Lost! Flagstaff, May 2015

“I know a shortcut.”

I WAS suspicious of this pronouncement, but should have been more. I’d only ridden these trails once before, and Steve was only a little more familiar than I.

We’d already achieved the near impossible, getting separated from each other deep in Walnut Canyon, which has but a single trail at its base.

Steve had explored this network of trails near Flagstaff without me, from the rim and in its depths, and was eager to introduce me to its splendors.

We parked at the intersection of John Wesley Powell and South Lone Tree Road. Steve led me in on an alternate route he learned from a guy he met mountain biking his prior outing. This was a slog on foot, over pavement, eventually leading to where FUTS, Flagstaff Urban Trail System, headed into an upscale neighborhood under construction.

Getting to Walnut Canyon was no problem. After parking around 3 pm, we had hours of daylight ahead of us, to hike, shoot and enjoy. I was a little chilly on disembarking from the car, and threw on a fleece jacket I used as a layer in Antarctica.

“Probably overkill,” I thought. Hah!

The FUTS terminated in a T at the Arizona Trail. We took the right-hand turn, through a pleasant meadow surrounded by tall pines.

Walnut Canyon itself was lovely, with sandstone, striated and fluted canyon walls enclosing a lush environment. We took our time walking, and looking, enjoying the cool spring air and warm late afternoon sun.

Walnut Canyon in Flagstaff, Arizona

The sign at the entrance indicates the trail proceeds on for a mile, or so. It looked like one could eventually walk out the other end of the Canyon, although we hadn’t investigated this possibility beforehand.

Inside Walnut Canyonnear Flagstaff, Arizona

Somehow, after meandering deep into the canyon, shooting side by side across to the other side of the canyon, we managed to lose each other. I assumed Steve was ahead of me, since he hadn’t said anything about turning back. The trail seemed to continue on, beckoning me to find the way out, so I carried on, further and further, for at least another half an hour, but still no Steve, who I expected to see around each bend.

Walnut Canyon in Flagstaff in Arizona

It turns out, he did the same, only turned back after about (by his estimate) 4 minutes. He traced his way all the way back to the mouth of the canyon, where there is a distinctive cave-like alcove at the entrance.

Dead tree on Walnut Canyon sandstone

By the time I realized there was no walking out the other end of Walnut Canyon and no Steve around the corner, much of the canyon was in shadow, with the sun still illuminating some contours of the canyon. It was that crepuscular hour when animals and one’s imagination stirs. I began retracing my steps back in earnest, now not stopping to shoot, but making tracks as fast as my legs would carry me.

In case there were unseen animals monitoring my progress, I tried to maintain a vigorous pace, not wanting to appear to be a weak member of my species. They say predators can sense a Thompson’s gazelle’s stotting rate at a glance and will prey on the weakest. To maintain the illusion that I was a healthy and unapproachable animal on a mission, just in case any concealed mountain lion were assessing me, I sang out, as loudly as I could in a ringing voice: “Bing!” This is short for one of Steve’s nicknames, and seemed like it might carry better than shouting “Steve!”. I didn’t want to waste vocal strength saying anything with more than one syllable. So, like a human transponder, I yodeled as vital a “Bing!” as I could, every 10-15 feet or so.

This was to no avail; that is, until nearly back at the entrance to the canyon, where Steve was now starting back in, to look for me, not having found me on his reverse traverse of the route.

By this time, the sun was down in much of the canyon, although still bright and nearly horizontal at the cave entrance.


The extreme length of my shadow reflects the extreme low angle of the sun, just about to be concealed by the canyon.

The extreme length of my shadow reflects the extreme low angle of the sun, just about to be concealed by the canyon.

Relieved to be reunited, it now it was time to hasten back, with at least an hour-plus walk back, and less than an hour of daylight.

It was still light when we arrived back where the trail would take us back through the neighborhood and eventually the car, without fail. Steve was sure deviating onto a right branching trail would take us out an alternate, more direct way, which we had ridden once before.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, positive.”

I should have stuck with my gut, but thought, it wasn’t that big of a park, it was surrounded by Flagstaff streets, how far gone could we get? Hmmm…

It started out fine, seeming to parallel the known route. It seemed to head the expected direction, but went on and on. We passed only one couple, heading the opposite direction on mountain bikes, going at a good clip, as though they definitely knew where they were going.

We walked and walked…and walked. The sun set but there still was plenty of ambient light by which to navigate. Eventually, that was no longer true, but not to worry, Steve had a flashlight (a decommissioned mini-underwater version) and I had a camping headlamp. On and on, we picked our way over rocks and ruts and other potential ankle sprainers.

