Before crawling into the tent, I stoked my small campfire. The night was colder than I had anticipated. Even with a three-season down sleeping bag, I slept in all my layers, including the pink rain jacket. The cold night air and the newness of wilderness solitude made me restless. This was my second night alone, and though I was starting to get used to the silence, I was still grateful for the company of Ben.
My alarm stirred me early, though it was nowhere near an alpine start. I rose in time to run up to the lake and reset the camera for a sunrise stop-action sequence. While that was firing away, I went about making breakfast and packing up camp.
I was beginning to get more efficient packing Ben, but the process still took me about an hour. By the time we were cleaned up, camera put away and ready to hit the trail, the day was already growing hot. I started the hike with excitement and anticipation. The hardest part of the journey, Switchback Pass, was behind us and I was eager to finally see the Chinese Wall.
Leaving the Lake Levale camp site, the trail was a braided mess of cow paths left by free grazing pack stock. This made me uneasy- and I hoped I was headed in the right direction. Quickly, the trail narrowed to a single track and the forest opened into a gorgeous clearing. This was my first sight of the long stretching Chinese Wall.
We traveled all day under the sheer cliffs of the wall towards our Sock Lake campsite about 10 miles away. The terrain had us rising and falling over easy mountain ridges. There were so many that we lost track. So much of the surroundings looked very similar and it was difficult to gauge how far we had hiked. From my perspective, I couldn't really tell which peaks were taller than others, or where we were exactly. All day long I had the false notion that we were further than we actually were.
Around 3 pm I spotted a silver tarp shining in the distance. I could also see food bags hoisted high in a tall tree. There were no people around. I thought for a bit that we had made it to our camp destination and would be sharing it with others. Much to my dismay - the surroundings didn't match my map. We were not as far as I thought.
About a mile down the trail, I ran into the inhabitants of the abandoned camp. It was a group of trail crew workers toiling in the hot afternoon sun with shovels and pulaskis. These were the first humans I'd encountered in three days. After a few minutes of conversation, I learned that the trail crew leader knew my husband and also the man that shod Ben. Talk about a small world.
My original plans were to make portraits and tooling taxonomies of people I encountered along the way- but I felt bad interrupting their work, and I was told that I still had a few miles left to hike before I reached my destination. We exchanged goodbyes and I continued on up the trail.
Once I was a few hundred yards away, I stopped to change my shoes. My hiking boots were beginning to make my heels sore, and I didn't have much tolerance left.
Following the information I'd received from the trail crew boss, I hiked for another hour or two. As described, I reached what looked like an obvious camp site. The ground had been worn bare by frequent use, and there were remnants of an old fire pit. However, the trail had once again become braided and obscured from grazing animals. Before making camp, I wanted to find the trail that I would be taking the following day to ensure I was indeed in the right spot.
With the goal in mind to find the next day's trail, I set off looking for a clear trail that wasn't a meandering graze path. I found a well tread line that continued further South. BLAST... I thought to myself. I thought I had already arrived. So I lead Ben on and followed.
Slowly, we started ascending. Before long, our climb was getting steep, and it appeared as if we were heading up into the mountain cliffs. A sinking feeling came upon me. I had been hiking up hill towards Sock Lake for a good 20 minutes now. The campsite below was my destination. I had surpassed it in the wrong direction. It wasn't until then that I realized that Sock Lake wasn't "up the hill" from the campsite- but high up in the cliff bands. My desire to see the lake was far less than my desire to stop hiking and make camp.
In a bit of a huff, I turned Ben around- and we marched back down the rocky cliff bands. Somehow in our descent, Ben snagged his breast collar on some tree branches or scraped against some rocks- and had pulled a rivet out of the saddle. One side of his breast collar was dangling freely. Without the proper tools, I did a bit of "Macgyvering" and "fixed it".
Still unable to find the continuing trail for the following day- I began to panic, and cried briefly. The sun was beginning to drop below the rock bands, and I was desperate to confirm my location. Frustrated and needing to concentrate, I tied Ben to a tree. I quickly fished out my map and compass from my pack. I found North, spread the map on the ground then matched the coordinates. I could see on the map- that the only continuing trail was below Sock Lake- and went downhill near a river. I picked up my map and began walking in the direction that the map illustrated. Within a few hundred yards I was able to meet back up with the Continental Divide Trail.
EUREKA. We WERE here. This was the camp all along. That pesky Sock Lake diversion wasted a good hour of my time, but we've arrived. With a huge sigh of relief, I went about unloading Ben, notifying Josh that I was safe via SPOT, and all the traditional tasks - locating a hanging tree, pumping water, grazing Ben, building a fire, making dinner....
Right as I was drifting off to sleep in the darkness, Ben began to paw the ground and spin around on his high line. I could hear bells in the distance.
Are there people coming into my campsite?! It's pitch black!
I sat up and felt for my headlamp. I turned it on, trying to see through the mesh screen of my tent- but the light blasted back at me obstructing my view.
Ben began to grow more and more anxious- whinnying, pawing, and spinning.
I could hear the hooves of several animals quickly approaching.
I fumbled around briefly and found my pepper spray. I quickly unzipped my tent, awkwardly stuffed my feet into my Chacos and crawled outside into the cool darkness.
As I rose to my feet I could see the reflecting eyes of several stock animals quickly approaching. It was immediately clear that these were free range horses and mules running into my camp. Several thoughts raced through my mind.
Am I supposed to catch them? Are they going to harass Ben? Is he going to get spooked, break off the high line and join their herd, never to be seen again?
I didn't want to risk any of those potential situations. These loose steeds were not my responsibility to catch- but they were indeed a nuisance and potential liability.
My heart was racing a mile a minute as I fumbled with my bear spray. I released the safety and raised the canister, prepared to discharge its contents if necessary.
Luckily, with some boldness, raised waving arms, and my best mom voice, I was able to "shoo" the mob out of my camp.
Anxious and a little rattled, I re-holstered my pepper spray, and crawled back into the tent.
I was just beginning to settle down and drift to sleep when the pesky mob returned.
YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME.
Really angry and very bold this time, I bolted out of my tent with the pepper spray in one hand and my headlamp in the other. I ran towards the beasts shouting and waving my arms.
HEY HEY HEY HEY HEEEEYYY!!!!
Exhausted and a more than a little frustrated, I returned to the tent and settled in for a restless night.
To be continued.... PART 5 : JUMPING AHEAD + HOLES
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