Getting stranded in one of the wildest regions of the continental United States is different when that stranding is intentional. Or is it?
Five months before I went to live in the wilderness, James Kim died on a logging road less than two miles from the cabin that would be my home. He and his wife, Kati, and their two young daughters had spent Thanksgiving in Seattle, and were returning home to San Francisco. They had planned to make a stop at a resort on the Oregon coast, but when they missed the turn-off that would have safely ferried them across the Pacific Coast Range to their destination, they decided instead to take the infrequently traveled Bear Camp Road through the Wild Rogue Wilderness.
The Wild Rogue Wilderness consists of some 35,000 acres of mountainous forest surrounding 84 miles of the Wild and Scenic portion of the Rogue River in southwestern Oregon. While gold mining brought many settlers to the area during the 1800s, it is now virtually uninhabited by people. Only a few hardy survivalist types, whose homesteads were grandfathered in when the area was designated in 1987, and the staff members who work at the riverside lodges hosting whitewater rafters and fly-fishermen during the warmer months call the Wild Rogue their occasional home.
The cabin where I would spend seven months living in solitude is off the grid, not wired for electricity, and nestled in a pocket of hills where cell phone reception is, even today, unavailable. The A-frame structure sits 200 steep yards above the Rogue River, on a slope that rarely gets snow even in the coldest months. However, to reach the cabin, it is necessary to traverse a pass at a higher elevation that stands between the town of Grants Pass on one side and the deep valley where the river runs on the other. This unplowed pass often has snow during the winter months, and for this reason my would-be home is habitable only seven months of the year, unless you are willing to be cut off from the outside world completely November through March.
It was just a few weeks into this uninhabitable season when the Kim family found themselves driving through heavy snow at high elevation. These remote mountains are largely unmapped, aside from the Bureau of Land Management’s charts of the area, and the roads—if they can be called such—are dirt ruts marked with small, green signs that display their BLM designations, numbers like 34-8-1 and 33-9-11.1. After becoming confused in the snow, the Kims turned their Saab station wagon onto one of these roads, which would not have been marked on any map they could have had. Often closed by locked gates to which only BLM and Forest Service workers possess the keys, this road’s gate had been left open by mistake and the Kims drove down it without knowing they were headed toward a dead end only frequented in early fall by the occasional hunter.
The first time I drove into the Rogue by myself, the Kims were on my mind. I was returning to the cabin after a brief visit in civilization, and the hand-drawn map I followed was crowded with notes in tiny block letters pointing out all of the turn-offs I was not to take on my route in and out of the wilderness. As I drove, fast food restaurants and gas stations faded in my rearview mirror, and soon I followed a road that curved with the river’s every bend. At the point on my map where the directions started to become imperative—confusing location! and follow all signs for cabin road!—I passed the small outpost of Galice where you can buy an ice cream cone or a t-shirt with a picture of a kayak on it before entering the wilderness and leaving it all behind. And there, a yellow blur in my side mirror, stood a newly erected sign edged with reflective tape. In tall black letters surrounded by light bulbs that I imagine flash all through the night during the winter months, travelers are now warned not to take Bear Camp Road.
In the days following the Kims’ fateful decision to take that remote road to the coast, they quickly exhausted their resources. They first kept warm by running the car’s engine, and when the fuel ran out, they made a fire with sticks and magazines. Eventually, they removed the tires from their car and burned them in an attempt to signal for rescue. After a week, James decided to look for help, and set out through the forest toward Galice, which he mistakenly believed to be the nearest source of help. This was the last time his family saw him alive.
When I talk to friends and acquaintances about my time living on the Rogue, the conversation usually begins with their ideas about wilderness—about wildness. First, their questions are about loneliness and the solitude of nature. They want to know how I could stand it, how I could handle all that quiet, all that nothing of no phone, no internet, no people. I explain to them that the woods are actually quite noisy, especially at night. There is always someone—I came to think of the animals out there with me as “someones” rather than “somethings”—crashing around in the bushes, scattering dead leaves underfoot, or scratching the side of a tree. This response inevitably leads them to the question they’ve wanted to ask from the beginning: Wasn’t I afraid of all those somethings I heard banging around in the woods? Here they picture claws, fangs, whatever furry menace might go bump in the night. But these sorts of concerns are a wrong turn when considering the perils of the wild.
There are three kinds of thinking about the wilderness. The first operates under the premise that what is wild is essentially bad: that the wilderness is a scary, dangerous place where, if the bears don’t get you first, your own desperate loneliness will. This philosophy has at its core the belief that people don’t belong in the woods and that our unlikely presence there makes us prey. The second kind of thinking says that wilderness is essentially good, that it is populated with fuzzy fawns and idyllic wildflower meadows, and that even the predators are well-intentioned creatures who wish us no harm. But both of these philosophies are wrong. The reality is that just because the wild doesn’t want to hurt you, that doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t. Intention isn’t a concern when it comes to safety in the wilderness. While our human-populated world is governed by questions of motive, anything that goes wrong in the woods can most often be traced back to chance, bad luck, and, most likely of all, human carelessness and overconfidence.
