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Storytelling Workshop: “Lost”

May 14, 2020

This is a written adaptation of the first story I told in the storytelling workshop.

I cannot believe he picked me.

It was Sunday morning, the last day of the camping trip.   I had finished packing my gear, when I heard someone shout my name.

It was the voice of the most senior scout in the troop–an intense 17 year old Eagle named Buck.  It didn’t take long for newbies like me to realize that Troop 18 was Buck’s troop.  I was 12 years old, and it was my first camping trip as a boy scout.  We were in the Anza Borrego desert, about 100 miles east of San Diego.  

Spotlight: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | Visit California

This was a real camping trip–tents with dirt floors, cooking over a fire, strange insects.  I was embedded with a group of boys and adults I hardly knew.  I had hoped my father would have been able to join us, but he had to work, so I met up with the other fifteen or so scouts (along with Mr. Roth, the scoutmaster)  at a local church, accompanied by a sleeping bag, a couple changes of underwear, and not much else.

Of course, I brought the one thing I couldn’t leave behind if my life depended on it:  my stammer.

I spent most of the camping trip using the same method of survival that propelled me relatively unscathed through elementary school:  I didn’t say a word.  I listened, I paid close attention, but never spoke.  You learn very early not to draw attention to your stammer–it tries the patience of even those who are kind, and makes you the subject of ridicule by those who are not.

So even though it was Sunday morning, and not one of the other scouts knew what my voice sounded like, Buck at least knew my name.   “We’re going to do a hike.  Come along.”

The plan was this: The hikers would follow the Anza Borrego trial for twenty miles to the town of Ocotillo.  The rest of the troop would break camp and drive to Ocotillo in Mr. Roth’s Chevy van.   After meeting up, we’d  begin our return trip to San Diego. 

At 8 a.m., we began our march south.  I looked around and realized that the hikers were Buck, two of the senior scouts called Paul and Tom…and me.

We crossed state route two, maneuvering past cactus, cat claw, crucifixion thorn, and creosote bush.   We spotted desert cottontail, antelope squirrel, and kangaroo rat.  Buck pointed out every animal, often stopping abruptly when something popped into his peripheral vision.  He seemed to be an expert on every creature we encountered.  “Did you know the kangaroo rat can jump six feet? They also don’t have to drink.  They metabolize water from the seeds that they eat.” 

After about two hours, a crossroads.  We paused to devour our bag lunches. While the other scouts were packing up tents, dumping water on the campfire, and cramming into Mr. Roth’s Chevy van, we were in the shadow of the Pinyon mountains, far away from the campsite, far away from anyone, surrounded by desert agave and cool rats that could jump six feet, munching potato chips underneath a clear, blue October sky.  I didn’t want to seem weird, but I couldn’t stop myself from smiling.  Luckily, my companions seemed not to notice. 

“So, I think we should go left,”  announced Buck.  “Through the badlands.”

The Badlands? That’s the place Mr. Roth described. That’s the part of the desert eroded over the years by wind and water, leaving behind a labyrinthine network of hills and rocks.  The place Mr. Roth specifically told us not to hike, pointing out how disorienting the terrain can be.  We could easily get lost. 

“You got your compass?,” asked Tom.

“No,” replied Buck.  “I don’t need a compass.”  

Paul turned to me and asked, “What do you think, Kevin?  Should we go to the badlands?”  

No, I thought to myself, we should not!  We were told not to, and none of us has a compass.  This is a terrible idea!  So, I scanned all three faces and I…nodded. 

It would be fine, I thought to myself.  These are the senior guys, the veterans.  We’ll go through the badlands, reunite with the troop, and have a cool story that only I would get to share with Tom, Paul and Buck

I was going to love Boy Scouts.

We reached the badlands.  We climbed the first hill, took in the painted desert scenery, before racing down to the next hill, and then back up to the top of the next.  The Pinyons were still at our backs, right where they were supposed to be.

But then, as we worked our way through the badlands, the Pinyons began to shift.  They fell further away as expected, but no longer behind.  They moved to the left, then seemed to be almost in front of us, before shifting back again.  It was my first time hiking, but even I knew geography was not supposed to behave this way.

I looked at Buck, who no longer seemed relaxed, and had long ceased commenting on the terrain and the wildlife.  We climbed back up the hill before us, paused and looked around.  

The only thing you could see in any direction was the badlands.  

