If all went as planned, we’d get to our campsite by late afternoon, which would give us plenty of daylight for setting up the tents, organizing gear and even resting a bit before cooking supper. Our backpacks were heavy, but being mostly young and fit, by lunch we’d already covered 10 of the 15 miles planned for the day. At just a little after 1 o’clock, we crossed the Roaring Fork and stopped on the other side to change out of our river shoes and eat our midday meal of tuna, Bolton Biscuits and gorp. Among other things, the stop also provided a nice break from the uphill grind that we’d been on for several hours.
The campsite we were aiming for would obviously mark the end of our day’s walk. The destination was more of a “likely looking map location” than a formal campsite. But I knew that it would be easy enough to locate, given that on the map it appeared to be only a few hundred yards beyond where the Low Meadow Trail forked in from the west and not too far beyond Sheepeater Creek. Studying the map further, it looked to be only about 4 miles beyond our lunch stop, which meant that we had only about 2 hours of walking time after lunch left to get us there. A straightforward and leisurely afternoon of walking, I assumed, as I grabbed one more handful of lunch.
By 1:30, we were finished eating, at least for that moment, and were back on the trail. I’d repeatedly done the math and was confident that we’d be set up in our evening camp and prone in our sleeping bags, if or when the late afternoon storms rolled in. I was simply content with where we were, as we got back into our full trail walking rhythm.
The trail knifed and wound its way through thickly spaced, but progressively shorter trees, as we continued gaining elevation. Minutes, turned into hours as we just kept going. I kept looking down at my watch and eventually it said 4 o’clock, just as our progress was abruptly stopped by a stream going across our path. It was Sheepeater Creek. I was almost surprised that it was right where the map said it would be, but when I realized that we’d been walking for over 2 hours since lunch, just came to grips with the fact that we were on schedule and where we were supposed to be.
The trail ran right into what looked to be an ankle deep and 30’ wide crossing. We stopped and without hesitation, found places to sit down, took off our packs and changed into stream crossing/water shoes. While lacing up my own shoes, I looked across to the other side and saw a big log, ideal for sitting and putting back on our hiking shoes and noted the Low Meadow trail fork just beyond that. Perfect, I thought. All we had to do now, was cross the creek, walk a few hundred yards and find a good camping location. I could rest, because the hard part of the day was essentially behind us.
Within 15 minutes, we were all on the other side, sitting on the log and fiddling with our shoes. Once everyone was out of the water, my focus had turned to things in my immediate world such as how to attach my wet shoes to the outside of my pack and where my socks were. I can’t really say why we didn’t just stay in our wet shoes for the short walk to the campsite, but it had something to do with the uncertainties related to where a good camping spot might actually be.
Counting heads is a constant activity among group leaders. It becomes almost second nature, as keeping the group intact and not losing anyone is undoubtedly the single most important responsibility that people in charge of groups have. Quarterbacks, coaches, platoon leaders, scoutmasters, teachers and backpacking guides all do it. It’s just what group and team leaders do.
And so, once I was ready to get up and lead us the last little bit into our camp, wherever it might be, I stood up and surveyed the group. There’d been 10 of us from the start and I’d become accustomed to counting 7 heads (I didn’t count myself, Barry, or Busby (the other leaders) and with the small size of the group, I could almost do it just by looking and not even physically counting each person.
I had no reason to think that I would come up with any number besides seven this time around, but as I glanced and counted, I came up with six. Everyone was in a clump and my initial thought was that someone, was off to the side or that I’d simply miscounted. I took a little more time, counted again, while consciously looking around in every direction, figuring I’d solve the puzzle with a simple answer. But the second time around, I still got six. It became clear that someone was not there.
I looked at the group and took note of who was there, and by doing that, it was obvious who wasn’t. It was Garrett who was missing. He was there, probably off in the bushes doing his business, I reasoned.
But not completely certain of that, I just threw out the general question to the group, “where’s Garrett?”
No one answered. Maybe they didn’t hear me or are preoccupied, I reasoned. And so, I said it again. The second time with a little more force.
“Who’s seen Garrett”?
One of the kids finally answered, “I was just talking to him as we walked up to the creek”.
“Did you see him cross”, I asked?
Two different people responded that he’d crossed right in front of them.
“Did anybody see him go off to go the bathroom”, I said, hoping for an affirmative response.
But no one responded in any way, except to look around with blank looks on their faces. I could see everyone silently counting and trying to remember anything about Garrett and what’d happened when we got to the log and had started changing shoes. There were theories and ideas, but no one had any sort of solid information about what he’d done or where he’d gone, once we’d started crossing. And after a few minutes, it became obvious that he wasn’t just off in the bushes.
It didn’t make sense to me. Everyone knew that we were stopping somewhere close to the crossing, didn’t they? And then it dawned on me that while we’d talked about it, there’d probably never been any sort of definitive and confirmable statement about where or when we were stopping.
