Lost and Found
Copyright © 2007
by Richard S. Platz, All
(Click on photos to enlarge)
Grayback Ridge Boundary Trail to Cold Spring
Siskiyou National Forest Roadless Area
July 9-12, 2006
Photos by the Author
Except Where Noted
"What did we have to worry about?"
A bad dream. A long waking nightmare, complete
with buzzing horse flies and weird hallucinatory insects. I
was standing chest-deep in an undulating sea of flowering false
hellebore (veratrum viride),
the broad swirling leaves and tiny blossom tassels teeming with
grasshoppers and spiders and hideous crawling bugs. The poisonous
green plants crowded so closely together they squeaked as I
waded through. In the pollen-sweet air fat bumblebees trundled
from flower to flower. Sweat soaked my dark shirt and the dizzying
sun baked my shoulders. Everything itched.
Panting, I surveyed the vicinity, then studied
again the GPS clutched in my sweating hand. Right here!
A trail junction, a broad level campsite, and a babbling spring
of sweet water should be right here! Instead, the featureless
expanse of tightly packed Corn Lilies sloped for a half mile
in every direction. I saw no trail. No tent site. No shade.
My ear beheld no beckoning tinkle of water.
From the DeLorme Topo USA map program
I had religiously, perhaps obsessively, entered the GPS coordinates
for a splendid campsite described in two guidebooks.
It was to be our first night's sojourn. But DeLorme had misled
us, and not for the first time. Its maps had also misplaced
Barnhardy and Trego Hot Springs. Curse DeLorme and his inept
maps! And curse me for allowing myself to be fooled again!
A quarter mile down the ridge, a line of trees
traced a terrace. Perhaps there I would find the trail,
the campsite, the water. But the bushwhack would be an impossible
drop down the steepening slope and through an impassable tangle
of willows. The ground had already grown dangerously steep,
and I could not see my footing in the choking yellow-green sea.
If I stumbled on an unseen rock, stepped on a rattlesnake, or
broke my ankle in a gopher hole, I might plunge beneath the
toxic waves and never surface again.
Bitterly I turned back, floundering uphill against
the tide of gravity to where Barbara waited in a peninsula of
"What did you find?" she asked.
Sucking lungfulls of the rarified air, unable
to speak, I could only shake my head.
"Maybe we should go back," Barbara
said gently, as if cajoling a child. "Find out where we
took a wrong turn."
I bristled at the thought of retreat. Water was
crucial to our endeavor, yes. We were hiking at 6000 feet along
the spine of the Grayback Range. On the crest, there were no
streams. Water would have to be sucked from springs and seeps,
which we had carefully programmed into our itinerary. But something
had gone terribly wrong. Here there was no water. A foolish
refusal to retreat, I knew, can spell disaster in backpacking
as in chess. Yet I resisted turning back.
Instead I unfolded the old trail map, then scanned
the cloying false hellebore and the dark margins of forest for
some pattern of meaning. Across the meadow to the south my eyes
fell on what looked like a path cutting straight down the slope
at the bottom of a swath of barren ground. "Maybe that's
the trail," I proposed, pointing.
Barbara was dubious. "Looks like it might
be just a dry wash."
It did look like a dry wash. No doubt
about that. Or a trail. But it lay far away, just below
where we seemed to have lost our bearings. I unfolded a photocopy
from 50 Hikes in Oregon's Coast Range & Siskiyous
by Rhonda and George Ostertag, published in 1989, and reread
the crucial passage:
"Continue downhill to the Boundary Trail junction and
a large campsite at 2.5 miles. With a spring to the northeast,
this campsite is the ideal base from which to explore both directions
of the Boundary Trail."
The dirt scar a half-mile south looked a hell
of a lot like the trail we were supposed to have continued downhill
"Have something to eat," Barbara coaxed,
holding out a granola bar.
I took the bar and sat heavily on a fallen log
to ponder how we had gotten into this predicament.
