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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  1. I too am glad you’re back. And will now say something that makes pretty much everyone I know mad, especially my Cambridge pals.
    The most dangerous item to bring on trail is a cell phone. The false security it provides actually prevents one from doing the prep work necessary to complete the hike. Learning the trail beforehand, then halting if the next marker doesn’t appear and backtracking to the last marker.

    (I sound awfully righteous; just been in SO much trouble myself. Don’t mean to sound this way but I know exactly what you went through on your ordeal.)

    Compass, paper topo map and you’re good to go.
    Thank you for your story.

    1. Yup. You nailed it.
      The trail images on the cell phone just don’t have enough information to clue one into where one really is.
      The GPS can be great, but only when everything is going right.

  2. Just in time NOT to be helpful: the _New York Times_ runs a story on how dangerous phone maps can be for hikers: They particularly call out Google, but point to issues with all apps, e.g. ““A lot of information on the internet is crowdsourced, so there isn’t necessarily any input from land managers or parks or trail organizations,” he said.” As several commenters have noted above, a phone map is no substitute for paper; I’m very glad this learning experience wasn’t worse.

  3. That was a harrowing experience. Glad you found your way. You should consider a writing side career. Well done!

  4. Always carry some emergency items in case of an overnight. Headlamp, Bic lighter, whistle, Mylar emergency blanket perhaps even two or three chem light sticks. These items don’t take up very much room and could all fit into a Fanny pack along with some protein bars. These won’t guarantee a comfortable night but they’llget you through the night. Also, always let someone now where you are. A note in your vehicle explaining the route you intend to take, destination and when you plan to be back. If you don’t have vehicle give a friend this information or even the desk at your hotel. You may not need these on a jog in Boston but someplace that you aren’t familiar with could help you overnight or quicken a search and rescue. Be safe.

  5. Oh Will! A happy conclusion to a really scary story. Happy about the ending!

  6. Wow! Glad you kept your head about you and made it back safely, Will. Watch yourself! We can’t afford to lose you.

  7. Thank goodness for you, Will! No more taxing your guardian angels, please. You matter too much too all of us!

  8. *phew*
    Glad you are ok!
    The landscape is very different out there, easy to get disoriented.

  9. Glad you kept your wits about you and stayed lucky. What a scary experience!

  10. Thank you for this story, Will, a gripping and cautionary tale. And as others say, that’s why I’m a lover of paper maps, though the USGS paper maps are increasingly very out of date alas. Glad you are alive and well, and even got to dinner!

  11. O.M.G, I will never tease you again. My heart is still beating like a Sledgehammer as I contemplate the fact that we could have lost you! Just wait until your brother reads this, rendered in ” true Cliffhanger Style”!

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