Note: Long read ahead. The TL;DR version is this – Went for a walk with a friend. Walk turned into a getting-lost hike in unfamiliar wilderness. Thought I would die. Didn’t die.
Now for the long version.
Yesterday I met up for lunch with my good blogging friend Valerie. We met halfway between where we each live, in Whitehouse, NJ. After lunch she suggested we go for a walk. "Sure! Let’s!" She pulled out her iPhone and asked Siri for nearby parks.
We were going to drive to one park, but passed a different place Siri mentioned that was closer and stopped there instead, Round Valley Reservoir, a crystal clear man-made lake surrounded by wooded hiking trails, the largest in New Jersey. We parked and headed to the water.
We stopped and chatted with a fisherman for a while. We said we wanted to walk "way over there to the other side, where that dam is." He said "Don’t do it, it’ll take you at least an hour to get there." But we were thinking "We’re fit and like to walk and you don’t know what you’re talkin’ about old man! Maybe we’ll even walk around the whole lake!”
We set out for that dam. Big mistake. While there appeared to be a marked path starting at a boat launch, it quickly wasn’t. The terrain instantly became very rugged and we hadn’t worn sneakers or boots because who wears sneakers or boots when you’re only planning on lunch? I was in no-cushion Clarks and Val was practically in dress shoes. The paths were rocky, hilly, and covered in surface tree roots and stumps you had to avoid every tenth step.
There was also zero navigational signage, zero warnings about difficult terrain or the fact that you ought to be an Olympic athlete to hike the trails and you should really have a backpack full of food and water and a first aid kit. Siri failed to mention all of these things, and yes, I’m blaming her.
We saw lots of people canoeing and kayaking out on the water, and lots of walkers with and without dogs. Look, everyone’s doing it! Seemed OK, so we kept walking.
Once we traversed about a mile of the wooded area, we crossed a dam with a beach nearby. It was such a perfect weather day, breezy and sunny, so we sat down and enjoyed the peacefulness of it all for a while.
Here, we should have called it a day and turned back, but we kept walking and walking and it took forever to get to the other dam we were shooting for. It was difficult getting there because what looked close by — never was. When we finally got to the dam(n) wall, we’d already walked 3.5 miles and had no idea how much longer it would be before getting all the way around the lake.
Val turned off the iPhone app that was tracking our distance. You know, in case the battery went dead and we needed to make an SOS call, because by now we realized how hard it was to get where we already were, how hard it would be to turn around and go back if we had to, and had no idea how much further it was to walk if we wanted to get completely around the lake.
And we weren’t even sure we’d have access enough to stay close to the water. The reservoir is surrounded by tall metal barbed-wire fencing, so you were constantly forced to take the long way around it. At parts, we were walking on the berm of a main roadway, with me screaming at Val to get as far off the road as possible because you know some jerk is going to be texting and driving and veer off-road and kill us.
I asked her if she had a passcode on her iPhone and what it was so that in case she was hit by a car, I could at least call for help. Val rolled her eyes and dismissed me and instead kept waving happily at motorcyclists and other drivers as if we were on a leisurely stroll. We were not. I was counting the minutes to my death.
We kept walking, all the while glancing over at the wooded area from which we came. I wondered aloud how long it would take to loop completely around the lake and get back over there. "Is the lake even round? What if it’s not round? What if we haven’t walked even half of it yet?”
We joked about having to be rescued from our odyssey. This is when I regaled Val with the story of the 1972 Andes plane crash survivors who ate the flesh of people who were killed in the crash, only so they could survive long enough to maybe, possibly, God-willing, be rescued. I told her that after being stranded two months, some of the survivors were able to cross a mountain range in treacherous conditions to get help and they did it. The human spirit is awe-inspiring. We’ll be OK. Then we had an interesting discussion about what part of the human body would you eat if you had to. Like, really had to. I suggested muscle. She suggested we talk about something else.
We eventually came to a juncture where it looked sort of like the lake curved. We were mulling our options because we weren’t really sure where the road would lead. Further away from point of origin or closer?
Just then, we ran into a woman jogger. I asked "You must live around here. How much further is it to get to the parking lot?"
She said "Which parking lot?" Uh-oh. We showed her pictures of where we started from our cameras. She said "Oh. You’re very far away here. You can’t keep walking in the direction you’re going, you’ll never make it. You’re looking at three hours."
