“Sign In and Out” it said on the small, weather-beaten placard at the edge of the woods. Just below was a clipboard inside a makeshift wooden box, to protect it from the elements, along with a pencil nub on the end of a string.
Below that were some brochures. I poked through and found a wet map purporting to be Trail C.
I figured to be standing at the trailhead. My houseguests — some old high school buddies — had just left my camp in Danforth for a 10-hour drive back to their homes in upstate New York. They were retired and could now check a fishing trip in northern Maine off their bucket lists. It had been an action-packed weekend, with trout fishing in waders and bass fishing by canoe, as well as campfires and barbecues. I needed a solo walk in the woods to unwind.
“Trail C” would be a new hike for me, one to add to the many off Route 1 that I have taken over the last few years. The sun was high in the sky and I estimated enough light left in the day for a five-mile outing. I was in old jeans and a t-shirt. I carried my cell phone, though I knew service in the woods would be spotty if there was any at all. I had a single bottle of water and nothing else — no food or matches, no flashlight, no sweater or rain jacket. This would be a few hours on a well-marked trail on a mild and sunny day. What could go wrong?
I put the soggy map back in the holder and set off, following the yellow plastic ribbons tied to tree trunks and boughs that marked out the trail. Soon I was pleasantly deep in thought, replaying moments from the weekend, thinking about the days ahead and an upcoming trip. I kept work thoughts at bay. I noticed the light shift and recede as the tree canopy thickened. The wood darkened further as the heavily filtered sun was obscured by a cloud and the second growth pines, birch and spruce grew more dense. I was a was about two miles in when I ran out of ribbons. I looked around and peered back through the woods. The friendly yellow plastic markers had vanished.
I started to perspire a bit, both from the uphill slope of the trail and from my anxious, racing thoughts. Did I miss a turn? Probably. Did I even sign in at the trailhead? No. Does anyone know where I am? No. I had to calm down. I took out my cell phone and as expected there was no service. The navigation app showed Route 1 on the map, with a straight orange line above solid forest leading to it. Helpful for a crow, I thought. Zooming in didn’t reveal the terrestrial route. I could backtrack but which way? My mind elsewhere, I hadn’t honed in on where I was walking for at least the last 30 minutes.
Anxiety morphed into anger at myself for this foolish maneuver. Even if someone were to check the trail heads looking for me, I had neglected to sign in. I was getting hungry and the mosquitoes were making a meal of me. My water was long gone. There wasn’t even a deer path in sight. I sat down on a half-corroded log and did what anyone else hopelessly lost in the woods would do: I cried.
After a few minutes of feeling sorry for myself I felt better. I blew my nose on my shirt and sat quietly for a while, feeling drowsy. The stillness was broken by a faint, muffled swishing sound. I strained to identify it, but it was quickly gone. It didn’t seem animal or human-like. I decided to lay on the ground. Maybe my heart would stop pounding out of my chest. I took some deep breaths and closed my eyes. I would relax and try to think my way through this predicament. I resisted sleep though all I wanted was to wake up and find this was just a bad dream.
Again, I heard the muffled, motor-like swishing sound. It faded quickly, followed by the same sound, this time just a little louder before quickly fading away. It was infrequent but occurred every 15 minutes or so. I looked up through the treetops to the sliver of blue sky. Could a plane be circling overhead searching for me? I haven’t been gone that long. No one even knows I am lost. The swishing sound was back again. My heart leapt with a sudden realization: engines on Route 1.
I barely breathed, trying to discern the direction of the noise. I stumbled through the woods toward it, pausing for moments on end, waiting for the next life-saving sound. Eventually, the rumble of passing trucks was unmistakable. I was scratched, bitten and covered in dirt from head to toe when, two hours later, I made my way out of the woods onto the highway. I flagged down a truck and the kindly driver took me to my car, which was only a half mile down the road ahead. Before going home, I signed in and out on the clipboard at Trail C.
Lenny is a land use attorney who has practiced in East Hampton, New York for nearly 50 years. He spends spring and summer in Danforth, where he has a cabin on East Grand Lake.