Part 31: Lost in Yellowstone

Published 10:30 am Thursday, December 16, 2021

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Home free — almost. Todd and I had made it as far as we did, with the help of tremendous Providence. I am confident we could have made it the last few miles had we not met our ‘guardian ranger’ Ethan, since we had come that far. But it seemed to be more added grace that the Lord provided some visible help and encouragement to assist us those final miles. I hope he does the same in the big journey, as he takes us near the end of that trail, too. Our prayer is that he’ll give us (and all who have shared the journey with us) added joy, hope and peace through the final miles of that journey.

I am more sure than ever that he will guide us safely to across that finish line, angels attending. Perhaps these last few miles and hours of our greatest adventure are just a preamble for that hour.

After wishing Godspeed to our friends the Kamms, we made our way the final two miles up the mountain. Before long, the trail flattened out, and we knew that we were nearing the end of the way. Todd continued to go ahead of Ethan and me most of the time, but at one point I remember having a surge of strength – sensing that we were almost there – and I pushed ahead even of Todd. I do not remember passing any other hikers after the Kamms, but at one point we met a young man and young lady jogging on the trail; and before long they came jogging back heading the same way as we were. Both times I stepped aside to let them go back, as we exchanged greetings, and each time I remember kind of stumbling trying to allow them plenty of room to pass. I guess a little stumbling, even near the end, was appropriate.

The last four miles seemed like ten. Todd and I both would ask Ethan,

“How far do you think we have?” and he would say, “I’d say another mile or two.” But the trail kept twisting and curving, and we always thought the end would be around the next turn. My legs were strong, but I was still highly aware that my left hip and the inner hamstring muscle had begun bothering me more as the day went along. I hoped that I would not get this far and have something snap this late in the game. With two miles seeming to turn into five, and with the day being almost spent and now pressing on into early evening, I was tiring more and more. But unlike the other gut-wrenching days, the only real hazard we had was the lack of water because we had drunk almost all the water we had and now had gone several miles without hydration. The only times water was an issue was this one ten-mile stretch, in both the beginning and the ending of the hike.

Finally, we turned around the final curve and saw the place where we had stood innocently six days before at the beginning of the journey. Six days can turn into six weeks in a hurry. Ethan had stored some water in his car, so we immediately got some water in us, then Ethan took pictures of Todd and me at the very spot the four of us hikers had posed before heading out with great optimism. There were at least fifteen pounds less of the two of us combined than when the four took the picture the previous Sunday evening.

Earlier that afternoon, Ethan had offered for Todd and me to go home with him that evening and then drive us to meet Randy and Roy on Saturday morning. That offer – and the fulfillment of it – tells you about Ethan. Truth is, even though we were back to the Trailhead, we would have had no way to contact Roy and Randy without Ethan’s help. So, we readily took the offer and, soon, were driving to his apartment, which was a complex where many of the workers at Yellowstone worked. As soon as we got into his home, Todd first borrowed Ethan’s phone to call home, and Todd called Staci. I sat on the couch in Ethan’s living room and leaned my head back for a moment while I listened to the conversation. When Staci answered the phone, Todd began in the exact way you would expect.

“Hey Staci,” he said, “this is Todd.”

As tired as I was, I couldn’t help but smile. She obviously would know who it was as soon as she heard his voice. But she did say later that she almost didn’t answer the phone because it had a North Carolina number. We learned later that there was more drama back in Houston even during the call. When Todd called, Staci hollered out to their twenty-year-old daughter Kayla to come say ‘hi.’ Kayla thought Staci said ‘bye,’ so she was immediately upset, thinking something bad had happened. Truth is, nothing bad happened the entire trip for us, when you think about it, except Roy’s turned ankle and their untimely return back. Still, Staci said many tears accompanied Todd’s call back home: hers, Kayla’s, and Kelsey’s, who is fourteen. Todd, though – he was stoic, as usual.

After Todd hung up, I took the phone to call Marilyn. I just said something like,

“Hey Marilyn, we made it.”

Marilyn answered, “Are you okay?”

At that moment, I wanted to say ‘yes,’ but — just as it was when I was trying to tell Ms. Hogan to tell the amazin’ blonde I loved her, I couldn’t get a word out.

My silence told Marilyn all she needed to know, and she said, “No, you’re not okay, are you?”

I had walked outside to have that call, and I am glad that I did. I suppose I knew that I might struggle a little when I heard her voice, so I needed that moment alone. Todd was still inside, and Ethan was in the parking lot talking to a neighbor, so my eyes were safe from anyone’s sight. I gathered myself quickly and answered a few questions before letting her go with, “I’ll see you Sunday night” and a casual “love ya,” as if I hadn’t just faced a Grizzly the night before.

We called Randy, too, so he and Roy would know that we were out, and they could stop worrying. We made plans to meet them the next morning at a gift shop about thirty miles from where Ethan lived. With that set, Todd took a shower first, then I took mine, which may have been the best shower I’d ever taken. After we were all dressed and rested, Ethan pulled out a map to see if he could determine exactly where we had been. I suppose it is ironic, though, that a map could never tell how far and how wide we had gone into the depths of Yellowstone and into the depths of our own soul.

That’s a map only the Lord could read.