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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.

Sunday morning, I awake on a bed of rocks, then crawl out of the tent into the predawn cold. I turn on the SPOT beacon, powered down last night to save the battery. What little water remains in my bottle has frozen. I shake the Nalgene, melting enough to swallow an ibuprofen.

Yesterday, I hiked past some ramshackle, deserted buildings that flanked the landing strip, then headed cross-country. For two hours, I clawed up a mountainside through felled firs–thousands of crosshatched trunks and splintered branches poised to skewer my eyeballs and groin. Even with two walking sticks, I couldn’t stop stumbling. By the time I neared the summit, both of my shins were bloody, my hips felt dislocated, and my lumbar muscles quivered on the cusp of spasm. I didn’t have enough water left to boil a freeze-dried meal.

Despite such difficulties, ascending to an unobstructed vantage point had seemed an imperative: my best chance to spy a telltale landmark–a river, perhaps, or a signature grouping of peaks on the horizon–anything, in short, that might correspond to a recognizable feature on a map. Alas, upon finally reaching the summit, I spied an endless panorama of ridges and peaks, all of which looked uniformly similar. The arduous climb had simply revealed the enormity of the terra incognita in every direction. I remove my voice recorder and tape today’s first note:

Day 1’s goal: Get utterly lost. Check!

Day 2’s goal: Find water.

Breakfast is a 100-calorie packet of Orange Burst GU Energy Gel with caffeine, five chocolate-covered almonds, and the last swallow of water. I hoist the pack and only then notice that it’s sitting atop a large white bone. Elk tibia, perhaps, or wolf femur? Whacked hard against a tree, it breaks. An omen?

For the next hour, I slog downhill through saplings and thickets. Rocky soil gives way to soggy muck. Near a copse of yellow aspens, a spring trickles from the black earth. I follow the water’s desultory progress. Sometimes the flow disappears underground entirely–like a lost hope. I consider turning back and filling the bottles with a slurry of muddy water. But then I press on, not willing to capitulate so easily.

The downslope flattens, and sunlight pokes through the high canopy. At the edge of the forest and another boggy meadow, I encounter a trail, less than a foot wide, meandering from the southwest toward the northeast. It’s at this point that I hear much louder water–the rush of an actual stream concealed hundreds of yards away in the gorse-covered muck.

For the first time in the wilderness, I face a consequential choice. If I try to reach the stream while carrying my pack and fall into the water, I risk fouling the beacon and satellite phone alike. If I leave the backpack behind on dry land and can’t get back to it, I’ll lose not only the safety net but food and shelter, too.

Eventually, like any true believer, I take a leap of blind faith. I lean the pack against a tall tree that I hope I’ll see from the distance. I take out my compass and head due east, toward the sound of the stream. It takes 10 minutes to find the creek, which is gin clear and gorgeously sun-dappled. Carefully, I lower myself down the slick bank and fill both bottles, check the compass again, then head back due west. Only when I can actually touch my pack again does my heart rate begin returning to normal. It’s barely 10:30 a.m., and I’ve met Day 2’s goal. Goal 3: find my way out of here.

Unlike most lost hikers, I have no illusion that salvation–the trailhead, my campsite, a partner–is just out of sight, so I refrain from crashing through the forest in a panic. Instead, I do what most lost hikers should do: refuel and rethink. I break out the stove, instant coffee, a packet of freeze-dried beef and noodles, and several of the maps.

After brunch and a short, restorative nap, I drink a half-liter of water and check the maps. The adjacent creek meanders in a semi-southerly direction, through hills oriented east-west. But there must be dozens, if not hundreds, of creeks that follow this same general pattern. And that’s just on the first map I happen to grab, which shows the southeast quadrant of the Frank’s south half.

At this point, I’m still hoping to stumble upon an incontrovertible landmark–an Ayers Rock of the Frank, if you will–that I can use to pinpoint my location. My fallback strategy–not so much a Plan B as a Plan F given its likelihood of success–is to pick some direction and follow it unwaveringly to salvation or demise, whichever comes first. I am certain, for instance, that if I just travel east long enough, I will get back home to Pittsburgh, albeit most likely not before 2017.

I fold up the map and head back toward the trail I crossed over earlier, resolving to take it wherever it leads. Twenty minutes later, the path widens, and the first prickling of humiliation creeps over my skin. I round a bend and spy a rough-hewn sign: Stonebraker Ranch: Hunting and Fishing Permitted. One ramshackle building looks distressingly familiar. Five minutes later, I’m back at the airstrip.

In a voice heavy with shame, I record:

I’ve just spent a day climbing over dead trees and wading through muck, all to end up exactly where I started. Maybe this is some fail-safe mechanism evolution has instilled in simpletons like me, to keep us from wandering off too far.

In the distance, high mountains stretch to the north and east. I tell myself they’re the Bitterroots, though this is just a guess. Self-disgust now trumps all sense of fatigue. Surely if I march toward these summits, I can stop the aimless circling I’ve mistaken for progress. Perhaps if I lose myself completely, I’ll have a chance to find the way back for real.

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