I’ve had breakdowns before, but this was something else. I cried and screamed, I was suddenly so full of anger and energy I ran in circles, tripped and fell, yelled at the sky and myself, and basically went completely insane for about ten minutes. Afterwards, when I’d calmed down a little and didn’t quite feel like sprinting off blindly, I felt better. I’d worked out the initial craziness, and I felt like I could be logical again.
I was still fully dressed, not even groggy from sleep or a kidnapper’s drugs, and still holding my plastic grocery bag. I was in grasslands without any sign of a road of even tire tracks, and definitely no towns on the horizon, not even smoke. Luckly I seemed to be totally fine. Unharmed (except for the throbbing knees and hands, but that was my own fault when I had my meltdown), but totally alone.
I was either insane or the butt of a really tasteless joke.
I decided, as I did another full circle to check that I was indeed alone and in the middle of nowhere, to simply not think about how I’d gotten here. That’s what had gotten me worked up before when I’d realized I was suddenly standing in a field of grass instead of my apartment. I could pretend it was a bizarre camping trip, or a dream, or a movie, or something. I just… wouldn’t think about it until I was safely at home where I could lay down and think myself in circles properly. When things were normal and that twenty-twenty hindsight kicked in.
I took some nice deep breaths and with my heartbeat marginally slower, I was already beginning to feel much better. This could be okay. I could make it okay.
I had some food, water, and even though my cell phone had no service, I could definitely make this work.
I glanced about me one more time, uncomprehendingly. It was strange to stand somewhere so… un-bordered. There was a great sense of space, of endless possibilities both dangerous and wonderful. There was no one to judge you, and every direction was a different path. I was a little frightened by the emotions, the weight of the openness, and my heart fluttered with uncertainty and a little excitement.
I’d grown up in a typical suburb, and I’d been to national parks and camping before, but there was something… wilder about this place. It wasn’t restrained like a campground, or cordoned off and perfectly preserved like a national park. It just… was.
The land about me was fresh and beautiful—I’d never seen anything quite like it except in pictures—but wild and untamed. The fields rolled in gentle waves of green into the distance, the stalks brushing against my thighs they’d grown so high. Even through my sneakers I could feel the healthy springiness of the earth, almost taste the crispness of the clean air. If I turned my head to the right there were mountains, but they were a good distance away, and the sky was so clear I could see where the forest line ended and the snow began on them. A river lay directly in front of me, easily within walking distance if I could see its outline so well. There was almost no wildlife though, just grass and patches of wildflowers, the occasional tree dotting the distance. It was exquisitely beautiful, and though I found it marvelous, I was far more disturbed by the fact I was even here in the first place.
I knew I’d been hungry after work since I’d gotten lazy and only packed something simple for lunch, so I had made a quick stop at the store to pick up something. I remembered coming home, climbing the stairs up to my apartment, but then my memory got hazy. I must have gotten inside, because I didn’t have my purse or the other bags, and I’d even changed clothes because I wasn’t wearing my work outfit. But I couldn’t remember anything past my front door. Something had happened, of that I was certain, but whatever that profound event had been (and I was sure it had been profound, after all, I was here now), I couldn’t remember.
I shook my head and took another deep breath before starting to walk to the river. I pressed my mind to recall what had happened, the stairs, the maroon carpet of the hallway, my door with my apartment number on it, but still it slipped away from me. I let it go before I could get too stuck on it. Surely something would jog my memory soon enough. Things like this didn’t happen after all. People would be looking for me, my boss would worry, my friends would notice, surely someone would come for me.
I suddenly felt my throat choking again and realized I’d started to work myself up again. Swallowing uncomfortably, I firmly resolved to worry about what had happened once I had some plan in place at the least. There’s no use panicking, I reminded myself, it doesn’t solve anything.
The river I was walking towards was more of a stream really, I discovered as I approached. The width couldn’t be more than ten feet, and I could have waded across while only getting my knees wet I guessed. The water was so clear I could see the bottom. The banks were just dirt sloping downward and high enough to accommodate several more feet of it. On the whole it was pretty, but I had more important things on my mind.
The handles of the plastic bag were already beginning to dig into my palm. Carrying this thing around was going to be a pain. I put my pocket mirror, keys, and cell phone in it so my jean pockets didn’t bulge so much (when had I put those in my pocket? I couldn’t help wondering), and told myself to suck it up. It would only be for a couple of hours, at least until I got into a town.
Now a direction. Think logically, think logically… Water is vital to survival—even more than food—and I don’t have any, so it would be smart to stick to the river, right? And most towns are built on rivers, so likely this should lead to at least a farm or something. I felt more settled as I thought it through, step by step. I could be calm, and I could definitely make this work.
