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Off The Trail
Stay on the path.
Don't wander away from the group.
The two most basic rules of hiking and she’d already broken both.
Maya had lost the trail, and as she'd swear later, it wasn't her fault. Her class had taken a hiking trip, and she stayed toward the back of the group, as usual. She didn't have friends in the class to talk to - they all had other science teachers who had better things to do besides take the class on a hike through a state park in the middle of October on a Friday. The class had been on the trail for five tedious hours, and she needed a drink. She stepped off the path, under a tree; unzipped her backpack, sat down, took a long drink from her water bottle, and rested for a minute. Slowly, the voices of her teacher and classmates got further away.
They’re further up the trail by now, she thought, I’ll try to catch up with them. Ahead of her was a fork in the trail. The trail to the left looked used, the leaves were beaten on the path, while the trail to the right was barely visible. She went left. They probably haven’t even noticed I’m gone. She sighed. In the eyes of her classmates, she was invisible.
The class didn’t notice her absence until long past the water fountain. It was Matt who first noticed. He hadn’t known Maya well, they had math together and had spoken a few times, nothing more. Somehow, something seemed off to him. There was one less voice in the chorus of chatter among the students.
“Has anyone seen Maya?” he asked.
The class paused.
The silence was cut by an anxious murmur.
“I think I saw her earlier -”
“She must be behind us -”
“Probably wandered off again…”
“Okay,” declared Mrs. Thomas, “We’re going to go back and look for her. She’s probably just lagging behind.”
The woods grew thicker, and Maya grew worried.
“Hello?” she called out. “Hello?”
There was no answer, only the ambient chirping of the bird and insects.
She’d lost the path.
She knew it.
The trails in the forest were poorly marked, and the guide had warned them about getting lost. There wasn't a fork, it was the path and the woods and she’d chosen wrong.
I should have listened better.
I knew the trails weren’t well marked.
Stupid, stupid, stupid!
Maya called out again and again, until her voice grew hoarse. No one answered. So many things could happen in the woods. Poison ivy, dehydration, bears. The bitter October cold was already biting through her sweatshirt. By night, the little protection it provided would be useless. Maya was never an outdoors type of person. She preferred to stay inside where there was heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. The two bottles of water in her bag wouldn't last long, what would she do when they ran out? She wouldn't last long once her few supplies ran out, or without shelter. The thought of dying alone in the woods was too much for her. She collapsed to the ground, and allowed herself to cry.
“Name?” asked the park ranger.
“Maya Stevens,” responded Mrs Thomas.
“Description?” asked the ranger.
“She has long brown brown hair, she's about five feet three inches tall. She was wearing a blue hoodie and jeans when we last saw her.”
Mrs. Thomas struggled to keep her composure as she answered the questions. Never in her twelve year career had she lost a student. She didn't pride herself on the fact, it was a part of her job to know where every student was. Now everything had changed. She and the students had gone back down the trail, and failed to find Maya. She had gone to the park ranger’s station to report her missing, as the class waited for the buses to arrive.
“Thank you,” said the ranger, “we’ll search the park for her. Most of the time these things get solved quickly. She probably just took a wrong turn or something.”
How could he be so nonchalant? Doesn't he know what I'm going through?
“Can I stay?” Mrs Thomas blurted out, “She's my student, it’s my job to know where she is. I can't just leave her here.”
“Uh, sure. I guess you can help us look.” The park ranger (Carl, according to his name tag) was clearly inexperienced in dealing with missing people.
“Thank you, I need to call her parents first.”
Maya dried her eyes with her sleeves and gathered her thoughts. If she had wandered off the trail, she could get back to it. All she had to do was go back the way she came. Easy. She turned around and walked. The forest looked the same wherever she went. She tried to think of landmarks, or anything notable. Nothing came to mind. She kept walking.
But is this the way I came from?
With no landmarks, there was no way to tell. Was walking better than staying put? Should she find somewhere to rest for the night?
That won't be necessary. They'll find me. Someone's looking. They have to be. They must have noticed I’m gone.
Mrs. Thomas had joined one of the first search parties after calling Maya's parents. It was the hardest call she’d ever had to make. What do you say to comfort someone in that situation? No words were enough. The only thing that reassured them was when she told them she’d stayed to help in the search until they could drive up the next day. The search party walked down the trail her class had been on earlier that day, looking for any sign that someone had gone off the path.
It was Mrs. Thomas who found the first clue around four o’clock. Behind a tree not far off the trail was an empty plastic bag. She hoped it wasn’t just litter.
“I think I found something!” she shouted to the rest of the search party. They came over to her.
“Well, it might be litter,” said Carl, “but that’s usually not so far off the trail, unless the wind blew it over-”
“Look, it’s the only lead we’ve got,” interrupted Sam, the other member of the search party and a far more experienced park ranger, “I think we should follow it.” The search party set off again with even more purpose.
The day had grown later, and Maya still hadn’t found a trail, or any other sign of civilization. However, she had found a dry log to sit down on and assess the situation. In her backpack, she had one full bottle of water and one almost empty one, a sandwich, a pack of gum, a bag of chips, a granola bar, and an apple. It was around 5pm, and it was looking like she'd spend the night outside. At the moment, her biggest enemy was the cold. The tempting had dropped steadily throughout the day, and would only continue to by night. She'd have to find some sort of shelter. She and her friends used to build lean-tos in the woods when they were younger. Yes, a lean-to would work. The log she sat on was large enough to use as a base, all she had to do was find some branches. Once she’d gathered them, she leaned them against the log to form a shelter just large enough for her to lie down in. She opened up her backpack and pulled out a ham sandwich, the closest she’d get to dinner. She was still hungry, but she knew she had to conserve food. The scent of pine needles and the cold night air filled her lungs as Maya crawled into the shelter and tried to fall asleep.
