At the time I got my season extended the schedule was already published through the next pay period, which included what was supposed to be my last day. The way everything worked out there was one day in that pay period I shouldn’t have been working, and my supervisor had already made sure that all the shifts were covered. It was then decided that I would get to play generalist for a day and monitor one of the longer trails. When my supervisor first posed this to me she made it sound like a question.
“Are there any of the longer hikes in the park you haven’t done yet that you would like to do?”
I told her yes, in fact, there were two hikes I had in mind, Alcove Spring and Lathrop, both of which I had done pieces of but never the whole thing, and both of which fit into the ‘long hike’ category (at 11 and 13 miles, respectively).
“Or, how about Syncline?” she said.
I paused. At 8.3 miles, The Syncline Loop wasn’t the longest trail in the park, but among the staff, it often went by another, more ominous name – The Tourist Eater.
There are more SARs on this trail every year than all of the others combined. I was told it was the most strenuous trail in the park, and also extremely difficult to follow – hence the high number of SARs.
I knew I should do Syncline eventually, as a huge part of my job is trying to convince people not to do it, and it would probably be good to experience it myself so I could better explain the trail. But I had been waiting for it to cool down, and to find a hiking buddy that had done it before so that I wouldn’t have to face the infamous trail alone. It was true the weather had become milder, but the idea of going by myself – in uniform no less, posing as an expert – made me a bit queasy.
Alas, I failed myself when the non-confronational side of me failed to bring up any of these concerns with my supervisor.
A few weeks later I was stuffing my pack with as much water as I could carry, and off I went.
The trail is divided into four types of terrain – switchbacks, wash, boulder garden, and finally a normal but winding and uphill trail – in that order, if you do the trail clockwise (which is how I did it and how we recommend doing it). This is one of the factors that makes it both unique and difficult. Most of our longer trails are made up of one more difficult section where you switchback in and out of the canyon, and the rest is relatively mild and level wash hiking. On Syncline, the terrain is always coming up with new challenges, so you can’t disengage or else you will almost certainly get hurt or lost. I actually kind of liked this. I had found many of those long wash hikes quite boring, even zone-out worthy, which can make them go by very slowly. On the Syncline, I was attentive to every second, and I found that pretty fun, even exciting.
Physically, I had little trouble with the terrain, but the path was hard to follow at times. Still, I never got lost. I became more and more pleased with myself as I found one practically hidden cairn after another (a cairn is a pile of stacked rocks that act as a trail marker). Oh the cleverness of me, I thought to myself over and over again, echoing the sentiment of my favorite fictional character, Peter Pan.
I was completely alone as far as I could see, the only clue to human presence in the area a single set of footprints. They were well defined and clearly recent, probably from a hiker who had left only a little bit before me. I wondered if I would ever meet him, and I secretly challenged myself to do so. I was hiking strong, and at this rate I expected to make the loop in about 5 hours, while the average is 6 to 7, so it wasn’t an impossible goal. I began to play games with my hiker friend, always checking to find his footprint after I’d navigated through a particularly tricky spot. Did he find his way through here too? Or did it take him a few tries? Upon finding a knocked over cairn (and there were many) I would look to see if he had walked by the spot as I bent over to restack the rocks. I wondered if he had recognized the fallen marker like I had, or if he had passed it, gone off-trail, and had to backtrack. But the guy was good, and as far as I had gone, he hadn’t lost himself yet. This only made me more determined to meet him.
I made it down through the switchbacks without incident and sat down under a tree in the latter part of the wash section for my lunch. I had just taken my boots off when two hikers emerged from the either side almost simultaneously. One was a large Scottish man in a pair of very small neon blue shorts… and nothing else. The other was an older man from the Midwest, in seemingly good shape, and, thankfully, properly dressed. The two seemed rather amused to see each other, as they had started the trail at the same time earlier that morning and went in opposite direction. “I guess this means we’re halfway!” they joked, which being a newbie on the trail myself, I was happy to hear. It had only been two hours since I started the hike, would this mean I could do the whole thing in 4? I mentally patted myself on the back for being so awesome.
The three of us chatted for a bit before the two men went on their merry way. They both seemed to be in great spirits, and so was I. It then occurred to me that the men had said they started their hike at 9am. I started my hike at 10, and yet, I had never seen the Midwestern gentleman that had been traveling in my direction, even though I must have passed him at some point. I shrugged this off pretty easily, guessing he must have gotten momentarily lost and been off-trail at whatever time I passed him, but he had clearly found his way back, so all was fine.
After lunch I continued to follow the trail as it made it’s way through the wash and eventually out up towards the notorious boulder garden. I was probably about 50 feet above the wash when I looked down to see the Midewestern man hiking below. He was clearly lost, and totally unaware of it. I hollered down at him, and let him know he was headed in the wrong direction. I tried to explain to him how to get where I was, but he wasn’t following, so I had to hike down to meet him and show him myself. I asked him how he was doing, and he said great… other than the fact that he was having a bit of trouble following the trail. He had never hiked in the desert before, and wasn’t used to our trail marking system – so he told me, anyway. I weighed my options. I was having such a pleasant time on my own. But it was also in my job description to do three things: to protect the park from the people, the people from the park, and the people from the people. Leaving this man on his own almost definitely meant he would get lost again, in the process likely trampling plenty of stuff on his way, and definitely at risk for injury due to both the elements and himself. It didn’t seem to me like I had much of a choice.
