Travel horror stories from HCN readers

We didn't turn up any tales of real-life ghosts or monsters. But when we asked HCN readers to send in horror stories about their Western travel experiences, we received more than 50, totaling more than 10,000 words.

These scary stories are not meant to discourage you from traveling in the West. Rather, they're a celebration of difficulties overcome and remembered, often with a smile.

It was a contest, so we had to select a winner, but that wasn't easy, because so many of the stories are notable. We settled on the one submitted by Will Toor.

Toor will receive the prize offered by the contest's sponsor, the Seattle-based Tom Bihn company -- an Aeronaut Travel Bag that's valued at $400. Thanks, Tom Bihn!

Here's the winning horror story, followed by six runners-up (with brief bios of those writers as well), followed by the rest of the horrors.

Cartoon art by Peter Ommundsen; photographs courtesy the essay writer unless otherwise noted.

MULTIMEDIA: After our contest ran, KDNK created a Sounds of the High Country segment from a few of these submissions.
Listen to the radio version of these stories, told in the author's own voices. 

At least they left me my boots

By contest winner Will Toor

When I was in my late teens, I did a lot of traveling around the West by foot and by thumb. Most of my best stories -- and worst travel experiences -- come from that time. There was the day I spent earning travel money emptying a septic tank with a five-gallon bucket and a rope for a farmer in Olathe, Colo. -- I still have the raincoat I wore for that chore, and it still has the stains. And the time I was strip-searched at the Canadian border because the customs police thought that I looked suspicious. The time I spent over 24 hours in one spot by the side of the road in Sevier, Utah, trying to catch a ride.  The red ants in my sleeping bag after I pitched camp in the dark outside Moab.

But the cream of the crop was my naked hitchhiking experience. It was the summer of 1979, as I passed through Dillon, Mont., a town that will live in infamy. Maybe I did look like a filthy hippie, but was that really a reason to yell and throw raw eggs at me as I walked through town? After a bit, a pickup with three young men in the cab stopped for me. A few minutes later, they pulled off onto a dirt road, and I had a gun pointed at my torso. They ordered me to take off my clothes, while visions of Deliverance danced through my head. I was relieved when they told me that they were just going to steal my clothes and wallet, and leave me by the side of the road.

At least they left me my boots.

What was there to do but walk down to the highway, put a hand over my crotch and a thumb in the air? You’d be surprised who picks you up in a situation like that. I’m still grateful to the Mormon truck driver who gave me his spare jeans and drove me to see the sheriff. It’s a long story, and you have to buy me a beer to hear the whole thing, but I ended up with my clothes and money back, while the young men got a tongue-lashing from the sheriff, despite their insistence that they were “just funnin’.’”

I finished that journey by Greyhound.

My son turns 16 this summer. I hope his adventures don’t make as good stories as mine.

Will Toor, of Boulder, Colo., works as the transportation policy director at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project and serves as a member of the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission. Previously, Toor served three terms as Boulder's mayor and two terms as a Boulder County commissioner, so someday we might ask him for his best political horror story. That would be really scary.

How to get search-and-rescued

By Shaina Maytum

Neither Brie nor I could stop my rapid slide careening down the slick-rock slope on Utah's Cedar Mesa. The problem with a 15-foot free-fall is that you actually have time while in mid-air to think about how screwed you are. There is no way it can end well.

I landed feet first, breaking bones in my right foot and left heel, cracking my pelvis, and sustaining a compression fracture in my lower back. Brie was able to get to me and ascertained that I was conscious and not bleeding to death. Then she took off for the parking lot at the top of the mesa.

I lay as motionless as possible, trying not to imagine what I would do if a rattlesnake slithered up.

I learned the following lessons from the ensuing six-hour rescue, advice I hope you will never need:

  1. The first member of the search and rescue team to find you may also be an overweight postal worker, still in uniform. He will immediately offer you morphine. Decline.
  2. You may experience a sense of trepidation when you notice that the other members of the search and rescue team are wearing jeans and Keds. Try not to think about it.
  3. You will be packaged into a litter, and you will not be able to go to the bathroom. Fortunately, you will also be incredibly dehydrated, so this won’t be a problem.
  4. Even if it is dusk by the time you are packaged into said litter, do not let your new search-and-rescue friends remove your sunglasses, as you will quickly be blinded by the amount of shit that is getting kicked into your eyes.
  5. Don’t get too excited about getting to ride in a helicopter. You won’t be allowed to look out the window, and the flight nurse will stab your freezing hands the whole time, trying to give you an IV of something to keep you from vomiting all over the inside of the chopper.

And a final word of caution: Shit happens, and can happen to any of us. The reality is, when we venture out into the mountains, into the canyons, onto the rivers -- beyond the reach of our cell phones, where there are no roads, and quite possibly few other people -- we need to know how to take care of ourselves and each other.

Shaina Maytum, of Boulder, Colo., is earning a master's in education at the University of Colorado.

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Waterfalls, damp leaves and the smell of burning plastic

By an Indiana dentist who wishes to remain anonymous

It was a sunny warm August morning in 2004 when my family set out to hike the Lime Creek Trail in the San Juan National Forest, south of Silverton, Colo. About two hours and three miles into our hike, we came across an exquisite waterfall with views of Twin Sisters Peak on the other side of the watershed. After an hour of playing in the creek with our 7-year-old son and eating an early lunch, we began to hike back to our vehicle.

Although it had rained hard the day before and all the vegetation was moist, we started smelling smoke on our return hike. It was a strange plastic-burning kind of smell -- not at all like a forest fire.

Up ahead near the trailhead, we could see black smoke in the air. I started to hike more rapidly, leaving my wife and son behind, to scout for any danger. It was an upward climb to the trailhead and parking area on Highway 550, and the smoke was getting more acrid.

As I crested out of the trail, there was our Isuzu Trooper -- fully engulfed in flames. A fire crew was trying to douse the blaze with white powder, and a large crowd of spectators stood around, since the crew had blocked the highway. By the time the fire was knocked down, my family had caught up, and upon seeing the burned hulk of our truck -- complete with bicycles melted into a funky modern art piece -- my son started screaming: "My Gameboy is in there! My Gameboy is in there!"

What had ignited our truck? Actually, our truck had been fine, until a very old motorhome that probably had no business trying to get over Molas and Coal Bank passes overheated and caught fire. The motorhome's occupants bailed out of their burning vehicle after parking it next to ours, and the flames spread to our truck. Although we were supposed to stay in the area five more days, our vacation was over. Once the police and insurance reports were completed, San Juan County Sheriff Sue Kurtz (whom I can never thank enough for making the situation as easy as she could) drove us to the Durango airport, where we rented a car and began the long trip back to Indiana.

The only thing that survived the fire was our son's Gameboy. He had stashed it under his seat, in a backpack with three full water bottles that melted and soaked it. Once it dried, that Gameboy was fine. The motorhome that started the fire burnt to its frame.

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The Boy Scouts didn't prepare us for this

By Colin Weatherby

Probably every Boy Scout in the West, sooner or later, has a conversation about Mount Whitney. The 14,505-foot peak in California is the highest in the U.S. outside Alaska, and words like “highest” mean something special to 14-year-old boys. A Mount Whitney expedition requires a long drive through a dusty wasteland, then a challenging uphill hike to the summit -- supplying plenty of fuel for future campfire stories.

I was a moody teenager with minimal appreciation for the outdoors when our troop leader proposed a 50-mile hike that included Mount Whitney. My sense of obligation and a fear of appearing wimpy got me to sign up. Our first training hike, in the blistering heat of Escondido, Calif., made me suspect that the whole idea was a terrible mistake.

The Mount Whitney expedition was miserable, for the most part. I hated the hiking, but slowly grew to enjoy the feral life and our sunset games of pinecone baseball. I was almost beginning to enjoy myself -- until the night before our final ascent. That evening was an acrid mixture of exhaustion, fear, and b.o. Most of Troop 776 confronted anxiety with a time-honored teen coping strategy: Wrestling in the dirt. Not much for filth, I chose to learn hatchet techniques from an older Scout named Tom Kimoura.

Tom relished his own expertise and seemed to have a genuinely impressive skill set. His chopping clinic ended with a round of applause, and in a final act of showmanship, he raised the hatchet theatrically and swung it with gusto. His brief loss of focus resulted in a nearly severed thumb -- and a gasp from the Scouts.

We all shared one of those weird eternal moments, right before everything got real. Tom lifted his mangled hand to inspect it, while we waited for the punchline. Reality struck when the blood welled up and poured down his arm. Expressionless, he was whisked away in a minivan before anyone could process the carnage.

We did not finish climbing Whitney. Some Scouts were disappointed. I was excited to be headed towards the Pizza Factory -- where I discovered that pepperoni and root beer don’t sit well after a steady diet of powdered eggs.

I quit scouting soon after the hike, and I still don’t know if Tom’s hand ever recovered. But at some point over the next decade, I learned to love hiking, and 12 years later I conquered Mount Whitney as the end of a 220-miler on the John Muir Trail.

Both hands intact, I celebrated with an enormous burrito, only to suffer the same explosive fate I had after the Pizza Factory. I don’t mess around with hatchets these days, but some backcountry lessons are never learned.

Colin Weatherby, of Los Angeles, Calif., is a videographer and teen wilderness guide for The Nature Conservancy and spends about 100 days per year without cell reception.

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Mexican fishing gone sour

By Dennis Price

Eight of us had chartered a shrimp boat and three smaller outboard-motor boats, for fishing in the Sea of Cortez, off the desert coast of Rocky Point, Sonora, Mexico. When we checked into the local motel the captain had booked for us, we found rooms with all the ambiance of prison cells. The walls and ceiling were unpainted poured concrete. No air conditioning, no furnishings to speak of. We told ourselves that it was just for one night; we could endure it. And so we did, after eating and plenty of cold beer. Most of us ended up pulling the mattresses outside to sleep. It was way cooler out there.

The next day we were scheduled to sail. We got to the main boat at our arranged time, about 2 p.m., and lugged all of our gear aboard: clothes, sleeping bags, fishing gear, etc. Then we discovered that none of the outboard motors on the smaller boats were working. Apparently, one of the crew had put the gas for the outboards in an “empty” barrel. Unbeknownst to anybody, the barrel’s previous resident was an epoxy resin, and when the contaminated gas was transferred from the barrel to the outboard motors, they solidified with seized-up pistons.

To make a long story short, we were stuck in the harbor until the next day, when substitute motors were supposed to arrive. Since we already had a crew, food and beer, we decided to spend that night on the boat in the harbor, rather than re-lugging all of our stuff to shore again and renting a cell for another night.

Consequently, we did what Americans on a “fishing trip” do. We sat around the boat deck and drank assorted beverages. Later that evening, about eight 16-year-old soldiers and one “officer” boarded the boat with bayonet-tipped M-16s and herded us to the prow. Their message: “No drinking in the harbor.” We decided it was prudent not to argue. They marched away.

The next day, no new outboard motors had arrived. Rather than cancel, because the captain had spent all of the money we’d paid, we decided to proceed without the smaller boats. Other than the fact that everybody came down with the runs, with no toilet paper, and one caught a case of Bell’s palsy, it turned out to be a great trip. We caught three fish.

Dennis Price is a retired law enforcement officer who lives in Ehrenberg, Ariz.

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Strange trips, yes, but not horrors

By Linda Johnson

Travel horror story? In the Mountain West? Sorry, guys, you’ve got it all wrong. I’ve lived out this way for nigh on 50 years now and never ever had a travel horror. We had interesting travel, even peculiar travel. There were some strange trips. But horrible? Only if you’re not adventurous at heart!

Like the long-ago mud-season trip from Colorado's Roaring Fork Valley to Utah's warm and deserted Lake Powell, with the inflatable raft. It took 100 miles of driving to find a motel with a bathtub to soak my sunburned hubby in a tubful of baking soda (the best cure in those days).

Another trip amid the red rock: Drove right across the very shallow river and parked under a nice, rock canopy. It was a beautiful beach, until midnight, when the waterfall started running over the pretty rock ledge. We evacuated fast, waking up all the other campers on the beach as we went. Not horrible, just “live and learn.”

Or the trip up to Colorado's Flat Tops with our brand new, teeny-tiny trailer, which we called “the ping-pong ball.” During the night, I woke up to hear a bear walking around; or was it Bigfoot? Flump, floop … No, it was just snowing very hard; the noise was snow sliding off the round “corners” of the trailer. The next morning was spent pulling stuck cars out of two-foot deep snow and muddy ruts in what used to be a gravel road. That was fun, not horrible. (Another time at the same campsite, we heard noises and looked out the window to see a gigantic skunk eating whatever remained from the last occupants.)

And there was the time we learned the hard way that when chokecherries are ripe, bear poop looks just like leftovers from making chokecherry juice out of berries. All exciting, not horrible.

Maybe this last one qualifies as a real horror story? Dry camping, somewhere in Arizona, my sweetie opened the trailer door and saw a huge rattlesnake draped over the doorstep, basking in the sun. He decided to throw something at the viper -- his boot, as I recall -- thereby persuading it to depart. Unfortunately, the rattler disappeared under the trailer. Now we couldn’t go out for sure. As they say, “time passed,” and we lived to tell the tale.

But no, these aren’t horror stories. These are just how we had fun for half a century.

Linda Johnson, of Salt Lake City, Utah, serves on the boards of the League of Women Voters Salt Lake and Breathe Utah, as well as on the Advisory Commission of the Board of Environmental Health.