So when people ask me if I was afraid, I have to make the distinction for them: The things that went bump in the night were deer chewing the spring grasses, a ringtail rustling at the base of a madrone, a black bear turning over a log as she snuffled for grubs. Those things weren’t dangerous. The real danger was a twisted ankle and dropping night temperatures. Or recklessness with the chainsaw. Or an unsteady step on a slippery rock beside the river rapids. Essentially, the danger was always me.
And this was the danger the Kims faced, too, when they made what they thought was a casual decision to cut across the wilderness on their trip to the Oregon coast. So when I decided to make my home in that same wild place for seven months, I learned to see every choice I made as one I should painstakingly consider. Even though the trip from the cabin into town wasn’t a particularly arduous one, only a two-hour drive on dirt roads I would come to know with eventual ease, I kept the car packed as though I would be gone for a week. In the backseat was all of the usual survival gear: matches and a lighter, an extra jacket, a stash of high-energy foods, one reflective insulated blanket, two gallons of water, a well-used Pulaski, rope, a spare pair of hiking boots, and a flashlight. The lightning from a summer storm might spark a fire near the cabin, and I would need to get out of its path quickly. My dog Bishop or I could fall ill and need to make a fast exit back to medical help, possibly encountering a downed tree or a washed-out road on our way. Or I could be on a routine drive back from a grocery run in town and get a flat tire and be stranded. Which is exactly what happened the very first time I drove back from town to the cabin on my own.
I had driven into Grants Pass on an April morning. More than a week had passed since the owners of the property said their farewells, leaving me with a binder full of instructions on everything from the maintenance of the springhouse to the pull-start generator. I’d mostly spent that time unpacking my boxes of books and cleaning out the kitchen which, after a winter without human inhabitants, had its share of mouse droppings and pantry moths. I’d also been putting together a grocery list that, once filled, I hoped would enable me to stay at the cabin for a few uninterrupted weeks without having to leave for provisions again. So with this list and a basketful of dirty laundry, Bishop and I drove into town in the morning and spent the day washing clothes and buying groceries. I’d been advised by the owners of the cabin to always drive back before dark: the BLM roads are a virtual rabbit warren, and if you miss a mile marker or a familiar geographic feature of the landscape, it’s easy to become disoriented and lost. But the day had gotten away from me, and I didn’t want to drive back without first grabbing some dinner. By the time I got on the road with a belly full of pork burrito, the light was fading from the sky.
I wasn’t worried, though. I was floating on a wave of confidence and self-sufficiency. Those first weeks at the cabin had shown me that it wasn’t so scary to be on my own, and that mountain lions and boogey men didn’t lurk around every ponderosa pine. I was a smart, competent woman, I told myself, quite capable of handling a little night driving. And I probably still had at least an hour of light left, by which point I’d be on the main cabin road and wouldn’t need to watch for any tricky turn-offs. Besides, every night since arriving at the cabin, my then-boyfriend, Mike, had gotten into the habit of calling into the C.B. radio phone (my only way to communicate with the outside world) from his home in Montana to say goodnight, and earlier that day I’d told him to worry if I wasn’t answering by midnight—so I knew that even in a worst case scenario, someone would be looking out for my safe arrival at the cabin that evening.
The drive back took me though the town of Merlin with its dive bar and dusty grocery store, past the outpost in Galice, where the ice cream shop was closed for the night, and then across a tall bridge spanning curves in the Rogue River. It was 8:30 p.m., just as dusk was really setting in, and I could see fly-fishermen floating in drift boats below me as I crossed the river. Even though they couldn’t see me behind the sunset glare of my car window, I waved down to them, thinking they’d be the last people I’d see for at least two weeks. And then I was in the foothills, ascending the winding dirt road that would take me past a few small-time mining operations, to the top of the pass where my cell phone would receive the last available signal on the mountain, and then down, down, down into the wild on the other side.
As I drove, I worried a bit that I wasn’t always on the right road. Loggers had been through that day, so there was new brush down, and the gravel had been graded. The machinery that had stood at one curve in the road that morning had been moved to another by that evening, making the already unfamiliar road even more foreign to me. But once I reached the pass at the top where I was to leave the gravel road and turn off onto the twin dirt ruts that would take me to the cabin, I began to feel better. This was the halfway point, and I had made it. I was confident it would be easy from here, and I felt my shoulders relax as I chuckled at my own nervousness about this simple, silly drive in the dark.
