online – and they can be used for just wrapping up in under bad conditions; and/or as a basic tent. They keep you remarkably warm! Yes a map is a great idea if it is reliable and updated. All the best with your next adventure! Cheers!

  2. Thank God you returned safely, Will. The angels and both your mother and father all had your back. They also appreciate the sharing of your humbling story. Stay healthy and lucky and blessed. Your type is desperately needed on this earth.

  3. Will, I agree with just about all comments above. Your endurance is pretty amazing. Didn’t I hear there is a heat wave out there , too? Glad to have you back. – John

  4. Wow! That was quite an adventure for you to experience. Thank you, for sharing it so vividly, that I was able to vicariously travel that mountainside along with you to the summit and back into the Canyon.
    You were very lucky to find your way.
    A few years ago, my sister and her husband were trapped, off the beaten trail, on a mountain side, at Mount Ascutney, Vermont. My sister slipped and fell.
    It was well after dusk and they were lost, and very frightened. They realized that she had no phone with her, and no protection against wild animals. Her husband armed her with a stick, when he decided he needed to leave her side, in order to try find his way down to get help.
    It was now evening, when the rescue team found her. It appeared that she had suffered a broken ankle, and needed to be hospitalized.
    She was so grateful to have see the lighted headgear on the rescuers as they ascended the dark and rocky side of the mountain, with a stretcher. They saved her life.
    Your story had similarities that brought the memories back from my sister’s fall. Yikes.
    Both adventures
    reminded me of the Girl Scout/Boy Scout Motto: “Always be Prepared.”
    So glad that your adventure ended well, Senator. We need you.

    Thank you for approving the MA Film Tax Credit Compromise Bill. Films=Jobs

  5. Thank you for sharing this cautionary tale. Well told. Thanks also for “Smart smart smart stupid.” Great reminder to think through possible contingencies when planning a potentially risky solo activity.

  6. Will. Next time, luck may not be on your side. Glad you are safe and back home. Enjoy life, but stay with what you know and avoid what you don’t, especially if you have a plane to catch. By the way, good piece of travel writing. Submit to “Lonely Planet” for review and maybe inclusion in their next book.

  7. Great story! Kind of life affirming. I’m sure you felt more alive after the experience. You probably had angels around you too.

  8. The limits of technology:
    Trail apps lacking foot traffic closure update, light sensor brightness buried in settings menu. Glad you got the view. I used Google Maps to navigate from Wellington Station to the nearby shopping area a couple years ago and it directed me to restricted MBTA service roadways and another roundabout, and hazardous route because the pedestrian walkway was not recognized in Google Maps. (Nor was the MBTA signage to the walkway very clear to a newbie using that station).

  9. The limits of technology:
    Trail apps lacking foot traffic closure update, light sensor brightness buried in settings menu. Glad you got the view. Wonder if the guard was tracking ins/outs. I used Google Maps to navigate from Wellington Station to the nearby shopping area a couple years ago and it directed me to restricted MBTA service roadways and another roundabout, and hazardous route because the pedestrian walkway was not recognized in Google Maps. (Nor was the MBTA signage to the walkway very clear to a newbie using that station).

