Lost in the Forest: One Woman’s Tale of Blind Panic

One woman's story of being lost in the woods, at night, somewhere in the wilds of California.

A photo from smarter times: a night ride with the essentials–friends, lights, appropriate clothing, and a map. Photo by Peter Repetti.

Driving the three hours from the Bay Area to the erstwhile gold rush town of Forest City for a weekend of riding and reveling in nature, I was desperate for the relief a ride brings after traffic and other life snags added angst and time to my trip. The sun was sinking fast as I rocked and reeled up the rutted gravel track to Lisa’s house. Built in 1858, the plucky, fading pink structure was losing its battle against time and the elements with aplomb and high character, but losing nonetheless.

“Oh jeez, the gals just left about 20 minutes ago to do the Dog Loop—you just missed them,” Lisa said, my bones audibly creaking as I unfolded from the driver’s seat and voiced my ride needs along with happy greetings.

I’d been to Forest before, I knew that “the Dog Loop” was a delightful, near-to-town loop that would be a salve on my frayed being, but Lisa said it was too late to do the whole thing.

“You could ride to the bridge and turn around if you want? Not much more light than that left now…”

Lisa of all people knew and understood “ride medicine,” but even she was looking at me a little goofy, she in her Fuzzy Duds, drink in one hand, directing the bonfire there in the yard to assemble itself. Okay, yeah, to the bridge and back—that’s what I’ll do. I dressed in an instant, yanked the bike off the back, and set off with a wave as she touched match to newspaper under a glorious scaffolding of twigs, sticks, and neatly-chopped wood.

“Bye Mo….” Wafted after me through the trees

The bridge in daylight. Photo by Chris Ruedy.

After the first stupid-steep 100 yards, I got on the main trail and felt the drive, the ever-running “to do” list, and even the jack-hole who cut me off at 70 in Sacramento, fall away with each successive pedal stroke. The waning light trickled through the trees, creating pinpoint bonfires of its own on leaves of red, orange, and green.  I thought about the people I knew who were attached to this place—Zachy the mad trail oracle, Chris and Sarah down at the big house, friends now passed on who’d given love and muscle to the dream of a new mountain bike mecca here. But I also thought of the earlier folks, the ones who came for gold, ones whose names and faces I did not know.

Perhaps it is something that can only come with time, but as I close out my forties, I’m visited by flashes of perspective regarding historical happenings. The Civil War (now there’s an oxymoron…), westward expansion, the Gold Rush—these colossal events really weren’t that long ago. A little math and I’m gobsmacked to realize it’s possible—not highly likely, but possible—that my lifetime could have crossover with that of a gold miner, or a union or confederate family.

Lost in my reverie, the bridge arrived too quickly, its creamy yellow stones still faintly glowing from the now-departed sun. Well, just a little more—can’t turn back now, I just got on the bike. The trail was my absolute favorite kind: a swoopy, narrow ribbon designed by and for bikers, it dipped through ephemeral streams, nodded to the pine, the cottonwood, the juniper, and changed course respectfully for the mountain willow and the sycamore.  As these features started to appear smudgy and gray, I started down an unfortunate mental path. “This is a loop—I can do the loop—any minute now the trail will arc left and I’ll be on my way back to the house.”

We’ve all been there. We sorta know the trail, the route, but somehow every single rock, tree, bend in the course is definitive—“oh yes, this it is for sure”—the landmark we’re looking for that signals our arrival beyond a shadow of a doubt. And so it was for me. This little swoop by the stream—clearly so different from the 13 that preceded it—this is the one. Can’t be long now. Okay, shit, just two more turns. Two more bends in the trail or two more minutes and I’ll turn back.

These internal negotiations between me and me went on for quite some time, but finally, here it was. The last straw. The trail did indeed arc left, but then sneakily straightened out again, bending back to the right with an audible sneer. Uncle.

I turned around in a huff, defeated and vaguely concerned. Only now did it occur to me that it was getting cold, and that I was in shorts and a sleeveless jersey. Around the next bend, I thought how nice it would be to have a light. Well, I have that Petzl in my pack if I really need it, but I’m almost there. More and more often now I was hearing the crunch of leaves and needles and twigs–telltale signs of my tires leaving the trail. It was funny the first time, less so the next five. Here was the bridge again, won’t be long now. Just a left on that one trail and I’ll be set.

Well crap. So close, but just no longer possible to continue without stopping to pull out the emergency windbreaker and the Petzl headlamp. I donned the nearly useless crepe-paper pullover and positioned the headlamp on my forehead below the helmet, the tiny tremor in my hands making these tasks more difficult than necessary. As I clumsily regained the saddle and set off, the Petzl pointed straight down and illuminated only the top tube just south of the handlebars. Crap. I stopped and arranged it on top of my helmet. My hard, plastic, slippery helmet. In the brief moments it stayed in place, it lit the trail not in the helpful lighthouse kind of way that I so desperately needed, but in a manner better suited to a romantic interlude with a fine bottle of wine.

After the headlamp strap swooped off the back of the helmet and landed in the duff behind me, I took the thing off and hung it from my bars, like hip downhillers do. I retrieved the light, applied it, and cursed and flailed down the trail, the meager light now revealing something truly disturbing. A nasty, menacing profusion of left turns, all identical, none of which existed on my way out a mere half-hour earlier.

And this is when a real and true panic overtook my existence from earlobes to toenails. My breath came in choppy constricted gasps as though inhaling through thick rolls of cotton. My vision blurred around the edges. (How is this helpful from an evolutionary standpoint? “In trouble? Bam! You’re blind!”) I felt the inside of my brain start to go dark around the edges as well—a weird, whirling vortex of panic.

Though the deepest depths of this state probably lasted all of two-and-a-half minutes, the feeling was quite profound, and seemed eternal. I headed down the main path, still sputtering, half-blind and in a cold, clammy sweat. I got busy envisioning all of my bitter fates, my various gruesome ends. Bear mauling. Hypothermia. Starvation. Didn’t I just read about a woman who was through-hiking the Appalachian Trail, lost her map, and died within 34 feet of the trail after freezing to death? These little movies my mind assembled were not helpful.

“Puppies! Kittens!” I barked, in a feeble attempt to change the conversation between me and me. This must have been quite a thing to see. A solo, scantily-clad woman on an XC bike, helmet dangling from bars DH-style, wandering the woods at night, ghost-white, sweating, breathing weird, and shouting about baby animals. Fortunately, an iron gate meant that I’d arrived at the abandoned schoolhouse a few hundred yards from Lisa’s place. I think a tear squeaked out, so great was my relief. Lisa and Co. had a great roaring fire on when I emerged from the shadows.

Lisa’s place in the daylight. Photo by Lisa Luzzi.

“Hey..?! We were about to get worried…”

“Oh, yeah, got a little dark on me. But, you know, no big deal…”

She looked askance at me and said, “well okay…” and kindly handed me a beer and offered me a seat by the fire.

But she knew.

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