Survival and the Hope of Rescue
It was August. I had just finished a three-week shift at St Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction Colorado. Free of my pager, and with the whole day ahead of me, I planned a morning walk on the Monument Trail of the Colorado National Monument, a quick drive to the airport, and a 5:00 PM flight home. For more than five decades, starting as a girl scout, I have climbed mountains and descended canyons, in summer or winter, carrying a daypack or a week of supplies for camping, whenever work or vacation-travel permitted.
For the first hours I concentrated on taking pictures of the desert, framing magnificent vistas carefully, sharing photos with my husband in my imagination. My thoughts were home in Ohio. I was equipped for a walk, not the wilderness. I carried two bottles of water, a cucumber and a tomato for lunch, the park map, my cell phone, and my camera. It was not until my rescue that I understood I had hiked a dried-out streambed, not the man-made trail. Both flowing water and human trail makers mark the desert with piles of rocks. In this place, the way carved by a past flash flood was clearer than the path made by people. So where the trail crossed a dry creek, I followed what I thought were cairns into a wash, and kept going. Around 11 o’clock I retraced my steps to hike back to the road where my car was parked.
It was early afternoon before I realized that I could not identify any landmarks. I bush-whacked my way to the top of a ridge, then another ridge, then a third. There was no sign of a track ascending to the road. My cell phone indicated “no service”, and I met no other hikers. To quiet my wave of panic, I made a plan. According to the park map, the trail connected one road to another. Since I could not find my way up and out to the road where my car was parked, I reasoned I could walk to the other road and flag down a ride. I retraced my steps, but in reality I found my way back into the same dry streambed.
As the hours passed I discarded my hope of catching my plane, but I clung to a hope of reaching the distant road. Initially the midday light and heat were like annoying companions. But when my first bottle of water was gone, their demands grew more insistent—parched lips, headache and nausea. At the start, sweat dried on my skin; later, I stopped sweating. I made no urine. But my intestines were over-filled with urgent pressure. I fought anxiety by counting my steps. Over and over I reached one thousand, and started again.
I fought against resting. That part of mind that calculates odds kept me awake: “Pay attention. Survive.” Under a ruthless sun, my imagination sought cool white sheets on a soft bed in a darkened room. The rocks radiated heat like an oven, but a languorous daydream took me in and out of a drowsy nap, watching shadows on the ceiling. In reality there was no shade to give coolness and too much light to find shadows. “Pay attention.”
As the path made by the creek grew wilder, I continued to believe I was on the trail indicated by the park map. I rationalized that my hike had advanced from “moderate” to “difficult.” Where water had tumbled over cliffs during spring’s flash floods, there were dry waterfalls. These I climbed down. I forced all of my awareness into my hands and my feet. Time slowed. “Will the rock crumble if I shift from my right foot to my left toe? Will the shelf remain solid if I ease my hand there? Is this tiny tree with dusty leaves rooted deeply enough to hold my weight?” My clinging was as precarious as the few plants that found a roothold on the drop-off. The rock itself seemed a living presence, each pebble and grain of sand poised to slide and plummet like me.
After each scramble, when my way was flat again, I counted my steps and hoped to see the road. But the dry stream’s path descended between higher and higher cliffs. Each climb down became more difficult, and each straight section shorter. Then I reached a crevice that was deeper than any that had preceded it. I stopped and took stock of what was left of my strength. I had half a bottle of water in the late afternoon heat. I knew I could not go forward, or turn back. The place I had reached felt impassable as despair.
After a moment, I tried my cell phone. I found that if I stood in a certain spot, facing south, I had service. It was 5:00 PM. The 911 operator told me that rangers had begun to search for me hours before my call. Apparently my car had been parked at the trailhead too long. I told the operator that I was unhurt, but too tired to continue, and that I was on the Monument Trail. She advised me to stay in one place. As I tried to tell her of my terror, my phone stopped working. The battery charge was exhausted like me.
Around 6:30 PM, I heard a man’s voice calling, “Hello!” from some distance. I yelled in response, my throat burning with effort, “Hello, I’m here!” The voice grew closer, and then farther and farther away. That was the moment when I understood that I was not on the marked trail— that it might not be possible for others to find me. I had crossed a line to a place of powerlessness. I was cornered. I could no longer put one foot in front of the other. Sunset was on its way, and night. I imagined how my terror would be magnified by darkness. I feared becoming prey for the mountain lions warned about on park bulletin boards. Despite fatigue, all my senses were vigilant. I was as twitchy as a rabbit, and as vulnerable. I had no matches and no knife. Options and plans gone, I waited. Patience was my strength; silence, my only defense. And I had a poem memorized in college:
“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love. For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith but the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.” – T.S. Eliot (1888 – 1965), The Four Quartets
Under the first star of evening, I heard a whistle. Again I screamed “Here I am!” and this time the whistler responded to my calls. Within minutes Team 7 of the Mesa County, Colorado Search and Rescue Squad climbed over a rise. My rescuers told me I was only a quarter of a mile from the road. They radioed the other teams with the news of our good fortune. After two bottles of water and a package of fruit-flavored gummy bears, I felt ready to walk out. With Team 7’s help I descended the cliff of the last dry waterfall and followed my rescuers to the road. There I met a reporter from the newspaper, a cameraman from the local TV news, three paramedics with an ambulance, two policemen, and the park ranger whose voice I had heard earlier that day, but who said he had not heard me. My relief was tempered by mortification. I was back to familiar rules, to the privilege of living in a civilized and idealistic world where the most foolish human life is precious.
I thanked the Park Service and the Mesa County Search and Rescue squad with charitable donations. My letter of gratitude to the Park requested that some of the money be used to develop better trail-markers and signs within the Monument. So a year later my husband and I chose to take our summer vacation in Colorado. I wanted to see if I could identify the place where I got lost, and recover beauty uncontaminated by fear. It was straightforward and joyous to hike the 12-mile Monument Trail in his company. We had a U.S. geologic survey map, a compass, robust sandwiches, extra water, whistles, and a first-aid kit.
A bright new sign, with a freshly painted arrow and the word “TRAIE’ pointed up the hill away from the place where I had wandered into the streambed. On the marked trail, we laughed.
Searching for the words to write this essay is like looking for beads scattered from a broken necklace. Here is a memory as round and shiny as the too-bright sun. There is a brilliant gem of fear. Here is the taste of thirst. There is the acuity of fatigue. For a short time I lived in terror for my survival. In those hours, the fragments of my vulnerability coalesced into my whole world. That world, despite the usual illusion of safety, is never very far. It is the simplest truth of living.