On paper, it was such an easy ride down to the highway that I took my time enjoying the high ridge views first.
R looked fabulous in the purple flowers!
Here was a "neglected" trail sign I saw earlier in the day.
As I rode, I looked down on the area where we'd camped the night before. Late the previous afternoon, we'd taken an off-trail hike to find a lake that was on our topo map. As we approached it, we saw a bunch of structures made out of tarps and saw smoke from campfires.
My past experience has been that grubby-looking camps made out of tarps harbor individuals who we don't want to run into in the backcountry. They tend to be itinerant camps, and the campers are very territorial. So, we quietly backed away that afternoon. Here was the view of their camp from above. There were more structures hidden by the trees to the right.
Two people ushered younger people away from me, well off into the trees. One person approached me, saying that they were running a program for emotionally disturbed young people and they didn't want me to interact with them. In fact, she said they were trying to avoid all people by staying off of trails. I pointed out the camp down below us and said she might want to avoid that camp. I added that I was probably going to call the ranger about it because it looked like a long-term encampment. She got visibly upset - saying it was their camp and "PLEASE don't call the ranger about it".
At that point, I got suspicious about the hidden kids but there was nothing I could do right there and then. The person also asked that I *not* pass the group again. Very weird.
I put that odd encounter out of my head, and I started to try to find the trail. It was invisible. Seriously, I systematically walked semi-circles from the last trace of the trail, and I couldn't find another trace. I wanted to turn around and take a different route. However, I had this large suspicious group behind me who I didn't want to encounter again. So, I walked my bike in what seemed like the right direction, and after about 10 minutes, I found the trail, super-clear again!
I started happily riding, making great time, following markers that were nailed to trees. Then, I came to a meadow, and the trail vanished again. I spent a huge amount of time figuring out where the trail went back into the forest on the other side of the meadow. When I was in the forest, it was easy to follow the trail, although I was moving very slowly due to all the downed trees that I had to lift my bike over.
To make a 5.5 hour long story short, the trail finally vanished for good. No trace. Fortunately, I had a GPS, and the trail was marked on it. On the map below, the trail is the thin brown line that is sort of dashed. My route is a line of tiny dots that has a red arrow on it. The part to the left of Grindstone Lake is where the trail vanished. You can see that I followed a decent approximation of the trail based on my GPS (I was generally traveling right to left on the map).
Even when my GPS said I was on the trail - there was no trail. In retrospect, that makes it even funnier that I ran into this sign. There was not a trace of a trail anywhere near this sign. It was a sign plunked down in the middle of a meadow not near any trail.
I was nearing exhaustion when I found this tree on my route. It had something carved by a human on it a long time ago ("this fence ain't no good"). It didn't bother me that there was NO fence anywhere in the vicinity because I was overjoyed to see a sign of human activity.
It took me another 30 minutes to negotiate the crazy steep cliff-like terrain to get down to the visible trail (lower left corner of the map shown up above). By the time I was standing on the trail, I was utterly exhausted. I was also all out of water and food. I just wanted an easy coast down to the trailhead.
I didn't see anyone for a while after I started riding down the real trail. Finally, I spotted a horse camp, and I went over to talk to the campers. They told me it was EIGHT miles to the highway. I almost fainted. I felt like I could barely ride a mile at that point. The people were super kind - they gave me water, which was a huge lift. They also told me that I was the second person that day to tell them exactly the same tale. Apparently, there was another mountain biker 30 minutes ahead of me who had been as lost as me due to the very "neglected" trail that was advertised as a normal trail.
I eventually made it to the LabMobile. I rode those last eight miles extremely cautiously because I knew I was too tired to think or maneuver my bike well. And, I made it in one piece - only about 5.5 hours late!
After I got home, I called about that suspicious group that wouldn't let me see the kids with them. Apparently, at least part of their story was true although the National Forest authorities planned to look into it further.
What a day that was!