This is the final part in a five-part series. Here’s the rest: Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four

Finally the sky turned gray and a few birdsongs began to lace the insect noise. The insects faded away as more and more birds awoke and called to one another. “I can’t believe we made it to morning,” said Dr. G. We still had, hypothetically, more than two thirds of our trip ahead of us. After we broke camp I inspected the ground and found some new burrow holes, indicating that the creature or creatures beneath us had indeed escaped. Whew! Safe on that score.

We were leaning strongly toward calling it quits, but Dr. G wanted to check the mud puddle to see if we could get any water out of it. We scrambled down the creek bed with our heavy packs and found that the water had, indeed, cleared and refilled overnight. I applied some first aid tape to the leaky water bladder and then held the hose for the water filter just above the slime in the two-inch-deep puddle. I would wave off the bees while Dr. G pumped the filter handle, and then we would stand back and wait for the puddle to refill. After four attempts, we were at full capacity. Yes! We were getting all the water we needed for the day from a tiny, dirty, puddle, just like the insects. Dr. G, newly confident, voted to forge ahead. I thought it over and agreed.

“You know, after all that, we’re probably going to come upon some big, lovely, clear pools just around the corner,” I said. The trail was just as difficult to follow, if not more so, than the day before. We both looked like the Lilliputians had come after us with tiny whips; our arms and legs were scored and crosshatched with narrow scrapes. We rounded a corner and came upon a set of dark pools. Dr. G. groaned. Right about then we got lost again. At least we were in the shade, among the pines, I kept telling myself. At least we are together in the great outdoors, beating the odds. At least it’s not too hot.
I spotted a cairn on the other bank and we picked up the trail, temporarily, before it disappeared into a dark thicket. I tried and failed to get into the thicket myself.

We walked around it, and I exclaimed at the decaying body of a red-tailed hawk, scaring something big uphill from us. It started a minor rockslide as it scrambled away, but neither of us was quick enough for a glimpse.

The creek bed split in two, and the cairns were hard to distinguish from the general rocks. We were in full sun now, approaching mid-morning. Dr. G began to question the wisdom of the ever-more-scarce cairns. They disagreed with each other; one would point northwest while another seemed to indicate direct north. We spent more and more time in the creek bed itself, rather than on its banks, and you know how I am with creek beds.

The logs we had to negotiate got bigger and more tangled together. I was looking ahead at a possible cairn on a ridge with Dr. G to my left as I climbed over a weathered gray log, its bark in soft piles beneath it. I put my foot on the other side and as it touched down on the bark the air filled with a loud, harsh rattle. It was like someone shaking a castanet right in my ear. A few feet away, sunning itself on a flat rock, was an alarmed rattlesnake. Dr. G and I leapt back over the log and almost fell over each other in our attempt to give the snake a wide berth. I got a good look at this one; it was about two and a half feet long and gold spotted, with a big rattle, uncoiled and trying to scare us off.

“Now that’s how a rattlesnake is supposed to act!” I told Dr. G. He kept repeating, “Two rattlesnakes! Two rattlesnakes in less than a day.” I studied the terrain and proposed a possible path that would give the snake plenty of room. It involved scaling up the bank and plunging through another thicket, then back down to the creek bed. Dr. G looked me straight in the eye. His expression was grave. “I think it’s time to give up,” he said. That is not the kind of thing that he says, ever, but the occasion called for it. We had only gone a mile in the past two hours and we were just getting to the steep part– a 1200 foot climb. The trail showed no signs of becoming less coy and retiring. The further in we went, the harder it would be to get back if something went wrong. “Okay,” I said. It was bound to be easier to make our way back to the trailhead.

A few hours later we emerged from what I had started calling the Gorge of Snakes and Thickets and sat for a snack to study the map. It hadn’t been easier on the way back; we lost the trail in new places and picked it back up in unfamiliar stretches. We did see a few landmarks, like the dead bird, the campsite, the mud puddle, and the embankment where the water went over. On the forest service map there were a few tents drawn, marking developed campsites. Dr. G tapped the spot with his finger. “How about a late lunch at a restaurant in Globe and some car camping?” It sounded fine to me. I looked at the edge of the map, where there were some notes about the region:

There are over 900 miles of National Forest System trails. Their conditions range from good to terrible. Challenges include steep grades, heavy brush, wash-outs, lack of available water, and sometimes difficulty in finding the trail.

Check, Check, Check, Check, Check. Now they tell me!

The End