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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.

Lost or found? I don’t know anymore. My brain’s not working right and hasn’t been for some time.

The creek I hope is the Whimstick is swollen from last night’s downpour. The temperature has fallen into the 30s, and snowflakes now mix with drops of rain. It was too wet last night to light the stove for dinner, too wet to cook breakfast this morning. I’m not hungry anyhow, but my muscles twitch from exhaustion, cold, and low blood sugar. Yesterday’s celebration now seems like hubris, punishable by god only knows what will come next. If I am reading the map correctly, the trail crosses the Whimstick here and just one more time about two miles upstream. Just two crossings, then a straight shot to Root Ranch. The map gives no hint about what’s there, but I’m holding out hope there will be at least a partial roof remaining, a place where I can light the stove.

The Whimstick current is deep and swift. A small part of me knows I should cross it barefoot to save my socks and boots from a drenching. A larger part of me is just too cold to do so. I fabricate waders out of Hefty bags and cinch the flimsy plastic handles to my hipbelt. Balanced by the walking sticks, I quadruped through the whitewater.

The Hefties for the most part hold up, but getting wet is inevitable. The trail cuts through drenched bracken, and soon my pant legs are soaked. Moisture infiltrates my boots. An hour later, I reach the final crossing point.

On the far side, the trail immediately ascends up a ridge, leaving me wobbly-legged by the top. It’s snowing harder now. I hike until I’m too tired to go on, then rest ’til I’m too cold to stay put. My hands are freezing, and I try to remember where or even if I packed gloves. My brain has entered that befuddled state where simple thoughts are hard to hold. The map says this trail should be bearing south, but the compass says it is southeast: close enough.

Another descent, another lengthy slog through a rain-slick bog. The trail disappears in a profusion of plants, then reappears briefly before dead-ending at the creek.

This can’t be. I’ve already crossed it the final time. My eyes skitter from one bank to the other but find no hint of a trail on the opposite side heading south. My stomach sinks, and my skin burns as if shocked. The anxiety that’s been brewing for hours transforms in an instant to full-blown panic. Have I been bending the map, and now broken it?

Before I can stop myself, I bolt across the stream, boots flooding as I plunge into knee-deep water. On the other side, I charge through smothering vegetation for signs of the trail. There’s nothing but a bewilderment of wild roses, alpine bamboo, and orange-leafed bramble, all of it soaked with rain starting to ice. After three minutes of frenzy, I’m totally exhausted. I reverse course back to the creek, take off my boots, dump the water out, and wring my socks with fingers white as bone.

Again, I try to spy the faint outline of a trail on either side of the ravine, and finding nothing like what the map says should be here, I begin to shiver. I can’t remember ever being quite so tired or dispirited. Quite so lost. I register a truth our ancestors surely knew: For all the majesty and inspiration the wilderness can provide, it couldn’t care less if it heartens or breaks us.

I reach for the satellite phone, but it only makes me feel more depressed. I am as close to crying as I’ve been in years. My brain is too cold, tired, and low on fuel to articulate why, but I sense using this phone will only lock me in a much worse place. I put it away and grab the map and compass instead, will my breathing to slow, tell myself that if I can’t think fast, there’s nothing wrong with thinking slowly.

Minutes later, I’ve made my decision. I head once more through the smothering plants, but slowly this time and with eyes sweeping side to side, the better to look without desperation. The process takes much longer than I’d like.

But I finally find the trail again.

This time, I have no illusions that salvation is imminent, nor, for that matter, permanent. Over the next hours, I lose my way two more times before coming upon the single hardest obstacle of the trek: a section of trail too steep to circumnavigate on either side, but blocked by dozens of ponderosas felled by a mud slide.

Not long after I’ve clambered across the pines, the trail spills onto a high meadow. I follow this to a paddock where a herd of 20 mules and horses turn in unison to look me over. Behind them is a modern hunting lodge, smoke rising from the chimney.

Orange light glows in the lodge’s windows, cutting through the gathering dusk. A hound dog starts to bay, and pretty soon a man comes outside and gestures a welcome. Never in my life have I been so relieved to see a complete stranger.

The sanctuary a wilderness can give us is inestimable, and even in my exhaustion I know I’ll be returning to a place like this one day soon. But when nature is at her pitiless worst, being lost is dreadful. It’s not just the panic and physical deprivation. Absent reliable bearings to reckon our place in the natural scheme, we lose our sense of belonging here at all. Is there anything worse for a backpacker who cherishes the freedom of wide-open wilderness? Getting lost, I’ve learned, is an excommunication, a fall from grace. Whatever measures it takes, I’m determined to never let it happen to me again.

For now, the scent of roasting meat floats in the smoke–a promise of nourishment, safety, and heat. Despite legs bowed from exhaustion and still twitching from cold, I can’t stop myself from dancing the last steps to deliverance.

Jim Thornton has jet-skied from Alaska to Siberia and swum with sharks in the Bahamas. Neither was as hard as being lost in the Frank, he reports.

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