Thursday, March 1, 2012

Lost in the Woods

By Edith McClintock

When I was eighteen, I hiked into the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina for three weeks with a group of college students, a trip organized out of Montreat Anderson College in Ashville, North Carolina. We crossed 140 miles on land, 26 of them by bike, and another 42 by canoe on lakes and rivers and rapids. I summited five of the 10 highest mountains east of the Mississippi, rock climbed and rappelled two scary peaks called the Camel, and spent three days fasting alone in the woods.

For much of the trip, we were lost, both physically and emotionally. Sometimes it was only for a few minutes, but at the beginning, it was often for days at a time.

We carried everything on our backs, and slept under tarps. We received basic training on low impact camping and reading topographic maps from our two leaders, one an older college student, the other a teacher in the college’s outdoor recreation department. They were there to guide us emotionally and spiritually. Physically, they did little beyond pointing to a tiny spot on a map of green lines each morning and making their recommendations: “You need to camp there tonight,” or “You need to pick up your canoes here at noon.” Eventually, they left us completely.

Each morning, we picked someone from the group as the day’s leader, responsible for guiding and making decisions. At the beginning, I didn’t pay much attention to studying the maps, learning how to read my compass, or taking a turn scouting. I figured others knew how to do it better and would take charge. It wasn’t until I was wandering the side of a mountain in the dark, long after midnight, nearly 10 hours without water, deliriously searching for signs of our destination that I realized I had to change.

The rest of the group had sipped their water slower, even shared with me, and given up for the night, laying out their tarps and sleeping bags on the trail. I continued wandering in the dark, one of our leaders following. It was early enough in the trip that I thought if he saw my delirium from dehydration, my desperation, he would point out where I could find water, maybe share his own, if he had any. He didn’t. He was there only to make sure I didn’t tumble off the side of the mountain, or collapse in hysteria atop a blackberry patch. Eventually, I too had to give up, and I fell into a fitful, obsessive sleep on the trail, dreaming only of water.

It was the closest I came to an emotional breakdown. And it continued through the next morning, when I considered stealing a day-hiker’s water hidden behind a bush off the path. I didn’t, and eventually, late that afternoon, we found our destination, along with a pathetic stream of water dripping from a rock, which I sucked down joyfully.

After that, I learned to read the maps and compass, to take responsibility for scouting and paths taken each day, to negotiate decisions. To hoard water. We all grew stronger. Several who were prone to crying and collapsing in self-pity on the trail miraculously stopped; another, who had a bad knee and walked with a cane the first week, began taking the lead on hills.

But even after a week, we didn’t always make our destination. One night, after a day of hiking, biking, and canoeing, trying to catch up on several previous days we’d spent lost or moving too slow, I fell asleep in my canoe, my body giving out. Luckily, I had a partner who steered us to a forested island, although it still wasn’t our official destination. We crawled up the dark bank, and I fell asleep in a mound of pine needles, too tired to attempt food.

My strongest memories from that trip are of the physical hardships, and occasional pleasures. The 24 hours without water, my lips parched and cracked, my tongue dry. A juicy peach found in a wild grove on the side of a mountain ridge, a taste so sweet and pleasurable it will never be matched. The pain and tedium of step after step, switchback after muddy switchback, on blistered feet. Sinking into a cool river following five days of sweat and adversity in the hills above. Sleep more deep on the cold hard ground than I have experienced before or since in a lifetime of comfortable beds. The rush of sliding over a rapid and being sucked under water, losing my grip on my only paddle. Sunset over the gently rolling green mountains.

But when I read my journal from that trip this past week, there was little about the physical hardships. That night lost on the side of the mountain with no water that looms so large in my memory received only one sentence beginning with “hellish” in a 50-page journal. The pages, which I haven’t read in nearly 20 years, instead track the emotional and spiritual journey of those three weeks. It starts with my unhappiness during my previous semester in college, my impatience and dislike for several members of my group, fights and recriminations of trails not taken and who should not have been allowed on the trip.

The tone changes by week two. We begin to work together as a team, picking up on each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We learn to love and respect each other too, despite our differences. We get lost less. I learn patience, to enjoy each day as it comes. To not always hurry to the destination, as I did the first week. To not dismiss someone who can’t hike as fast, or who breaks down in tears. I learn their reasons, their stories. I learn to be kinder. And I also learn about myself, that I have an endurance to keep going, no matter the obstacle or pain, that I can take the lead and trust my instincts, but I can also walk at the back and help.

During my solo, the three days fasting alone in the woods at the end of the trip, I wrote a letter to myself to remember to take quiet time out of each day to sit and reflect or pray. To find contentment, joy, and appreciation in all situations and circumstances, and so many other things that I won’t go into here. Many lovely ideas, goals, and hope learned while lost in the woods.

But then I returned to Miami and a summer waitressing between my freshman and junior years in college. And I think I forgot a lot of what I’d learned, at least on a conscious level. Deeper, I think I’ve carried the lessons of those three weeks, though I still have to work on the patience and finding contentment and joy in everyday life. And most of all, remembering to read a map.

For more, visit my author website and/or personal blog, A Wandering Tale. Even better, order a copy of Monkey Love & Murder on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or the Book Depository (free shipping nearly anywhere in the world).

13 comments:

  1. You are an amazing woman, thank you for flooding me with the exhilarating memories.

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    1. Thank you, Randy. And for the paddle. It was really nice writing this and reading my journal after all these years.

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  2. That's a great article Edith! I remember the lack of water as one of the biggest hurdles as well, so much so that I drank out of a stagnant puddle of water on the trail and had some interesting little bowel hitchhikers the next time I had to visit the rhododendron facilities..

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    1. Lovely description. I was trying to remember whether I waited to use iodine tablets on that first batch of water we found. But I don't think I did.

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    2. Saul, I seem to remember you going off to collect fire wood and coming back with whole felled trees on your hiking trip! Also, was it your trip that we found the dying bunny on the trail that died in our hands?

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  3. Edith, this made me cry... reminded me so much of the six months I spent alone in a cabin in the woods. Difficult, precious time...
    Love you...
    Aunt Mary

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    1. I remember the tree house, and retreats in India, but you'll have to tell me about the six months in the cabin when I come to visit the twins.

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  4. Edith, I'm sure you still carry some of those life-changing lessons, even if its on a subconscious level. What an amazing adventure! When you were fasting at the end, was that a time of rest and reflection? I can't imagine putting your body through the rigors of the previous weeks without food.

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    1. Yeah, the fast comes near the end, so you've gotten a bit used to not having as much food. We were placed in the woods alone, with just our sleeping bag and tarp, to think and reflect, and a leader walked by once each day to make sure we were okay, but didn't speak to us. Then we had two light days of hiking afterward to recover and then we ended with a 16 mile run back to the college.

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  5. Edith what I remember is your smile and steadfastness throughout the times of tribulation. That and your servants heart, always volunteering to help do whatever needed to be done.

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  6. You are a brave,strong woman!

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  7. Thanks for sharing Edith. That's a great read. I hope my nieces have an opportunity like that. It changes you for life.

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