Midwinter. Lance and I were on one of our epic treks within the Delaware State Forest. When we began our sojourn it was about 4:00 p. m. and still light out. That was hours ago.
We had already put in a lot of mileage on this walk. Having been trained and conditioned by Lance for so many years, I hiked without resting just as he did. No doubt, that was one of the things Lance liked about me.
Ignoring the fact that it was getting later and darker, I decided to go off the well-traveled path. These extra-long hikes were rarely planned; they just spontaneously materialized. Lance was more than happy to follow me.
We continued to travel farther away from the known and deeper into the unknown. As the sun set, the now unfamiliar territory gradually took on a hostile aura. The sky became darker, the visibility poorer, and I more disoriented. To further complicate things, I had brought along neither a flashlight nor a cell phone, having made the assumption we would be back home in a timely fashion. The reality was that time, Lance, and I had together marched on.
A cold winter's afternoon eventually morphed into an even colder winter's night. The temperature had been dropping all day and was now in the single digits. A howling wind added to my growing discomfort. To top it off, for the occasion I was wearing only sweatpants, T-shirt, a windbreaker, and sneakers, not my hiking boots. I had also left the house without gloves or hat.
The only light was coming from above—a brilliant full moon teamed with a starlit sky. Quite an impressive sight, but one I would have gladly traded in for a flashlight.
At some point along the way I realized I had no idea where we were and, of greater concern, no longer knew the way back home. No matter what direction I chose to walk in, it proved to be a dead end. I sensed that my efforts were only plunging me deeper into a wooded maze I’d never escape. We had walked out of the only world I had ever known and into a darker, more sinister one. This excursion stopped being fun and became a struggle for survival, at least for me. If Lance was so smart, why was he happily tagging along with someone so hopelessly lost? Oh, that's right. We’re talking Border collie. He’s not lost and he’s enjoying every minute of this.
I didn’t want to walk anymore, not only because of my increasing fatigue and the freezing weather, but also because I no longer had the slightest idea where we were headed. At one point, a la Blair Witch Project, I unintentionally returned to the same spot next to a stream that I had been at fifteen minutes earlier. I was literally walking in circles. The irony struck me that I might be just yards from my house, yet too disoriented to get to it.
Slowly I turned around in a circle, occasionally pausing to scan the landscape. At each stop the view was the same: nearby I could make out some trees, bushes, and rocks, all partly darkened by the night yet also partly illuminated by the moon. A bit farther behind them I was fairly confident lay more trees, bushes, and rocks but nighttime (and my poor vision) made them barely visible from where I was standing. Everything beyond that was so completely hidden by the evening’s pitch-black canvas that it might as well not have existed. I’d have been totally swallowed up inside a forbidding darkness if not for the clear, moonlit sky. For that I thanked my lucky stars, the ones shining brilliantly overhead.
The thought crossed my mind—what about wild animals? Rarely, if ever, had I seen any dangerous predators on our hikes, but I knew I was in the middle of bear territory. Hopefully, they were all deep in the throes of hibernation. There were also coyotes to worry about. My guess was they didn’t hibernate.
I couldn’t remember ever before feeling so totally cut off from the rest of humanity, let alone fearing I might never see it again. Thankfully, I at least had Lance for companionship. Of course, if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be out in the freezing cold in the first place.
Desperation sank in. Guessing it was now somewhere around 8:00 p. m., eight p.m., I really was no longer sure of the time at all. I might be stuck in the woods the entire night, having to wait until daybreak, when I’d hopefully get my bearings. Since no one was going to find us, we had no choice but to keep walking. On the one hand I felt too exhausted to continue; on the other lay the fear that by sitting down to rest I’d lose the drive to resume walking and freeze to death right where I was planted. That fear kept me moving, but doubting I could last. Lance would. He had survived worse in Mount Bethel.
Then it happened. I attempted to cross a stream by stepping from rock to rock so as not to get my feet wet. Some of the small boulders had iced up and I had the misfortune to set foot on one of them. I slipped and fell down into the stream face first, the rest of my body landing painfully on several of the rocks. Although getting soaked by ice cold water, I lie motionless in the stream, fearing a bone or two may have been broken.
Lance came over and sniffed me. Then he licked the back of my head. Finally, he grabbed my jacket with his teeth and made an attempt to pull me out of the stream. Was he really worried about my well-being or just anxious for us to get back to this walking marathon he was so enjoying? I told him “No! Let go!” and he did. I appreciated his concern (at least he had been yanking the arm of my jacket and not my arm itself!) but really just wanted to be left alone.
Still lying in the stream, the thought crossed my mind: Why hasn’t Lance, as a self-respecting Border collie, led me out of this wilderness by now? I immediately answered my own question: Because he is having so much fun and doesn’t want it to end. There were two of us in the woods, but only one of us thought we were in trouble. Lance probably felt that at long last we were on an excursion that was up to his demanding standards.
Realizing I’d freeze to death in that icy water, I very slowly and carefully began struggling to my feet. In spite of the pain radiating from various body parts, I was able to stand up and limp onto dry land.
Oh no! My eyeglasses had been dislodged by the fall! Me, legally blind, in the middle of a vast, pitch-black forest.
Back into the stream I went to conduct a fishing expedition. If I didn’t find my glasses in one piece, it would be impossible for me to navigate the woods safely in the dark. Soaking wet, I’d be stuck for the entire night out in the freezing cold. That would be the final nail in my coffin.
