This is a true story, from a time I was lost in the woods when I was around 15. Hope you enjoy.
Flakes the size of my palm swirl around us as the flurry picks up. The wind bites through the layers of my coat and sweater. I’m cold already.
I can barely keep sight of dad as he trudges up the hill, dauntless. I follow his foot prints—or I try. The rifle over my shoulder weighs me down. My boots are thick and heavy and I can’t match his stride. I can’t catch enough breath through the cloth over my mouth, so I pull it down and let the cold sting my face while I gulp air and exhale in heaving white puffs. We ascend, we move deeper into the wilderness—deeper into the blizzard.
We hike for an hour before the ground levels and my heart stills. Old growth evergreens surround us, with trunks so thick that three people could not together wrap their arms around them. They cast deep green spires into the dark, gray sky.
The storms slows. Delicate flakes float down and add to the snowpack already under foot. It strikes me now, how still the forest is. No birds. No squirrels chittering. No elk, no deer. They know this calm precedes a terrible whiteout. They’ve hunkered down. I’m wondering why we haven’t. Dad seems sure, though.
I shrug the rifle higher on my shoulder and pick up my pace. We walk and walk and walk. Sometimes we cross our own tracks. Sometimes it seems we are making progress, but I wrestle with a constant fear. I’ve lost our bearing. He says nothing, but I think dad has too.
Somehow we manage to keep our line in one direction long enough to reach the edge of the tree line. Ahead, a deep ravine greets us. At the bottom, a creek flows through a gully. White water rushes over fallen trees and boulder, running too fast to freeze. I look up at the blackening sky. Within a few hours the temperature will plummet. Tonight the cold may even seize this creek.
We descend the only way we can, taking short side steps, forging switchbacks. Our boots slide, but we find purchase on stumps and rocks.
The walls get steeper. Now they can only support a thin layer of snow. We discover that beneath this dusting, lays a sheet of ice. A day ago the sun baked this wall, then the night arrived and the melted snow froze in a smooth layer. We can’t go back up. It’s too slick, so we start down this next section, taking even more careful steps than on the last.
Suddenly I’m on my back. I’m sliding.
It happens in an instant, but as I slide the world goes into slow motion. I know I’m in imminent danger. In these conditions, so far from anything resembling shelter, even a minor injury could mean a night spent out here. In this storm that could mean death. But I don’t think of that.
I’m worried about my rifle, about losing it or scuffing the glossy wood on the stock. I flip to my stomach, and in my peripherals, I catch a flash of a tree. I lash out with my right arm and my hand finds a branch of a sapling. It bows under my weight, but its roots hold. It stops my momentum.
I look up the hill. Dad’s eyes are wide. It’s the first time I see fear in them. I give him a clumsy thumbs up with a gloved hand.
His face eases. He nods.
He sits on his butt and starts scooting down toward me. I copy his technique and we slide down together in short stints. It’s not entirely controlled—but it’s fast.
When we reach the bottom, we follow the creek downstream. The snow is deep along its banks. My boots post-hole hip deep with every step. The progress is slower than ever. The sky is darker too, and the snow is picking up again. The next hour is a wash of painful exertion.
I’m not cold anymore. My thighs burn. My heart thunders. I’m sweating, and I know how dangerous that is, but I’m too fatigued to stop and take a layer off. I’m looking down at a feet, and I only look up again when a strange white bank blocks my path. It’s taller than me, and somehow, the creek is running through it. I puzzle at this, until I see the culvert. My eyes catch that dull metal and a wash of relief floods over me—a false warmth. Summer loggers built an extensive network of roads through this forest. Even hours away from a town, metal culverts like this funnel creeks under them.
We climb up the bank and on to the surface of the road and scan in both directions. To the right the road continues straight until it disappears into the storm. To the left it banks upward and curves around the trees.
Our truck is parked somewhere on this system of roads. One direction takes us there. The other takes us farther away.
Left or right.