Reader Essays: Going in Circles

Reece Price finds himself lost and alone in the desert.
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Reece Price finds himself lost and alone in the desert.

Success, on this solo trek in the west Texas desert, was defined simply as survival, with honor. I was about to cover some pretty forbidding territory in Big Bend State Park, so I checked and rechecked my gear before starting. Admittedly, I do my backpacking on the cheap, utilizing much of what I have on hand and improvising the rest. For example, I do my mapping on Google Earth and for a GPS I use my auto unit. 


My destination on this overnight: Rancherias Springs. (Paste these coordinates into the “fly to” pane and see for yourself: 29 23’45.10”N 104 01’09.10”W.) With my home-printed map and coordinates from Google, I was able to follow the route. But it wasn’t obvious; wildlife trails and dry washes confused things.


Still, I arrived at the cottonwood-lined oasis after about three hours. I spent a beautiful night alone under a starlit sky. The next morning, I packed two liters of water for the hike out. But after two miles, I encountered a landmark I hadn’t passed coming in. My mistake was not checking my location soon enough, as the navigational ease so far had given me a false sense of security. A quick GPS reading showed me to be way off course (my GPS doesn’t have a backtrack feature). I had read stories about people getting lost and I noticed that I was instinctively doing all the wrong things. I panicked, increased my pace, and trusted my lousy sense of direction. 


Finally, I remembered a video from Backpacker.com about getting lost. I stopped, took off my pack, sat down, ate some trail cookies, drank a little water, calmly and carefully rechecked my location with map and GPS, reoriented my map and, trusting my instruments, came up with a plan. Another half hour of walking led me to an unnerving realization: I was back at the springs. Somehow I had wandered for two hours and was back at my starting point. I’ve read stories of lost hikers circling back on themselves but never thought it could happen to me. Now things were really getting scary.


I was so focused on getting out, I neglected to refill my water bottles. After an agonizing five-hour hike—I had lost faith in my own judgment—I finally made it back to my truck. 


Admittedly, I considered keeping this whole sorry incident a secret. But where’s the honor in that?


Price lives in Houston, TX. Favorite hike: This one—but with a different GPS.