“I’m not coming to get you unless you’re legs are broken” I heard the melodic voice of my sweet, sweet girlfriend (an avid adventurer and international traveler herself) say over a sketchy but hard won phone signal. “I told you that was a bad idea”, she persisted. To my credit, I had not asked for an extraction but she could obviously tell by my whimpering tone of voice that I was not having a good time. Picturing her smug grin of satisfaction at having told me so, I downplayed the day’s formidable challenges and signed off with “goodnight, I’ll see you tomorrow”. I wasn’t so sure. You see, I had thoroughly screwed up.
A few weeks earlier, a buddy and I had decided to make a 20 mile hike through Davy Crockett National Forest. Quite a bit of planning and preparation had gone into mapping our route, planning meals and all the other necessities that go along with a multi day hike. We planned to take two vehicles, leave one at our intended stopping point, take the other to the trail head and drive back to it when we finished our trip. A good half way point was selected for an overnight camp. I’s were dotted, T’s were crossed and everything was in order. Then the plan changed…
My buddy pussed out last minute. I can only assume he developed an acute case of Vagisitis or his monthly bleeding of the nose started early (ok, ok… he didn’t really. Something unexpected came up and work and he couldn’t take the weekend off but I know he’s going to read this, so we’re going to stand by my original statement). A little bummed, I thought about it for a minute and decided no big deal, I’ll go by myself. This normally wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that our intended route had required the use of two vehicles. “No biggie”, I thought to myself. I’ll start at the destination, hike to the mid way camp, get up the next morning and hike back. Problem solved.
There is no potable water on this particular stretch of trail, so water needs to be carried or cached along the route. Taking a quick look at the map, I found a spot where a Forest Service road crossed the trail near where I was planning to camp. “Perfect spot to stash water”, I thought to myself.
Being eager to enter the wilds, I left the house Friday evening. I navigated a maze of Forest Service roads until I found the crossing I was looking for. I stashed a few gallons of water for a wet camp and the return trip at the road crossing I had marked on the map and made my way back to the new trailhead/destination. Making camp as darkness began to flood the picturesque woods on a bluff overlooking the Neches River, I thought about how glad I was to be there instead of working all weekend and how I was going to rub that in a bit when I got back. After dinner, a bit of snakebite medicine around the campfire and an interesting encounter with a sheriff’s deputy ( a topic for another post) I slept soundly to the familiar tune of crickets and coyotes.
Waking bright and early the next morning, I quickly packed camp and hit the trail. Birds were chirping, the sun was shining, it was a beautiful day to be in the woods. I’ll save the details of the 4-C National Recreation Trail for an entire post as there just isn’t enough room to do it justice here but suffice it to say that it’s an awesome hiking trail. Well marked, well maintained, scenic and in a very historic area, It’s a gem that any hiker visiting the area shouldn’t overlook. It’s not as flat as most of the Pineywoods are and herein lied my first problem.
Ten miles a day on flat ground is pushing it for me. I’m 35 years old, a bit overweight and have a tendency to over pack. I can do it but I prefer a more leisurely pace. Eight miles into it, I was starting to feel the burn and my pack was getting heavier by the step. “Only two more miles to go” I thought as I crested a hill. “Food, water, flip flops and a cocktail await” I said as I drained the last few drops from my canteen.
I arrived at my intended camp site which was marked by a permanent shelter. I took my pack off, looked around and noticed there was no road within sight. Pulling the GPS out of my pack, I realized that the road where I had cached my water supply was not as close to the camp as I had imagined but a mile or so South of my current position. I drudgingly shouldered my pack, and pressed on.
What seemed like 3 weeks and 500 miles later, I rounded a bend saw a road. I can honestly say, I’ve never been so glad to see a dirt FS road before in my life and will hopefully never be so glad to see one again. It was a joyous moment but it didn’t last long. This place didn’t look familiar at all. This was clearly not where I had cached my water supply. To say I was devastated would be an understatement. I was starting to panic. I took my pack off, sat down and tried to rationally evaluate my situation. Even in the spring, the Pineywoods of East Texas are warm and humid to say the least. I had been losing precious liquid all day faster than I had had been replacing it and hadn’t thought much about it because I knew I had plenty of water cached at the end of the trail. Or thought I did anyway.