But it was that combination of confidence and unease that I should have been worried about. The confidence made me think I didn’t need to be cautious, that I could drive an unknown road in the dark, that I could rush thoughtlessly on rough gravel. And the unease made me drive faster, plowing through new slides of razor-sharp shale, cutting corners and slamming my brakes as I skidded across loose rocks. I’d even noticed the right front tire take an avocado-sized piece of shale hard as I ascended to the pass, and I’d held my breath for nearly a mile as I waited for the tire to give out with a fantastic pop. But that rock must have caused a slow leak rather than a sudden blowout because I didn’t notice the ker-clunking until I’d driven another mile or two down the other side of the pass. At first the wobbling seemed to just be a feature of the uneven road, but soon it took on a rhythmic quality and I had to admit to myself that I was driving on a flat tire.
The car was brand new, a Subaru hatchback with a bit of clearance underneath, my thinking (correct, as it turned out) being that I might have to drive over more than a few deep ruts and downed saplings during my months at the cabin. But that new car was also part of my problem—thinking that new cars with new tires couldn’t run into any trouble, a sort of insurance I’d purchased against future misadventures. But just as all the expensive alpine gear in the world can’t save you from your own carelessness and stupidity when you’re on the side of a mountain, a new car with new tires is no substitute for forethought and prudent action. All the things that make us feel invincible—our cell phones and GPS and synthetic, sweat-wicking socks—are in many ways just unreliable talismans in a real wilderness situation.
It was ten o’clock when I stopped the car on a flattish spot in the road and turned off the headlights. Sitting there in the dark, I estimated I was about 25 miles from Merlin (the last town with a gas station) in one direction and 20 miles from the cabin in the other. But I could handle this: I flipped open the glove compartment and pulled out my no-batteries-necessary, crank-handle flashlight and the Subaru owner’s manual. Then I stepped out of my car and into the wild. I remember the shadowy shapes of the trees shifting back and forth in the wind, how the full moon hung over the left side of the car, and the sound of the tree branches sawing and tinkling in the canopy overhead. Bishop was already growling in the backseat, barely able to control his unease. I was nervous, too, but also excited. I could feel adrenaline working its way into my system, and I enjoyed the way it made me shiver as I walked around to open the back of the car. I pushed aside my bags of groceries—the carton of the eggs, the cellophane-wrapped pork chops, the tub of melting mint chocolate-chip—and my piles of clean laundry. Underneath was a thin spare tire, the jack, and a small chrome wrench for removing the lug nuts. It was all pristine and untouched, and I pulled it out of the trunk with a kind of glee.
I carried the tools over to the right front tire and kneeled down in the pine needles beside my flat. At first, it all went smoothly: I cranked the handle on the flashlight until it began to glow, and then held it in my mouth as I maneuvered the jack under the car. Soon my flat tire hovered above the ground just waiting for me to remove it. I worked the hubcap off, and picked up the shiny little lug wrench. What a neat tool, I thought, though I was really marveling at myself and my as yet untested ability to use it. I placed the wrench on the top lug nut and turned it. Except that it didn’t turn, not even a millimeter. I pressed harder, but it didn’t budge. Now I was pushing, one hand stacked on top of the other, my narrow shoulders shaking with the effort. But that lug nut wasn’t going anywhere. So I tried the next one, and the next, and the next, until I’d tried them all. They weren’t coming off, and that’s when I started to feel lost.
I have always cherished my time alone, and not just the pleasure of an evening at the kitchen sink with my own thoughts, washing dishes by hand and staring out the window as kids ride past on their bikes, but the real solitude of a walk on a deserted trail or a swim in an ocean cove out of sight of passersby. But during those early days at the cabin, I had begun to understand that being truly alone—miles from other people or the possibility of them—was not just a state that I enjoyed, but one in which I would blossom. My curiosity about the world around me had increased almost overnight, transforming me from a passive observer to an engaged investigator. I had quickly become dissatisfied with the ease of surfaces: I wanted to know not only what bird that was in the tree, but what it ate and whether I could draw it decently and what its song meant to the other birds around it and where it lived and, if I followed it through the woods for a few hours, whether I might find out all its secrets. Already these sorts of solitary pursuits held more excitement for me than any interaction I might have with another human being, and so I felt no lonesome hollow in my life in the woods, not yet, and I was at home there.
As long as I had some purpose, some small task to feel compelled by—tracing shooting stars, watching a baby bear try to climb a pine by moonlight, using my flashlight to count the raccoons in the apple tree closest to the cabin—I didn’t mind sitting in the woods in the dark by myself. But that night, as soon as I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to change the tire, I didn’t want to be out there. I felt suddenly exposed, and glanced quickly over my shoulder as if maybe someone had been observing me from the trees, chuckling sinisterly to himself as he watched me work my weak little arms into a sweat. But if someone had been standing there, I wouldn’t have been able to see him in the blackness that surrounded me. The sugar pines were dense, and even that night’s full moon couldn’t penetrate their thick-feathered branches. I scrambled to my feet, removing the jack and gathering up my few tools as quickly as I could, the thin donut tire abandoned in the dirt.
