Last Tuesday morning I had to get up at oh-dark-early and catch a flight to Chicago. By the time I boarded the plane, it was looking like a beautiful day in Missoula. Figures I’d be leaving just as the sun was finally arriving.
Thankfully it was sunny in the Chicago area — they’d just had their first hot day. Of course it was humid too, but I didn’t mind. During my first day on the job I discovered there was a little hiking area very near to where I was working and staying called Waterfall Glen. The hiking/biking/horseback trail comprised a big loop, 9.5 miles. I thought it would be a great way to spend a couple hours on a nice day going all the way around it. So after work on Wednesday I went back to my hotel, changed, and headed back to the main trailhead. I stuffed my keys and my camera in one pocket, my wallet and cell phone in the other, and headed out.
The trail was more groomed than I would prefer, but it was a beautiful evening. It felt great to be out in the fresh air and moving around, sweating, getting the heart and legs pumping. There were lots of trees, layers of birdsong, and many patches of wetlands. Even though there was a constant rumble of traffic from busy roads and a nearby highway, it was still a nice little outing in the midst of suburban hell.
I was a bit camera-challenged. All I had was my cell phone and my little Olympus point and shoot (works great on close-up shots, but not so great at any distance beyond about 20 feet). I didn’t have my better camera, or my fancy little video camera I bought over Christmas. I was immediately disappointed when a flash of red caught my eye and landed in a branch. It was a Cardinal, a beautiful bird we don’t have in Montana. He started singing his little heart out, so I grabbed some video just to get his song on audio. The first video you can’t see him, but in the second I managed to zoom it in. Yeah, the video sucks, but it’s all about the song anyway.
I continued on past the 2 mile marker, then the 3 mile marker. There was another trailhead here, which was literally about 4 blocks from where I was working for the week, right at the end of the street. I wondered how many of the people working there were even aware of it? Given that the two people I was working with most had long commutes — one had an hour drive one-way every day, the other had 45 minutes — I doubted they ever really even saw the signs.
Just beyond that trailhead I turned a corner and the path intersected a set of train tracks.
I got a little crazy taking pictures with different settings. First with my Olympus, then a couple different looks using the RetroCamera ap on my cell phone. I really like how they turned out.
A couple hundred yards beyond this spot was a large marshland, teeming with birds and frogs (invisible, but loud).
I grabbed some bad video of this spot as well, just for the music.
I continued on. I had encountered people along the way, but as the evening progressed I was seeing fewer and fewer. Not far from here I met a young Asian woman jogging, then farther along, just past the 4 mile marker, another woman jogging. The wind was rising, and the ominous rumble of thunder was off in the distance, and getting closer. Getting much closer, and fast. Somewhere between the 4 and 5 mile markers, I was about as far from the trailhead I’d left my car as I could possibly be. The thunder boomed suddenly so close and loud that I actually jumped. Ahead I could see the trail appeared to reenter the trees, so I figured I could take cover when the storm caught me, as I was sure it would. I didn’t really care — I was hot and sweated up, and didn’t expect the heavy weather would last long. I turned around and took a picture of the approaching skies.
I put my camera back in my pocket, checked their contents, and realized with horror that my wallet was gone.
“The word adventure has just gotten overused. For me, adventure is when everything goes wrong. That’s when the adventure starts.” — Yvon Chouinard (surfer, kayaker, falconer and fly fisherman; founder of Patagonia), quoted from the movie 180° South – Conquerors of the Useless
I just stood there, dumbfounded. I’d been checking it regularly, because I was making sure to keep my wallet between my sweaty leg and my cell phone. I thought back to the last time I was certain I’d had it, and it was when I came off the train tracks where I’d taken all those pictures. So I knew it was somewhere in the mile-and-a-half or so of ground I’d covered since then, probably near that marsh. Or not. I started heading back, eyes to the ground, looking for it.
Then the storm hit.
