We slipped down every trail we could find until we either convinced ourselves it was leading in the wrong direction or until we retreated at the prospect of pushing through yet another 50-yard pool of prime snake habitat. We moved in single file, skirting the deep water and mud in the middle of path whenever possible in favor of the relative firmness at edge. Nobody said much. Raised eyebrows, shared glances at the sun’s progress and flashes of direct eye contact did the talking: we were in steadily deepening trouble.
Chris had it the worst. The bootie-style beach shoes he was wearing were ideal for the easy paddle we had expected, but were torture on a long hike, offering zero support or protection from lurking reptiles and always on the verge of being sucked off his feet by the shin-deep mud. His toes, which he had to keep clenched, were cramping and wearing through the material, and each painful step wrenched, twisted and pulled a chronically bad knee. There was an unstated but shared concern among us that we might end up carrying him at some point. One of Greg’s knees wasn’t in much better shape, and his rubber boots, continually filling with water, weighed about ten pounds each.
None of us complained outwardly or showed any inkling of panic. Each man seemed to have made a pact with himself to not be the first to break physically or mentally. From my standpoint, anyway, honoring that personal contract was about the only point of pride I took from this whole episode, though it hardly offset some of the mind-boggling group decisions we made.
For example, rumor had it that three gunshots in quick succession was a universal SOS signal for hunters, so we all agreed that Greg should fire 3 of 5 bullets in our gun in the hopes, I suppose, that three masters of deduction and triangulation were within earshot, at-the-ready and in radio contact with each other. I can still imagine the chatter:
“Eagle Team, that is no target shooter. Over.”
“Roger, Eagle 1. The cadence of those shots plainly indicates a plea for help. Eagle leader, do you have a read? Over”
“Roger, Eagle 2. Someone 2.3 miles distant at 260 degrees SSW of my position needs us. Let’s roll.”
I think we may have stood still for about 90 seconds after the shots before shrugging and continuing on. We couldn’t be expected to just wait around for Eagle Team, could we? If you wanted to rescue us, by golly, you had better move fast.
As the daylight and our options dwindled our excursions down random logging roads and their offshoots were getting shorter and more tentative. I finally felt compelled to volunteer an opinion, thus simultaneously violating and validating my previously stated belief that I served our cause best by keeping my mouth shut.
It is a testament to the flimsiness of our hopes at that stage that the others pinned them on what I was about to say. My opinion came in the form of a set of simple and logical guidelines, which when put into practice would probably have saved us had we been lost in a mega-mall. We soon discovered, however, that they had no validity whatsoever in the vast illogic of a swamp.
In hindsight I call these guidelines, Mike’s Now Thoroughly Debunked Principles That Sounded Really Good at the Time. The first guideline is this: All paths must lead somewhere. The second: Decide on a path and commit to it to the end. The third: If all else fails, stop at the food court for snacks and directions. (author’s note: I added this later, for the benefit of those actually lost in a mega-mall.)
By this point, five hours after our expected return, any optimism we once drew upon to keep us going had corroded into practical stubbornness. To stop moving now, as the sun approached the tops of the trees – signalling all swamp-creatures to begin licking their chops - was to passively accept our transformation from father/husband/son/brother to meat. So, after hours of rudderless wandering, we chose a path and committed to it.
Jeff committed hard, as he does to every task. Once the path was defined, he put his head down and started walking – fast; no looking back. The rest of us snaked behind him, working hard to keep pace. Armed with a renewed sense of purpose we found a second wind of sorts. Conversation, though still sparse, had an optimistic tinge, and my consciousness raised to a point where I was again processing my surroundings – shadows, trees and trail - unlike the previous hours, which had streaked by amid the idiot-chatter of disjointed thoughts and hazy streams of muted browns and greens.
After a mile or so, the trail began roughly paralleling a large, muddy river running hard and well out of its banks, unmistakably the Ocmulgee River. Just as the alley of lily pads had given me a false but useful sense of comfort many hours before, the Ocmulgee – a physical feature we could actually put a name to – provided a measure of counterfeit reassurance. We at least had a general fix on our position.
The city of Warner Robins was somewhere relatively close, albeit on the other side of the river. Downriver was Hwy. 96. For all our misdirection, we still had to be within just a few of miles of our ATVs or an Applebees, and surely there exists a universal law of nature as absolute as the law of gravity, dictating that nobody be allowed die what would essentially be a cave-man’s death within reasonable distance of a fun-drinkery.
So, to explain our next, last and most shameful blunder you must either believe that a) we fell unwitting victim to this budding sense of confidence, intoxicated from a celebration of our renewed belief in self, or b) we were abysmally and offensively stupid. Tell me your answer and I’ll tell you how much Oprah you watch.
The fact is, this act of unforgivable self-sabotage made the four dunderheads who wasted three-fifths of their ammunition in a senseless cry for help a couple hours earlier look like survival school valedictorians.
We heard a boat’s motor approaching from upriver. Through the trees we caught a glimpse of a middle-aged couple aboard a small runabout. The four of us ran to the edge of the river, waving and yelling, wide-eyed and probably looking a little threatening, given that we simply materialized out of the swamp…oh, and Greg had a pistol hanging from his belt. Nonetheless, the man saw us and brought his boat around, fighting the strong current. If only he had been less superficial, more able to look beyond appearance and into our benevolent and desperate souls - if only he watched more Oprah - and invited us aboard, our story would now be over. As it was, he kept a cautious distance, about 30 yards.
Yelling over the roar of the river, we asked our position. The man, referencing his GPS, pointed in the general direction the path had been leading us. “There’s a railroad track that way, about 9/10th of a mile as the crow flies” and “Highway 96 is about 2 miles downriver, as the crow flies.”
