In April 2023, two months shy of my 87th birthday, I called a friend to tell her where I was hiking and then drove to the trailhead. On a lovely spring morning, I started up a familiar trail that was covered in snow. Still, I made my way up the steep climb to the top, we call the knoll, with no problem. I sat on a downed tree, enjoying the blue skies and warming sun as I ate part of a protein bar and some chocolate.
I started down. Suddenly I found myself hiking up a steep incline. Something was wrong. I needed to be going down, not up. I had lost the trail and couldn’t see my footsteps. I hiked down a steep slope hoping to find the trail. No trail.
I hiked up to a clearing to see if I could see the trail. No trail. I was definitely lost. Had I been able to call for help I would have had no way of telling them where I was, not that I thought about calling for help.
I had plenty of food, water, warm clothing. Something to wrap myself in. First aid supplies. I was calm. Although it might sound woo-woo, I felt the forest was supporting me, urging me to listen, to watch, to hear closely. I never felt alone, although I was by myself.
I have hiked in the Santa Fe Forest for many years. The topography doesn’t change as it does in areas called badlands that are formed and reformed by sun, wind, and rain. I knew that if I could find a large drainage area, sometimes called a ditch, it would, in all likelihood, lead to a road or a trail. I found a large one that looked promising, but it was filled with deadfall, deep snow, boulders, and bushes. I decided to follow it down.
Every step meant confronting an obstacle. Downed trees meant I had to figure out how to go over, under, or climb and hike around them. I fell into snow up to my waist, gashing my legs, sometimes landing in snowmelt rushing down the steep slope. I kept going. For three hours. Following the drainage ditch. Down. Down. Down. Stopping only to pee.
As I hoped, the drainage ditch ended in a trail that I couldn’t identify but there were footsteps, which was encouraging. I followed the unknown trail until it ended in a trail I recognized. I wasn’t sure which way to go so I hiked up it for a while, decided this was the wrong direction, and began hiking back down. Eventually I came to a huge boulder and realized the trail I needed to climb up was close by. I hiked up the steep trail to the post, then down to my car. I had hiked almost ten miles in about five hours.
When I got home, I told the friend I was home. I didn’t tell her about being lost. For a few days I didn’t tell anyone about being lost. I felt embarrassed about losing the trail, but good about knowing how to find my way out. I didn’t want to defend not having or wanting a trail app. I didn’t want to hear I shouldn’t hike by myself. I didn’t want to be told I shouldn’t hike up snow covered trails. I also didn’t want people to ask how I felt. I’d felt nothing except calm when I realized I was lost. I didn’t feel relief when I saw the first trail. I didn’t feel relief when I found the familiar trail or the trail I took to get to my car. I didn’t feel relief when I got home. I felt nothing. I was tired, that’s for sure. I barely had energy to take a shower. I ate a protein bar for supper. I went to bed and was too tired to sleep.
The experience in the forest was/is important in ways that are more complex than the story of lost and found. It was an extraordinary time. I never doubted my ability to find my way out although I realized in order to do so, I had to focus on what was in front of me, to figure out how to move forward over, under, and around the obstacles for as long as it took. Three hours.
A few days later, I felt something inside me had shifted. For a while I had no words to describe what was happening. Then a therapist friend told me my not feeling was a trauma response, one I had learned when I was very young, as a coping mechanism to deal with the violence and abuse I experienced. I learned not to expect help or nurturance. From the time I was little my father would tell me, “You’re strong. You can manage,” whether or not I could. Because help was not available, somehow, for better and worse, I found a way to manage.
I feel I did more than manage to find my way out of the forest. Despite the very real difficulty contending with trees and snow and bushes and boulders, I hiked with a sense of peace because the forest has always been a place of comfort. Nothing bad has ever happened to me in the forest. It was as if I could feel the forest’s love, as if the forest was cheering me on. As if I was experiencing the love I never felt growing up. As if I do have a family, but it isn’t the people of my blood, it’s the connection between trees and earth and all that lives within the wilderness and me.
In the weeks that followed I noticed I felt more calm, more accepting, more able to acknowledge the reality of the abuse and violence I’d experienced for so much of my life, without getting hooked by it. One practitioner who I’d told a little bit about being an unloved child, who had worked on me before getting lost, told me recently: “You’re a different person energetically. The forest is your mother.”
Six years ago, I made the decision to cease contact with a family member after years of fruitlessly trying to make a healthy relationship. After six years of living the best years of my personal life, the family member contacted me by mail. It was a voice from the past in all ways. Not loving, full of old untruths. I decided to respond in a loving way, ignoring the blame. I received a second letter full of blame and anger—no acknowledgement of the loving letter I sent. I have decided not to respond. I am not going back to being afraid of someone’s anger, afraid of judgment, afraid of being told who I am is not acceptable.
I have support from friends, and from an unexpected source—a Tarot reading that affirmed all the work I’ve done to free myself from past trauma. Getting lost, in retrospect, led to finding myself, to asking questions: Am I willing to be who I am with all the complexity I contain? Can I let go of the strictures of the past, the blame, the shame, the loss of power? Can I focus on the present, the nourishing life I am living, the life I have created?
A version of this piece was initially published by www.yourlifeisatrip.com.
Please visit https://www.nancykingstories.com/ where you can order her books, read about her memoir and novels, learn about her nonfiction exploring the power of stories, imagination, and creativity, and find information about Nancy’s workshops.
You can also order signed books from Nancy by contacting her at email@example.com