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July 19, 2012

Stranded

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pam salant

Photo Credit: Molly Landreth

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Once in the deep creek bed, I began to crawl, trying like crazy to ignore the pain, taking breaks to rest and drink from the creek. Periodically in the distance I heard helicopters — I'm over here! — but they'd fade away. I felt like a wild animal: All my energy was focused on survival. Starving, I ate raspberries and salmonberries — I even tried caterpillars and, most disgusting, a slug, which I spit out but whose slimy taste lingered.

The day felt interminable. At times I was sure I couldn't crawl another inch. When the sun began to set, I felt relieved I could stop but was scared of another night alone in the woods. I dragged myself clumsily up to a flat area flanked by trees. The temperature felt like it had dropped into the 50s, and to try to get warm I tied the unattached part of my top's built-in bra over my head as a kind of mask, secured the tank's bottom around my waist with a shoelace to keep out the frigid air, then covered myself in moss. I fell into a restless sleep.

The intensity and sheer focus I put into these small acts of survival kept me from thinking about my injuries and whether I was headed the right way. I couldn't invest energy in worry. That's how you endure these kinds of things. The second you start letting your mind flirt with the worst-case scenario — well, you can't if you want to make it. You just can't.

I woke to the sunrise and throbbing of my torn-up hands. I pulled off my socks and chewed holes to make fingerless gloves. The wound on my leg looked worse, so I peed into my hands and put urine on the gash to keep it clean — a move I'd seen in a movie. Then I took off my pink-and-blue striped underwear, tying it around my leg as a tourniquet. Woozy, I wanted to sleep, but an urgent thought crept into my head: You've got to keep going.

I went back to the creek and continued, inch by brutal inch, on all fours. Around midday, I reached an impasse — a massive fallen tree. I had to scale it. I pulled myself up with excruciating effort, and saw that on its other side the land dropped and I'd have to jump onto rock. I was terrified my legs wouldn't hold me. It was too much. Two days after first getting lost, I became unhinged. I can't do this! I screamed over and over. I became delirious and thought I saw a friend who had died in a freak bike accident; then trippy memories of other old friends and family, people I hadn't seen since I'd moved, flitted through my head. I felt overwhelmed by a profound sadness that I'd never see them again, would never have a family of my own.

No, I thought weakly, I'm not done yet. It's strange, what your body tells you you're capable of and what your mind convinces you instead. With the last of my reserves, I jumped.

Pam! Pam! I looked up and saw them, the Crag Rats, members of the volunteer search-and-rescue team, hiking down a steep slope on my third day lost. I wasn't sure I could trust my eyes, but as they got closer, I was flooded with relief and then pure, unmitigated joy. I was saved — I was safe. Soon the helicopter returned, lowered a medic, and flew me to the hospital where Aric was waiting. There, I learned that, incredibly, I had crawled about a mile and a half with a broken left tibia, the second-largest bone in the body, and six fractured vertebrae in my back. The worst pain, though, was my butt: I had rubbed nearly all the skin off it from scooting. It was like a first-degree burn, tender and raw.

I had surgery on my broken leg a few days later and after went to my parents' in Massachusetts, where I stayed for two months to heal. I worried about returning to Portland, knew I couldn't explain to friends I barely knew what it felt like to be so close to death. I also worried I'd be dependent on Aric, who made it clear he was there for me both emotionally and physically. But then I had a profound realization: I didn't need understanding, didn't need Aric's reassurances — I was OK on my own. I was stronger than I ever knew, and more courageous. I could go anywhere, do anything.

Aric and I decided to take a break not long after. I realized I had to think about committing to a man who might not want the same things as I did. I also recently applied to graduate school to study art therapy and eco-psychology, which helps people reconnect with nature. It sounds cliché, but the experience of fighting for myself, and my future, helped me see clearly for the first time. When I think about those days in the woods, I'm astounded — was it really me? Did I do that? I still go hiking, especially when the grind of daily life takes over. It's every bit as exhilarating as it was before my accident, maybe even more. It reminds me of how I beat the odds by force of will. That's a powerful feeling. Except now, I make sure to stick to the trail.


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