Lost and Found
Searching for a missing hiker makes you see the trail in a new light.
“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.