The last time Gail Diane Cox of Burbank spent a night outdoors was as a 12-year-old Campfire Girl, when she and her adolescent mates huddled under tents with their chaperones and ate Cheetos.
Her experience this week in the Trinity Alps, west of Redding in Northern California, would have earned her several merit badges.
Lost in rugged terrain near Weaverville, the 39-year-old reporter for the Los Angeles Daily Journal wandered for four days with no food before being discovered by a fisherman, who led her to safety Friday morning.
Aside from a little hunger, dehydration and a few cuts and bruises, Cox was in good health and expects to drive home today.
"I'm very fortunate," a jovial Cox said in a telephone interview from her rented cabin. "I was not going hiking or on a camping trip. I am not an outdoors woman. I went to see some wildflowers at a lake that I had read had too many people at it."
Instead, Cox, who said she often takes day trips alone to view wildflowers, lost her trail late Monday and found herself in a deserted area.
She was reported missing by the innkeeper of the cabin when she did not return Monday night. Other hikers who had seen Cox Monday afternoon later told authorities that she was walking away from the cabins and looked tired.
"I was dashing around trying to find the trail," Cox said. "I thought . . . that I would find people and I wouldn't look like a fool. In my dashing around, that's how I got lost."
Search Effort Fruitless
Cox escaped the notice of a search by 38 sheriff's deputies and volunteers, who were aided by dogs and helicopters, including two flown in by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Cox said she spotted helicopters on three occasions but, because of the heavy brush, was unable to signal rescuers.
Dressed in a bathing suit, a caftan and a $9.95 pair of tennis shoes, Cox said, she found a book of 12 matches in her purse and started lighting fires with green boughs. The fires produced enough smoke to attract the attention of a nearby fisherman, who, Cox said, was apparently the "only person in the area who hadn't heard that I was lost."
The smoke also helped ward off insects, which preyed on the small open cuts she suffered during her wandering.
"I fell down and rolled a lot," she said.
When she reached the safety of a ranger station, Cox still had four unused matches. Her only food was a package of salmon jerky that she had tucked away in her purse. But it tasted so bad that, despite her hunger, she only ate a few bites.
Drinking Water Difficult
Cox said she had difficulty drinking water from a rushing creek, with waterfalls cascading seven feet.
"A creek that's full of rocks is very hard to drink from, unless you fall in," Cox said with a laugh. "When you brace yourself against the rocks, you don't have your hands free to get water."
Cox said she tried to sleep in the shade during the hottest part of the day, when temperatures reached into the 90s. Overnight lows were in the 40s and a thunderstorm soaked her.
Cox said she had a tearful reunion with her mother, who had been staying in her Burbank home and who flew up Wednesday night along with Cox's uncle to aid in the search.
'Big Volunteer Effort'
"Apparently there was a real big volunteer effort, more than they could use," Cox said. "My uncle came up here with his city clothes, and they supplied him with mountain clothes. People were baking cakes for the volunteers. There was just a real big community effort to find me."
Cox recalled thinking she might die when she had to cross a ravine with a rushing stream.
"I thought, 'If you don't do it, it is going to end here,' " she recounted.
Most of the time, however, she remained confident.
"I thought I was going to get back, I just didn't know how long it would take and how uncomfortable and miserable it would be," she said.
Attraction Hasn't Dimmed
The experience has done little to dim her attraction to the area, which she has visited often and intends to visit again.
"It's an incredibly beautiful area, with a low population and lots of vegetation, birds and butterflies," she said. "I love the country. This really hasn't changed that."