Summit Daily editor’s column: The offline Odysseus of Ophir Mountain
I’ve been away for nearly 3-and-a-half hours. It’s dark now and getting cold — a kind of cold I’m not prepared for.
I’m dressed in shorts, a wool t-shirt, a windbreaker and a ball cap. My rigid, icy hands have retracted into my sleeves like claws. The tip-top of my ears have gone numb. I’m still feeling strong, though, and I quicken my pace as I pass the Miners Creek trailhead gate and step onto the snow-melt muddied dirt road that swings along the north side of Bill’s Ranch in Frisco.
I’m almost home. I keep pushing. Just a quarter of a mile to go.
Suddenly, my shadow casts forward as bright headlights shine from behind. An SUV pulls up beside me. “Are you Ben?” a voice calls out.
“Yes,” I say. “Have you guys been looking for me?”
An inability to communicate has driven the plots (particularly the grisly endings) of some of the world’s great works of drama. Think of the tragic deaths of Romeo and Juliet, or Penelope’s seemingly hopeless, yet heroic faith in her husband’s return from war.
If Odysseus could have just called Penelope on his iPhone 6 Plus, Homer’s epic poem would have had little of its dramatic tension.
— Hey, Penelope, it’s O. The Trojan War is just wrapping up. We won. Long story. I’m plugging in Ithaca’s GPS coordinates and I should be home in like 2, 3 years tops. Tell Telemachus hello. I got him something.
— It’s me again. So … a bit of a detour. I’m being held prisoner by a goddess on an island. No, we escaped from that one. Different goddess — Calypso. Shouldn’t be more than 7 years or so. No, no, no — she’s like one of the ugliest goddesses I’ve ever seen … Hello?
— No I have not been eating lotus flowers. Hey, look, I’m doing what I can to get home. Poseidon is being a total jerk.
Without looking, I know the voice belongs to the Summit County Rescue Group. The responder, Glen Kratz, radios in that he’s found me. I hop into the heated cab. I try to talk, to tell Glen that I’m OK, that I feel fine and that we’re close to my house, but my face is frozen. I sound punch-drunk and confused. Glen is nice not to point this out. He tells me that I’m only 30 minutes late for a dinner party. OK, so he’s talked to my wife, I think to myself.
After a short, humbling drive, Glen lets me off at my place. He tells me that this incident doesn’t have to go in the paper. I’m surprised, and embarrassed, that he knows who I am. I laugh and assure him that I will definitely be writing about this.
I walk through the parking lot to my condo. I see one of my wife’s friends standing in the parking lot talking on her cell phone. She looks up at me, registers a look of surprise and says simply, “We’ve been worried about you.” I nod and slouch toward the front door. I’m finally home.
The thing about running, as compared to other outdoor activities, is that it requires very little gear. Really, all you need are shoes and a pair of shorts (for some, even those items are optional). It’s a great feeling to run through the woods like a carefree kid — with no cell phone, no watch and no worries.
Summer in the mountains is magical for a runner, but I like running in winter, too. There is no silence and solace like that found in the middle of a forest thick with snow. But running in winter requires more stuff.
Still clinging to the minimalism of summer, though, I took off on Nov. 7 for an hour-long jog wearing clothing barelly appropriate for the afternoon.
My go-to place for trail runs, in summer or winter, is Miners Creek Road, which connects with a vast network of trails, most of which I’m very familiar with (even the illegal ones). Take the Peaks Trail past Rainbow Lake, hang a left at Bill Ranch Trail and then take South Rainbow Lake Trail back to the main road if you want a short route. Go long into Miners Creek Road and you can find yourself astride the ridge of the Ten Mile Range.
I have my regular routes. But on this day, I got a wild hair. On this day, I impulsively decided to veer on to an unmarked trail I’ve never taken before.
It was just my speed — steep and secluded, aside from the snowshoe tracks of a solitary hiker. I kept going and going and going, confident that an out-and-back would be easy to navigate. Just follow the tracks back.
I didn’t give much thought to where the trail was taking me. The slash piles and the views of Bald Mountain were the first clues that I wasn’t ending up where I thought I would. I kept hoping that a trail would connect me back to Miners Creek Road or the Peaks Trail.
This train of thought was my first mistake. I decided to take a side trail, a short cut, and that’s where I lost my bearings.
Like Theseus, I was trapped in a maze, but one of my own poor decisions. I could see the sun slowly making its way behind the mountains. I had only one thought: Get off of the trail before dark.
As I stared at familiar slash piles near the Tiger Run RV Resort on Highway 9, I was relieved that I at least knew where I was. I knew that if I just followed the trails downhill toward Breckenridge, I would eventually find civilization. I ran as fast as I could down unfamiliar trails that then turned into unfamiliar roads and I finally got spit out near the Gold Hill Trail head.
Had I been thinking more clearly, I would have walked over to the nearby Summit Stage bus stop or tried to hitch a ride, but instead I started jogging down the black-ice-covered recpath. I had about 5 miles left to go, but I wasn’t lost anymore. All I could think about now was the needless worry I had caused, the worry that I could not at that moment lay to rest.
I open my front door. My wife, Brenda, calls out my name. “I’m fine, I’m OK,” I say. When she sees me, she bursts into tears. My kids look on in confusion.
If I had just packed a cell phone and a GPS watch, none of this drama would have happened. My wife wouldn’t have had to imagine the worst. I could have spared the search group the hassle.
However, a brief, three-hour tour was enough to panic a network of friends, family and first responders. I’m not a hero, I’m not Odysseus — I’m just a dumb, overconfident guy who decided not to bring his cell phone on a run because he prides himself on being a minimalist, a modern day Muir raging against the tyranny of technology. Pretty selfish.
I’m lucky. This all could have ended much, much worse than it did (hey, we even made our dinner party). Summit County residents likely already know this, but I’ll offer up some advice anyway: Always be prepared when you head into the backcountry. Come up with a specific itinerary, share it with someone and stick to it. Take your phone. Bring food and water. Pack a jacket, a space blanket and a headlamp.
On Nov. 8, the day after, I was back online. I started googling Summit County trails. I see that my labyrinth was the Ophir Mountain trail system. I learned the trail names — Gifford Pinchot, Robert Foote, Soo-poo-ah-guv, Henry Recen, Iron Springs. I studied the maps and I planned my next run.
Ben Trollinger is the editor of the Summit Daily News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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