A Slow Death Down Wrong Trails (Part 1)


It was an odd morning and I could already feel the slow creep of anxiety, anticipation, and dread. Doesn’t matter; today’s the day I run farther than I ever have by two miles for a total of 12. A big deal for being a newbie to trail running. The trail itself was virgin to me in its entirety. I had read about it on an Arizona trail running blog and it sounded inviting. It leaves Camino De Oeste and ends at Gates Pass road in the Tucson Mountain Park, easy enough. The David Yetman trail didn’t appear to have too much elevation, as I briefly scanned my All Trails app. Just a long, relatively flat run that needed to be started early to beat the heat. This was Tucson after all and the bipolar weather transition from spring into summer can be no joke. Today was supposed to top out at 91 and the only shade would be the occasional saguaro or tree cholla. Who wants to rest behind a cactus?

I had carefully assessed and managed the risks of the run: a trekking pole for rattlesnake aversion and rocky declines, 2.5 liters of water with 2 packets of electrolytes, some homemade nutrition bars and sweet baby food packets for energy, and of course, an early start. I began at 6:30 am as the sun began its glow over the small peaks and valleys of the park. “What if a mountain lion gets me? It’s Monday and no one is out on the trail.” I pushed the thoughts of being mauled aside and began to run. First mistake: setting the pace too fast while underlying fear cheered me on. Second mistake: not eating a light snack prior to the run. Breakfast just bogs you down anyway…right?

First stop was the historical stone cabin where I met up with a fellow runner all sweaty from Illinois. He was on vacation and enthusiastically spoke about the unique landscape on his run. A quick therapistly scan (yup a therapist by night) revealed he was clearly not the serial killer in my frequently rehearsed trail murder scenarios. Generally, I envisioned the killer hiding behind a rock waiting to pounce, only to find himself bloodied, bludgeoned, and stabbed by the end of my Walmart trekking pole. Determining no threat, I stopped and took a selfie with the cabin after we parted ways, and set off again through some soft gravely dry washes.


Then the confusion began; it was the first fork in the trail. “Do I fork left or to the right? No problem, check the app and off to the right; check it again, nope to the left.” A nice view eased my mind of terror-inducing circumstances. The sun was further along on its assent over the landscape dominated by pointy hills, half in deep shadow and half being touched by the early morning sun. It was already getting hot, but I was on track. I had made it down into a basin, and was surrounded and held by some more pointy mountains now even brighter. “Geez” I thought, sure is a lot of intersecting trails. Several checks to the app revealed I was still on course. Good thing because I was feeling drained and my breath too labored this early in. “I seemed heavier today than normal,” I reflected so I decided to suck down a baby food packet. What a difference a little food made. Soon I was flying along enjoying myself. The trail was hugging the side of a hill as it curved around presenting a view of a subdivision. Before rounding the hill, I had looked ahead and seen a sliver of trail pointing straight up a lofty saddle. Dreading it, I had thought, “I hope that’s not MY trail.” So I was pleased when this route turned to the left and took me down a rocky decline. “Nice” I muttered. I was happily trotting along when I seemed to get closer and closer to the subdivision. My inconsistent at best, “something ain’t right here,” detection system urged me to look at my app. How could I appear to be floating on the side of hill with no trail? Had I finally transcended reality? Wishes do come true.” I said with a chuckle. “Okay, this sucks,” I thought, “but just backtrack and get yourself on course.” Soon a path appeared to the left. According to the app, the Yetman trail was red and on the left so I took it. Nope, nope and nope. Now I was floating further down the hill. Finally, making it back up to the original intersection, low-and-behold, a set of stone stairs appeared from nowhere which led down into a basin and headed straight for the dreaded saddle.

I estimated about a mile to the saddle after a nice additional mile detour into a transdimensional porthole. “Fuck-an-A, It’s hot already at 8:45,” I panted. I thought about turning back. “This would have been 12 miles with the detour so I wouldn’t have totally failed,” I reflected. “It would be safe to turn back.” I texted my friend who told me I needed to continue, so I did. I climbed the top of the rocky saddle playing “root or snake,” a terrifying distraction from the exhaustion. I found two nice elderly ladies at the top who smiled and nodded me on. I thought about asking for a ride to my car or telling them my name, in case my dry husk of a body was found someplace, but decided to keep moving. On the decent, I found the Gates Pass trailhead and sat down. With the journey half completed, I ate a little of my food for energy but not too much in order to stave off running induced nausea. An about face, and I headed back the way I came.

Hotter now, I briefly rested in the shade of a saguaro and assessed the water situation. “I think I have just enough to get back.” I had peed once. Again, compartmentalizing fear, I took into account my tendency to be a little neurotic and continued heading back. I managed to cross paths with a rather unfriendly robotic couple. The man looked like he could keel over any minute, completely beet red in the face. I was happy to see someone, robot or not. I trudged along and stopped at a familiar sign under a bright green palo verde and finished my half liter of electrolytes. Water situation not looking good and still a ways to go. I continued running; the temperature in the low-to-mid-80s with dry dirt radiating heat up my calves. Finally, I came to the top of a hill and had to ask myself, “Have I been here before?” My mind was starting to go and I was now facing four forks in the trail. With conviction, I chose the one straight ahead, a rocky decent down. Once again I checked the app and found myself of on the wrong trail. I headed back up the hill to the fork and took a trail that I thought looked familiar, “this HAS be it.” I trudged further, rounding another knoll on a narrow path. I check the app finding myself, once again, floating in oblivion, but this time oblivion was more reality than metaphor. I headed back angry, an early sign of dehydration I remembered from my wilderness first responder training. I knew this was becoming serious. I took my trekking pole and swung it like a bat nailing a cholla, “fucking tricky earth spirits, sending me to my doom!” Hansel and Gretel the sequel, baked by the sun instead of a witch’s oven. No gingerbread houses in sight though, just rocks and prickly things. I headed back to the fork, yet again, finally finding the right trail through process of elimination. I still had about two miles left when the dizziness and urge to evacuate my bowels hit. “fuck, fuck, FUCK!” NOT GOOD!” Although I had my phone, by the time anyone could get there I might be in full blown heat stroke. “If I make it back I am never talking about this fucking trail, FUCK YOU AND YOUR TRAIL, DAVID YETMAN,” I screamed inside my head. I sucked down water quickly, hydration pack collapsing in towards emptiness. This quickly brought relief, and I slowed to a walk.

Back through the squishy dry washes which had been teaming with imaginary cougars and serial killers earlier, my only focus was on the reality of my situation. On the way back, the sandy gravel had become pure evil, another obstacle slowing me down. I occupied my thoughts with my Nissan Versa waiting at the trailhead and three dogs at home who would miss me if I died. “Who would love their furry faces like I do?” The sad idea and the promise of additional water stashed in the car kept me going as I passed the rock cabin. I thought about taking a look inside. It looked cool and shady. “With my luck, there will be a nest of rattlesnakes that will leap at my neck and bite my jugular,” I thought, dark humor being my go-to coping mechanism. I kept going and so did the trail. I checked the app which confirmed a very short distance to the end. Finally, the Versa was insight. I had never been so grateful for that car. I sucked down the packet of electrolytes in the warm water, basking in the completion of a 13 to 14 mile run that I didn’t want to talk about, ever. I pulled out of the parking lot and headed home dreaming of dog kisses, grateful I survived to run future trails. “Fuck you David Yetman!” I yelled and laughed and then whispered, “I completed you.”

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