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Lost in Alaska for 7 days

By Erica Nelson

In June 2008, in Alaska's Denali National Park, my best friend and I decided to go on an overnight backpacking trip. We planned to return the next day, so I could work at a nearby wilderness lodge and then fly to Texas to assist my sister for her wedding. But instead, my friend and I ended up getting lost, which sparked up a large search and rescue party. Thoroughly lost, we kept hiking for seven days.

One of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my life was come to terms with the possibility that I might not be able to make it out alive. I would miss my sister’s wedding or maybe even cause them to put it off. My friend and I wrote letters to each one of our family members and tried desperately not to cry as we were dehydrated and had to search for water rations, at one point slurping out of puddles while on our hands and knees.

We were fairly new to backcountry backpacking, but the thing we knew how to do well was laugh. As terrified as we were, we vowed to be positive and have a plan if something devastating were to happen. We were able to find streams, melt snow and collect rainwater for drinking and shared one granola bar.

It turned out, we were hiking 40 miles off our intended route. But we didn't realize we were that lost, and our ignorance might have actually helped us maintain an optimistic attitude.

The Alaska State Troopers, rangers from Denali, Grand Teton, Mount Rainier, Yosemite, and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks, and countless search and rescue volunteers were involved in the effort to find us. Finally we hiked into an area with cell phone reception, and as my phone's battery faded, I called my mother, who, by that time, was at the ranger station waiting for us. She handed her phone to the rangers and they forwarded my number to a helicopter pilot, Colin. As he flew toward us, with my phone nearly dead, I used text messages to help him hone in on us.

We reunited with both of our families at the ranger station. Our company, Princess Tours, had brought them to Denali and paid for their expenses. We were embarrassed by the national headlines about our emergency, but we wound up flying to Texas in time for my sister to get married on schedule. She's the one who never lets me live this moment down by saying, “Don’t get lost” even when I go to check the mail.

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Partying too hard in the canyon

By Jane Hamilton

If you have a Bucket List, and one of the items on the list you never thought you’d achieve becomes possible, it’s easy to make a hasty, rash decision. That, at least, is the excuse my husband and I use for accepting an invitation to join a private Colorado River trip down the Grand Canyon one March, with a trip leader we only knew casually plus 13 other people we didn’t know.

Turned out, we were the only two people on the trip who joined to immerse ourselves in the splendor of the Grand’s wilderness experience -- everyone else was there to party hard during every waking hour for three weeks.

The trip leader didn’t know 12 of the other participants very well either, except as casual boating buddies, and his abdication of any leadership responsibility meant we never knew where we were pulling off the river to camp at night or what food was stored on which rafts, and he was so intoxicated most days he couldn’t locate our position on his topo.

What ensued was chaos and anarchy: Participants were so intent on getting high before starting out each day, we never put on the river before 11:00 a.m., and most nights we pulled into camps after dark, thus eliminating any chance for afternoon hikes or canyoneering.

People were so blasted they passed out in the fire, flipped rafts and blew up lighters in the propane flames. They were too drunk to fulfill their cooking duties, serving up slop that was more appropriate for farm animals. We quickly realized it was unsafe to drink anything that didn’t come from a can, because everything else was spiked with drugs.

The kayakers couldn’t nail their Eskimo rolls and constantly had to be rescued. When they found a rapid they liked, the rafts sat and waited for hours while the kayakers hiked back up the river to run the rapid a second time. Evenings weren’t spent enjoying the murmur of the river and the cascading scale of the canyon wren; instead, they were spent with the echoing sounds of hip-hop channeled through the MP3 players that were charged with the solar charger during the day.

To this day I can’t bring myself to read my trip journal chronicling the worst vacation of my life. But I still remember the magnificence of the canyon that gave me solace and beauty even when surrounded by jerks.

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Touring the Bakken

By Elizabeth Royte

Not long ago, in the heart of the Bakken oil boom that’s transforming North Dakota, a rock punched a hole in my rental-car gas tank. Thanks to the deplorable state of local roads, there wasn’t an auto repair shop with an open bay, or an extra rental car, in Williston. I needed to be in Minot -- two hours east -- first thing the next morning. Thank goodness for Amtrak, I thought as I settled down in the small brick station to wait for the 7:09 p.m. train.

While the stationmaster chain-smoked on the sidewalk, a steady stream of ladies flowed into the bathroom, dressed in low-cut tops and high heels. Prostitutes returning to Minneapolis, a traveler informed me, sotto voce. Seven o’ clock came and went, eight o’clock too. I went outside to pace. Up the street, a drunk staggered from one of the two strip clubs to his jacked-up truck, screaming obscenities at an invisible enemy. He struggled to reach the driver’s seat, then flopped, skull-first, onto the pavement. Three more attempts, and he was revving his V-8 engine.

“Watch out if he gets it in gear,” the stationmaster said, drolly. “Sometimes the drunks don’t make it around this turn” -- the roundabout in front of her station. Almost as if on cue, the truck lurched, its tires squealed, and the sidewalk loiterers -- me included -- scattered like chickens. The pickup hurtled down Main Street, jumped the curb, and smashed head-on into the Amtrak building. “What did I tell you?” the stationmaster said, flinging her cigarette to the pavement. “Now I’ve gotta fill out a report.”

Close to 11 p.m., the train pulled in, its toilets clogged and reeking, its food car empty. From a window seat I stared at an army of methane flares marching across the grasslands. With little economic incentive to collect this gas -- it’s worth a fraction of the oil that accompanies it out of wellheads -- industry burns enough each day to heat half a million homes.

Six hours late, we pulled into Minot, where I waited 20 minutes for a decrepit minivan blasting death metal into the velvety night. The teenage driver, a hellion smoking Marlboro Reds, delivered me to a B&B run by Christians. I fell into bed under Jesus’s gaze, only to be awoken -- at 4 a.m. -- by someone else’s blaring alarm. Deliver me from this heathen town, I muttered as I packed my bag.

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A hot and howling river

By Dave Sands

In the summer of 2000, I almost lost my family on the Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic River in central Montana. Not to some accident, although that was a distinct possibility at times. Instead, they wanted to divorce me for taking them on a four-day, 48-mile canoe trip, from Virgelle Ferry to Judith Landing.

On the morning of departure, we were immediately greeted by what would prove to be our main nemeses -- intense heat and a howling headwind. It was like canoeing in convection oven. My astute wife, Tracy, had questioned the July weather and whether our limited canoe skills would cut it on the upper Missouri. I assured her it always cooled off at night on the High Plains, and a friend in the National Park Service assured me that being on the Missouri was like “floating on a pond with current." Both statements were wrong.

If we didn't paddle hard, even though we were headed downriver, we made no progress, and the heat rarely abated. On the morning of the second day, we were boarding the canoes when a snake poked its head out from beneath our teenage daughter’s seat. Katie only has one phobia, but it happens to be snakes. We weren’t going anywhere until I evicted the reptile from that canoe. After banging on the canoe to no avail, I came up with a better tactic: We unloaded it, swamped it, and watched the snake swim away.

Misfortune found us on the third day. When we arrived at our campsite, a 25-yard, impassable mudflat separated the water from solid ground. “Sucky mud,” the kids called it. No problem, we thought, we’ll just paddle onward to the next campsite. But it had impenetrable mudflats as well. After paddling miles farther than planned, completely exhausted, we camped at a third site, aptly named Slaughter River.

On our final day, we awoke to the wind trying to flatten our tent. On the river, there were wind-induced whitecaps with two-foot swells. Katie and Tracy paddled out to the middle to clear a spit of land, waiting for Michael and me to follow, but we could not turn the canoe downstream. The headwind slammed our bow and was trying to blow us back to Virgelle. Looking on in horror as her husband and 11-year-old son rocked perilously mid-river, my normally patient wife let loose with her displeasure. Katie then summed up the entire trip with one memorable line. “Mom, look at dad,” she said. “If it’s any consolation, he’s terrified!”

Dave Sands, of Lincoln, Neb., serves as executive director of the Nebraska Land Trust.

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Rafting with 170 cans of beer

By Diane Sward Rapaport

Drunkenness and foolhardiness are common companions on rafting trips. The river gods are often forgiving, but not the time I went on a Colorado River raft trip through the Westwater stretch near the Colorado-Utah border.

The beer belonged to Tank, a college football hero, and three women friends. Red, blue and silver bikinis displayed smooth, hourglass bodies. I nicknamed them "Pabst," "Blue," and "Ribbon."

Tank was sharing his two-day rafting permit with my husband and me and 36-year old son Max. Tank dubbed my husband and me "the old fogies."

By sundown, the mosquitoes at the put-in were voracious. Tank enveloped the women in plastic bubbles of Raid insecticide. The noise and dust of cars and commercial trucks carrying rafts and gear and smells of beer, barbecues and Raid masked the vibrant orange and ruby cliffs and sturdy roll of the river.

The next morning, our group packed our rafts by 8:30. The commercial trips had gone. By noon, Tank, Pabst, Blue and Ribbon were ready to roll. The temperature was 112. "Drink plenty of water," said Max. "Beer’s good enough," Tank said.

Each group experienced the river differently. Our group smoked joints and floated a somnambulist’s dream in the fiery light. The other never stopped drinking and shrieking as they threw bucket after bucket of water on each other.

That evening, Tank and the women stumbled out of the rafts and passed out, their bodies patchwork quilts -- white where sunscreen had been applied, and magenta where it had not. Max and I put up their tent. They staggered into it when the mosquitoes started biting, Tank grabbing a handful of beers. Our group examined the effects of beetles that were mitigating invasive tamarisks.

The next day, Tank’s rafts maneuvered themselves through the rapids. Ms. Ribbon rode standing up, one hand holding the bowline, the other a can of beer. Tank roller-coastered backwards and lost an oar. We carefully avoided the eddy called "the room of doom."

Tank and friends paused to climb 40-foot cliffs and jump into the river. The girls went feet first. Tank tried a double flip. His back whacked the water with the sound of a thunderclap. Their river playground suddenly become a stage for calamity. Tank was wracked with pain. The girls woke from their drunken revelries and wept. Max rowed Tank to waiting EMTs. Tank survived internal injuries and a cracked vertebra but never played football again.

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Dead battery blues

By David O. Norris

Four of us left Boulder, Colo., early on Labor Day a few decades ago, bound for a purported fishing “hot spot” on the South Platte River in the foothills. It was still dark when we arrived at the end of an unmarked, dusty gravel road. In our bulky rubber waders, we raced downhill to the river just as the sun was peering over the horizon. It was a perfect, windless autumn day, and we fished with dry flies for hours. Actually, we just practiced casting as only one persnickety trout rose to our exquisitely displayed flies.

Finally, at dusk, four dispirited and hungry fishermen were about to leave when the river began to boil with what seemed to be hundreds of trout. We feverishly fished the feeding frenzy until it was too dark to see our flies. Then, we undertook the arduous hike up the wooded slope in our waders to locate our car. After finally finding the car, we unloaded our gear and fish into it and then discovered that, in our excitement to reach the river that morning, we had left the car lights on all day; hence, the battery was dead.

Because the car was at the top of a slope leading to a steep dropoff, someone suggested we roll down the slope to start the car. So, two of us stood on the brink of the precipice with burning matches to mark the dropoff while the car rolled down the slope, stopping -- alas without starting -- just before it would have become airborne.

Abandoning the car, we began a several mile trek through the woods to reach a commercial establishment with a telephone. Of course, no one had a flashlight, food, or even a jacket to ward off the chill of that September night. We did encounter two campers along the way who thought we were marauding bears, but they deigned to leave the safety of their tree perch to give us a ride.

At last we reached the telephone about 3 a.m. and called a friend who crammed us all into his Volkswagen Bug. Back in Boulder by dawn, I crawled into a hot bath, fell asleep, and missed teaching my eight-o’clock class at the university. A wrecker recovered the car a week later but it took weeks for the stench of the rotted fish to dissipate.

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Bear attack brings good luck

By Kevin League

As I approach middle-age, it’s increasingly insightful to think about the forks in the road of life; those that make you wonder, what if? One of those forks happened in the summer of 1995 in Montana’s Glacier National Park.

I had grown up in the Carolinas, where I had fallen in love with wilderness and cultivated my wanderlust of wild places. I shared this admiration with two friends, and after graduating from high school, we devised a plan for a summer “out West.” Planning entailed flipping through books featuring images of national parks. We chose Glacier based solely on the photos -- it looked like the most spectacular place on Earth. We spent four days on a Greyhound bus and landed summer jobs at a motel in the park.

Other than the smack-you-in-the-face beauty of the place, there is something else very notable about Glacier -- an abundance of bears. Approximately one million people visit Glacier annually, and on average, one unlucky individual gets attacked by a grizzly. In the summer of 1995, I happened to be that one-in-a-million.

After only two weeks into our new jobs, I was accustomed to seeing bears and living in bear country. Park rangers had given us fair warning on how to have a safe summer in Glacier, and the knowledge came in handy a few days later. The incident occurred while I was hiking with friends up a deeply forested canyon, armed with loud voices aimed at making our presence well known. Despite our best efforts, a mama griz separated from her cub did not get the warning. She charged, and I had all but one second to think about what to do.

Luckily I hit the deck, doing what rangers had recommended for circumstances like this -- play dead. The next few seconds were undoubtedly the most terrifying of my life. In the end, the ranger’s strategy worked. I only received two pairs of puncture wounds from a bite on my abdomen. Later, I would learn the local lore that survivors go on to have lives of great fortune.

