I handed Jack’s reins to Sharon. She fumbled with her free hand for the split leather, the other clung to her mare’s neck in total darkness. Sharon was virtually blind in the night sky.
I squatted next to one of several massive pillars of concrete supporting the overpass. Semi’s rolled overhead leaving a sonic trail of earth trembling rumble in their wake. A single touch of flame ignited the dried baby-wipe setting the small pile of sagebrush ablaze, illuminating the underside of the bridge. I peered around – do I really want to know who, or what… might be sharing our sanctuary?
I was excited to meet Sharon at the new location earlier that afternoon. The two times I had ridden the area ended in a locked gate and a rude “Get off my property or else” sign posted by a man I envisioned looked something like the troll from Billy Goats Gruff. Sharon reported better luck in her endeavors. Promises of tree rimmed oasis and natural springs danced in my head.
We unloaded and were in the saddle by 2:00 PM. We planned for a 2 or 3 hour ride. For me, that meant saddle bags full of everything but the kitchen sink. From Banamine to Beanee Weenees, I had it all. The far horizon threatened rain to the North. A quick pat down of my cantle bag assured me of the rain jacket folded within. We were set.
Sharon led the way. Her sorrel mare, Ellie, clipped along at an easy walk. Jack plodded along as I gawked at the engulfing scenery. A trucker tooted his or her horn. I waved before disappearing around the bend. Traffic faded from sight and sound as we meandered south east of I84.
Sharon was right, this was a better route. She pointed out a small gathering of cows dotting a meadow fed by a spring to our left. She asked if I wanted to check it out. There were cows around that spring. I did not. “Nope, I’m good.”
Off in the distance a grove of junipers grew in the most unusual spot. “Let’s check that out!” I said bravely. After all…there were no cows that I could see. I snapped a few pictures of Sharon and the trees before moving on. The rain clouds in the distance looked to be producing over Baker City. It was then Sharon realized she had left her rain slicker at the trailer. We debated about going back. Sharon felt she would be fine – after-all, rain storms this time of year seldom lasted more than a few minutes. We continued on.
We had reached an area bordering the limit of our previous explorations – neither one of us had been beyond this point. With an eye on the pending storm, we decided if we stayed close to a road, we could skedaddle back to the trailers if the weather turned south. What appeared to be a camp trailer outlined the Southern horizon. We deduced the trailer couldn’t have gotten there by river boat so there must be a road on top. We got to the top whereas our camp trailer magically transformed into a huge metal tank of some sort; water maybe or propane?
A short hop and a skip over the hill from the magic camp trailer turned propane tank, lay a set of corrals and large equipment shed covered in blue tin likely viewable from space. The entire spread was enclosed in barbed wire for as far as the eye could see. The Billy Goats Gruff troll’s “Keep Out!” signs nailed to every corner post.
I strained to see a reservoir in the far distance, due north of the Trolls ranch. “Look over there! That is Love’s reservoir.” A few weekends earlier I had ridden to the western edge of that reservoir before being turned back by the Trolls signs. I knew that road would take us back to the trailers. The hard part was getting to that side of the reservoir. We debated about turning back. We had plenty of daylight to go back the way we had come. We knew the trailers were 3.7 miles from the reservoir – less distance than going back the way we came. Sharon wasn’t shy about trespassing if need be. “What harm are a couple old ladies’ on horseback and their dogs going to do?” I couldn’t argue with the lady’s logic. We came up with a good story in case we were accosted by the Troll. Something about patrolling the area for cattle rustlers …no need to thank us Troll sir – all in a day’s work – we best be moving along.
I lost count at the number of gates I got on and off to open and shut. I do know my horse grew several inches each time I had to climb back in the saddle. Most of the gates were easy enough to close, a few not so much. Every single one adorned with the Trolls threatening signature. I no longer cared if I was able to shut one or not and secretly hoped we’d come across one I had to cut open. I might not carry the kitchen sink in my saddle bags, but I do carry wire cutters. (I might add a disclaimer here: We did not find it necessary to cut any fences and were able to leave each in the state we found it. Thank you very much.)
We dropped down into the reservoir and rode along the south edge to the west side. I kept waiting for the road to look familiar. Surely we would come to the familiar spot I had turned around when encountering the trolls sign. We had gone well over 3.7 miles before determining the road I had been on must be over the next ridge to the west.
