Lost and Found on Blue Hill
By Judith Wurtman (FBH member living in Boston)
[Photo: Judy with her dog, Simon]
We were lost. Again. The trail from the top of Blue Hill should have ended at Ponkapoag Pond and the parking lot. Instead it ended in a dense mass of thorny bushes. The orange circle on the post pointed to nothing. A dead end. Which, if we could not find our car, might also be our fate. Where were we?
If we had stuck to our usual route, we would have, in the words of a famous sign, been home by now. But Mary Lou, my long time hiking companion, suggested trying a less popular trail. The map of the Blue Hills Reservation hiking trails she found in a drawer showed a trail going in the direction of the route we usually followed. It was marked with orange circles and began at the end of the pond.
We were lost before we began. We couldn’t find an orange marker showing the start of the trail. Near the end of the pond, a wooden post with a red dot stood near an obvious trail.
“Mary Lou, maybe the trail marker is reddish orange,” I offered, peering at the red dot. Was it a little bit orange?
“Judy, the map says the trail marker is orange. Keep looking. “
Finally Mary Lou noticed a faded orange blob barely visible between the trees. “There it is, she pointed. “ I wonder why it was so hard to find.”
The trail was barely two hiking boots wide but soon expanded as it ascended through birch and boulder-filled woods. The three of us moved into our hiking rhythm. Simon, the long haired dachshund, ran ahead and sniffed at holes. We talked. Our best talking was on our hikes and the conversation moved from gossip, a recital of who was sick or dying, married or divorced, moving in or out of the building in which we lived and finally to personal confidences. Our friendship was so old that we could start a conversation discontinued from months earlier without any preamble.
Then we noticed. The trail vanished into a jumble of fallen trees and large boulders. Turning back, we peered like two myopic old ladies at every rock looking for the orange marker. But to our frustration, we saw only a large red circle on a tree .
“Do you think they ran out of orange paint and decided to switch to red? “ I asked Mary Lou, hopefully. “No, Judy, but maybe that trail goes in the same direction. Should we take it?”
Follow an unknown trail? Where are our bread crumbs?
“ Simon, can you take us back to the car if we get lost? I bent down to pet the dog and he licked the salty sweat now running down my face. It was hot. Then we saw it. An orange blur on a boulder. We started walking.
Sun hit our eyes as we moved out of the forest. The trail became aggressive. Jagged rocks and glacial size boulders leaned against each other and climbed up a wall of dirt and scrubby pines on our left. On the right, low bushes hid a steep drop off. Continuing meant scrambling over the boulders.
“I’ll go first” said Mary Lou. She always did. Climbing the first boulder on her hands and knees, she held on to a small pine tree with one hand and reached out for Simon with the other. I lifted Simon onto the rock and pushed him toward Mary Lou. She grabbed his collar and held him until I scrambled up beside her.
“It looks like a rock slide from a million years ago,” she said. The boulder covered trail curved and disappeared . It had to end but where?
I held onto Simon until she reached the next boulder. We repeated this maneuver until (Thank you God) the boulders gave way to dirt . A few minutes later, the trail leveled off, and we were at the top.
Sitting on sun-warmed rocks with Simon stretched out between us, we ate our lunch of protein bars and bananas. A hawk made wide circles in the cloudless sky and we could just see Boston Harbor far below. Neither of us wanted to leave. It was our last hike together until spring.
“I guess we should go down.” Mary Lou took the map from her pocket. “Should we retrace our steps or continue on the rest of the trail? The map shows it looping around and ending by the pond”
There was no way I would go back down the way we came up. What if Simon and I fall off the rocks ? Could Mary Lou rescue both of us? Would she rescue Simon first?
The path meandered almost lazily through the woods seemingly going around the hill rather than descending it. Then our trail was interrupted by another going in the opposite direction. We stood looking at both trails. “Should we toss a coin?” I asked. But deciding not to switch trails, we continued walking. In ten minutes something was very wrong. The trail started to climb very steeply. Going up did not seem like the best the way to go down.
“Judy, we are lost. ” Mary Lou’s hands were shaking as she unfolded the map. My stomach was churning and I felt cold sweat on my back. Simon went to sleep.
“Should we climb back to the top and take the trail with the boulders down to the pond? But looking at Simon, I added “ I doubt he can do the climb all over again.” I am not sure I can either.
“No, it is late and I am too tired. We have to take the other trail. ” Mary Lou put away the map and we started on the anonymous path. The good news was that it descended rapidly The bad news: we had no idea to where it was descending. Then, like an omen, a red dot appeared on a tree trunk.
“It is telling us something, Mary Lou. Give up on the orange and follow me. Remember the red dot we saw on a trailhead near the parking lot? If we are lucky…..”