Needless to say, that summer left quite the impression! Somehow this incident only added to my attraction to the West, and I can attest to having great fortune in my life. I have a lovely family and have spent the majority of my adult life working for organizations that protect wild places like Glacier and the bears that call them home.

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A brown drizzle

By Peter Brown

A few years ago several of us climbing and hiking buddies turned 50 about the same time, and so we planned a camping trip to Gardner Canyon, in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson, Ariz., to celebrate. Cal arrived first on Friday to set up a camp under a huge old oak tree, with tables, chairs, and a nice kitchen area. Over the next couple of days we had a great time -- friends and family visiting, hiking, caving, and cooking Dutch-oven cakes. Most everyone left Sunday afternoon but Cal, Cliff, and I (plus Cliff’s young son Wyatt, ditching Monday school) stayed. We cleaned up the camp, washed all the dishes and pots, packed stoves and coolers, and went to sleep in our tents. About 2 a.m., I was awakened by something banging around in the kitchen area.

It sounded too big to be one of the ringtailed-cats that live in the wilds of Southern Arizona. When I climbed out to look around, it turned out to be one of the biggest black bears I’d ever seen.

With two giant leaps, that bear was up the oak tree and out a branch hanging over the kitchen. I was a bit taken aback, but the bear was more worried than we were. It was making all sorts of snorting and whining noises, also apparently knocking off small branches and leaves from the tree. I figured the bear wasn’t leaving while I was there, so I climbed back into my tent.

Sure enough, I could hear the bear start to climb down the oak. But then Cal and Cliff got up because of all the noise, and the bear went back up the tree, only this time out another branch. More things falling out of the tree. After checking out the bear some more, we decided, best to head back to our tents.

Next morning after a very good night’s sleep, sure enough the bear was gone. But turns out all that stuff we heard falling while the bear was in the tree wasn’t branches and leaves -- the bear had had a case of diarrhea! There was bear shit everywhere: Direct hit in a box of clean dishes, on camp chairs, tables, coolers, and Cal’s brand new shirt.

At least we got to answer that age-old question about bears and woods, and Wyatt had something really unique for show-and-tell that week. But cleaning soupy bear shit off camp gear is not something one wants to do very often! My wife still won’t eat off of those dishes.

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Jingle bells or bust

By Marilyn Tahl

Saline Valley is a deep, remote hot springs in the middle of nowhere on the way to Death Valley, Calif. -- a seemingly perfect place to spend the end-of-the-year holidays. I’d never been there before. My boyfriend had, but since he is blind, neither of us had seen the road. When I checked the day before we left, the ranger told me that the North Pass was closed, but the South should be passable. He warned, look out for the spring just over the summit. And if there was any new precip, it might be icy.

Waking up to two inches of snow in Mojave should have tipped me off. As a river guide, I’m a pro at driving truly heinous dirt roads; snow, not so much. I figured all the gear, food, water and extra gas we needed for a week off-grid would provide plenty of bed weight over the back axle for traction; I’d just take it really slow. We’d be OK.

We left Mojave after breakfast, and by mid-morning, we'd driven 100 miles. Cresting yet another small pass, I took a left off 1-90 and chained up.

There’s something exhilarating about making fresh tracks meandering on a snowy seam through desert hills on a brilliant day. An hour or so later, I shifted into first gear and we started winding down the edge of deep ravine. So far, so good.

Everything turned slow-mo and terrifying when I hit the ice hidden under snow. The truck slid towards the edge, then yawed back, tilting as it broadsided into the rock wall. The engine died and Marc wanted to know what had happened.

Relieved that the engine still worked, we bumped and scraped down the wall 50 yards to an inside curve with a little bit of space. The left side of the truck was a complete mess. Even worse, we’d broken a tire chain. Now what?

Flushed with adrenaline, I was trying to calm down. Twenty miles off-grid, no cell service with a broken chain; I’d almost gone off the ravine edge on an icy road in a remote desert canyon with my blind boyfriend on Christmas Eve. Even running Class V drops on the river, I’d never felt this at risk or at a loss. None of Marc’s amazing backpacking, rock climbing and skiing prowess could help, either; getting us out of here was going to be on me.

Reasoning that someone was bound to drive in or out of the valley by New Year's at the latest, we reconnoitered, threw a few snowballs and waited -- but really, for what?

Late afternoon -- a truck! The driver went a bit walleyed when he saw Marc casting his blind-man's cane up the road. When the guy stopped, he asked us where he was. What?! He was joyriding and just saw this road took it. I showed him a map and he saw he wouldn’t hit another through road for 100 miles. He turned around, wished us well and left.

Bitter cold came with dusk. We set up our tent between the truck and wall. Marc hummed as he made dinner in the dark. He always had been a better snow camper than I.

It was 10 p.m. when headlights hit our tent and someone called our names. The guy with the truck had come back with a tow strap to get us out. I somehow got our truck turned around and we hooked up. With each try, I fishtailed closer and closer to the edge, thinking it would be a useless and ironic way to die. When it was certain he couldn’t make it past the ice with us in tow, we eased back down to the inside turn, locked our truck and left a note on it for whomever passed by. It was nearly 2 a.m. when the guy dropped us off in Lone Pine.

Twenty years on, I’m still thankful a Good Samaritan named Steve was kind enough to come back for us. And I can still see that starry sky glinting off the snow as we drove through the night.

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Bruised and burned amid cartwheels

By Carl Reese

Last August my friend Pete had a serious bad day near the Herbert Glacier near Juneau, Alaska. We set out to scout rock-climbing areas and climbed into granite canyon of a tributary of the Herbert River, which we called Swimming Hole Creek (it doesn’t have an official name). We found a one pitch wall and played rock/paper/scissor to determine who would be the first climber. Pete won.

It seems winning isn’t always preferred, and Pete got the worst of it this time. He reached a handhold about 30 feet off the ground and a chunk weighing easily 300 pounds came off and shot like cannon toward the ground. The rope stopped his fall but the chunk of rock hit him in the thigh, giving him a nasty scrape. It wasn’t a direct hit and he wasn’t seriously injured, but we quit climbing and headed for camp and made a bonfire. By and by another friend, Brandon, camped nearby with his girlfriend, Nora. We pulled some beer from the glacial Herbert River and Nora dared Brandon to do a cartwheel. Nora mocked his sad pathetic cartwheel.

Burdened by social pressure and alcohol, Nora cartwheeled and landed squarely on her head. Mocking ensued at riotous levels. She claimed booze and cartwheels don't mix, but I beg to differ. Pete used his bruised and beaten leg as an excuse to bow out of the challenge. I caved to pressure because I couldn’t do worse than Nora's miserable header into the sand. I was scared so I donned my climbing helmet. To my surprise I did the best two cartwheels of my life. Whoda thunk that alcohol could ease my fear of going upside down?

Then Pete lit himself on fire. While we laughed at sad cartwheels, Pete’s Therm-a-Rest had blown into the bonfire, and as he tried to retrieve it, threads of molten nylon wrapped around his hand. He immediately soaked his burned hand in the ice water of the Herbert River. Then we went home, and he was up most of the night in the bathtub picking the dirt out of his scraped leg using his unburned hand.

The inferior cartwheelers stayed and had a romantic evening. It seems cartwheel expertise doesn’t correlate to a happy sex life.

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Honeymoon heaves

By Alison Dean

Wildfire crews become tightly bonded through shared suffering. Years later, mine still gathers for sauna potlucks and firewood cutting and holidays. Through these events I met a particularly wonderful fellow, one of my old hotshot brothers’ new smokejumper brothers. One morning last summer, he and I visited the courthouse before work. We spent the first months of our marriage fighting fires in separate states.

Our reception was a blustery October bonfire with our loyal pack of jumpers and shots. They all went in together and gave us a wall tent.

Our honeymoon was a 10-day elk hunt with some of our closest fire bros, in the Badger Creek Wilderness of Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon. Standing around the supper fire, passing the bottle, one of our buddies suddenly turned and violently retched a long, loud, ominous splatter. He took to bed for two days, but gradually rebounded. On day five, my husband repeated the dinnertime performance of what we now referred to as the ‘Standing Tommies.’ We suspected that the Norwalk virus was stalking us.

Cold weather turned to wintry mix blowing sideways, and the guys went in search of a bar for the Packers game. My hubby and I drove instead to Prineville for the night and some greasy taqueria food. Next morning, we returned to find our tent blown down and the contents soaked. But in spite of the dark and the storm and the brews of a full day of televised football, our comrades had returned and hung our sleeping bags to dry, and now everyone was feeling better and snow -- good for tracking game -- was falling.

Another day passed with no elk, and I sat in the truck's tiny jumpseat so we could shuttle one of our companions back from his long frozen traverse. It was cramped and the heater was blowing full blast and the winding bumpy roads were unkind. At the supper fire someone mentioned gravy. I dropped to a three-point squat and heaved my guts out. By now, this was comedy. I spent the next couple days losing weight in the fetal position. My sweetie was attentive as Florence Nightingale, keeping the little stove stoked and my water bottle filled.

We all hunted that last morning. But snowy days had turned to beautiful warm and dry, no good for tracking. As we roasted the final sausages for lunch and broke camp, all agreed that despite the lack of locker meat, it had been one of our more enjoyable adventures.

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Saved by a baked potato

By Ginger Wireman

In 1986 I was attending Cal State Fullerton. One day my car’s heater core cracked, and I couldn’t afford to fix it. A mechanic was able to re-route the radiator hose, bypassing the heater but keeping my engine cooled. I figured, “I’m in SoCal, I don’t need a heater, right?”

Two months later, my Surfer Dude boyfriend and I drove north for the holidays and skiing in Washington. We used sleeping bags as lap blankets, comfortably ignoring the colder climes and lack of heater. We scraped the morning frost off the windows, thinking we didn't even need a heated defroster. We spent Christmas with my Mom and headed up to White Pass the next day. He’d never skied outside of SoCal, and found the conditions perfect and slopes varied and challenging. As the hours passed, it started to snow.

By the time we were ready to leave, freezing rain was falling. Without an effective defroster, it took a while to chisel our way to clear windows. We headed down the mountain as the rain/snow mix conspired to block our view, the wipers crunching uncomfortably as ice accumulated. We followed the lights of other cars, which helped. Eventually, everyone else passed us and we were essentially driving blind. We hung our heads out the windows with the ice/rain mix stinging our faces.

White Pass is a twisting two-lane road. We were screwed. No place to safely pull out. No place to turn around and go back. No idea how much further to our hotel. Surfer Dude was suggesting we could put trays of lighted Bacardi rum on the dash to melt the ice. I thought that might be a little risky.

Finally, we saw lights ahead! Miraculously, it was a restaurant. We entered and asked if they had any Sterno, thinking that might be safer than burning Bacardi on the dashboard. The answer was no. We started to leave, but then I had an epiphany. “Do you have any baked potatoes?” I asked. Luckily they had three huge Idaho bakers left, which they kindly gave us for free.

We placed the warm potatoes on the dash and the windshield ice immediately receded, creating three ‘windows’ large enough to see ahead. Surfer Dude was amazed. “How did you think of potatoes?” he asked.

Laura Ingalls Wilder books, I explained. Characters carried baked potatoes so their fingers wouldn’t freeze on their walk to school. Then they’d eat them for lunch. Once safely home, we shared our savior potatoes with Mom. Topped with chili and cheese.

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Horse wreck in Little America

By Amanda Wentz

I was fleeing a terrible job in a dull prairie suburb of Denver. It was winter, late February, and we were headed back to California, where new prospects for work and living glittered with promise. The U-Haul and truck were packed, my mother and my husband’s father were in town to help out, and despite the light snow falling and spotty forecast for the drive, we were committed to a swift exodus. My mother joined me in the truck, towing my trailer and two horses.

My husband and father in-law followed in the U-Haul. I was a confident driver and unconcerned by the snowfall and slippery roads, but my mother, justifiably nervous, convinced me to pray with her at a truck stop, as we watched black clouds accumulate over the western front.

The wreck didn’t happen in slow motion so much as freeze frame, each moment perfectly preserved in my memory. The dark patch of black ice on the road ahead. The sway of the trailer as it slipped and began to sway. The wrenching sound. The image in my rearview mirror of the trailer on its side. Slipping on ice. Thrashing of hooves on steel. The realization that comes at the time of any catastrophe that this is REALLY HAPPENING.

And more importantly, the question: How does one react to an overturned trailer containing two trapped and panic-stricken horses on a windswept stretch of Highway 80 in Little America, Wyo.?

Instinctively I went to calm my horses, climbing inside of the crumpled trailer and lying over them, to quiet them. My family went about trying to flag down the truckers attempting to pass the wreckage on the icy shoulder of the highway, hoping one could lend us tools to liberate the horses from the wreckage. Eventually, a trucker offered to help, a hacksaw was located, and assisted by highway patrol, my husband was able to cut an opening in the trailer.

My mare, seeing a chance to escape, lunged forward and pinned my hand against the side of the trailer, but finally, miraculously, both horses emerged unscathed. I was taken to the hospital and treated for a broken hand, and the horses were kindly boarded with some local ranchers and shipped out later. When we arrived in California a few days later, we were greeted with unseasonably warm weather, the air redolent of orange blossoms and winter far behind us.

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Viva Jimmy Martinez!

