This is a continuation of yesterday’s blog – An Arkansas Adventure – Part I.
So, when I left the story yesterday, we were in a swamp-like area on the trail, in the dark, helpless. My Dad and my brother, Terry, were driving toward each other to rendezvous to head to Arkansas. I talked to my Dad last night, and he said I forgot one important element. When he got the call, he had already taken his sleeping pills for the evening and all his meds. So, he’s driving to meet my brother in a drug-induced haze.
Back at the State Park, the Cross County Sheriff’s Office, the Wynne Volunteer Fire Department and the Village Creek State Park Staff have assembled to begin the search for us. They pulled in a trailer with communications equipment, several wives to make hot coffee, all the four wheelers in the surrounding area, and they were in “search mode.”
Rick and I had no idea that this is going on. I felt pretty sure that they might see our car still in the parking lot, but who knew if they would realize we didn’t come back. What if there wasn’t a protocol to check for lost hikers whose only evidence is a parked car in the parking lot? I used to live in Knoxville, so I knew the Smoky Mountains National Park had Rescue Squads and searched for people, but I wasn’t quite sure Wynne AR would have the staff for that kind of thing.
So, as we continued walking through the swamp, we realized that we had crossed a stream at some point. If we could find the stream and cross back over it, maybe we would be heading in the right direction. We were still guessing about whether or not we were hiking toward the Visitor’s Center or away from it. In the dark, Rick hears water. “I’ll ride through it and see if we can get to the other side,” he heroically shouts! So, he gets on his mountain bike and starts to ride toward the water. I can see trees or limbs or something, but I’m not sure I can really see it, or if it’s my eyes making something up. Crash!! He crashes into something in the stream. “Well, you can’t get through here,” he adds.
So, we keep walking. The trail starts to change. It feels grassier, and it’s starting to feel like we’re going up in elevation and getting out of the dampness. Eventually, we reach what feels like a ridge. I felt much better knowing we were not in that swampy chilly area. We’ve been gone now for hours. It’s been dark for hours. I had no idea what time it was. But, I was starting to get really tired, and I was afraid that we were going to have to spend the night out here. It was a distinct possibility, and to be weak from exercise would not help. So, I said we needed to stop. Rick finally agreed to stop. We were freezing, so we covered up with some of the leaves that were covering the trail. I hoped it might keep us a little warmer and hold our body heat in. We snuggled up with each other, but it wasn’t very romantic.
We tried to get some sleep, but it really wasn’t happening. It was too cold. The ground was wet, and, well, we were both a little scared. All of a sudden, we hear a helicopter flying overhead with a spotlight shining down into the woods. Well, it was sort of exciting that they were looking for us, but I was embarrassed immediately. OMG.…they are having to spend all of this money and time looking for us. I remembered all the money that was spent searching for people in the Smoky Mountains, and how people were later charged for the search because of their stupidity and carelessness. Great…we may have to pay for this, too. Well, it was totally dark. We had no flashlight or anything, and we were covered with the tree canopy. How would they see us? We decided to break a reflector off my bike and hold it up. The spotlight never came near us…..and the helicopter flew on, searching in areas where we were not. Insert big sigh……
In about an hour, a four-wheeler comes flying up on us with these really bright headlights beaming in our eyes! It came up so fast, it scared me to death. I didn’t even hear it coming, and I’m not sure why. I’ll never forget the sight. It was actually two four wheelers with firemen all decked out in their fire gear! I’ve never been so grateful to see somebody in my life. It’s probably why I have such a fireman fetish these days. One of the guys gave me his coat, and I felt warm at last. They asked if we were okay, loaded our bikes into the back of the four wheelers, and we took off. They took us to the end of the trail, and we had to hike across a farmer’s field to get to a sheriff’s car that was waiting for us.
When we drove up to the “compound”, I felt so embarrassed. I apologized to the Sheriff’s officer that was driving. “Nonsense,” he said. “These guys love this. What else are they going to do on a Sunday night?” Well, okay. But, it was still embarrassing. They had blackboards, radios, a trailer and about 40 people milling about. We thanked them all emphatically, and they seemed to like being heroes and were just glad they found us. They told us we were at the farthest part of the park possible, and we were heading AWAY from the Visitor’s Center. If we’d just kept going, we’d have hit I-40 shortly.
Oh, yeah, and if I’d brought my cell phone, they could have tracked us immediately. I told them that I didn’t have coverage, and they said it didn’t matter. If I’d had it on me, they would have known right where we were. Well, that would have been nice to know beforehand, I guess. Of course, there are a lot of things that would have been more helpful like…bring a flashlight, something to eat, some water and a jacket. Hindsight is 20/20.
Before we got in our car, they told me to call my parents. I was a little confused because I didn’t know how my parents knew anything, but they told me they had broken into the car, found my cell phone, called them and told them what had happened. So, at 2 AM, as we are driving back to Memphis, I called my office and left a message for my boss telling him I’d be really late coming in and why. I called my parents, and the trip to Arkansas was subverted. My boss told me later that I got the award for the most creative excuse ever for missing work. Well, I guess that’s something, but I didn’t make this up.
The next morning it all seemed like a dream. But, I now do several things when I go out in the woods that I never did before:
We went back later to thank the people at the park for all they did to help us out. Apparently, the boy scouts were putting up some really nice signage now so that this doesn’t happen again. It had happened to three other people in the months before it happened to us. The worst experience happened to a 13 year old girl who got off the trail, so they had to scour the woods as well as the trails. They didn’t find her until 3 AM. I’m sure she was terrified.