Which direction though? I could follow the current towards the far-off mountains or away from them. With the sun high above me, I couldn’t tell any cardinal directions, so the choice really came down to chance.
Well, I said I’d go with the flow. Might as well stick to that.
I headed in the direction the water moved, the stream on my left. I was walking towards the mountains now. I stayed close to the river, just far enough that the spray didn’t hit me; sure my sense of direction would fail me if I didn’t. I kept my eyes on the horizon, ready to spot buildings, power lines, anything to show someone else was out here. With few trees there were only a handful of birds, and though I saw the occasional butterfly, animal life was otherwise lacking. There was just the burbling of the water, my footsteps crunching on the grass, and the bumping of my plastic bag against my leg to keep me company.
I walked for what must have been hours. Without service my phone had no time, so I couldn’t say exactly, but the sun was moving behind me, and my shadow stretched long before me. At least I knew I was heading east, as though that changed anything.
My legs were sore, my feet ached; I was sweating and perfectly miserable. I’d had to stop every couple of hours (well, I assumed since I couldn’t tell time) to sit and let my poor legs rest. Even when I was in a rhythm, eventually my hurting feet would talk me into plopping down and dipping them in the cold water.
I really wasn’t cut out for all this exercise, and walking all day was more than I’d done in years. My legs were going to be stiff and painful tomorrow, but there was nothing else I could do. I was incredibly glad I was wearing my sneakers because this would have been a lot worse in my work heels.
Relieving myself had been an embarrassing pain, and I was quite thankful to be alone on this adventure in that light. In the end, stripping my pants to my ankles to squat had been uncomfortable and difficult to do without unbalancing myself, and taking care not to soil my clothes was an equally hard task. There wasn’t even a tree to lean against or hide behind, so I was literally in plain view of everything, and I was totally embarrassed and finished up as quickly as I could.
The stream had not changed, the scenery was the same, and the mountains seemed no closer than before. At first when I got thirsty I resisted the urge to drink the water. I didn’t know how clean it was (at least it wasn’t visually polluted, but who knew what was in there), and I didn’t want to take my chances, but my dry throat quickly proved impossible to ignore. Finally, crouched on some low rocks beside the river, I cupped my hands and messily gulped down water, getting it all over my shirt and pants in the process.
It wasn’t the cleanest I’d ever drunken, far from it really, but it was cool in my mouth and quenched my thirst. After that it was much easier to take drinks, and I was steadily getting better and less sloppy at it. Still, I couldn’t guess at the miles I’d walked. At least I was getting exercise out of this impromptu adventure.
As the hours went by though I was beginning to get depressed. I didn’t seem to be making much progress and there were still no signs of civilization. My mind kept going back, strangely enough, to my unlocked front door, and what my boss would think when I didn’t show up tomorrow. How long did it take for them to report a missing person?
My stomach made itself known as the sky began to darken, and I realized then that my hours-long estimate was about to become a day. The idea of sleeping out in the open like this at night made me decidedly nervous, and I looked around helplessly for some sort of shelter. But none was to be had, because this was still the same open plain with the same river and the few trees scattered along the banks.
“The rest of the human race did this for thousands of years, you can do it too.” Hearing my own voice didn’t help my heart rate, but it was easier to direct myself out loud, almost pretending I was reading about it rather than actually experiencing it. I had been awhile since I’d read a book—too busy was my eternal excuse—but I still remembered the gist of typical adventure stories.
Without knowing how long I would be out here, I decided half my banana was going to be my ration. I would be hungry, but it was better to have something to eat than nothing at all.
In four mouthfuls it was gone, and I was regretfully wrapping it up again. I carefully put it back in the bag, making sure it wasn’t squished under the orange, before deciding this spot was as good as any random spot to sleep in. No matter where I went there wasn’t any cover. If the ground was softer somewhere else, I couldn’t tell, and I felt sure the roots of a tree, even if it was “cover”, would be painful to sleep on. The area about ten feet from the river was fairly smooth, and now that I’d stopped, the ache in my legs was growing more pronounced by the second. Lying down sounded wonderful.
Darkness covered the sky as I settled in for the night, keeping my bag close to my body so I wouldn’t lose it. I felt incredibly vulnerable without shelter, walls, or even a blanket. A fire was completely impossible. Not only did I not have the materials for it, but I’d also never started a fire from flint and tinder before.
It was so dark. It couldn’t have been that late in the evening; maybe getting around nine o’clock, and yet it was near pitch-black. No pollution. I couldn’t remember it ever being this dark outside, and it made me afraid.
I tried to relax without success, my heart throbbing faster than normal and my eyes wide open. Trying to take away my fear, I turned on to my back, wishing for my bed. The sky was dotted with thousands of stars, more than I’d ever seen in my lifetime, and the moon was incredibly bright. It was absolutely beautiful, and as my eyes roved over so many stars I had trouble taking in the enormity of the night sky. Though I tried to find some familiar constellation or the North Star, I was unable to.
