Out of the Woods

A chance encounter, a lost boy, and endangered forest

Jen Wick Studio

I was on my way to Breitenbush Hot Springs. Before checking in, I parked my car along a Forest Service road and headed north on the Spotted Owl Trail, hoping to find the connection to the Pacific Crest Trail. An hour or so later, I was standing at a poorly labeled junction, unsure of which way to go, when he appeared: a young boy, walking fast around the bend, pulling up suddenly when he saw me. I smiled at him and turned away, assuming his parents would appear shortly. 

There was a loaded silence at my back. I looked again and he was still there, now asking if I had seen a dog. I told him that I hadn’t and turned back to the sign. But alarm bells were going off in my head. He looked a little wild-eyed and scared, he had lost his dog, and he was dirty. The kind of dirty that doesn’t come from being outside, but from already having been dirty. My gut told me his parents weren’t coming around the corner.

For a moment I became a terrible human being. I thought only of myself. I lamented my vacation, my day, my hike, my solitude. I thought, “I don’t want to do this. I just want to relax.” I railed at the universe for dumping this problem on me. And then I turned to the boy and asked, “Are you lost?”

“Yeah.”

“OK.” I took a breath, made a choice. “Listen, kid, you’ve pretty much hit a gold mine with who you managed to run into out here. I’m a teacher and a camp counselor, and I work with kids outside all the time. And I’m pretty much the safest person you could have found. But since you’re a kid, and I’m an adult, and I’ve found you, you kind of have to stick with me until we get you back to your parents, OK?”

He looked at me with his head tipped to one side for a very long time, which I figured was fair enough. 

“OK,” he said. 

Breitenbush Hot Springs, situated in a dense and remote stand of old growth in the Oregon Cascades and run by sleepy hippies, offers loosely developed pools and saunas fed by water that emerges from the ground at temperatures exceeding 180 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s a place you either love or hate, depending on your tolerance for hot and cold, the companionship of others or the lack thereof. I first visited in my twenties, on Christmas Day, in the middle of a snowstorm. I took part in a yoga class under a disco ball in the main lodge. I ate a vegetarian feast with strangers. I found myself standing in the snow, my skin steaming, face-to-face with a mature doe. I was hooked.

As early as the 1700s, Breitenbush was used for recreational and health purposes by Native tribes of the Willamette Valley, including the Molalla, Kalapuya, and Wasco peoples. Later, it was frequented by white trappers, hunters, and settlers, who named it after the one-armed hunter who homesteaded there in the 1840s. The 154-acre property is currently held under private ownership and protected. The surrounding area, though, is part of the largest timber-cutting district in the lower forty-eight states. Today, there is a tenuous truce between the two. But for most of my lifetime, a near-constant battle was waged between timber interests and the owners of the hot springs.

In the 1980s, the stewards of Breitenbush began constructing a network of trails through the old growth with the goal of enhancing public support for their conservation efforts by providing public access to the land. It was this group that first observed a pair of nesting spotted owls. The discovery, along what is now called the Spotted Owl Trail, would lead to the eventual protection of thousands of acres of forest, but not before turning Breitenbush into a hot spot for conflict and radical direct action.

While I was growing up in Oregon in the 1980s, there were really only three big news stories: the Cold War, the Challenger disaster, and the spotted owl. To my grade-school self, the least scary of these were the owls, which seemed like a cut-and-dry issue. They were owls. They were wise. They looked interesting. They deserved a tree to live in. Trees were nice, too, and seemed important if you liked forests, which I did. At school, among my peers, this was an unpopular opinion. Many, many families made money from logging the owls’ trees, so if you were for the owls, you were pretty much taking food out of your classmates’ mouths. I stood my ground with a child’s logic: “We’re going to have to stop cutting down trees sometime soon anyway, if we want there to be any left.”

It was shortly after we all sat together in school and watched the Challenger explode that I began to notice the changing nature of Oregon’s forests. The long drive to the beach from Portland, once shrouded in darkness by dense stands of trees, now shone with light, though the view of the clear-cuts was hidden by a thick screen of trees.

By the 1990s, even the screen would be harvested. Great scars of clear-cuts became common, and the fight for the trees was no longer about owls. Instead there were lockdowns, tree sits, and demonstrations in the streets. The news showed nightly images of loggers dragging protesters away from road gates and nearly running them down with tractors. There was also a great new wave of red tape and regulatory activity related to the forests: riparian zones, sediment counts, landslide analyses. Proof, it was said, of the government’s commitment to the preservation of our resources. The forest fell. Breitenbush endured.

The kid was still looking at me. My feet were rooted to the trail junction. My thoughts drifted. 

Around the time I first remember hearing about the spotted owl, my family got lost while hiking in the Oregon forests. Long past our anticipated return time, my parents’ demeanor changed. They slowed. The tone of their voices became more serious. My sister and I were hot and tired and getting crabby in a sustained way. My parents probably were too. Finally, with darkness falling, we came to a stop. They discussed. They couldn’t be that far off track; we hadn’t walked very far. They could still see the ridge we had descended, and the sun was setting in the west, so they had a sense of where they were. My dad thought we could backtrack and either discover where we had gone wrong or return the full length of the way we came before it got too dark. They turned around. 

