Around here, we get our TV news from Denver. Some of the anchors are less android-like than others, but they all recite the same headlines. A recurring topic: an ill-prepared adventurer vanishing in the Colorado wilderness. The man was last seen wearing only cut-off jeans and a T-shirt. Authorities fear he may not have survived freezing temperatures and a mountain storm that dropped hail the size of Anjou pears.
I used to envy the exciting perils of these men in T-shirts. Then I read something in the furrowed brows of the grim Denver TV anchors: The chilling truth that newsworthy outdoorsfolk rarely make it back to check their Nielsen ratings or social media hits.
Usually, however, misplacing yourself while camping is neither so public nor so tragic. Me, I get lost sometimes because I can’t see the forest exit for the trees: There are all these trees out there. Yet I’ve always managed to find my way out before friends and family could fear for my life on Channel 9. You just need to know how to cope.
The first solution for a lost soul is to identify your emotional and mental state. Understand that it’s normal to experience biochemical reactions of the sort commonly described as “going absolutely freaking batshit.” On second thought, that’s not a solution at all. But it’s kind of interesting to note exactly when the chronic dry-mouth and 170 heartbeats per minute begin.
The most obvious strategy is to turn back the way you came. My brother tells a story of being lost with his wife in Southern California’s Los Padres National Forest, not far from where captive-bred condors are released. The story boils down to this: Outdated guidebook recommends a multi-day loop that the U.S. Forest Service stopped maintaining years earlier; maddening overgrowth of chaparral and manzanita; poison oak oil seeping into cuts and scrapes; trailside signposts without any signs; really losing the trail in a place jovially known as “The Devil’s Pothole;” concerned coworkers asking highway patrol to check accident records for any sign of missing couple; humiliating retreat, eased only somewhat by hitching ride from random band of beekeepers “dressed all in white, like angels.”
How painful is it to retrace your path when you planned a loop? Well, many years after this misadventure, my brother still rants at length about Forest Service budget cuts and their affect on trail maintenance. He forgets to mention that, while lost in the Los Padres, he and his wife conceived their first child. He’s still too steamed at the first Bush Administration. Which brings up an important point: Should you ever become lost, be sure to blame someone else.
Amelia Earhart might assert that getting lost really stinks. But even if she did, all we’d hear is a small gurgling sound. For most, getting lost is not a life-threatening crisis; it’s merely an inconvenience. The 21st century, however, has declared a holy war on inconvenience. Through cellphones and GPS locators, we try to prevent people from ever getting lost, to keep them present and accounted for at all times.
What a bunch of weenies we are. If you get lost without your precious handheld glowbox, take the opportunity to tap into some of our better human qualities: power of deduction, sense of direction and animalistic sense of preservation. Before the advent of smartphones, I took a solo tour of the Tattoosh Range in Washington’s Rainier National Park. I ambled aimlessly, and eventually tangled myself in thick underbrush on the wrong side of a ridge. The skies wept rain and my fingers grew numb. It seemed I had two choices: to think my way out or to fashion a nice deathbed pillow out of D.B. Cooper’s wormy skull.
I figured that parallel valleys all drained to the same place, so I tramped downstream along a creek till it emptied — into a river adjacent to an unfamiliar trail. My sense of direction then urged me to go right, and eventually I made a grotesque circle back to my original trailhead. Thus was I able to extricate myself from D.B. Cooper’s sopping woods and take comfort at the Rainer Park Lodge. There, I contemplated the gray, spirit-crushing gloom of the Northwest’s so-called “Razorblade Season” with an impudent huckleberry pie.
Years later, I was hiking near Telluride with my dog Bezo when a game of fetch pulled us far off the established path. A frisky, yet-to-be-neutered chocolate lab, Bezo did not move in linear vectors. When we decided to return to camp, we had zero idea how to get there.
Time to look for the sun. The afternoon’s overcast skies glowed a little brighter in one direction, which we decided must be west-ish — and somewhat south-ish since it was well before the solstice. Southwest-ish seemed right, and we commenced an ultimately successful bushwack in that direction. Never mind that countless fallen trees blocked our route and that negotiating same forced Bezo to perform exasperating pull-ups with his forepaws.
The sun, though, is the only star I trust. For one, it’s the only gaseous mass decent enough to show itself during daylight. Yes, some say you can navigate by the south-pointing triangle of Deneb, Vega and Altair, but it’s hard enough to find one star, let alone three. Friends tell me to look for Orion’s belt, but every time I do, Orion seems to be sporting overalls.
Perhaps Raffi Kodikian was similarly confused on his memorable trip in New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns National Park earlier this century. Kodikian and his friend got lost while camping, which convinced Kodikian that they were beyond help and close to death. So, as he later told investigators, he stabbed his friend twice in the chest and smothered him to put him out of his misery. Turns out the pair’s campsite was located 275 feet from a trail and only a mile and a half from their parked car.
Kodikian should have brought along a copy of “Hiking the Southwest’s Canyon Country.” The guidebook contains this valuable advice for those who stray: “If you do get lost, stay where you are, signal your position in some obvious way (such as laying out colorful gear and clothes in an open area), and wait for help to arrive.” Indeed. Denver’s news androids would have never solemnly pursed their lips and enunciated “KO-dik-e-un” had Raffi only welcomed search and rescue with a periwinkle micro-fleece instead of his pal’s shallow grave.