Monday, November 29, 2010

Alone at the Cones

This happened probably in the late 1990’s. I used to go out to this place and park my jeep about 1.5 miles SE of the cones. It was a little stand of mesquite trees with a cattle tank and feeding area and an almost purpose built parking space for my old jeep. I would pull in among the mesquite trees and toss a camo tarp and camo net over my jeep and you could walk past my jeep and never see it. I was (am) totally paranoid about leaving my vehicle out there- I always wondered whether it would be there when I got back.
For this trip, I had planned a fairly strenuous 18 mile round trip from where I had parked my jeep going NW to Aden Crater. I had spent enormous amounts of my time while in college driving around out here and I had mapped out where all the old jeep trails and cattle trails and cattle tanks and wells were located. (I was a biology/ecology field worker as a student and I had extensive experience with GPS mapping and orienteering.) So, I had a number of waypoints along the way where I knew I could filter water.
I don’t remember exactly what time of year this was but I don’t think it was very hot out but it was the usually bright and clear blue skies. I made my way out and it is fairly rough volcanic terrain. I made it about ¾ of the way to Aden Crater and I was stopped to take a short break -I needed to go over a barbed wire fence so I had my pack off. So, I was just standing there, letting the sweat cool on my back where my backpack covered and I was looking around. Again, there was absolutely no reason to freak out but I did.
As a solo backpacker, I have had this experience many times before and it usually passes quickly- that feeling of being in the middle of nowhere and just getting freaked out. The area has deer and tons of coyotes (the 4 legged kind) and rabbits and lizards but no predators that would have given me that sense of being watched. While this was within 20 miles of the border, back then I had never seen any illegals or druggies or even many border patrol agents. The main roads were fairly well traveled and many people would go out there but I have never actually seen another person while I was hiking away from the roads. I was in the middle of the lava fields and there were not even any cattle trails within a square kilometer.
So, I stood and was quiet and tried to figure out what was wrong. I heard the usual train going by on the tracks a couple of miles north. I could hear the vague sounds of a helicopter down south near the border. But there wasn’t anything else. I looked toward Aden Crater and it was probably less than 2 miles away. What to do? Press on and hope the feeling would go away? I looked back the way I came and I could see the Gardner Cones. That was my safe place- I had spent many, many nights there before. After a few minutes I said the heck with it and shrugged into my pack. I took a quick bearing on the Cones, even though they were prominent enough to clearly see my way, but it always made me feel better to concentrate on my compass work. So, I headed back. I thought I was nuts to turn around and go back and do more miles than I planned on that day but I felt very comforted to be heading back to “my” place.
It was a long slog back there. I had passed the cones within a couple of hundred meters on the first time out and now I was tired and leaning hard on my trekking poles as I went up the side of the cones and into the middle area. I was tired but I felt good. It was a very sheltered area and I always felt safe in between the 3 cones. I made camp and had my dinner and settled down for the night. I did my customary sitting on top of the one cone to watch the sunset and then went and settled into my sleeping bag. I had picked up the custom of listening to my shortwave radio at night when I camped (from reading the book Bravo Two Zero) and I probably read a paperback book for a bit as well before falling asleep.
Back then I wasn’t too terrible concerned about my safety when camping. I had my Glock 23 that I carried in my pack and I set that out next to my sleeping bag. I had the general rule to always camp away from major terrain features- roads, hills, water tanks, etc… but the cones were my exception because it was my area where I had first camped alone and I had been coming here for years at this point. I was in my trusty Kelty Vortex 2 and I feel asleep. The only problem that night was the sound of the helicopter getting progressively closer and I thought that it was going to keep me up that night.
After sleeping for an undetermined amount of time I was woken up suddenly. I am always a light sleeper while camping and now I was awake and wondering what woke me up. I grabbed the Glock and I was laying there in my sleeping bag, tucked into a fetal position when the night turned bright white and there was an overwhelming amount of noise. Dirt was flying around in the tent, the fly and the inner tent were violently shaking, and the noise and hurricane like winds were buffeting me. I had my eyes clenched shut against the flying dirt and debris and a death grip on the gun and I thought “you have got to be kidding me!!”
The sound of the US Customs Blackhawk and the blinding light of the Nightsun searchlight became even worse as I wondered how far down on top of me the helo would come. I didn’t think that they could land in the area in between the cones but they got damn close. I froze and thought that if I moved with the gun in my hand I would be dead. I don’t know if they said anything over the speakers because the sound and downdraft were overpowering. Then it stopped as they gained altitude and left.
I looked at my watch and it was something like 2 or 3 AM. I was wide awake and shaking and in disbelief. I thought “to hell with this!” and started breaking camp as quickly as I could. I set my compass bearing by my GPS and started bushwhacking in the darkness, afraid to put on my headlamp. I managed to do my best ever night compass navigation and managed to hit my Jeep right on without an offset and started the long drive home. I still have the tent and the poles have a bend in them from the force of the Blackhawk’s downdraft. At least I can say that the Kelty can stand up to near hurricane winds! And I was never bored camping.

S.W. Raider

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