Three days ago I had telephoned the Illinois
Valley Ranger Station to inquire about hiking the Boundary Trail,
which runs 12 miles along the crest of a spur of the Siskiyou
Mountains. From the Red Buttes Wilderness on the California-Oregon
Border, the trail rambles north, then doglegs northeast, where
we intended to intercept it, to Big Sugarloaf Mountain before
plunging into the Applegate Valley. A helpful rangerette promised
to leave a trail map for us at the Chamber of Commerce Information
Center in Cave Junction, which would be open on the weekend.
We studied descriptions of the hike from various guidebooks
languishing on our bookshelf, pulled topographical maps out
of our old map files, made photocopies, and entered relevant
data into the GPS. The Primordial Scoutmaster could not have
prepared more diligently.
On Saturday we loaded the rented Chevy Impala
and headed for Cave Junction. The man behind the counter at
the Information Center handed me a manila envelope with my name
on it. We did not study its contents. The fellow was helpful,
confirming that the Boundary Trail should be free of snow. He
sketched the route to the trailhead on a complimentary road
After lunch we drove east on the Caves Highway
feeling fine, with no clue that things were about to go wrong.
Following the markings on the complimentary map, we bypassed
a familiar turn-off and motored instead all the way to the Oregon
Caves National Monument, looking for shortcut Forest Road 960.
There indeed, just before the parking lot, lay a gravel road
on the left, but it was unmarked. Or, rather, it bore a sign
reading something like "Service Road" or "Employee
Residences." After driving in futile circles, we decided
this had to be Road 960.
This shortcut turned out to be a harrowing roller-coaster
ride, with incredibly steep grades, washboard ruts, and water
streaming across the road. We thanked god the Impala bouncing
through the woods was not ours. None of the roads were marked,
but the map and odometer allowed us reasonable certainty when
we dead-ended into Road 070. We turned right, looking for a
junction within a mile where Road 079 would fork left and our
Road 070 continued climbing to the trailhead. What could be
At an open saddle we came to an unmarked junction
with a primitive dirt road dropping precariously to the left
and another climbing to the right. The main graveled and graded
road continued straight ahead. This configuration defied the
maps. There were no signs, not even the flimsy plastic paddle
markers that usually designated even the most obscure spur roads.
Cows meandered through the grass and brush. I drove a mile or
two further, but no other roads forked either right or left.
So we returned to the clearing and stopped the engine. I set
up a folding chair and began entering GPS coordinates. Why
didn't they mark their damned roads! As I bent to my work,
curious cows closed in. A huge horned bovine bellowed from the
dirt track above as it piloted a file of beeves down toward
us. The GPS confirmed that this was indeed our junction (N 42
06' 42.7", W 123 23' 04.1"). Who ever heard of
changing the main route numbers without a road sign?
A couple in a black RAV4 pulled up and asked
about the trailhead to Lake Mountain. Young, trim, and hearty,
they intended to run up to Mount Elijah and back before it got
dark. I was able to point out the correct cow-infested road.
Crossing seven monstrous water bars, we drove
the mile or so up deteriorated Road 070 until it ended at a
washout blocked by massive boulders. This was our trailhead
(N 42 06' 05.9", W 123 22' 43.9"). The young couple
in the RAV4 were changing into running shorts and soon departed.
We looked around for a place level enough to set up a tent,
but the road had been carved into the mountain with a cliff
on the left and a sheer drop-off on the right. There was no
way we could sleep in the Impala. So we backtracked over the
seven water bars and through the grazing herd to look for a
place called Pepper Camp a couple of miles away. We had last
van-camped at that fine old forested campsite in 1992.
We found Pepper Camp
at the junction of Roads 070 and 4613 , just past the Road 960
junction. (N 42 07' 06", W 123 23' 32")
But it was far from fine. Into the wild and overgrown camp we
trundled on an abandoned set of tire tracks. We would
have been fine, high and dry on a queen-sized mattress, if we
still had our van. But the van had burned (see Burning
Van). So we had to pitch a tent in the underbrush. It was
impossible to find a level spot. Clearing away downed branches,
we erected the flimsy canvass structure on a slope behind the
car and cooked dinner on the propane stove in the flattened
grass in the middle of the track. This was not the beautiful
campsite we remembered.
