I almost missed seeing him. The old man. He was on the other side of Forest Service 24, at the junction of the spur road to the Salmon Lakes trailhead.  Lot of miles on him. Then again, I always say to myself these days, who am I to talk? I not only look old, I am old.  When I was 61, one woman told me I didn’t look a day over 55.  Didn’t look a day under it, either. 

Anyway, I had come down from working the day in the Swan Lake Trailhead area. We hiked in that morning, bushwhacking a “shortcut” in snow, 27 degree temperatures, wind, and climbing 300 feet through a jumble of biomass, some alive, much not, to reach the trail on Winchester Ridge.  We then hiked south a mile and a half, picking up where the last crew had quit.  We cleared the trail all the way to the Waldo Mountain Trail, another 2 miles.  It had been a long day, cutting out logs by hand, moving them off the trail, going on to the next log. We then had to hike out nearly 4 miles with tools. 

When I reached the car, I took off my gaiters, boots, and outer socks and put on some old running shoes. My feet thank me for doing it. On my way out the bumpy narrow road, a large pickup came the other way. I pulled over as far as I dared, and so did he. I had to look up to see the driver. 

“There’s an old guy up ahead who had car trouble and is walking out.” He didn’t say anything else.  I muttered something about the pandemic, not really wanting anybody in the car, didn’t ask for more information, and hoped by the time I got there he would have been picked up by somebody else. I knew nobody else would be driving up there, however, not this time of year, and not with a significant snowstorm heading our way in a couple of days. We were lucky we got our work done. There would be no more logouts in the high country this season. 

Highway 24 up from Oakridge to Winchester Ridge is about 25 miles, gaining 4000 feet, the last 12 on dirt with a lot of washboarding, awful dust in the summer, trees that sometimes should be cut out and aren’t, and other logs cut out with dreadfully little clearance to get through. The paved stretch is no joy, either, although this year the Forest Service paved over a nasty sunken grade that would wreck alignment if one hit it wrong at just about any speed.

I was tired and kept counting off the miles passed without seeing the man, about one every three minutes, maybe four, given the conditions. I turned at the Salmon Lakes junction and there he was, almost hidden, with gray jacket, a long beard and a good sized pack. If I hadn’t been looking, I probably would have missed him. I let the car roll a few yards further, wondering what I should do, then hit the brakes and backed up. The last thing I wanted to do was have a stranger in my car, but for the last few days it sounded like he was as far away from Covid as anybody in the country, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I left him there. It would bitter cold up here again. 

Even if there were no snowstorm coming. He got up and shuffled over to the car.

“I can take you down to Oakridge,” I said. 

“That would be great,” he replied.  “My phone doesn’t work up here.”  Nobody’s does, I thought.  He put his rather large pack in the trunk, with all my gear, and I put him in the back seat, opening all the windows. It was 50 degrees, I had on my face shield and a mask, and he was masked. 

The man had gone up further on the road than we had, all the way to the Winchester Ridge trailhead. His vehicle wasn’t starting, and he had walked all the way back down from the trailhead. He had slept out a couple of nights but at least had decent gear.  On the other hand, he had only covered six miles downhill in a day. Other than the pickup, mine was the first car he had seen.  How he had missed me and the rest of the crew going up that morning at 8 was not clear.  But if he weren’t out standing on the road, most drivers, who are checking right in front of them, would have missed him. We see what we expect to see, and we don’t expect to see a person standing by FS 24 up there at that hour.

II was a cold ride down, even with the heater running full blast, but I knew the road, where the potholes were, the sharp turns, the sunken grades, and where I could gun it.  Because of the noise, we didn’t say much, although periodically, I closed my window to get warmer.  He asked about what we were doing and seemed surprised old guys were doing that sort of work.  I have been surprised, too.  I didn’t learn too much about him. Most people who go off on their own usually are fairly taciturn. We were in Oakridge 25 minutes later, where it was a lot warmer, and I dropped him off at a store’s parking lot. He retrieved his gear, thanked me, and that was that. Hopefully, his wife hadn’t called Eugene Mountain Rescue.

There are people who disappear into the woods, some to escape the hassles of society, others to hide from whatever or whomever they feel they need to.  I wonder how many I have driven by or hiked by and never have seen. 

Were I out there with car trouble, and trust me, I have been alone, way out in the back of beyond in a mess of tertiary Forest Service roads, I would want to be treated the same way I had treated this man. I have been glad my car has both started and been serviceable, so I could easily return to town..  One of the Crew last year was scouting a trail in the Diamond Peak Wilderness, on one of the many dirt roads leading to trailheads when he wrecked a tire.  He walked several miles to a hill where he knew he would have reception and had a long wait before he got help. I always note places like that; the backcountry horsemen do, too, map them each year, and call them convenience stores, because they can call out from there. 

I also carry an In-reach, which isn’t fast at sending messages, but at least allows me to send emails home.  I also leave behind a very detailed agenda of where I plan to be, and when I reach the car at the end, send that message as well. The car has food and water, and I usually have a blanket in my pack, plus a day’s supply of my medicines.  I hope I never need it.

I think the man slept a lot better that night, wherever he ended up. I bet his wife did, too.

I know I did.

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