I’m lost. I’m lost! I’mlost! I’mlost I’mlost I’mlost!!!
The words ricochet in my head like crazed pinballs. My brain runs in circles, neurons flailing in panic while my feet keep moving in the vain attempt to unlose myself. Adrenaline pumps through me and my heartbeat increases, creating the need to move, to do something. It was, unfortunately, the wrong thing to do.
The voice of reason finally penetrates the panic. If you calm down you could think this through with a modicum of logic.
I stop and take a deep breath. Then another. Better. I’ve already made two mistakes, one being getting off track in the first place, and the other by not stopping when I realized I was lost. Let’s not try for a third. Three strikes and you’re out, and all that.
I take account of my situation. The good news is, I haven’t been gone for long, an hour maybe, and my coworkers have noticed my lack of attendance. Chances are they called in some help. The bad news: it’s getting dark and I’m not prepared for a night in the woods.
Normally, hiking about in the wilderness would see me carrying a few crucial items, but since we were just going in and coming back out with S.G. (senior grunt), I had nothing with me except the red bandana I used to keep sweat and hair out of my face. My small day pack with my water bottle, whistle and wallet were in the vehicle. I could have used a sip of water, to say nothing of the freaking whistle. The wallet was less important, as convenience stores selling maps and Slurpees were few and far between out here.
OK, don’t dwell on what you DON’T have. What do you have, or what can you use?
My brain. A more rational look at my surroundings shows that the old growth forest thins out and opens up to a clearing not too far ahead. I head to the clearing, unsure of what it will provide, but I can at least pretend it’ll help. I break through the cover of the trees and onto an open slope. The brush is just over waist high, probably an old clear-cut. Looking out across the valley, there are two slopes adjacent to where I am and lowlands below and ahead. Far, far ahead. Upslope from me, the clearing is interrupted by a large rock or knob close to the top of the ridge.
Which way to go? Up to the clearing, to see more of the landscape, or down to the thicker woodlands? There’s probably a creek running between the slopes, possibly a logging road. But it’s getting too dark, too dangerous to move in either direction. A twisted ankle or worse is more worrisome than the thought of spending the night out in the woods. At least THAT instinct kicked in on time.
I hunker down under the brush and wrap my arms around my legs, containing my body heat as best I can. The evening cools quickly and the ¾ sleeved t-shirt I’d cursed during the heat of the day gives me marginal cover now. As the stars begin to show themselves and the temperature drops, I shiver. What I wouldn’t do for a blanket or a cup of coffee. I pull up handfuls of dried grass and shove them under my shirt. The extra layer is scratchy but adds warmth.
It’s too dark to see my watch face now, but the crystal clear night, the scent of earth and foliage are peaceful. Or would be if I wasn’t so worried. Not so much for myself. Now that my panic has subsided I worry about my family and friends. I
know I haven’t fallen off a cliff or broken my leg or neck, that despite the rumble of hunger in my belly and the sticky dryness of my mouth and throat, I’m fine. But what about Scott? Surely they’ve called him by now. What about my family and friends? They’ll be worried, feel impotent, being so far away. Hopefully Scott hasn’t contacted them.
A rustling in the bushes interrupts my musing and stops my heart for a second. Too small for a cougar.
“Go away, critter,” I call out to it. I keep talking, singing, anything to make noise. My voice keeps the animal away, and keeps me company.
I nod off in fitful spurts, shaking myself awake at every little noise. It’s amazing how quiet the night is, how loud the scampering of small rodent feet sounds in the absolute dark. The night is uneventful, and as the sky begins to lighten I stand up to shake the grass out of my shirt. When it’s light enough to see, I decide to head up to the rock rather than down into the unknown ravine. I don’t know which would be better, but the rock is closer.