By Bruce Drogsvold

My car was broken down a mile from the top of Vail Pass, in the Colorado Rockies. Other cars and trucks were roaring frightening close past my open window. The battery was dead. The tow-truck finally arrived and backed into position. Out jumped Jimmy Martinez, a short good-natured Hispanic man with a black moustache and a braided pigtail running down his back. He looked like Pancho Villa with a smile. I liked him immediately

"Hey Man, looks like you need a tow!" he said with a jolly voice, and got down to business. With a flip of the lever he extended the rear lip of his truck's bed downward to the front of my car. We chatted as he unraveled the chains and hooked them to the undercarriage. My front wheels were locked sideways, so he asked, "Say Bruce, could you put your keys in the ignition so I can straighten out the front wheels?" I jumped up on the bed and complied. The car corrected and plodded slowly up the ramp.

Now Jimmy was on his back crawling below the tilted car securing the chains. I stood below the severely slanted car. I thought to myself, this is not the right place for me to be standing, so I moved over to the shoulder and proceeded to call my wife. Jimmy was back at the hydraulic controls slowly rolling the car up the ramp.

"Hi hon, the tow truck guy is here so we'll figure out where we're going to ..." BAM! A loud noise startled me and I didn't finish the sentence. I looked up to see my car roaring down the back of the truck like a rodeo bull out of the chute. The chain had snapped. "Oh my god the car just ..." Another sentence I didn't finish.

"What? What?" my wife asked.

The car screamed onto the freeway like a guided missile. My trusty 1988 baby blue Toyota station wagon with a dented fender, chipped paint job, with 160,000 miles on the odometer, had transformed itself into a messenger of death and destruction. Coming up the hill was a semi in the left lane and a small red car passing him on the right. My car was picking up speed and barreling down straight at them.

And now Jimmy was running down the middle of the freeway chasing after my car. I watched as he caught up with the car and dove headfirst through the driver's window. His legs and butt were sticking out the window as the car kept on racing down the freeway, moving too fast for Jimmy to change his mind and escape. His was going to be an inglorious death. He would not see what hit him. I was going to be the witness. The phone was still on my ear but I was talking to Jimmy.

"What are you doing Jimmy?" I was muttering.

"Hang up!" my wife was screaming into my ear. I hung up.

Fate had come, the great movie camera in the sky was recording me -- what was I going to do now? I would be tested today. Time almost stopped ... dreamlike ... slow motion ... I watched the vehicles racing toward each other. Soon I would be dragging bodies out of burning cars that might explode. I might die. Or others surely would.

One second a driver is changing the channel on the radio, the next, his head is flying through the windshield. This is how death happens, suddenly, without warning. I was about to become witness to a nightmare. I could see the future.

The police and fire trucks would show up with their flashing lights, men in uniforms scrambling with hoses. Faces in passing cars rubbernecking as they came through. On the TV news tonight there would be a pretty news anchor speaking somberly about another deadly crash on Vail Pass. "This doesn't happen to me," I was saying to myself, "my car doesn't kill people."

Then, as though through the power of intention, my car suddenly veered 90 degrees and slashed sideways across both lanes of the freeway like a fullback running wide past the linebackers. At that moment, the drivers of both oncoming vehicles noticed the danger. I could tell, because now the semi was jerking violently with smoke flaming from its brakes, like in a movie, a smoky apparition from hell. The red car was fishtailing back and forth trying to regain control. I imagined the looks on their faces and the words in their gasping mouths.

And then, my little car rolled ungracefully onto a safe grassy spot in the medium and bounced to a stop. The traffic dangerously roared by. Keep cool, I reminded myself as I looked for a way to cross over to Jimmy -- don't get killed crossing the highway. When I crossed over, there was Jimmy sitting in the driver's seat pounding on his chest.

"Oh my God! Oh my God!" he kept repeating.

"How in the hell did you do that?" I shouted at him, breathing hard with relief -- how could he possibly have steered the car like that with his ass in the air and his head down by the floorboards?

"I thought I was dead," he gasped. "How close was that semi?"

"Really close," I replied.

"I could feel it right there," he said, gesturing with his hand. So Jimmy lived to see another day. The guardian angel of tow truck drivers had watched over him. I climbed into his truck while he reloaded my car. And I imagined all the other stranded travelers who had found refuge in the comfy cab, hapless travelers in snowstorms crawling out of cold cars in the ditches -- it was like going into someone's home, a home that Jimmy had almost lost forever.

We talked deeply while we drove to Keystone. His stomach hurt from the windowsill. He'd browned his shorts. He didn't know why he'd jumped into the car. He had been trying to reach for the brake pedal. The car had turned away from disaster by itself -- he had done nothing. We laughed really hard. "It was a miracle, that's all," he said. I agreed and we talked about miracles too.

When you share a miracle with someone, it becomes a different kind of friendship. We were believers together. Jimmy unhitched my car in the Snake River Saloon parking lot in Keystone. We shook hands and promised to keep in touch. His radio crackled and the dispatcher was calling him -- time to go. I watched his red tail-lights fade into the dark night and felt wistful, watching him drive away into the remaining years of his difficult life. The cold stars twinkled beautifully in the clear Colorado night. Peace Be Unto Thee, Jimmy, I thought to myself, and went inside and had a cold beer.

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Winnie the Pooh does Alaska

By Deborah Fryer

From sea level, I went to visit my cousin, Gigi, in Alaska. “I want to show you Bomber Glacier -- my favorite easy hike,” she assured me. My sister, Lynn, was also in on it. On our first day, we walked eight miles into the southern end of the Talkeetna Mountains, to the Mint Glacier Hut, a pre-fabricated, bear-proofed, marmot-proofed cabin. Gigi said she usually did this part of the hike with her two boys, both under the age of 10, in two-and-a-half hours. It took us seven hours.

Not a half a mile from the trailhead, I accidentally stepped into a thigh-deep mud hole. My socks and pants were immediately saturated with smelly black mud, which oozed into my boots. But the flowers on the lupines, fireweed, monkshood, cow parsnips, wild roses, bluebells, buttercups and setum were so stunning and numerous, they distracted me from the slime that coated my legs. Then the trail meandered off the meadow into alders so dense it was impossible to see the ground. We bushwhacked for hours until we reached boulders that were as big as refrigerators, over which we had to climb. By the time we reached the cabin, the sun was setting. I snuggled into my down sleeping bag and fell asleep before my cousin had even turned out the lantern.

In the morning, I found a logbook where other hikers had scribbled their notes -- warnings about inclement weather, bear prints on the glacier, bad falls on scree resulting in cracked ribs and shattered femurs, helicopter rescues. “You sure we can do this?” I asked Gigi.

“Of course,” she laughed between bites of blueberry muffin. “It’ll be an adventure.”

We adjusted our compasses for declination and started hiking towards where we expected to find the Back Door Gap, the path that would lead across the glacier to where remnants of the B-29 bomber that had crashed in the 1950s could still be seen. At first the route was very steep, but grassy, so the footing was solid. Soon it turned to boulders, many of them wobbly and unstable. With every step, they tottered, threatening to pitch me off or snap my leg in half like a toothpick. The granite was hard and jagged and my hands were getting scraped.

We kept stopping to check the map, but as we got higher and higher up, it seemed that we were approaching a cornice that hung over our heads and was clearly impassable. We could see glaciers in the distance, their crevasses clearly visible and menacing. We couldn’t back down the way we had come up, because we felt the boulder field was too dangerous. So we kept going up, even though we didn’t know exactly where.

Finally the boulder field ended and a snowfield began. We were at 5,200 feet elevation. We kicked a snow-ladder into the field with our boots and kept going up. Sometimes the way was so steep, we had to climb using our hands, with our bellies practically on the mountain even though we were standing up. The cornices were getting closer and bigger overhead, and there was no clear way through. Soon scree mixed in with the snow.

Then clouds quickly moved in like a thick blanket around the shoulders of the peaks, and we were in a total whiteout. We didn’t have a rope, or ice axes, or even crampons. And we were totally lost. We had a compass and a map, but no idea where we were. The only place to go from here was down. We were at 5,400 feet.

We decided the safest thing would be to let gravity take our backpacks down the mountain, and we’d follow behind. Our packs wore a groove into the snow. Gigi went first, using her legs out in front of her as brakes. My sister went next. The groove was a little slicker now, but there was still enough snow for her to brake with her heels and her elbows. I went last, but by now the rut was so smooth that I couldn’t control my descent. It was too steep and too slick. I tried to stop myself, but my heel just caught a rock and spun me around so I went flying down the mountain head first.

I could see the boulders rushing past me. My arms were flailing, my feet were desperate to grab a hold of anything they could to stop me. Finally I managed to punch my arm into space that yanked the shoulder out of the socket and brought me to a complete stop with my head in a hole. There was complete darkness in the hole. No bottom. I was sure that if I moved, I would fall into the hole and never be seen again. I was too scared to move.

“Are you OK?” Gigi was yelling. My sister was yelling too, and I could see them out of the corner of my eye, running towards me. They pulled me out of the hole. I must have looked like Winnie the Pooh -- the bear in the classic kid's book, with his head and arms in the window, and his legs hanging out of the window as he tried to reach the honey pot. They were laughing. I was sobbing.

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The male flaw

By Jim Meuninck

Somewhere along the path of human evolution the male brain developed a flaw -- a sex-linked mistake requiring hominid brutes to suffer and inflict pain on themselves. The flaw makes men embrace injury and discomfort. It makes them freeze, starve, binge and burn themselves. I confess that on more than one outdoor adventure, I have wailed at God and howled at the moon. Like that night on the Fifty Mile Mesa in southeastern Utah.

After dark, the stars disappeared and precipitation gathered, teasingly at first -- fog, then drizzle. I snuggled tighter in a bivy bag listening to Mother Nature raise the ante until it rained like the day Noah unblocked his boat. Somewhere out there, standing in the roaring darkness, Roy, a travel companion, shivered and coughed. He had wished to sleep under the stars. “There are no stars,” I told him. But Roy, a man of conviction and not easily dissuaded, slept uncovered through that freakish summer storm.

Come morning, Roy was soaking wet and ill, watching hopefully as Stan, a retired ER Doc, pumped and pushed matches at the hissing maw of a drowned cooking stove. On the fourth attempt, after furious pumping and a successful match, there was a whump -- and a cloud of almost invisible blue flame swallowed Stan whole. He looked startled -- a man trapped inside a flaming cocoon from hell.

I grabbed a wet sleeping bag, threw it over Stan and we rolled back and forth across the ground. He screamed -- the pain was excruciating, but not from the fire. There were no burns. I maniacally rolled him back and forth over a prickly pear cactus. He was totally pricked, an Opuntia cushion!

Roy, in convulsions laughing and coughing, helped Stan to his feet, while I scurried around stuffing wet gear into wet bags. Our planned weeklong outing, just a day old, was over. A sleazy hotel in Somewhere, Utah, provided a couple thin beds -- Roy in one, sick as a gutshot coyote, and Stan in the other, lying on his stomach, undershorts to his knees. I bent over his apple-red rear end and plucked cactus spines with a pair of tweezers.

Later, to escape the insanity, I spent the afternoon exploring a slot canyon -- where more than once the walls moved, closing in, threatening me. Such is the male flaw: Those stricken cannot know security without fear, or experience pleasure without pain.

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A hairy Merry Christmas

By Robert Cannon

My 10 year-old daughter and I followed an old family tradition of cutting the Christmas tree. A friend gave directions to juniper and pinyon in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest near Show Low, Ariz. We wanted a fir tree instead, so we got Forest Service directions to the other side of mountain.

We brought a sled to play in the snow, but saw little snow. Lots of mud. In the cutting area, we got the truck stuck in "gloppity-glop" mud and high-centered on a berm. It was late afternoon and my daughter asked if we were going to have to spend the night. "No, honey, I came prepared," including truck chains. We got the truck free and drove around the area. The first tree we considered was too big in trunk size, and too tall. So we walked around and found a good tree 50 yards from the truck. Sun on horizon.

I began cutting the tree with a battery-powered saw. The battery died a quarter of the way into the trunk, so I installed another battery, but it kept popping out of the saw because the clip was broken. I held that battery in place with a thumb, pressed the safety with the other thumb, and managed to hold the saw with fingers on both hands. My daughter asked if this was the scary part of the movie. I reassured her it wasn't.

Both batteries went dead, and the trunk still was not cut -- no "timber" moment. Pushing multiple times on the tree, we finally toppled it. Then we had to pivot the tree to break the last part of trunk. By then the sun had set and there was only a little twilight left. We walked to the truck, stowed the saw, got a flashlight and a strap to pull the tree to the truck.

Back to the tree, my daughter the dropped flashlight and wondered why it didn’t work (she’s afraid of the dark). Dragging the heavy tree by hand, we could only make it halfway back to the truck. So we drove the truck to where we'd left the tree, our headlights the only illumination other than the stars. We loaded the tree onto the truck, but three feet of it hung off the back, covering the brake lights and license plate. My daughter was getting tired, cold and hungry. Down the mountain we went.

The front tires wobbled pretty seriously, and I couldn't tell why. Anyway, we kept driving, and had dinner on the go -- granola bars and "breakfast sandwiches" at the Jack in the Box in Globe, Ariz. The wobbling grew worse over 60 mph. We made it down the curves into the Salt River Canyon and up the other side. Eventually we got to a single-lane DUI checkpoint -- more than 20 sheriff’s vehicles and more than 50 deputies checking cars. The first deputy asked if I’d been drinking.

