I was 19 years old when I got lost in the woods. We all do dumb things at 19. For me, it was hitching a ride across southeast Washington state and meeting up with some friends to hike across the Lewis and Clark Trail to Montana. I had no backpacking experience, a secondhand external frame backpack from a shady pawn shop in Olympia, and a nameless thirst to just see what would happen.
I was hiking with two friends through an old logging road to meet up with the rest of our party in the next town over—about one full day on foot, 15-20 miles.
I adjusted my hulking 36-pound backpack, heard something tear, and staggered against the sudden onslaught of the entire weight of my gear against my left shoulder. The right-side straps holding my backpack to the frame had torn into shreds. My clumsy attempts to tie it were unsuccessful. I couldn’t lift it. I called ahead to my friends: “Wait up, my pack’s broken!”
Only silence greeted me in response.
My heart beat faster; the pine and fir swallowed up my cries, which grew more and more frantic. My cell had no signal, and I was the only one with a phone, anyway. After 25 minutes of yelling ineffectively, I gave up and sat against my broken backpack, panic crawling beneath my skin. Wilderness experts say if you get lost in the woods to stay put until your friends can retrace their steps to you. What they don’t really go into is how powerful that panic is, how it drowns out all logic and reason.
There wasn’t even birdsong, no animal noises. Nothing except my harsh breathing and the roar of my own heartbeat. I thought I saw shadows crawling between the bark of the trees, heard strange movement in the rustle of branches. We had heard howls close to our campsite the night before, and the farmer who had given us a ride to the trailhead had let us know that a wolf pack roamed the area. My skin was clammy, thoughts racing, and I decided to head back to town, not sure what I feared more: being mauled by a wolf, or just being so utterly alone.
The problem: I didn’t know where town was, didn’t recognize any terrain. I just kept walking, hoping I would hit the main road to flag down help.
I walked for several hours, thinking about my resources: No tent. No food. Half a canteen of water. Some packets of hot chocolate powder. There were many blooming dandelions, the tops of which I knew were edible. I picked a dozen blossoms and covered them in chocolate powder. They were tasteless and mealy but staved off my hunger.
After 5 hours of walking, dragging my pack behind me, I left the road and climbed a nearby hill, trying to get a better vantage point. I didn’t see anything, but panic told me: Maybe if I descend down the mountain, there will be people.
So I began to climb down through scrub brush, crawling under barbed wire, my face scratched by branches and thorns, sliding down small hills of gravel and sand. After another 2 hours I found a small clearing with a half decomposed deer carcass. Surrounding it were large pawprints.
My heart started racing, a fresh wave of fear drenching me in sweat, and I descended faster, panic drowning out how poor an idea this was. Finally I came to a ridge overlooking a 50 foot drop into a dry riverbed. I could see a country road in the distance; I was elated at the sight of a car. All I have to do is get down, I thought. Maybe I can climb down this cliff.
I walked to the very edge, my backpack slung across my left shoulder. I looked over, and my backpack fell over my head, the broken strap looping around my neck, choking me. The weight of the pack pulled me forward, and I began to fall into the chasm.
The world stopped, and I realized numbly: I’m about to fall to my death. My mind went blank. I pinwheeled my arms like a maniac as I hung suspended.
Suddenly, I felt as if a hand reached down and wrenched the backpack backwards over my neck. I tumbled backwards from the abyss onto the ground against the frame, panting in shock.
To this day, I can’t explain what happened. The weight of the pack should have pulled me over to smash against the canyon below. It could just be coincidence, but I don’t believe in those anymore. I think my guardian angel was just fed up with my piss-poor decisions and all-around bullshit.
When summer comes, it’s the breeze that reminds me of woods closing in, paw prints, of being suspended in the air. And when I see dandelions in bloom, I get a bit hungry.