I thought I might die. The thought occurred to me over the hours I spent alone on Mt. Hood–first while I borderline rock-climbed faces of Mt. Hood to get to ridges and high peaks to get the ultimate perspective of its peak, then more often while I was lost in its wilderness.
When my plan had been to go to Mt. Hood on Saturday, the plan was to drive to Mt. Hood and then stare at it. I love mountains. I like to stare at them.
Let’s do that, I said to myself. Great, let’s do it, I responded to myself.
I didn’t plan the hike. I didn’t plan anything. I told my GPS to take me to “Mt. Hood,” wherever that would mean for her specifically, and she did.
Therefore, I don’t know where I parked. I didn’t have water (on me/out of the car), nor a compass, food, first aid, a knife, or a map.
I did have sunglasses, my phone, a case of glucose tablets (hypoglycemic), my wallet, a journal, a notepad, and a pen. That’s the kind of day I thought I’d have.
I’m almost* thankful to have been brought to that place of complete desperation.
Three hours in, two hours into being lost, I drank from a creek. The water crashed along so smoothly. Its clarity summoned me. Its sound was a siren call to drink. Undeniable. I knew the risk. Bacteria. Tape worms? But it looked so good. How harmful could it be? How harmful was my dehydration? I squatted beside the creek and cupped my hands for a handful. Then another and another. Four handfuls and I thought, Okay, I can move on. (*or I am, or I actually am thankful; fickle feelings.)
I remember thinking about my legacy. Was there a strange order to things? Had I actually made so many recent videos for friends, a new thing, to have a way to live on? Or my writing? Had I done enough writing to be remembered or discovered? If I die, these things will be.
I remember seeing a couple people flash by in my periphery. I’d turn. Just tree stumps. Was I losing sanity?
I knew I was most probably alone. Especially in the thick of the woods, where I never should have been, I was alone.
When I was certain I was alone, I was terrified. When I was uncertain, I was even more terrified. If someone wanted to harm me, I was free bait. I was a goner.
I like having control of situations. I like knowing the outcome and understanding just how much control I have in that outcome. I want to know goals, timelines, and I’d like to make a chart on the matter. I have faith in situations because I’ve analyzed their precedents, similar past histories, and reliability on the study (I’m still taking about my personal life, not academic research).
And then it happened. I lost my orientation. I didn’t know what direction I had been. I didn’t know which way was “up.” All around me were fallen limbs, teenage trees and big ones, with all their arms and leaves hiding any sense of outside this forest they had created. I was lost.
My cell phone was not dead but was worthless nonetheless, and despite that I kept it in my left hand, with the deluded sense that maybe maybe I would get enough reception once there were less trees. (Bahaha. Listen to the Floridian speak. Hilarious.)
Branches scratched my legs and I didn’t give a shit. I walked this way, then that way, and then realized I was doing this…Oh God, no. Choose a direction, I told myself. That’s what they say. Just choose and stick with it.
In time I found a trail that I had been on before the time of being in the mass of trees. This was a bad trail. But a trail it was.
“Is this a trail? Then you’re okay. Follow the trail. Is this a trail? Then you’re okay. Follow the trail.” Repeat back. Repeat back. Repeat back.
I remember climbing back up the mountain, a scrap of hope restored in now knowing that I was in the Mt. Hood National Forest “Wilderness,” knowing I was retracing steps back to where I first got off track—or so I theorized. I had no trail to follow back for I didn’t take a trail to get out. F—ing damn it.
Daunting it was, so far uphill. I felt so weak, never, ever knowing how much further. Spending most steps imagining collapsing in the drivers’ seat of the car and sucking at my water bottle (that I left in there) like a piglet kept me going and kept me wondering if I’d be able to experience that magnificent time.
What did my future hold? It was in my hands. It was only in my hands. Terrifying. I am all and only human.
I had no internet. I had no ability to call or call out to anyone. It was so quiet. Still. Haunting. Just the occasional bird chirp and fly buzz.
I remember taking a break a few times in the hike back uphill resting, putting my hand on a fallen tree trunk and resting my whole weight into it, breathing so fast, so heavy, my heart doing the same—racing while I moved at a slow pace—up, up, up, engaging all the muscles of my legs, all the sugar in my blood, all the faith in my soul to just. Keep. Going.
But am I capable? I cried in my mind. You’re here; you have to be, I responded back to myself. I had this conversation so many times, earlier while looking down from steep angles and rocky ground.
I am human. I am not enough. I wanted to breakdown. I wanted the relief tears would bring, wetting my face, setting free the terror in my soul. But I couldn’t. I would break down in the car. I would get to break down when the nightmare is over, when the goal has been reached.
I didn’t know how to get to the goal. But it was my only option.
I wasn’t spending the night in the woods. I wasn’t staying lost. I was entirely disoriented for a half hour, maybe an hour, with no idea of cardinal directions (even if I did, N was going to be a letter, no better help). Eventually, I decided upon no rules: I would no longer believe I was wiser than trails. I decided that I knew nothing. Humility—this time it wasn’t going to take me down. This time humility would save me, or so I did hope.
