I dedicate this one to Dawn, who worried that my lack of planning might get me into trouble.
By the position of the stars I estimated that I began my hike back from Delicate Arch somewhere between 11pm and midnight. I kept a comfortable but measured pace as I strode down the trail, finding my way under the modest light of my headlamp. Moonrise was still a while off, and the night was dark under a billion stars. First Venus and then Jupiter set in the west.
I hadn't been hiking for very long when I heard the photography group behind me, chatting merrily away. They were a large group with bright headlamps, and so their pace was quicker than mine. I moved 30 or 40 yard perpendicular to the trail, hunkered down behind a boulder and shut off my lamp to let them pass. I waited until their voices faded away and I could no longer see the lights. The magic of the desert night is a fragile thing, easily broken, and I sought it in the solitude and the quiet. Alone again, I resumed my walk.
I passed a trail-marking cairn and dropped down into a wash I thought I remembered from the way up, but as I continued downhill the brush got thicker and thicker and my sense of time and distance told me it had been too long since I'd see a trail marker. I looked left and right, trying to find my way back to the trail, but the light from the headlamp seemed dimmer, as though perhaps the batteries were failing, and I couldn't find what I was looking for.
I thought of the group I'd recently let pass. The word hubris rose up in my mind.
The desert does not invite our presence, and there among the sand and the slickrock and the quiet desert plants fear and panic began to creep out into the night's shadows.
Okay, hold on, I said to myself. Calm down. First of all, I remembered I'd seen another group heading up to the arch. They'd be coming down again at some point, and I could just stay put and wait for them. There was no way I could be very far from the trail. If necessary, I would almost surely be able to meet them.
And if somehow that didn't work, and I really was lost until daylight, well, I had a half-full Camelbak and the night was pleasantly cool. It wouldn't be my favorite way to spend a night--I wouldn't be able to go to sleep, lest something poisonous decide to curl up against my body heat--but if I had to do it, I would, and I'd be fine until morning.
I'd talked myself through the worst-case scenario. The creeping fear and panic abated. Okay, I said, I'm pretty sure I can find my way back to that last cairn. I turned and started back up the wash.
I'd taken only a small handful of steps back uphill when I heard at my feet the unmistakable buzz of a rattlesnake's rattle.
I kept my feet carefully planted as I panned around with my headlamp. "Where are you?" I asked aloud. I couldn't find the snake.
I stayed there for several long minutes as I continued to sweep the ground with my light. No sign of the snake, no hint of motion, just the slickrock and the low desert vegetation.
Finally, I took a tentative step forward. Nothing. Another step. Still nothing. I had to chance that it had moved away, as rattlesnakes will when they think they safely can, and I made my way slowly up the wash. I had known there were rattlesnakes out there, of course, but now in this moment their presence had ceased to be an abstract notion.
I found the last cairn, reoriented, and proceeded slowly down the path away from it, scanning with my headlamp, hunting for the marker I'd missed. It had to be around here somewhere, I told myself. I found it soon enough, and then the next, and then the one after. I continued down the trail like that.
The run-in with the snake had left me understandably a bit spooked, and with the prospect of blundering into poisonous fangs now a concrete reality, I slowed my progress considerably on the return walk down. When I finally made it back to the car, I checked the time. 1:30am. What should have taken 45 minutes had taken over two hours. But I was safe and no worse for the adventure.
Now all that remained before I could rest for the night was to find a place to sleep.
It was the first night of my trip. As beginnings go: auspicious or not?