First, a loud snort, then a dark flash just behind me. I wheeled around just fast enough to witness one of those close calls you’d rather not have when hiking solo. But more on that in a bit.
Usually when I take a trip into the backcountry, I do so with friends. For whatever reason, I was in the mood for some solitude. No better way to do that on a day when no one in their right mind would want to be outside.
Monday was that sort of day. Not that I planned it that way. I’ll admit to ignoring weather forecasts that called for heavy rain statewide. When I woke up and headed out that morning, all I saw was blessed cloud cover that might blunt the early summer heat that normally hits the Wichita Mountains hard.
My goal was to do a solo hike to Sunset Peak, a granite high point on the western edge of the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area. It was a perfect pick for a solo venture – not too technically challenging (from what I’d read), but great views atop a granite dome that I had yet to see.
But little went according to plan.
When I got to the trailhead at the Sunset picnic grounds, it was slightly overcast and warm. It didn’t appear the storms that ravaged Oklahoma City were going to appear here. Small groups of people were making their way up the trail to some close-by sights. I imagined that any trace of human beings would fade within 30 minutes of setting out.
This turned out to be true, but not for the reasons I suspected.
First, I got off track. A little backtracking and I got where I needed to be, but then the rains started anew, accompanied by some scarily close lightning strikes. I needed to get low, hunker down and stay off the bare granite high places.
So there were two ways of looking at this. One, I could sit there, get wet and sulk at the delay. Or two, I could sit amongst the trees and listen to the sounds of the storm and nothing else. It was actually pretty pleasant, despite the sogginess.
Eventually, the lightning moved off. That gave me the green light to get going again.
The forested area where I was hiking was filled with dense underbrush. Given the noise of the rainfall on the leaves, it’s pretty easy to move around silently. Unfortunately, it makes wildlife encounters risky – as in really easy to walk up and surprise the animals who call the Wichitas home.
In my case, it happened to be a buffalo. I walked right up to the beast without even seeing it. How, you ask? You’d be surprised how something that big can blend in so easily in the thick greenery of the refuge.
I heard it first, a loud, angry snort. As I wheeled, I caught a flash of the buffalo as it started toward me, then turned at the last moment just a few feet away before galloping down the trail. Fifty feet later, it stopped, turned toward me and stared. The pause allowed my heart slow down while at the same time I could gaze on this magnificent creature through the trees. Fortunately, the buffalo made its stand behind me and didn’t block my path forward.
Being gored or trampled by the buffalo would have been bad under any circumstance, but on this day – with no one around and hiking solo – it could have been that much worse. Solo hiking, backpacking and climbing are inherently riskier activities than when done in groups. If you do a solo trip, this is something you have to keep in mind. So for the rest of the trip I made sure that whenever I entered a wooded area, I talked out loud and made a lot of noise so any animal nearby would know I was coming. No more surprise encounters for me, thanks!
(Note: I made several people aware of exactly where I was going and when I expected to be back out. I also included extra food and water, plus a first-aid kit, knife, rope and other tools in case I was forced to overnight in the wilderness.)
Unfortunately, I got off track again and found myself going up a nearby minor peak. I used the vantage point to spot the trail, but the effort delayed me even more. By the time I regained the trail it was getting later in the day. I had a set turnaround time and it was rapidly approaching. It was decision time. Do I push back my turnaround time and head for Sunset Peak, or do I find another place to hunker down and eat lunch before heading back?
Ultimately, the weather made the decision for me. Distant thunder appeared to be intensifying, and the clouds were starting to darken again. Had I gone to Sunset Peak and reached its summit, I might as well have worn a sign that said, “Hey, lightning! Strike here!”
So I went to Crab Eyes, a cool rock formation atop a minor peak I’d been to many times. It has a great place to stop and rest just underneath its iconic twin boulder summit. By going here, I was conceding defeat. Sunset Peak would have to wait.
It wasn’t too disappointing, though. Crab Eyes is like an old friend, a familiar and welcoming face on what had been a challenging day. I stopped, ate and rested, and listened to the birds, the thunder and the rain. There wasn’t another human being within a couple of miles of me by then. You pay a price to attain this type of solitude, but it’s worth it.
Soon I was off, determined to make it back to the car before too long. But then the rains began in earnest, and they wouldn’t stop. Trails turned into creeks. Long dormant waterfalls sprang to life.
Even the appearance of the range appeared to change. Through the rain, the brown and pink granite changed to gray, with particularly slick rocks shining like silver. The skyline of the mountains became one continuous, jagged outline, like some sort of mythic landscape from Nordic lore. Surrounded by such rugged heights, it was hard to believe I was in the Southern Plains. Tired, soaked and a bit hungry, I didn’t care. This was the kind of scene that never leaves your head.
It was at that time I realized how lucky I was. At that moment, legions of people were at work. Others were at home watching TV. Some were in jail. Or overseas at war. I was out here, reveling in what was, for me, a unique experience.
So I didn’t reach Sunset Peak. I almost got run over by a buffalo. And I was soaked to the bone. No matter. It was a great day.