After dinner we walked up a steep gravel spur
road climbing west toward Buck Peak and came upon two broad
level quarries that would have worked for van camping. We did
not examine the maps the rangerette had taken such pains to
deliver into our hands. Nor did we bother to stick her manila
envelope into a backpack. Why bother? We were already familiar
with the 1954 USGS topo map and the hike descriptions from our
books, which I had stowed in an easy-access pocket. I had entered
the DeLorme coordinates into the GPS. We were all set.
Blunder upon blunder, the balance was beginning
Early Sunday morning we parked the Impala at
the trailhead. The RAV4 was gone. Hoisting our packs, we skirted
the wash-out and followed the water-rutted road until we came
to an old wooden sign announcing the Bigelow Trail. The trail
grew steeper as we left the road and ascended through a forested
canyon. When the valley finally opened on a broad meadow, however,
we could not see a Bigelow Lake in the hummocky terrain, nor
any obvious trail leading to it. So we pressed on, climbing
long switchbacks through the forest until we emerged on bedrock
high on the northern slope of the canyon, a thousand feet above
the parked Impala. Far below lay lily-pad-speckled Bigelow Lake.
Oregon Caves National Monument lay in Elijah's bowels out of
sight beyond a ridge on the far side of the valley.
Now the fact that our trail had bypassed
the large main lake by a good half mile, even though our map
showed it touching the northeast shore in the meadow,
should have been a red flag that something was amiss. But we
ambled blissfully on toward the saddle between Lake and Elijah
Mountains. There the Bigelow Trail would dead-end into the Lake
Mountain Trail, circling up from the Oregon Caves, and we would
find our spur trail dropping 350 feet due east to intercept
the north-south trending Boundary Trail in less than half a
mile. What did we have to worry about? This would be child's
At the saddle we began looking for a trail junction
and immediately encountered a handmade sign nailed to a tree
pointing left and reading:
The flimsy plywood placard appeared to be some
sort of weird private intrusion into the national forest, and
we were reminded that our hike was not in a designated
wilderness, as we were accustomed. We eschewed the marker and
in another fifty feet came to a proper Forest Service sign.
Propped at the base of a rotten, splintered post, it read:
A feeble track descended left. No doubt Meadow
Mountain Trail 1214 was the fabled link that dropped straight
down to intercept the Boundary Trail at the promised campsite.
Not bothering to consult the maps nor explore
further along the Lake Mountain trail, we plunged down the brushy
path. In no more than 100 yards, the trail elbowed abruptly
left, and another crudely lettered plywood sign pointed straight
ahead towards "Sparlin's Cutoff." The original Forest
Service trail disappeared into an impenetrable thicket of brush.
Things were not right. Sparlin, whoever
he was, had hijacked the official Forest Service trail. In confusion,
we decided to follow Sparlin's trail northward a bit through
the forest. But as soon as we emerged from the trees, I fired
up the GPS. I had programmed the arrow to point to our first
night's campsite. Miraculously, it was pointing straight ahead
along Sparlin's Cutoff trail. We plunged onward into a meadow
of grass and Corn Lilies that followed the ragged margin of
the forest. As we hiked, however, the arrow began drifting toward
the right. When the arrow cranked to 90 degrees, we stopped.
Sparlin's Cutoff bore dead ahead. According to the GPS, our
campsite lay less than a quarter mile below the trail in the
sea of Corn Lilies. It was then that I lifted off my backpack
and left Barbara in the forest shade to plunge into the sea
of false hellebore following to a dead end the tiny arrow of
The granola bar had revived me, and I took a
big drink of water. "I think I should walk over there,"
I said, pointing to the slash that might be a trail or a dry
wash, "and take a look. I'll turn on my radio. You can
guide me if I get lost."
My second sortie into the Corn Lilies was as
hot, buggy, exhausting, and fruitless as the first. The slash
of earth could have once been a trail, but I saw no boot prints.
