Magazine article Family Therapy Networker

An Ambush of Mercy

Magazine article Family Therapy Networker

An Ambush of Mercy

Article excerpt

ONE SUMMER NIGHT, TWO YEARS AGO, I HAD TO DECIDE whether to live through the night or let myself die. I had been lost in New Mexico's Pecos Wilderness for several days the last two without shelter. I had dropped about 10 pounds, the night was cold, my shoes and socks were soaked and my toes had blistered so deeply that they were numb. Beyond loneliness and beyond fear, I began to reassure myself about dying. The only troubling question was whether the shivering, just beginning, would be terrible for a long time, or whether I would pass through it quickly. Surviving another cold night required more physical strength and hope than I had left, and dying began to seem as appealing as going to sleep under a goose-down comforter. I crouched by a pine tree, wringing my hands together to keep warm, and I muttered over and over, "I'm going to die, I'm going to die." I regarded the prospect with a kind of wonder; I felt almost humble, like a novitiate.

Every year I go on a solitary backpacking trip. The irony was that this year I had decided to play it safer than usual. Because I was not acclimated to high elevations, I hired a wrangler for the uphill climb into the mountains, the most difficult part of the journey. We rode in on horseback together, then he took both horses back, leaving me to hike alone and eventually make my way out. Unused to horseback riding, however, I had strained a groin muscle, and in the next few days, instead of healing, it got worse, making walking more and more painful.

The next day, I realized I was lost. Although I knew that staying put was the best strategy, I felt time pressure I was overdue for a conference in Santa Fe. More importantly, this was my first extended trip away from my 4-year-old daughter, and I had promised her that I'd call Saturday night two nights ago. After some desperate and confused wandering, I located a trail, checked it against my rough map and figured that it would lead to a public campground. I decided to risk leaving my tent and most of my equipment (the groin injury felt close to herniating, forcing me to travel light), and I struck out. Three hours later I came to a shallow river, barely deep enough to cover its stones. By now the mid-afternoon thunderclouds were massing. I estimated that a public campground was just a few miles downstream, and I had to make it there or I was in for a soaking and a steep temperature drop. Cliffs and rock formations forced me to keep crisscrossing the river, which started running deeper and faster. In the middle of a crossing, I stepped into a sinkhole, sank to my waist and fell. The fast waters started to sweep me downriver. Frantic, I managed to right myself and struggle ashore. What little I had in my backpack was now soaked and useless. I threw the backpack away, still thinking that the campground was close. Soon, I was too exhausted to go any farther. I realized that I had badly miscalculated; the campground, and safety, were miles away.

I knew there was no other option I had to do without food, shelter or dry clothing until I was found. I squatted under a rocky overhang, pressing myself tightly against the cliff, determined not to get any wetter in the imminent thunderstorm. I wrote a goodbye letter to my wife on the back of a wallet-sized photo. Even though my hands were shaking, I crammed a lot of printing onto it. When the thunderstorm broke, it was fierce. Water streamed down the rocks and found a crack between my rock and the cliff, spattering the back of my neck. I tried to find a dry spot between the blowing rain in front of me and the dripping water behind me, but it was useless. Piles of hail formed at my feet, until I was crouching in mud. I decided to have a talk with God.

"Look," I said to God. "I know I don't have a right to ask for anything. I'm not going to be hypocritical about this I'm not even going to say I believe in you. If you want me to be honest about it, I'm just covering all the angles. …

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