This terrified me. I was little, with no sense of time or distance, and still afraid of the dark. I remembered the view from the top of the trail; it seemed like a really big place to be lost in. I was imagining lions and tigers and bears and yetis and rodents of unusual size. I was thinking that this very kind of thing was what had happened to those hobbits. My sister was fixated on talking about spending the night out there; she may have said something about having to eat me first. In all, this probably took place over the course of a couple of hours, but in a child’s time we wandered forever, like Lawrence of Arabia, parched for water and slowly weakening with hunger. As I walked with my dad holding my hand, I started to cry.

Now, looking at the boy, I realized I wasn’t far from lost myself. But I was sure I knew how to get back to Breitenbush. It had taken me over an hour of fast hiking to get where I was, so I knew it would be a while before we made it back. I offered him a granola bar and some water, neither of which he wanted, and we set off together.

He was nine years old, spunky, polite, and, like me that day in the woods with my parents, really scared. He was also dehydrated, disoriented, and entirely unprepared to be outside by himself. Also, he had never been to school. When we stopped for a breather, I noticed that his tennis shoes had holes worn through the soles. He told me that he lived with his dad, who he was worried would be angry with him. He had been allowed to take the dog on a short walk down a trail by their campsite, which they had used many times over the week. He was supposed to be gone for just a few minutes. But when the dog bolted, he ran after it into the forest, worried about getting in trouble. He finally decided he couldn’t find the dog, then discovered he also couldn’t find the trail. He kept wandering farther and farther into the woods. He was smart enough to call out to me and ask for help, but that was where his ability to help me get him back to his family ended. He couldn’t tell me where he was staying, what kind of vehicle his family drove, or his dad’s phone number. 

I asked about his mom, and he told me that he was angry at her. 

“Oh,” I said. “Why is that?”

“Because she had a choice between going to rehab and staying here with me, and moving to Florida with her boyfriend, and she chose him,” he said, throwing a rock that narrowly missed a chipmunk and bounced off a nearby log. He had been trying to hit one for days, he explained. I decided to let both his mother and the chipmunk fend for themselves, imagining the clear-cut of this kid’s life: food deserts, educational wastelands, and the concrete of institutional walls.

Eventually, we made it back to the Breitenbush office. I stood in line, shifting nervously from foot to foot, not sure after such a long time if this was still considered an emergency. The hippie behind the counter looked at me, then turned away. My sense of urgency was totally ruining the vibe. Finally, two guys who had just completed the first leg of their bike tour from Portland to Los Angeles sensed something was amiss and asked if I needed help. I explained what was going on, and they forced the front-desk hippie to focus on me. I had to tell my story three times before he wrapped his head around it. 

“You mean that this kid isn’t with you?”

“No. He’s lost. I found him, and he’s been gone for at least a couple of hours, so if you could start making calls that would be great.” I figured they had a system for this, that once he picked up the phone, people would descend, removing the child from me, perhaps taking him to the lodge, giving him a snack, and entertaining him until the proper authorities or his father came to claim him. But no. 

“Call who?” The hippie behind the desk was still sitting motionless, his hand on the phone. I looked around at the other adults, all of whom had backed away so as to not get any of the problem on them. Like me, they didn’t want this kid to ruin their vacations.

“The sheriff.”

“What’s the number?” 

The kid totally freaked out at the mention of the sheriff. He grabbed my arm and looked up at me pleadingly, saying, “Please don’t call the sheriff. That’s gonna make my dad so mad.”

“Don’t worry,” I told him, even though I now was. “It’s not that kind of call to the sheriff, it’s just that there’s no one else to call out here, and he’s probably already looking for you.” But after fifteen more minutes of cajoling and prodding the front-desk hippie, it turned out he wasn’t. This was the first the sheriff had heard of a missing child. Did the kid know his dad’s phone number? No. Address? Campsite? How to spell his last name? No. No. No. They would put out a bulletin. 

There was a collective sigh of relief. Everyone returned to what they were doing. The kid and I looked at one another. With no further offers of assistance and still unable to check in to Breitenbush, we went outside and sat on the only available bench, the backs of our legs cooking in the late-afternoon sun. The cyclists reappeared, offered us a bag of trail cookies, and asked me what I was going to do, especially since it seemed like it might be a while.

“I have no idea,” I said.

After about ten minutes, we ran out of cookies and got bored. So we started over from the beginning: How long have you been out here with your family? Were you staying in tents or a cabin? Did your site have a name? A number? Was it near a paved road? The river?

I had asked all of these questions before, but with time, better blood sugar, and the growing fear that I might be with this kid in a semipermanent way, I started putting the pieces together. I went back in to question the hippie and came out armed with a plan. There was a series of cabins and campgrounds not far down one of the Forest Service roads. I’d start walking with the kid and see if anything rang a bell.

