Back on the last day of July in 2012, I decided to go for a hike. In the months prior to this I had been unable to run because of a silly broken ankle, and because I had been released to start walking again, I decided to hit up my FAVORITE and most accessible trail; Deep Creek! (Yay me! I still get excited when I think about going up there!) Anyway... as I usually do, I left work and sent a text to a friend who also worked in the area to let him know where I was headed. While Deep Creek, which is located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Forest, is usually well traversed year round, I always let someone know where I am going, because you just never know...
So... I headed up the trail and just happened to run into the same person I had texted and we chatted for a minute. He asked if I was going to hike "Sunkota Ridge," and I told him that I was going to instead hike "Indian Creek." He told me I might run into some park rangers further up, as they were looking for a missing hiker. As I started back on the trail, I kept thinking, "Who gets lost at Deep Creek?"
The entrance to Indian Creek is around a mile up the main trail. It veers uphill to the right and is pretty much an uphill hike until you get to the top, which is about 3 1/2 miles. We have had some wonderful training runs on Indian Creek because of its absolute and intense conditioning capacity. Up I go on the trail, passing an entrance to Sunkota Ridge, and pondering briefly about abandoning my plan and heading up the half mile to the middle of that trail. Ultimately, however, I chose to stick to Indian Creek because I had not told anyone I was going up Sunkota... and quite frankly, it's dead silent on that trail. I was afraid that if anything happened, I wouldn't be able to get help!
When I got to the top of Indian Creek, I could hear my seasoned Deep Creek friend's voice saying, "Indian Creek loops around and connects with the Deep Creek Trail. It's about a mile long." Granted, while I had heard him say that numerous times, I had never actually hiked the loop. In my head I started figuring time... I figured a mile around to the other side and then 2.5 back to the car... or something like that. It was about 5:30-6 on this summer evening, so I decided I had enough time to go all the way around. It was pretty cool being up on the trail that far, and I quickly passed my first camp site- all the while thinking, "I would love to come camp up here sometime!"
After about an hour on the loop I realized that it didn't just loop around like I had imagined. Oh it looped alright... in about a million different switchbacks! A text came through from my friend who was checking to see if I made it out... so I responded with something like, "I'm somewhere on the loop." He immediately responded asking if he needed to come get me. Me, Ms. Independent (read pride), said, "No........" Eventually I made it to what I thought was the top of Sunkota Ridge. Don't ask me how I thought I knew where I was, but I DID think I knew where I was. When I started down the trail that I was so certain I knew, I managed to slip off the bank partially, and twist that same ankle I had previously broken. Ouch. By this point, however, I realized that daylight in the woods was nearly over, and that I would ultimately need help getting out. In pain and unable to see well, I asked my friend to have park rangers meet me at the turn around. Truly, I tell you, TRULY... I thought I knew where I was.
Within 5 minutes of me asking for help, the day light was gone, and my cell phone was almost dead. I sent an SOS text, and to this day, I'm still not sure if the text made it out or not. There was not enough signal to get a call out, and there was barely enough at that point for a text message. My phone died quickly there-after, leaving me in complete darkness... in the middle of a National Forest.
So... here comes the fun part. I started walking/stumbling/scooting down this single trail, thinking I was going to end up at a specific spot I knew on the main trail. While I wasn't quite frightened at this point, I was worried; more specifically about falling again. As I continued to move down the trail, I tripped and stumbled several times, but felt as though so long as I could keep going, maybe my friend had contacted the rangers and they were going to be at the bottom waiting. Worst case scenario, or so I thought, was that I would make it to the main trail and have to hike down in the dark. Not fun to think about, but I felt as though at least I knew the trail well enough to make it down.
Maybe twenty minutes of walking passed, and I heard rustling in the leaves. Listening very carefully, I tried to gauge if what I was hearing was big or small. I didn't have to listen long. The barking and "gruffing" noise that came next was less than ten feet away, and was that of coyotes. My mind raced about what I should do. When you come across a bear in the woods, make lots of noise. A coyote, however, I wasn't sure about... make noise or be silent? Run? Scream? Pray? With the hairs on the back of my neck guiding my choice, I kept walking... and praying. This time I was scared. My prayer was as simple as that; "God, I"m scared."
God calmed me as I walked with one simple question; "Do you trust me?" Our conversation was pretty straightforward. "Yes." "You're going to be ok. Just keep walking." "Ok."
Proverbs 3:5-6 Trust from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure out everything on your own. Listen for ’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; he’s the one who will keep you on track. Don’t assume that you know it all.
Eventually I came to a place that seemed like a good place to stop. You know the old boy scout adage... "If you get lost in the woods, don't move." Or something like that...? I stood and called for help for a while. I sang for a while. Interestingly enough, the only song I could think of was a special song that I know very well... but I could only remember one line; "Sweet Jesus, my shelter, you are my faithful friend... The refuge that I run to when my world comes closing in. Why should I be afraid when I know I am saved by these arms that take me in... " I sang it loudly. Over and over and over.