“Why don’t you hike with me?” I said, a big, shit-eating grin on my face. He quickly agreed that would be best.
I asked him how he was enjoying his day and he said he was doing great. He had come to Canyonlands just to do this hike, which had been listed in his guidebook as a 5 out of 5 in difficulty. As someone ‘who stretched three hours every morning, lifted weights two hours every afternoon, and ran five miles every day,’ he wanted a challenge. I vaguely tallied up all of those hours in my head, but congratulated him on his dedication anyway.
It wasn’t too much later that we started making our ascent towards the boulder garden. That was when he started breathing very, very hard. I didn’t think too much of it at first because it was a steep incline and I was breathing hard too. Then he started talking about his asthma.
Oh shit. I thought to myself.
As we got higher he started complaining of cramps in his legs. By the time we got to the boulder garden we were stopping every five minutes so he could rest. I began to get nervous for him. The boulder field was the most notorious section of the hike. It’s basically non-technical rock climbing, and requires using both hands and feet to climb up and over boulders that are often much bigger than you, as well as traversing over cracks too deep to see the bottom. It’s also a very disorienting place, as trying to follow cairns – markers made of rock – in a boulder field can be understandably difficult. Many of the people who become lost or injured on Syncline do so in the boulder field.
For me, the boulder garden turned out to be the funnest part of the trail. But for Jim, whose name I had learned right before his workout schedule, it was a nightmare. I would climb up a rock, taking care to choose the easiest path, and tell Jim to follow me. Sometimes he would, others he wouldn’t. Either way he would make loud grunting noises as he went and had to stop and rest after each small climb. It was around this time that he started being truly unpleasant. As we sat I tried to distract him from his discomfort with my life story. When I got to the part about turning down the PR job in Boston he looked up at me with a smile and said “Well that was dumb. I bet your parents are real excited about that.” When I told him they were actually quite supportive he laughed in a way that made it very clear he was being sarcastic. When I told him about my hopes to work in a ski resort this winter he told me there was no way in hell that was going to happen. And that’s when I stopped chatting with him.
Slowly and tediously we made our way out of the boulder garden and found ourselves on stable, solid ground. He asked me how far we had to go, and although I had no idea, I didn’t feel it would benefit either of us to tell him that. Every time someone had talked about the trail with me, the last part they mentioned was the boulder garden. So with that teeny bit of knowledge under my belt, I assumed we were close and told him so. An hour and a half later, he was very upset with me. My coworkers had never mentioned how long the last section was because to them, it was cake. To Jim, and consequently me, it was hell.
This last part of the trail, although the most normal of the four, was still slightly inclined and a bit disorienting. The trail criss-crosses it’s way in and out of a wash, and someone not paying attention could easily miss the markers signaling the trail rising out and could potentially continue on in the wash for hours headed in the wrong direction. This is where I found my friend’s footsteps again.
I had given up all hope of actually meeting the hiker, as despite my initial fast way we were now traveling at a snail’s pace, stopping every ten feet so that Jim could rest and massage his legs. He also had been having trouble swallowing his water, something he hadn’t mentioned or complained of but that I couldn’t help notice as he coughed hard and spat everything out every time he took a sip. This concerned me, but with little first aid training I had no idea what to do. I had offered to hike out and get help many times, but every time he was fiery in his disapproval. It got to the point where I don’t think he liked having even me around much, as it bruised his ego to have what seemed to him a little girl – and a stupid one at that – helping him through the trail like this. Even so, there were several times where I hiked ahead of him and tried to radio out for advice on the situation, but each time I was answered by empty air space. My radio wasn’t getting signal, which was probably the reason I was so comforted by my hiker friend’s footprints. It was the closest contact I had to the outside world, and it felt good to know that somewhere up the trail there was someone who had made it through the spot I was in just fine. Granted, he didn’t have a grumpy, exhausted old man following him around, but he had made it just the same – the proof was in his footprints. The competitor in me awakened, and I kept my motivation up by continuing our game. If he could do it, so could I.
Jim was getting harder and harder to deal with. He wouldn’t stop complaining, to the point where I was truly unsure whether or not he was in serious pain or just being dramatic. He kept saying that his guidebook had mislead him (I refrained from reminding him that he had told me just hours ago the book had labeled the trail a 5 out of 5 in difficulty), and kept cursing the trail itself. It was everyone’s fault but his that he was having trouble, and at each new hill we encountered he would comment ‘This is just ridiculous.’ It took everything I had not to scream that he was the ridiculous one. On top of everything the man was burping and farting constantly and unapologetically. And alright, I know that sometimes, especially when strained, your body does things you can’t control. But how about an ‘excuse me’? Ever heard of manners? Apparently not. I kept my mouth shut, and so did he.
