FRONT-PORCH GOSPEL: Lost in Yellowstone (chapter 9)
“A danger greater than the bear.”
The next morning, I was up early, as usual, getting the bags down from the tree and getting ready for our fourth day of hiking. I remember our being especially tired that morning and not very talkative. I managed a “good morning” to Todd as we were taking down the tent, and that was about it.
After we got dressed and packed and got ready to head down the trail heading east, we made a decision. I believe Todd brought it up, and I readily agreed. We decided to leave my backpack on the trail. I felt that if I was going to get out of the wilderness on my own – I knew we were as many as twenty miles deep into the wilderness – that I was not going to do it carrying those thirty-five pounds.
We unloaded a number of heavy items – my sandals, a one-man tent, all the clothes besides a few, even one of my hiking poles. I put the few items I was going to carry in the empty blue tent bag, all of which weighed about ten pounds since we kept a flashlight and bear spray. Later I realized I should have kept the backpack and both poles and discarded most of the rest of the contents. A light backpack would have been easier to tote than having a ten-pound tent bag to carry in your hands.
Before leaving, I wrote a note to leave with the bag, telling the time and day and direction we were going; and I included the amazin’ blonde’s cell number. I did not expect the note to be found in the next day or so, not in this remote location. If we continued to be lost, the note would give searchers a place to start should they find the note.
Leaving the note and the backpack, we headed east down the trail, as we had planned. We had only gone a couple hundred yards when we ran into seven-or-eight-feet high grass that closed off the trail completely. It had a seriously ominous look to it, and Todd went a few feet into it and came out. We both agreed that we should not chance going into that quagmire.
It was then, at that moment, that I knew that we were lost. At least, if there was any doubt, this removed all of it. That realization changed my approach and mindset, too. It’s funny how you start out the trip just tagging along with three of your companions, depending on them to know the way, to guide us with their prior research and the GPS. And when we separated from Roy and Randy, Todd took over the guide role; and he did it ‘heartily as to the Lord,’ as the Book says.
Still, for a number of reasons, I suppose, the trail disappeared on us, and we took the wrong trail and ended up maybe a mile or two way too far to the south and the east.
That morning, we turned around and headed west, back toward the river.
We were about to make another tough decision, now that it was clear that we did not know where we were and had no idea how to get back to a trail. We came back to where we had left the backpack, and we stopped to add to the note that we were not headed east as we had written a few minutes before but headed west and would go north up river. Attaching that note to the backpack, we began our fourth day’s hike.
The entire tone of the hike had changed, both in a bad way, and in a good way. The realization that you are lost that deep in this remote wilderness was sobering. But there was also a calmness that fell over me, it seemed. I think, perhaps, I shifted into a survival mode and knew I had to do whatever was necessary to give me and my friend the best chance to come out of Yellowstone safely and injury free. I think a little of the coaching mentality set in, too. I was no longer just along for the ride. I had to be a much more active decision-maker and an even more pragmatic hiker. We had little room for error. A wrong move now, and we could be in trouble.
Even as I re-live those Wednesday morning moments, I realize that even with the numerous times I’ve told this story in the past week to my own family and others, I am sure they will feel some degree of surprise at just how scary the situation had become by that morning. I still had full confidence in Todd’s ability to maintain the physical stress and to be able to find his way eventually. But I also knew my own vulnerability. Should I push my legs too hard from this point on, even to the extent we had the last three days, and – as a result – pull one of the many leg muscles that were very susceptible to tightening up – Todd would be walking out of there alone. That scenario carried with it an increasing number of dangers.
I still say it is by God’s grace that these old out-of-shape legs held up under the stress they had been under. And I am glad that I had the understanding that I had to keep them healthy, as all costs. To be rendered unable to walk down that deep in the wilderness would have meant I would have been stranded in this remote place for whatever time it would have taken Todd to find the path, go find help, get the help to come deep into the wilderness, and then to try to find my exact location. That process would have taken a couple of days, at least – and that’s if they could locate me at that point. Todd would have been at the end of his own rope; and his own dangers would have been very real had he had to go on alone and try to execute all of those steps while trying to stay well himself.
My church friend Dale Wells from Lexington, Oklahoma pointed out much of that situation to me as we talked a week or two after the events. “It’s not the bears that present the greatest danger,” he said, “it’s the elements.”
We faced the threat of battling the elements in unknown territories for days, if we could not find a trail. So, on Wednesday morning, with all of those dangers staring us down, we began that trail-finding journey, hoping and praying for the best.
But I am glad of something that I just now seem to realize. The thoughts of those real dangers and the fact they were more likely to happen than not, at that point – those thoughts really did not enter my mind, not that morning, not even as we came back to the Snake River and Todd and I had to make the most difficult decision we would make on the entire trip.
We stood on a rocky island that separated that clear, choppy river into two sections that morning, and we looked up that flowing river as far as we could to the north, and we made a decision.
Even unspoken, we both knew that decision could prove to make one or both of us fight to survive, and soon.