I had just spotted the first distinctive rest stop on the trail, my headlamp’s bright beam flashing across a scattering of weathered and worn picnic tables, when I heard a sound behind me.
I’d decided to finally tackle Cactus To Clouds before it got too late in the year. Knowing I’d be traveling at least 22 miles and gaining over 10,000 feet in elevation, I drove out to Palm Springs from Los Angeles in the middle of the night. I started hiking at 4 am, relying on my instincts, my headlamp, and the white dots spray-painted on rocks by previous hikers to guide me on my way. I was alone. I always hike alone. I don’t know anyone crazy enough to get up at 2 am to drive to the desert with me and take on one of the toughest day hikes in the country.
I don’t usually mind – generally I prefer hiking alone, unless I can find someone who keeps the same pace as me and also provides interesting company. I hardly ever feel scared or unsafe. To the contrary, I find solo adventure liberating, empowering and invigorating. I embarked on this particular hike at this particular time partially because I was feeling rather powerless in my everyday life and needed to take back my strength.
But in that moment, as I turned quickly expecting to spot some sort of animal, my heart sank to my boots when I saw the shadow of a rather large man emerging from the rocks I’d just passed. For a split second I felt completely disoriented and helpless, but then my mind began to race, taking stock of the situation. I was completely alone with no way of calling for help. My knife was stowed away in my pack, far out of reach. I had no pepper spray. I had no phone signal. I was three-quarters of a mile up a rarely traversed trail in the middle of a cloudy night with no moonlight to aid me. I was going to have to go with the flow and act on my feet. I had no choice.
I tried to avoid thinking about all the worst possible scenarios as I shone my light in the direction of my unwelcome visitor, quickly assessing him visually and determining that he was not a fellow hiker. He was clearly not dressed for the trail, aside from a bright green bandanna tied around his head. I attempted not to judge on appearance, but since I was alone in the dark, the tattoos extending all the way up his neck did not make feel any more comfortable.
“Hey, man, do you have any water?” He squinted uncomfortably against the glare of my headlamp, but I hesitated to take the beam off his face. It was perhaps my best method of defense. “I’m not going to mess with you. I swear. I didn’t mean to freak you out. I really need water. Can I please have some water?”
I hadn’t brought any water bottles – only a full bladder and another spare. Still, I thought, I’d better just offer it. I didn’t want to stick around, but on the other hand, I had no intention of upsetting this guy. He was way up a path that he clearly wasn’t hiking – something was very off. I walked over to a picnic table, explaining to him that I was going to set the water down there. I wanted to be reasonable and kind, but also keep my distance. Sure, he hadn’t jumped me as I passed him. He didn’t seem aggressive. On the other hand, I was acutely aware of my vulnerability in that moment.
After I explained to him how to drink from the bladder properly, he greedily gulped water down as I stood there awkwardly, repeating again that I didn’t mind leaving it for him. I was more than willing to lose a water bladder I bought on eBay if it removed me from a potentially dangerous situation.
“Nah, man, it’s okay. Thanks. You’re a good human. I’m sorry I freaked you out before. I’m running from the cops, man, I ran all the way up here. I thought you were one of the search party.” I’d turned down my light but I kept a vigilant eye on him. I couldn’t see him well but it was becoming apparent that he was under the influence of something. There had been no police or activity of any sort down at the trailhead. I needed to get out of there, just in case his demeanor shifted.
I awkwardly gathered my things back together and prepared to head on up the trail. “Alright then,” I mumbled, “Uh, good luck, be careful. You sure you don’t want me to leave water?”
He waved a hand at me carelessly, already turning away. “Nah, nah, it’s fine. I gotta call my boss and tell him I won’t be at work today … my car is all the way down there somewhere …” As he continued to ramble on, I took the opportunity to hurriedly make my way out of there, adrenaline pumping wildly. He hadn’t seemed threatening but who know what could happen. I didn’t know what he was on or what effect it would have on him from one moment to the next.
I kept a fast pace for the next half hour at least, stopping and turning regularly to make sure I wasn’t being followed. It was an hour before I was far enough from the picnic area to feel safe. Recognizing that I’d been very lucky, I scolded myself internally for not being prepared. I should’ve had my knife handy. I should’ve had some other form of protection. I’d gotten cocky because I’d never encountered trouble while hiking alone.
I’m going to be honest – I will probably continue to hike alone. I don’t have a dog or a reliable hiking companion for these sorts of trips. This experience, however, was a wake-up call, which is why I want to share it with any other ladies who go out on solo treks. You never know what you might come across. I would not have guessed in my wildest dreams there would be a strange man hiding in the dark nearly a mile up the trail.
I still feel more protected from assault in the back country than I do on a city street, and statistically, I know that I definitely am. On the other hand, I have far more resources at my disposal in a populated area if I need assistance. Despite the scare I had, I am going to continue on hiking solo, with a bit more vigilance and care. I refuse to let fear drive me away from doing something I love so much.