On Tuesday, May 16, I backpacked the Half Moon Trail (#288) from the Barnhardt Trailhead. I serendipitously (I prefer to say "Providentially") made it to the end of the trail. Then I had to be rescued the next day. Harrowing story to follow. For now, the important facts are these:
1) The first half of the trail is well-marked with cairns, delightful and an easy backpack, even though up hill. (A gentle gradient.)
2) But mosquitos. (Mostly at the Barnhardt TH.) I found that liquid mosquito spray works better for backpacking than foil pack applicators.
3) At the halfway point, the trail is stops being well-marked and delightful. If you think you're off trail, I suggest stopping and turning around.
4) Unmarked trails that are obvious in bright sunlight are not so obvious in the low contrast light of an overcast sky.
5) Obviously, it's best to have a GPS app that has your trail on it. (Mine didn't.)
6) If you manage to stay on the one of two trails called 288, and arrive at the 288 TH (where FR 442 ends - some maps call it the "Rock Creek" TH), there is a nice camp spot with a fire ring west along the rest of the trail, And at the time, Center Creek was running well with relatively clean water.
The northbound Half Moon Trail from the Barnhardt TH is an odd duck in that, although it starts at the Barnhardt TH, it also starts along the trail near its end at the 288 TH. (According to the sign post there. (I should have taken a photo.) Some maps call the Rock Creek TH. Whichever, it's the TH at the end of FR 442.)
It's even odder because there are two versions of 288 on the maps. On Forest Service maps, the trail deviates south after crossing Rock Creek. Newer maps, and HAZ, have you going north directly to the 288 TH.(Update: Corrected an error on routing.)
And while the first half is a delightful, well marked trail, the next part is terrible. (Until you arrive at the 288 TH, where it becomes nice again.)
I started early at 7 am from the Barnhardt TH, through a gate to the sign pointing "Half Moon TR 288."
Soon after I came to a creek crossing. I didn't think that I could make it safely walking on the rocks. So for the first time, I walked in the water, shoes & socks. (Hey, it's summer. Should dry quickly, right?)
The trail is well marked with large cairns, sometimes 100 feet apart. You can't get lost here.
IIRC, I crossed another small creek ("Eisenhauer Creek"?) with some small flow.
In two short hours (9 am) I was at a large gate near the top of a hill. Things were looking tremendous.
There is some black tubing near the gate and one of my maps says that there's a Spring to the west. I didn't look very hard. But I didn't find any water. Nor did I hear water in the tube. (Would I?)
About a half mile later, the trail unceremoniously "ended" in a T, where a Jeep trail runs east-west. I suppose that I've been spoiled by all the volunteers maintaining all the trails I've hiked so far. But except for a very small cairn marking the T (presumably to find the trail when returning), there was nothing to show what to do next.
I chose west, since I was initially headed to the MDT.
The Jeep trail forked off numerous times. From the first fork (NW) I could see a large cairn in what appeared to be a campsite. (But no fire pit.) Someone had dumped an upright vacuum cleaner there, and from photos that I've since seen since on other websites (showing the same vacuum cleaner), this is the trail.
But it wasn't clear where the trail went after that. It looked like it might cross Rock Creek. But I didn't see any cairns on the other side.
So I spent (wasted) two hours going back and forth on the Jeep trail, trying to find something that looked like an obvious trail. All this time I'm wasting time, water and energy.
Cell coverage was next to nothing, with only intermittent connectivity. Still, when I showed a signal, I called Ranger Ron Turner to ask him which way on the Jeep trail. I heard him answer "Hello, Ranger Turner" and then silence.
I decided to try crossing Rock Creek. My plan was to see if I could find a trail and leave breadcrumbs on my GPS in case I went off trail and had to retrace my steps.
A good plan. Except that going uphill when you're unknowingly off trail is easier than going downhill off trail.
And my plan didn't take desperation - or injury - into account.
I had also made a bad assumption that horse droppings were an indication that I was on trail. I found out later from the Rancher who lives there that I was in horse pasture.
I should point out that my free GPS app, which has on it the Y Bar Trail, MDT, Barnhardt - and, interestingly, the Rock Creek Trail (42) which continues after TR 288 - did not have 288 on it. All that I could see on it was FR 442 and the 288 TH. So basically, I was flying blind without cairns to show the way.
However, I did have a print out of a map that I had from AllTrails showed 288 continuing NW from that campsite with the vacuum cleaner.
Looking back on my trip now, it looks like I was on the trail for a while after crossing Rock Creek. But apparently I missed a fork where I should have turned NW. (See my photo set where I posted some maps with my track.)
I should have realized that I was off trail when I had to crawl under two tree falls. (One of them grabbed my foam rolls from the top of my pack. Something that I didn't realize until much later.)
And the ground was getting very steep and very loose.
I slid and my left leg splayed out as I did a split in an effor to remain upright.
Apparently I sprained my knee while twisting.