After hours of stopping and starting and stopping again, Jim decided he had had enough. He suddenly lied down on the ground, spread eagle, and announced he couldn’t move his legs. He then told me that he had run out of water a mile back, and simply could not go on. When I told him I was radioing out for help, he sat straight up and told me he was fine. I tried anyway, but still no contact. At this point, we had two options that I explained to him: option 1 – which I strongly believed was best and told him so, was for him to stay put, and for me to hike out and get help. Option 2 meant we would rest for a bit and continue. He acted like a child. He didn’t want either option. He didn’t want help. He would be fine.
“If you can’t move your legs Jim, you’re not fine,” I said sternly. He decided that he could continue after a rest. But that didn’t solve the problem of water. The thought of giving him my water quite honestly seemed wasteful, as he couldn’t seem to get much down his throat to begin with, but I knew that he wouldn’t be able to finish this hike without it, so I didn’t have much of a choice.
At this point, several people have told me they would have left him and gotten help anyway. But he had pleasantly promised to not stay put if I left him, and I knew he would get lost almost instantly if that was to be the case. Several times while hiking through this last section he had argued with me about which path to take, sometimes not even saying a word before turning in the opposite direction as I was heading. He was stubborn, but I was always right, and he couldn’t argue with the cairns I pointed out to him that proved it. The best that could happen if I left him alone and he got lost was a very expensive SAR operation, the worst would be the end of him – and I didn’t need that on my shoulders.
So on we went, still agonizingly slow, my water now in Jim’s pack without even a thank you, and him complaining all the way. I ended up having to go three miles without water, and was getting pretty close to exhaustion myself – my mind wondering while we hiked as to what we would do if I ended up needing to be rescued too.
And as it turns out, someone did rescue me. It had been hours since I had thought about the hiker ahead of me and the challenge I had made him, and as those hours went by it became harder and harder to stay oriented. I didn’t realize just how bad-off I was until Jim proudly announced he was pretty sure we were headed in the wrong direction. Unfortunately, he was right. Considering everything I’d been through that day, I don’t see leading us astray once as a huge failure, but I realized at that point just how low my energy was, and that I needed to do everything I could to conserve it. That’s when I saw the footprints.
For the rest of the trail I was able to save my energy on too much thought and almost blindly follow the hiker ahead’s footprints. Consistent as ever, he didn’t lead us off trail once. I thought I was going to cry out of joy when I heard the human sounds of the parking lot ahead.
But I knew things with Jim weren’t over just yet. He had told me early on that he was staying in Green River – a town over two hours away from where we were – and I didn’t think it was a good idea to drive as he was all that way without water (he had since finished mine). So I told him to follow me back to the visitor center so we could fill him up. I was also secretly hoping I could get him to talk to an LE ranger so that they could document the incident. I know things like this are supposed to be acts of selflessness or whatever, but after everything I’d been through, I wanted some goddamn credit.
I asked him if he felt well enough to drive, to which he predictably responded yes, and told him to follow me to the visitor center.
Just as we pulled out of the parking lot, a big ranger patrol vehicle came zooming down the road. It was Jesse, a good friend and neighbor, who had happened upon my backcountry itinerary and had become worried when he saw it had been almost 8 hours since I left. He stopped when he saw me, and we chatted for a second as I told him the abbreviated version of the day. He agreed to meet us back at the visitor center.
Jesse immediately gave me a bottle of water as I got out of the car. I jugged it down and half listened as he began to chat with Jim. I practically spit it all out when I heard what he was saying.
“So, I hear you had a rough time out there huh?”
“Nah, I mean it’s a hard hike, but we’re fine.” (We, almost as if he had offered to hike me out.)
“Gotcha. How are your legs feeling?”
“Oh totally fine, I stretch 3 hours a day for days like this.”
“…Okay, I hear you had some water issues?”
“Oh no, I had a full gallon, I was fine.”
This last part totally infuriated me. Clearly the man had some pride, but claiming you had no water issues when I hiked the last 3 miles without to save your ass? I almost cried. Instead I grabbed his empty water bottle out of his hands and announced I was going inside to fill it up.
Jim never said thank you or even goodbye when I returned with the bottle. But at that point I knew better than to expect either.
As much of a nightmare as that day was, it had a (somewhat) happy ending, and that’s the best anybody can hope for. I am totally bummed I never met the hiker who not only acted as my imagery playmate the entire day, but essentially saved both Jim and I’s butts. But sometimes I think of him on those days where I feel like I’ve only been dealing with idiots like Jim all day. And then I’m reminded that for every asshole we have to save because of his own stupidity, there’s another visitor here for all the right reasons, doing all the right research, and making all the right decisions. The way I see it, those are the people we’re really here for. And those are the people we should all strive to be. Because you never know who might be following your footsteps.