Lost

Prose, including snippets (mini-memoirs).
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mnaz
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Lost

Post by mnaz » October 20th, 2020, 12:43 pm

I don't think I've posted this story here yet. At least not on this particular board. A story about getting lost-- not in any existential/psychological sense, but actually physically lost in the desert, with no clue where I am on the face of the earth, and dwindling resources at my disposal.
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I wanted to go deep into the high desert . . . into the largest blank spot on the map, to high plains of thick, fragrant sage, aching spans and rambling antelope. I'd never see it all, but I could get closer. I had trail in mind, and Jodie at the Plaza store in Burns, Oregon said it was "a very long drive through nowhere," which sounded about right. I'd get far enough out to leave the grid, maybe even slip beneath it and see if the same physics still applied.

From Burns it was eighty miles to the next gas pump, but a plywood sign on the pump said it was dry. The next pump was forty miles, but my trail was just twenty miles down the asphalt ribbon. When I got there I pulled over and laid down on the centerline, and stared at the big blue sky dome. The big gateway. Don't pass up the opportunity. I had to decide: do I head out on five-eighths tank, or detour twenty miles and back to fill the tank?

No debate, really. I left pavement and began to cross sage realms on a dirt track. I noted my passage from each ridge to the next, but lost track of how all those stretches added up to a larger mosaic, a great divide, an isolation that might turn on me if I went too far . . . into the enormity of eastern Oregon, where most ranch hands know only the nearest distant mountain or two, and spend their days naming the nameless between here and there.



The path ran long and straight toward vanishing points. The trip would take awhile, but time was no factor; it was suspended in every direction. I passed a few blinding white dry lake playas beside a mahogany rim, and the trail climbed into a canyon, where grim gray rock walls the color of medieval turrets began to close in, so I locked the hubs and crawled and twisted over deep ruts and half-buried boulders, and made it through before the walls could finish me off.

At the top open vista returned, coated in thick gray sagebrush almost the same color as the medieval rock spreading out on each side. The trail climbed steadily, watched by a row of weathered formations like sentinels on the rim above. Hills showed a golden grass sheen on brawny slopes, like the backs of passing lions. I took these beings for granted until I climbed onto a plateau, onto the great slab of desert in which those sentinels and passing lions had been carved.

Then I launched across a sagebrush sea with dangerous momentum. The trail forked at several places, but I tried to stay on the main path. I searched for a trail that ran south to a lonely road at the Nevada line. I tried two trails, but they both dead-ended a few miles in . . . So I stopped and got out to look around. Maybe I'd taken a wrong turn, or maybe several wrong turns. Or maybe it was just a few more miles.

The sun dropped and I unrolled my sleeping bag. . . No need to worry. I'd simply retrace my path if I couldn't find the Nevada trail, all the way back to my jumpoff point, the same timeless trek in reverse. The gas gauge was low, but I should have enough to make it back . . . I took a slow whiskey pull, as stars became tactile on a dark, viscous ocean. The weight of silence was broken only by a single wolf howl somewhere across the divide, primal and searching. Another lost soul. My heart thumped, and sleep eluded me.




At dawn I rose in cold, pristine stillness, which did little to clarify my position. I scoured the horizon for clues, but noticed only the tips of two distant mountain peaks. Nothing on the rolling sage plain offered a clue. I was adrift on that ocean. Since fuel was low it was risky to keep looking for the Nevada trail, so I began my retreat, back down the long trail, back toward the rock sentinels and passing lions. The only sure thing I had left.

But my sure thing went astray, past a small hill I didn't remember from the day before. I backtracked to another fork, but it also died few miles in . . . And then I fought a wave of panic, an inner frenzy, a sinking sensation unlike anything I'd experienced before. In that terrible instant I realized I had no idea where I was on the face of rock. No clue about my footing. All reference had been yanked from under me . . . How could that be? How could I do that to myself in a land of freedom? I suffered a quiet convulsion; the scope of my blunder was too large to process.

I went back to my campsite to study the horizon and map. There was no phone signal, no GPS. I didn't need GPS, not in a desert with so many mountain ranges to guide me. Except not on that particular ocean . . . And then I realized, I had achieved what I came for: I had left the grid behind. In fact I'd fallen completely off the grid, into subspace. I kicked the ground, and it sent back an equal shock. It seemed the usual physics still applied. I watched dead grass stalks flinch in dry whiffs. A hawk circled over a rise, worlds away. I'd made my desert impossibly distant. Space had devoured me.

I had nothing to go on except the tips of those two far off peaks I saw earlier. I studied them with intense focus and noticed that one of them reminded me of a distant mountain I 'd seen from my jumpoff trail, and I had an idea which one it might be on the map. And if so, then maybe I could identify the other peak as well, and triangulate them with where the sun rose-- due east, since it was the equinox. One remembers sunrise on the day of battle. So I put a straight edge and pencil to the map and decided that maybe I wasn't too far off course. But how far was that, exactly?

It seemed Nevada and the lonely paved road lay somewhere beyond a knoll to the south, or maybe several knolls, superbly dimensionless in late morning glow. I spotted a narrow trail to the southeast. Maybe it hooked south into Nevada, but I couldn't afford another dead-end. So maybe I should walk that trail. But wait, I should walk atop the knoll, for a better view. But what if it was a jumble of knolls? Could I stay on course? Could I trust my judgment anymore?




