Lost Garret and the Trail


Colorado mountains
Miles and Miles of Wild

If all went as planned, we’d get to our Wind River Range campsite by late afternoon, which would leave us with 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 Roaring Fork Creek 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 we’d been on for the past several hours.

The campsite we were aiming for marked the end of our day’s walk. The destination was more of a “likely looking map location” than a formal campsite. But I knew it would be easy enough to locate, given that on the map it appeared to be only a few hundred yards beyond where the Middle Fork Trail forked in from the west and not too far beyond Stough Creek. Studying the map further, it looked to be only about 4 miles beyond our lunch stop, which meant 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 we’d be set up in our evening camp and stretched out 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 to gain elevation. Minutes turned into hours. I kept looking down at my watch and eventually, it said 4 o’clock, just as our progress was abruptly stopped by a stream cutting across our path. It was Stough Creek. I was almost surprised 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 simply on schedule and where we were supposed to be.

The trail ran right into what appeared to be an ankle-deep and 30’ wide creek/river crossing. We stopped and without hesitation, found places to sit down, took off our packs, and changed into our 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 a trail fork just beyond that. Perfect, I thought. All we had to do at that point, was cross the creek and walk a few hundred yards to our anticipated camping spot. I realized I could rest easy on the log 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 turned to group leader chores such as how to attach wet shoes to the outside of our packs and locating socks. 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 end up being.

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 of people in charge of groups. Quarterbacks, coaches, platoon leaders, scoutmasters, teachers, and backpacking guides undoubtedly 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 to our campsite, 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). Because of the small group size, I could almost do it by just looking and not even physically counting each person.

I had no reason to think I’d 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 and counted again, while consciously looking around in every direction, figuring the puzzle would be solved 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 Garret who was missing. I still figured he was close by, 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 Garret?”

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 Garret”?

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, except to look around with blank looks on their faces. I could see them all silently counting and trying to remember anything about Garret and what’d happened when we got to the log and began 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 he wasn’t just off in the bushes.

It didn’t make sense to me. Everyone knew we were stopping somewhere close to the crossing, didn’t they? I started to panic and 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 about where he’d gone began. Garret was an intelligent person, so it was a good bet to assume he’d not just gone backward 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. The intersection meant 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 he was likely moving faster than normal since, either way, he was essentially walking 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, doing so 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 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 following 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, but carefully assessed the options. I determined he’d likely just walked on past us at the crossing and was headed on down the trail. But since the trail forked, there were two options to follow. So, there was a conundrum to deal with.

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 he’d gotten to the trail junction and just stopped there which would put an end to the whole quandary. At the very least, I thought it was a possibility 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’d done. 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, speed was our priority. We told the group to stay put, rest, not to do anything active, do what Busby said, and that we’d be back before dark. I took the same trail we’d been walking on all day while Barry headed off down the Middle Fork. 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 had been left undetermined or 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 tied around my waist. Almost immediately, I began thinking of the various things I didn’t have with me 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 before dark and then started wondering what would happen if Barry caught up to Garret a few hundred yards down the trail and the two of them turned around and rejoined the rest of the group, while I kept going for miles and miles. And what about vice 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 Garret at every likely spot but never had any sort of response. I kept hoping I’d see him around every approaching curve, but each time I saw nothing but more rocks, trees, and trail. After walking for about 15 minutes and just as I was beginning to have serious doubts about the situation, two horseback riders rode up from behind. And that gave me an idea. I came to the realization that if Garret was ahead of me with a 20-minute head start, assuming I did catch up with him, we’d be far down the trail, by that time. And that would make it difficult to get back to the group before dark.

But with the two men on horses, I saw a workable solution. I alerted them to the situation and asked them to tell Garret that we were behind and looking for him, so to stop and turn around.

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 toward me.

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 follow 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 to the group by the time the two of us got there? 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, those answers no longer mattered.

On the Trail

Author: David Appleton

I was born and raised in Texas and currently live in the Texas Hill Country, spent some 30 years living in the smack dab middle of Colorado, and have spent a lifetime adventuring and leading others on adventures in many parts of the wild world.

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