Getting lost isn't fun, but the thing about adventure is that you can’t just have the pleasant parts. Adventure, by definition, involves risk. Sometimes that risk starts out as innocent fun, and then devolves into something much less pleasant.
But let me get to that by first telling the good parts.
We’ve had an incredible time here on Lopez Island in the San Juan Islands with our young adult kids, who flew out from their respective homes in California to Seattle, rented a car, drove and took the ferry to join us. At their age, with their busy lives, Mike and I are honored they still like to spend time with us.
The first night, we recapped stories from the trip around marshmallows grilling on the deck and thrilled the kids with the sight of pair of bald eagles that like to perch on a tree nearby in the evenings to fish.
The second day we took a walk out on the sparely-beautiful, wind-carved bluffs of Iceberg Point, unexpectedly expansive and grand. Lichen in pale green and orange coruscated the dappled-gray rocks, and there was a view all the way to Canada (not far, about 7,000 feet, as it turns out.) Being together, the banter, the stories—it’s such a blessing to enjoy a friendship with your kids, and we don’t take it for granted.
We split up in the afternoon, and Tawny and I took a walk on the long raft of pebbles off of Fisherman’s Bay road on the public beach, and we got coffees in the tiny town and cruised the bookstore (they have a tiny adorable independent store, where I found a great book on writing memoir called Handling the Truth. (God always brings me the tools I need just at the right time!) Sipping coffee (her) and tea (me) we talked about love, and career paths, and creativity and moving, and returned for a blissful afternoon of reading together in the livingroom with the fire going. Mike and Caleb, cut from the same action/hunter cloth, spent their afternoon together renting kayaks and going fishing.
The next day we broke into a different constellation, with Tawny and Mike going to Orcas Island on the ferry together and taking a whale watch tour, while Caleb and I went hiking.
Here’s the thing: if there’s a mountain to be climbed, Caleb must climb it. And if I am dared, I will take the challenge. Herein lies a recipe for trouble.
We decided to check out Watmough Bay, and found the pristine little gem of water unexpectedly crowded with Saturday afternoon picnickers and a few brave souls leaping off the rocks and landing, with shrieks of agony, in the lovely but frigid water.
Crowd avoidance being a Neal trait, Caleb spotted a zigzagging trail that climbed to the top of the Watmough Head. “Let’s get a view from above, Mom. That looks like a fun hike.”
We’d paused on the path toward the water and briefly seen a map of the area. I vaguely remembered that there was a trail on it, and it appeared to be a loop. Clearly, one end of the loop ended at the beach.
“Sure, why not,” I said. With nothing but our phones and the car keys in my pocket, we set off. The climb up the Head was almost vertical in places, and went on a good while past my comfort level, but Caleb was a gentleman and paused for me to huff and puff. He asked me if I wanted to turn back. “No, I want to see what’s up ahead,” I said.
“And that’s how humans have been finding things since the dawn of time,” Caleb said. Halfway up, I began worrying about the descent because my knees have been bothering me for some years, especially when going downhill. We eventually reached the top, and it was totally worth the exertion to get there. We reveled in the endorphins released by some serious exertion, in the slight cool breeze, and in the bond of having done something challenging together. I took some photos.
“I think I saw that the trail was a loop,” I said, the sweat having dried on my brow but still not wanting to retrace my steps down the precipitous trail. “Let’s find our way back to the car by taking this nice level loop.”
“Okay, but if it’s wrong we’ll have to go back down here anyway,” Caleb said. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’m sure I saw that the trail was a loop,” I said, and we set off.
After a good long while of walking, the trees began to take on an ominous sameness, and we’d walked much longer than I’d thought we would, Caleb bounding ahead and me trudging along, bantering and talking about movies we liked and the state of modern relationships.
“Seems like we should have hit the road by now,” Caleb said. “Let me run ahead and see what I can see.”
He shot down the path, clearly eager to make sure we were on the right route. He returned. “I think this isn’t going the right direction, Mom. We should go back.”
“No, I’m sure I saw that the trail was a loop,” I insisted, reluctant to admit defeat, and still more reluctant to clamber down the extremely steep trail we’d come up. The foot-in-the-door principle was at work, which states that the longer a certain path is traveled, the harder it is to admit you were wrong and turn back.
By the time the trail had forked three times, and the light through the canopy was getting dim, we both began to be anxious. It was interesting to experience the transformation: the woods, interesting and green, chittering with carefree wildlife, began to assume a frightening monotony, an impenetrable depth. Every turn looked like every other turn, and none of it was taking us where we wanted to go. It was six p.m. and we were facing a fourth fork in the trail when I finally took out my phone to try to see if Google Maps would work and give us some clue where the road was.