When I tried to follow it downhill, it quickly disappeared into
an impenetrable willow copse. Above the thicket a meager trail,
or perhaps just a cow path, contoured back north through the
Corn Lilies. Could this feeble track be the Boundary Trail?
I followed it back until I found myself at the precise place
where the GPS had erroneously led me before.
We had wasted more than an hour searching through
the meadow for a non-existent trail, campsite, and water source.
We were down to less than a quart of water, and Barbara was
seriously concerned about dehydration. Should we press on or
go back to Bigelow Lake?
The map showed the Elk Creek Trail climbing eastward
to intercept the elusive Boundary Trail at an open saddle beyond
Lake Mountain, maybe a mile ahead. Presumably that was where
Sparlin's cutoff trail was leading. If necessary, I argued,
we could drop down to Elk Creek for water or backtrack on the
Boundary Trail. Maybe spend the night. Barbara was reluctant,
but in the end agreed to go the extra mile.
So we followed Sparlin's gently descending trail
north around the eastern bulge of Lake Mountain, through pleasant
woods and meadows. Just before the barren saddle, in a final
clump of tall trees, we found a handsomely lettered sign nailed
high on the rough bark of a stout red fir, proudly announcing
"Sparlin Camp." Gray-weathered boards and flimsy plywood
framed an awkward seat and bench, and a wide board had been
cleated between two trees to form a rough table. Deer hunters
had ridden horses here, laden with the raw materials for a shotgun
camp. On the table sat a gallon plastic jug partially filled
with a clear liquid we assumed to be water. Otherwise the site
yards further, in a blazing waste of sharp granite talus, a
rock cairn five tiers high squatted like a Buddhist stupa. Leaning
against it a weathered sign marked the junction of the Elk Creek
and Boundary Trails. The Boundary Trail existed! We were
back on the map! From the saddle the Boundary Trail continued
northeast. It also contoured back southwest into the forest
through patches of low manzanita and dry, brittle grass. It
must have stretched below us all along, hidden in the mountain
meadow of terrible false hellebore.
At Sparlin Camp we leaned our packs against the
rough striated bark of a red fir and rested. Quickly we disabused
ourselves of the idea of following the Boundary Trail back to
the lost campsite, having no desire to return to the false hellebore.
We had moved beyond that. Instead, light as feathers we started
down the Elk Creek Trail, carrying only our water bottles and
filter. The trail was steep, and after a quarter mile with no
sight or sound of water, we reconsidered. Perhaps we could filter
the water in the bottle at Sparlin Camp and press on to Cold
Spring. The map showed that we were already more than half-way
there. How tough could the rest of the hike be?
So we ate lunch in the shade, then purified the
contents of the gallon jug. After slaking our thirst, we were
left with a little more than a quart of questionable, tepid
liquid we believed to be potable water. Barbara's lingering
concern was that Cold Spring might be dry.
"Then why do they call it Cold Spring'?"
After a rest, we strapped on our packs and headed
north on the Boundary Trail bound for Cold Spring, assuming
the final three or four miles would be a cakewalk. Once again,
we assumed wrong. Between Elk Creek and Grayback Mountain the
trail no longer contoured around the peaks, as it had
done with Elijah and Lake Mountains, but traced the ridge crest
like a graph of the mountain's heartbeat, climbing each systolic
summit and plunging into each diastolic canyon. We immediately
began a long, switch-back ascent of the first unnamed peak.
Five hundred feet above the Elk Creek saddle the trail crossed
a rounded summit of gray granite bedrock and talus covered with
manzanita, stands of scrubby red fir and hemlock, and snow fields.
the north loomed the granitic massif of Grayback Mountain. For
over a decade we have talked of climbing to the top, and even
attempted it once as a dayhike. Though visible in the distance
from the Illinois and Rogue River Valleys lording over a court
of lesser peaks, this was our first close-up view of the highest
peak in the northern arm of the Siskiyous. At 7065 feet, its
broad, double-lobed summit rose another 700 feet above us.
The snow fields offered an opportunity to camp
where we were and melt snow for water. Wind gusted across the
ridge, but the trees offered shelter. I searched for a fire
ring and a level spot to place the tent, but could find neither.
