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I am lost in the Rocky Mountains. For what seems like hours, I’ve been trying to convince myself otherwise. I can’t be that far from the road. Maybe the next ridge will look familiar. But now the trees are spinning and my ankles are bleeding, and the river is here, when it was supposed to be there. My breath is jagged, like letting air out of a balloon.
I consider my clothing: cotton T-shirt, leggings, plastic shoes. Tourist clothes. If Search and Rescue finds me, and I am still alive, they will say, “Ma’am, do you know this is the wilderness?” If I’m dead they will be surprised to look at my driver’s license and see that I’m a Colorado local. They’ll think, Shouldn’t she know better? But no one will say this out loud because it’s disrespectful to question a corpse.
Everyone will gaze at my motherless children. Jake will be asking “Where’s Mommy?” in his toddler voice, and Elise, one month old, will be sucking formula out of a bottle. Grown men in uniforms will cry because I was wearing leftover maternity clothes in the forest.
I sit down on a boulder. When a person is lost, it’s good to stop moving. I know this from brochures at National Park offices. This is the one thing I do right. I sit down and bring my knees to my chest and hold my breath to make it slow down. But I’ve already done so many things on the “Do Not Do” list. My T-shirt is glued to my back, my feet are sloshing around in my Crocs, there’s a gash on my knee, and my breasts are full of milk, which isn’t anywhere in the brochures because it’s assumed that mothers will stay close to their babies.
I went out looking for water. That’s what I told my husband, Chris. He was standing in the cabin we’d reserved for a weekend away, changing Elise’s diaper, and trying to keep Jake from smothering the baby with his toy cars. We didn’t need water. I just wanted to go looking for something, and I could hear the river from the dirt road.
It was the end of July and I hadn’t been hiking all summer. Usually we hike or backpack every weekend in the warm months, but this year my belly bloomed along with the Clematis, and I hadn’t waddled much past the white fence enclosing our yard. I wanted to go somewhere wild and watch the aspens shimmy while they were still green.
In the corner, I saw my backpack filled with sensible hiking gear: fleece jacket, rain suit, knife, emergency blanket, matches. But the weather was hot, and I was tired of things that cling.
“Are you taking your pack?” Chris asked.
“Do you want to look at a map?”
Chris shook his head. “Stay close.”
With a glance at my children, I walked out the door.
I followed a game trail to the river. I admit that I got caught up in the soft afternoon light and the velvety leaves on my fingers and the damp scent of soil. A few times the trail faded out and I whispered, “Well, I hope I can find my way back,” and kept walking. Game trails are created by hooves, not tools. They start and stop without warning, and they don’t have arrows pointing back home, because the animals are already home. This is why I kept going. I needed to have that kind of freedom.
From the boulder, I take in my surroundings: downed pine trees, pungent mushrooms, patches of thorny brush. There are purple wildflowers, too, maybe Liatris, but they seem more frivolous than beautiful now, an obstacle between me and my safety.
The rush of the river fills my ears. Steel clouds build in the sky. A lump grows in my throat and then crushes my chest as I swallow my reality: I’m a tiny speck in this vast, gnarled wilderness.
I remember the orienteering class I took in college as a break from academia. It was more baffling than genetics or organic chemistry. The instructor seemed to be equally perplexed, and although he showed me again and again which way was north, the compass continued to feel foreign in my fingers. “Maybe you aren’t meant to find your way,” he joked.
“That’s ridiculous,” I responded.
Today, running my hands through my matted hair, I summon the only survival tool I have: my voice. “Chris,” I yell. “Chris!”
No answer. I don’t even know which direction to yell. I stand up and whirl around. If only I’d left ribbons in the trees. If only I hadn’t left.
Somehow, I need a plan. I decide on the river. If I follow the river, I won’t get more lost. Maybe it will cross the road.
I trudge through the brush, hugging the water. Thorns scratch my calves and tear holes in my pants. What kind of mother does something this careless?
