Rene: Nightmare Storm
Easter morning–a time for chocolate-filled baskets and decorated egg hunts, or a celebration of the risen Savior? Regardless of your beliefs, 2016 initiated the annual Easter anniversary of an event our family will never forget.
As unapologetic Christians, our lives revolve around our faith. Although we prefer to celebrate Easter morning with a fellowship breakfast and sunrise service at our church, circumstances haven’t always permitted. On those occasions, we are blessed simply to be together as a family.
This particular Easter morning, we found ourselves in Elkins, West Virginia. We woke up early with plans to hike in the Monongahela National Forest. A rock formation atop a small peak presented the perfect place to climb above the trees and enjoy the beauty of God’s grandeur. On our way out of our hotel, we assured the bustling staff that we would indeed be back for the extravagant Easter brunch they had already begun to prepare.
As we drove to the trailhead, our son Bragg told us stories of his many adventures in these very mountains. He was attending Davis and Elkins College on a baseball scholarship and had been introduced to them by some locals. He recalled knowing immediately he wanted to take us to our intended destination the first time he had stumbled upon it while deer hunting.
My husband Jason and I raised our children to follow simple principles:
- God first
- The five of us second
- Always be prepared for anything
- Consequences are the best form of discipline
- Keep it clean, and keep it safe
Despite there being enough essentials in our truck to survive several days comfortably, we departed without any of it stating, “It’s only a couple miles out and back; we’ll be fine.” Famous last words of the ill-prepared.
We crossed a small stream, located a trail, and left it just as quickly as we headed up a steep mountainside with the rocks we were to climb already in sight. Driven by anticipation, our steps quickened as we approached. The seemingly large rock we had focused on since the beginning was now beyond massive as we stood at its base.
Carefully, each of us made it to the top. We conducted our own little church service thanking God for His grace and forgiveness as well as our many blessings. Repeatedly interrupted by the disgruntled barks of our 180 pound Rottweiler, Oscar who was pacing the rock’s edge below as he waited for us to come back down.
The descent down the rock was sketchier than the climb and left us chattering absentmindedly as we headed back to the truck. We were forced to realize we had gotten turned around somewhere when we found ourselves buried in thickets we hadn’t encountered on our way in. Every inch of ground was earned and then taken away as we were impaled by thorns and thrown backwards by retreating branches. Upon reaching the base of the mountain, we wandered aimlessly in search of our trail. We stumbled across a
plastic bag filled with dehydrated food. Despite our hunger, we tucked it away for later, knowing that without water it would only dehydrate us.
Unable to find the trail leading back to the truck, we made what seemed to be the only logical decision, backtrack to the point of last knowing our location. Now unable to see the rocks we had climbed, we knew they were at the top of the mountain on the other side of the thickets. It took hours and expended more energy than any of us had, but we finally emerged back into the open forest. Only halfway to where we needed to be, it was approaching dark and painstakingly obvious we were going to be spending the night.
Each of us had dressed for sunnier temperatures so we knew we turned our focus to shelter. We found a ditch, started moving and stacking fallen trees to construct walls, tore moss off rocks for bedding, and took great pleasure in cutting thicket branches and ripping off their thorns to use as cover. It was nothing fancy, but it just had to keep us warm for a few hours until it was light enough to start walking again. We said a prayer and laid down for the night. No one spoke; no one slept either. Instead we listened as the wind began to howl, blowing in a thunderous rainstorm. We later found out it was the coldest night those mountains had seen for that time of year in quite a while. We hunkered together as long as we could, but when the rain turned into pelting sleet, we had to move.
We gathered our belongings which now consisted of an empty plastic bag, and held hands blindly walking through the pitch black forest. No, I didn’t forget to mention us eating the dehydrated food. The wind had knocked it out of the tree Jason stashed it in for safekeeping while we attempted to sleep, and Oscar claimed it as his dinner.
A flash of lightning led us to the thick roots of a large tree that had recently fallen. We climbed inside the muddy shelter where we shivered and feasted on fresh rainwater until enough light protruded through the trees for us to rekindle our efforts of getting back to the rocks.
As we climbed, the rocks appeared but not where we had expected them to be. Somehow we found ourselves on a completely different mountain top adjacent to the rocks. No amount of reasoning led us to an appropriate conclusion to where we now found ourselves. All that mattered was that we were completely lost, and we had to figure out how we were going to get out. With over 921,000 acres of forest and 825 miles worth of trails, our best shot was to find our way back to the original trail. With that, we descended.
This time, when we got to the thickets, instead of going through them, we followed their edge in the direction of the mountain that housed our rocks. Eventually we found ourselves back at the base of the mountain facing a marsh. Deductive reasoning led us to believe that by crossing the marsh, we would find ourselves back on the trail.
Each of us found a unique way to cross, but our daughter Taylor getting stuck on her first attempt left a lasting impression on our story. It never crossed her mind as she began to trudge across that it could be anything but shallow, until she found herself knee deep in the muck and unable to move. Jason calmly tried to explain to her how to maneuver free, but with each attempt burying her deeper, he had no choice but to make his way to her. Once she was across, our youngest son Brody decided his dad needed his help and made a run for him. Brody’s attempt left Jason buried waist deep yelling, “What the fuck are you doing? Now I’m dick deep in the marsh!” This phrase has become synonymous with “what the hell” and is still a staple in our family. Once safely across, some of us more tired and wet than others, we indeed found our trail, agreed on a direction, and began hiking again.
