Lost in the Pa­cific Woods

She set out to scat­ter her hus­band’s ashes in a na­tional park. Would she make it out alive?

Reader's Digest - - Contents - By tom hall­man Jr.

She set out to scat­ter her hus­band’s ashes in a na­tional park. Would she make it out alive?

FFor 34 years, Jean and Jack Geer doted on each other as they moved from San Fran­cisco to Hawaii to, fi­nally, Port An­ge­les in Wash­ing­ton State. Then, in De­cem­ber 2016, Jean walked into their bu­colic back­yard and found Jack crum­pled on the ground. Seem­ingly in per­fect health, he had died of a mas­sive heart at­tack. He was 72.

In the fol­low­ing months, Jean de­voured books on grief and loss, hop­ing she would find the will to go on with­out him. One task she thought could help: Jack had told Jean that when he died he wanted half of his ashes scat­tered in Hawaii and half in Olympic Na­tional Park, about a 25-minute drive from their home. So in March 2017, Jean du­ti­fully flew to Hawaii to dis­perse the first part of Jack’s re­mains in the ocean. But she dreaded the thought of part­ing with Jack for­ever. She put off spread­ing the rest of Jack’s ashes un­til she was ready. That day came on July 17.

Jean, 71, took the urn hold­ing Jack’s re­mains, grabbed Yoda, her five-yearold 11-pound Chi­huahua mix, and climbed into her 2004 Ford Ex­plorer. It was 4 p.m. A slight woman, just five feet tall, Jean wore capri pants, a Hawai­ian shirt, and can­vas es­padrilles. No need for a coat on what should be a 30-minute walk. She planned to be home in time to make din­ner.

With its dra­matic peaks and old­growth forests, Olympic Na­tional Park cov­ers nearly a mil­lion sprawl­ing acres. Jean was head­ing for one spe­cial spot off Ob­struc­tion Point Road, an eight-mile dirt and gravel by­way. She drove in about three miles, pulled her Ex­plorer over on an un­tamed stretch of road de­void of signs, and got out. She grabbed her cell phone and the urn, stashed her purse in the car, and locked the doors. And then Jean and Yoda en­tered the woods.

The park fea­tures one of the world’s most di­verse pop­u­la­tions of wild­flow­ers, and Jean was on a quest for blue alpine for­get-me-nots. Their beauty, Jack had once told Jean, moved him. When she

didn’t see any, she walked deeper into the woods and fi­nally spot­ted a blan­ket of blue through a small open­ing in the trees. Re­lieved, she walked to the flow­ers and dis­trib­uted Jack’s ashes. She said a quiet bless­ing and turned to leave.

Then she paused. Had she come in this way or that? Where was the trail? Jack would have laughed. He’d fre­quently teased her about her ter­ri­ble sense of di­rec­tion. His nick­name for her was “wrong-way Jean.”

She saw a hill and headed to­ward it. If she could make it to the top, she could scan the hori­zon and spot Ob­struc­tion Point Road. Her shoes, which had smooth treads, were ill­suited for the climb. Yoda ran ahead while Jean strug­gled to main­tain her bal­ance. She slipped, dropped the urn, and watched it roll over the edge of the hill and tum­ble into a gully. Jean crept her way to the slope’s side. She spot­ted the dark plas­tic urn, barely vis­i­ble in the un­der­brush. She hated aban­don­ing any­thing re­lated to Jack, but the steep hill­side was too dan­ger­ous to nav­i­gate. She even­tu­ally made it to the top of the crest, where she saw noth­ing but trees and more hills. She’d been gone from home for a few hours, and it was get­ting dark.

She reached for her cell phone to call for help. No ser­vice. Thirsty, Jean needed wa­ter. She ran­domly picked a route, push­ing her way through un­der­brush and branches that cut and pricked her, un­til she came upon a small creek. She and Yoda drank deeply. As night fell, Jean was chilled by an aw­ful re­al­iza­tion: She would be spend­ing the night in the woods.

