As I wrote on Saturday, I was camping in Nebraska this weekend. I had invited others to go, but nobody did, and I was not about to let that keep me in town, so I went alone. Mistake #1.
I stayed in the Nebraska panhandle at Fort Robinson State Park, which is where Crazy Horse died, adjacent to the Nebraska National Forest and the Soldier Creek Wilderness. On Sunday morning I got up bright and early to eat breakfast, drink some coffee and then drive out to the trailhead and hike the 10 mile loop in the cool morning hours before it got too hot. In my hurriedness I left a number of important items at my campsite. Mistake #2.
It was about a 6 mile drive to the trailhead, which was way the heck out there. I actually had to drive my car through a small creek to get to the parking lot, which is not something that this city-raised kid has ever had to do except in the scariest of dreams. So I got to the lot, I grabbed my backpack and my water and realized that among the important things I left back at my site were my sunscreen and my bug spray. I told myself “whatever, I’m not afraid of no sun or ticks or mosquitoes.” I decided not to go back. Mistake #3. I also forgot to put the trail snacks from my car into my pack. Mistake #4. Oh did I mention that I only had one liter of water. Mistake #5. So much for being an Eagle Scout. I signed a guest book and then went through a cattle gate and started walking in the direction of the trailhead. The trail was fairly over grown but there were plenty of guideposts along the trail so it was easy enough to follow. I immediately regretted wearing shorts instead of long pants, as I was getting quite wet from the dew and scratched up from the small bushes. However, I’m not sure that it was actually a mistake. So I followed the trail which lead into some switchbacks that took to ever higher and higher ridges where I was able to get some breathtaking views of the Nebraska Pine Ridge. I walked on, until it had been nearly an hour and a half. I felt that I had been keeping a pretty good pace, but I eventually came to a fence, which was the dividing line between the National Forest and the Wilderness Area which has stronger protections against motorized vehicles. I looked on my map and I realized that I wasn’t even half way to the halfway point of the loop. I stopped and considered my options. I could turn back or I could continue as I still had good cloud cover and it was cool. I pressed on. Mistake #6.
My goal was to reach a windmill water pump near the far end of the wilderness area, about 5 miles from the trailhead. This part of the wilderness was more desolate than the other parts of the state forest. A severe wildfire had burned down 90% of the trees in 1989, and new growth was slow in coming. I felt like I was hiking to Mount Doom. I eventually made it to the windmill and a marker told me I could follow the trail 3 miles to the creek, which I would then follow back up to the parking lots, I could go the opposite direction on a different, and longer trail, or I could turn around and make the 5 mile walk back the way I came. I chose to continue my intended route and work my way to the creek. Mistake #7.
The trail was immediately difficult to follow. It would often branch off in two directions, usually reconverging 20 or so yards ahead. Sometimes it didn’t though. And suddenly there weren’t as many guideposts as there had once been. That’s when things started going really wrong. I was following what I thought was the trail for about 15 minutes, when I realized I hadn’t seen a guidepost for awhile. I tried looking at the map, but it was no help. It was a series of hundreds of ridges and ravines with only a few landmarks, being the windmill and the fences, the only manmade things in the wilderness. I was slightly concerned, but realized that if I wasn’t on the trail, turning back might get me more lost. I did know that I needed to go south and east, and my compass was one of the few things I actually had in my pack. As I continued on, I suddenly came to a very long barbwire fence. I checked the map and noticed that coming to the fence so soon meant that I was probably not actually on the trail. But if I followed the fence, I’d have to meet the trail, which crossed the fence at an opening somewhere. The fence, however, was not doing what the map said it was supposed to do, and I realized that the maps that they provided at the trailhead were 6 years old and new fences could easily have been made. I kept walking on, searching for any clue in the behavior of the turns of the fence that might indicate where on the map I was. After walking for what seemed like an eternity, I did find an opening in the fence. There were no clues as to whether this was the correct opening and while I did see a trailhead on my side of the fence, there was no visible trail leading through the fence, nor any trailhead on the opposite side. My choices were to either go through and attempt to find a trail that may or may not be there or continue along the fence. I chose to continue on, the other side looked a lot more bleak than my side.
