There is a moment when you realize you are lost in the woods.
I’m not talking figuratively. I mean literally lost in the woods.
I was probably 14 years old when this happened up north by Moosehead Lake. I can remember because it was almost sunset, in late August. Once you get turned around, you can lose your bearings more easily than you think, especially if you’re an imaginative writer type who barely keeps a toe in the real world most of the time anyway. Panic is the feeling that settles in your stomach, and it’s a real, physical experience, like a bowling ball dropped onto muscle.
Everything was green. Green moss clung to the rocks, the tree trunks, the fallen limbs. It seemed to float in the air, green flecks. The idea of spending the night out here in all that green was truly terrifying.
How did I get there?
First, you have to realize we were church people. My grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher. This was back when being part of a church congregation was a big part of your social life. With church came friends, suppers, busybodies, crafts, pageants, cantatas, lame Halloween parties where everyone wore their dad’s old bathrobe and their mother’s mascara for a beard to be a Bible hero. And for me in junior high and high school it meant youth group.
Youth group was an assortment of tweens, and teens from 13 to 18. Every youth group had the same characters. There were the older kids, who already had cars and jobs and just shook their heads at the rest of us. There were the cool kids, the funny kids, the nervous kids worried about all that hellfire, and the nerds.
In the winter we went sledding and snowmobiled. Our church also ran a Christian school back during the days of the “Moral Majority,” and we played volleyball, badminton, shot baskets, and sometimes just ran around in the parking lot.
In the summer, we went on camping trips, did some boating, and played “Capture the Flag.”
This was like tag with rules. The way it worked was you had two teams and two flags. The goal was to get the other team’s flag from their territory and bring it back to your flag without losing your flag in the process. Generally, the strategy was to post one or two kids as guards for your own flag and deploy the rest in an offensive capacity.
So here we were staying in these cabins in the woods (watch a Friday the 13th movie if you want a general idea what everything looked like), and we were all running around in the trees trying to grab flags. You can be sure some went home with red eyes where they ran through sharp branches. That’s a vital part of the experience.
I came up with an idea. I would go way out in the trees and advance beyond the enemy’s flag and come at them from behind, then disappear back into the woods, which would make it harder for them to give chase. In the military, I believe they call that a flanking maneuver. And probably, if I’d had military training, I would have known the first rule is to actually know where you are at all times.
About 15 minutes after I hatched this plan, I was lost in a realm of green gloom beneath a canopy of trees. My entire circulatory system seemed to be pumping ice, and I was breathing in little, panicked half-breaths. The sun was going down. I could see that little golden starburst between the black trunks, and my hopes were sinking with it.
Some part of my brain that I don’t normally have access to kicked in. It was like someone flipped a circuit breaker. In my mind, I heard a calm, collected, slightly amused voice that I’m pretty sure was Robert Mitchum from The Longest Day.
“If you run around in circles, you will make it worse. Last night the sun set across the lake. If you go toward the western light, you will reach the water and get your bearings. Now, move out soldier!”
It felt like it took a long time to find my way back to the lake, but it probably didn’t. I came out onto the rocks and the water, and I realized I had gone a long way past the camp and the flag. Just to my left, the shore curved away, and if I had been over that way, I might have missed the lake altogether and really have been lost.
Technically, however, my plan worked. Sort of. I did end up approaching the enemy flag (posted at the girls’ cabin) from behind, but they still spotted me coming, and I was less than willing to dodge back into the woods to evade them. Still, I had gained valuable experience. Now I knew, stick to the path and don’t go wandering. And I suppose that’s what any good youth group is really all about.