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Lost in the Frank Church Wilderness: What Does It Really Mean to Be Utterly, Hopelessly, Truly, Lost?

We air-dropped a blindfolded Jim Thornton into the middle of a 2-million-acre wilderness to find out.

You can take the blindfold off now, yells Dan, the bush pilot, over the propeller’s whine. When we first left the central Idaho mountain town of McCall this afternoon, I’d tried to maintain my bearings behind the blindfold by tracking the angle of the sun’s rays on my skin. It didn’t work. Five minutes after takeoff, my overheated skin and I were as lost as we’d ever been.

Removing the blindfold now does nothing to change this.

It’s late morning on a clear September day, and my pupils spasm at the sudden flood of light. We’re a hundred feet off the ground and descending fast toward a meadow rimmed by mountains. Fir trees stretch in every direction, many of them toppled by fire, wind, or pine beetles.

The plane’s rubber wheels bump through the autumn-gold grass and prairie dog holes before rolling to a stop. Torr, the copilot, asks me my first impressions of The Frank–the nickname local folks use for Idaho’s 2.3-million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. If you throw in the Bitterroots to the north, the whole magnificently tangled mess of protected brush and boulders, skeletons and scat, elk and edelweiss, is nearly the size of Connecticut.

“I think a better nickname is The No Return,” I answer.

Torr and Dan smile in bemusement as I heft my 48-pound pack. I’m not exactly an experienced hiker, yet they have been charged with leaving me–lost–in the Idaho woods.

“You guys have any last-minute advice?” I ask.

“We could blindfold you again and spin you around a couple of more times,” suggests Torr.

I decline. Short of surgically extracting my hippocampus (more on that later), I can’t get more lost.

Three minutes later, the Cessna 206 is reduced to a tiny dot in the sky. I indulge in a short scream–half-joke, half-catharsis–confident no other human can hear. Then I shoulder the pack and begin hiking in the hopes of figuring out where I am and how to get out.

In terms of navigational technique, I’m relying strictly on instinct and old wives’ tales. Two chestnuts come to mind. First: If you follow water downstream long enough, you will eventually reach bikini-clad surfer girls. Second: Despite the first tip, your best bet when lost is to stay put and let the rescuers find you. Many lost victims ignore the latter out of ignorance or obstinacy; I’m ignoring it on purpose.

That’s because my goal, my assignment, is to try to find my way out of the Frank on my own–in the process, illuminating what really happens when a hiker goes astray. The rules are simple: BACKPACKER arranged to air-drop me into the middle of a vast wilderness, with no clues as to location. The editors furthermore provided enough food and gear for five comfortable days, at which point I could presumably survive on stored fat and cannibalized muscle tissue.

To give me some chance of determining my actual whereabouts, the magazine threw in dozens of maps and a compass, with which I might be able to hike out (success!) or at least locate an extraction point (tie?). For humanitarian and liability reasons, they included an emergency beacon and satellite phone.

After hiking for 18 minutes in the 87°F air, I’m thirsty, exhausted, and on the verge of prickly heat. It’s all I can do to avoid sat-calling for an immediate medevac. Instead, I take a break, drink half of my water, then soldier onward through the dying–and no doubt snake-ridden–meadow grass.

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