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Aug. 8, 2005

Like the businessman who submits to the cat-of-nine, I am fond of controlled danger, of ordeals with just enough risk to make me hate myself for having entered them willingly but with enough reward to want to do it all again. Comfort, like air conditioning and coffee cream, is for other people.

It's been more than a decade since my last rigorous camping trip and I don't think I've ever done time in the backcountry alone, but for about a year I've been considering a solo trip through Yosemite wilderness. Finally last week I visited my brother and his family -- they spend their summers as rangers in Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows -- and with borrowed gear embarked on a three-night trek.

The first 48 hours were perfect. I hiked down, through and up the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River. Although I saw none of the bear or rattlesnakes I was promised warned about, I didn't see many people, either. I didn't hear a single car horn or check a single RSS feed.

I'd budgeted the entire last day to make the 8-mile, 3,000-foot climb from Pate Valley to Harden Lake, close to the spot where my family would pick me up the next afternoon. The ascent, however, wasn't nearly as difficult as it looked from the canyon's depths and I was at Harden by 1 p.m. Even though my food was down to a half-pound of trail mix and three Landjager sausages, I decided to add an extra 5-mile spur to my trip with a hike to Smith Meadow.

And that's when everything went to hell.

Unknown to me, a large fire had within the past five years swept through the area west of Harden Lake. Large, sooty logs blocked the trail at dozens of points and it was often hard to find my way again on the other side. Switchbacks never switched back. Elsewhere, lush new growth or swampland swallowed the path, such as in the eye-high flowerbed above. (Do you see a trail there?)

The sun played its share of tricks. Shafts of light resembled well-worn paths until the shadows shifted and I found I'd been lured into a dark dead end with no way out and, against belief, no longer a visible way in.

Losing a trail is like climbing a rope and having the rope abruptly turn to air. The last mile, a long descent into the meadow, was the worst. Even when I knew I was on the trail -- which was rare -- I had to clomp violently through the thicket. Thorns and branches scratched and bloodied my beautiful and sultry cyclist legs.

All I could do that last mile was trace the countour lines down to where Smith Meadow was supposed to be and hope for the best. To avoid the brush I balanced across felled logs arrayed like so many pick-up sticks. Every few minutes I whistled for help. None answered. This bombed-out forest held me alone.

It's funny the things you do when you are lost. (I use the word liberally here. I wasn't really lost. I knew exactly where I was. It was the trail that couldn't keep its bearings worth a damn.) Sometimes I headed opposite my intended direction because the ground that way was more navigable, like searching in the kitchen for an item dropped in the pantry because the light there is better.

I took inventory of who was to blame for this mess. Damn the rangers for not posting a sign at the trailhead: "Caveat urbus: Cityfolk beware." Damn the park system for not adhering to the Chicago grid with a cross street every eighth of a mile. And damn that deer bounding from the brush for making this look so easy.

Then I remembered that this is wilderness, and this crisis was why I was there. Wilderness is a state of mind as much as a location. It is a place without roads but, more important, a place without emergency exits. If it weren't for the possibility of getting lost or falling off a cliff or getting mauled by a bear, this would be just a park, and there would be a security guard on a Segway telling me not to loiter and to be gone by sundown.

Finally I was there in my meadow, a small, uninteresting patch of dry grass that rightly earned the small, uninteresting name of "Smith." An hour later a second hiker came through. He was more seasoned than me -- he wore hiking boots, for example, not running shoes -- and he confirmed that that was the worst trail he'd ever been on.

Through it all I never felt I was in real risk. There was plenty of light left. Weather wasn't threatening. The only danger was if a fall immobilized me or if I stumbled upon a napping bear who enjoys being woken up as much as I do.

The remarkable thing is that after two days with no new insights or revelations, it was during this hour of despair that my thoughts congealed the most. I was reaching for my notebook every few hundred yards. I mentally composed postcards to friends. When I reached camp I transcribed them so that if the next day took a turn for the worse, my friends would know that in my final hours I was thinking of clever things to tell them.

The next day did not take a turn for the worse. I still could only approximate the trail, but I was more patient. After four hours the trail became a road and I knew the trip was almost over. I heard the clip-clip-clip of sprinklers. I saw hikers unburdened by overnight packs.

I passed a father with two skipping children. I'd been out of water for an hour. "How much farther to a cold beer?" I asked.

"You're about four minutes away," he said.

Five minutes later I had the week's first and only moment of panic. I couldn't find my wallet. It wasn't in the compartment I'd put it in. It was in none of my pockets. Then I remembered I'd put it in the bear can. Of course. To keep it safe from ursine pickpockets.

The store at the trailhead had no beer, so I settled for a Powerade, a Häagen-Dazs bar and a half-bag of Doritos a motorcyclist in leather traded me for my story.

I had all the limbs and most of the blood I had started with. The Dead played on the store's radio as I sat at a shaded picnic table. Suddenly the adventures of the previous 24 hours seemed small and barely worth mentioning. I was lost, I became unlost, ho-hum.

I blame the ice cream. What honest man can claim hardship or trouble between licks of a Häagen-Dazs?

Photo taken: Aug. 3, 2005