  10. Next time you visit unfamilar territory, if possible, arrive a day or so early and acquaint yourself with local trails and terrain. Start exploring early in the day. It’s better to get lost, if get lost you must, in the AM. And have lots of hours of broad daylight during which to get found again. Being disoriented at night out in the boonies, on your own and scared, is truly demoralizing. As you meander through the woods or meadows, ask questions of people who look like they live or work nearby. (Ignore other tourists or first-time visitors.) The permanent residents will usually be happy to offer helpful suggestions and useful tips. Check the weather forecast before setting out, of course. Someone else, above, has mentioned the threat of summer afternoon thunderstorms in the high country out west. Flash floods from such storms can affect dry creek beds miles from the mountains. A lot of campers and hikers have been washed away by those floods. The only warning you get might be a sudden trickle of water that grows into a raging torrent almost before you realize what’s happening. Or you might hear a strange sound off in the distance, toward the far-off peaks. Thats the sand, gravel, mud, rocks, trees, pieces of miscellaneous junk, and what-have-you being washed toward you by the oncoming water. If you’re caught in that kind of situation, don’t drive or run down the gully! The flood will be faster than you. If you’re in a car or truck get the heck out of it. Right away. Climb the old shoreline at the nearest point and get to the highest ground you can find, fast. Before you even leave the hotel or hostel or campground in the morning, ask around to kearn if there are places nearby where cellphone tower coverage is absent or unreliable. Also ask about any recent sightings of bears or mountain lions along the trails you hope to follow. The commenter who mentioned these critters, above, offered wise advice. (If visiting Texas ask if wild pigs might present a problem for an unarmed hiker or runner.) In some regions there could be potentially dangerous reptiles, insects, or mammals that aren’t usually considered worrisome by the general public. Every year in the USA some poor souls get seriously injured by moose, elk, bison, or even domestic livestock. (Mess with da bull and ya get da horn! That fence is intended to keep him in AND keep you out.) Wherever you’re staying during your visit, leave word with someone that you intend to go to location X or Y via route A or B. And that they should ask authorities to initiate a search if you haven’t returned or called by whatever o’clock. Someone in another comment has already brought that up but it merits repetition. Anyhow, congratulations on successfully getting yourself out of that upsetting predicament. If it makes you feel any better, many out-of-state visitors to Boston get hopelessly disoriented and lost in our public transportation system. Some from the UK come close to getting hit by automobiles because they habitually look to the right, instead of the left, when starting to cross the street. Anyone venturing much out of their comfort zone or changing their regular routine could experience sudden bewilderment or even panic. Happens sooner or later to all of us. Welcome to the club.

  11. Will, How scary! I had a rather similar experience at 16 with my mother in tow in the white Mountains in NH. To this day I am petrified of getting lost hiking. I am so glad you got back without major trauma or delay!
    Margaret

  12. Hi Will, It sounds like a good adventure! Your good sense and navigation skills brought you back safely. Good map skills and awareness are needed in case the electronics fail. I’m very glad it all ended well for you and you’re back home safely.

  13. Humbling, indeed. Nature is humbling us a lot from many different fronts these days. Glad you made it back—I was exhausted after reading about it!

  14. Thank you for sharing that, Will. Wow. Just Wow. So glad you’re ok and made it out safely. I think someone’s looking out for you up there.
    I recently moved to Leominster and have been exploring new trails solo. I always bring my phone and try to dress appropriately for the elements. But I’ve totally had those moments when I’ve thought, “Oh crap, if I slipped and broke an ankle now (or worse), I’d be completely screwed.” Your post is a good reminder to me to listen to that voice when things feel uncertain to not power through it and just turn around, end the run, and/or get a running buddy.
    Thank you!

  15. Humbling indeed and incredibly impressive that you managed to navigate back safely and to teach all of us a lesson – as some (many?) of us have been in similar situations in the past. Yes – respect for and awe of the power of Nature and the need for all of us to recognize our vulnerabilities. Thank God you are alive and well and will continue to serve in your wonderful leadership role – as we navigate the even more treacherous terrain of redistricting, voter rights, racial/social injustice and inequities, health care, prison reform, homelessness, quality education, and so many other challenges – including global pandemics. Welcome home. – With gratitude – Pat Dinneen

  16. That’s a good adventure, Will, glad you had it. I’ve had a dozen or more of similar type during my years of rock climbing, ice climbing, mountaineering, or just solo hiking pre-iPhone with very limited maps. If you want to explore, there’s always an element of risk, and of course you want to limit that as much as possible. But these experiences really snap your mind into focusing on the essentials of life, and that’s worth a lot. Keep being lucky–and cross your fingers for me, too!

  17. Speaking of trail maps. I just checked Google Maps and it still ignores the Wellington Walkway and puts you on a longe, more hazardous route. I brought this to Congresswoman Clark’s contact page a couple of times and Google, but no change. I made sure Gmaps was set to pedestrian. Google Maps shows the walkway, but doesn’t route me through it. Curious.

  18. I don.t trust smartphones or should I say stuff carried by internet. I was without access to the “web” for 15 months during the pandemic. I just have a landline. I closed 2 bank accounts and moved them to banks that have real human beings called tellers. I get these sheets of paper I call United States Gift certificates or legal tender. I learned from my grandparents not to put faith into institutions that have not stood the test of time. Their test was the Spanish Flu. I still use the internet occasionally but only for very non-critical purposes.