“We need to go left.”  Buck tried to sound more sure than he was as he headed off.  Unsure of what else to do, we followed.  We were supposed to meet the rest of the troop at two–it was now 1:30.  Maybe we’d still get there in time.  

We hiked another twenty minutes, and finally had some good news.  We were out of the badlands.  But now where were we?

I could no longer locate the Pinyons behind us.  Were they now in front of us, or was that a completely different mountain range?  Even the familiar scenery seemed to change–the types of plants, the heaviness of the sand, even the wind shifted direction.  

Buck continued to trudge ahead, and we followed.  It was now a little after three, and I began to hope that soon we’d turn the corner, see route two, and Mr. Roth’s Chevy van.  But we continued to walk.

It was 4:00, then 5, then 6.  It was getting closer to 7, and we were no closer to where we were supposed to be.  There were no roads, no trails, no hermits living in trailers for whom we could ask directions.  

Finally at around eight, we decided to stop.  It was dark, and though we had flashlights, we’d been hiking twelve hours. 

I finished whatever scraps of food I had and slurped up the last bits of water at the base of my canteen.  We found a spot to lay down.  I tried not to think about tarantulas, scorpions, or snakes.  We weren’t going to be there all night, we decided.  Just a few hours to rest, then we’d head on.  I closed my eyes, then heard the sound of an engine in the distance.  All of us popped up to look around where it was coming from.  Not on the ground, from the sky.  From the east?  Is that east?  If we knew that, we wouldn’t be lost.  

The sound got louder, and the red lights began to cut through the night sky. A cessna flew over where we laid. We jumped up and pulled out our flashlights to try and signal it. Was this our rescue?  Could the plane land here on the desert floor, then whisk us off to warmth, food, and safety?  The other boys screamed and yelled, desperately waving their hands. I hoped it would turn and circle around, so I frantically tried to guide it back to us. 

But it flew off into the night.

I dropped my head back down, and closed my eyes.  I could hear little creatures darting around in the darkness–their feet scrambling on the desert floor, the bushes rustling, the cries of the night birds.   

And then, the screams.  What was that?  Was that a baby? Why would there be babies screaming in the middle of the desert?  It’s definitely more than one.  Finally, the realization:  coyotes.  And they seemed to be getting closer.

We decided that was plenty of rest, and it was clearly time to resume our hike.

There were other planes that flew over that we again attempted to signal, to no avail.

We spotted a light tower, several hundred feet high, and decided to head in it’s direction until we noticed that the more we moved towards it, it seemed to drift further and further away.

We returned to our previous route, because Buck said so.  I was tired of Buck saying so, but Tom and Paul wouldn’t challenge them.  And of course, I kept silent.  

It was about an hour later  that we noticed the smoke.  A huge billow of white smoke, lit by red and yellow lights. My first thought was that maybe a spaceship had landed, and we would round out our sixteen hour hike with a close encounter.  As we descended the hill, it turned out to be much more terrestrial:  a plaster factory.  

We had reached Plaster City.  It was now 12:30 in the morning. We would discover later that we had hiked nearly 40 miles.  

We wandered into Plaster City, which seemed to be nothing more than the factory, a parking lot, and a bar–called, very appropriately, the Plaster City Bar.

The bar had a pay phone so Buck called his home.  A brief conversation with his mother, and then another dime to reach the Ocotillo Fire Department.  After Buck got off the phone, he let us know that Mr. Roth was coming to get us.  We would learn later that about 80 vehicles, several airplanes and a couple of hundred volunteers had scoured the desert looking for us. 

A half hour later, the Chevy van pulled up in front of the bar. The rest of the troop was already home, asleep in their beds.

Behind the van was a blue impala that looked remarkably like my Dad’s car.  Mr. Roth emerged from the van, and his whole body seemed to sigh in relief at the sight of us.  

My Dad appeared behind Mr Roth. Normally, I would have run to my father and leapt into his arms, but I couldn’t move. I stood there like a statue, perhaps one frozen in plaster.  Finally, my father approached, and pulled me into an embrace.  He kissed me gently on the head and asked, “Are you done?”

We climbed into the car, and my father pulled up to an intersection.  He squinted at the road signs, and seemed unsure of which way to turn.

With some effort, I managed to summon my voice–the voice I had kept silent for nearly sixty hours: 

“Don’t go left.”

 

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