"No, we cut a tree in the White Mountains."

He stepped back, looked at the tree, and handed me a brochure explaining the purpose of the DUI checkpoint. Then two other deputies at the checkpoint stopped us to look at the tree, the truck, and me like I was crazy. They waved us on.

Later, I found that dried mud on the wheels had caused them to be out of balance. To the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, I promise I’ll do better next time.

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Marooned in the red rock

By Joseph A. Wierman

Spring break for seasonal workers around Utah's leading ski resort, Park City, is about getting out of town. Some friends and I set out for the annual rendezvous near Arches National Park in Utah. On our first full day of camping, I did some exploring on my own, taking some necessities on a hike through many mazes and steps in the area. Trying to get a full view of the beautiful mesas and buttes, I free-climbed a 50-foot cliff. Near the top, like the climber in the classic Hitchcock movie North by Northwest, I stood frozen for what felt like an eternity. Making my peace with God, I lunged for the summit -- and made it!

Here, I was able to take in the unobstructed view of the beautiful Utah country; far off I could see the La Sal mountains sparkling under the sun, and in the foreground, the huge mesas and formations of the red rock country. The day was to be seized, and seize I did. Hoofing along, bathing in the warm spring sun, I inhaled the scent of bristlecone pines. Then the sun began to set, quickly, it seemed. Eager to share my adventure, I headed back to camp -- or so I thought.

Confidence high, I leisurely strolled the terrain assuming it would descend to the banks of the many streams. It didn't. With anxiety creeping in and the night taking over, I retraced my footsteps. I felt like I had spun in circles, with everything looking the same as everything else. I was not going to descend a cliff that I had barely survived climbing up. After hours pacing this outcrop, I sought shelter from the dropping temperatures, and found a cave of sorts -- a jutting rock, really, and tried to catch some zzz's under the partial shelter it provided. Surviving the night without being hunted by some coyote or cougar, I felt a little better with the return of daylight. I crawled out from the cave and found my way back to camp about mid-morning. My cohorts had left camp that morning for Arches National Park, but I didn't mind much; I was just glad to be back safe and sound.

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Rats in my bed

By April E. Smith

At 50, I divorced the father of my children in a Sunbelt town on the U.S.-Mexico border, and moved to the Four Corners region of southern Colorado. It was absolutely the best thing to do, sort of like removal of a giant thorn from the brain, but accompanied by a huge reduction in income.

I was hired as an interpretive ranger at Mesa Verde National Park and loved the work, but then had to take a different job that offered better benefits for the knee-replacement surgery I needed. When I was invited back to the park for its Centennial Celebration, because of my previous work, I got a highly reduced rate for a room on the mesa, in the Aramark-operated Far View Lodge.

Far View Lodge is indeed beautifully sited, grand in layout, deceptively attractive. At check-in I was given a room with a stunning view. But the bed, when I pulled back the sheets at 9:30 at night, was FULL of rat pellets -- everywhere between the sheets, under the bedspread and the pillow slips. Absolutely disgusting.

I called the office and was told they didn’t have enough staff to deliver clean sheets. Roaring down to the office, I was characterized as "a complainer." They grudgingly gave me clean sheets, with instructions to walk the contaminated sheets to a laundry drop, so I wouldn’t be charged "a linen fee." Sleep was slow to come.

The next morning, I found the whole room was filled with rat crap. Silently, stealthy rodents had coated the whole place with turds -- along the baseboards, drifting on the carpet, crunching underfoot. The bathroom had received particular attention: Floors turd-coated to resemble a gravelly beach, countertops covered with drifts of rat shit, towels gushing showers of pellets. I let myself air dry and packed while struggling to not vomit.

As I went out the door, a wave of rodent pellets surged over my shoes. When I asked for my money back, a gum-chewing tweenager told me that I'd gotten "such a discount rate" that no refund was possible. And where were the extra sheets I’d gotten "without permission?" Stores in nearby Mancos ran out of sanitizer.

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'Type 2 Fun'

By Ariel Kazunas

Five of us crowded into our vehicle, with six backpacks, and set out on a 1,000-mile drive from Portland, Ore., to Red Rock Canyon, Nev. in late March. Short of leg room, we took turns in the driver’s seat (coveted by all who were five-foot-nine or taller), stopped strategically at the best (read: worst) truck stops we could find, and bought donuts for dinner.

Then in the middle of the night, the roof box opened at 80 mph on the outskirts of Las Vegas. With no exit for another 20 miles, by the time we looped back, it was after 1 a.m. We turned on the brights, and walked the shoulder picking up a trail runner there, a sleeping pad here, and a very stickily deceased Mr. Honeybear there.

After 20 hours of driving, we rolled into the campground near Red Rock Canyon, a park near Vegas, around 2 a.m. “Shit, is that a tent?” asked Will, who had gotten a fresh mullet haircut for the trip. The rest of us craned our car-stiff necks around in time to watch the tent roll in front of us, conveyed by the freezing wind like something out of a scene in that Twister movie.

All in all, a pretty typical Western road trip. I couldn’t decide if it was time to laugh or dig out the whisky and start medicating. Even with the tumbleweed effect, every single spot in this dustbowl of a campground was full. We decided to admit temporary defeat, find a motel, pull out the AAA card, rent a room for two, and sneak the other three in through the back.

The next morning, the world redeemed itself. We discovered just how many yogurts, bananas, packets of PB, jam, honey, and hot chocolate we could liberate from the motel buffet and into our cooler. Also Will (and his mullet) discovered how delicious it was to mix each and every one of those items into his oatmeal. Riding that high, we tried the campground a second time -- and found the perfect spot waiting for us.

So maybe it was "Type 2 Fun" -- not so fun while it was happening, but loads of fun in the retelling. Regardless, I wouldn't have had it any other way. Because then the sun came out and warmed the sandstone to a "guns-out" level, and we climbed to our hearts' content.

Except for Mr. Honeybear. I still feel bad about him.

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'Ouch!' screamed the guide

By Tom Tracey

Our adventure began with an overloaded van spiraling north on a mountain highway, headed for the River of No Return Wilderness Area in Idaho. It was 3 p.m. when we arrived at camp, but we needed headlights in the dingy air. The ladle hadn’t hit the stew pot when a Forest Service fire truck roared in.

"You have five minutes to evacuate."

We flung packs into the van and our guide drove like a demon. Brown smoke soon enveloped us. Orange flames flickered from burning roadside pines. When we arrived at the next camp, we were dirty and exhausted.

A swim in the river rapids would be nice, we thought. A hiker jumped frog-style, boulder to boulder. A young woman watched, laughing. Then we heard a scream. She pointed downstream. We scrambled wildly along the brushy riverbank, searching. A shoe was found snagged on a limb. Soon, the hiker was found. He was ghostly-white, but alive.

The next morning, we gathered to track cougar. With a guide, our group hiked single-file up a hard-scrabble trail on a mountain ledge. Halfway up, we stopped, because the trail ended at a gravel slope. To cross required a long leap and a 40-foot shimmy across the slanted gravel. I was last. I began to leap, but the rock under my foot collapsed.

Sliding down, I grabbed fistfuls of gravel and glanced below, where the slope funneled hundreds of feet down into jagged boulders. I took a breath and another leap of faith. My foot planted on a stump and I shimmied across. Hours later, we arrived at the summit and scattered to admire the view.

"Hey, could that be a cougar cave?"

Our guide spun around. "Ouch," he screamed, grabbing his right knee in pain. He was down. I glanced at my watch. Seven hours before sunset -- but it had taken eight hours to get here. Half-carrying the guide, we searched for the trail. No luck. Finally we found a different path that was smoother, and made better progress. At dusk, we found the stream we'd crossed that morning. A light-headed drunkenness overtook us. There was the van.

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World's shortest backpacking trip

By Janice Naragon

The handwriting appeared on the wall early. Three of us fled Seattle to do a car-key-swap hike along the Yakima Rim for Easter weekend. We agreed to meet at one trailhead to exchange keys; then, Sandy and Liz would head for the far end. Chomping at the bit, I drove solo three hours to where I thought we would meet.

I waited 20, 30, 45 minutes for my usually-prompt hiking partners. After 1.5 hours, I assessed the contents of my pack. I hadn't brought much, because we planned to camp together, obviating the need for duplicate gear. Stove -- check. Cookset -- none. Water -- some. Food -- lame but edible. I started up the trail, intending a Plan B solo hike for this portion of the backpacking.

After 30 minutes of hiking, I reached views of a river. People with guns. Cumulonimbus clouds. I considered my vanishing margin for error, snacked, then headed back to the car. On the windshield was a cryptic note: “Sorry. Clock problems. Cottonwood TH.”

A horse-packer told me that two women had just left. I drove to the old stage road between Selah and Ellensburg and headed up to the western trailhead in light rain. My Subaru refused to negotiate thigh-deep ruts in the road spur to the trailhead. OK, fine. Rather than backtrack, I decided to take the stage road to Ellensburg, across Umtanum Canyon. Sandy had told me that she had forded the creek once. I slid downhill on an increasingly greasy 4WD track. Rain changed to graupel. At the ford, water roiled a foot below the road’s edge.

I turned and shimmied back up the clay path toward the last known pavement, tires glissading. About 100 yards from safety, I came upon a state truck. We rolled down windows. The ranger glanced at my gear with his “your village reported its idiot missing” expression, then asked how far I’d gotten.

“To the creek.”

He shook his head. “Did you know that there is better hiking access off the Canyon Road?”

“Don’t ask.”

Back home, there were 11 messages on my answering machine. With the switch to Daylight Savings Time the week before, Sandy had set her clocks back. She had made it through an entire work week at a large aerospace company with her watch set two hours behind. We’re still friends.

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Surprise ski-athon

By Linda and John Buchser

At 11,2000 feet on Cumbres Pass, in southern Colorado, the Grouse Yurt offers stunning views of the San Luis Valley and the Crestone Mountains. There is perfect terrain for telemarking or touring, so skiing the four-plus miles and 1,000 feet of elevation gain to reach the yurt for a three-day weekend seemed worthwhile.

We (John and Linda) went with two friends, riding to the trailhead with the shuttle driver. The snow had settled a lot from the 60 inches received earlier in the week. We figured to make about a mile per hour, getting to the yurt before dark. But starting out, the snow was waist-high on the leader; he had to throw himself backward to get each ski tip above the snow so it could be slammed back down, to gain a foot of forward travel. The next person in line had snow above the knees, the third person snow to mid-calf, and John was last, with snow to his ankles. But John had an extra burden, pulling gear in a sled that was wider than the ski track.

Linda and the two friends took turns in the lead, changing places about every 15 minutes. The deep snow obscured many of the markers, and whoever was leading often got slightly off the trail. John recalled previous Grouse Yurt trips, when he'd passed markers about five minutes apart; now the pace was so slow, a pitiful quarter mile per hour, we passed markers only every 20 minutes.

Fast forward to midnight and 6 degrees F: John gave Linda the sled, and then continued ahead, breaking trail himself -- disappearing into the night. The two friends consulted a GPS and concluded we were lost. Still, the three of us behind John forged on another couple hours, until the two with the GPS decided to quit skiing and built themselves a snow shelter.

With John far ahead, Linda again followed his tracks, pulling most of their gear. At last, the light of the yurt lantern! As Linda worked to build a fire in the stove, John went back to collect the friends. Everyone was at the yurt by 4:30 a.m., drinking hot chocolate with rum, while the sun prepared to rise over the Crestones.

Somehow, on our layover day, no one wanted to go skiing. The following day, we skied out, the settled snow coming only to our ankles, and we learned that the friends' GPS had the wrong coordinates all along!

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'Three Dog Night' hike

By Tom Taylor

I was about to gain a new son-in-law. To get to know him, I invited him on a late-October hike into the mountains of the Superstition Wilderness Area in central Arizona. I figured everybody enjoys a good hike. I even bought him a new pair of hiking boots to cement the invitation.

Our destination was the old working Reavis Ranch. For transportation in the wilderness, our only options were to ride something four-legged or hike. We went on foot, but I brought my burro and my companion brought a horse, so we could bring home a big supply of apples from the ranch's orchard. The burro had been adopted from the federal Bureau of Land Management's wild burro program, but it was tamed and trained to carry a pack saddle. The horse was trained to ride or pack. We also brought three heeler dogs.

We got a rather late start, as my prospective son-in-law didn't leave his Phoenix fireman shift until 8 a.m. Add in the drive to the trailhead, and it was already afternoon when we reached the trailhead. We quickly rigged the pack-saddles on the burro and the horse and hit the trail. In my haste, though, I strapped the duffel bag (which held all the sleeping gear and the tent) onto the saddle in a fore-to-aft mode. Any good packer knows that you should cross your lashes, ties or straps. My mistake would figure prominently into the trip.

I chose the northeast trail, near Roosevelt Lake, the shortest route into the old ranch, hoping to reach it during the brief time we had until dark. Unfortunately, the trail wasn't used much, and it kept fading out. Occasionally we veered off to the sides and lost more time relocating the trail.

Late in the day that time of year, at that elevation -- climbing from cactus into pines -- it was chilly, and the weather was threatening to rain on us. We also found ourselves in a bear neighborhood -- the evidence was all over the trail. When it became obvious, with dusk arriving, that we could not reach the ranch that day, we decided to camp off the side of the trail. That's when we discovered we had lost the duffel that contained the tent and sleeping bags.

