Off the Trail

Living in Wisconsin, the trails I run are either through woods or prairie – or the boulder fields at Devil’s Lake State Park. It’s pretty hard to loose the trail without noticing. For the last three years I have been coming to the Sedona area to escape winter, and do some warm weather running. One of my most underdeveloped trail running skills is having a sense of direction, so it’s no surprise that every year I get completely lost on at least one of my runs.

Trail or dried creek bed? Trail.

Trail or creek bed? Trail.

The terrain in the Coconino National Forest around Sedona is strikingly different from the thick woods and open prairies of southern Wisconsin. Much of it is bare and exposed with cacti and low, scrubby bushes. Pines and oak grow thick in the canyons. But that’s the problem – it all starts to look the same after a few miles. A creek bed looks an awful lot like a trail and so do paths stomped out by local runners and hikers. If you are looking down at the rocks or up at the view, it’s easy to wander off of charted trails.

Three years ago, Jesse and I drove out west for the first time. We were both getting into trail running and I had a marathon in Death Valley National Park so we decided to check out the area. We camped in the cold Oak Creek Canyon, and spent days running trails and playing with Paavo. I was completely unprepared for the labyrinth of unmarked trails and dry creek beds. On my firstΒ  run, I relied on verbal directions from Jesse and ended up miles off course. I left for my run in early afternoon with plenty of time to get back before dark. At the top of Brins Mesa I trotted along the edge of a rock out cropping that had clear foot prints and mountain bike tire tracks. A half hour later I was wandering down a chilly creek bed and the sun was going down really fast. I only had a hand held water bottle with no room for a phone. I kept thinking I saw a trail just ahead only to find more of the same looking rocks. Eventually I turned around and made it back to the truck just before sunset – I was scared and cold.

Trail or dried creek bed?  Dried creek bed.

Trail or creek bed?
Creek bed.

Last year my mom brought my 3 month old daughter and me to Sedona for a long weekend. We needed some quiet time and sunshine after a bitter cold winter in Wisconsin. I was out of shape and dying to get back on the trail. My first run out I took a wrong turn and headed up a dead end trail. As the path narrowed I kept thinking if I could just get up a little higher I could see where I was. Eventually I was using both hands to climb a canyon wall. When I reached the top, it had been over two hours since I left Mischa and I really needed to get back to her. All I could see was another tier of canyon that looked the same. Climbing down, I was shaky and anxious to get out of there, not sure I could remember which rock and dirt and path to take. That run lasted twice as long as planned – I got back to our apartment exhausted and stressed from being away from my baby for so much longer than I had planned.

Jesse seeing me off near Soldiers Pass trail head.

Jesse got me an Ultimate Direction running pack for Christmas. Now I can carry my phone, maps, snacks, and extra water. I was sure this year I would not get lost – I would understand my course and pay attention to the trail. I even took a picture of the map with my phone to reference if I felt turned around. First day out, I was on the last leg of my run when I took a direction from a chatty hiker who told me about a pass that would give me some cool views. Yeah, sure. Let’s do it! I headed up Cibola Pass and found the landmark barbed wire fence she told me to watch for. Then the trail went cold – where did it go? I followed a narrow path that went up to a plateau then another. I decided that if my legs are getting scratched by cactus and brush or I need to use my hands to climb or my butt to scoot down on, I’m off the trail. For some reason I kept going. I came out onto a beautiful, flat rock that dropped away on three sides. I knew I would be late getting back to the trail head to meet Jesse and the kids so I had to check in.

Photographed by a hiker on Brins Mesa a few miles before loosing the trail.

I held out as long as I could before calling Jesse. When he answered, there was a long silence. I could see him rolling his eyes and holding back his playful annoyance. ‘You ran this exact stretch two years ago. Just take Jordan Trail back to Soldiers Pass – it’s just over a mile.’ Jesse has an incredible memory for maps, trails, and geographical details that most people wouldn’t remember for more than a few minutes. ‘Yeah, I’ll just backtrack and get back to the last place I remember, cool. See you in about 15 minutes.’ I feigned confidence that I would be able to differentiate one dusty path from another.

As I stood there on the edge of that rock, I waited for my fear of heights to kick in – it never did. I sat down and dangled my feet over the edge and looked at my watch. I would give myself three minutes to enjoy the silence before racing back to the truck. I know that I will go off the trail again, but now I appreciate the experience of being lost. Part of the adventure of trail running far away from home is finding your way back.

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