She’d heard sto­ries about peo­ple who had died in the park, in­clud­ing one who had been mauled by a bear. Just stay calm, she thought, forc­ing her­self to fo­cus on the task at hand. First things first—she needed a place to sleep. She spot­ted a downed tree, about seven feet in di­am­e­ter, that had fallen on a big rock next to the creek. The space be­neath was large enough to shel­ter her for the night. She crawled un­der the log and lay there. Yoda snug­gled close, warm­ing her as the tem­per­a­ture dipped into the 40s. An ex­pe­ri­enced cam­per, Jean wasn’t fright­ened by the for­est’s strange noises or creepy-crawlies. But her predica­ment did keep her awake. To dis­tract her­self, she thought about the din­ner she’d planned but wouldn’t get to eat: noo­dle soup with pork and veg­eta­bles, and fresh cher­ries for dessert.

And she thought of Jack. Jean re­called the first time she’d laid eyes on him. It was 1982. Armed with her MBA, she had ap­plied for a job at a San Fran­cisco bank, where Jack served as a vice pres­i­dent. Af­ter she was hired as an as­sis­tant vice pres­i­dent, Jack took her to lunch to con­grat­u­late her. Mu­tu­ally at­tracted, they be­gan to date, fell in love, and were soon mar­ried. Think­ing about Jack made her calmer, al­low­ing her to con­clude that if she could make it un­til day­light, she’d find her way out.

At dawn, Jean left the shel­ter, forg­ing her own trail through un­der­brush with Yoda now try­ing to keep up with her. At home, Yoda had the run of nearly five acres, where he chased deer and ex­plored. But this ad­ven­ture was dif­fer­ent. The bushes were high in many places, and he had to tun­nel through. With his short legs, he couldn’t jump over the logs. Dis­cour­aged, he’d yelp for Jean. But Jean couldn’t carry him. It taxed her strength, and she might fall. Yoda was on his own.

Jean, mean­while, was fight­ing her own bat­tles with panic. So much could go wrong in the wilder­ness for even a young, able-bod­ied hiker. But for a sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian, the per­ils were mag­ni­fied. Cross­ing over slip­pery rocks, she wor­ried she’d fall and break a leg. She avoided ravines, know­ing that if she plunged into one, she could never climb back up.

Be­fore she knew it, an­other day had passed. Her chances of be­ing res­cued had not im­proved. As night fell again, Jean and Yoda found an­other fallen tree to sleep un­der.

The next morn­ing, her third day lost in the park, Jean had given up on find­ing her own way out. She’d read sto­ries about peo­ple who’d en­dured in the wild, and the rules of sur­vival were sim­ple: Find a wa­ter source, don’t get in­jured, and find an open spot to make it eas­ier for res­cuers to find you. Then stay put.

By midafter­noon, Jean had scouted out the place she’d call home for how­ever long she needed it. She’d found two trees that had fallen next to each other. She used branches to build a roof and to close off one end of the space, leav­ing an open­ing for a “door­way.” In­side, she stacked branches to use at night to close off the open­ing. She used moss to make the ground softer.

At the end of day three, Jean and Yoda en­tered the eight-by-five-foot shel­ter. As she set­tled in, so many

thoughts, some ab­surd, ran through her head: She’d bought tick­ets with a friend to go on an Oc­to­ber cruise that would take them to Greece, Italy, and Spain. Would she get to go? And then there were those cher­ries. She couldn’t stop think­ing about them.

The next day, her fourth lost, Jean set­tled into her sur­vival rou­tine. Sev­eral times over the course of the day, she made her way down a steep hill to drink wa­ter. Tak­ing care not to fall, she dug her heels into the ground and clung to the bushes.

She tried build­ing a fire by gather­ing dry pine nee­dles and then rub­bing a small stick against a stone, hop­ing the stick would get warm enough to ig­nite. It failed, but she kept try­ing.

Starv­ing, she ate wild cur­rants, ten­der pine nee­dles, and even ants, which had a lemony taste. Yoda, for his part, im­pressed Jean with his new­found abil­ity to snatch flies out of the air and dig up grubs for din­ner.

By 4 p.m., Jean and Yoda had climbed into her shel­ter. De­spite the moss, the hard ground was mis­er­able and the cold was em­bed­ded in her bones. But she wasn’t giv­ing up. Although Jack had taken care of her for so many years, Jean now harked back to a time when she hadn’t been de­pen­dent on any­one.