And so, the guessing and speculation began. Garrett was an intelligent person, so it was a good bet to assume that he’d not just gone backwards or headed off trail. Given that, I made the assumption that he must’ve kept going forward. Under normal circumstances, it would’ve been a simple enough thing to hurry down the trail and catch up to him, especially since he already had a lot of miles on his legs that day and was dealing with a significant respiratory problem. But there was a big kink in our situation- the trail fork. That meant that there were two trail possibilities for him to choose from and we had absolutely no idea which one he’d selected. There were footprints heading down each and so no viable clues for us to work with. I pulled out the map and looked at the routes. Each descended several thousand feet over the course of a few miles, which meant that he’d likely be moving faster than normal, since he would mostly be going downhill. I realized that we needed to catch up to him sooner than later. It was simple arithmetic that the further he went down, the further he’d have to go back up to rejoin the group and because he was both sick and tired, that would likely be a big struggle. I also realized that if we didn’t catch him before dark, things would really start to become complicated and that potentially he could find himself at the bottom of the valley and all alone for the night. And with that, I soon began wondering about where he’d sleep, what he’d eat, what he’d do if he just got sicker, and what he’d be planning to do the next day.
The realization that we only had a few hours of daylight to work with sent me into overdrive. At least, I reasoned, there was no storm build-up to worry about. I quickly assessed the options, such as they were, and first concluded that he’d most likely kept walking on forward and past us. But beyond that, things got really tricky since the Low Meadow Trail Fork was just down the trail and created a choice for everyone.
I decided that the best course of action was for me to follow one of the trails, get Barry to take the other and leave Busby with the group. At that point, I was hopeful that he’d gotten to the trail junction and just stopped to wait which would put an end to the whole quandary. At the very least, I thought it possible that if he wasn’t there, we’d see some sort of distinguishing footprints or something else that would give us a clue as to what he did. And so, Barry and I walked off down the trail in manic anticipation, while Busby stayed back with the group. Barry and I took off our packs and left them with the group, so that we could move faster. I would learn in later years that there’s good reason to take at least some things with you in such a situation. But, at the moment, we were thinking fast and speed. We told the group to stay put, rest, not to do anything active and mind Busby while we were gone and that we’d be back before dark, if not sooner. I took the same trail that we’d been walking on all day while Barry headed off down the Low Meadow. A lot of things regarding the plan had been determined before we left, but as I walked, I thought of more and more details that were on the ambiguous side.
I had no pack, only a single water bottle that I carried in my hand and a light fleece pullover that was tied around my waist. Almost immediately, I began thinking of the various things that I didn’t have and started formulating plans for spending the night out myself and with limited gear. I began wondering what the rest of the group would do if neither Barry nor I were back by dark and then started wondering what would happen if Barry caught up to Garrett a few hundred yards down the trail and then turned around and got back to the rest of the group, while I kept going for miles and miles. And what about visa versa. What if I found him and the two of us went back up, got to the crossing and Barry was still out there somewhere on the trail?
I yelled for Garrett at every likely spot, but never had any sort of response. I kept thinking that I’d see him around each corner, but every time there were only rocks, trees and more trail on the other side. After walking for about 15 minutes, just as I was beginning to have serious doubts about our situation and plans, two horseback riders rode up from behind me. At about the same moment, I was beginning to realize that if Garrett was actually somewhere ahead of me and with a 20 or so minute head start, that if I did indeed catch up him, we’d be way down the trail by then. And that, I calculated, would potentially make it really hard for us to get back to the group before dark.
But with the two men on horses, I saw a workable solution. Once we were in talking distance, I asked them that if they came across a lone backpacker somewhere up ahead going the same way I was to tell him his group was waiting for him back behind. At least they’d be moving faster than me and if they did, indeed, catch up to the teenager, they could stop and turn him around. I was hopeful.
The riders obliged, rode on past and disappeared around a corner. It was only 5 minutes later, that I rounded a corner myself, and there, he was—coughing and walking my way. I’m sure that he’d been wondering what was happening, himself, and was glad to see my familiar face. I was certainly overjoyed, relieved and pleased to see his.
As he walked up, I said the obvious—“there you are”. Then, I continued, “we didn’t know where you went. We stopped back at the last crossing. We’re going to camp around there and are then going down the other trail tomorrow”.
“The guy on the horse stopped me. I didn’t know that we were stopping back there. I was wondering where everyone was”, he responded.
We began walking back up the trail, talking about some of the details of what had happened as we walked. I was glad that it’d all worked out okay up to this point, but found myself increasingly wondering what Barry might have done. What would we do if he was not back by the time the two of us were? What if he just kept going or tripped on something and hurt his leg?
The questions and possibilities were beginning to wander rampantly through my thoughts, when we came over a small rise and I saw the 6’5” Barry in the midst of a hacky sack game, in a circle with the rest of the group. My list of questions grew as we kept walking, but by the time we got there, the answers didn’t matter any longer.