Lost in the Woods

How a perfectly beautiful hike turned into the day I thought I was going to die

Fortunately I heard about the two ferocious Highland bulls on the loose and the vicious coyote pack that regularly decimated deer after I found my way back from getting lost in the woods.

There was only one way that us city folk were supposed to go through the woods. According to Jeff, our camp counselor…I mean inn manager, we were to follow the tire tracks on a wide path, cleared of trees, for a 2 1/2-mile hike. He even pointed out the start of the path, gave me an aerial map, and walked me to the edge.

I have not had a vacation all year, which means I’ve not had a very adventurous year. While friends encouraged me to at least go to the beach, I sat like a shut-in at my desk dutifully working on my memoir. Then, last week an opportunity arose. A friend was leading a writer’s retreat at a swank horse farm in the Hudson River Valley and I could pay a very reduced fee. I felt like a Fresh Air kid. Suddenly I was in nature. Horses! Hiking trails! Fall foliage! No cell reception! And on top of that, fancy linens and gourmet meals!

My first day there, it rained in the morning and was unseasonably warm and a little windy. It was a perfect day for the hiking boots I just bought. They were my first pair ever, since I’d only did the occasional hike in running shoes and once in broken-down cowboy boots, held together with duct-tape, on a winter trail packed with snow up to Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Germany, because I wanted to see the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at Disneyland. I was a teenager from Los Angeles hitchhiking by myself through Europe. What did I know about snow or hiking boots?

Lunch was about an hour away and I was sitting on a porch overlooking corrals with mellow, meandering horses; trees in their fall finery made even more beautiful by the gray of passing clouds—when I got up, put my laptop in the case and went for a walk.

There wasn’t enough time for a hike, but Jeff told me about a short path that led to a pretty green meadow across from the guest house were I was staying.

The short path was steep. My heart beat faster and breathing quickened as I climbed. When I reached the meadow I picked up my pace, walking fast over the mowed green grass to the other side so…well, so I could get in a little cardio since I would not be at the gym for the next five days.

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I remembered seeing a path among the trees that surrounded the meadow and walked the perimeter looking for it. I found it and tire tracks. It was the official hiking path! I ventured in.

The forest floor was covered in leaves from the torrential rain the night before and I kicked through them, forging on happily. There was a rustling in the leaves and five white-tailed deer leapt across the path in front of me. It was like a movie! I would have something to tell everyone at lunch.

Lunch reminded me that I better get back soon. I walked a little faster and then realized that the forest seemed to be closing in on me. Where was the path? I circled around and couldn’t find it. Maybe I should head back to the meadow? But I wasn’t sure where it was.

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In the near distance was a ledge. I figured I could look out and see where I am and head back to the farm, which no doubt was just over the hill. Making my way through the underbrush to the ledge, I looked out and saw nothing but more trees, acres and acres of trees.

The greatest fear of a friend of mine (who has hardly left Manhattan) is that he would be lost in an avalanche and not know which way is up, and be digging the wrong way. This is like an avalanche! I thought, wanting to cry.

“HELLO!” I yelled. “hello hello hello,” came back an echo.

I ran, clumsy in my hiking boots on the uneven ground, looking around wildly for where to go next. I ran past a thorny bush that pulled my hair, scratched my arm and snagged my rayon T-shirt. I yelped like a bear grabbed me. “HELP!” I screamed. My echo made it sound overly dramatic. What if someone really did hear me and I was right around the farm? I’d feel like an idiot. Get a grip, I told myself.

“What day is it?” I thought. Am I really going to die on October 16, 2014 in the Berkshires at a fancy farm? They might send a rescue team if I didn’t appear at lunch. But that gave me little comfort.

And then, like Columbus spotting land, I saw the stone wall that surrounded the property. I learned later that it was constructed in the 18th century and parts of it cropped up throughout the forest, but the most intact part was around the farm and that’s what I came to. I followed it and burst into the dining room as lunch was being served.

The first person I saw was the uppity city woman with the white riding pants and million dollar boots, looking at me disapprovingly, but I walked right past her with my tangled hair, drenched in sweat, clothes disheveled, and burst onto the patio announcing to my new friends that I got lost in the woods. I told them about the deer, and the ledge that looked over more of the forest, “I even heard an echo when I yelled help!” I said.

A woman I got to know earlier, a travel agent from Los Angeles, smiled and said, “At least you got your new hiking shoes dirty!”

Tags: lifestyle