The sharp gray talus paving the dome would make for tough sleeping.
Over the shoulder of Grayback's right flank lay our ultimate
destination. Cold Spring did not look that far away. In the
end, we elected to press on.
The trail dropped into a canyon, rose to cross
another summit, then dropped again and rose again, gaining and
losing hundreds of feet of elevation each time. We sipped at
the last of our water. Exhaustion withered our spirits. After
a brutally steep descent on loose dirt and scree, we finally
arrived at the foot of Grayback Mountain and began a long rising
circumnavigation around its eastern slopes. The map showed springs
along the trail, but we found nothing we could fill our bottles
from, just a few muddy trickles. Plodding like zombies, one
foot in front of the other, no longer really seeing the terrain,
we stumbled toward Cold Spring.
The trail crested a ridge and dropped steeply
into a cove of tall red fir and mountain hemlock. A swath of
meadow fell away to a lush green valley far below. From beneath
the trail a small rivulet of water emerged and spread over the
verdant slope. We had finally arrived at Cold Spring (N 42 06'
32", W 123 18' 19"). The trees,
bent at their bases by winter snows, arced up from the steeply
tilted slope, which dropped down to the O'Brien Creek Valley.
Wearily we dragged off our backpacks. It was 6 o'clock, and
the sun had long ago set behind Grayback Mountain. Cold and
hungry, we shivered in our sweaty garments, too weary to do
much about it.
untied the water bottle and knelt at the spring below the trail.
Set in the bank above was a metal sign that read, "Cold
Spring." The water trickling from a mossy hole was too
shallow, so she scrabbled down the hillside to find a pool deep
enough to fill the jug.
I hunted for a spot level enough to set up the
tent. But nothing was level. Not even the trail. I surveyed
up and down the steep slope, meeting Barbara as she scrambled
back through the brush with a half-filled jug of water.
In low-blood-sugar desperation, I whined, "We
can't stay here!"
"We have to stay here," she
snapped, "where there's water." She brushed past,
then wheeled on me. "Where do you want to go?"
I had no idea and waved generally toward the
"I'm not hiking down there. I'll stay here
by the water."
So it was decided.
The site was a mess. Among the massive trunks
lay a long-abandoned rock fire ring, half buried in limbs, duff,
and debris. That was the levelest place.So I cleared away the
branches and began
pulling up the big rocks from the upper edge of the ring and
rolling them down to the narrow ledge of a spur trail just below.
The lower course of rock I left as revetment. Then I dragged
the duff and scraped the loose soil down to level the spot.
It turned out better than I expected. Our heads would be uphill,
and we would probably slide in our sleeping bags, but we could
always squirm back uphill like grubs in the night.
Barbara had pumped fresh, cold water. We drank
deeply, then she collected and pumped some more. Changing into
dry clothes improved our spirits. We erected the tent. With
a trowel I scraped away the duff and built a small new fire
ring where I had rolled the rocks, and soon our pot of water
was steaming over a crackling fire. Dinner improved our spirits
We had intended to climb about a thousand feet
in three or four miles and camp leisurely at the unfound campsite.
Instead, we had trekked eight miles, climbing and dropping a
total of maybe three thousand feet. A bit much for an old couple.
As the fire crackled and twilight settled over the valley, however,
we could not but conclude that all was well. That night we slept
like hibernating bears.
air was cooler on Monday morning, but the weather forecast no
longer threatened showers. We occupied a stunningly beautiful
spot on Grayback Mountain, with long views of distant purple
peaks floating above fog-shrouded valleys to the north and east.
Mt. McLoughlin's peak tickled the belly of the sky. When the
sun rose, golden sunlight streamed into our camp from across
the verdant valley. We sipped tea and mocha from our hammocks
and silently celebrated our good fortune.
