September 13, 2017
How far should one go when leaving the trail to “find a tree”? I tend to err on the side of visibility. Jay, on the other hand, can disappear into the underbrush, effectively finding concealment when answering a call of nature. But perhaps he should tell the beginning of this story in his own words…
The forest in the Berkshires is beautiful in early September. Fall is beginning. There are splashes of red in the hardwood canopy. Acorns rain down from high in the oaks as squirrels busily prepare for winter. Sarah stops to “take care of business,” so I continue alone south on the trail as it winds unpredictably through the trees. After a few minutes, I stop to wait for Sarah. I set my pack down a few feet off the trail, grab my toilet paper, and walk into the forest to try and be productive during my wait. I push through the understory. Rocks and fallen trees make for awkward progress.
I am not in the best of moods. I have been dieting for the last week. This has made me a little grouchy and impatient. After finishing my chore, I grumpily turn to make my way back to the trail. A spider web in my face is my first warning. This is not the way I came. I change direction slightly and continue. More webs. For the first time, I pause and think about my situation. Visibility is good through the forest, but the terrain is featureless, and a tangle of shrubs and plants hides the trail from any distance greater than four or five feet. Unfortunately, I did not take notice of the actual cardinal direction the trail was heading when I left it. It is sunny… but clouds are moving in. I continue on, annoyed at the thought of wasting time, awkwardly climbing over and around downed trees and brush. I change directions a few times, until I finally admit to myself … I have no idea where the trail is.
Trying to suppress a growing sense of panic, I think of what I should do. I should sit down. Listen for Sarah, and call to her so that she can guide me back with her reply. But I am impatient. The adrenaline coursing through my veins compels me to keep moving. I don’t want to call out …. that would be embarrassing, and I know my voice carries poorly.
I begin walking in a search pattern. I turn so my shadow is directly to my left and stumble for 100 paces. No trail. I turn directly away from the sun and clamber 120 paces. Again, no trail. I continue this square, outward spiral. I know eventually I will find the trail if I can keep the spiral pattern accurate. But what if I lose track of my paces? What if my course varies too much around the many obstacles? What if I break my leg? What if the clouds cover the sun? All I have is what I am wearing and a roll of toilet paper. No cell phone. No raincoat.
It becomes excruciating to stick to my search pattern. Each time I finally reach the end of one direction and fail to find the trail, I have to turn left, knowing if the trail is actually to the right, it will be a long time before I get to walk in that direction. As I stumble, I muse at how fast my situation has changed. I recall reports of others who have died from merely stepping off the trail, and I begin to understand how it could happen. I marvel at how hard it is to travel in one direction through the forest without a trail. Then, a faint owl-like sound. I stop, but the sound does not continue. I resume my noisy travel until I hear another sound. I stop and wait. I hear my name! Eternally grateful, I abandon my grid and tromp towards Sarah. What a relief. She guides me back to the trail. My normal life resumes.
… Normal life resumes, eh? Well, perhaps, but we had to debrief as we continued together. It sounded a bit like this …
“Are you okay?” I asked anxiously.
“I am now,” Jay answered with a huge smile.
“I was worried. It’s been over 30 minutes! You never take that much time!” I couldn’t figure out what had just happened.
“Why did you wait so long to call for me?” Jay asked.
“I’ve been calling for at least 10 minutes! Couldn’t you hear me? I thought maybe you had fallen, or been snake bit!” I was still confused.
“I couldn’t find the trail,” Jay explained. “I didn’t hear you call until your last shout. Why didn’t you use the whistle on my pack? Your voice sounds like a barred owl in the woods.”
“Whistle? Oh, right. I guess I should have used it. I didn’t even think of it!” Embarrassment joined the jumble of emotions flooding through me.
“Are we on the trail now?” Jay asked.
“No,” I pointed. “It’s over there a ways. I’ve been looking for you through the woods.”
“Why did you leave the trail?” Jay sounded surprised. “What if we both got lost?”
“It’s okay,” I was quick to reassure. “I’ve been paralleling the trail. The packs are just over here.”
We picked up our packs, and Jay looked around. “Do you know which way to go?” His eyes reflected inner uncertainty.
“This way,” I gestured ahead. “There’s a spring just down the trail. Ummm, let’s keep within sight of each other for the rest of the day, all right?”