My mind raced and my gut churned, yet escape might be just over the next rise. The knoll might be one of the tawny ridges I'd seen from the far side when I first came to that high plain a few years before. The road I sought might be just beyond . . . or miles beyond. But how far could it be? Two miles? It had to be less than ten . . . Was it foolish to leave the truck? Some cattle outfit might show up. Or not. I hadn't seen a single cow out there . . . I sat, frozen, my head continually shifting between coherence and stabs of panic.

The desert is known for tales of miscalculation, where salvation is just over the next rise, always the next rise. My sister warned me not to go solo. She explained how thirst overtakes you. The body sends too much water to the skin, until your tongue dries and speech fails, and every muscle in your body begins to ache with tremendous pain as you sweat vital salts, and your brain tries to suck every bit of oxygen from your blood. You might try to drink urine, to buy time, but a mile later you'll strip off clothes chafing at dry pores, stagger on for awhile and collapse as your fever spikes . . . 104, 105 . . . Out. And quickly, you pray, before black winged scavengers pick at your dying flesh.

But that's crazy. She meant Arizona, not Oregon. No one rides into Arizona's inferno except outlaws making a last stand. But my mind still raced . . . Jesus man, slow your mind . . . ridiculous idea, dying of thirst with a gallon jug of water in my hand. Yet even if worst-case scenarios of any situation rarely play out, it's chilling to consider how they might unfold. Your path is clear, until it isn't. Something happens. You get lost, maybe take a fall, and peace and light feel much different; they might try to keep you.

I'd heard of a man who studied the Anasazi. He wanted to explore the plateau above Chaco Canyon's great ruins, its rain potholes, yucca and pinon, sustenance and medicine for the ancient tribe. He tried to climb a weary sandstone cliff, and a chunk of it broke loose and crashed onto his head, which left him immobilized, concussed, nauseous and terrified, stuck on a ledge for one night that seemed like years. He stared at the stars, noted their ceaseless rotation . . . And I was better off than him, not laid out and bleeding on some remote ledge. Or was my plight simply the other side of the same coin? He gradually understood his location, but couldn't move, and it was the opposite for me.




But how far was it? Six or seven miles at most. I could make it there and back on foot. Other people had walked much farther than that in much more hostile lands. Surface calm returned, though my gut churned. I wrestled with details of how to escape from my great escape, from that nameless limbo-land I'd landed in. What would I carry? How to mark my path? Could I trust my judgment? What if I hiked five miles and came up empty? But it was no time for defeatism; I had to go. Yet I just sat, paralyzed, and watched dust devils whiff on a dry pond.

Uncertain time passed. The sun seemed to halt, fortuitously. The knoll seemed brighter and farther off than before. I'm not sure how long I sat and watched dust devils, maybe forty minutes, maybe four hours . . . until I glimpsed a distant dust devil in the corner of my eye. It disappeared and reappeared, only to vanish again and reemerge, dipping and rising, moving side to side . . . and in time a dust-caked Ford materialized out of the desert. Its driver wore a dirty brown cap and healthy squint of suspicion. He was in a hurry, and told me to follow him out to the lonely road. I never got his name.

I followed the big Ford on that narrow trail, the one I hoped might turn south to Nevada. A chestnut mustang stopped to watch us slog across rocks and ruts. We reached pavement at the Nevada line, and the big Ford roared away . . . And as it turned out, my escape wasn't too far beyond the bright knoll after all, and there I stood on the other side, just one rise from total disconnect. A strange sensation. Salvation. I rolled off the high plateau and into the nearest gas pump with the needle nudging E, and I wondered if I could have made it out by myself. I think so, but the escape trail wandered a few miles. It would have been a battle of mind more than distance.

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sasha
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Re: Lost

Post by sasha » October 22nd, 2020, 3:21 pm

Wow. Glad you posted this! I seem to remember a thread somewhere on this forum about getting lost, and you alluded to what I presume was this incident. Pretty intense. Plenty of gas in the tank to get you out - provided you choose the right path. So pick a direction! Spin the wheel, toss the dice, pick a card, any card! Something similar happened to me once - I was on foot at the time, and had gone off trail to scout out some photographic opportunities. I was so intent on framing and exposure that I completely lost track of which way I'd come. I knew I wasn't far from the path - but in which direction? When the panic subsided, I realized I could navigate by the sun, and in just a few minutes I was back on the trail.

To this day whenever I bushwhack, I stop periodically to look back, and get a visual on what the return trip should look like. I'll also leave markers whenever the trail forks - breadcrumbs to guide me home.
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"Falsehood flies, the Truth comes limping after it." - Jonathan Swift, ca. 1710

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mnaz
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Re: Lost

Post by mnaz » October 22nd, 2020, 6:40 pm

I'll never forget that grip of panic, that "silent inner scream" ... Yes, intense. Careful what you wish for. I slipped completely off the grid, total disconnect. Subspace. I was somewhere in the Oregon desert-- probably north of Nevada. That's all I "knew." I couldn't believe what I'd gotten myself into when the realization hit.

This was still pretty early in my wandering days. Since then I think I've gotten better at tracking landmarks, direction and distance as I go. Hopefully, I don't repeat this scene again.

mtmynd
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Re: Lost

Post by mtmynd » October 27th, 2021, 6:09 pm

have you yet repeated this lost feeling?
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mnaz
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Joined: August 15th, 2004, 10:02 pm
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Re: Lost

Post by mnaz » November 1st, 2021, 11:04 am

Nope. Thankgawd. Once was enough. Scary..

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