Hope, itself, is scary. Hope can be crushed. Doubt can be helpful. Certain dread can kill you. So can lack of preparedness.
Hope! Hope crushed. Hope! Hope crushed. Over and over. I had less energy each time I thought I found direction and didn’t. Less faith that my human body wouldn’t give up.
But staying in the wilderness wasn’t an option.
I prayed. I leaned against a white tree trunk that came up to my waist. I felt its texture. Both smooth and rough under one palm. The bark didn’t reach the slice. There was an inch of smooth white wood around the rim. Strange, why, I wondered. But that was a different level of thought. My deepest level prayed. And hoped with everything I had left.
My mind considered, desperately, of the possibility of there being a God. One I could lean on. One to pull me through this. If I wasn’t enough, a God still certainly was.
To be brought here, to cling to Hope, all or nothing, felt like the greatest bittersweet gift. Two hours prior I had been sitting on a large rock, staring at Mt. Hood close-up with all its majesty—a jagged dichotomy of its rock surface layered in large spaces by startling snow, considering God. It was still up there. I was on top of the world, with a display of three mountains in the distance behind me amongst the ranges of blue of the less prominent hills. A slight breeze up there felt like if it tried, could knock me down (where I’d fall and die). Subtle and powerful were the moments I spent sitting in contemplation, wondering why a mountain offered me pure peace.
I had no idea how I was going to get off of that ridge safely, but I knew I had a case of glucose tablets, and I learned to sit in the peace and to allow peace to wrap itself around me in that slight breeze.
God. Was my God this mountain? Perhaps. This mountain, I can put faith in—I see it. There is no way to doubt (sanely) its existence. But then, truly, that isn’t faith within me at all. Uncertainty is a key ingredient in faith. Knowledge is knowledge. Faith is risk. But a mountain, a mountain is majestic and helps me—it grounds me, reminding me of my place, that while small, I am significant. That while temporary, some things will carry on and have carried on for thousands of years before I existed. I need something bigger than me; we all do.
“God, I need you. I need you. Please help me find the car. Please give me the strength and ability—whatever that’s going to mean—to get to the car. God. Please. I need. I need you.”
I didn’t make the prayer about our relationship or lack there of. I didn’t apologize for not believing, for not having faith, for not praying more often. If God is God, then God is not human and doesn’t need my pathetic pleas that I’d use to possibly appease a human.
If God is God, then God will act or God won’t act. My desperation was not going to be churned into plea bargins and deals offered. If God is God, then God knew I still wildly doubted Its existence even while I whispered those words into the forest. I wasn’t going to pretend that wasn’t true. What was true was that I needed something greater than me and so THAT’s what I said. Honesty.
And so finally, if God is God, then God already knew I needed It and that humility was in the prayer. My act of praying and asking and considering and badly wanting so much for God to exist was enough, I believe, as a human. As a fallible, weak, loveable human. But I am not God, so really, this is all what I hoped was true of God.
I had three glucose tablets left. I climbed up more with plenty of breaks now, to slow my breathing, to eat snow.
Deep breathing felt almost as good as water. I felt peace rush through my body after a few intentional inhales. I felt the control I did have over the situation, and that was with my body, even if only in this small way. I could control my anxiety, my heart rate, and to some extent my sense of peace.
Two and half hours before the sun went down.
The huge drop off was to my left, which was good. This giant landmark was one of two I had. I reached higher and came to land with large patches of snow. This was new. New isn’t necessarily bad. Time went by, I munched on snow, and suddenly snowy Mt. Hood came into view. Hope soared. My sneakers crunched into snow as I made my way right.
I realized I didn’t know Mt. Hood’s face that well but knew I was seeing a different angle. Good God, how far did I walk to the “left” earlier??
I get onto more rocky ground. Familiar. Sort of. I’m realizing I can’t remember all of what I’d previously seen. Nature is so intricate, so different and all the same. Slight differences were not to be discerned. So tired and thankful for going downhill I continued with the occasional threat of rolling my ankle. Never happened. I convinced myself it wouldn’t—that getting injured wasn’t an option.
One hour before the sun would go down.
“You are precious; you are loved. You are precious; you are loved. You are precious; you are loved.”
I got on trails. I got off trails, to forge a path to more “left” trails that I believed existed. I found one. I followed it. I was going to follow it to the bottom of the mountain if that’s what it took. What else could I do? I was done. This was it, as close as I thought I could get to getting back to the original trail I started on. And I thought I was wrong.
Then I saw a moving car through the trees. No! Yes?! I bounded down, faster. None was familiar. But damn it, there was a car, a road!
Picnic benches, yes! Then the dirty red of the back of my car.
Relief flooded my body. It’s weight and it’s weightlessness. I marched boldly, quickly to my car. A few campers noticed me; I pretended not to notice them. This was a moment about a girl and her car.
I collapsed onto the drivers’ seat. I suckled on my water bottle like a piglet, just like I imagined.
Future Hiking Rules for You, Kristen:
Are you alone? Don’t go off-trail.
Are you water-less? Don’t go for a hike longer than 15 min. out (ON A TRAIL).
Are you compass-less? Seriously, invest.
Are you mapless, knifeless, food-less, first-aid-less? Stay home!