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The Art of Losing One’s Way

  • The woods of the Upper Valley might not be truly wild, but they are not to be taken lightly. Even close to home, it’s easy to get turned around and end up lost when venturing off the trail. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, August 21, 2017

At dusk on a cross-country ski trail one November many years ago I realized I was lost.

I’d gone into the woods, not to ski, but to walk my two dogs in terrain familiar to me. So familiar that I hadn’t bothered with water, food, map or flashlight — no cell phones yet — although it was late fall and cold and I went in after 2 p.m. A classic, stupid and completely preventable error.

I lived in West Hartford at the time, near a network of old logging trails that ran from West Hartford to Quechee. In the interest of rambling exploration I’d purposely gone off the trail, blithely assuming that I would loop my way back with little difficulty.

I understood my mistake too late, just as darkness was swallowing the last teaspoons of light.

I’d grown up in New York City and after moving to Vermont it took me two years to accustom myself to the idea and the experience of being alone in the woods. I knew there were birds, mammals, reptiles and insects, and sometimes the occasional human. But still, alone. Responsible for myself and my well-being, and, when they were with me, the well-being of my two young beagles.

I liked stumbling across the old roads and trails that cut through the woods, the stone walls that ran up and down hillsides, the cellar holes that bore silent testimony to the people who once lived there, the apple orchards overtaken by forest, and the unpredictability with which any of these could suddenly appear, as if you were looking through a camera lens at a landscape that went from grainy and indecipherable to sharp and clear.

I learned to distinguish between the abrasive chatter of squirrels and the squeaks of chipmunks, and to identify the gusting snorts of deer sending up the alarm. I no longer jumped when I heard the sputtering engine sound of the male ruffed grouse’s courtship display, or the abrupt snapping of twigs.

When the winds of March and November barrelled through the trees like oncoming freight trains, and dark clouds sped by, I felt a mix of apprehension and exhilaration. I relished being on a trail with my dogs when snow began to fall, lightly at first, then with greater intensity.

The thrill of these sensations, of being in the elements, in Nature with a capital N, was predicated, of course, on the possibly naive assumption that they would be replaced soon enough by the comforts and safety of home. They were also predicated on the absolutely false assumption that I was in full control.

For the most part, I’d felt at ease within the geographical confines of the woods where I walked. I wasn’t daring enough to ever go alone into real expanses of wilderness, or places where I would put myself at risk.

This cost me the sense of accomplishment that comes from testing oneself against nature, but it also spared me the gnawing fear that comes from realizing you’ve gotten yourself into something you may not be able to get out of.

Coming from the city, I wasn’t used to seeing armed hunters in the fall, or even civilians carrying firearms. On those occasions when I crossed paths with hunters in tree stands (something made me look up) or walking behind me on a trail (something made me look over my shoulder), I had to quell my instinct to put my hands up in a Don’t Shoot posture, or to run away. Over time I became more accustomed to it, although I still don’t feel entirely comfortable.

I grasped that, daily, we put faith in the good intentions, moral codes and civilized restraint of the other humans around us and that, most of the time, that faith is rewarded.

But when it hit me that afternoon that I’d lost the trail and didn’t know how to find it again, I was aghast at my stupidity. Why, exactly, had I decided to go off the trail when I knew dusk would soon descend?

Then I panicked.

For about 30 minutes, I let loose, at the top of my lungs, a volley of profane epithets, along with screeching and yelling that would have scared off any creature in the vicinity. I cried. I felt very sorry for myself. I didn’t know whether I wanted to hear the sound of another human voice, or not hear one. I’d watched more than my fair share of horror movies: I knew what happened to women alone in the woods.

Further complicating the situation, the dogs were still on their flexible leashes, which work fairly well when you’re able to see what you’re doing. In the dark, though, the leashes, now extended to their full length, became tangled around my legs. I was hobbled.

I was anxious that if I let the dogs loose, so I could maneuver, they would run away and I’d be unable to find them. I had visions of packs of coyotes ripping the dogs to pieces in front of me or, worse, hearing it happen in the near distance and being unable to do anything about it. In retrospect I should have trusted more in the abilities of my dogs to pick up the trail than in my own.

For a few hours, I shuffled through the leaves and underbrush, trying to pick up a sign of anything familiar. It became clear that I was doing nothing more than moving in circles. My eyes gradually adjusted to the dark. I think there was a half-moon. I was on top of a hill and I could see through the woods the lights of houses both across the White River and at the outer reaches of Quechee Lakes, taunting me.

I knew that my life wasn’t really in danger: It wasn’t so cold that I couldn’t have spent a night in the woods, and I wasn’t in wilderness. But I was chagrined by how quickly my nerve deserted me.

Now I understood how panic in the face of something unpredictable and potentially threatening could exacerbate any situation tenfold. Surging adrenaline makes it that much harder to sort out what’s happening around you. Getting out of the woods at night would depend on my ability to calm myself, and to think rationally, neither of which I’d demonstrated to that point.

As it finally dawned on me that I was not going to be able to pick up any trail, unless by accident, I heard, underneath the rustling of the woods at night, another unmistakable sound — the low buzzing thrum of traffic. Despite my ineptitude, I had managed to work my way downhill enough that I could pick up the whine of cars on I-89.

Logic reasserted itself. If I could get through the woods and downhill to the highway, maybe I could follow the highway south to the next, closest exit. If I could do that I could get to a phone to call my husband.

I don’t know how long it took me to scramble down to the highway and shimmy underneath a long chain link fence, pushing and pulling the dogs until we were all together on the highway shoulder. Then a mile walk along I-89, as far off to the side as I could get.

There were a few more mishaps, including inadvertently bumping into an electric fence meant to keep cattle in and predators out, which delivered quite the jolt. I backed up hastily and promptly hit the other side of the fence. After extricating myself I began walking down a road but was saved by a guy in a pickup truck who kindly drove me to the nearest gas station.

I now understand how quickly error compounds error. You can get turned around and disoriented in no time at all in the dark, or even in the daytime; you can’t spot signposts or landmarks, and what seems to be a human-made trail turns out to be one traced by deer. If I’d been in a remote area, what might have happened?

I think about Geraldine Largay, the 66-year-old woman whose remains were found last summer in a very remote area off the Appalachian Trail in Maine, after she had gone missing in 2013. According to a New York Times report, she had headed up the mountains instead of down in search of an elusive cell phone signal. She survived nearly a month before dying.

I could see myself making the same mistakes with perhaps the same outcome.

If I derive any satisfaction from the episode, it is that, in the end, both intuition and logic pushed me in the right direction. You possess a greater measure of survival instincts than you think you do. (People also told me that if I wandered off-course again, to follow any stream downhill, although I hadn’t come across one that night.)

And I did learn from my mistake. If I am in the woods, even on trails that I’ve been on hundreds of times, I turn back when the sun dips below the tree line. Most of the time.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.