At 7:32 PM I realize how scared I am when I call my wife. “Mags,” I say, “I…I…I’m lost.” I stammer and I fight back tears.
Earlier that afternoon I had set out for a ride across the Moab
desert. My plan was to ride from Gemini
Bridges to Poison Spider, via Gold Bar Rim and Golden Spike trails, for a
heavy dose of classic Moab terrain. At 1:40 PM I still
had four hours of daylight, plenty of time, I thought, to complete the
ride before darkness set in. But just in case I
packed a good headlight and a blinky red light for riding the ten miles of
pavement at the end of the ride to complete the loop. The forecast also called for rain after 5:00 PM,
so I also packed a rain jacket. I also
had three energy bars, two bananas, four bottles of Carbo Rocket and a
The first two hours go by without incident. There are two ways to get to Gold Bar Rim,
and I take the longer way, miss a turn, but find my way before losing much time. At 4:30 I’m at the top of Gold Bar, looking
over the cliff at the town of Moab below.
Descending Golden Spike and Poison Spider won’t take much more than an
hour, will it?
I stop to mount my light around 5:30. I am somewhere near the end of Golden Spike
or the top of Poison Spider. It’s
unclear on my map where one trail ends and the other begins. There is no sign of the rainstorm yet, but
the winds are picking up. With my
Princeton Tec Switchback 1 lighting my way, I press onward toward the Poison
Spider trailhead. There is a documentary
on the Miss Navajo Pageant showing at the Moab Library at 7:30 that I want to be
This is when things start to get confusing.
Trails in Moab are marked with paint where they go over
sandstone. Sometimes the markings are
pictures like dinosaurs or little jeeps, but on Poison Spider Mesa they are
just white rectangles, spaced every 50 feet or so. I’d followed trails marked with these
splotches dozens of times before, even on Poison Spider Mesa once or twice, but
never in the dark.
Is that paint on the rock, or just a white lichen? I follow it, then see another splotch 50 feet
away. I follow it to the edge of the
sandstone, looking into the sand. Yes
there are tracks there; jeep tracks, motorcycle tracks, mountain bike
tracks. In fact, there are tracks
everywhere. How am I supposed to know
which track to follow?
I pick a track and follow it as long as I can, but
inevitably it leads to another patch of sandstone. And again I am left to wonder, are those
paint marks or splotches of lichen? By this
time I am walking my bike, studying each splotch, looking for straight edged
paint marks, and feeling for that smooth, painted feeling. But how long has it been since I saw a paint
mark that I was absolutely certain was not a patch of lichen? 20 minutes?
30 minutes? An hour?
Now I am at the top of a steep sandstone hill. How far down is it? I cannot tell, but the paint marks go
straight down it. Would the trail really
take such an unsafe route? No. Those are lichens. They must be.
Back to the edge of the sandstone again.
But which way did I come from? I
can’t find the trail. I can’t find the
f*cking trail! There are no tracks now,
no white paint marks anywhere, white lichens are everywhere. It’s getting late. I circle around the sandstone. Where did I come from? How did I get on this rock? The wind is getting stronger.
I wander in search of a track for—how long? I look at my cell phone—7:32 PM. Two minutes past show time. I have one bar so I call my wife, who is at
home cooking a hot dinner for herself and our niece. “I’m lost,” I say, “I can’t find my
I’m not really lost, I know exactly where I am on the
map, and know exactly where I need to get to, but there are cliffs and ledges
everywhere. I can see the glowing lights
of Moab just over the horizon. I just
don’t know how to get from here to there because I don’t dare to hike
cross-country in this terrain in the dark.
“I may have to spend the night out here.” I tell Mags,
I’m going to look for 30 more minutes for the trail. “If you don’t hear
from me it means I’ve come down from this high place, have found the trail and
don’t have a cell signal. If I decide to
sleep out here I’ll call and let you know.”
I say a little prayer.
“God, please help me find the trail.” and He does. I follow it easily now, and have learned how
to distinguish paint from lichen. I should be out in no time, down to the
highway where the pedaling is easy and the route easier. I’m hungry and am looking forward to the
pasta I am going to make for dinner.