She was quiet. Then, “Do you think our husbands will notice if we are not home by dark?”
“Unlikely until they get hungry . ”
“Should we call and tell them we are lost. She was looking at her cell phone. “No signal. Did we tell them we were hiking on Blue Hill?”
“Yes, I laughed, but don’t expect them to remember.”
Finally the path dropped us onto a packed dirt road. The road was not familiar, but it was a road. And flat. Mary Lou took off her hat and shook out her damp hair.
” I need a shower,” I told her and used my T shirt to wipe my face.
Behind the bushes lining the road, an orange circle appeared and disappeared, like something seen from a speeding train. We stopped, walked back a few steps and saw a post half hidden by a bush. An orange smudge faced us.
“Look , our trail ”, I shouted and ran toward the post with Simon trotting behind me. There was the path. And then it wasn’t. A few feet from the post, the trail disappeared under a nest of bushes.
“No path” I announced to Mary Lou as Simon and I walked back to the road. “It just stops.”
Out came the map. I peered at it with the same feeling I might have had reading entrails. Maybe it contained useful information but it was well hidden.
“Judy, according to the map, we should be near the parking lot” said Mary Lou, hopefully.
“ According to the map, we shouldn’t have gotten lost ,” I grumbled.
“ Me too.”
“Look at Simon.”
“ He looks comatose.”
Simon had stretched out under a bush so his body was in the shade. I knew that posture. It meant “carry me out of here because I am too hot and too tired to walk another step.”
We sat down. Mary Lou fanned herself with the map, and I took off my shoes to remove the leaf bits that were stuck to my socks.
“ The Ranger office must still be opened,” I said.” It’s not five yet. Why don’t we call and tell them we can’t find the parking lot? “
“ Judy, you must be suffering from sunstroke. Do you really think they are going to send someone to escort us to our car?”
“ But Mary Lou, what if the red trail took us down to the other side on the other side of the reservations? We would have to walk at least 15 miles to get back to the car. If we knew how to get back to the car. “
“Well, we will call a taxi,” she said.
“I am not sure the taxi can find us in the woods”
Simon began barking. A woman with two huskies emerged from a path we had not noticed.
Help has arrived. Thank you, God.
I picked Simon up because the huskies were circling him. Had the woman fed them that morning?
“They won’t hurt him,” the woman said. “They like small dogs.”
“ We think we are lost, “Mary Lou told the woman.
“Actually we have been lost all day,” I chimed in.
We told her that we didn’t know how to find the parking lot.
“Which parking lot?,” she asked. “You know there is one on each side of the Reservation.”
She is going to tell us we came down on the other side of the mountain” My heart started beating too quickly.
“We parked by the pond” Mary Lou looked as anxious as I felt.
“ Which pond? Ponkapoag or Houghton’s pond?”
Good grief, at this point she is going to tell us we are in Rhode Island.
“Ponkapoag”. Mary Lou and I talked over each other to describe where we had left the car.
“ You are only about a five minute walk from there,” she told us.
My heart stopped racing.
“Do you know anything about the orange marker trail? asked Mary Lou. Something is wrong with it. The markers disappeared or were almost impossible to see. On the way down, the trail turned and went up hill. We took another trail that we thought was unmarked but it turned out to be the red dot trail. Thank God, it brought us back here. ”
The women didn’t speak for a minute, and she seemed to be trying not to laugh.
“The orange trail doesn’t exist. Three years ago, the Blue Hills Reservation management decided it was overused and eroding. They closed it off and made a new trail that goes in the same direction. It is the trail with the red dots. “
“But the orange trail is right here, on the map.” Mary Lou protested.
“Your map is out of date. “ She pulled a map from her fanny pack and opened it. “Look, here is the red trail you followed down. The orange trail isn’t on the new map. “ She looked puzzled. “ I can’t believe you followed the old trail. The markers are supposed to be gone.”
Were we hiking in the Twilight Zone?
I pointed to the faded orange marker on the post. “ We saw orange markers like that one. We assumed that they were faded because no one was maintaining them.”
This time when she looked at us, her expression seemed to say, “you really are idiots.” But she only called to her dogs. As they started running down the road, she turned and yelled. “ Buy a new map.”
Mary Lou and I looked at each other. My face must have shown the same relief and chagrin that I saw on hers. We didn’t have to say anything . I knew what she was thinking.
As we walked quickly down the road, Simon bounded ahead as if he also knew that this long day was soon coming to an end. Ten minutes later the pond was visible and a few minutes after that, we were at the car.
“Well Mary Lou, they say that God looks after fools and children”
“ You don’t have to tell me which category we are”, she said laughing.