It was a total freakin’ gully washer. I was soaked instantly. I quickly took my camera out of its little pouch and put my cell phone in it instead, since I knew I was going to need it and didn’t want to risk it getting ruined by weather. Before long water was literally running over the ground, in spots almost ankle deep. Lightning was cracking overhead, and I was nervous about that because there wasn’t much cover. It got fairly dark too, and I was worried I’d miss my wallet even if I did pass it. Meanwhile, I was going over all the problems I would have to overcome if I didn’t find it. I was supposed to move to a hotel closer to the airport the next night; without a credit card I wouldn’t be able to pull that off. I also needed to board a flight in two days, and without any ID that would be pretty damn difficult. I was kicking myself for being so careless and stupid. I don’t usually even carry that stuff with me when I’m out and about on my trips, for this very reason. Why I hadn’t followed my usual protocol, I don’t know, but I was afraid I’d pay the price.
I finally reached a little trailside shelter I’d passed, and the lightning was making me nervous enough that I needed to wait it out. The second woman I’d passed was sheltering there as well. She laughed when she saw me. “When I passed you I knew you were going to get wet!” she said in a heavy German accent. She told me she lived in the development just yonder. I asked if she’d seen my wallet; she hadn’t. I asked her if she would keep an eye out for it. I have my personal business cards in it, and they have my cell phone number on it (my work business cards, strategically, do not). I asked her that if she found it to please call me and I would meet up with her to retrieve it. That was my big hope, that someone would indeed do that and not, instead, swipe the meager cash inside and throw the rest in the swamp.
As soon as the lightning was distant enough I set out again. The rain had mellowed out quite a bit too. Then my phone rang. It was a 630 area code. I answered — it was the jogging Asian girl I’d passed. She had my wallet.
I realized I was one lucky bastard.
I had her text me her address, and I told her when I got back to my rental car I would use my GPS to find her apartment. She said cool, and I proceeded to haul ass the 4 miles back to the trailhead.
It would have been great to take my time, because as darkness settled the forest noises only increased. Lots of frogs of all sizes hopped through the puddles on the trail. Deer were out in threes and fours, and usually weren’t too startled by my passage. In an hour I was still soaked and a little tired — I hadn’t done the full loop, but still covered probably 8.5 – 9 miles round trip — but I was also vastly relieved because I had my wallet back. I offered my savior a reward, but she wouldn’t take it. I told her it was good to know that there are still some damn good people in the world.
The next day, after work, I was determined to attack the trail again and do the full loop. I drove straight to the closest trailhead, at the 3 mile marker, and changed in the parking lot. Then I hit the trail. Here’s the swamp, where I’d filmed the sounds the night before, near where I’m sure I lost my wallet.
Next I passed the spot I’d passed the girl who found my wallet.
She must have found it shortly after that. In fact, if she’d pulled my driver’s license and looked at my picture, I’m sure she’d have recognized me and probably could have flagged me down then and there. But she had told me all she’d looked at was my business card.
Here’s where I’d taken shelter with the German woman.
What follows are a few more pictures from the rest of the trail. It was hot. I sweated. I got a big blister on my foot, mainly from the night before when I’d had to hike with wet feet. But I didn’t care.
I made the full loop, 9.5 miles. I was more tired than I expected to be, but it was pretty steamy out. Plus I’d done almost that many miles the night before. But I did it, despite my best efforts to screw myself. Believe me, I learned my lesson.
“Taking a trip for six months, you get into the rhythm of it, it feels like you could just go on forever doing that. Climbing Everest is the ultimate in the opposite of that, because you get all these high-powered plastic surgeons and CEOs . . . y’know they pay $80,000 and they have sherpas who put all the ladders in place and 8000 feet of fixed ropes. And you get to camp and you don’t have to lay out your sleeping bag. It’s already laid out with a little chocolate mint on top. The whole purpose of something like climbing Everest is to effect some sort of physical and spiritual gain . . . but if you compromise the process you’re an asshole when you start out and you’re an asshole when you get back.” — Yvon Chouinard (surfer, kayaker, falconer and fly fisherman; founder of Patagonia), quoted from the movie 180° South – Conquerors of the Useless