The sun had set. Darkness surrounded us. The blue blazes of an unfamiliar trail were no longer visible and a thick carpet of leaves leant a terrifying uniformity to the ground. We were at best 30-40 minutes from our car.
We fortunately had two items that saved us from a freezing night out in the woods: a cell phone and a digital camera.
It was without a doubt the dumbest thing we’ve ever done as a married couple. Hiking into the woods near sunset without flashlights is not a good idea. Nevertheless, our error was in grossly miscalculating the time of sunset.
Julie and I arrived at Bald Mountain, overlooking Bennington in southern Vermont, around 5:30 pm. We reasoned if we could reach the summit by 6:30 pm, we would make it back down by 7:15 pm. Thinking that the sun set around 7:00 pm, we never thought we’d have a problem.
Unfortunately, the sun sets around 6:20 pm during this time of year.
With 6:30 pm as our goal, we set off at a blistering pace. We scrambled through muddy muck and bounded up rocks. The trail was pretty and very well marked with blue blazes. Though a few sections with multiple turns slowed our progress, we found the gradual trail covered in brown, yellow, and red leaves a relatively easy hike.
At 6:15 pm we reached bear hollow and noticed that one last hill loomed over us. Though the sky was rather dim, we thought we would give it one last push before turning around.
After zig-zagging up switch-backs, we caught the first glimpse of the magnificent view from Bald Mountain. The setting sun cast a magnificent golden shine on the remnants of the fall colors. It was 6:25 pm, we knew we were in good shape.
A few minutes later we reached the rocky summit with meandering little paths, small pine trees, and small patches of red blueberry bushes (at least we thought they were blueberry bushes).
The view was magnificent. Mountains rolled off in every direction. Mt. Greylock loomed off to the south, while the mountains in New York state distinguished themselves with large humps and hills in the west. We snapped a few pictures, laughed at our smearing of the Green Mountain Club’s estimate of 2 hours for a summit hike, and then shot down the trail.
In a matter of minutes we realized the sun was very well set and that we were on the east side of the mountain, already in a deep dark shadow from the vanishing sun. We knew that things were not looking good.
I kept the pace very swift and we bounded over rocks and through piles of leaves. While rushing along I noticed that the abundance of leaves would make finding the trail very difficult in a matter of minutes.
Fortunately the trail was exceptionally maintained with extensive blue blazes all along and generous double blazes to alert us of turns. Yet 15-20 minutes into the descent the blazes were no longer visible. Though the trail was fairly straight and obvious, we knew that it would soon level out, begin winding around, and generally make life very difficult for us.
Panic crawled up through my body and began to set off alarms and pure fear at the encroaching darkness, but then I remembered the cell phone. We never wear watches, so we always bring a cell phone along to help us keep track of time. I thanked God just then for the cell phone.
Though we were out of range for service, we could use the cell phone’s LCD display light to find the blazes and keep on the trail.
Stumbling along, I kept an eye out for blue blazes and shone the phone closely to each suitable tree in search of the kindly blue paint.
Things went surprisingly well until we hit a rather clear area with a few trees. In a matter of seconds we were off the trail. I had seen a double blaze, stepped forward, and soon lost my bearings completely. I also began to lose my mind.
Thinking that I could make things work, I ran around with the phone wildly shining it on everything I could find and immediately found nothing. This only heightened my alarm. The thought of running around the woods all night to keep warm did not appeal to me.
Full scale panic was about to set in when Julie, who had quietly followed my stumbling lead thus far, intervened. “Stop running around, that’s not helping,” she told me. “Let’s just get back to the last blaze on the path and then take it from there.
I walked back with her and within a few tense minutes she found the double blaze. After a few failed attempts to find the next blaze together, we regrouped back at the double blaze. “OK, I’ll stay here while you go ahead and look for the blaze,” Julie said.
Feeling my ineptness and panic, I felt unable to search out the next blaze. I was still reeling from the panic attack of five minutes ago. “Can you try?” I asked. “I haven’t had too much success with this.”
“Sure, no problem,” she replied.
I should say something now about my wife Julie. She is very experienced in the woods. Her family has been hiking for as long as she can remember. No doubt she was frightened, but she also knew exactly what to do when we lost the trail. While I ran around and got disoriented, she stayed put, turned about face, and quickly found the blazes.
While I waited by the double blaze, Julie advanced down the trail with the bouncing light of the cell phone and examined the trees. After a few tense minutes, she called out, “Got one!”
I was relieved, full of hope, and immensely grateful to God. Each blaze was another step out of this mess and Julie had just cracked the hardest part of the trail.
I clumsily stumbled over rocks and into stream beds until I reached Julie with the glowing cell phone. We agreed that I would wait by each blaze until she found the next one.
To her credit, Julie made the most of the situation and made a sort of game out of finding each new blaze. Her resourcefulness amazed me.
I watched Julie and the bouncing light of the cell phone bound down the trail and shine on a number of trees until she declared, “Got One!” I then followed her awkwardly through the darkness.
While waiting at one of the blazes, I realized that I had a light of my own. Slung around my shoulder was our digital camera. Turning the camera on and flipping the LCD screen to a bright picture, I found that the camera made an even better light than the cell phone.
We now made quick work of the trail, each flashing our own lights on the path and onto trees.
During one of our meet-ups at a newly found blaze, Julie remarked, “Isn’t this a great parable?”
Completely missing her point, I mundanely replied, “You mean, don’t go hiking close to dark without a flashlight or something like always know when the sun’s going to set?”
“No,” she stated, “It’s a parable of how God works. He only gives you enough light for the next blaze.”
I agreed, it was a great parable. I also had to place a tremendous amount of faith in whoever designed the trail, praying that it was relatively straight and obvious, and whoever put up the blazes. That was all feeding into the lesson of life and how often we simply have to live by faith. It was a sobering moment that hinted at a grand purpose behind our stupidity.
Though our pace was slow, we arrived back at our car around 7:45 pm or 8:00 pm. We honestly didn’t notice.
Our shoes and pants were wet and muddy, but in the grand scale of things, they didn’t register. We were far more concerned with turning on the car’s lights, cranking up the heat, and digging into a waiting bag of Sun Chips on our journey home.