We eyed the Boundary Trail where it continued
north from Cold Spring, emerging from a grove of short red alders
and crossing an open slope lush with wild currant, bunch grass,
and a riot of wildflowers. A few incense cedars joined the red
and white firs dotting the otherwise treeless slope. In less
than a mile it circled back into the woods to a saddle that
we judged to be Windy Gap, then on to the cinnamon bulk of Big
Sugarloaf Mountain. We decided we might just take a leisurely
stroll over there for lunch.
in the morning we headed out. The trail squished across a boggy
meadow, contoured across Grayback's open profusion of wildflowers,
and quickly brought us to a signed junction with the O'Brien
Creek Trail. Through the binoculars we could see the abandoned
buildings of the old Krause homestead below. Years ago we had
hiked that far from below in an attempt to climb Grayback, but
had been stymied by the deep snow burying this trail. The Boundary
Trail reentered the forest, and the sound of cascading water
grew until we crossed above a substantial spring that was the
source of O'Brien Creek.
Windy Gap was an open saddle between the forested
northern slope of Grayback Mountain and manzanita-choked Big
Sugarloaf Mountain. The trail wound up through gray talus, granite
sand, prickly manzanita, and bunch grass to a rounded summit
of weathered rock. We stood on the northernmost peak of the
Grayback Range. Before us lay a spectacular vista overlooking
the Williams Valley, with its hazy patchwork of agricultural
fields. Far to the north we identified Mt. Thielsen and the
peaks ringing Crater Lake. Turning clockwise, we saw Mt. McLoughlin,
Mt. Shasta, and the twin horns of the Red Buttes far to the
south. The entire course of the Grayback Range lay out before
us. Directly across to the southwest loomed the bald pate of
Grayback itself. A lingering snowfield curled like pursed lips
above its beard of forest.
Back in our hammocks, we realized that Windy
Gap was not visible from our camp, because of Grayback's bulge.
We were looking instead at the saddle between Sugarloaf Mountain
and its lesser twin to the east. Our second night at Cold Spring
passed as pleasantly as the first. We had neither seen nor heard
any other human since leaving the car.
On Tuesday morning we broke camp early and hiked
up out of the Cold Springs bowl. At the top of the ridge, within
a quarter mile of our campsite, we found a huge bear print in
the trail dust. Round as a cantaloupe, it engulfed a footprint
Barbara had left on the way in. Good thing we had hung our food.
The hike south along the crest was slow and beautiful
and seemed easier than we remembered, because we knew what to
expect. We were fresh and rested and our packs lighter, even
with two extra quarts of water. At the unnamed snowy peak we
ate lunch and again considered staying the night at the top
of the world, melting snow for water. The views were magnificent.
We even found an abandoned campsite in the trees about a quarter
mile back beside another patch of snow. But the weather had
begun to look unsettled, and Barbara preferred to camp at Bigelow
Lake and watch birds. It turned out to be the right choice.
At Elk Creek we left the Boundary Trail and retraced
Sparlin's cutoff back through the meadow of false hellebore
to the junction with the Lake Mountain Trail. Easing off our
packs at the saddle junction, we tried to figure out where we
had gone wrong two days earlier.
visible from where we stood, not more than a hundred feet further
down the Lake Mountain Trail, another trail junction bristled
with Forest Service signs. We had not seen them on the way in
simply because we had not looked. Unnerved by such gross
inattention, I ambled over. One sign pointed on to the "Oregon
Caves." Another pointed back to "Bigelow Lk."
But the wooden markers that stunned me were the two pointing
east down a fine broad path to the "Boundary Trail."
We had taken the wrong trail!
We had already hiked too far for further exploration.
Uneasily we decided to continue on down to Bigelow Lakes and
set up camp for the night. Before we lost our way again. The
following morning, if not too disoriented, we might just try
dayhiking back to this spot and following the markers to the
Boundary Trail. Presumably then we would finally arrive at the
lost campsite and discover what might have been.
From a rocky overlook we identified a pale rock
slide scarring the cliff just above large Bigelow Lake. After
plodding down the long switchbacks through the forest to the
meadow again, we cross-countried straight for the slide. Once
we knew where we were headed, cow paths meandering across the
grassy hummocks became obvious trails, and we soon arrived at
the lake's marshy eastern shore.
across the inlet stream we found a good campsite nestled beneath
a rounded granite outcropping in a clump of red firs and hemlock
(N 42 05' 17.6", W 123 22' 14.5"). We set up the tent
beside the water near an established, although not recently
used, fire ring. The lake was uniformly shallow. Yellow flowers
and broad pads of water lilies floating over much of the surface.
