It should have been a red flag when we set up a tent camp behind a highway rest stop halfway between New York and Florida, in defiance of the “no camping” sign. Or when the water filters we’d brought clogged from Florida’s sandy stream water. But I was 24, depressed, unemployed, and newly dumped, and I didn’t realize the Florida spring break hiking trip was a disaster until we became lost in a 632,890-acre national forest and had to bushwhack to safety.
My best friend crashed our alma mater’s hiking trip because of a guy, while I went along because my life had taken a nosedive, and what else was I supposed to do while waiting to hear about graduate school admissions? But an unsolved lesbian double murder in Shenandoah National Park, years earlier, had left me questioning if the wilderness was safe for queer hikers like me. This trip was supposed to be a litmus test–and a distraction from my heartache.
We headed to Apalachicola National Forest, near Tallahassee. We hiked into the forest from a service road and set up camp. While preparing dinner, we realized our water filters couldn’t handle the sandy spring water. We boiled water to treat it and topped off our bottles. That would be enough to finish the loop hike.
In the morning, our group of eight (six college students plus my friend and me) hiked through forests of longleaf pine. The hike was pleasant enough until someone realized we’d lost the trail markers. We whirled about and retraced our steps but couldn’t find the trail. While the trip leaders bickered, I hung back with the other women: none of us, it turned out, had the outdoor skills to contribute to the decision-making. The guys eventually made a plan: We’d use our map and a compass to head north and connect to the service road. Then we’d follow the road back to our van.
The forest was shaded, which helped us conserve water. Initial hopes that we’d reconnect with the trail faded as one hour turned into two. Everything looked the same: skinny pine trees towering over fields of ferns, saw palmetto, and wiregrass.
We lost cell phone reception when we entered the forest. There was no trail register, which meant no one knew we were there. Eventually, someone might notice an abandoned van, but by then we could have died of dehydration, starvation, venomous snakes, alligators, bears…or by turning on one another, Lord of the Flies style.
If I was going to get out of the forest alive, I needed to stay calm. I did my best to push the anxious thoughts to the back of my mind and follow the others. I was pissed at the guys, who clearly hadn’t planned this trip well, and that anger kept my feet moving.
Until we came to the swamp. Still, black, foul-smelling water stretched to the horizon. Who-knows-what lurked beneath the water. Snakes. Alligators. Leeches. There was no way around. We had to go through the swamp to reach the road.
The water was waist-deep and cold. The bottom was slimy against my feet. Determined not to fall apart in front of these strangers, I stifled a scream when my foot touched a submerged stick. The swamp felt like a bad metaphor for my life: I’d failed at achieving my dreams, and everything was crap. Minutes felt like hours. We made it through, but we were no longer talking.
By late afternoon, the pine forests gave way to an open field. With better visibility, we thought we might be able to see the trail, or even the road. Low on water and demoralized from the swamp, we were hopeful for the first time since getting lost. When the grass led to another line of pine trees, I wondered if we’d been going in circles.
I was done following the guys. They hadn’t planned or brought the right equipment, so why were we expecting they’d save us?
Too macho to admit we were screwed, the guys debated whether to camp in the field for the night. The girls traded looks: no way were we spending another night here.
I was done following the guys. They hadn’t planned or brought the right equipment, so why were we expecting they’d save us? I checked my phone again. There was one bar of service. “I’m calling 911,” I told the group. No one protested.
A dispatcher patched me through to a volunteer firefighter, who said they’d send a truck. “We’ll drive around the service road and honk,” he said. “We’ll be there in fifteen minutes. When you hear the honk, walk toward it. That’ll get you to the road.”
A potential rescue lightened the mood, but after 25 minutes with no horn, we called it. Either they hadn’t come to help us or we were more lost than we imagined. The sun was sinking behind the trees, and soon we’d be forced to stop for the night. Two of the leaders pushed north, wading through another stream. The rest of us waited behind. Minutes passed. Then one yelled excitedly. “I see the road!”
We threw ourselves into the stream. Around a bend, there was the road, a thin gray line barely visible in the fading light. We’d been five minutes from the road when we called 911. We dropped to the shoulder of the road ready to kiss the dirt.
A previous hiker left a makeshift fire ring and an empty can of Spam on the shoulder of the road. We made a fire to dry ourselves. That other hiker ventured into the woods. He made it out. He set up camp on the road, too tired or pissed to find a more comfortable shelter. He struggled, but he survived. So did we. And I’d survive my broken heart and depression, too.