I've read that you will hear a "pop" if you tear your ACL. I didn't hear a pop. And it wasn't instantly painful. But as the hike (such as it was) progressed, my knee would start to twinge more. Especially as I walked downhill. (I was already wearing a knee brace on it.)
Then, still not being smart enough to realize that I was severely off trail, I slipped on loose ground again and fell prostrate. I started sliding downhill. If I wasn't able to get back on my feet, and/or if a rattlesnake came out to bite me, and/or if I had broken something (my Smart water bottle kept falling out of its holder. Do they rupture?), no one would have found me there for years.
I kept thinking that I should turn around. But there are a few psychological (and physiological) problems starting to happen here.
Physiologically, while I still had enough water and was drinking electrolytes, I hadn't eaten anything except an apple at 5 am during the drive from Phoenix. I had been on trail for about 7 hours now (time was 2 pm) and probably not getting enough sugar to my brain. (Yeah, I'll blame my stupidity on that.) And I had injured me knee. Making me anxious to get over this. Which brings me to psychology. (Fortunately, it wasn't too hot this day.)
In flying we had a term "Get-home-itis." And it's equal counterpart, "Get-there-itis." Wanting to arrive at your planned destination, no matter what. A lot of pilots have died pushing toward their goal.
While I had learned how to not let it affect me when flying, it was happening to me backpacking. (Unlike flying, where you can stop in an emergency at an airport along the way, there don't seem to be intermediate stops when backpacking.)
I didn't want to turn back because I didn't want to retrace back through the fallen trees and my fall that I had just been through. And my this time, I had climbed a bit. I didn't want to hike downhill (dangerous) and I didn't want to give up altitude I had fought to gain. And I knew that there wasn't any water for a long time turning back. But my GPS said that there was a Spring coming up, if only I could get on trail.
And my GPS kept showing that FR 442 was only a short 200 feet away, to the north. (I had incorrectly assumed at this time that TR 288 walked along FR 442. Still, it would have been good to get on 422.) So I kept thinking, "If I can just find a way to get over the last 100 feet of climb, I can get to the FR.")
So I pushed on.
I was finally able to scramble up an ascent, clawing for 5 feet at time, where I found myself on the south side of a dense valley. I could see FR 442 on the other side of the valley. But hiking to FR 442 from here was out.
But there did appear to be a trail here, running east west for now.
It turns out that this was the old TR 228. (As shown on Forestry Maps.)
So, somewhat encouraged now, I followed the trial west.
It was now about 4 pm and thunder clouds were moving in.
The trail started descending into the front of the valley. As I started to descend into the valley, my knee began hurting. A LOT. (It turns out that whatever injury I have, it hurts most when I walk downhill.)
I arrived at an inflection in the trail where a small creek bed crossed the trail.
By this time I was down to my last liter of water. So I was really disappointed to see that the creek was dry.
But my GPS showed an unnamed "Spring" about 500 feet to the NW.
Since I hadn't seen any Water Reports mentioning this Spring, and since my knee was hurting a lot, and since there was a large hedge guarding the trail to the NW, I decided to leave my backpack at this inflection as I searched for water to make life easier. I balanced it up against some dead wood. And since it was beginning to sprinkle, I covered it with my back cover.
I should have left a bread crumb on my GPS. But I wasn't thinking clearly this late in the day without food. And I stupidly thought "The Spring is only a few hundred feet along this trail. Surely I can find my way back easily." (I had been spoiled by prominent signs marking Bear and Chilson Springs.) And I was becoming desperate - which is never a good frame of mind for making good decisions.
I pulled a 13 gallon sting pull trash bag out of my pack (that would turn out to help save my life) and I put my Sawyer, my LifeStraw and some water bags and bottles in the trash bag and started off for the Spring.
The Spring was no where to be found. And the trail was becoming harder to follow, as the late afternoon sky was darkening more with thunder clouds.
I did see a small cairn, which I thought meant "This way to the Spring." But now, since the clouds were blocking the sun, I lost any sense of direction. And stupid me, my compass was still on a strap on my backpack! (And it wouldn't occur to me to use the compass on my smartphone until later.)
I randomly walked for about a half hour trying to home in to this Spring using my GPS in map mode only.
Thank the Lord, I finally found the Spring. If you can call it that.
It was nothing more than a mud hole. (See photo.) There was a pipe exiting from it, that ended over Rock Creek. But nothing coming out of the pipe. (The ironic thing is that there was plenty of water in Center Creek, about 500 feet away.)
Well, beggars can't be choosers and I was thankful to find water. I tried my LifeStraw first. Which was a big mistake. It clogged up instantly.
So then I used a gallon side ziplock bag in CNOC fashion to skim surface water into the bag. This was marginally less muddy and I was able to filter water using my Sawyer.