She tried giving us directions to get back the way we came, but with shortcuts that meant almost nothing to us because we couldn’t remember seeing any of the landmarks she used as reference. Val’s heart sank because her fear was having to turn around and go all the way back along a way that nearly killed us so far. But that’s exactly what we did, shortcuts or not.
And then it started to rain.
And get darker.
And we both wanted to cry.
We walked silently for a bit and the only funny part of our return adventure was when at the exact same moment, we blurted out "Maybe she’ll come back….." We were both going to say "….and pick us up to take us to our cars." I mean, the jogger had to live nearby, and she had to know what we had ahead of us. With no boat, we couldn’t have gotten back to the other side of the lake without another 4 miles or so of walking. In the rain. And in pain.
But she didn’t come for us.
We kept walking. At some point we both imagined the possibility we wouldn’t make it back before dark. We would have only the light of our cameras and Val’s iPhone to see and be seen. I simply could not accept this prospect and put it out of my head.
We got back over a dam, back along a main road, fearing becoming roadkill, and then back through the rugged wooded area that we’d already cursed once. At points we’d say "Is this correct? Did we really come this way? Check your camera." We often reviewed spots we thought we’d seen before, pictures we took. Luckily we could confirm certain things we’d seen on the way out, odd looking trees, ones with unusual markings that looked interesting for photo-taking sake, but now saved us because they were our breadcrumbs for the way back.
At one point, we walked on a path that led straight down to the water and appeared to end right there. That’s when we looked at each other and got genuinely scared for the first time during our trek.
"How much left on your phone battery?"
Mercifully, we heard people through the brush, a young couple sitting face to face on a tree stump, whose romantic moment was rudely interrupted when we asked them where the parking lot was. They were very vague. Pointing and saying "Just go up that way and it’s to the left."
Do you realize that when you’re in thick woods, you can’t just point like that and say "Up there to the left." “Up there” can quickly turn into really lost and “to the left” would be nowhere near the water, the only way we’d been orienting ourselves thus far. We did not want to stray from the water.
But the couple began walking in that direction themselves and so we followed them, not even knowing if it would lead to our parking lot. It could have been another. But we figured 1) at least stick by the people and 2) if it wasn’t our parking lot, we were fully prepared to hitch a ride with someone back to our lot. We decided who we’d ask.
It would have to be old people, super elderly, preferably women. Super elderly women are not usually ax murderers. We vowed not to end the day being killed by someone we thought was a Good Samaritan. I told her "I’ve watched a lot of I Survived on the Bio channel, and getting into a stranger’s car never ends well. “Like that one poor girl who got in a van with a creeper, was raped, had her arms chopped off and was left for dead.”
“Stop talking,” Val muttered.
We kept walking, now on a path we didn’t recognize, further from the water, getting scared and planning our next steps.
I called my husband to tell him I was on an adventure, and oh yeah, he might have to send search and rescue. I was only 50% sure this new route was going to get us out, but I told him we were fine. Ish.
More walking, more walking, more walking.
We saw cars.
As we got closer, Val pulled out her key fob and pressed the button. And her car made the most lovely "I’m over here!" honk and I said "Val, if I could actually jump for joy on these legs, I would, but I can’t. I’m in so much pain."
She was too. Our feet took a real beating. Wanna know the worst irony? I had a pair of brand new comfy sneakers IN MY CAR. Awesome.
When we got to the parking lot, we saw a young man appearing to go for a leisurely walk in the woods. Har.
We asked "Have you been here before?" He said no and we immediately urged him NOT TO GO INTO THE WOODS. He’ll never get out. It was already 4:30 and if he had no navigational tools and was alone, that was a recipe for disaster.
I kept urging him not to go alone, "Don’t do it. I’m serious." He looked as if I was crazy, but I said "Look. We’ve been in there for 4 hours. We’re lucky to be out." He walked back to his car, grabbed some other things, while we readied to leave.
I called my husband to say he didn’t have to send a search party. After I was done and drove fast away from our body-pounding, fear-inducing, risk-taking harrowing trek, I saw that guy walking away from the woods, up near the main road and I prayed he decided to enjoy the lake from a distance. If he went into the woods anyway, despite our warnings, he’s probably still there.