Finally the GPS, by some miracle, found us—and it was an eerie experience to look down at the pulsing blue dot on the lit phone screen in the dim forest light, and see no trails, and no roads, and the outline of the coast a long way off. Somehow we’d walked along the Head’s ridge, meandered to and fro, and gone a good way inland. We were nowhere near any exit of any kind. I revised my casual attitude toward Lopez Island, which had seemed almost too tame and domesticated until this moment.
“I feel sick,” I said, nausea rising up. “I feel dizzy.” Indeed, my phone and my feet looked a long way off. I felt in danger of fainting. Caleb threw a burly arm around me in a hug, but I smelled the fright on him too. It affected him differently.
“Wait right here and I’ll scout ahead,” he said, and galloped off down the trail.
I stood at that crossroads of the path alone, trying not to shriek after my son, “Don’t leave me!” and think of every scary movie ever that I’d seen where stupid people wandered into the wilderness with no map and no water and got eaten by things or each other…
I did my breathing, bending over to put my head down. Yes, we were lost. But not truly lost, because we knew our way back. The lefts we’d taken at the forks would just have to be rights, and we’d have to suck it up and hike all the way back to the bluff, and back down the cliff we’d come up.
I realized I’d never been this lost before, and I didn’t much like it.
Caleb ran back up, and hugged me again, a big hard squeeze.
“We’re going to be okay, Mom, but we have to go back the way we came,” he said calmly and definitely. He’d ran and looked and calmed himself down, and come to the same conclusion I had. “I want to get started so we don’t run out of light.”
“I know. I realized the same thing. Let’s just take our time. There’s no emergency here, and I can hike a long way. Further than you think I can.” I could tell by his eyes that he was most worried for me having some problem, and that gave me a big boost of energy and determination.
So back we went, and only had another bad moment when I thought we’d only had three forks where we needed to take rights, but Caleb remembered four—and then, uncomfortable with thirst we wouldn’t admit, knees aching, we reached the bluff again.
“I’m going to blog about this,” I said. “So let’s take a ‘back-here-again’ selfie.” We did, bantering a little again, and then, using a sturdy stick with Caleb in front of me to break my fall if I went down, I retraced my steps down the precipitous bluff I’d tried to avoid.
Once at the car we found a small bottle of water and drained it, and made a pact that neither of us would ever again have the hubris to take off on a hike we didn’t know without a map, compass, or water.
Back at the house, dinner was lively as Caleb and I told our tale. Mike shook his head, Tawny laughed, and we looked at photos of the orcas Mike and Tawny had seen.
The San Juans are a beautiful place—but they’re a little wild, too—and that’s why we love these islands.
Yes, these are islands, but you can get lost with all the trees. And some of those climbs are tough. So nice to have a son along with you to help you find your way back. A 150 years ago or so, there were wolves on the island, but they are long gone and on display in the Smithsonian.
I was relieved as we were lost that there were no major predators (like bears!)
I love you, Toby Neal. MWAH!
That helps, Molly! xox
That happened to me once. A friend and I were hiking the Allegheny mountains when we got totally lost. We had a pack of peanuts, about one small bottle of water between us and a map that was clearly not right. We had cell phones but no signal. I finally get ONE bar and called my brother. I say, “Larry, we’re hiking and we’re lost and my battery is about to …” My brother cuts in and says, “Let me call you right back.” CLICK!! I’m like NOOOOOO. We eventually found our way to the car, but I learned my brother is not a first-call-in-an-emergency kind of guy! Your tales have been so entertaining!
Thanks Mary. I knew at least one person had to have had this experience! Fun…and then not fun.
Great tale, Toby. One of our most precious friends in the world lives just at the mouth to Watmough Bight – on the point to the right (looking out from the beach). She could have fixed you a reviving cup of tea. Next time you are lost in the woods at the south end of Lopez Island – pray you stumble onto her doorstep. So funny that we were on a whale watch tour the same day as Mike and Tawny were out – but the pod had already moved too far into Canadian waters by the time we were out in the later afternoon – chasing king salmon toward the mouth of the Fraser River. I hear Maui calling you . . .
I would love to meet her without the getting lost part! Thanks so much!
I’ve always entertained thoughts of how we live in an air-conditioned, running water, cell phone-connected, mocha latte world, but one wrong turn on an afternoon hike can thrust us into harm’s way. Excellent story and I’m glad for the happy ending!
It’s totally true. We are one wrong turn away from disaster a good deal of the time.
Catching up on the rest of your trip! Glad you made it safely back. Getting lost is no fun! Your insistence that the trail made a loop made me remember visiting my mom when they lived in Alaska. She said “let’s go for a walk!” Well, you should be prepared. Food, water, GPS etc. We walk and walk and walk and I am exhausted and want to turn around and go home. She insists that if we keep walking we’ll end up at home and if we turn around it will actually be farther. I think she was lying but we did eventually make it home. 🙂