I had to reverse flush it after very quarter liter. So it was a slow process. But I was able to camel up and gather a liter of dirty water to filter later. It was about 5:30 now, with thunder. Time to return to my backpack and come up with a Plan.
Except, I could not tell where I had come from. Nor had I left breadcrumbs on my GPS for this either. Yikes!
My GPS was now showing Rock Creek Trail about 500 feet to the north. But without a compass, which way was north? I finally remembered that I had a compass app on my smartphone.
Using that, I was able to find my way to Rock Creek Trail, #42. Suddenly I popped out on a very obvious trail.
But what's this? This wasn't the way that I had come. There was a prominent sign post, showing 42 this way, and 288 that way. (See photo.)
Now what? Where's my backpack?
With no backpack I would be without food, warm clothes, easy shelter. Without cell coverage, and with night approaching, I realized that I was in deep trouble.
I decided that the best thing to do was to try to get back to civilization (and cell coverage) along a path where I could be found if I collapsed. So I decided to hike the Forest Roads back to Rye.
Actually, that turned out to be Providential, because I shortly came across Center Creek, which was bubbling with fairly fresh (non-clogging) water.
So I cleaned out my Sawyer and LifeStraw at the creek, cameled up some more (but hadn't had any electrolytes since about 2 pm) and started for Rye.
Fortunately my knee was up to it (except when going down hill - when I had to sometimes walk backward) and I was mostly making about 3 miles per hour. I crossed another creek (cameled up again) and a huge puddle in the road with cows nearby. (Will a bull charge you if you're just minding your own business?) So I had enough water for the night.
As I moved into cell range, I called my friend. She's older than I am, and can't drive at night. She called and emailed an AZT Trail Steward. He emailed back late and said he couldn't help me. He gave the name of a Trail Angel, but she also said she couldn't help me. (I understand. Lousy planning on my part does not constitute an emergency on your part.)
So I was going to have to spend the night with what I had.
My cell phone was down to 30% by now. It was too dark now to walk the Road without light. And I didn't want to drain my battery using the phone's flashlight.
So about a mile from Rye (I could see - and hear - the Beeline), I found a spot along the side of the road with some sagebrush. (Or whatever small bushes they were.)
I make a poncho out of the trash bag and put in on. I was still wearing my briar-proof gaiters. They don't breath and so kept my lower legs warm. I was wearing shorts, but the gaiters came up high enough to almost cover all my legs.
I took my shoes off and that's when I discovered that they were still wet from the creek crossing 12 hours earlier. (I had felt my toes burning while maneuvering on the technical terrain off trail. But I thought I was getting blisters. Turns out it was just wet socks rubbing me the wrong way.)
I used the top part of my socks (micro-crew) which were somewhat dry, to cover my toes. I put my hat over my heels.
I had taken my bug net with me when I went to the Spring to fetch water. (Good thing - a bazillion mosquitos there. I was impressed that the mosquito spray that I had spritzed myself with earlier that morning was still effective.) The bug net was enough kept my balding head warm. (Fortunately, almost no breeze that night.) I found a rock for a pillow and curled up for a long night.
The low was 58. I sometimes started to shiver. But with no calories, I couldn't afford to shiver. (I lost 3 lbs from this.) Thankfully the ground was warm - so now I've learned that if you have to do this, find ground that has been in the sun all day.
Obviously I survived the (long) night. The next morning, my friend drove up from Phx to get me. While I was waiting near the Beeline, a gentleman driving a modified golf cart/ATV asked how I was doing. Since he asked, I told him my troubles.
It turns out that his family owns/ runs the cattle ranch there (as well as Doll Baby). (I never got his name.) When I told him about the Spring and the 42/288 sign post he said, "I know exactly where that is. I'll help you find your backpack."
Wow. Just Wow.
We all drove to the 288 TH (where I saw the TH for the first time). It took us a little while on foot (about an hour) but we (actually, he) found it. He took me to me to the sign post, and from there, in bright sunny, high contrast daylight, the trail I had been on was obvious.
We followed it (I hobbled it) back the way that I had come the day before. It was a more than the 500 feet that I had thought (a case yesterday of "Just 5 more minutes looking for water...") But he found it. And he was gracious to carry it for me back to the truck, since he saw my hobbled knee. (By the way, I asked him about rattlesnakes there. "Yep, saw one this morning when I came here the earlier to find your pack.")
I'm surprised that the animals didn't find my pack first and tear into it. 'Cause you could smell the beef jerky from five feet from the pack.
And, even in the bright sunlight, when walking back along old 288 that I was on, I again missed a not very obvious fork in the trail that took us back to the sign post. (While the Rancher knew how to get us back, even he said that he wasn't aware of the trail that I had taken.)
So, I made a lot of mistakes. Fortunately (Providentially) I survived in spite of my stupidity. My knee still twinges a little every now and then. But doesn't seem to be damaged, per se, and seems to be becoming better.
I'm looking forward to trying the trail again after June 1. So apparently I am insane.