Now, from a practical standpoint, “as the crow flies” is to helping the average man navigate a swamp what “as Bradley Cooper swaggers” is to helping that same man navigate a roomful of women. It is a qualifier so powerful and so far removed from reality that it renders every word around it utterly meaningless. But evidently, astoundingly, it was good enough for us; we were apparently more than ready to assume we could fly. So we did what any crow would do; we thanked the boaters and waved them off.
We let them go without asking for help. Let me repeat. We let them go without asking for help. We didn’t ask them to radio our position. We didn’t ask them to take one of us downriver to the highway. We didn’t ask them to call anyone. Even God had had enough laughs for one day and hand-delivered our rescuers – this was Eagle Team - but we let them go without asking for help.
The serious self-flagellation didn’t start immediately. Nestled in the reassuring bosom of Mike’s Principle #1: All paths lead somewhere – we started off again. The path was indeed heading in the direction of the railroad track the man had indicated, and nine-tenths of a mile seemed a short hike. That track would be the same one we crossed several times over the past couple of days, just few hundred yards from camp. Once we found it, we’d follow it for a mile or two and be home.
We approached each dogleg in the trail sure the track would be right around the bend. When it wasn’t, anxiety replaced hope. We’d been pushing a good pace on this trail for well over an hour and each step increased our investment and our risk as shadows grew longer and daylight waned. As with the pools of swamp-water we continued to labor through, we were knee-deep in Mike’s Principle #2: Decide on a path and commit to it to the end.
The end came. The path led nowhere. It simply liquefied into a black-watered jigsaw puzzle of vines, dense undergrowth, gnarled trees and deep shadows. If our daylong odyssey had been put to a soundtrack, the entire symphony would, at that moment, have crashed into a whirling, menacing minor chord.
We just stood in our tracks, paralyzed by disbelief, dumbstruck and utterly trounced. Someone – it could have been my own disembodied voice, for all I know - croaked woozily that we could try pushing our way through. But the swamp was so dense that there was no sign of how far we’d have to go before a definable trail re-emerged, if it re-emerged. Nobody wanted to face the prospect of kicking through the swamp in twighlight.
Without a word and without hesitation, Jeff turned and started fast-walking back down the path. I remember the stark cleanliness of a single thought: He’s right, there is no alternative. Moments of such pure clarity of purpose are rare in my life. But here, there were no “outs” or even a bad alternative to contemplate. I discovered that when given no choices, the mind shuts off power to all ancillary thoughts, redirecting that wattage to a single purpose, and that purpose becomes a laser beam in a vast, dark warehouse of superfluous content. You put your head down and follow that beam, marching with certainty - at least for a couple minutes.
Then the old wiring retakes control. The first thing it does is siphon power from the laser beam to re-animate the “why” questions that had been lying so helpfully dormant. “Why on earth did I let that guy in the boat go?” woke first with a vengeance, boxing my ears and poking my eyes, like Moe working over a fellow stooge. “What could I possibly have been thinking?” was the next, followed closely by, “Why didn’t (other guys’ names here) speak up?” All we could do was trade incredulous looks, mutter about our monumental foolishness and keep walking, a little less sure-footed than before, mentally ticking off the day’s long list of lessons learned.
We also started the counterproductive practice of looking for shortcuts and found a small, partially flooded side trail. Following it for thirty or so yards, we dead-ended into a wide, boggy swath of coarse, knee-high grass under a powerline. The powerline continued as far as we could see, teasing us into a short debate about whether this might be the better route, because, after all, all powerlines lead somewhere, right? But we’d spent the day flirting unsuccessfully with the unknown and were ready to settle down with the path we knew, as ugly as it was. We backtracked to the main trail and continued on.
By the time we retraced our steps back to the main trail’s starting point over an hour later, the sun had sunk midway into the trees. Our situation was now dire. Out of ideas and desperate we went all-in with the last alternative available – Greg’s route - the route that would take us in a direction so counterintuitive that it had been summarily dismissed twice already.
Before heading out, Jeff matter-of-factly laid out the itinerary. We would slog this trail for twenty more minutes or until it washed out, whichever came first. If we didn’t find our ATVs in that time we would start collecting firewood and building whatever meager shelter we could manage. Nobody argued.
That was it. In less than a half-hour, I would either be on my ATV blissfully heading back to camp or picking through flooded tangles of flotsam hoping to find something dry enough to burn in a darkening labyrinth full of creatures that wait patiently for dark, when they move and feed.
I’d be facing 10 hours of black, cold misery, engulfed in a cloud of torturing mosquitoes, body stiffening and head pounding from exertion, dehydration and hunger. I’d be wildly alert to every sound beyond the dim light of whatever smoldering fire we might manage, praying I wouldn’t hear the headlong thrashings of something so big and powerful it had no use for stealth, or the cacophony of a foraging clan of wild boars. What I couldn’t hear would be worse: perhaps a rattlesnake, drawn to our heat, gliding over wet leaves or the perfectly camouflaged movements of stalking panther. Then there would be the imagined sounds - every odd noise transmuting into an alligator on patrol. And at daybreak I’d still be there, just as lost as I was the night before, debating if I should empty my bladder on a tree or save it for drinking later.
We set off.
Little more than a football field’s length from where our instincts betrayed us seven hours before, we saw a color gloriously incongruent with a swamp, fire-engine red, peeking through the trees. An ATV. We met the discovery not with whoops and hollers, but with tired laughs and sober smiles - acknowledgement that we’d just dodged a bullet fired from the gun we’d held to our own heads all day. We also pledged to never doubt Greg ever again…depending on the circumstances.