As time went by, it became very dark, the moon not having risen, and we could admire how many stars are visible in Flagstaff’s dark skies, especially with the city lights shielded by the tall pines encircling our route.

It became colder and colder, until we could now see our breath. Coyotes howled in the distance. I became less concerned about unseen animals ambushing us as dusk passed into full-on dark.

The saving grace in this flail was that we could clearly see we were on a trail. Of that, there was no question. Even after it was pitch dark, we had no problem picking out the trail by flashlight.

Eventually, we reached a turn we thought we recognized from our first mountain bike ride here. We expected to find, and did, an old jeep road, with 2 parallel tracks we thought would lead out to the alternate entrance, not far from the car.

We continued on with this delusion for quite a while, until the trail began to seem not so familiar. We remembered it being quite ride-able on mountain bikes. When we reached a segment of trail along the side of a steep enough pitch that we wouldn’t have felt comfortable riding it, Steve stopped.

“This doesn’t seem right.” I couldn’t disagree. Neither one of us wanted to retrace our steps back to the fail-safe turnoff, but we finally had to acknowledge we had no idea where we were. Deep in the park, we couldn’t see any Flagstaff landmarks or even sort out which direction Flagstaff was. We heard airplanes periodically, but didn’t remember which direction the airport was.

Steve’s phone was dead, not that there was much signal. Mine was low, very low, so much that I kept it on airplane mode, trying to keep it from dying completely. We turned it on occasionally, trying to see if we could get a signal and use the map function to figure out where we were and which direction to go. It was basically useless. Same with the compass function.

Fortunately, we were more prepared than usual for this little outing. Years ago, we learned from a Sierra Club camping course about the 10 essentials which one should always carry whenever hiking, JUST IN CASE. We started joking about which ones we had with us, and reminiscing about memorable hikes in our past in which we have added a significant amount of unintended mileage by getting lost or taking a wrong turn and having to backtrack.

The essentials we could remember and actually had with us: extra clothes, water, food. Turns out water and food count only for one, as I just relearned looking up what they were again. One item, flashlights, we were already putting to good use, until Steve’s burned out. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Two of them, a compass and a map, we thought we had covered, by the Iphone. Yes, they work great, in a city, when the battery is charged. Not so useful if there is no or spotty cell coverage, which can be true even very close to a city.

Sunglasses and sunscreen form another item on the list. It was after dark, so not so essential at the moment. We didn’t have a first aid kit. From my point of view, our greatest danger was spraining an ankle. Steve did develop a blister but even if we had had a kit, I’m not sure he would have stopped to address it. It had ruptured by the time we made it out.

The final three essentials, pocketknife, fire starter and matches in a waterproof container, obviously are geared to the unexpected need to camp overnight and stay warm. This was beginning to seem like a plausible possibility as we walked and walked, and it became later and later. We agreed if we completely lost all light sources, we would stop walking and wait for morning light, as the risk of an ankle sprain was a real possibility. That is, if the moon didn’t cast enough light to safely walk by.

As it happened, the moon did eventually rise, but not early enough to be helpful. The trees were so tall that it took quite a long time for the moon to clear the trees, and by that time, we had retraced our steps to the foolproof egress and nearly made it back to civilization. On the long walk back retracing the “shortcut,” Steve’s pitiful small flashlight battery burned out. Thankfully, my headlamp was still going strong, with plenty of light to guide us both out.

We made it back to the car, sitting forlornly alone in the parking lot, at 11:40 pm, abashed but relieved. It was a good wake up call, dress rehearsal, run-through for a potentially more serious situation. We could laugh about it because we had the most important essentials with us. In my case, in addition to the “over-kill” Antarctica weight fleece jacket, a fleece cap and glove liners saved me from being really uncomfortable, if not hypothermic, in the 40-something degree temperature. We missed a planned dinner out in Flagstaff, but had an inadvertent “adventure” from which we relearned valuable old lessons.  We probably inadvertently doubled our mileage, but thankfully, the only casualties were a blistered foot and two very stiff bodies the next day.

They say 2 kinds of divers get in trouble: the very inexperienced, and the very experienced, or at least experienced enough to be complacent.  I presume there is a hiking corollary.  As hikers, we’re pretty experienced, enough that complacency could have been an issue.  Since this episode, we’ve added old fashioned, non-battery dependent compasses and flint fire sparkers to our backpacks.




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3 thoughts on “Lost! Flagstaff, May 2015

  1. Wow, did you read ‘Wild’ or just live wild! What a story & adventure, maybe just listen to your inner compass when sun is low? s

  2. That really does sound deeply, deeply scary. There are an awful lot of linear miles in even a moderate area!

  3. Whew, amazing story. Easy to see how this could happen to anyone – a series of simple errors – thanks for writing about it so well!

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