It’s about two, and the afternoon is empty – a good time for a short walk to the hut I stayed in last time, and to take photos promised to a friend. I am on retreat, not because I feel the need, but because the call was persistent.
The hut, and the other further up the steep incline, is unoccupied until tomorrow. Little has changed here, except my favourite feature; the outside tap had been swapped for an indoor sink, and some of the simplicity I so loved has drained away.
I have been recalling the kindness of a man I met last time while gathering my day’s food from the Centre kitchen. Perhaps he’d asked how I was getting on, and I told him I was confused about the passage of my life. The next day I’d taken up his offer to follow the path past my long-drop toilet and in time I’d come to his hut, and we could talk.
Honouring this connection, I decide to set off in the direction of ‘his’ hut. The track peters out at a water tank. I’m confused, but I know from last time, and from the map this time, that there is a way from one hut to the next. Spotting what I take to be a piece of track, I scramble up a bank and keep going . . . and going . . . up. By the time I realise it may have been a pig track that drew me, I am very unsure I would find my way back. But it’s more than this – an inner insistence draws me up.
Trees become fewer. I am in a dense covering of blackberry brambles and a great deal of dried out, cut gorse. I move somewhat to my right as I can see the odd pine tree, and wonder if they’re on the vehicular track that provides a different access to the top hut.
I am holding my phone, aware that dropping it in this morass of vegetation could mean loss. Eventually, in order to have two free hands, I do put it in my shorts pocket and trust life to keep it safe. I am not dressed for this unforeseen adventure – shorts, a light top, summer cardigan and cloth hat.
Pausing periodically to stretch and try to ascertain the way ahead, I also check in with myself. Yes, still a sense of “Keep going up”. For a long while I translate this as “You’ll find the track if you keep going up”. About 5pm I realise that the comfort I’ve been giving myself – Yes, you got lost, but you found your way out, and no one need know – is a false comfort.
As the sun lowers closer to the high hills opposite mine it is time someone in the outer world knows I am . . . lost. I ring a friend, not wanting her to do anything, just to know. On an impromptu trip with friends, she is about to move out of cell-phone range, so she announces she may alert the Centre, and this will be her choice. I do not argue – and I know that the phone is checked only periodically.
I head on, increasingly sure I am in active wild pig territory, confirmed when a young one crosses a few metres ahead. A potential encounter with her elders scares me, but I am grateful for the tracks they have pushed through the felled gorse. On hands and knees, and often having to rescue my hat from the grasping thorns, I keep going up. My hope is to find a clearing – to reach the top of the hill and get the lay of the land.
Meanwhile I contact another friend, asking her to tune in with me, to check out my inner compass. In one delightful sentence she tells me it’s time to get help. She is right; I ring the emergency services.
The woman keeps me on the phone while she contacts the land-based search and rescue organisation, checking in with me periodically to make sure I’m alright. I am still climbing the hill, the growth a little more open in places, allowing upright movement.
At the woman’s suggestion I turn off my phone to conserve the battery. They have picked up my position. Two things keep striking me with a wave of gratitude: I have my phone (and I am not in the habit of taking my phone for a walk) and it is quite well charged (and I often let it get to 2% before charging).
Search and Rescue were due to ring me at 6:45pm and it is now 7:30. I have found a tiny clearing, and a dip in one corner provides some shelter. Without the sun it is getting chilly – time to call the emergency services again.
The new woman has a different approach. “The Search and Rescue team is on its way, but you may as well just walk out anyway” sums it up. She tells me I’m only 500m from the valley road, and to find northwest on my cell phone compass and head in that direction. My attempts to describe the terrain and vegetation don’t seem to land. She has her information, and is sure I can easily find my way out, as long as I go in the right direction. Eventually I ask if it’s a topographical map she’s looking at. No. I know the sides of the valley road are almost sheer, but I’m a willing and helpful soul, so I make an attempt to get on my way. After several circuits of my little clearing, I simply cannot find where I came in, or where I can push my way out. It’s clear I am to stay here.