We cut off across country in search of “the other road.” An “Old Oregon Trail” marker gave as some hope. I was pretty sure I saw this road on the map. It leads directly back to our trailers; or so I thought. It was heading more West, but it was the only real “road” out there. It has to end up somewhere, right?
We came to an old spring fed water trough surrounded by a dilapidated split rail corral. Twenty cows milled about until they caught sight of the dogs and horses. Sharon kept her cow dogs close but the skittish cattle made a break for it. We held back trying not to push them farther. Sharon knows more about cows than I do. All I know is they normally scare the hell out of me. She said we needed to try to get around them, so try we did. I followed Sharon as she cut a wide path around the cattle. We were fast running out of space to get ahead of cattle scattered for two miles in every direction. This wasn’t working. We were not getting around them. Tossing Bovine fear to the wind, I dove back off the hill across the trail behind the cattle and up the other side. My jaw clenched tight. This was no time to chance a stone bruised horse. Jack dodged badger holes and jagged rock to the top of the hill – Sharon and Ellie close behind. We popped on top to find another road leading more into the direction we needed to travel. From this vantage point we could see the cows had joined a larger herd in the flat bottoms of the canyon. The road we were on following the cows headed South West. Had Sharon not been mindful of the herd, we may have ridden into Vale about the time the bars close.
The trail now headed North West and flattened out at the top. Rolling hill after rolling hill obstructed any semblance of familiar landmarks. Nothing to indicate the river or freeway existed beyond the vast reaches of rolling sage. The realization felt like an invisible punch to the center of my chest – we were really lost.
I pulled out my GPS. I was pretty sure I had marked the location of our trailers on a previous trip. I pushed the power button. Nothing. I pushed it again, harder this time and longer. Still nothing. I rummaged for the spare batteries I carried and quickly switched them out. The display read, “Extremely low battery – powering down.” I wanted to cry, or yell…or throw that damn GPS in the river. If only I could find the river. Sharon called Ralph and calmly explained our situation. Ralph must have felt helpless as Sharon assured him we were ok but rather lost.
I had an idea. I powered on my phone that I’d previously powered off to conserve battery “just in case we needed it.” We needed it. I hit my SPOTS custom message sending my GPS location to designated people on my list and called one of those people, my neighbor Kort. It went to his voicemail. “Hey Kort (I wondered if he would think it strange I called him by his name and not the usual, “Neighbor.”) “We are OK, but we are lost. I just sent you my coordinates. If you could get on-line and tell me which direction we are heading compared to the Weiser Exit, it would really help. We know we need to go north, but we can’t find a road that heads directly north and it’s getting too late to cut across country safely. I am powering off my phone to save battery. I’ll check back in 15 minutes. If I don’t hear from you and things don’t start to look up, I will hit my SPOTS help button. I can see what looks like Indian head to the east and we are traveling mostly west and slightly north. We will stay on an ATV accessible road” I powered off my phone and prayed.
I asked God if he wouldn’t mind going for a little ride with us. I didn’t need to tell Him I was lost. He knows I’m always lost. I asked that He keep us, our horses and the dogs safe. I don’t mind spending the night out here as long as I know He’s with us. I talked to Sharon later and found that she too had been praying for our safety. Jesus rides with me a lot so it was no surprise when His presence washed over me. Yes, we were lost, but we were not alone.
Sharon and I trotted when the terrain safely allowed. It was now past 6:00PM. We would run out of daylight in just over two hours. We discussed our options as we had done often during our ordeal. Do we go back? No, it would be too dark. Do we cut straight down and head north to the freeway? Again, it was too dark and too dangerous in this country to take off half cocked. The hills were littered with jagged rock and badgers holes big enough to swallow a horse. Beautiful ravines became treacherous pits of hell in the dark. We knew it was safest to stay on a decent road no matter where it led. Regardless of what happened – it would make it easier for others to find us if need be.
We dropped down several canyons before leveling out. A good sized creek flowed through a set of nice corrals. A ranch house nestled into a hollow. I asked Sharon for the time. I was 8:10PM. We had twenty minutes of daylight max. We contemplated continuing on or taking up shelter in the house – inhabited or not; the Troll’s no trespassing sign would not be a deterrent. Another gate, gate number 87 by my calculations (my horse was now fourteen feet tall) marked the boundary between private and public land. Take that Troll. We made the decision to continue on. It was now dusk. The road was light colored sand and should be visible in the dark. If things got ugly, we would turn around and pay Troll a visit. Maybe he’d have dinner waiting.
