May 9, 2012
I was staying in Maybell, Colorado in a little shack. It was a town that was so small that the library was a trailer, and the one gas station sold bumper stickers that proudly put their name on a map with "Where the heck is Maybell, Colorado?!"
All around was dusty air, pale, ugly skies and sagebrush…miles and miles of it. I felt a twinge of excitement if a truck happened to pass by. It meant people were still around.
I was working as a research assistant for a graduate student who happened to be studying the impact of fences on wildlife. My job? To walk along fence lines half a mile out, and a quarter of a mile in. Alone, with nothing but my water bottle, clipboard and GPS. My week took a turn when my good friend and co-worker, Ashlee, was sent out to Colorado to join me.
"You wanna take this one?" Ashlee asked as our truck pulled alongside a fence that seemed to be the appropriate length.
I looked at it and gulped. There were lots of hills. "It'll be good exercise," I joked. I hopped out of the truck, covering my shoes with another layer of dust. I refilled my water bottle from the orange thermos, grabbed my clipboard, walkie-talkie and GPS unit, and slammed the door.
"See you in a while!" she called out to me through the open window. The truck bounced away one mile down the road where she would meet me, dust erasing both her and her tire tracks. Once the air was clear, I took a deep breath, whispered, "Okay," and trudged along the fence.
I half-hoped to find a carcass just so I could have something interesting to do. Minus the awful smell of decay and the pang of sorrow at seeing a limb dangling from the wires, it was something different than the miles of quiet solitude. I was so tired of smelling dirt and sagebrush, and ready to go home. "Just one more week," I kept telling myself.
I hiked along the fence, up and down great hills. I glanced at my GPS. I was almost there. The hot, empty sun pierced my skin, my legs were wobbly with fatigue, and I really wanted my peanut butter sandwich that was probably warm and soggy back in the truck. The fence was clear. I jotted down my GPS mark, then turned and headed north. One mile of eyeballing a straight line parallel to the fence a quarter of a mile away on hilly terrain was not easy. I had problems drawing a straight line with a ruler, but I was doing pretty good, considering.
I hadn't gone too far before my stomach dropped. "Who put a diagonal fence in the middle of this land?" I wondered. I was now faced with the dilemma of whether or not I should climb the fence and continue on my journey, or if I should reject this fence line as incomplete length and turn around and head back towards the dirt road. I turned to look behind me. Hills of sagebrush. There was no way I would ever see the road from here. I looked to my right…and then to my left. Hills of sagebrush in all directions. I had walked in a straight line, right?
My heart started racing. I took a deep breath. Okay, all I needed to do was climb up a hill and see the view. But my legs didn't move. I had climbed up and down several large hills. I wasn't ready to admit it. "Just don't panic. Whatever you do, don't panic." I looked carefully around, turning in slow circles. The menacing sun, mocking my fear, whipped my face with his long, fiery tendrils. I began to doubt myself and my path. That fence I had just approached, could it actually be the fence I had originally walked along, and somehow I had managed to backtrack?
Alone with nothing but the desert, reason blows away with the tumbleweeds. I looked at the fence, the hills all around, and the sky up above. I gave in to the panic. I was going to die! Nobody would ever find me out here in the middle of nowhere in Maybell, Colorado! How long before a helicopter would come and find my dried bones? I could call for Ashlee, but what good could she do? No one would ever find me, and I was going to die all alone out here!
I burst into sobs, slowly turning circles and letting my mucus and hot tears streak down my face. Nothing looked familiar. I had no idea which direction I had come from. Even with the fence, had I approached it from the left or from the right? I cried even harder, sobbing so loud I was sure vultures would be seeking me soon.
And then, a calm voice whispered to my heart: "Pray." What good was prayer going to do? Again, the thought came. "Pray." And so I prayed. Desperately. "Please, Heavenly Father, help me. Help me find my way back."
I opened my eyes, and took a deep breath. And another. And another. The sky was blue again, and I was in a peaceful plot of land with beautiful sagebrush. There was a fence, and if worse came to worse, I could follow it in either direction, and I would be at a landmark of sorts. I wouldn't die in the middle of a desert. I pulled out my walkie-talkie and called Ashlee.
"Hey, Ash, you there?" I waited, and only heard static. "You there, Ash?"
"Kim? What's going on?" her voice crackled through.
"I'm lost!" I said.
"You're breaking up," she said, her own voice breaking up. "Hang on a few minutes."
I waited, crying calmer now. At least Ashlee knew I was lost. Maybe she could drive back into town, and find someone, maybe even the land owner. Somehow, I was going to get back. After several minutes had passed, I heard her voice again.
"Did you say you're lost?" she asked, voice clear now.
"Yeah. I thought I was walking in a straight line, but there's a fence in the middle of this plot!"
A moment passed. "I don't think there's supposed to be a fence in the middle. I think you drifted."
"I know, I think I did, too, but I don't know which way I came from!" My voice was tight; the urge to cry again started to strangle my windpipe.
"Use your GPS and head west." Her voice was calm and soothing.
I turned my GPS on, upset that I hadn't thought of even using it--probably the most valuable tool a person could own while lost. It said I was facing west. I breathed out a sigh of relief. But, just to be sure, I turned to my left. And I turned to my left again. The GPS wasn't reading right!
"Ash, it's not working! It keeps saying that every direction is west!" I started crying again.
"Did you try walking with it?" she suggested a moment later.
I started walking, and the direction changed. My tears turned to a small laugh. "It's working now!" I said.
"Keep walking west, and you'll get to the road. I'll be driving back towards you."
I hiked the hills, quick with the renewed strength of hope. The direction the GPS pointed me in was not the way my instinct told me to go--in fact, it was the opposite. But I was determined to get out, and that meant following the GPS.
After several minutes, my eyes filled with tears. I found the road!! And coming towards me, with a cloud of smoke trailing behind, was Ashlee in our white Ford pickup. Relief I had never experienced flooded my heart, and I whispered a quick prayer of profound thanks.
As I sat in the truck, explaining my fearful situation to my friend, she couldn't help but laugh out loud. "Kim, you're the only person I know who can get lost in a square plot of land!"