I pulled out my map and GPS, in hope that there was an easy and close solution to the problem. There wasn’t. My route had started along the Neches River with streams and running water aplenty. I had passed a pond but it was several miles back. There looked to be streams and creeks ahead and the 20 mile trail culminated at a lake but that was at least 8 or 9 miles to the South. My sore feet had escalated at this point to what I could only assume was the beginning of a stress fracture in my left and I was in no shape to cover that kind of distance. I was in no shape to cover any more distance at all to be perfectly honest and it would be dark soon. I only had a few choices. I could make camp where I was and hope tomorrow would bring better things. I could walk several miles back to where I knew there was water (Potable water be damned at this point. While heavy metals and contaminated water can certainly be dangerous, the threat of dehydration was a more immediate concern). My last option and the one I luckily chose was to press forward in hopes of coming across the water I’d left or some natural source.
From the looks of my GPS, there was another road three miles distant that had to be where I had left two gallons of the glorious liquid that I so desperately needed. I can’t think of a adjective to accurately describe the way I hobbled the next few miles. Moving at half the speed of smell, I had a lot of time to think about how this had gone wrong. “Austin… you retard. This is a simple hike and you’re a very experienced outdoorsman. How could you have f**cked this up so badly. ” I also had a lot of time to think about all the useless things I had brought with me instead of extra water.
It was miraculous. All of a sudden, there it was. This was the place I had been looking for. I recognized this spot. I saw the road. I saw a dozen camp fires burning on the other side. “This place is popular”, I thought as a second wind kicked in. It was practically dark by then. As I took a long, hard draw from a gallon bottle I had left behind a log I gazed across the road. This was not a popular spot. The bloody, damned woods were on fire. At least the brush underneath them was. There was a prescribed burn taking place across the road. I had seen a few of the signs over the last few miles but hadn’t paid much attention to them. The signs give a large window of when the area is supposed to be burned. I had checked the website before I left for notifications and warnings for the area I had planned to hike (the USFS does a great job of posting up to date warnings and notices) but i had wound up going much farther than I had intended. With the fire’s dying out and the wind pushing smoke and possible spread the other direction, I wasn’t too concerned with the fire. I was happy to have found my water supply and glad to be done for the day. I set up my tent, built a small fire, ate a hand full of vitamin I (ibuprofen) and cooked a bit of supper. I never did eat it. I was too spent. This is where the story started. I checked my phone for the thousandth time that day and I had a bar of service. Hot damn! I called my beloved and told her what a great time I was having and that I’d see her tomorrow.
Waking in the morning to what ominously looked and smelled like a storm brewing, I made a quick decision. I took the small day pack off my pack frame and dumped everything inside my tent. I loaded the day pack with the rest of the water, a GPS (that I used to mark the location of the tent) and my phone. I put my Swiss Army knife in my pocket and made what will forever be considered, in my mind anyway as the death march on Neches Bluff. My Jeep was a welcome sight and I didn’t waste any time heading back to last night’s camp to collect my gear before the rain started. I made the hike back (well hydrated and carrying substantially less weight) in less than half the time it took me to get there. Maybe there’s something to the ultralight backpacking craze?
Looking back on that experience, it could have been a great trip. A series of mistakes, all caused by poor planning and last minute decisions, condensed to form my hardships that weekend. I was carrying too much weight. I was out of shape for my intended mileage. I thought I knew where I was and didn’t mark my water supply on GPS. Most of all, in my excitement, I zigged when I should have zagged while caching my water supply and wasn’t paying enough attention to notice. All honest mistakes but mistakes that could have potentially had severe consequences. The 4-C Trail is an awesome place and a very safe destination. What if I had been in more remote country? Things could have been different in a very bad way. I passed several people on the trail and any of which would have been more than happy to help, if I was really in trouble. The truth is, I was so pissed at myself for making such rookie mistakes, that I suffered through it as penance for being a dumbass.
Is pre-trip planning as important as it’s cracked up to be?
Hell yes it is.