The shelter helped with the cold, but not much. Maya awoke shivering to water dripping through the branches. She had dreamt of home, it was the kind of dream that felt real, that she expected to wake up in. Instead, reality faced her. It had rained overnight, and the once dry log was drenched. Between the rain and the cold, she hadn’t slept well. There was something else too. Her arms and legs were itching. She’d have to get going soon. She pulled herself out of the shelter, groaning. As she got up, she made a terrible realization. Her skin where she’d touched the ground was bright red. Oh no. Maya pulled apart the lean-to, revealing a patch of poison ivy. Great, she thought, just great.
Despite the poison ivy, Maya couldn’t stop. She decided to keep walking and try to find a trail, like the day before. She ate her apple while trying to ignore the urge to scratch at the rash and prepared to set off. Maya began to walk north, as she'd had the day before, when she saw something that stopped her in her path. On the other side of the log was a trail of large paw prints leading in the same direction she was going. They couldn't have been more than two days old.
The search parties grew in number on the second day. Maya’s parents had joined one, as had several of her classmates. Matt stood at the trailhead, waiting for the park ranger who would lead the search. He couldn’t imagine how she could disappear without anyone noticing, and how it had taken him so long to realize she was missing. Even though he didn’t Maya know well, her disappearance haunted him. Matt was familiar with the hiking trails, and he knew how cold they could get in the fall.
The park ranger arrived a few minutes later with a woman who was leading a German Shepard. “Okay,” the ranger gestured to a map of the park, “We’re searching around this trail today. It’s a bit north of where Maya went missing. Also we’re going to use search and rescue dogs today. We need all the help we can get.” As Matt turned to follow the group, a note posted by the map caught his eye.
As of 10/8/15, there have been several sightings of mountain lions in the area.
Be aware of your surroundings at all times, especially when hiking at dawn or dusk. Attacks are rare but can be deadly if they happen. If you encounter a mountain lion, DO NOT run away or play dead. Make yourself look like a threat by raising your arms or opening your coat. Leave the trail and report the sighting immediately.
Maya bent down, and examined the tracks. They were large and catlike.
A mountain lion.
The thought sent chills down her spine. She couldn’t continue in the same direction as yesterday, but what if there were more somewhere else? She was lost, she was covered in poison ivy, her water supply was running out, and now there were mountain lions. Maya couldn’t catch a break. Backtracking was her best option. She’d go in the opposite direction of the tracks and keep trying to find a trail.
The search parties hadn't found any sign of Maya since the plastic bag. Still, they refused to give up. They couldn’t. According to her parents, she didn’t have much food with her, and she could have already run out of water. It was critical to find her as soon as possible, or they might not find her alive.
Matt’s group stopped when the reached their destination. The dog handler pulled out a pair of Maya’s gloves and held them out for the dog to smell. “Ok boy,” she spoke firmly, “Go find!”
She’d been walking for about an hour when Maya began to feel she wasn’t alone. She would hear branches snap, leaves rustle. It’s only the wind, she thought at first. Then, it must be a squirrel or something. As the noises continued she considered two possibilities; something was following her, or isolation was driving her insane. She couldn’t tell which was worse. She kept walking.
Another hour went by, and Maya stopped to rest. She drank the last of her water, only a few sips at that point. The human body can go two days without water, she’d read that somewhere. She had two days, maybe less to get of the woods.
She began to stand up when a flash of movement in the treeline caught her eye.
It kept moving.
She caught a better look at it. It was large and light brown and staring back at her.
Maya was face to face with a fully grown mountain lion.
Remaining frozen with fear, she did the only thing that seemed appropriate. She screamed.
The dog took off with it’s nose against the ground. “Does he have a scent?” asked Matt.
“Yeah, I think he does,” responded the handler. She took off after the dog, and the rest of the search party followed.
The search and rescue dog lead them to the lean-to. “It’s a shelter. She was here last night!” exclaimed the park ranger. “She’s probably close by.”
Only moments after he spoke, a bloodcurdling scream pierced the air. And then, silence.
The mountain lion held its gaze. Maya would have run away if her legs weren’t still frozen in place. She had never been in a situation like this before and had no idea what to do.
Should I yell, or are you supposed to do that with bears?
Should I run away?
Why can’t I seem to move?
The mountain lion began to approach. She’d have to make a decision soon, fight or flight? A wave of adrenaline washed over her. “Get back!” She screamed. “Get the hell back!” The mountain lion faltered for a second, continued its approach.
“I said,” she picked up a rock and threw it in the mountain lion’s direction, “Back off!” The rock hit the ground by where the mountain lion was standing. It looked behind her and ran away. It wasn’t the rock that had scared it away, it was something else.
“She’s over here, I can see her!” Matt shouted. The search party had ran in the direction of the scream as soon as they heard it. “She’s over here, come on!”
The search party burst into the clearing just in time to see the mountain lion retreating. Maya turned to look at them, a look of shock still on her face.
“You’re alive,” Matt couldn’t think of anything better to say.
“Yeah, I am,” Maya couldn’t think of a better way to respond.
The next ten hours were a whirlwind for Maya. The park rangers were amazed she had been able to scare away a mountain lion unharmed. A doctor determined that she hadn’t suffered any serious injuries and that the poison ivy would go away in a week or two. Her parents were overjoyed to see her again.
The next week, she returned to school. She received a hero’s welcome from Mrs. Thomas and her class. Maya took her seat, no longer feeling invisible.