Once we popped on top of the public land access – things started looking up. It at least appeared as if we were descending toward civilization and the terrain was getting less “lost” feeling…if that makes any sense. Another mile and we could hear and see Semi’s on the freeway. Where the road came out at the freeway, was anybody’s guess. I sent my neighbor another message. “We can see the freeway and we are on a good road. Think we overshot the trailers. It will be dark but we should be ok if we can back-track along the freeway.”
The road dropped down alongside the freeway heading west. We were fairly certain we needed to go east, but there was no access except back the way we had come. As Sharon said, “We are committed – let’s do this.”
The road turned into a well maintained gravel road leading under the freeway to the opposite side. I thought I’d seen the lights of Farewell Bend in the far distance to the east but they soon disappeared from view. There was really no way to tell where we were in relationship to our trailers. If we continued on, we would likely end up in Baker City.
This was as good a place as any and better than most. If we had to spend the night, the overpass would protect us from the rain. A sign at the far end of the overpass read: Benson Cr. Rd and Frontage Rd. Great, we were on the corner of Benson Cr Rd. and Frontage – which meant absolutely nothing to us or Ralph, who Sharon had called to keep apprised of our situation.
It was close to 10:00 o’clock. It went from dusk to dead of night in a matter of minutes. It did not go unnoticed by Sharon or I that it seemed to stay light much longer than normal. When the sun did decide to disappear, it didn’t waste time. Sharon dismounted. The macular degeneration in her eyes shut off her vision and messed with her balance. I’m not going to lie; it freaked me out a little when I saw the look on her face. The always vibrant blue eyes took on the look of a blind person. She clutched at Ellie’s mane. Riding was no longer an option.
I asked if she would be OK holding onto Jack and she said yes. I grabbed handfuls of the driest sagebrush I could find, fumbled in my pack for a lighter and a dried baby wipe and went about building a small fire. We didn’t need it for the warmth. We needed it for the comfort. There is something primitively soothing about a fire.
Sharon walked toward the fire hanging onto Ellie’s mane for support. The mare was a rock. She slowed her gate to match Sharon’s and walked her toward the fire. Ellie stood perfectly still…offering needed support.
We had to find some way to tell someone where we were. I hit my spots one more time and called Kort – hoping I had enough battery. He hit the refresh on his computer’s email client until my SPOTS coordinates came through. I gave him Ralph’s number and told him I’d check back in few minutes if I had enough battery.
I told Sharon that help was on the way and crossed my fingers I hadn’t told a lie. Fifteen minutes passed and I called Kort. “I know right where you are.” He said. “We are on our way to pick up Sharon’s trailer and will come get you. You are going to be ok, girl.”
While Sharon blindly held onto the horses, I plucked sage for the fire. I had just enough juice left to send one more text. If they couldn’t find us with the information we sent, we weren’t going to be found. I risked sending a final, frivolous text “We are camped under the freeway with a fire going like a couple of hobos.” Send, Power off and Pray.
We spent a good hour under the freeway before Kort and Ralph’s lights bounces off the corner of Benson Cr. and Frontage Rd. It was 11:00PM when Ralph and Kort stepped out of their vehicles. Normally not a touchy-feely type person – all I wanted to do was hug Kort…and Ralph…and Sharon, both horses and all four dogs. So…I did. A group hug would have been more efficient, but what the hell.
Jack and Ellie literally lunged into the trailer. Kort and I drove back to pick up my truck and trailer while Ralph and Sharon hauled Jack home. I retrieved my horse from the back of their trailer and sheepishly faced Ralph and Sharon. “Does this mean you’re never going to ride with me again?” Sharon grabbed me in a big bear hug, “You bet your bottom dollar we are riding together. I’d never want to get lost with anyone else!”
Sharon and I sat around my kitchen table sipping on mugs of hot chocolate. We compared notes of our previous night’s ordeal. We agreed that if a person has to get lost, we were sure happy to be lost together. We didn’t panic and what we lacked in directional sense – we more than made up for in preparedness and common sense. We both made mental notes of what we had learned from our ordeal. I would buy a new GPS and Sharon would never leave home without her rain slicker. We would leave earlier in the day no matter how long we planned to be out because as we learned, a sense of adventure can often trump the best of plans.
Most importantly, we learned that if you’re going to ride, don’t forget to ask Jesus to ride along with you. He’s never too busy and from what I can tell, he loves to ride a good horse. Plus, in the unfortunate event you find yourself camped under a freeway with horses and hobos – It’s nice to know He’s on your side.