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How Mom found me

I was lost, and she was 1,500 miles away. But all it took was one word.

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Photo illustration by John Kehe

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“Do you want me to send the Alpine Rescue Team to get you?” John asked, his voice firm, friendly, and far away. 

Pausing, I thought, “I bet there are strong, attractive men on this team.” I imagined connecting immediately with one strapping rescuer – in a helicopter perhaps – as we flew away from the forest and into our future. 

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Given this was my first thought and that I wasn’t injured, the correct answer seemed “no.” So with feigned confidence, I replied, “I don’t think that will be necessary. I have plenty of water and daylight.” 

I had been introduced to John just an hour prior when, after I’d made multiple attempts to reach someone, he called me from the US Forest Service at Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests in Colorado. 

I’d come to a clearing where I was actually getting a cell signal, and John told me my location was being pinged to him. 

“You’re actually not that far off the trail, but it is densely wooded where you are, so it might be hard to see,” he said.

“Really? I’m close to the trail?” I replied incredulously, looking around.

I had been following the yellowish-green markers for a “popular and easy” three-mile out-and-back hike a friend had recommended. Immediately after the trailhead, the path became very rocky and steep. But having read about the hike the night before, I knew the incline gave way to a small clearing where I would veer left. Within five minutes of that landmark, I was supposed to reach the hike’s first overlook. 

The overlook never arrived. Instead, after hiking for 20 minutes, I was closely surrounded by trees, rocks, and branches brushing my legs. I felt lightheaded by my exertion at this altitude, so I stopped and tried to orient myself. 

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Looking around, I saw that yellowish-green color on many trees and rocks: The trail markers I’d been following were moss. 

I tried to remain calm. “I just need to backtrack,” I thought. But as I began walking, the combination of altitude and anxiety produced a full-blown, gasping-for-air panic. The trees were engulfing me and for the first time I felt claustrophobic in nature. 

I was lost in the woods. 

Pulling out my cellphone, I saw that it read “no service.” I opened my text messages and checked the last one I’d sent to my mom. It read: “Conference ended ... going for a small hike before my flight home this afternoon.” It was marked “not delivered.”

I put my phone away and began yelling: “Help! I’m lost! Is anybody out there?”

Normally I’d be embarrassed to draw attention to myself, but I continued to move and yell. Every so often, I’d stop to listen, but I never heard or saw anyone.

I got out my phone again. The battery was draining fast as it searched for a signal. I had to act. I scrambled to find a place where I could get service. When I did, I called my mom. It went through! And, as moms always do, she picked up. In a shaky voice, I said, “Mom?” and then the call dropped. 

More than 1,500 miles away, my mom instantly knew something was wrong. She called the Denver Police Department and was directed to the US Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region. 

This is how I met John, and that was why his voice was now in my ear instructing me, “Head due east.” Since I couldn’t use the smartphone’s compass while on a call, he gave me a few more instructions before I apprehensively hung up. 

Clambering over small trees and tripping over low branches, I headed east through a gulch, and finally reached a trail. Unlike the previous trail I’d been on, this one was wide and open.

Peering ahead, I saw a gray wolf about 75 yards ahead of me. She – the wolf seemed female, to me – turned and looked at me for a moment, probably assessing whether I posed a threat or not. Then she coolly trotted off the path and disappeared into a thicket. It happened so quickly I didn’t have time to feel afraid. 

Then I thought of my mother – my perhaps-frantic mother – who had sensed that one of her cubs was in danger and had immediately sprung into action.

I wouldn’t have expected anything less. This, after all, is the fiercely protective woman who’d had me wear a life jacket in the wading pool. When I was a baby, she’d broken my Cheerios in half to be certain I wouldn’t choke.

I followed the trail and finally emerged from the woods. I looked up at the expansive sky and breathed a sigh of relief. My phone rang, and it was John, making sure I was still going in the right direction.

“I didn’t realize there were wolves out here,” I said. 

“Oh, I’m sure it was just a coyote,” he replied, ignoring my reference to its size. “By the way,” he said, “we’ve had your mother on hold this whole time. So once you get down the mountain, you will definitely want to give her a call.”