I attributed it to my meager astrology lessons and didn’t let it bother me.
I was a little too cool with just my t-shirt and jeans on, and I wrapped my arms around me to stay warm. I thought longingly of my plaid blue comforter and pillow and drifting off to the distant sound of cars. Crickets chirped, some far away, others sounding almost in my ear, and I remained constantly alert, uncomfortably aware that I was lying on the ground open to be feasted upon by bugs or animals. My hair rose up on my arms as the mental images swamped me, but I shut them down when I reminded myself there was no where else to go. I could probably follow the river by moonlight, the water reflected well enough, but I needed the rest.
Closing my eyes didn’t help; they wouldn’t stay shut. Even when I squeezed them tight nothing would help. The ground was unbearably hard and unforgiving, my back ached, my hair was lying in God-knows-what, and I knew I would be sore and unhappy in the morning. Even if there was nothing to hear, the whisper of wind through the grass was like footsteps, and the gurgle of the water was like voices. It took me many hours to find sleep, and I woke before dawn.
The second day of travel was much like the first. I was, predictably, unhappy to see that sleeping, even for a short while, had not caused the field and river to spontaneously disappear. I’d even dreamt, I remembered, so I nixed the dream explanation for the situation.
The grass under me was pressed flat to the ground, but everything around me was glittering and winking with dew like pearly Christmas lights strewn all about. I might have thought it beautiful, but I was covered in it and freezing. It hadn’t been enough to soak my clothes, but enough to get the hair up on my arms and to send periodic chills up and down my spine.
My eyes were itchy too, which was just the icing on this cake. I rubbed them irritably before realizing it was my contacts and that I’d slept in them. Frustrated, and completely without solution in the middle of nowhere, I took them out and threw them into the river out of annoyance. It was a lucky thing my vision wasn’t terrible.
I ate my other half of the banana for breakfast and sacrificed half my candy bar to my whining stomach before setting off, with not a little reluctance.
It was a grey dawn that greeted me as I trekked, blooming up almost directly in front of me from behind the edge of the mountains. The mountains, I noticed, were actually off-center from me, slightly to the north from my direction. In this lazy dawn I was uncomfortably cool in my t-shirt and constantly rubbed my arms to stay warm, switching the plastic bag from hand to hand as a red line was drawn along my palm from holding it too long.
The day passed by in utter boredom. With nothing to keep on my mind except visions of angry supervisors and frantic friends and family, I tried to hum songs, but my throat quickly grew tired. I tried to think about happier things from home, but it only reminded me that I was not home, so I quickly shifted trains of thought to wild guessing about where I was and how I’d gotten here.
I looked around this fairy tale landscape, taking in the endless horizon and the perfectly blue sky. There had to be an explanation, and it was out there to be found. There hadn’t been tire tracks where I was standing, and I didn’t even remember getting up off the ground. It was like I’d been teleported or something. But where in the world was I?
I dropped this train of thought before I could work myself up, deciding wild guessing wasn’t going to end up well either. I needed to remain calm and rational. I didn’t try to think about the consequences. Just considering these circumstances with the word “survival” in it had me thinking of starving to death, freezing to death, or being eaten by some humongous beast with slobbering, fang-packed jaws. All in all, I stopped thinking and instead started looking around again for even the slightest change.
The mountains were not markedly closer, but if they were a little larger it comforted me. The river beside me was subtly growing in strength and depth. The color was a darker blue, with hazy navy depths now, and it was much more audible. I daren’t try to wade across, though I could have probably done it and utterly drenched myself in the process. If it kept getting stronger though, I wouldn’t have that option anymore. Not that there was anything in particular on the other side so far as I could see.
Thinking of swimming reminded me of bathing, which was something I had to consider. I’d dipped my hands into the water to clean them before eating and to get the dirt out from under my nails, but I hadn’t bathed the rest of me. The water was ice cold here, and with no cover I would have to be quick. Even with absolutely no one around, I still felt uncomfortably exposed, and it was not something I relished if I were going to be nude. Bathing with my clothes on would be asking for pneumonia. At noon, I promised myself, I would pop into the water and make sure to get myself totally wet, then dive back out as quickly as I could. Without soap I couldn’t really wash, and without a towel I was going to have to let the sun dry me or pull on my only clothes and get them wet. It was that or go without bathing. And considering the sweat I was working up, I didn’t know how long I could forgo it.
I hadn’t even considered washing my clothes. I had nothing else to wear.
I didn’t really need to bathe yet, I told myself. I can wait another day.
