TITLE: The Red Twine
By Edwina Cowgill
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Saturday started early for me. After a chaotic week at work, I was more than ready for the weekend. Earlier in the month, I made plans to go hiking, which is one of my favorite things to do, on Saturday. Unfortunately, my hiking partner had backed out of going on Friday night, so I decided to go solo. After all, nothing could happen to me, right?
So I was up early Saturday morning and loaded my backpack with a few bottles of water, a couple of apples, a sandwich for lunch and some trail mix. Being a bird watcher, I packed my binoculars in the hopes of spotting some of the winter birds that populate the forest. I keep emergency supplies in my backpack at all times so there was no need to pack those.
I started the hour-long drive from my home in North Atlanta to the Chattahoochee National Forest. Traffic was light and I made the trip in a little less than one hour. It was a cold and cloudy day in November, but the forecast did not call for any precipitation. My plans were to hike for a while, find a good place to picnic and then hike back.
I checked in with the guard at the main gate and started up the hiking trail. I chose the easy trail for this hike, knowing that I wanted to move at a leisurely pace after my hectic week.
Except for the evergreens, the trees had dropped all of their leaves, presenting their chocolate brown and black limbs to the gray sky. After hiking for about 45 minutes I stopped, hearing the warble of a Winter Wren. I focused my binoculars and was rewarded to see the small, brown bird perched on an evergreen branch. Listening for a few minutes to her myriad, beautiful notes brought a peace to my spirit.
I moved steadily on the hiking trail for another hour and decided to stop for a snack. Sitting on a large boulder, I began eating my apple, only to realize that the light gray clouds I had noticed earlier had gotten darker. I debated on heading back down the trail but remembering there was no rain or snow in the forecast, I decided against it. I left the rock and continued my hike.
About 30 minutes later, I began to think I might have made a mistake in not turning back. Huge, wet snowflakes began to fall and in a matter of minutes I was in the midst of a blizzard. I could barely see my hand in front of my face!
I knew that I needed to head back to the car and thought that if I simply turned and went in the opposite direction, I could go back down the trail. Simple enough, right? The problem with that theory - it was snowing so hard I had become completely disoriented and confused. Still, I reasoned that if I turned 180 degrees, I would be walking in the right direction to get me back to the entrance of the forest. I turned and began walking in the opposite direction. A short time later I realized I had not passed the boulder I had sat on to eat my apple. Or at least, I didn’t think I had, but the snow was still falling so hard, I could have passed the boulder and not realized it.
“Don’t panic,” I told myself. “You just need to get your bearings and you will be out of here in no time.” By now, the ground was totally covered and the snow continued to rapidly fall. I had dressed warmly, so for now, that wasn’t a concern. “If only I’m not lost still by nightfall…” but I would not allow myself to continue that thought.
I made the decision to move in what I thought was a southeast direction for no other reason except I needed to keep moving. Deciding to mark the route to make sure I didn’t go in circles, I reached into my backpack for a pocketknife and red twine. I keep those along with other emergency items, such as a flashlight, extra batteries, first aid ointment and Band-Aids in my backpack at all times. Cutting a long piece of twine off, I tied it around the tree I was standing next to and off I go, praying I’m headed in the right direction. I checked my watch – it’s noon – and I realize I have about five hours of daylight left. “That’s plenty of time,” I think to myself. “I’ll be home in front of a warm fire long before it gets dark.”
The snow continued to fall and had gotten high enough to make walking a little difficult. I continued to tie twine around a tree every few hundred yards, still not sure I was headed in the right direction. A long time later, my heart fell as I approached a tree with a piece of red twine tied around it! Somehow, I had gone in a circle and was back where I started earlier. “Now what?” I thought. Once again, I told myself not to panic. I stood perfectly still, listening for any sounds that might indicate what direction I needed to go. But the forest was completely quiet; even the animals and birds had gone silent. I took a couple of deep breaths and decided to try moving in the opposite direction from where I was standing.
I began to trudge my way through the snow that had accumulated. I had gloves in my pocket and slipped those on against the deepening cold. Glancing at my watch, I was surprised to realize that time was moving quickly. It was already 3:00 and I knew then I only had a couple hours before darkness would begin to fall. I was getting tired and hungry but did not dare take the time to stop and eat.
I continued to tie twine around trees to mark my movements and stopped occasionally to listen for any sounds of human life. I was scared but would not allow myself to dwell on the unthinkable. What had started out to be an enjoyable day was beginning to become a nightmare.
I kept moving, one foot in front of the other. At least I had not seen another tree tied with red twine. Suddenly, I heard a crashing in the midst of the trees. Standing perfectly still, I waited, praying it was help. Out of the blizzard appeared the most gorgeous sight to my eyes – a rescue team! Three men and one woman had come to lead me out of the forest!
“How did you know I was here? How did you find me?” I questioned. The team leader spoke up, “The guard gave you about an hour to get back after the blizzard started. When you didn’t show up, he called for the rescue team to come. Honestly, it’s a good thing you tied the twine around the trees. That eventually helped us to find you.”
“Thank God,” I replied. “I was getting very frightened. I thought I might have to spend the night out here!”
“Come on,” one of the team members spoke up. “Let’s get you out of here.” Two of the team members went in front of me and two in back as we headed in the right direction out of the forest. It took a while, but we made it back to the main gate just before dark.
“I cannot tell you how grateful I am to all of you,” I commented. “You truly saved my life.”
“You seem very resourceful,” the leader replied. “I’m sure you would have made it out okay. But we were glad to help you.”
I waved good-bye and climbed into my car. Turning on the heat to warm up before leaving, I realized I had learned two very valuable lessons today: never, ever go hiking without a partner, and never, ever go without a compass!
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