I threw the gear in the space I’d cleared in the back and then climbed into the driver’s seat and locked the door behind me. That satisfying click of all the doors firmly throwing their electronic locks hung in the air for a moment and then I could hear our breathing: mine fast and ragged, Bishop’s panting and heavy with anxiety. And that’s when I remembered James Kim. Even though it was spring now and all but a few scant patches of snow had melted at the pass. Even though I had a car stocked with food and water, a tank full of gas (I had filled it just before leaving town, and always would), and a map with the mileage markers on it (each one checked off as I drove). Even though I knew cell reception was just a few miles away at the pass, and that my boyfriend and my family knew where I was and would come in after me within a day if they didn’t hear from me that night. Despite all of this, I was uneasy.
The woods at night by yourself is not the same thing as the spontaneous lark of going for a solo day hike or taking the dog for a run in the park. And if the tragedy of the Kim family can impart to us any wisdom, it’s that the beauty of the wilderness is not a harmless sort of beauty—it’s brutal and unforgiving of mistakes, and even if you have a very detailed map with hand-written instructions on it, you can get lost quite quickly. Even in the highly populated lower 48 states, there are wild places, wilder than we can imagine from the safety of our brand-new cars with their fancy stereo systems and their tight little lug nuts. And I was in one of them.
We are generally ill-prepared for wildness, for its unexpected presence in our lives, for the sensation of the remote. It can be dizzying, and that dizziness can make us momentarily dumb. As I sat in the driver’s seat of my undriveable car, feeling too intimidated to look out the window at all that nothingness that surrounded me, I had to remind myself that James Kim wasn’t killed by anything so incredible as a mountain lion or a rattlesnake or a bear. He died of exposure, and a failure to respect the terms that bind us when we turn our cars off of the pavement and into the wilderness. I don’t mean to imply that the Kims were particularly reckless or unprepared—most of us are when we venture into the woods. James Kim and his family were no more foolish than the rest of us, and the moment we start thinking that they were, that any one of us would have been smarter or better equipped or more filled with a sense of precaution, is our most foolish moment of all.
So when I found myself in the middle of the wild with a flat tire and no way to fix it, what disturbed me most about James Kim in that moment wasn’t that he’d died trying to get his family out of the woods, but that he must have felt even more powerless than I did sitting there in the dark, waiting for someone to come in and save me from myself. I wasn’t really in any danger—not from wild animals or boogey men or even the elements themselves—but because of those stubborn lug nuts, all of my knowledge and foresight had vanished right into the darkened treetops above my head. What had made me scurry back into my car wasn’t fear so much as the overwhelming feeling that I wasn’t capable of getting myself out of the trouble I’d gotten myself into.
But keeping a clear head can be an accomplishment in itself when you’re alone in the woods, and so I decided to do what all great adventurers must sometimes do: bed down and wait for morning. I planned to use the map and my odometer reading in the morning to determine my exact location, and then hike the few miles back up to the pass where I could get a cellular signal and call for help from there. I wasn’t afraid or worried or upset. And I wasn’t cold or hungry or thirsty. I unlocked the car doors and led Bishop from the backseat to the rear of the car where he jumped in next to the mess of groceries and laundry and tire-changing equipment. I pulled my sleeping bag out and spread it across the backseat, balled up my sweatshirt under my head for a pillow, and tried to sleep. And somehow I did, even with Bishop growling at the full-moon-wind-dancing-tree shadows the entire night long, and the seat belt buckle digging into my back. The image of a mountain lion—his body half the length of the car, his tail twitching just under the window my head rested against—hovered behind my lids every time I closed them, and I drifted off feeling oddly happy.
I opened my eyes to pine-dappled sunlight. Bishop leapt from the back of the car when I opened it, trotting off to do his usual morning ritual of sniffing and peeing in this not-so-usual spot. Before packing up the spare tire and changing into my hiking boots, I decided to give the lug nuts another try, and to my surprise I found I could twist them off by half-standing on the wrench and balancing all my weight there. Twenty minutes later, I’d changed the tire and was driving, slowly, what turned out to be the last ten miles back to the cabin.
I hadn’t been stranded in the woods. I was simply someplace huge—like outer space—and floating untethered, just a little too free. I’d thought I was at home in the wild, and then, for a moment, I’d feared I wasn’t really willing to live with the uncertainty it required of me. But that morning unloading my spoiled groceries from the car while Bishop romped in the meadow below the cabin, I realized that my self-doubt had been fleeting: above us I could see a tiny prop plane winging its way through the valley, and those people in its cockpit felt far too close for the fragile sense of independence I was cultivating.
Please, I thought, don’t rescue me.