So it was that they made the nine-hundred-foot climb up to Kirkwood Pass just in time to see the now-orange sun sink into the haze above urban California. It was eight o'clock.
"Hard to believe that we were on top of that just two-and-a-half hours ago," Scotty remarked as he took one last look at the fading and remote summit of Tower Peak.
They walked steadily on until the increasing shade became too much for even Barry's sharp eyes.
"It's a good thing I just bought this headlamp," Scotty remarked as he made ready his new Petzl Myo 3. "I don't think that old Micro would have made enough light for us both."
"I need to evaluate my level of fitness better before planning these crazy outings!" Barry muttered.
The next couple of hours involved the typical never-ending ground-pounding of an epic death march. Scotty stuck to the LED's on his lamp, so the pair did not get to view the scenery outside of a coolly-lit ten-foot radius. All they knew was that sometimes the gurgling water of the creek was near, sometimes far, but always rushing in a manner that suggested the flat miles of lower Buckeye Canyon were far away. They worked their way down endless rocky switchbacks. They passed the spectacular scenery of 'The Roughs,' now hidden from sight by the moonless night. Aside from occasional halts to retie a shoe, they did not stop, pushed on by that inexorable desire to reach the car, the end, and sleep.
After an eternity, the path ceased to switchback and became mostly level. Low amounts of traffic had allowed grass and sagebrush to reach across the way, snagging their legs and pulling at their socks. They did not stop. Surely the end would be in just a couple more miles! They could hardly hear the stream now. The trail began to cross large open meadows, attempting to disappear in the process. Several times Scotty had to regain the way, searching with the Myo's Xenon beam to locate the hint of disturbance in the flora.
"At some point, we have to cross the creek," Barry stated.
"Yeah, I thought that would be quite a ways from the campground, right?" Scotty responded.
"I'm not so sure. I thought it was right before the campground."
"Hmm, well it should be obvious enough."
Neither hiker had been on this trail before. In fact, the only familiar terrain the whole day was the trail to Peeler Lake at the start, and only Barry had been that way before. It is doubtful that a map would have helped them in any case, as there were no landmarks to be seen in the dark, flat valley. At last the path turned into the remains of a jeep trail, complete with two lanes.
"It can't be too far now," Barry stated.
"I hope you're right," Scotty said, with doubt clearly showing.
They passed through a cattle gate into another expansive meadow, and suddenly the road disappeared. Several paths seemed to wander about, but which was the right one? With so much fresh cattle sign about, it was impossible to tell which was the pack trail and which were aimless stock highways. All the hikers could do was to head down-canyon, and hope for something more obvious.
Soon they were met with a stream crossing.
"Is this it?" Scotty wondered. "It's one-thirty already. I'd like to be back soon."
"Well, we have to cross at some point, so we might as well do it now," Barry said as he removed his shoes.
They forded the stream and began once more to proceed down the valley.
"Look! Something reflective! And another!" For a second, Scotty thought that they'd reached the campground.
"Oh, it's just a cow," Barry said in a low voice.
In fact, it was whole herd of cows. They weren't sure what to make of the bright light and two men thrashing their way through the meadow at night, so they milled about and bellowed to one another in confusion. Some of the more curious animals began to shuffle along behind the hikers in the dark, making Scotty not a little uneasy.
"I saw some cows with non-cow equipment," he whispered to Barry. "I'd like to be away from here ASAP."
Just then, SQUISH! They had found a swamp.
"Great! Now what?" Barry griped. "And I see another creek just ahead! This whole valley is one big cow wallow!"
"I say we head for the north side and try to find the road in the sagebrush again." Scotty advised. "We stay in the sage until we see the campground and then cross the valley."
After a few minutes, though, it was clear that there was no easy way out. Every way they turned, they were faced with knee-deep muck. Barry had had enough. "Not a good idea. I know we need to be on the south side, so let's just head for the slope and continue down all the way to the car."
"Fine," Scotty acquiesced. "Bushwhacking is certainly preferable to this."
They worked their way back through the cow herd until they reached the first ford. Turning south, they crossed the main branch of the creek and struggled through another short section of thigh-deep, stinky mud before reaching the eaves of the pine forest.
"That sucked big time," was all Scotty had to say.
With the forest came another path, which the exhausted hikers then followed with suppressed hope. It soon became obvious that this trail was skirting the meadow, and sticking to the high ground, which made things much more pleasant. Eventually, the trail became a jeep track again, and the hikers pressed on with renewed vigor. Minutes went by, and still no campground. After half and hour, they began to wonder just how far they still had to travel.
"We're almost to downtown Bridgeport by now," Scotty growled. "This had better not bypass the trailhead!"
"Impossible," Barry reassured. The campground covers the whole bottom of the canyon."
At last, after nearly an hour of walking the dusty road in soggy shoes, reeking of mud, the forlorn hikers reached the Buckeye Creek campground. Any tourists who were awakened by the banging of the metal cattle gate at two-twenty in the morning would have peeked out of their RV at the sorry sight and quickly drawn the shades.
Twenty hours, virtually non-stop. Thirty-four+ miles. Ten-thousand five-hundred+ vertical feet of positive gain.
The One Tower was not strong enough.