Shortly af­ter World War II, her fam­ily had moved to the United States from China. At school, kids would hurl racial slurs and start fights with her. Her

fa­ther had sat Jean down and of­fered this ad­vice: You are a lit­tle per­son. You won’t be strong phys­i­cally. You must be strong in­ter­nally. Some­how, some­way, he was say­ing, Jean had to take care of her­self. Hun­gry, tired, and grow­ing weak, Jean drifted off to sleep re­peat­ing her fa­ther’s words.

By now, Jean’s brother in Seat­tle had be­come con­cerned. Nu­mer­ous calls to Jean had not been re­turned, and when he drove the two hours to her home, there was no sign of her. He con­tacted the sher­iff’s of­fice, which sent a miss­ing-per­son re­port to all gov­ern­men­tal agen­cies, in­clud­ing an of­fice at Olympic Na­tional Park. At 1:30 p.m. on July 22, five days into Jean’s odyssey, a park em­ployee spot­ted the Ex­plorer. He ra­dioed it in, set­ting in mo­tion a se­ries of alerts that ended with Zachary Gray, of the park’s search-an­dres­cue oper­a­tions squad, gather­ing a hand­ful of searchers to look for Jean.

They met at her parked Ex­plorer. Dust and wa­ter spots in­di­cated the ve­hi­cle had been there for sev­eral days. Searchers walked into the woods, call­ing Jean’s name. They found noth­ing. At 7 p.m., with night­fall ap­proach­ing, the search was halted.

The search be­gan again the next day at 6 a.m. Gray now had a team of 37 un­der his com­mand, which he split into four groups head­ing out in dif­fer­ent direc­tions. Still, he couldn’t buck the nag­ging feel­ing that this would

end poorly. At 71, Jean was likely dis­ori­ented and prob­a­bly in­jured. Gray had been on ten searches al­ready that year. Nearly all had ended when the team found a body.

At noon, Gray’s two-way ra­dio crack­led. A searcher had found a plas­tic urn with Jack Geer’s name on the side. Gray had other teams fo­cus on a half-mile ra­dius from where the urn was found. Hours passed. Noth­ing.

Gray ra­dioed to re­quest a he­li­copter. Once aboard, he searched be­low where the urn had been found. Jean, he thought, might have fallen into the gully and dropped the urn. In­jured, she likely would have con­tin­ued walk­ing down­hill un­til she ei­ther col­lapsed or died. Fly­ing 300 feet above tree level, Gray saw noth­ing but a sea of green. He had an­other idea. If Jean were some­how alive, she’d need wa­ter. He stud­ied the ter­rain. Far away, he spot­ted a creek. The pilot made two passes. Noth­ing. Wait—gray thought he saw some­thing move. He asked the pilot to cir­cle back.

Then Gray saw a dog. Then a woman with sil­ver hair wav­ing at the chop­per. He ra­dioed the team, giv­ing new in­struc­tions. From a dis­tance, he watched searchers run­ning to the woman. He saw them hug her. His ra­dio came to life: We have Jean.

Af­ter six days in the woods, Jean was too weak to walk out on her own. Gray called in a larger Coast Guard he­li­copter, one that could hoist Jean up into the chop­per in a bas­ket, while the ground crew car­ried Yoda out.

At the hos­pi­tal, doc­tors were stunned that Jean’s only in­juries were scratches on her legs. Tests re­vealed that her potas­sium was low from eat­ing next to noth­ing for nearly a week. She was re­leased from the hos­pi­tal that night with a pre­scrip­tion for potas­sium tablets, which she chased down with a big bowl of cher­ries.

When res­cuers dis­cussed the search, they talked about the small urn. With­out it, they would never have found Jean. Gray is con­vinced that Jack Geer’s spirit pro­tected his wife.

Jean doesn’t doubt it. But the woman who ques­tioned her will to go on with­out her hus­band had found the where­withal to sur­vive. And with that came a life-af­firm­ing con­clu­sion. “It’s time to let go and let [my] own light shine, and stand up,” she told the Seat­tle Times. “This sit­u­a­tion forced me. I re­al­ized I had to be on my own and move on to my life.”

Jean Geer, months be­fore she and her dog dis­ap­peared in Olympic Na­tional Park

The shel­ter Jean made. She and her dog, Yoda, ul­ti­mately lived in it for three days.

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