Our only choice for shelter was to pull the pack-saddle blankets off the beasts. The blankets were saturated with burro and horse sweat, and heavy with that odor. We lost our appetite for food and conversation, and tried to sleep under those saddle blankets, through that miserable, drizzling, chilly, windy, October night. We pulled the dogs close to us for the warmth they provided. Since then, the misery has waned, and we now smile at what we call the "Three Dog Night hike."

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A guide's lament

By Ariel Kazunas

My horror story is based on the fact that I am a guide for people seeking outdoor adventure. You’re thinking: Where’s the horror in that? You might imagine that you would love a life on the go, chasing summer from one hemisphere to the next, calling the great outdoors your office.

Yeah, until that guy you're guiding gets lost in Ecuador and you bike up and down the same crappy hill for three hours scouring side streets before he reappears, smiling, because, after he took a wrong turn, he “discovered” signs for a waterfall five miles off-route and decided to go see it.

Or until that other guy you're guiding -- the one with a heart condition -- loses consciousness after falling on the bike trail through a valley in Utah's Zion National Park, and wakes to discover that his shoulder really, really, hurts.

Or until two 18 year-olds disappear down the Grand Canyon’s North Kaibab Trail the ONE day you don’t hike with them because you’re driving trailhead shuttles, and because their moms, like most sane adults on vacation, returned early for drinks on the patio instead of sweating it out with their testosterone-hyped track stars.

Not such a romantic life now, eh?

And when you return to the lodge, Mom #1 comes running out shouting, “We need to call a helicopter!” Son #1, you discover, has called her collect from the ranch at the bottom of the canyon to say that everything's fine but he’ll be back a little late. Which means just when you should have been showering before dinner, you're actually putting on your boots, because now both moms are frantic: “The boys only have one water bottle! They didn’t pack lunches!”

And the park rangers are apologetic but firm: “We can’t spare anyone in a non-emergency. But when you go after them, you should be prepared for an emergency. If you have to camp, head to the helicopter pad at the ranch. But don’t sleep on it, because scorpions like the residual heat in the cement. Bring warm clothes, because it’s supposed to be freezing tonight. And oh, if it gets bad enough that you're thinking of a chopper rescue, the winds will probably prevent that."

Which is why, when you find the little shitheads five miles down, you’ll be both relieved and pissed off. They will be nonchalant and oblivious: “Oh hey. No, yeah we’re fine." And when you are finally back at the van at 10:30 p.m., your co-leader won’t be able to resist turning to the boys and asking, “I guess you’re expecting a ride home now?”

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'If I go overboard ...'

By Scott Broadwell

One perk of the corporate world is the occasional boondoggle. My office used to take fly-in fishing trips to remote sandbars, battle weather and halibut in boats too small for the task, set tents, and drink whiskey around the fire until someone started throwing punches. Now we just float Alaska's Kenai River, on the peninsula south of Anchorage, where the salmon runs are magnificent and roads are scarce.

It was a sunny day, and we were excited about the prospect of standing thigh-deep in the river amid huge salmon. We met our guide, Gary, in a small settlement called Cooper Landing, and changed into waders and boots, leaving our dry clothes and vehicles behind. As we proceeded in Gary's van, and then the boat, we noticed that he looked like he'd had a hard life: hook nose, stringy hair pouring from a hat more seam-grip than canvas, and long beard. His conversation featured plenty of arrest stories.

Any commercial guiding operation takes safety seriously. Shortly after we launched, Gary asked us, "You guys know how to work this motor, don't you?"

"Uh, not really ..."

"Alright. The throttle is pretty touchy. If I go overboard, just be careful."

So briefed, we all settled in. Once at the fishing hole, we went about casting and hooking fish. We caught fewer than we hooked. This led to lots of ineffective coaching by Gary: "You've got to let the fish run! Let it run!" followed by "What are you doing? Why'd you let the fish run? Reel it in, man, reel it in!"

We went on like this. If I let the fish run, I was supposed to reel. If I reeled, I was supposed to let the fish run. I suppose the art of fishing lies somewhere in between.

On the drive back to Cooper Landing, traffic came to a halt. A state trooper walked up to give us the news: The road was closed due to an accident. We were trapped on the wrong side, feet in hip waders, no wallets, no food, and no particular idea of how or when we were getting home. Our hard-earned fish were in the trailered boat, slowly cooking in the sun.

Word eventually came through that the back way to Cooper Landing had opened. Seven hours and one dusty detour later, we made it back to our cars. As Gary pulled into the parking lot, he was on the phone to a friend in the only saloon there: "You tell him he better stay open until I get a beer, or I'm gonna tear the fucking door off the place." Couldn't fault him. By that time he had earned a drink.

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Breakdown at 60 below

By Rita Catching

It was mid-December, 1975, the height of the Alaska Pipeline construction. After spending six months working in Fairbanks, we were two 20-something California kids heading south in our Volvo 142, bound for home by Christmas. Truckers reported the Alcan Highway was in pretty good shape -- its 1,500 miles of gravel frozen solid with potholes in good repair. We packed carefully, heeding locals’ instructions to travel in snowmobile suits, providing a chance of survival in the event of an accident.

The Volvo was Fairbanks-winterized: block heater, battery blanket, lighter oils. The first night we spent in Delta Junction, in a small room over a noisy bar. The innkeeper said it was 60 below that night, 20 degrees colder than we’d seen in Fairbanks. Probably it was close to that cold, because when we started the Volvo next morning, the steering wheel cracked and the tires were so one-sided they didn’t stop thumping for 10 miles.

As we drove south through small settlements including Tok, Haines Junction and Beaver Creek, each day the sun lasted a bit longer in the sky. We stopped for gas at a little isolated station called Swift River, bought candy bars from the mom and pop owners, and then discovered Volvo wouldn’t start.

The car, only two years old, was running fine when we shut it down. Whaaaat the hell? As darkness gathered around 1 p.m., we began seriously worrying about where we’d spend the very long, very cold night. The owners had been robbed recently, and they  pointedly did not invite us into the house. But with the temp 20 below and falling, the Code of the North decreed that they at least offer us a spot to unroll our down bags on the dirt floor of their heated garage.

After breakfasting on frozen apples and salami, we diagnosed the Volvo's illness as a probable faulty fuel pump. The owner agreed to order it from Whitehorse, to be delivered by Greyhound in two days’ time. It was the only way to be rid of us. We used all our cash to pay for it in advance, then waited, living on peanut butter, trying to be helpful and stay out of the owners’ hair. The bus arrived on time and slowed down long enough to toss the package out the door. After we put in several hours of finger-freezing work, the new fuel pump pumped! We threw our bedrolls into the back seat and, bidding farewell to Swift River, headed back out into the freezing dark.

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Our nudist savoir

By Tom Culhane

In March, 2005, my family and I hiked to Goldstrike Hot Springs, in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, near Las Vegas, Nev. At the time I was a National Park Service hydrologist, and when I’d visited the hot springs previously, I had hiked up from a boat on the Colorado River. Now, Jeanne, the kids, and I were taking an innovative route that I had concocted after consulting a topographic map and several seemingly knowledgeable friends. We parked where a dirt road crossed Goldstrike Canyon, and began hiking down a dry wash punctuated by dry waterfalls.

Jeanne expressed suspicion immediately. Repeatedly we found ourselves scrambling down steep, canyon walls, while skirting gargantuan boulders where only water and lunatic goats had passed before. Yet in stretches where the terrain allowed us to hike in the wash, 12-year old Kate and 8-year old Ian would race ahead. Feigning confidence, I somehow coerced Jeanne to press ahead.

Eventually the path became almost trail-like, and we reached a large, gorgeous pool, where steaming water oozed from bronze-colored rock. We stripped to our suits and eased into the therapeutic deep. Several nudists also enjoyed the spot, but we largely kept to ourselves.

Mid-afternoon, we started heading back to our car, but it didn’t take long to see that we were in a fix. Climbing dry waterfalls was much harder than coming down them. Eventually, consulting our map, it was clear that even if we hiked frenetically, we would not reach our car before dark. And so it was, as we paused and lamented our fate, our savior strolled up wearing only boots and a small knapsack.

“Hi,” the buff man chirped. “How’s it going?” As we talked, we learned that he had parked his truck much closer than where we'd left our car, and he offered us a lift.

The near-naked-man then streaked up the next stretch of rocks, and it was all we could do to keep up. Once we reached his truck, he slipped on underwear, then invited Jeanne to ride up front with him while the kids and I flopped in the back. His four-wheel drive groaned, but it got us to our car. He barely gave us a chance to thank him before vanishing into the night.

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Camping in the burn

By Lisa Brainard

Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota looks straight out of a Western movie, with bison roaming long stretches of prairie surrounded by Black Hills pines. Plus, it’s a wonderful place to camp, I assured four friends who’d accepted my invite for a 2009 Labor Day weekend trip. However, a problem loomed on the immediate horizon. Literally. It was filled with towering white and gray clouds of smoke -- um, right where it appeared the park should be.

I was concerned. We’d planned to spend a night in the main Elk Mountain Campground, followed by two or three days of backpacking and likely a cave trip. But was that an out-of-control wildfire? Did we need to head elsewhere? Turned out, the park was open for the holiday weekend despite a huge, controlled fire -- intended to burn off the prairie to mimic natural germination and growing conditions.

We went ahead to the campground at Wind Cave, and saw geared-up firefighters just past the visitors’ center. The ground was charred and smoking; small tendrils of flames ran up a pine here and there. Rangers kept the public away, but surprisingly, the turnoff to the campground, which looked to be in the midst of a burn, was open. So on we cautiously drove. We realized that the fire was allowed to burn to the edge of the campground and then extinguished.

I found my favorite camping spots were open, not really a surprise given the conditions. It appeared some hardy campers had remained there the whole time. We debated whether we should stay. The unpleasant smells of burning and smoke threatened to overwhelmed us, but the “let’s stay” vote won out.

We pitched our tents on campsites not far from the smoldering ashes, wondering if it was really safe at this point -- and just how long it might take to get the stinky fire smell out of our tents, our sleeping bags, our clothes, our hair, our vehicles’ interiors.

And in fact, the acrid smell stuck around for months on some items. It reminded us of our eye-witnessing the wonder of a controlled burn, as well as the stalwart bison, backpacking, caving, and hanging out there with friends -- and especially the hunky, protective firefighters that staged near our campsites. Priceless.

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Rolled by my horse

By Lois Eagleton

I was riding down a trail in the beautiful Oregon Cascades with a group of friends, when suddenly my normally quiet, reliable mare panicked and went over backwards down the steep mountainside. I hit the ground first, and the huge brown blob went over me and landed below.

Amazingly, the only damage I incurred was broken glasses and a sore leg where it had collided with a stirrup. My horse got up, shook herself, and looked at me with a "Mom, I didn't mean to do that!" look on her face.

After we settled our nerves a bit, I got back on and we continued down the trail. The next day, I thought it might be wise to have a doctor check out my leg, and I was sure he was going to think, "What is an old lady doing stupid things like that for?"

I commented, "You know, considering we had no practice we did a pretty good backward summersault down the mountainside."

His response was, "Perhaps this could be a new Olympic sport -- and it could be done to music!"

As to the condition of my leg, it was only bruised. The doctor said my bones were in excellent shape because of my horseback riding. I will be forever grateful that there were no fallen trees or rocks on that slope! Fate does have a way of saving us, when it is not our time to leave this Earth.

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A snake on the phone

By Deborah Fryer

One summer day in 1996, I was associate producing a documentary about water in the West for PBS. The morning began with filming at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near Tucson. The herpetologist bought an endangered snake out of its cage and placed it on the ground between me and the cameraman. “Don’t let the snake get away,” he instructed. “If it moves towards you, just gently nudge it back towards the camera with your foot.”

I am deathly afraid of snakes, so when it slithered and hissed in my direction, I screamed. “Be quiet!” the sound recordist ordered. “I need clean audio!” I tried holding my hand over my mouth, but couldn’t stifle my shrieks as the snake sidled over, its forked tongue flickering towards my bare ankles. I screamed again. The sound recordist scowled.

I squeezed my eyes shut, clenched my teeth hard, even put duct tape over my mouth, but I still squeaked and squirmed until the filming was over. Then the herpetologist insisted I hold the snake. “It’s not slimy,” he assured me.

This made no difference to the visceral panic snakes evoke in me. “It’s not the texture,” I replied, “but how unpredictable they are that creeps me out.”

After we filmed the snake and other animal species endangered by the changing flows of the Colorado River, our next location was a Tucson golf course that was using reclaimed water. We were setting up our shot by a pond -- I was carrying the tripod -- when the geese attacked. The meanest, orneriest male ran at me -- squawking like a car alarm, jabbing at my legs like a jackhammer.

At the end of the day, having narrowly escaped my serpentine and anserine aggressors, I collapsed into bed, exhausted. When the phone rang, I thought it was my producer wanting to discuss the next day’s filming schedule. But instead, I heard heavy panting on the other end of the line.

“I’m jerking off right now,” said a man's voice. He sounded like he'd been drinking. “Do you want to come over? I’m right next door. I saw you go into your room. You’re so pretty.”

I slammed down the phone. My heart was pounding so hard, I was afraid it might explode right through my chest. The phone rang again. I didn’t answer it. I cowered under the sheets, shaking, wondering if I had remembered to lock the double door between our rooms.

