This couldn’t be right. I should have reached the junction by now, surely. Instead, I was continuing to sweat my way up the side of Devil Canyon, clambering over deadfall and second-guessing my decision to ignore the side trails I’d passed on the lower slopes. This had to be the wrong trail. Or perhaps I had severely misjudged the distance. When you’re using a 1”x2” map, trails can seem much shorter than they actually are. Some confusion can be expected with a scale conversion that vast. Or so I kept telling myself.
An hour ago I’d been looking up from the depths of Devil Canyon, surveying my surroundings and thinking, “I guess I was expecting more… devilry.” The gently rolling landscape of Wyoming’s northern Bighorn Mountains comes to a broken, untidy end just before it reaches the plains, or at least it did in the region known as Devil Canyon. However, I was too close to the headwaters of Porcupine Creek, before the real geologic chaos began. Downstream, cliffs and rubble abounded, and no trails existed that I knew of. This area upstream was tamer. From the sides of the forested canyon, massive outcroppings of dark granite stood out like the muzzles of mute beasts, protruding through a soft covering of trees. I felt neither intimidated by these brutish shapes nor threatened by whatever satanic forces might linger in Devil Canyon; I was only slightly nervous about how long the hike was taking and how few hours were left in the day.
When the climb from the valley floor to the next trail junction seemed to be taking longer than expected, I found myself in the grim position of having to decide whether to press on or head back twenty minutes and investigate what had probably been just a deer trail. That was the problem with this route; there were so many side trails that I would never escape this canyon if I tried to explore them all.
I had no scenery with which to occupy my mind, hiking beneath a thick forest canopy, so doubt took hold and began to crowd all other thoughts from my brain. I became lost on another level, stuck inside an internal monologue full of misgivings and worst-case scenarios. If I had missed my trail junction, I would emerge somewhere up on Medicine Mountain, perhaps right at the site of the Medicine Wheel – a 13th century Native American Stonehenge of sorts, made up of interconnected limestone cairns. As potentially spiritual as that encounter might be, I would end up leagues away from my vehicle, facing a cold night at an elevation of 10,000 feet.
The trail hadn’t seen a clearing crew in a long while. It was overgrown and plagued with downed trees, which made progress cumbersome. Muddy sections contained horse and deer tracks, but no footprints, which compounded my anxieties about being on the correct trail. And as I trudged endlessly upward, my sense of time started to become fuzzy. I wondered if an illness or delirium was setting in, for besides my neurotic condition, I felt physically drained and slightly nauseous. Or maybe I’d absorbed too much sun earlier in the day and it had addled my brain, giving rise to my present confusion.
But then, there it was: a sign marked “Tillets Hole” and pointing to the left. It was no mirage. Unfortunately, my relief was short-lived, because the next two stretches of trail seemed equally vague and unnaturally long. It was taking far too long to get from place to place. For someone accustomed to cutting trail times in half, I was puzzled by my inability to match the expected schedule as written in my hiking book. My ego was taking as much of a beating as my leg muscles as I struggled to complete what seemed like an endless journey.
At one point it dawned on me… the Devil himself must have written this hike description! It was his canyon, after all! Or perhaps the author had succumbed temporarily to demonic influences. All joking aside, I was tired of wondering whether or not I was lost… tired of glancing at the photocopied pages and rereading ambiguous sentences about an ambiguous trail. And then I came across the dead horse.
The skeleton lay right in the middle of the path. Rusty horseshoes were still attached to the dismembered hooves. Not a scrap of skin remained… just a big pile of bones and a long, black tail. I had to wonder how many souls had walked or ridden over its decomposing body, and why it had never been moved off the trail. But I guess dead horses are heavy.
Maybe the owner had been forced to shoot the injured animal where it lay after some devilish accident had broken its ankle. I confiscated some teeth from the horse’s jawbone and continued on. If I didn’t escape this canyon, some future hiker would be doing the same trick to my poor skull.
In time, with sunset creeping ever closer, I reached the lip of Porcupine Falls. At last, some dramatic scenery lay before me. Here, the ribs of the canyon closed together, though not enough to seal the valley completely. The waters of Porcupine Creek had breached the barrier, leaping heedlessly from the cliffs and tumbling out into space. If I followed the rushing water and jumped 150 feet into the pool below, I knew I could easily find a quarter-mile trail back to the road that led to my vehicle. But what I really needed was an option that didn’t require the miraculous healing of every bone in my broken body.
I sat down near the falls to drink some water and think things through. A ranger had warned me that to reach the road from my position, I would have to hike another couple of miles upstream before I could safely climb out of Devil Canyon. The guidebook made the same recommendation. But moving further east, in the direction away from the trailhead, seemed counterproductive.
My hand rummaged through my backpack to find the remainder of my water, but it first made contact with my primary water bottle, which, to my astonishment, turned out to be completely full. I thought I had swallowed its contents long ago, and I’d been rationing my second bottle based on that idiotic misconception. Dehydration was likely responsible for my feverish condition and disorientation. I blame the Devil.
So rather than pursue a time-consuming detour and finish the hike in darkness, I elected to take a chance on a deer trail and use it as a shortcut to escape the canyon. No more human trails for me. I figured that deer might follow the path of least resistance up towards the road, and they were probably less vulnerable to satanic influences.
Sure enough, the woodland creatures led me true. I kept my compass out, just to confirm that I was heading north, but using the deer tracks as guidance, I climbed out of Devil Canyon and up to within reach of the dirt road. If hitchhiking the final three miles to the trailhead had been an option, I would have eagerly taken it. As it was, having a concrete distance to walk on a familiar road was infinitely reassuring after all the confusion I’d suffered today. The Devil can keep his canyon. I put thoughts of it behind me, and when I crawled into my tent that night, I slept like an angel.
Bryan is a 1991 Norwich High School graduate and works as a naturalist at the Rancho Alegre Outdoor School in Santa Barbara, CA. You may reach him mid-journey at firstname.lastname@example.org. Look for Bryan’s columns on our Facebook page – www.facebook.com/theeveningsun.