Intricate, jazzy soul music played as my friend, Kam, drove me through the Utah desert into the low Uintas. His lime green, Honda Element fought through the gusts of wind as I sat there giddy with excitement. Everything had perfectly aligned and on such short notice. The day before, I had realized the shuttle from Hayden Pass, the western trailhead, to the 191 trailhead was ridiculously expensive. It would be cheaper to make the drive out there yet, I was unwilling to leave my van for a week on the side of the road. I sent out a group message asking for assistance and Kam was the one that replied. In the span of 30 minutes my trip went from possibly being delayed to happening. On top of this, that very morning I bumped into an old friend and coworker at a Sierra Trading Post. After talking with him, I found out he’d hiked the Highline Trail and that there was indeed a trail worn into the earth. He described the trail and told me about the cairns that guided the way when the trail disappeared. Relief flooded over me. I would not have to solely rely on my navigation skills. I was meant to do this trail.
The Highline Trail was more than a backpacking adventure for me. I knew going into it, it would test me. I knew the isolation wouldn’t bother me and that my ignorance would keep me blind to the intensity of the elevation change at altitude. I knew these things and that my land navigation was lacking in skill. I knew these things but I also knew that I was intuitive and resilient. I knew how to survive in the backcountry. I’d walked across the country for Pete’s sake! A roughly 101 mile trail in the Uinta mountains had nothing on that.
By 3pm, Kam and I reached the 191 trailhead and we said our goodbyes. I watched him drive away as I stood there with my 48lb pack, already weighing me down. What to do now? I hadn’t planned on starting until the following morning but it seemed like such a waste of time to sit there and twiddle my thumbs. I whipped out my map from its designated ziploc bag and analyzed it. Roughly 4.5 miles in was the East Park Reservoir. I estimated it would take me two to two and a half hours to get there and then I could set up camp and refill my water before it got dark. I called my mom before I lost cell service and updated her on my plans and sent one last text message to Joe. Joe would be the one to pick me up at Hayden Pass, on the other side of the Uintas.
The trail was extremely rocky and I quickly began my uphill battle. My pack weighed me down with every step and I couldn’t wait to begin devouring my food. Not because I was famished but because I had 15lbs of it. I wanted it to disappear. You may be questioning why I had 15lbs of food. Well, I calculated that I needed about 4,000 calories every day due to the strenuous mountain conditions and I decided to try a new trail diet. I packed a plentiful amount of summer sausage and cheese, not the lightest but high calorie and fatty. I’d need long lasting energy throughout the days and enough fat to keep me warm at night. My hips took most of the pack weight and I wondered how long it would be before they started to rub raw. At the first park, basically a giant grassy clearing, I almost lost the trail. I had occasionally seen National Forest signs and figured I could use it to help guide me. I was wrong. After crossing the park, I hurdled over dead and down trees trying to find any sign of the trail. I stood there and looked back at where I’d come from. There had been a trail but it gradually disappeared. I looked at the map on my phone and tried to identify where I was and where the trail went. I had the physical map of the area and then an overlay on my phone that roughly told me where I was in conjunction with a GPS drawn route from a previous hiker. I eventually used common sense and intuition to estimate the direction of the trail. I figured with all the down and dead trees that it was likely the trail continued around the forest, not through. I continued through the park and eventually spotted a 025 marker sticking out of the ground.
I finally made it to the reservoir and despite the vast openness that surrounded me I opted for a more inconspicuous spot for my mustard yellow tent. I took note of my thought process. Despite being in the backcountry, I still made sure I was fairly hidden from the eyes of anyone scurrying about. I meandered towards the reservoir and away from my tent to maintain triangulation of tent, kitchen, and bathroom. There were bears out there and I didn’t want them near my tent while I was sleeping. I twisted my pocket rocket stove on to the isobutane propane fuel and the gas started spraying out at me. I quickly finished tightening the stove to the fuel before my fingers got any colder from the leaked gas. Irritated and unsure of the problem, I unscrewed and rescrewed the fuel back onto the stove. The gas still leaked as I twisted. I had hoped I picked a fuel canister that sealed the gas to prevent such a thing, guess not. Accepting the circumstances, I began cooking my Knorr rice packet and mixed in several slices of summer sausage. I was too impatient to wait for the rice to fully absorb the water so with each bite I endured a random crunch. The warm summer sausage was heavenly though and I quickly displaced them from the rice. As I sat there eating I noticed something shiny across the lake. Or was it on the water? I squinted my eyes trying to decipher the outline of the object. Was it a person? I stared at it, was it moving?
I gathered my water containers and walked down to the reservoir. What was that shiny thing? I didn’t think it had moved. As I approached the water it became evident that the dirt was soft and as I got to the edge of the water it was nearly impossible to weight the ground without sinking into it. Due to less than average amounts of snow the previous winter the water levels of all the lakes were low. One large opportunely placed rock was nearby so I picked it up and threw it towards the water’s edge. I took a gentle, even keeled step and placed all my weight on the rock. It sank slightly. I squatted down and placed my bottles into the water, careful not to disturb the mud. Despite my efforts, I watched water and debris float into the bottle. The shallow water only allowed my bottle to fill 3/4 the way up. Still unknown to me, I let the thought of the shiny object go and carried my water back to my tent, careful not to sink into the mud.
Back at the tent, I screwed on my water filter to the bottle. I squeezed but barely any water trickled through the filter. I unscrewed it and tried to back flush it with the small amount of clean water I still had. I retried to filter the water from the reservoir and although there was slightly more water coming through it it wasn’t efficient. I gave up on the filter. I’d have to trouble shoot it after the trip. I dug into the waist pocket of my pack and pulled out my iodine tablets. Thankfully I knew to have at least two ways of treating the water. I dropped two tablets into each liter of water and proceeded to wait thirty minutes.
With the water taken care of, I gathered my food and stuffed it into a garbage bag. I didn’t have a food bag or a bear canister so I improvised. I scoured my surrounding looking for the perfect branch to lodge my garbage bag of food onto. I shoved the bag onto one branch and it began to fall, tearing part of the bag with it. The garbage bag idea wasn’t the greatest after all. I grabbed a second garbage bag (they’re versatile so it only makes sense to have more than one) and double bagged my food before throwing it in yet another tree. This time it stuck. I was quite aware of the fact that if a bear wanted my food it was going to get it despite hanging it or throwing it in a tree. I just didn’t want it to happen near my tent.
The sunlight began to fade and with that the temperature began to drop. I crawled into my single person tent and submerged myself within my zero degree sleeping bag. There had been sounds of birds and squirrels moving about yet with the darkness came silence. A few coyotes howled and a panicked animal cried out in the distance. Other than that, the silence was only temporarily broken by the sound of airplanes flying high above me. Even in the backcountry, I couldn’t fully escape the sights and sounds of humanity. I glanced over the maps for the following day and noted anxiety within me. I was 4.5 miles in and had a lot more to go. This was the journey I’d chosen though, one of growth, and I was grateful.