Psalm 91: , you’re my refuge. I trust in you and I’m safe!
Psalm 121:5-6 ’s your Guardian, right at your side to protect you— Shielding you from sunstroke, sheltering you from moonstroke.
Isaiah 25: 4-5 (and my one of my favorites... as it also says God's hand rests on this mountain!) They’ll see that you take care of the poor, that you take care of poor people in trouble, Provide a warm, dry place in bad weather, provide a cool place when it’s hot. Brutal oppressors are like a winter blizzard and vicious foreigners like high noon in the desert. But you, shelter from the storm and shade from the sun, shut the mouths of the big-mouthed bullies. (and COYOTES)
I'm not really sure how long I was in this spot, because I had no watch or other time telling apparatus. What I do know is that I sat down, and then laid down hoping to get some rest. My mileage at this point was probably close to 7 or 8 miles, but I'm not really sure. While I was resting and praying, I abruptly had a strong feeling that I needed to leave that area. Every ounce of me felt as though I was in danger, and so I got up and began walking again. This time the downhill terrain became more steep and rugged, so I slipped frequently. Frustrating it was, but more than anything, my heightened sense of fear was driving me. My feet kept going, walking through small streams or water-run off on the path, often losing balance or bumbling along the tree roots. I'm not positive I was always on the path, but eventually I began walking next to water. Unfortunately, I couldn't tell which way the water was flowing. In the pitch black and now directionless state of mind, I kept going.
The entire time, and by entire time- I mean EVERY SECOND, I was praying. Same conversation as before. "God- I'm scared." "I know. Just keep walking. You're going to be ok." "But I'm scared and I can't see and there are things out here that will eat me and what if I fall of the side and what if I freeze and what if, what if, what if???"
God was impeccably consistent. "Do you trust me? You're going to be ok."
1 Samuel 30:6 David strengthened himself with trust in his .
My consistency was not as pure, except that I was able to consistently get myself worked up over and over again! Every time I reached the point of panic, however, He calmed me and gave me enough peace to keep going. Once again, I am not sure how far I walked, or for how long, but I kept going until I came to a place that felt safe. It was a wide open area by the water that let enough moon-light in that I could finally see my hand in front of my face. It appeared that I was in a crossing, but I couldn't tell which way to go. For a few minutes I thought about going further, and stood on a bridge for awhile trying to gain a sense of direction and calling for help. At some point I walked a little ways down what I thought was a path, but when it became overgrown and impassible, I turned back. A sign that was toward the middle of this wide area became my resting point. It was too dark to read, so I just sat down and propped myself up for the night.
Continuing to call for help, at some point I thought I saw some light that had not been there before, but I never could distinguish from where or even what it was coming. The light wasn't bright, and didn't appear to move. The moon was out, and while I couldn't figure out how it could reflect in the way I was seeing it, I eventually decided that help was not coming and I needed to rest. For all I knew, my friend had gone on to bed after I told him I didn't need help, and nobody knew I was out there. It was during these lonely hours that I actually began processing the fact that I might die out there. It was... weird.
Psalm 91: 1-7 You who sit down in the High God’s presence, spend the night in Shaddai’s shadow, Say this: “, you’re my refuge. I trust in you and I’m safe!” That’s right—he rescues you from hidden traps, shields you from deadly hazards. His huge outstretched arms protect you— under them you’re perfectly safe; his arms fend off all harm. Fear nothing—not wild wolves in the night...
Panic continued to come and go throughout the night. The worst of it came while I was laying on my side trying to rest. I could not hear much more than the loud water that was next to me, but the NOSE I felt sniffing my back was enough to nearly cause a cardiac arrest. No joking... there was something sniffing me. (This actually happened twice!) My entire body froze. No sound could be made, and you can bet your bottom dollar that I didn't move! (For everyone's sake, can we just say it was a cute little raccoon?)
Same prayer. "God, I'm so scared." Same conversation. "Do you trust me?" "Yes, God. I do." Same peace.
Psalm 91: 14-15 “If you’ll hold on to me for dear life,” says , “I’ll get you out of any trouble. I’ll give you the best of care if you’ll only get to know and trust me. Call me and I’ll answer, be at your side in bad times; I’ll rescue you...
When the dawn allowed me to see my feet, I got up and attempted to read the sign on which I had been leaning. I'm not sure what the whole thing said, but I remember distinctly the words "Clingman's Dome, and arrow pointing left... and 7 miles." Holy. Wow.
My tired and dehydrated body started walking again, as if it were on its own mission. My prayers, which had included begging God that I wouldn't run into any animals, became very specific in that I wouldn't run into a bear during those morning hours. I knew I was simply too exhausted to get away from anything. At some point I passed a sign that told me a camp site number (56), which later confirmed how far out I had wandered. My feet stayed on the path that took me up and down the mountain, close to and then away from the water, and in a direction that I was very uncertain. About the third time the path veered back up into the woods and away from the water, I stopped and cried for the first time. While we talked incessantly, I finally just told God I needed to get back to my car because I didn't think anyone was looking for me. He responded very clearly. "They are looking. They are worried. Keep walking. You're going to be ok."
