It took me a while to realize that we were no longer near our parents.
We had decided to go out to the desert for a family trip; it was something we did frequently enough. Both of my parents had been raised out in the country, and since we lived in the city, they made sure we did things like this frequently. Camping trips, hikes, they gladly signed us up for every outdoor club or activity we wanted – anything to mimic that growing up in a rural area feeling for us.
The family arrived in the morning, did a little wandering together, set up a small camp area – we wouldn’t be staying the night, so it wasn’t much – and generally had a good time.
I loved coming out to the desert. It was hot and a little uncomfortable at times, but still such a great experience. The wide-open spaces, the signs of wildlife you could find all around, the unbroken sky. It was beautiful and different. People love the mountains and the forests, and I get that, I do, but there is just something about the desert that speaks to me.
In the afternoon, my little brother and I asked permission to explore alone. We liked that feeling of independence, and it was only natural that our parents, who always raised us to love the outdoors, ended up with two kids that felt that exploring alone was the height of cool.
My mom was hesitant, my father simply made sure we had water and a few other supplies. We got a quick lecture to not wander too far and to try to pay attention to everything we passed so we would know how to get back. I honestly was pretty convinced I had this under control, so while I nodded and said okay, it was with a little attitude. My dad ignored it and sent us on our way.
And then I realized… we were lost.
I am not even sure how it happened. Or how long we had been that far separated from them. I only knew that were well out of my plan to stay where we could easily and quickly backtrack to them. We had promised not to go too far, then suddenly – we had.
My first thought and biggest concern when I first realized was how much trouble I would be in. I was supposed to be watching my little brother, not guiding him off into the desert, for god only knows what to happen to us. I had insisted I was fine and gotten attitude when my dad tried to give me warnings. I was meant to be responsible and good at knowing what I was doing in these types of situations.
I would undoubtedly be grounded. I took some time in my head to formulate counterarguments for when we got back, and I inevitably got in trouble. I was just a kid, and even though we asked to go off alone, they should have been watching still, right? Maybe… if I acted scared, it would keep some of the heat off of me. I kept turning ideas over in my mind while we ambled around, trying to make our way back.
Being grounded did not remain my biggest concern for very long.
The panic started to set in a little after I noticed that our attempts to become unlost had only actually made us more so. Now not only did I have no idea where our parents were, but I also couldn’t even remember where we had been when we first noticed that we had gone too far.
I was frustrated. The desert shouldn’t be that hard to navigate. I had heard stories of people getting lost in the woods and getting disoriented among all the trees. The desert didn’t present those types of problems, so it should be more difficult to get lost out here.
However, while the flatness and spareness of foliage gave us a large view in all directions, there was very little in the way of distinct markers. I couldn’t simply recall a particular plant or tree that we saw that would be a major indicator. We were deep enough in that I couldn’t look towards the horizon and see the highway, or the outline of a city, or anything like that. All that was around us was large, open, arid, near emptiness, only slightly broken up by a few small signs of life.
The other problem was the panic was starting to make it harder for me to think. Questions began to circle through my head over and over. Where was the highway again? What direction had we been facing when we first walked away from our parents? What direction were we facing when we noticed we were lost?
I began to realize that maybe I was a little overconfident in my abilities out in the wild. I need to learn more when we made it out of this
– if we made it out of this
My little brother was hot, scared, and was having a harder time hiding his discomfort. I did my best to calm him down and remind him our parents wouldn’t leave us. We weren’t like people who would sometimes get lost while hiking, and nobody knew to look for them until days later. They had probably already started to search.
We would be found.
We would be fine.
I did want him to feel better. Truly. But I also didn’t want to deal with his crying on top of being lost and my own panicked thoughts. Insensitive? Probably.
While we were trying to sort out where we were and how to get back to our parents, I started trying to distract my brother. I called on what we had learned over the years and began to point out various things to him. Tracks, nests, anything around that was interesting and that we could attempt to identify and give us both something else to think about. It was mostly for him, and it did stop his crying, but it also forced me to focus more, so it helped us both.
Then I spotted them. Tracks I had never seen before. Big tracks. Bigger than my hand – much bigger.
Then suddenly, the smell.
I have smelled something similar in zoos but never this close or pronounced.
Rancid earth, ozone, decay, urine, and something – something unlike anything else. Something that screamed danger. Predator.
This was a hunter.
It was still reasonably faint but much closer and more intense than I would have liked. My little brother hadn’t seemed to notice it yet, and I was thankful for that.
Once he did, keeping him under control would likely become a daunting task.
I kept on with trying to distract him and guided him away from the paw prints before he could notice. I asked him to tell me things about plants I knew he liked and what kind of wildlife he’d like to see.
For the most part, it seemed to be working, and the smell didn’t seem to get any closer. Maybe we were fine. Maybe it decided it didn’t want to hunt today.
We kept at it long enough that I had almost entirely calmed down – then the smell was closer.
I stiffened and looked toward the skyline. The sun was starting to set. Moments before, I had been anticipating just that, wanting it. When the sun went down, the lights from the cars would make the highway easier to spot. We had flashlights, so while I knew we would have to be careful, we would be okay in the dark. The light would help us to avoid any ground critters, and despite how small we both were, coyotes would be unlikely to approach.
But this? This was not something we could avoid. Not if it decided we were prey. The darkness would only make the hunt easier. We already couldn’t tell where it was in the open during the day, but at night? Now I knew we had a time limit to get back to our parents.
My brother started to panic again. This time I understood. This time I had more sympathy. But it didn’t change the fact that I needed him to remain calm.
I dropped down a little and firmly grabbed his shoulders, looking him square in the eye. I tried to keep control of myself and say as firmly as I could, “You cannot panic.”
“There’s something out there,” He sniffled. My heart lurched, I had never heard his voice so broken or scared.
“I know, that’s why I need you to keep it together.”
He nodded, and I could see him trying to build himself up. Trying to be brave. I was proud of him, at least I was deep down, but the fear was overwhelming.
Then I heard it
It was muffled, like a boot wrapped in a cloth stepping heel to toe. It wasn’t loud, but I knew it was moving, and more specifically, it was moving towards us.
I looked toward the sun. I had always loved sunsets in the desert. The colors are so bright and vibrant, and they seem to last so long with so much open sky. I have never hated anything more in my life than that setting sun.
It was easier said than done, but we could not panic and run. Right now, it seemed to still be stalking us – it hadn’t decided yet. If we panicked, we would make the choice for it.
My brother pointed out a small rock formation that we had passed earlier when we first noticed that we had wandered away. I was proud of him for noticing, but I was overwhelmed by the fact that I could tell the smell was getting stronger.
I began to question that if the worst happened, could my brother maybe make a run for it? Only if he knew what direction to go. I needed to make sure of that at least.
When we got to the formation, the sun was lower. There was a hill in front of us. Did we cross over a hill?
I was struggling to remember as the sharp, musky sting of urine started to hit me hard enough to make my eyes water.
I had to force myself to focus. I had to for my little brother.
Yes! We had crossed a hill, and it had been close to the highway. I tried to contain my excitement. We were on the right track but far from out of danger.
I just had to get us to the top of the hill. I was certain when we looked down on the other side, we would see our parents. We would see an area with people. We would see a place the hunter wouldn’t follow us.
As we got closer to the top, my little brother started crying again. I couldn’t tell him to calm down because I was too this time. The rancid smell was so strong now that I thought it might make me sick. I knew it had decided. That we were prey.
Get to the top of the hill. Just get to the top of the hill.