I quickly became aware of how hungry I was and that my water supply was more than half way consumed. And it was getting unbelievably hot. The clouds were gone, and there were few trees. I was still not super worried at this point. I was in a fenced in area, albeit large, and I wouldn’t be able to wander any further away from civilization. I was more frustrated than anything. About an hour later, however, I began to sense panic rising. My water was getting very low, I could feel the sun burning my arms and my neck and then I drew the conclusion that the fence I was at might not even be the right fence. I also realized that following the fence isn’t a permanent option since I wasn’t on a trail, the fence would plunge down steep ravines and I would never be able to cross the ravines without switchbacks and I would have to walk hundreds of yards in the wrong direction to get to a place I could cross.
I managed to keep the fence in sight, and it had been running more or less to the east when I suddenly came to a place where there was a large open pasture, and the fence intersected with a fence running north. I looked to the north and it went a long way. At this point, my calves had been starting to cramp up too, so I knew that my water situation was really working against me. I had to choose whether to keep following this fence or to follow the north fence. I didn’t see an opening to cross the north fence, so I decided to follow it. I figured that it was the fence that divided the wilderness from the national forest and thought that if I followed it I would eventually reach the place I originally crossed. I followed it a couple hundred yards and when I reached the peak of a small ridge realized it plunged into a deep valley and went up a ridge higher than I knew I could climb, especially with the leg cramps. The leg cramps were actually what was worrying me the most.
An hour before I was irritated, but I knew I would make it out. Now, I was scared. I didn’t know where I was. I was almost out of water, I had no food, and my cell phone got no reception, so I couldn’t call for help. Even worse, I had nothing bright that I could use to send out a signal. For the first time I considered that I might actually end up spending the night there with no food, water, shelter, or warmth (I left my matches at camp too: mistake #8). I started acting like a child and pouting and whining. But I prayed, “Mary, please protect me under your mantle, and obtain for me the grace to persevere and to help me get out of here, I just want to leave.” In that moment I decided to turn around. Whether this fence was what I wanted, I could never follow it to its destination, I needed to somehow get back to the opening in the other fence that was about an hour back. As I got to the intersection of the fences, however, I was prompted to look at them more closely and discovered that the section where they met was missing a row of barbed wire, and so while it was too high to climb over without hurting myself, I could easily crawl under. So I did.
I was afraid to know why this area was fenced away, perhaps there was something dangerous here. It didn’t matter, because suddenly I felt hopeful. Unfortunately it was only a few minutes later that I came to another fence. There was no easy way under or over the fence. I set down all my stuff, layed next to the fence on my back, and carefully pushed the barb wire up, slowly moved my legs under so as not to cut them, and then slid the rest of the way, careful not to cut my face. I then reached through and grabbed my things. I only walked about 30 to 45 seconds when I hear the most peculiar noise. Water. It was the creek! I stopped and started laughing hysterically and all I could say was “Oh my God, Oh my God, thank you Mary!” Only 4 minutes before I had been at my most desperate point, actually believing I wouldn’t make it out before collapsing, running through my mind where I might be able to find water, what I might be able to eat, where I might be able to sleep, and in that moment of indecision, I had been so close to creek but had originally walked away from it, but in my moment of seeking Mary’s aid, I was lead right to it.
I followed the creek for awhile, through very rugged brush, but eventually met the trail as it criss-crossed the creek in shall places. There were still points of the trail that were difficult to discern, but I choose to stay near the creek because it would take me straight where I needed to go. About 30 minutes into following the creek, I heard a large crack of thunder and saw a huge thunderhead rolling in from the west and I could see that it was pouring very hard where it was. I made it out to my car, not concerned about getting wet as I waded the creek several times and my shoes were soaked, but didn’t want any water to prevent me from crossing the creek in my car. I made it back to my car and when I got in, I praised God and thanked him (not to mention devoured almost all of my beef jerky. All in all, getting lost added 6 miles to my trip.
At the end I decided to pack up camp and go home when I got back. I was so sore I couldn’t imagine sleeping on the cold hard ground that night.
The lesson I learned, though, is that in trial, no matter how terrible they seem, Mary is a sure advocate, and if you ask her and listen, she will show you the way out, she will bring you back to the wild path that Jesus has already trod. That and always bring extra water, and by looking at my raw red arms, sunscreen.