‘Bob ‘n weave,’ I thought to myself in the dark—‘As long as I’m a moving target, maybe the mountain lions won’t eat me.’
We’re taught from a young age to conquer our fears of the dark, especially in the presence of other men, where these and other childhood hauntings are downright dismissed. Unfortunately, this stoic indifference is greatly diluted in the absence of company. The pre-dawn morning was inky black, a teeth-filled netherworld writhing with menace just beyond the reach of my tiny headlamp. Ahead, a dark tunnel of mystery yawned open through the choked, acorn-studded brush, and behind me, the same. This is your world in the dark of the woods: one beam of blessed light, one direction at a time. And in the back of your mind, always, always, the quiet, nagging question—‘What’s going on in the direction I can’t see?’ Some days it takes longer for the sun to rise.
After leaving my friends the day before, I’d turned East and set out towards the back end of Granite basin. The trail climbed steadily, leading me through unexpected meadows of flowers so tall I was dwarfed by their polin-heavy stalks. I told someone later I half expected to see the entire cast of the Sound of Music, frolicking their way across the trail out before me. Much to my relief, this did not happen. Instead, the meadow gave way to a steep switchback trail carved into the valley’s backstop of decomposing granite and snaking its way towards the summit. I spent the last hours of daylight gasping for breath as I chased the sun over the saddle, its rim slung just under the shadow of Seven-up Peak. That night I camped with a fire.
Now it was morning and I was trying to make my way to a good hunting spot in the unfamiliar new basin, alone and in the dark. It was proving difficult. Finally I settled on a large rock favoring a north-facing crag with sparse pines and shale scales to my left, and, to my right, a more gentle slope that led down to a high mountain meadow. The morning was uneventful until, suddenly— I caught the unmistakable sound of pounding hoof beats carried to me on the rising valley thermals. Like a scene out of The Man From Snowy River, four horses, led by a black mustang, charged up the switchbacks from the valley below and closed the distance to my spot. I had my camera out and snapping as they swept past, majestic, free and—no, not wild. As I discovered later, one of the horses had chewed through its lead rope and incited the defection with a certain amount of mischievous gusto. I watched as he led his groupies all the way to the saddle above, where they stopped, finally, to look back in a dramatic pose as the sun rose behind them and illuminated their manes with fire. Trudging up after them, I enjoyed the first conversation I’d had out loud in a day (with something other than myself), and they joined me at my campsite until their owner appeared, several hours later, exhausted and extremely grouchy. I was sad to see them go.
One final note about the rest of day 3, which eventually led me down 3,000ft. into neighboring Bear Basin, a valley to the northwest and over the ridgeline from Granite: To the makers of Hi-Tec shoes… please stop engineering your hiking boot treads to look exactly like large deer tracks at first glance. It's depressing... and a little bit cruel.