So I did.
Psalm 62:7-8 My help and glory are in God —granite-strength and safe-harbor-God— So trust him absolutely, people; lay your lives on the line for him. God is a safe place to be.
Hours later I cried for the second time, but this time it was because I had reached a trail that I recognized, and for the first time since I entered the loop trail, I knew where I was. They were tears of joy. Looking back, this is also where I had lost any common sense that I had left at the time. As I walked down the path, I saw these two ladies hiking toward me. The very first thing I thought was not, "Great- I can send for help," but "I hope that they can't see how dirty I am or smell me." I was dirty and stinky... with wet feet... and really? THAT is what I cared about?? They greeted me and I greeted them... and kept walking. Oh my. A little while later I passed another couple of people... same thoughts. Same process. Oh well. I sat down on a log for a little while to rest, estimating that I had a little less than two miles left. After I started walking again I heard my name.
"KRIS! OH MY GOD SHE'S OK!" Two friends came running toward me at that point, both with water and energy gels. (I was dealing with nausea now because of the dehydration, so all I could take was water.) Here goes my common sense again... instead of realizing I had been "found," and sitting down to wait for a ranger, I just kept walking. Ha. At least I can say I stayed alive, even if I was dumb as a rock when all was said and done! Eventually a truck came up the trail and I did get to ride down, at which point I found my parents and the three friends that came out in the middle of the night to look for me.
There were also four search and rescue teams.
Over the course of the night, I hiked approximately 20 miles. The search team used the ping from my cell phone and could see approximately how far I had gotten before my phone died, but didn't believe it was accurate. They looked anyway, and it turns out, the lights that I saw that I thought was the moon's reflection were actually the lights from their four-wheelers. It looks like they were about a mile above/away from me, though, which explains why I couldn't see them well and why they couldn't hear me nor I them because of the loud water. From what I remember, I hiked out around 9:30 in the morning... The highlighted trails on this map show approximately where I started and where I spent the night... although I'm not sure I'll ever truly know. At some point I would like to hike it again (with people and appropriate gear) and camp in the place I grew so intimately trusting of my Maker.
I'm going to save the story about how angry my friends were... especially the one that I had texted. He was so mad he couldn't speak to me for a couple of weeks. Worried, too. Later on, when we were able to get together and process it all, hearing him describe how they were looking over banks for a body... well... I get it.
I'm going to talk about trust. (in case you hadn't picked up on that! ha!) Obviously, my situation could have turned out differently. It could have been very tragic for all involved... and I recognize that there are things that we go through in life that often don't end as well as my story did. What matters, though, is not the outcome... but the process in getting to the outcome. As a Christian, there are things I cannot imagine going through without knowing that God is walking me through it. The death of a child. Divorce. Cancer. Job loss. You name it...
The thing is, and we just happened to talk about this in church yesterday, is that God doesn't cause pain and suffering. He often allows it in our lives, though, because He knows that we can grow closer to Him and be shaped into the people He created us to be. Our experiences, good and bad, help us to minister to others. They help us to learn trust. They help us become mature.
James 1:2-4 Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.
They help us to learn that God's grace makes us perfect, even in our weakness, and HIS strength will get us through anything. Even the stuff that we BEG God to take away. Jesus himself, right before he was arrested, tortured and then crucified, begged God...
Matthew 26:39 "My Father, if there is any way, get me out of this. But please, not what I want. You, what do want?”
Seriously. Even Jesus begged God. Haven't we all begged someone- be it God or another person- to have a situation changed? "Please don't let him die." "Please help me pass this class." "Please make her come home." "Please... help." The point of God's grace- which is when God gives us what we don't deserve- and mercy- which is when God doesn't give us what we DO deserve- is so much bigger than our current situation. Jesus knew what was about to happen to him and I have to imagine he was scared. I sure as heck would have been! He asked God to get him out of it... but also trusted God with the bigger picture. The bigger picture that time was for our salvation. The bigger picture for me lost in the woods was to learn how to trust God with my entire being. The bigger picture for you is whatever God intends for your life. The question, however, is not "What is the bigger picture...". The question is, "Do you trust?"
Our fears are real. God doesn't expect us to NOT be scared. He just asks that we lean on Him while He reveals the bigger picture. We may not ever truly understand why some things happen, but we have to trust that God's plan is bigger and better than ours.
In the two and a half years that I have lived past my experience in the woods, I can honestly say I have a different approach on trusting God. That is not to say I don't have my panic moments... just as I did on that overnight journey. I do. What I have learned... and in my house this was throughout more broken bones, injured children, serious health issues, car accidents, job loss and serious financial crisis... is that the bigger picture is still in the dark room developing. While I may still not know or understand what has passed or what is to come, I understand the incredible feeling of PEACE that has come from truly and whole-heartedly TRUSTING GOD.
Psalm 56:10-11 I’m proud to praise God, proud to praise . Fearless now, I trust in God; what can mere mortals do to me?