It takes longer to get there than I figured. Over an hour later I’m still fighting the brush, but I’m dead set on getting to that rock. Along the way, I ease a few young grass shoots out of the soil and chew on the succulent stems. Not much moisture to be had, but it helps. More time passes, and I’m halfway to the rock when I hear the distinct whup-whup-whup
of a helicopter. I whip around, my heart racing and hope growing. It’s flying along the mouth of the valley, perpendicular to the slope I’m on, too far away to see any detail on it, not even its color, and I’m sure it can’t see me. I yell anyway.
“Here! I’m here!” I wave my arms and notice what I’m wearing. My light tan t-shirt and olive green cargo pants are perfect camouflage against the greens and browns of the mountainside. The copter flies up another ravine, disappearing along with the whup
of its blades.
For a moment, despair winds through me, painful and consuming. But just for a moment. I’m nothing if not determined to neither die nor spend another night out here. They’ll come back
, I tell myself. They have to
Legs pumping against the steep slope, through brush that snags my boots and clothes, I set off for the rock again. By the time I reach it, I’m sucking air, sweating in the late morning sun. I pull up more grass shoots to alleviate the dryness. Before climbing onto the rock, I snap off a length of a branch. The sun soaks into me as I sit on my perch and strip the young leaves. I’d eat them if I knew that they wouldn’t poison me. Better to be hungry a little longer. Sweating and crying, I tie my red bandana around the end of the stick and wait.
They’ll be back. They have to come back. Have to
I check my watch. Time means nothing and everything. I’ll sit here all day if I have to, but at the same time, I can’t wait forever. I’ll give the copter another hour. If they don’t come back by then, I’ll head downhill. There will be plenty of light to travel, and there could be a road or something.
I scan the skies, waving my bandana to keep cool. My persistence or stubbornness or, more likely, my dumb luck, pays off.
The helicopter comes around the edge of my valley, heading my way. The whupping
is the sweetest sound I’d ever heard. I stand on the rock and wave my red flag.
“Here!” I yell, my brain still acknowledging that they can’t hear me, but I can’t help myself.
The copter flies closer, up one side of the valley. I wave frantically, scream until my throat sears. They come right at me, turn away, circle and come back. The blades buffer air down onto me as the helicopter drops and circles around my rock.
“Stay there,” a voice booms over an external speaker. “Someone will come for you.”
I nod and wave my bandana, tears making it hard to see as the copter rises then flies over the crest of the ridge just above me. A few minutes later, a man wearing a helmet and an orange and tan jumpsuit is at my rock. I leap down and hug him. He asks if I’m okay. I tell him I’m fine, just thirsty. He escorts me to the waiting helicopter and gives me some water. It was the red bandana they’d seen, he tells me. I nod and grip it tight in my hand.
The ride back to civilization is a blur. As we fly, I’m told I wasn’t too far from where I was supposed to be, as the crow flies. Well, if I was a crow all my worries would have been for naught. Unfortunately, I’m a direction-impaired human. We touch down in a clearing and there are about a dozen folks waiting. Including my husband. When it’s safe to exit the copter, we run to each other, both of us crying with relief as we hug.
“I should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque,” I say against his chest. We laugh and cry a bit more. I tell him I was an idiot, he tells me he’s just glad I’m okay.
The rest of the people there are my coworkers, the rescue crew (whom I thank profusely), and to my embarrassment, a reporter. Slow news day in southern Oregon if one lost biology grunt merits attention. But I answer questions, saying it was just poor decision making on my part, and extol the greatness of the rescue crew and my coworkers. Thankfully, the reporter keeps it short and lets me go without much more damage to my pride.
After talking to my boss and calling my mother (but not my BFF. Sorry about that!) Scott and I get cleaned up and head back home so I can recoup. During the three hour drive north, I’m determined to never set foot off the road system again. Granted, it was only one night out in the wilds of the Oregon woods, but the potential for disaster was too real, too fresh to do anything but decide field biology isn’t for me.
Any bets as to how long that lasted?
Up next: (Almost) Everything I Needed to Know About Life I Learned After a Night in the Woods
Labels: on my mind