I eyed the river warily, the water rushing past, splashing cold droplets on me as I edged closer. I couldn’t help myself from looking in all directions around me, as though expecting someone to jump out of the ground as soon as I was naked.
I stood there for a couple more minutes before bowing to the inevitable. The cold of the water, the sense of vulnerability, my mounting despair as I continued to get nowhere, all of them conspired against me, and I bent and folded like paper.
It wasn’t like there was anyone to smell me, I told myself.
On the third day things finally began to change.
The river, which had been growing steadily, was now quite a rushing force, loud and angry in the quiet. It was deep and cold, and I didn’t favor taking a bath in it anymore. With the current now, I would be swept away for sure. It already froze my throat and stomach when I gulped it down.
The landscape didn’t change much, except the mountains were slowly starting to move to face me, which could only mean I was curving north. The river was gently bent that way, around the base of a hill where it disappeared as far as I could tell. The sloping rise of the land lifted my heart. It was my first sign of real change, and the sharp joy it brought me was startling.
I’d taken everything that had happened in stride as far I could tell, not fighting it (at least not after the initial first few minutes) and just doing what I could in the situation, but now something was looking up—literally. Maybe the land scooped in a valley? If there was the river in the valley there had to be a town or something down there, right? There couldn’t be no people where I was, could there?
That was a scary thought.
And there was only worse to come. I was out of food.
Half a fruit was hardly a meal, but no food was something else. I was already used to my grumbling stomach complaining about having little in it, but now I had nothing. How long was it people could go without food? Fourteen days? Less than that? Water was the big kicker, but humans could last awhile without food, and water I had plenty.
Another bad thing: my cell phone was dead.
I kept the poor thing on as long as I could searching for service, but it never found any and eventually the battery died. Every text message I’d tried to send, every call I’d tried to make had never connected. I didn’t know what to do with my phone, now that it was dead weight.
In maybe an hour more—I really had no sense of time—I was upon the hill. Dusk was already sweeping over me, but I struggled up anyway, ignoring the coming darkness. I had to see what I could from the top.
Slogging up that thing was a near unbearable crime. My legs, used to the steady pace of walking on level ground now, stiffened and burned fire as I forced them to climb. The slope was sharper than it looked, and I was panting before I’d taken four steps up. I made it to the top, my cheeks red and my breathing labored. Atop it I stood like a king.
First I looked to the river. It flowed along the edge of the top of the hill, the north side, bending around it like a ribbon and flowing southward. I followed the line of it with my eyes, watching it go on below me. It looked like a long groove in the surrounding fields.
Slightly to the north, nestled in the foothills of the mountains, were lights.
Oh, I’d never seen anything as beautiful as those lights in my life! They were tiny and small, like stars upon the earth, and I could feel my chest constrict and my heart tighten painfully. I wanted to run over to them right now, bang on the first door I saw, ring their doorbell a thousand times, shout, anything. There were people, there was civilization, there was someone in this godforsaken place other than me!
I’d be home soon.
The homesickness, the fear, and the confusion, everything that I had been repressing in my fear for survival descended on me all at once. I started to cry, and I don’t think I’d ever cried so hard in my life. All my muscles were unwinding, the string inside me that had been pulled so tight had been cut, and I just let go. No more straggling around the countryside, no more growling stomach, no more bathroom breaks by squatting.
I stared at the lights until they were swimming in my vision and my tears finally stopped. I couldn’t feel the chill of the night as I stood there, the wind lightly buffeting me. Finally, composing myself I wiped my face with the bottom of my shirt.
I wanted nothing more than to rush down that hilltop and straight into the arms of those foothills, but once I recovered from the suddenness and power of my reaction, I realized there was something approaching me.
Below me on the hill was a dark shape, unclear in the pale light of the moon. It took tentative steps, but even so I froze, aware that I couldn’t be more obvious or easier to spot than standing on top of the only hill in the area. I wanted to call out, but my voice caught in my throat, and all I could do was let it approach me and hope it was kind and not some animal ready to eat me.
The shadows on that face of the hill shifted as the wisps of cloud moved from the moon and revealed the menacing shape to be…
I could have cried again. My whole body suddenly relaxed, my shoulders sagging and muscles nearly smarting as I let them go in one whoosh. The sheep completely ignored me, in favor of the grass it was eating. I had to wonder, what was a lone sheep doing out here at night?
I didn’t care at the moment. Perhaps it was wild, or there was a flock over here, or this one had wandered off. Whatever the case, the sheep reminded me that standing on a hill might draw attention—what kind I didn’t know. If I was really out in the country like this, who knew what other animals were about? Coyotes? Wolves were sheep’s naturally predators weren’t they? The thought was enough to pull myself down the north side of the hill back towards the river to lie down. I had as much trouble falling asleep as usual, not out of nervousness or fear, but out of excitement. I would be home soon.