FRONT-PORCH GOSPEL: Lost in Yellowstone (Chapter 6)
After writing and sharing the details of Day Two, one of my favorite nieces, Leah Hays, wrote, “God and prayer – the only reasons ya’ll made it out.”
I guess it is easy to forget just how precarious these days were, both the ones of which you have already read and, especially, the ones to come. Perhaps we tend to think that since we avoided tragedy that the danger may not have been that real. I even begin to think the same thing, until I am able to take myself all the way back to some of those most tense moments, especially the hours when Todd and I had to separate, and we did not know if we would be able to find one another before nightfall.
No, being lost – and being ‘lost, again’ in the remote regions of Yellowstone – those are some of the most dangerous hours in one’s life. You’ll remember – and my niece reminds us of it again here – the thesis, if one needs stating, of this story is the amazing nature of God’s grace and Providence. It came down to that. Without it, someone else would be telling this story, and that, only in bits and pieces.
Early Tuesday we folded the tent without talking and pulled the bags down from the tree and headed out on the trail, a little earlier than usual. Even in this remote bear meadow, Todd and I were encouraged to see a sign pointing us to “Heart Lake Trail.” We started out on that trail, more confident than before that we could find the trail. We started out, and I am not sure at that point what our thought process was regarding making the entire sixty-five-mile hike. We had not discussed modifying the trip, but we would soon.
We would have a full two hours of cooler weather with our early start. I believe we would have been headed south, or southwest, because the sun came up in our face and it would be on our left or a bit behind us as we traveled. Day three was no different in one respect from all the other days – it was non-stop, with Todd leading the way but never getting out of sight. The sun came out and, before we knew it, was blistering, as it had been every day. My legs, by this time, were completely gone, but they had been gone for two days. You don’t get any deader than dead, I guess. I believe that phenomenon, if that is what to call it, may be the most difficult thing to explain. Having no legs on a three-mile hike is one thing. Having none for up to nine miles six full days in a row, that’s something different. The only solution I knew is the one I took: Move as slowly as needed, but keep moving. That we did. With every slow, tired step a struggle, we made our way out of our bear meadow unscathed.
It was some time after noon, maybe one o’clock, when I think I hit the wall with some degree of finality. Todd was down a hill and fifty feet or so ahead of me, nearing a rolling creek, and I came upon a rock in a slightly shaded area. That was it, for me. I took off my backpack, plopped down on the ground on that rock, and hollered out to Todd, “I’m done. I’m done!”
I laugh at this now. For the first time, the frustration of running this hike as if it were a race against time or nature got to me. I felt sorry for Todd at that moment because of Todd’s good nature. You won’t read anything negative about that gentleman, because there just isn’t anything negative I could say. But what I need to say, though, is that he is a very literal person. His life is organized in a sort of box that kept one foot in all the time. Mine might look more like the floor of a kid’s room.
One evening I asked him, “Todd, you’ve got to tell me. You know you’re structured to an absolute tee. How does Staci deal with that?”
“Oh,” he said, “she worse than I am.”
I smiled. That family never is late for church, I bet.
But that personality did tend to provide us some funny moments.
When I said, “I’m done” on the trail that Tuesday, I’m pretty sure that scared Todd, because I believe he thought that I meant that I wasn’t moving one inch further, that they might as well send in the helicopter or horses now, because I’m not moving another inch, not now, not ever. That’s what “I’m done” means, literally.
But, of course, that wasn’t what I meant. I was done, all right, but I was done for that moment. I wasn’t moving another inch right then, regardless of where we thought we had to be that evening. The only schedule – the only box anybody was going to put me in – is that at the moment I was leaning back against a rock and not moving.
I don’t know exactly how Providence works – That was one of the big talks Todd and I along with our original hiking buddies Roy Deering and Randy Butler had on our drive up – but I am sure it was at work at that pivotal moment when I hit the ground. Of course, Providence would be called upon even more in the days ahead. I hadn’t been sitting there long trying to get rested and hydrated until an older couple of hikers walked up. Those two – the Hogans – were clearly experienced hikers, just as was every hiker we met. Fact is, we never did meet an ‘inexperienced’ one, except when we looked at the reflection from a still stream of water. You understand.
Todd came back up the hill to us as I talked to the two hikers recapping the past three days of non-stop, relentless, hot, mosquito-fested, up-hill, tiring, leg-killing hiking. I didn’t get up – which is unusual for me when I greet people – but I continued to visit with them sitting against the rock where I was.
The husband was more of an outgoing, talkable type of man, his wife Cynthia more stoic and matter-of-factly. Both personalities worked, just as the two hikers they stumbled across, I guess. Cynthia began showing Todd how to get back to the trailhead where our adventure began, drawing a map that would put us at Surprise Campground in about three miles. Mr. Hogan talked to me cheerfully during Ms. Cynthia’s half of an hour of instruction. I commend them, as others we would meet on the trail, for taking this time with us and putting their own schedule on hold.
Mr. Hogan told me something as we talked that stuck with me. In his spirited way, he said, “Now, Steven, you have to enjoy this hike. Enjoy God’s nature. Stop and look around. Take a swim in the creeks. Take your time and soak it all in. This is supposed to be fun.” Then he added a tidbit that I already knew but needed reinforcing.
“And remember,” he said, “either you’re building your body up or you’re tearing it down. You want to build it up.”
I thanked him for that reminder, because I was well aware that for three days I had been tearing my body down in a way I had never done before, in a way I can’t even explain – and I needed to give it time to restore. Before our friends left us, Cynthia walked over toward me and asked if we needed to send a message to our families when they got out of the wilderness the next day. I said that would be great, and dictated this short message to the amazin’ blonde:
“We are good, but really tired. We should be out by Saturday.”
After I dictated that much, I wanted to ask her to write that I loved her, but, fatigue and emotions set in, and I couldn’t quite get it out; so, I just said, “That’ll do.”
Our two hiker friends set out again on their own journey; but they would go on to play a big role in things in the next couple of days, as (we would learn much later) they were in contact with both the amazin’ blonde and Roy and Randy on Wednesday afternoon. Their report alarmed Marilyn as well as Todd’s wife Staci, who was in constant contact with her; but they kept everything under wraps for the most part so they would not alarm the whole world, for which Todd and I both were thankful.
As they left us, we did not know that it would be more than forty-eight hours before we would see anyone else – and that those forty-eight hours would be the most intense of all. In short – and there is no doubt about this – the next forty-eight hours were lifechanging.