A customer came into the hardware store this week, wanting to purchase a compass. We didn’t have one, but his query reminded me that I have several. Or, at least, I did. After I got lost in the woods, it seemed like I was receiving compasses right and left, from anyone that heard the story. Over the years, I have given away most of them, to grandchildren and others, and probably misplaced a few, too. If I had to, I don’t know if I could put my hands on a single compass in this house today. I hope I don’t have to; I’m pretty careful not to get lost, these days.
Have I told this story here? I can’t remember. I’ll tell it again.
It happened a little more than twenty years ago. I was working as the daytime server at the Shamrock Bar & Restaurant, opening at 7 AM for customers who gathered for conversation with their morning coffee. Then, as now, I was in the habit of taking a daily walk. I did not have dogs, then, so I generally walked alone. That year, I’d set a goal to walk one thousand miles from January to December, so I’d increased my daily distance.
Instead of trekking from my house north to the end of Fox Lake Road and back home, which was two miles, I was going south, to the other end of Fox Lake Road where it meets the West Side Drive, and back again. That was three miles. I’m a steady walker, but not particularly fast. Twenty minutes per mile is my speed, unless I deliberately speed up or slow down. I’d usually set out from home at about five o’clock. Three miles, and I’d be home by six.
One day in late October, I got an early start. It was a beautiful, warm and sunny fall day, and I left my house at four o’clock. One mile south, Hannigan Road bumps up to the Fox Lake Road. On a whim, I turned left onto Hannigan Road, then right onto Middie Perron’s Trail, which starts out parallel to the Fox Lake Road. I’d never walked the whole length of the trail, but I’d encountered it from the other end, where it met the Camp #3 Trail.
So, rather than my usual route down the Fox Lake Road and back again, which suddenly seemed so dull, my plan was to take Middie Perron’s Trail to the Camp #3 Trail, which would then take me out to the end of Fox Lake Road, where it met the West Side Drive. I’d see more of the beautiful fall foliage, and have a different than usual view. If it turned into a longer walk, it was no problem, because I’d gotten an early start.
Now, I should mention that, at that time, we’d had three nights in a row so dark that neither the moon or a single star was visible in the sky. That played a part in the decisions I made. The other thing was my dislike for retracing my steps. When lost, I’d rather go forward and find my way than turn around. It has gotten me in trouble while driving, and it caused me some trouble when out walking that evening.
Middie Perron’s Trail curved and zig-zagged. It narrowed from a rustic, leaf-covered two-track down to a skinny trail barely wide enough to squeeze through. Blackberry brambles grew up on either side, and arched overhead. The sun sat low over the treetops to the west. If the sun went down, and I was left in a night as dark as the last three had been, would I be able to find my way forward on this path? Could I find my way back, if I turned around?
In a moment that seemed like a flash of courageous genius, and quickly proved itself to be otherwise, I made a decision. I turned off the trail and walked directly, through tall grass, small trees and towering, thorny brambles, toward the setting sun. West, just a short trek through the wilderness, to the Fox Lake Road. Some things I forgot, didn’t know, or didn’t factor in, when choosing that course:
- Just because Middie Perron’s Trail starts out parallel to the Fox Lake Road, it does not remain so;
- Neither Fox Lake Road nor Middie Perron’s Trail run exactly north/south because of all the twists and turns they both have;
- The sun does not set exactly to the west all year, and in the late fall of the year it is decidedly off course;
- Fox Lake bog, which makes much of the land in the vicinity of Fox Lake very swampy, especially in the spring and fall;
- Fox Lake. Yes, the entire lake stood between me, on Middie Perron’s Trail, and the Fox Lake Road, that was, in my foolish estimation, “just a short way to the west.”
I walked away from the trail. I pushed through thorn bushes and sharp grasses until I was far enough from where I’d started, I knew I couldn’t find my way back. That’s when I came upon a huge wet area. I looked back, considering. I looked ahead. Clumps of tall reeds grew from bits of earth rising up out of the shallow water. I went forward. I propelled myself from one bit of land to the next, clinging to low branches and reeds, and now and then sinking in up to my knees in cold water.
Many times, as I maneuvered through the muck, I thought I was making a big mistake. The way back, though, seemed just as scary and treacherous as the way forward. When, at last, I was through the boggy area and on dry land, there was no choice but to continue forward; I was not going to tackle that watery obstacle course again! Some things worked in my favor:
- Though it was late in October, the weather was good. It was warm enough so that I was comfortable in a light jacket. It wasn’t windy or rainy. I wasn’t cold, even when wet;
- The moon came up full and bright that night;
- I knew, from observation, that the moon rose in the east and set in the west, so I could prevent myself from walking in circles by using it as a guide;
- I was accustomed to walking, and in pretty good shape.
Once the earth under my feet was solid rather than liquid, and the moon was out, I started methodically trying to find my way. Keeping the moon behind me, I walked until I reached water. I carefully walked into the water until I was sure it was not just a puddle, then back-tracked. I did the same thing with the moon on my right side, then left, then straight in front of me. I seemed to be surrounded by water.
I continued in this way for several hours, changing the angle slightly each time. As the moon rose higher in the sky, I had better visibility. One body of water was a creek. Great! Any river or creek will lead to a lake. At that point, I didn’t care if that would be Fox Lake, or Lake Michigan; either would give me access, eventually, to a road.
I followed the creek until it spilled out shallowly over a large area of wet land, with no clear edges to follow. I turned and followed it in the other direction. When it appeared to turn into a large body of water, I tried to follow that around the perimeter. Every lake has an access road, after all. That, too became impossible to follow, spreading out into watery swamp filled with willow-like branches.
In this way, I continued on, through the night. Once, I tried calling out for help; not appearing to be anywhere near human habitation, that seemed like a waste of energy. I never panicked, but grew increasingly frustrated. At one point, I cried. I was tired, but never considered stopping, even just for a rest.
Eventually, I came upon a pile of cut logs in a clearing. They were dark, and moss-covered, indicating that they’d been there for quite a while, but I could still see the slashes of red paint on their ends that the loggers marked them with. There would be a road, leading to this spot! I scrambled over cut logs and through piles of brush until I found it. It was a narrow two-track; the deep tire ruts were filled with muddy water. Still, it was a grand sight to me!
I stayed on that path, sloshing through the mud when I had to but never considering changing course, until it came out onto West Side Drive. I got my bearings there, and walked north until West Side Drive met the Fox Lake Road. And that road took me home.
I walked into my house, and looked at the clock. It was just after two in the morning. I’d been walking pretty steadily for about ten hours! I peeled off wet clothes, brushed pickers and twigs from my hair, and stood for a long time in a hot shower, relieved to have finally found my way out of the woods. That’s my story of being lost.