On the Fourth of July (2008) driving across the New Mexico Rockies, I thought to climb away from and above the crazy noisemakers. I selected from a tattered guidebook the alpine Serpent Lake, far and high that it’s stocked with fish by air. I drove into a mountain cloudburst so thick the wipers failed, and out the other side to a trailhead parking lot caressed by dripping pines. The surprise was two other cars, a truck and sedan, at the aging wood sign ‘Serpent Lake: 5 miles’.
It was sunset. I stretched my legs up the trail for a quarter-mile noting snow banks on the far mountain reaches where the lake lies. Birds sang, hinting the past storm, pines bent and aspens giggled as darkness fell like a blow, and I turned back.
Behind me – I shouldn’t have stopped- crunched light footsteps and female voices. I’d rather meet bear on the trail. I backpedaled and ducked into the brush too late. A Brunette and Blonde, shapely and pretty, approached with drawn faces as the former stepped up with, ‘May I ask you a question?’
‘You just did, yes,’ I replied.
‘Did you… see anyone else on the trail?’ she implored. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Our husbands…’ her voice broke,‘…Are up there!’ and the Blonde moved closer.
They are Texans vacationing in the Rockies. ‘We should be eating steak for dinner now,’ they justified. ‘Our husbands started up the trail at noon, were to fish at the lake for two hours, come and meet us here three hours ago. It’s a husband bonding thing. Dummies! They left the GPS and radios in the truck.’
Fred is a rocket scientist, and Jack a retired FBI agent.
The first step in an informal rescue is to gather data. The men had inserted onto the trail nine hours ago, at noon. They were middle-aged, fit, one hypoglycemic, acclimated for one week to altitude, took daypacks with snacks, raingear, no trail map, and it was their first time on the trail.
‘Serpent Lake,’ states my guidebook, ‘is a strenuous 10-mile roundtrip hike that’s scenic in a less traveled part of the Pecos Wilderness. The map is confusing, so be careful at cross-trails.’
I didn’t like it. Two men were lost on a dark mountain. Worry lines grew on the wives’ faces as the sun set.
The second step is to leave a rescue plan. Hitching the rope suspenders of my hiking shorts that fit like a barrel, I told the ladies, ‘Our watches synchronize at 9pm. I’m going up to search for 90 minutes, and turn around. If I’m not back by midnight, send in the Rangers.’
‘Who are you?’ asked the Blonde.
‘Bo, the substitute teacher from Blythe, California,’ I replied, removing two pair of glasses and donning a headlamp. I stuffed my many pockets with gloves, granola, the guide, and four penlights. An orange ring of carrot juice ringed my mouth, but these women were desperate. They jumped into the sedan and fired the engine for the Rangers.
‘Don’t worry!’ I yelled as they peeled down the lot. ‘I’ve been lost many times.’
If life is not a cruel joke, knowledge and experience are valuable. I started up that trail with heels flapping as their car lights wound down the mountainside.
The trailhead begins at 10,500’ and Serpent Lake is at nearly 12,000’. In a hundred steps the trail turned to rocky streamlets in a pitch black, damp boughs brushed my ears, and breath frosted. I paused dizzy, leaned hands on knees a few seconds, and then pressed up. An hour later, in this manner…
‘Yoohoo!’ called male voices in the night. Stumbling steps and two dim flashlights loomed on the trail.
‘Are you the two fishermen with lost wives?’ I greeted. The men laughed hard and it was good.
They carried good gear and grim smiles with sturdy boots and poles sticking out the packs like antennae. They wore no aftershave or soap, and I complimented them, ‘You guys are in great shape for being on your feet all day.’
‘Let’s not sit, or I may not get up,’ suggested Jack. ‘I’ll never again go up a trail again without a map,’ asserted Fred. ‘I’m just a California hiker. It’s an hour back to the trailhead,’ I promised.
Their day unfurled as we hiked down. It had taken three-and-half hours to ascend the lake where instead of fishing they turned collars up to a fierce hail storm. It let up and they descended a sloppy, unrecognizable trail. They hiked two hours down to a 4’-deep stream cross-cutting it that hadn’t been there on the way up. They climbed back to the top to get a bearing, and then down again. They had been going up and down this mountain for ten hours when we met.
Now four lights jiggled down the trail to a special spot where the wives clued me they had placed trail snacks during the earlier search. The ladies had scratched the time of day in the dirt, and left lipstick on a tree trunk.
Jack, hypoglycemic, aggressively munched the crackers as Fred guzzled bottled water.
‘Your wives must love you very much,’ I told them.
‘Sure. But it’ll be dummy do this, dummy do that for a week when we get back!’ said Fred.
Minutes down the trail, a blast shook the forest- gunshot. ‘That’s a comfort, I observed. ‘In five minutes we’ll hear another if they know what they’re doing.’ The second blast rang, and we knew the Rangers were waiting for us.
Later the trailhead sign appeared in our lights, along with two circles of the Rangers’ flashlights, one tall and one short, astride a stretcher ready to insert at midnight.
‘Thank the Californian!’ sang the Rangers over and over.
The four men clapped my back until I coughed.
What a switch from California! The last time I tried a rescue in the San Bernadinos a paramedic tackled me to the ground. The time before a Death Valley sheriff had considered the find a homicide and forced me out of town.
I balanced a half-full Arizona tea on the dented sleeping roof of my white sedan at the trailhead, and congratulated the Rangers, ‘We appreciated the gunshots.’
‘Them weren’t shots.’ insisted the tall one, and reached in his pocket to produce a handful of 90mm explosives the size of my thumb with a two-inch fuses. ‘We use them for bear.’
I took one. You never know what’s down the trail.