At least Chris insisted on bringing a can of formula to the cabin. I scoffed. “What’s going to happen to me? And why are you thinking horrible thoughts?”
He tossed the can into the bag. “I like to be prepared.”
Now, Elise will be fed because Chris is the mother I’m not. Somehow he is content in the chaos of children. Occasionally, I drown in the depths of their need.
I walk for what feels like miles, but is probably only meters. The terrain is steep and slow. My brain tosses scattered thoughts to the forefront. I think of famous people who’ve tested Mother Nature: the football players who clung to their fishing boat after it overturned in the ocean, the guy from Into the Wild who lived for months in an abandoned bus in Alaska. All of them were experienced outdoorsmen—more skilled than me—but they made grave mistakes.
Survival. I must focus on survival. If I have to, how can I live through a night? The temperature will plummet in mere hours. It won’t freeze, but I’m sweaty and have no warm clothes and hypothermia is always poised to pounce.
I think like a boy scout. Through the eyes of a khaki-clad boy, I size up my surroundings. There are pine branches for warmth, a river for water. (Giardia wouldn’t set in for a few days.) Quick breaths build body heat.
And then I feel an ache in my left breast, and I consider engorgement. I’ll have to express milk to avoid clogged ducts and infection. Maybe I could squeeze it into a hole and lap it up for nourishment. This is way beyond boy scouts. I can just imagine the news footage: Cameras zooming in on me coming out of the woods, escorted by park rangers. WOMAN SURVIVES NIGHT BY DRINKING HER BREASTMILK. The rangers would tell me to smile and wave, but I would shield my face with my hand, like a criminal.
Up the hill from the river, a clearing appears. Maybe I will be able to see something. I climb slowly, calves cramping, looking back at the river every few seconds to make sure it doesn’t magically disappear. In the clearing, there is silence. I hear myself panting.
Far off in the distance, I can see a dirt road. It’s probably the one we drove in on. I consider the distance. Five miles? Maybe six? My heart thumps and then drops. I’d have to hike downhill to get there, into the tangled trees where it is difficult to keep a straight line. There’s no guarantee that I’d find the road. If I had a compass and knew how to use it, this would be easy.
I sit down and put my chin into my hands. Tears roll down my cheeks. In the sky, the sun arcs toward its resting place. I shiver. I am mere miles from civilization, yet I might perish alone. For the first time in my life, the wilderness feels like a concrete cell.
Brushing the dirt off my pants, I stand up in the clearing and throw a rock at a tree stump. Anger bursts from my throat. “Chris,” I yell. “Chris!”
I try again, louder. There is a high-pitched desperation.
And then I hear a faint voice. “Carrie?”
I exhale. Chris. He sounds far away, and in the opposite direction from where I’d imagined. I must’ve walked in a squiggly half-moon. But it’s him.
“Here!” I scream. My heart swells in my chest. I get to go home.
Chris guides me to the road with his voice, which is embarrassingly close, less than a mile away. I finally emerge, ankles wobbling. The sun is hovering in the west. My hair is glued to my scalp, and I reek of sweat and pine sap. From the look on Chris’s face, I can tell I look ragged, like I’ve been living with the animals for weeks.
Elise squirms in Chris’s arms, and Jake wails. Chris pulls me close.
“Mommy,” Jake sobs. “What happened?”
I consider covering my mistake, saying that I just went for a walk. But I decide to come clean with my family. “I got lost,” I say. “But I’m back.”
Jake sniffles and grabs onto my leg. “Well, that happens,” he says, shrugging.
“Yeah,” I say. “It does.”
Carrie Visintainer is the author of Wild Mama (September 2015.) Visit her at Free Your Wild.
“Disorientation” by Carrie Visintainer, copyright © Carrie Visintainer. Originally appeared in Matter Journal and Fort Collins Magazine. Used by permission. All rights reserved.