I had been preparing for months to visit Balancing Rock in the Santa Mountains. Everything I’d read declared the hike to be challenging but gorgeous. So when the planets aligned, I grabbed my stuff and moved!
Up betimes at 5:00am and out of the house while the city dozed. When I left home the morning was cool and dark, but when I pulled up to the Mishe Mokwa trailhead at 6:40am the sun had already burned through the early clouds. I opened my car door and stepped into what felt like Afghanistan! 77F already! It was going to be a scorcher!
Undaunted, I grabbed my water bottle and avocado toast and hit the trail, crunching along at a snappy pace and breezing through Mishe Mokwa Trail like a boss. In no time, I stood at the junction with the Balancing Rock Trail. A sign read, “Not a NPS Maintained Trail.”
I stopped for a moment to pull on my water bottle and look around. Man, was it hot! The sky was blue and cloudless, there was no shade to speak of, and parts of the rocky chaparral looked burnt and parched. Still, the view was gorgeous, and it had been a relatively easy hike so far. So onward!
For about the first 15 minutes the trail was clear and well-maintained, but the path gradually deteriorated, and the terrain grew more difficult. I began stepping over rocks and around branches, pushing aside dry grass curtain and slipping between prickly bushes. I spider-crawled along the sides of boulders to avoid getting scratched up by all the prickly flora. More and more, my eyes strained for a sign of trail.
“This can’t be right,” I worried, but, remembering that people called Balancing Rock a difficult trail, I continued finessing the landscape. But finally I stopped, looked around and realized that there was no trail—anywhere! I had been traveling cross country without even knowing it, and was now swallowed up by boulders, bushes and trees!
I started to panic. The temperature was 90F, my water was low, and I was sweating profusely. I could not afford to wander aimlessly through this wilderness if I hoped to survive.
I saw no evidence of a trail in any direction, so I just started shoving my way through the brush, scrambling over and under branches, slipping on rocks, but stopped when I reached a dead end. So I started the process over again in another direction, thrashing about until I reached yet another impasse, after which I resumed my blind struggle. It was exhausting and probably pointless. I felt like I was beating myself up in a circle.
30-minutes later I was utterly lost, the sun had grown even more intense, and my bottle was almost dry. I was too exhausted to move, so I started yelling for help.
Lizards scrambled through the brush. Birds skipped along the tree branches. But no human voice replied.
I felt utterly alone.
Stifling my panic, I decided to stop wasting my energy searching for a trail, and climb instead to some prominence where I might see or be seen by others. Scrambling up the hillside, I finally reached higher ground. I scanned the surrounding hills, but saw only empty wilderness.
“This is probably going to cost me $50,000 for a rescue helicopter,” I thought. “Wait, who actually pays for that? The city or my medical insurance? Doesn’t matter, it’s better than being dead!” I shook my head in disbelief. “This is how white people die.”
I yelled again.
I finally pulled out my cell phone. No service. I dialed 911 anyway and miraculously an operator picked up!
Operator: “911, what’s your emergency?”
“I need to report a non-emergency. Well, it’s not an emergency, yet.”
“What’s your name?”
“Ciji. ‘C’ as in Charles, eye, jay, eye. Davis.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m on the Mishe Mokwa Trail to Balance Rock.”
“Do you have any water and food with you?”
“Yes, a bit of water and a half of avocado toast.”
“What percentage is your battery at?”
“Do you need helicopter rescue?”
I thought about that for a moment. I was tired and thirsty, and a helicopter ride did sound appealing, but, darn it, I was no pansy. Yes, if I didn’t get out of there soon I might die of heat stroke, but it wasn’t like I had a broken leg or a hang nail. All I really needed was help getting to a trail.
“No, not yet. What I need is for someone to track the GPS on my phone and help me to a trail. I just need help back to a trail to get myself out of here.”
And then I lost the call. Great. I tried calling back a few times, got through briefly, but kept losing the connection. I eventually stopped calling, But I felt better now. Hearing that calm, helpful voice on the phone made me feel calmer, too. Somebody knew I was out here, and that comforted me.
About 20 minutes later, I saw movement on the mountainside across from me. They were ant-sized, but I saw people moving along what must have been a trail. “HELP!” I shouted, waving my arms like a marooned sailor. “HELLO? HELP!!”
No response. Apparently, they couldn’t see or hear me. Then I remembered the yellow strip of fabric in my backpack. I pulled it out and started waving it like a flag and yelling, “HELP!” They still didn’t see me, and kept walking along the trail oblivious.
Just as they were about to disappear from view, one of them stopped and backed up. I stopped waving the fabric, and cried, “Do you see me?”
“Yes, “ replied a man’s voice calmly.
“I’m lost and don’t know how to get out of here.”
“Just go back the same way you got there”.
“I don’t know how I got here. From your perspective, can you see a trail around me?”
Now the whole party responded. “Yes, yes, there’s a trail below you.”
“Can you guide me to the trail?”
“Stay right there,” the man said, “I will come and get you.”
As I waited, I called 911 back and informed them I had found help and to cancel my request for assistance. Of course, the call ended before I could finish.
After about 20 minutes, I heard the man’s voice again, only much closer.
“Do you hear me?”
“Walk toward my voice. There’s no easy way for you to get to me. You will have to power through the trees and bushes.”
So I scratched my way down through the rocks, branches and bushes, playing a dry land version of Marco Polo, me calling down to him and he responding. At last I called out, “Say something,” and he responded, “No.” We both laughed. That was the moment my panic faded away completely.
After about seven minutes I found him waiting for me on the trail.
“Hi, my name is Ciji.”
“My name is Nicholas. You have twigs and things in your hair.” He offered to remove them. “Do you mind?”
“Please, be my guest. And thank you!” I added, “This is embarrassing…”
“It happens, no need to be embarrassed.” We chatted. Nicholas had been an extreme hiking guide, and now studied medicine while moonlighting as a photographer! What luck! He could guide me to a location, take my photograph and save my life!
The two women from his party caught up to us and we all introduced ourselves. Then they all wanted to know where I was attempting to go in the first place. I told them my end destination was the Balancing Rock. I told them how beautiful it is from the photos I have seen. It’s difficult…but if you can make it, it’s worth it. They were intrigued and since they were already on my side of the mountain, all four of us hiked to the Balancing Rock together. And together, we all got lost trying to get there! Ultimately, we realized, there really isn’t a trail to the Balancing Rock. You just have to power through bushes and rough terrain to get there. That is why there are so few photos of the rock: it’s nearly impossible to get to! Eventually we made it, and it was such a sight to see. It’s amazing in person.