Sure enough, thirty minutes down the road, a circa 1984 station wagon that had seen better, less dusty days slowed in front of us. Inside was a massive gray-haired woman with an open can of beer in one hand, a cigarette hanging from her mouth, and plastic-rimmed glasses so covered by dirt you could barely make out her eyes. I asked the kid if he knew her.

“Yeah. That’s my grandma.” 

The car rolled to a stop.

The dust-slathered window slowly rolled halfway down, and her glasses peered out at me like giant raccoon eyes in the sun. It was clear she wasn’t getting out. It was also clear that she was pretty pissed off. Suddenly, I didn’t want to let him go.

He got in and buckled his seat belt before I had a chance to say good-bye, the car already rolling into motion. I stood and watched him go, his head turning toward me as they headed away from Breitenbush and into the unprotected woods. 

Comments

5 comments have been posted.

I liked the analogy--we fail to protect the natural world, we fail to protect vulnerable children. However, i was disturbed by a couple of things. One was the "hippie" stuff, as noted by another commentator. Just referring the "sleepy" hippies was sloppy writing and inaccurate--those sleepy hippies maintain the facilities at Breitenbush, prepare the vegetarian meals, clean the cabins, lead the yoga classes, do the administration, groom the trails etc. The constant repetition about the "hippie behind the counter" was demeaning. But more disturbing was the assumptions made about the boy (always referred to as the "kid"--why?) and his family. Check every awful image we have and call it poor white trash--the addicted mother who abandons her child, the father who teaches his son that the law is not their friend, the old rundown car, the "massive" woman with a cigarette and a beer, who turns out to be the grandma. It's not hopeless--the "kid" does fasten his seat belt. That judgment is at the root of the alienation in our society. "Those people" are sick of all of us do-gooders who evaluate them and find them lacking. I don't exempt myself--I do it too and i wasn't aware of it until i took a Humanities workshop to learn how to facilitate conversations among a diverse group of people in my community. As i mentally rehearsed how i might lead such a conversation, I realized, to my horror, that what I was saying was "you'd be a lot better off if you were just like me." It was a stunning discovery, humbling in fact. It seems to me that many of the personal essays in the magazine fail to take this step, of looking inward and uncovering the biases we all have. We can't change anything until we change ourselves and we can't change ourselves until we look at ourselves--deeply and honestly. It hurts. Good luck.

Andrea Scharf | September 2018 | Yachats Oregon

This was an incredibly moving story. So thank you for this. But it left me slightly troubled. Which might have been the point in writing this story in the first place. I don't know when this "lost boy" event took place, but I can't help wondering how old the boy is today, and if he had the depth of character to overcome his deficient upbringing. Has he become - or is he becoming - a well-balanced individual? Against all odds, is he going to be able to make a place for himself in American mainstream culture? I know that you don't have the answers, but simply telling the story makes we readers understand that not everyone has an easy road to travel to achieve a well-balanced and "successful" place in society. Thank you again for writing this.

Wesley L Mahan | September 2018 | Downtown Portland

As Cathy Geier wrote, you are a fine writer. You gave a picture of a complicated world. I ask that you be careful in your use of labels, like "hippie" . That is another complicated subject, and thus a word which is not part of a careful writer's vocabulary. I am a 62 year old grama. I was and still am a hippie, in the sense of the word as it originated in the 60's when our brothers and friends were being sent to fight in an insane war, our government was run by rich white men, and the world we were supposed to inherit was full of contradictions. If by "hippie", you mean a person who dresses in a non-traditional fashion, who appears somewhat stoned, and who possibly also appears "slow" I would be careful with your stereotype. Is there another way to describe the person you encountered who seemed to be in avoidance of the problem you were trying to tackle? Modern day young people who dress in clothing which resembles the 60's counter culture, and who are often stoned are not hippies. They know little of the Vietnam War, the times when we (girls) were not allowed to wear pants to school, the culture of denial and repression which our parents inherited and were unable to break away from in order to change the paradigm. Being lazy and panhandling is not what we did. We saved money, bought land, had our kids at home, resurrected breast feeding, midwives, organic gardens, reading aloud... and so many positive efforts. Please be careful with convenient labels, which often foster more of the divisive nature of our current political system.

Margaret Shindler | September 2018 | Milwaukie, Oregon

Thanks for you comment, Cathy.

Ben Waterhouse | September 2018 | Portland

Hello, i want to comment on your story about the lost boy. You are a good writer and capture pictures and moments well. I am however, bothered by the referral to the Breitenbush worker as a hippes with no substantiating information. I am also curious how you thought that Breitenbush woud have a system for "lost kids" turned in to them. Yes, I know Breitenbush well- spent over 100 nights there in 20 or so years. Yes, some or many of their staff might be described as hippies. Many of their staff would probably thought of giving the child food and water. I wonder - did you let Breitenbush know of your situation? They have a Director who would like to know what happened so he could coach staff how to respond kindly to a lost child. Front desk staff are sometimes fill-ins and often very young. Please let Br Director, Peter Moore, know.

Cathy Geier | September 2018 |

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