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BOWEN COLUMN: Part 8 of Lost in Yellowstone: The Ironman

(This is part 8 of the series “Lost in Yellowstone.”)

Tuesday, July 13, 2021 (noon – 5 pm)

(53 hours until the great blonde bear)

Before things took a turn for the worse, we had a funny moment. Humor and near tragedy often make good bedfellows, although in this case there was no potential tragedy at all, mainly just a point of ridiculous aggravation.

It had been a couple of hot hours of hiking since the Hogans, assisted us. Steps were not getting any easier, but we continued as non-stop as possible. One stop Todd and I had not made at all since we started on Sunday was stopping to go to the ‘bathroom.’ We were now on the third day, and, for some reason around 3 pm, my body decided it was time, despite the sparse meals. For the past seventy-two hours, I had only eaten two small containers of chicken salad and nibbled on some peanut butter protein bars. Todd had had little more. The altitude, heat, fatigue – I don’t know what all – took your appetite almost completely away.

We’ll tell this unashamedly, I guess, and venture onto the more-than-you-need-to-know trail. I hollered at Todd, ahead of me his usual fifty feet or so and said I needed to walk out into the woods. I set my bag down on the side of the trail and began to dig for the wet wipes. One thing I noted all through our trip that nothing was easy, especially dealing with that unwieldy backpack. I could not find them in that packed bag, and my body wasn’t as patient as it might have been. The scene kind of went downhill from there, and I’ll graciously close the curtain on the remainder of it.

That afternoon I did learn how that part of life in the woods worked, although it was another frustrating affair. I guess it all just added up and I needed to vent, so I just exclaimed down to Todd, “Todd, I’m sick of this! I’m really done this time! You wait three days, then when the time comes you can’t find what you need. This is ridiculous!”

I was about ready to walk back out to the trail by this time, and through the trees I could see Todd easing his way back up the trail near to where I was. When he got within talking distance, he said, calmly, in his Todd-esque way, “Steve, you all right?”

I responded with something like, “No, Todd, I’m not exactly all right. This is ridiculous. But, yeah, I’m all right, or I will be in a minute.”

We hiked on a couple more hours, and in the early evening the trail again faded. We seemed to be on the right trail and should be nearing our destination at what is called the Snake Confluence – campsite 8c5 – which was the campsite at which we should have arrived on Monday evening. As we hiked that direction, the trail ultimately led down a steep, wooded hill. Todd was ahead of me and went down to the bottom of the hill, then a minute later came back up, “Steve, do you see another trail?”

It was a pivotal moment for us. Suddenly Day three was becoming an extension of Day two. We did not know where we were, and this time there were no metal signs pointing toward Heart Lake.

We turned around and made our way back up the hill, and the thought of having to re-trace steps at this point, going in circles, or up and down hills all in vain, was overwhelming. There comes a point when a body is tired but keeps going, and is tired even more, and keeps going still – and when that pattern continues hour after hot hour, and day by day, a body’s fatigue has nowhere to go. Quitting is not an option, but something has to give eventually. I knew what that something was, too – and I knew the consequences of it – and I was doing my very best not to let it happen.

You probably are getting a vague sense of how tiring things were by this time, after you’ve read already of several days’ worth of intense, non-stop hiking, heat and mosquitos, and much uphill and uneven terrain. Amazingly, though, during all this time Todd still was going strong. He was a true Ironman. He just seemed to be able to go on and on. I know he was tired, but he never came to a point where I felt he was exhausted and spent. After climbing back up that steep wooded hill and then deciding to start heading back east, Todd said, “Let me have your backpack.” At that point it was either that, or stop, and we couldn’t afford to stop. Over the next two hours either he carried it in his hand, or we both took ahold of it and carried it together, or I would take it in my hand and carry it, refusing to put it on my back any more, at least for a time.

A little later during this stretch of searching for the trail, Todd mentioned the fact that among everything we had gone through he had carried my pack a while, and that really bothered me. He wasn’t complaining, just stating the facts. We were both doing all we could to survive, so you do what you have to do.

We both had to get out of that wilderness, not just one. We needed to keep moving, and by that point on Tuesday evening my steps were diminishing more than ever. It would be the next day, I believe, when we, again, reached an end-of-the-road point that he said he’d carry my bag again, and I said without hesitation,

“No sir, I’m not ever goin’ to let you do that again.”

He didn’t protest. I don’t know, maybe he understood there was honor at stake here and didn’t want to contradict it. Later on, though, he did compromise and say, almost apologetically,

“Will it be okay if I put your sleeping bag on my backpack, that’ll lighten your load a little?”

To that I agreed. We had found a compromise. And he let me maintain that sense of honor. I think it was just one of many gallant things my good friend would do in those six days.

Through it all, Todd and I never had a cross word, although we were together twenty-four/seven, literally. We would have a couple of little heart-to-heart talks over the next couple of dasy, but those were nothing.

I’ll always owe Todd a debt for what he did and for what he was over those six days.

Maybe your mind and body just become numb after a while. I remember that the final hours of our hiking on Day three were brutal, up and down hills – and my speed had slowed to its most deliberate pace yet, but we never stopped. We found a trail of some sort, and after a couple more miles we came upon the river. We were not sure at the time which river it was, there are several, but we know now that it was Snake River. We crossed the river to the east side and made our way southward down an uninhabited area along the side of the river. Sometimes we had to climb down three-foot embankments to walk the river; at other times we waded through treacherous swamp-like terrain. At one point the river divided, as it does often, and Todd crossed over one tributary of it and stopped, looking for a trail.

He did find a trail, finally, heading due east away from the river. We hiked down that trail for perhaps a mile, and, seeing the sun was getting low, decided to stop at a tree on the side of the trail and camp for the night.

For the second night in a row we were camping in tall grass and in terrain that appears to have been traveled rarely by humans. The trail was primarily an animal trail, although we could tell some horses also frequented that area.

We went about our regular nighttime routine, and Todd went up into the meadow a hundred feet by some tall bushes and began to put the tent up. I finished what I was doing and went to help. It seemed to be a strange place for a tent, there in the middle of tall shrubs and high grass. But I had begun to figure out this one thing about Todd:

Everything we did – from the time we began our hike in the morning to the placement of the tent – was ‘bear-proofed.” I think Todd may have been more afraid of bears – though he never said so – than anybody in the world.

For me, I figured there were probably a dozen other things that would eventually kill us before the bears.

That night, however, would challenge my belief on that.