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Remembrance of a loyal car

By Elizabeth Joy Howard

“Come on, Weezy! You can make it, girl!” I tell my 1983 Subaru wagon. I'm white-knuckle driving through the California redwoods at night, with the gas gauge's needle sinking below "E." Weezy is 14 years old and I am 25, headed to Eugene, Ore., from Gunnison, Colo., via Tuscon, Ariz.

As desperate as we are for gasoline, the measly $100 I got by selling my guitar to that pawn shop in Barstow didn't last long, and the only buying power I have left in the world is a Texaco gas card. As far as I know, there are no Texaco stations in California.

The last sign I saw said "Crescent City, 10 miles." The tension in my knuckles releases as I see come to another sign that says there is gas, food, and lodging in Crescent City -- and the icon under “Gas” is the Texaco logo. Thank God! So, we make it to Crescent City and coast into the Texaco station on fumes. But the station is closed.

I knock on the door to get the attention of the employee who's still inside, tell him my whole sob story and beg him to please sell me some gas! He says that he's just closed the credit-card batch, but he'll call his boss and see if there is anything he can do.

As I wait outside, I think about when Weezy broke down outside of Tuba City, Ariz., and I had to tell my whole sob story to a kindly mechanic who took pity on me, a stupid white girl. He gave me a huge discount on the fuel pump or the alternator or whatever it had been. I also remember camping at Navajo National Monument and along the Colorado River by Moab and at Sequoia, and driving through Monument Valley and Capital Reef and Yosemite, and going to the Grand Canyon. Weezy has taken me the whole way.

The Texaco guy comes out and says all he can do is let me spend the night in the parking lot until the station opens in the morning. It's a long, cold, sketchy night, but Weezy and I survive and make it to Eugene.

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Enough surprises!

By Ryan Krueger

My partner and I decided to go backpacking and climbing in Wyoming's Wind River Range. Attempting to traverse the backcountry in the fall is tricky; an onset of foul weather can lead to a quick change in plans. When we parked at the Big Sandy trailhead and prepped our gear, we encountered the first of many thunderstorms.

We started hiking, even though night was coming on, because we didn't want to sleep at the trailhead. As we walked in the fading light, we kept shouting, "Hey BEAR! WHOA BEAR!" because we knew the risk, and we were already seeing scat and prints everywhere. Once we camped along the trail, we again had rain.

The next day we bushwhacked to Pyramid Lake and made camp in a pristine alpine setting with pleasant weather. With the lake to ourselves, we went skinny-dipping. One would suppose that our luck improved, but the thunderstorms returned at dark with a vengeance, buffeting the tent with high winds and torrential rains.

The increasingly bright lightning grew ever closer. On a previous outing, our tent had been struck by lightning, and we wanted to reduce the odds, so we moved from the lake to a lower elevation. But in our haste and the worsening weather, when we got down into the trees, we lost the trail. We made a quick camp there and slept, soaked in our sagging tent.

In the morning we woke up to blues skies and decided to press on. A brutal hike over Jackass Pass led to a breathtaking view of the Cirque of the Towers. But with darkness approaching again, we had little time to enjoy that scene. We made another hasty camp in a still damp tent and then, on our way back from stashing our food in bear-proof canisters, we ran into a sow grizzly and her two-year-old cub. No injuries to speak of, but it made for another anxious night in the tent.

The next day we again attempted to press on, but found ourselves high on a ridgeline in obvious recent bear habitat. Facing the fact that our options were dwindling, we turned around. On the hike back, as we paused to reflect on the trip, a massive tree snapped 20 feet in front of us, crashing to the trail. I was surprised that I was no longer surprised.

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Seven Devils

By Claudia Charlton

"Country's too high for bear, don't you think?" My sister and I are discussing it, while hiking in the Seven Devils mountains on the Idaho side of Hells Canyon.

This country is beyond magnificent, rugged, rocky, snow-tipped and cool, even in summer. And straight up. To reach the top of the world, one has to endure steep. I sweat, swear, stumble, slip. And reach the top. I'm thrilled. Until raindrops splatter.

Scattered spurts first, expansive showers as the afternoon wears on. Sheets of gray with intermittent rolling thunder and lightning that cracks at what feels like inches above our heads. No good place at the summit to spend the night, although we've been long hours on the trail. Lightning wins the day. We begin the slip and slide down the far side of the mountain. We're drenched in places unprotected by our rain ponchos, and mud-soaked from tumbles endured on rain-slick trails. We won't get down the mountain, but we hope to reach an elevation low enough to provide some protection from the worst of the storm.

Then, we see the track. Bear. Big prints, still distinct in the mud of the trail. Bear not so far away. In previous excursions, we had developed bear tactics: Don't surprise them, allow them space to depart, hang edibles high in neighboring tree. We had practiced courage-enhancing techniques to alert animals feeding on berries in thick brush to flee the premises (we hoped). We even sang No Bears Out Tonight -- a relic from childhood games of hide-and-terrify-the-person-who-was "it." Our adult hope was that the song, warbled in hearty voice, frightened any real bears, and any other creatures in the brush.

This hike, the only reasonable stopping point we found lay alongside a creek that was just mildly rain-roiled -- an indication, we hoped, of a low prospect of flash flood down the canyon. The thick berry bushes -- bear attractants -- on the far side of the creek were less assuring.

We're wet. We're tired. We see little alternative. We hang our food bag, pitch our tent, crawl inside to eat our Cliff bars, listen to raindrops on the tent -- and rustlings and shufflings in the brush cross creek. Bear. We don't sing.

It's possible I slept. I think not. Dawn came early, rainless. No bear visible. We packed up wet. And hiked down the mountain.

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A huff of indignation

By Deb Dedon

Never believe the advertising copy on a vacation rental. What promises to be a cool couple of weeks on the bluffs overlooking the Rio Grande Gorge in New Mexico might be a 24-hour sauna, if it's August. Your plumbing could spew mud. And your dinner guests might have way more than four legs. But it was bears that ate my cake.

One blissfully cool, rainy night on the porch was disturbed by a noise. Returned river runners, I thought. I checked. I ran! Into the house, screaming BEARS! Slamming doors and cranking windows, screaming BEARS! Room after room, securing windows, screaming BEARS! Not that anyone could hear me. Did I mention there was no cell service? As I frantically cranked the bedroom window shut, I locked eyes with the terrifying bear, a half grown cub, seated on a block wall. One huff of indignation and he or she was over the wall and gone. And that was only the beginning.

A marshmallow pillow

By Abby Swanson

In Montana's Bitterroot National Forest, there’s a trail beside a creek that runs between three lakes that are all called “Camas.” One summer they belonged to my father and me. We were true backcountry adventurers, the kind who sucked on Now & Later candies as we marched and bellowed “kinnikinnick!” down the mountain like a war cry.

One day the weather turned on us halfway between the second and third lakes. Icy drops spattered our arms, but we pushed on, running the last mile. There was hardly time to string up a tarp and roll underneath it before the clouds collided and the sky fell. An inch above my nose, one tarp bounced with rain, and the one beneath us pooled with water instead of keeping it out. I used a bag of marshmallows as both a pillow and a snack while the storm raged; Dad laid his head on dry Rice-a-Roni.

We were in a bowl on the side of a mountain, a few feet from a black lake that churned in its craggy basin. The lightning came thick and fast; we tried counting the space between lightning and thunder while we waited for the flickering flashes to end, for the world to go black and to be left alone inside the rain. Then a jagged bolt struck the top of the mountain, cracking the rocks where it hit. They tumbled down the mountain, their crashes hidden behind the roar of the thunder. We counted until the lightning and thunder started coming at the same time and then we stopped.

The next morning the sky was clear. We poured the water off the tarps and hung the sleeping bags over branches to dry. We built a fire ring on a slab of rock and filled it with wet twigs and newspaper, which had stayed dry in the bottom of dad’s pack. The twigs smoked and sputtered but we packed in more newspapers and eventually they dried out enough to catch. Dad pumped water from the lake and brought it to a boil in a saucepan perched on the edge of the ring. He threw in a coffee bomb (a filter loaded with grounds and tied with a string). Later, we went fishing.

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Single woman in the wilds

By Joan Meiners

It was supposed to be my comeback trip. A boyfriend of nearly seven years and I had called it quits, and sometimes it felt like I didn’t know how to do anything by myself anymore. I wanted to re-establish my wild, feminist spirit, and reclaim backpacking for me, on my own terms. So I got a map of Yosemite National Park and a permit for a four-day loop around the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir area.

I swear I checked the forecast and saw no risk of rain. But on the first night, an hour after I nestled triumphantly into my new one-person tent at Rancheria Falls, it started to pour. And it didn’t stop for 20 hours.

When morning arrived and the sun didn’t, I packed my drenched gear and went to confer with my neighbors. Someone with a radio reported that the trail back to where I'd started was closed, the waterfall crossings lethally high.

I couldn’t just sit in the rain-drenched camp, so I resumed my route. I hiked through Tiltill Valley, mud past my ankles, shimmied along a wet log stream crossing, and powered up 2,000 vertical feet of switchbacks. Only once, when I tripped and was being pressed face-first into the mud by my heavy pack, did I wish I wasn’t alone.

When I reached the summit, the sun came out. I spread everything out to dry while I boiled water for tea. That’s when the salamander-monitoring crew arrived. They had been radioed to return to Rancheria Falls, where a boat would evacuate everyone the next morning. They strongly suggested I join them, lest I become the last person marooned in this area of the park. For a glorious moment, that sounded like a real opportunity to up the ante on my solo survival quest.

Hiking out through the night with the salamander crew felt like unraveling a sweater I’d worked hard to knit. There I was, back at camp, waiting to be rescued by a boat. Who gets rescued from backpacking by a boat? Certainly not strong, single women of the wilds. But as I enjoyed a unique view of Wapama Falls from the skiff on the reservoir, I realized that my disastrous attempt at independence had yielded an unexpected tale of multifaceted adventure. Who gets rescued from backpacking by a boat? I did. And it’s a great story, all my own.

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Unhappy trails

By Don Nelson

We saw them coming from a long way off, slumping toward us along a segment of the Pacific Crest Trail, high in the North Cascades above Washington's Methow Valley. A young man and woman, laden with bulky backpacks, their body language screaming “exhaustion.” As we stepped off the narrow trail to let them pass, they barely had the energy for weak smiles and a quick “hi.” A few steps later, Jacqui stopped me and asked, “Did you see that? There’s blood squishing up through her boots.”

We backtracked, caught up with them and got their story: Newlyweds, on a multiple-day honeymoon backpacking trip through some of the toughest terrain in North America, his idea, her first trek, overextended and cutting their trip short, trying to get the hell off the trail and back to civilization.

At that point, it was several miles back to the trailhead, then a slow 20-mile drive down a notoriously treacherous slash of rutted road, then another 15 miles to the state highway, then another 15 miles to Winthrop. They weren’t going to make it without help.

Jacqui and I had planned to do just a day hike. Now she took my day pack, and I took the young woman’s backpack. She was suffering but game. We shuffled back to the trailhead at the young couple’s pace, then jammed everything -- packs and four adult bodies -- into Jacqui’s little Honda Prelude for the drive down the mountain. We took them as far as Winthrop, where they called relatives in the Seattle area to come and get them. They had at least four hours to wait. The last we saw, they were limping along the boardwalks of the little Western-themed town. Later we received a nice thank-you note.

It wasn’t the first time we rescued overwhelmed hikers. Years earlier, on Isle Royale in Lake Superior, we encountered another dazed young couple on their first backpacking trip, staggering under expedition-size loads of new gear that had been sold to them by an ambitious salesman at an outdoor store. We let them have our shelter, fixed them dinner and told them to get the next boat off the island.

I hope everyone in such predicaments gets home OK, and then comes back to the woods for a better experience. I hope all marriages survive. And I hope I don’t see anyone else in such bad shape on the trail again.

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A grizzly drops into class

By Andrew Nussbaum

Two days into a hiking trip along the Bechler River in Yellowstone National Park, just passed a series of steaming geysers, I almost punched Jon in the face. “Don’t ever call my ideas foolish again,” I yelled, fist clenched.

Jon was a second year Ph.D. student in evolutionary biology, I had just finished three years teaching ancient Greek philosophy. And we had a history of arguing. Previously, when we were both on a small Minnesota college’s cross country team, we had gotten through the 15-mile January runs by distracting ourselves with ridiculous arguments. “How can you possibly think Richard Dawkins deals adequately with the nature of what it means to be?” I would ask him. “How do the ancients do any better?” he’d respond. Conversations like that kept us warm for miles of frozen roads.

But our Yellowstone argument was too hot. We were in Bechler Meadows, filled with breezy grasses, birds and a bending stream. On the horizon we saw the Tetons. Behind us we heard Collonade Falls. Somehow we’d come to the topic of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony. I wanted Jon to concede that my interpretation of it was right. He couldn’t see how any one interpretation was better than another.

Our other two companions, tired of the argument, quickened the pace, hoping that increased heart rates might shut us up. We moved from meadow into forest, the argument proceeding in bursts. Jon shouted a point from the front of our line, and from the back, I responded before he finished.

Then the bear crashed down from the tree.

I grasped for my can of bear spray as the golden blaze darted toward us. Forming a puny defensive phalanx, we steadied ourselves. Then, just as quickly, the bear turned off, deciding not to attack. We stood silently, assuring ourselves we weren’t eaten alive.