Along the way, we were able to fill our bag with rainwater safe for drinking. Bragg found an apple, but unfortunately, Oscar saw it at the exact same time, and we watched their race unfold as if in slow motion. Oscar became the clear winner as he chomped his prize. Finally Jason verbalized what we were all thinking. “Shouldn’t we have reached the truck by now?” Maybe we had been more turned around than we initially thought, and the truck was actually in the opposite direction.
Frustrated, we turned around and headed back from where we had just come. We walked, we walked, and we walked some more. The sun began to shine, our clothes began to dry, and our body temperatures began to warm up.
Alongside a large boulder next to the trail, we stopped to rest. Having already passed the marsh some time ago we had clearly come far enough to know we had made a mistake in deciding to turn around. Noting that we were also now heading up stream we felt we had no other option than to again turn around.
We all agreed this would be the last time. We collectively picked our direction and committed to following the trail, no matter what, until we found a trailhead.
The farther we walked, the wider the stream got to the point that it became a river. The growing river became more difficult to cross each time the meandering trail passed through it. Not wanting to get wet in the event we found ourselves spending another night, we scaled fallen trees, hopped over scarcely scattered boulders, and even disrobed holding our clothes above our heads to keep as dry as possible. At one point, the debris of fallen trees made the trail impassable for Oscar. As attempts to coerce him and lift him over failed, we had no option but to leave him. We continued to call him as we walked away hoping it would persuade him to find his own way around, but eventually his cries and barks could no longer be heard. It was a somber realization of our circumstances.
We had not told anyone where we were going. Besides the hotel staff who must have found our deserted luggage by now, would anyone think we were in trouble? Taylor had missed her carpool to return to college. Bragg had missed classes and practice. Brody had missed school. Jason and I had both missed work. All things outside of our character but so was the idea of us being lost.
We passed the time by telling stories and playing games. We sang songs and asked intriguing questions. We did the best we could to build each other up while each of us struggled internally with our own fears. Bumps and bruises turned into aches and pains. Our stomachs growled and exhaustion led to vomiting. Jason and I started discussing the ramifications of continuing to walk until dark or stopping earlier to establish a more serious shelter. As our appendages started to turn purple and white we knew spending another night like the previous one would surely risk hypothermia.
Suddenly, there it was! A tent on the other side of the river. My screams of, “I see a tent!” were met with sarcasm. I can’t say I was surprised, as several hours earlier I swore I saw a house that turned out to be nothing more than the way the clouds and trees shadowed the sunlight backdropping a turn in the river. Nonetheless, as we got closer, it was indeed a tent.
“Hello!” we yelled across the river to no avail.
Jason began pacing the water’s edge trying to find a safe way across the now rapid waters. At the very least, we had found a safe haven for the night if we could get to it.
“Please!” I pleaded as if my life depended on it. “If there is anyone in the tent, we have been out here for two days with no food and no water. Please help us.”
Much to our surprise as well as to our relief, two young men came bounding out of the tent. They quickly explained to us where we could safely cross the river, and once we were on the other side, greeted us with a warm fire, beer, macaroni and cheese and Ramen noodles.
Once we were fed and warm, they explained that they only had a tiny car at the nearest trailhead about a mile from that location. Bragg, being the only one familiar enough with local roads to be able to find his way back to the truck, headed out with one of our new companions. The rest of us stayed by the fire until enough time had passed that we assumed our hike out would bring us all to the trailhead at the same time.
We arrived and still waited over an hour for Bragg. Our travels had somehow taken us more than 30 miles out of the way from our original location and into a neighboring county. We squared up with our rescuers and headed back to our original hotel to gather our belongings. As we headed out of the mountains our phones began to explode with unreceived messages from our time spent without reception. Happy Easter wishes were quickly replaced with messages of concern that no one had heard from any of us. After making amends with all concerned parties, we checked into a new hotel, took warm showers, and pigged out on pizza.
This is not the end of our story. Tuesday morning, after the rest of us headed back to Michigan, Bragg returned to the mountain in search of Oscar. He swore he could hear him barking and vowed to keep going back until he found him. Wednesday night we received a phone call. He had gone out and again swore he heard barking. Unable to find him, Bragg sat down under a tree figuring if he kept calling maybe Oscar would find him. He continued until the barking he thought he heard stopped. Sadly and reluctantly, he returned to his truck where he saw a dark figure waiting for him in the bed. Instinctively fearing it was a bear, he suddenly realized it was Oscar.
Just over a month later, I returned to Davis and Elkins on a solo trip to hang out with Bragg. Having learned our lesson, we let several people know our intended route before heading out to go spelunking.
On our way to the cave, we took a detour back to the original trailhead of our previous departure into the mountains. In less than a five minute walk, we were standing at the very boulder that had led us to change our direction that final time. The realization of how close we had been nearly brought me to my knees. We continued down the trail to the marsh where Jason, Taylor, and Brody’s imprints remained visible.
It’s been seven years since that Easter. Despite some difficult memories, it left us with an even stronger family bond than before. Each of us toting physical scars as consequences of our lessons learned over those two days, we emerged from our experience better for it. We are thankful to be alive, thankful God had spared us from other potentially catastrophic harms, and thankful for each other.
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