    Will, How did you make out the return without a cell phone?
    That is how I run my life now

  19. I have had dreams similar to the one you describe. I hope your anxiety dissipated quickly when you woke up.

  20. One has a different perspective of man’s power in relation to nature in the West versus in the East.

  21. Timely article mimicking Will’s tale on Boston.com: https://www.boston.com/news/local-news/2021/07/18/smartphone-directions-may-put-novice-hikers-in-danger-experts-say/?p1=hp_secondary

    Anyone who is thinking of being adventurous should be prepared and download a good hiking program for your phone. I use Backcountry Navigator that allows USGS topo maps and other great hiking maps to be downloaded into cache and used when your cell signal disappears. Pay attention to your battery level, go into airplane mode and understand that you need decent unobstructed views of the sky to get an accurate GPS signal.

  22. Quite the story! I’m glad you got back physically unharmed. Pre cell phones I was not so lucky. It was early May, snow was still on the ground, and I was hiking theArethusa-Ripley Falls Trail in NH with a group. About 1/2 mile from the end I slipped, fell into the stream, and was carried by the current for a bit. The others pulled me out and got me into dry clothes, but I couldn’t walk (torn PCL I learned later). Fish & Game/Rescue came, got us all back across the stream safely, and carried me out. Later I made a generous donation to Fish & Game/Rescue, my employer matched it, and so did the outdoors group I was hiking with.

  23. Senator,
    OMG! Glad you made it back safely to Salt Lake City. That’s one cautionary tale for anyone hiking in a rural area.
    – Steve

  24. A real cliffhanger of a story and so vivid. Thanks for the sharing the wisdom. Love the advice from your Dad!

  25. ………..Lisa (Just above) said it best, we need you & care about you……..
    God was on your side……….your parents were definitely looking after you for you from above………

    ……Lisa (just above) said it best, we need you & care about you………God was definitely on your side ……….& your parents were looking out for you too, from above……….harrowing is an understatement…….Will, you are one lucky dude………going alone was a big mistake…….you haven’t finished your work here yet, that is why you made it back, so you can finish up here………thank God you did……..helen cox

  26. Senator Brownsberger, As we approach September 1st, when many neighborhoods in your district will be inundated with foreign and domestic students who may or may not have COVID, what plans do we have to prevent the spread? I hear nothing from our legislature, DPH, Mayor Janey, anybody..
    In re: your recent adventure. As my neighborhood (Allston/Brighton) lurches forward adding 100s of new unaffordable housing units without adding parks and green space (not just dog toilets), etc. what are our plans for building livable future communities like the one you just enjoyed?
    Glad you made it back to us safe and sound BTW.

  27. I thought I had some doozy getting lost running stories but this tops mine! So glad you got back safely!

  28. Thank you for sharing this excellent reminder of how easy it is to end up in a dangerous situation. So glad you are safely home!

  29. Will,
    That was a well written, compelling but frightening narrative. So glad you endured safely. Constructive lesson for all of us. Thank you for sharing.

  30. Bravo! Marvelous!
    Solid contact with nature makes us more humane and kind.
    Congratulations for you safe return.
    It was beautiful!

  31. Will. Aptly named! Thank you for sharing your story & thanks to MASSterList for posting it in today’s feed.

  32. Glad you were in such good shape and used your head to stay safe and get out alive! Good reminder of how phones can be great, but if they fail, you need a back up — in your case: your experience and ability to think your way out. I just saw a line from Navy SEALS: one is none, two is one (always have a backup…)

  33. Phew, thank goodness you are here to tell.the tale. We care about you!! Please take care and less risky adventures. Enjoy!
    Best,
    Geri

  34. It is easy to forget the “Be Prepared” imperative if we don’t get outdoor practice. Given the increase in pandemic inspired outdoor activity, your story is a good reminder on precautions.

  35. nice.
    I feel the presence of the God of my own understanding when out in nature. As a non-demoninational Chistian, I feel so fortunate to live next to Saint John’s Seminary, where I take daily strolls to meditate on the crucifix poised high on the wooded hill. I appreciate that the only ceiling above me when worshipping there is the seemingly endless sky…
    Some of my favorite acronyms for God: “Get Outside Darling” and “Great Out Doors”. The wonder and beauty of being outdoors keeps me humble. And ever grateful.

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