Resuming our hike, I brought up the Mahler argument again -- only to have three voices explode in irritation. Annoyed at being silenced, I moved to the back of our line again. Only there, in the quiet woods, would I realize my friends’ wisdom: How many grizzlies does it take to show it’s not worth arguing about?

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Craziness in the Crazy Mountains

By Brent Zundel

On the twilighted shores of Campfire Lake, I had just pulled on long pants for the night, when my best friend came barreling downhill toward me, yelling: “Bear! Beeeaaaar!

Brian and I had spent two days hiking deep into Montana’s rugged Crazy Mountains. At 18 and 17, respectively, we had backpacked just enough to develop overconfidence in our burgeoning route-finding abilities. The first day had passed smoothly, but we had spent the second climbing the wind-whipped pass between the Big Timber and Sweetgrass drainages, following a frequently vanishing trail.

We hadn’t seen another person since the first day, and 10 miles and mountain passes in either direction separated us from any trailhead. Unsure of what to do about the alleged bear, we crept back to the tent and grabbed our bear spray. Suddenly, the lower branches in a stand of pine trees 15 yards away rustled, followed by a heart-stopping grunt-and-growl.

Legitimately frightened, we started talking loudly, hoping to scare off this invader. More rustling. Another grunt-and-growl. Then a small, stocky, brown shape bolted out of the trees and into the undergrowth in the opposite direction.

It was a wolverine -- an animal known to chase grizzlies off their kills. Continued snuffling and movement outside the tent -- along with wolverine-filled dreams -- kept us awake much of the night.

A herd of mountain goats scattered when we opened our tent the next morning, provoking our relieved and mildly hysterical laughter. We headed for the trailhead, but as we descended the breathtaking pass above Campfire Lake, the trail split, each branch heading down separate valleys. Except for these last few miles, the entire trip had been on one map, so before setting out, we had decided not to purchase a whole other map.

Trying to orient ourselves with a nearly featureless guidebook map, we broke to the right. At the bottom, a rider on horseback told us it was the wrong drainage. With my knee aching from a sports injury and Brian’s mother waiting at a now-distant trailhead to shuttle us back to my car, we pressed forward into the foothills.

The door of the fourth of the widely scattered houses we came upon swung open when we knocked; a phone beckoned from the mudroom. Miraculously, Brian’s mother had cell service at the trailhead and picked us up on a farm outside of tiny Wilsall. When we stopped in Big Timber, one tire was flat, and so was my spare, but fixing them was nothing compared to what we’d just endured.

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A brief but tense river trip

By Annie Lampman

Spending a North Idaho winter in isolation can make you lose your mind. You get some pretty intense cabin fever, which is what my husband and I were afflicted with one April when we packed up our young family, camping gear, and new raft, and high-tailed it to the North Fork of the Clearwater River, a thousand feet lower in elevation, and much warmer.

My parents came to see us off, and to plead with us to reconsider. We’d never rafted; the spring water was high and dangerous; we had a 14-foot boat loaded down with over a thousand pounds of gear, three little boys, and a worried dog, and two wooden canoe paddles with which to maneuver through class IV rapids. We would be fine, we said as we pushed off. No problem at all.

As we floated out of sight, we hit the first rapid -- a mild U-shape of water, which the raft rammed into like a concrete wall. We tried to paddle around the next set, but our frantic paddling did little against swift water and our boat’s weight. We entered at a bad angle, bucking through waves of liquid ice, the dog frantically clawing wet rubber, half-drowned and terrified kids nearly tossed overboard. Our boat felt like a floating tank plowing down river, hitting rapid after rapid, completely at the river’s mercy.

Two hundred yards down, we spotted frothing rapids twice as big as what we’d been through. We knew they would be our end. When the current wrapped slightly toward the shore opposite the road, we paddled for our lives. As we reached that bank, my parents scrambled down the bank by the road, certain we were all going to die.

With no other option, we walked the raft back upriver as far as we could, got in, and paddled like hell for the bank where we'd begun, trying to avoid being swept into the death-rapids below. Nothing seemed so impossible as making it across those 30 feet of current to the rope my father threw us when we were halfway. We tied the rope to a D-ring and prayed it would hold as my father heaved, wrapping the rope around a tree, incrementally moving us toward the bank and safety. My husband jumped overboard to help pull us in and finally -- shaken and soaked -- we fell out of the boat onto the shore, our five-year-old cursing the river like a mini-sailor, our spring fever quite decisively cured.

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Hole in the oil pan

By Joe Nehls

After a day of rock hounding, I wanted to show my wife Panoche Hills -- public lands run by the federal Bureau of Land Management west of Fresno, Calif. The entrance to the BLM land is on a dirt road, 25 miles from any form of civilization. I stopped to point out some of the geological wonders. As the sun was setting, we started heading home, but all of a sudden we heard this loud metal scraping sound. Within seconds the dinging and dashboard light came on, indicating that the engine was dangerously low on oil. We had punctured the oil pan.

Turning on my phone, I prayed, trying to get a text message out to our family and friends. I had to hike to the tallest peak, to send a message with as much information about our situation and location as possible. After multiple failed text messages, one message seemed to go through. The sun was reaching the horizon, and really we had no idea if the text message was received and understood.

How would anyone be able to find us, until daybreak? We started to prepare for an evening in the wilderness. Then a truck showed up and my wife was able to convince the driver to tow us to the paved road, some eight miles away. We waited there for a real tow truck. The wild animals of the night came alive with howling and screeching. Minutes turned into hours; then headlights came from both directions.

Two tow trucks! We were so relieved, we had to laugh. Our messages had reached one friend who was able to get one tow truck from Hollister, and our daughter in West Virginia, who contacted one from Coalinga. Grateful for all the help, we hooked up the car to the Hollister tow truck and began the 90-minute drive home. With the help of friends and family, and a few angels, we made it home that evening.

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A motel room stench

By Allen Best

My day had begun bright and brisk in Whitefish, Mont., an old railroad town bustling with New West vitality. Intent on getting back to Colorado as quickly as possible, I blurred through the late-May loveliness of Montana, lingering only in the Big Hole to drink in the picture of spring renewal. As the silhouetted peaks south of Dillon melded into darkness, I pressed on.

Finally in tiny Dubois, Idaho, well short of Idaho Falls, I sputtered to a stop. The old main street suggested a rural farming center struggling to remain relevant. Fresh paint was scarce, and the red-brick bank building looked bankrupt. Only the neon sign for a Curves testified to growth. Spotting a sign for a motel, I followed the arrows down what I guessed had been the highway prior to the interstate. Narrow and lonely, it took me to a house. Through the window I saw a cluttered living room and two people, probably in their 70s, frail and at least partially disabled. I wrote a check and was given a key.

Of maybe 12 units, just one appeared occupied. Outside, two people sat and smoked cigarettes. I unlocked my unit, No. 7, and stepped inside. It had the customary plainness of a 1960 room, but with a satisfactory bed. Then the stench hit me like a fist of brass rings.

It wasn’t anything organic, not a dead and decaying cat. It was chemical, and not dainty as from a bathroom scrub, but pervasive -- like inserting your nostrils deep into the bowels of sweaty old sneakers. Could I even sleep with this stench of overzealous cleaning? My mind sunk deeper into suspicion. Maybe it wasn’t a cleanser at all, but rather the stuff used for preserving butterflies. My raced to a conspiracy of the cigarette-smoking men and the motel owners. With bated breath, I remembered Norman Bates, the motel-roaming killer in Hitchcock's Psycho movie. I considered whether to demand my money back, perhaps insulting my paraplegic hosts, or just leaving while still alive.

Instead, I gambled. I left the door open, to get a modicum of fresh air, and crawled into bed, not sure I’d awaken. Obviously, I did, and in the fresh morning was soon back on the road. Later, I tried to fit this into an essay about compassion, coupling it with an encounter two days later with a Mongolian in a wheelchair. But I couldn’t really make that essay work. Instead, that motel room's chemical stench remains a footnote in a life that favors getting off trails. Off-trail, you never know what may get up your snoot.

Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He publishes an e-zine from the Denver area called Mountain Town News.

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Careful driving

By Ken Timmerman

I flew to Seattle from Albuquerque, to drive a friend's truck back to Albuquerque. At the airport, the transportation security agents pointed out that my driver's license had expired. Rescheduling was not an option. I picked up the truck and headed southeast just as a major winter storm crossed the Oregon coast. The storm and I reached the mountains in eastern Oregon at the same time of night. There I was: Rain, snow, dark, mountain road, friend's truck, a thousand miles to go -- and no driver's license. I drove very carefully.

Flaming Labor Day weekend

By Lesley Bruns

The spirit of adventure grew as I neared the jagged Sierra peaks. Would I be scaling a fourteener? Shooting frothy whitewater? Clinging to a sheer granite cliff? Nope. My quest: Find a campsite on Labor Day weekend without a reservation.

As I drove west over Sonora Pass, I hit a string of Forest Service campgrounds, each completely full. Discouraged, I spotted an unsigned side road and made a deal with myself. I’d follow it to the end. If I found a campsite, great; if not, I’d ditch this nonsensical idea and head home.

I came upon a camp that was packed except for one spot next to a large family with trikes and toys spread everywhere. Continuing on, I discovered Sand Flat Campground. There were empty sites near the entrance, as flat and sandy as suggested, in a pretty canyon. It would work, I thought.

I hopped out of the car to survey and saw some campsites along a stream -- all vacant. Walking down, I found the camp hosts raking dirt. “Are these available?” I asked. “Yes,” they replied, “they’re walk-in sites for tents.”

Jackpot! I schlepped my gear to a spot under shady pines, cracked the pre-requisite beer, and toasted my good fortune at discovering this lovely place along the Clark Fork of the Stanislaus River.

The next day, I explored Gold Country by driving up Jackass Hill to Mark Twain’s cabin, strolling Sonora’s old town and cruising backroads in search of wineries. In late afternoon, I retraced my route up Sonora Pass. There was a plume of smoke rising in the distance. As I turned on Clark Fork road, I was heading straight toward a wildfire.

Back at Sand Flat, my fellow holidaymakers were oblivious. Barbecues blazed and Frisbees flew while firefighting helicopters swarmed overhead. At dusk, flames licked a nearby ridge. The Forest Service paid a visit and explained: The wind was dying and the humidity rising. Backfires were being lit. I could stay the night, but should prepare for a quick evacuation. In the morning, the campground would become a staging area and I’d have to leave. “One other thing -- wildlife is escaping through here. Be on the lookout for mountain lions.”

I somehow slept, but awoke early to depart, greeted by dozens of fire support vehicles. I made it through the smoky pass and safely home, knowing that adventure is where you find it.

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Radiator sabotage?

By Rebecca Ofstehage

We live in Minnesota but own a log cabin in Sylvan Lakes, about seven miles north of Leadville, Colo. We drove from the cabin into Leadville in our '98 Chrysler minivan to pick up supplies. We were parked on a side street, across from a bakery. When we came back to our van, there was antifreeze leaking out under it. Our radiator had a bullet-size hole in it, and we had Minnesota plates, so maybe someone in Leadville didn't like Minnesotans. We could only drive so long and then had to stop and refill the radiator. It took a couple hours to drive to Frisco, where there was a place that could replace our radiator. That is the worst story I have recently.

A city boy goes canoeing

By Jack Fredericks

I’ve canoed on water exactly once. Some would call me an enthusiast, an aficionado, a connoisseur of everything outdoorsy. But I’m just a guy with a paddle, a penchant for the pastoral, and a crazy dream that one day, all of us, regardless of class or race, can go canoeing.

Thank my suburbanized single-mother. She always believed in a healthy dose of family vacation. As kids, we found ourselves “vacationing” in exotica every summer. One of these romps -- themed the “nature trip” -- took place in lovely Whistler, Canada, in 2006. We went, we were told, to experience the outdoors: the sharp mountain williwaw, nature untrammeled, the sublime, marmots and spotted owls. We also went canoeing.

It was midmorning and I was hungry. We hiked to our destination, Alta Lake, from the gravel parking lot facing the shoreline. We paid the man our money and he handed us three glossy paddles. The ligneous shine glinted in brilliant sunlight. He gestured from behind his aluminum barricade to a pile of metal canoes near the water. We buckled our life vests. Sparrows chirped. We high-fived, fist-pumped, and hustled to the canoe. Such reverence. Nature! Water! Life!

Once we were on the lake, in the middle of this shaky Western wilderness, my psyche shattered like ice. The water -- aqua blue, translucent -- sent soft waves crashing into the canoe’s metal siding. The boat swirled. The lake seemed to swell. We were powerless. My mother paddled. My sister paddled. I screamed. It was terrifying.

I dropped my paddle into the boat and plunged into this cool, liquid Canadian frontier. Waves slammed against my chest as I gripped the canoe’s helm and guided us ashore. My mother laughed, hurling neatly wrapped insults at her ill-begotten kin. No matter. I ran to the car, grabbed a towel, wiped myself clean of the lank vegetation stuck to my skin. Nothing more than Western bric-a-brac.

Apparently, we had been in the canoe 10 minutes. It felt like 12. Mom likes to tell the story to our neighbors, her clients, Channel 8 -- anyone with ears. She spins tales of uncompromising cowardice. She pokes fun. People hoot, holler. In the suburbs of Atlanta, where the prevailing idea of a wilderness experience involves a few trips through public housing, the prospect of danger in a Canadian canoe is positively ludicrous. No guns, no crime, no urban youth. I guess I’ll stick to the city life.

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