After some very anxious minutes, I found my spectacles hooked onto a tree root jutting out of the stream. Luckily, they didn't look too worse for wear and I put them back on.
Lost in the Delaware Forest. Subfreezing temperature. Drenched. My hands now so numb I no longer felt the need to keep them warm ( I knew that wasn’t a good sign). The same woods that had been a welcoming host on all those many hikes had now become my own dark, frigid tomb.
Having hours ago lost any entertainment value, this walk-turned-expedition-turned- fight-for-life had me looking death right in the eyeballs. That damned recklessness of mine. If I become immobile, would Lance wait here with me until we were found? Or would he head home alone? Is there any chance he is lost too? Imagine freezing to death and being just yards from someone's house, even my own. Get a grip. You’re not in the wilds of the Rocky Mountains. Only a fool would allow himself to freeze to death in northeast Pennsylvania. But, could I possibly be that fool?
Time for survival mode. My dire need to keep moving overrode my pain and chills. I started traveling in one continually straight line, letting nothing—trees, rocks, streams, hills, cliffs—force me to change direction. We marched through brambles, slid down slopes, waded through streams (what did it matter? I was already soaked) and did whatever else had to be done to get closer to the prize. What was the prize? Either a house or a paved road would be heaven-sent at this point.
My walking had morphed into gimping. Fearing it was broken or sprained, I favored my left ankle, not wanting to add to the damage.
How was Lance faring through all this? Most likely he was having the time of his life. This was turning out to be the longest hike we’d ever been on. So, for Lance, what's not to like?
The Delaware State Forest is comprised of thousands of acres. Continuing to head in the same direction, I was fairly certain we weren’t going in circles or revisiting territory already covered earlier during this hellish hike. Unfortunately, I also had no idea if we were heading toward civilization or only going deeper into the woods. I was either hobbling toward salvation or damnation. My greatest concern was that my pain and the freezing conditions my water-soaked body was being subjected to would get the best of me.
I visualized Clara at home simultaneously fretting and fuming. Earlier in the day, as I was setting out with Lance, she told me to dress more warmly, but I’d blown off her suggestion. She always questioned my daredevil streak and now I pictured her saying "I told you so!" I swore to myself that in the future I would never embark on another such ill-planned hike, if there were to be a future.
We continued our desperate march. On second thought, it was only desperate for me.
Then the miracle. I had been using a star-like spot of light as a guide, following it resolutely to prevent any backtracking. The longer Lance and I walked toward it, the lower and closer the light got. This was no star in the heavens, this was a man-made light right here on earth. We were some fifty yards away from it when I sensed it might be a streetlight. A few seconds later a passing car confirmed my suspicions. We were back in civilization! After leashing Lance, I stumbled out onto the road to get my bearings (Ow! That damned ankle). Exactly where in the world were we? I didn't know, but there was another decision to make. In which direction would we walk on the paved road? I made my choice and proceeded with Lance. Time would tell if I had chosen correctly.
Man and dog forged ahead. At least now we were on pavement. What a relief to no longer be trapped in the woods. If need be (my pride having been swallowed hours ago) I was now in a position to flag down a car and ask for help. But could I really accept a ride? After all, mad dog Lance was with me.
On the medical front, my ankle wasn’t getting any better and now my rib cage hurt like hell if I breathed deeply.
Twenty minutes or so later, I saw an intersection up ahead. Pay dirt! We were on Snow Hill Road and the nearby cross road was Route 447, so I knew we were not too far from my house. Reaching the junction, we made a left turn and began the final mile toward home. Although exhausted, freezing, and in physical pain, the fact of knowing that we were no longer wandering aimlessly gave me the energy to push on towards my destination. Plus now I wouldn’t have to face the dilemma of being offered a ride and having to decide whether to refuse it or subject some poor driver to Lance’s complete lack of decorum as a passenger.
Home had never seemed so welcoming, even if I did have to endure Clara's lecture on my irresponsibility. As it turned out, Lance and I had been gone almost seven hours, most of that time spent lost in the frigid darkness of the Delaware State Forest. Clara told me she had been this close to calling 911. The truth was that there came a point out in the woods when I would have welcomed the sight of search helicopters, my pride notwithstanding.
I cut short Clara's sermon, appealing to her sympathy. My ankle felt sprained, both hands had come this close to frostbite, my knee was bruised, and I winced with each painful surprise attack launched by my ribs. I promised her we would continue the conversation the next day.
After a bowl of piping hot soup, I hit the sack, but there would be no sleep. In bed, the slightest turn set off horrendous pain in my chest. In too much agony to rest, I drove myself to the local hospital in the wee hours of the morning. X-rays confirmed two fractured ribs to go along with a sprained ankle. One positive: despite having been ill protected in the bitter cold for hours, my extremities had suffered no apparent damage.
While I healed, Clara filled in ably, if somewhat reluctantly, as our dog’s walking companion, letting a leashed Lance drag her around the neighborhood streets. It took several weeks for my body to fully recover from nature’s assault on me. This impromptu expedition over frozen tundra in the dark of night was one the most physically painful and fear-provoking experiences of my life. The thought occurred to me that I might be getting a little too old for such foolhardiness. Lance, on the other hand, suffered few if any consequences from this adventure, apart from a temporarily diminished walking schedule. Most likely, our walk that winter night instantly became one of my dog’s fondest memories.
The Devil Dog in resting mode. Those rests never lasted long!