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.”