It is around 10pm when I’m informed that the team has arrived at the Centre and will take instructions from the caretaker about the best way to get to me. I am also told that she will have food and a warm bed ready for me when I get out. I am very glad of the connection she and I had made the day before.
The next communication tells me the team has been taken to a point about 470m from where I am. I wait, and listen, and wait, and listen. Eventually I hear my name called, first by a woman, and then a man. It feels deliberate and thoughtful. I make a cheery response.
Two young men and a somewhat older woman, a nurse, reach me about 20 past midnight. I am cold, but in good spirits. The sky is clear; the stars have kept me company. And listening for the tiniest sounds in night has kept me occupied. The team share with me their water, muesli bars, warm clothing, heat pads, a sleeping bag and much humour.
The general consensus is that this is a helicopter job. I believe I’d be okay to walk back if they’ve bashed a bit of a track, but I should have known it’s not like that – and it’s dark. They sensibly decide I’ve had enough for one day, and they, too, are weary, volunteers who will be off to work in a few hours. Several official conversations later the decision is made, and finally the bip, bip, bip of the helicopter can be heard.
Meanwhile the two men have ventured uphill in search of a larger clearing, returning with, “You definitely found the only clearing on the hillside”, and set about removing a large bush to create just enough hovering space for the helicopter.
A medic is lowered amid a blast of wind and noise and the helicopter circles off. He repeats the nurse’s verbal check of my health, and explains that I will be taken to the hospital for an examination, just to ensure all is well. I ask what happens after that. “You will be free to go”, I’m told.
It is now between two and three in the morning. It is cold; my light clothing is ragged. Being free to leave the hospital an hour-and-a-half from either home or the Centre does not feel like freedom. I have asked enough of my friends tonight. They have sent me love and warmth and connection well into the night. And the thought of taking a taxi, having handed my warm layers back to their owners, feels heavy. I manage to convey something of this by saying I am fine – I don’t need to go to the hospital; I do not want to go to the hospital.
The friendly medic goes off to make another call and comes back with good news – I am not obliged to go to the hospital; they will instead take me to the hangar and he will examine me there himself.
I honour his efforts, but finally I say quietly, “It would be much less traumatic for me if I could be dropped off at the caretaker’s house and take up her offer of food and a warm bed”.
He goes away again. I discover the outcome when one of the young men asks, “How did you pull that off?” Once I understand what he means, I repeat what I said to the medic.
I gather the pilot is getting concerned about fuel; the arrangements have taken a long time, and all the while he has circled nearby. He lifts first the two men, and then returns for the rest of us.
The stimulation of the noise and lights is almost too much. I close my eyes, and mentally close my ears, too, but not before I glimpse a worried look on the pilot’s face as he helps me into position.
The paddock of flattened grass is a welcome landing. I am ushered to the waiting police car, but first steered away while the medic explains his decision to the officers. In silence they take me up the winding, stony driveway of the Centre and drop me at the caretaker’s home. As good as her word, she has food, warmth, a bed made up, and even warm clothes for me to borrow for sleep and the next day.
I do understand rules and protocols – they have often been laid down in response to some carelessness. But they can easily override empathy and common sense.
I have come to understand that my quietly and firmly stating my truth – that I felt fine and did not need to be examined, and that my greater need was for quiet, and rest, and care – had cut through a thick wall of institutional structure. This is sovereignty. It does not demean the other in any way, but it holds an unshakable alignment to one’s own truth. I am aware that the medic, too, must have had to stand in his sovereignty as he passed his decision along the chain of command. And maybe the policemen’s seeming unfriendliness was actually their coming to grips with how they would file their report, or with this small, quiet being in the back seat who had somehow defied them.
We live in times of fast-creeping and widespread control. Like a frog in hot water, we have been slowly enticed into convenience and acquiescence. And we go there because it is easier than being deeply responsible for every choice and decision of our lives. The invitation, now, is to be more conscious, more in tune with our own inner movements, and to have the courage to stand in our own truth.
Stand gently, stand strong.