Birds flitted everywhere. Barbara pointed out one fat olive-sided
flycatcher serenading our camp from the dead branches of a tall
After dinner we explored. The second, much smaller
lake was hidden by woods further west. Both shallow lake bowls
had been gouged by glaciers out of granite bedrock, then dammed
by a terminal moraine when the glaciers receded. Now both were
filling with sediment and, in a blink of the geological eye,
would become meadow. The moist soil of the valley bottom supported
a verdant biodiversity. Buried behind the towering south wall
lay the marble batholith that had been eroded by acidic flows
of water into the Oregon Caves.
Barbara loved the lush valley and spent the evening
watching birds. Though easily accessible from the trailhead,
the place seemed remote and secluded. We heard no voices, saw
no one else, and agreed that Bigelow Lakes might make a fine
future destination when more aggressive hikes came to exceed
Wednesday morning started out beautiful, with
few clouds. We took our time. Just as we finished breakfast,
however, it started to sprinkle, and then became windy, cold,
and overcast. The weather radio had changed its tune and now
forecast rain. We packed up in a steady drizzle, regretting
not being able to stay a second night.
The rain had let up by the time we rejoined the
main trail. Leaving our backpacks concealed in the brush, we
stuffed rain gear into daypacks and hiked back up the six long
switchbacks to the saddle 350 feet above. Then we followed the
arrows down the wide new path that did not appear on our outdated
map. This fine trail skirted the large meadow of false hellebore
that I had waded through three days earlier, bouncing from its
edge at the return of each of ten long switchbacks carved into
the steep forested slope. The new trail took more than a mile
to descend the 450 feet that the old trail had dropped in less
than half a mile. Near the bottom we crossed some boggy seeps,
but nothing that would have served as a water source.
At the junction with the Boundary Trail we found
the lost campsite. It brought no hallelujahs. The cows
were long gone, as was any sign of recent human habitation.
Remaining instead was the devastation that cattle and horses
had wrought upon the ground, where ignorant hooves had dug and
scraped and scarified. Dung mixed with the
dusty soil in mounds and indestructible brown pies. Barely a
square foot had not been trampled, furrowed, excavated, and
defecated upon. This was not the beautiful campsite of our dreams.
the naked post that marked the junction, we could look up to
the yellow-green meadow of Corn Lilies and the shady island
of forest where Barbara had waited while I searched for the
worthless campsite behind us.We had been so close! I found a
barren scratch of the old trail rising into the impenetrable
copse of willows. It matched the scratch I had explored above.
It was a trail. And a dry wash. Rain and snow
continued to erode it into an ever-widening arroyo. The Forest
Service had wisely relocated it for environmental reasons.
An abandoned fire ring lay half-buried near the
old trail. There we quietly ate lunch. We did not bother exploring
further north along the Boundary Trail to locate and verify
a spring. We had seen enough of the promised land.
Wednesday evening we rented a motel room in Cave
Junction and gazed back at the fog and clouds smothering the
peaks of the Grayback Range. No doubt it was raining in the
Bigelow Valley. We tromped to dinner along concrete pavement
swallowed by the roar, fumes, and confusion of highway traffic.
At a bright plastic table we ate beneath fluorescent lights.
Too many people came and went. The magic was fading.
As darkness fell unheeded, we drew the drapes,
clicked on incandescent lights, and from its manila envelope
unfolded the crisp new map across the bed. The direct old route
up from Bigelow Lakes and down the dry wash was gone. Erased.
Canceled. Annulled. Nor did Sparlin's Cutoff appear, but then,
why should it? Instead, the new, rerouted path to the Boundary
Trail zig-zagged through the woods far from sensitive mountain
meadows. Just as we had walked it earlier that day, a thousand
years ago. As remote as a line on a sheet of paper.
Return to Backpacking