9:03 PM. I see a reflective Carsonite sign. ‘Poison Spider Route’ it
says, then a little further on, spray painted onto the sandstone is a big arrow
pointing in the direction I had just come from, and next to it the word
I have been here before.
Probably two hours ago. Somehow I
have walked a giant loop and am still several miles from the trailhead. I consult my map, more anxious than angry,
and set off for the trailhead. But it
happens again, only this time it’s a smaller loop, but here I am again,
standing in a spot I had stood in only 30 minutes earlier. Just like in the movies, I am literally
walking in circles. I come to a T-intersection. Now which way? I consult my map again and make sure I pick
the right direction. Ten minutes later I pass
an intersection that tells me I made the right choice.
30 minutes after that I pass Little Arch, which tells me I was
Now I’m on the right trail but walking in the wrong
direction. I’m six miles from the
trailhead now. According to the map ,
there’s another junction ahead, and the trail on the right leads to the Portal Trail. I’m afraid of the Portal Trail because
cyclists have died on it, but if I make it down it’s an even shorter ride on
the pavement back to my car. It’s worth
the risk. I plod onward, now getting
further from where I had originally wanted to be, but also confident in knowing
where I was going for the first time in three hours.
I see a trail on the right.
Finally, I have found the way to the Portal Trail. Oops, that’s not it, but 20 minutes are
wasted getting back to the real trail.
Now here’s another trail. Nope,
that’s not it either. Another 15 minutes
down. Oh, now here’s a big wide trail,
with lots of tracks in the sand. This
has to be it.
Twenty minutes later I’m standing at the edge of a
cliff. The view is beautiful, but for one missing feature. I can see the Holiday Inn in
Moab, but not the Portal Trail. It is
somewhere directly below me at the base of this cliff. I have a strong signal on my cell phone
now. It’s 10:32. I have been wandering in the dark for five
hours. I call my wife again. “I’m going to spend the night” I say. “The temperature will be in the thirties
tonight,” she says “and it’s supposed to rain after 5AM.”
“I’m afraid I won’t recognize the Portal Trail when I come
to it” I say. I don’t want to walk past
it and spend another five hours searching.
I walk down the slope and find a small sandstone shelf, eighteen inches
off the ground. It’s just big enough for
me to squeeze underneath to get out of the wind.
I put on every piece of clothing I have, eat my last energy bar, lean my
bike against the shelf to keep the critters away from my head, say another
prayer and slither into my hovel, pulling my map over me as a blanket. It will be light in eight hours.
I’m surprised that I’m actually able to sleep. Not a good sleep, but sleep nonetheless. I awake every couple of hours, because my hip
aches from the rock I’m curled on. I get
up to pee, and to circulate some blood.
Then I slither back in and shiver convulsively until sleep sets in
again. I repeat this four more times
during the night: 11:24, 12:17, 1:38,
5:44 AM. I get up
again. This time while I’m doing my calisthenics
it starts to rain. The sun won’t be up
for another 45 minutes, but I’m not going to sit here and get hypothermia. I continue down the hill in the dark (my
light was still shining brightly after all these hours) and find the Poison
Spider trail. Within 15 minutes I come
to another trail on the right. This one
is clearly marked ‘To Portal Trail’.
6:47 AM. I’m standing
on the cliff edge again, looking at Moab below me. I switched off my light 15 minutes ago. I can see the pile of uranium tailings below
me, where cleanup activity is just getting started for the day. The Portal Trail is easily visible to my left
and to my right. I call my wife
again. She didn’t sleep well
7:53 AM. I’m at the
junction of US 191 and S.R. 279. I call
my brother. He and Mags almost drove to
Moab last night to look for me.
8:34 AM. I’m in my
car at the Gemini Bridges trailhead, feasting on canned peaches, cottage
cheese, an avocado, chocolate milk, sliced bread and Tostitos tortilla
11:08 AM. I stop in
an empty parking lot in Price to take a nap.
My sleeping bag is luxuriously warm.
2:28 PM. I’m home
again. Mags and I share a long embrace. We go out to the yard to rake leaves together.