Lost and Found

Search­ing for a miss­ing hiker makes you see the trail in a new light.

Backpacker - - EDITOR'S NOTE -

“YOU GO AHEAD. We’ll meet you at the camp­site.” That was the con­sen­sus from my mom and her friend Diana, who were hik­ing more slowly than their grand­chil­dren. It was a reunion of sorts, with three gen­er­a­tions back­pack­ing to a lake in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s Trin­ity Alps this past sum­mer, and it was no sur­prise that the 72 year olds weren’t keep­ing pace with the teenagers.

It was the first day, and we were plan­ning to camp 5 miles in, half­way to the lake, at a spot we knew from pre­vi­ous trips. Our fam­i­lies started hik­ing here when I was about 10 years old, and we re­turned most sum­mers be­cause of the wild­flower-filled mead­ows, gran­ite cirque, and per­fect jump­ing cliff that rose out of the clear, cold wa­ter. I was look­ing for­ward to in­tro­duc­ing my 12-year- old son to that sheer rock.

We de­cided that Lisa, Diana’s daugh­ter, would stay with Team Grandma, and the rest of us (five kids and two adults) would push on to set up camp. The sec­ond part of the plan went fine. We ar­rived at the creek­side site, cooled off in a swim­ming hole, pitched tents, hung bear-bag lines. Ev­ery­thing was ready for the late ar­rivals. Ex­cept they didn’t ar­rive.

At dusk, more than two hours af­ter we ex­pected to see them, I knew some­thing was wrong. I packed a few things—head­lamp, wa­ter, snack, shell—and set off back down the trail. The weather was warm and clear, and the path a gen­tle des­cent. It was easy go­ing even by head­lamp, and I had plenty of time to worry about what might have gone wrong.

As it hap­pened, I had just fin­ished edit­ing “Search­ing for Pops” for this is­sue (page 71). In this heart-wrench­ing story, Robert Woodie re­counts the week he spent look­ing for his 74-year- old fa­ther, who didn’t re­turn as planned from a solo back­pack­ing trip in the High Sierra. His tale is a pow­er­ful re­minder that the wilder­ness where we love to play is no play­ground.

I thought about Woodie’s search for his dad as I looked for my mom, shin­ing my light to ei­ther side of the trail, hop­ing to see the re­flec­tion of a tent. They had all their gear—per­haps they’d just got­ten tired and de­cided to camp along the way?

Like Woodie, I thought about all the back­pack­ing trips I’d done as a kid, how those ex­pe­ri­ences shaped my re­la­tion­ship with my par­ents, shaped my life. And like Woodie, I couldn’t help fear­ing the worst: that a place I love had taken some­one I love.

I ar­rived at the trail­head with­out hav­ing seen any sign of the miss­ing trio. I was re­lieved, but mys­ti­fied: How had we missed each other? Had they hiked past us some­how? Taken a wrong turn? Both were un­likely. Maybe I’d hiked by them in the dark and they were still some­where along the trail, in­jured? I de­cided to hike back at dawn, when I could see bet­ter.

At day­break, I cov­ered the 5 miles back to our camp in a rush, as­sum­ing this time I’d spot them. But no. Just the creek and cedars and leop­ard lilies. I thought of Woodie again, and of the beauty he found even as he was search­ing with dread in his heart. I was sur­prised to find my­self feel­ing the same way, my anx­i­ety tem­pered by the green­gold of the meadow in the sun­rise light.

Twelve hours af­ter the grand­mas and Lisa van­ished, they walked into camp. They’d missed a turn and gone so far in the wrong di­rec­tion that they’d been forced to spend the night there. They were fine, more em­bar­rassed than any­thing (it’s a well-marked turn, no mat­ter what my mom says).

I hope I never have to search for a miss­ing hiker again. But if I do, at least I can say my mom pre­pared me well.

Clock­wise from top left: Le­won and his mom, Elaine; Horse­shoe Lake; three gen­er­a­tions of back­pack­ers; the missed trail junc­tion.

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