A Walk in the Woods : When you're lost in the mountains, you can either stay in one place and wait for the searchers, or you can take action to save yourself. The first way enhances your chances of being rescued. The second enhances your whole life

Paul Ciotti is a staff writer for Los Angeles Times Magazine

When Gail Diane Cox went hiking, she talked out loud to God. It wasn't prayer so much as comment and critique. Coming across a particularly artful arrangement of sky, water, trees or rocks, she'd speak up in appreciation of God's handiwork. At the same time, she didn't hesitate to criticize when he blew it, as she felt he had with the view of Trinity Lake from the Stoddard Lake trail. The lake was so symmetrical and the water so blue it reminded Cox of a cheap calendar photo. "You're going commercial," she said. Three hours later he made up for it with a stunning view of Mt. Shasta, but by then she was too angry to enjoy it.

Cox was, at the time, on a three-week vacation at a rustic retreat in Northern California's Trinity Alps. Deciding on a Monday morning to go see the wildflowers of Stoddard Lake, she set off in a caftan and tennis shoes on what she had heard was an easy one-hour hike. Instead she found the trail both steep and indistinct, not to mention blocked by fallen trees.

Walking slowly in the summer heat, Cox entertained herself by singing "Seven Golden Daffodils" and mentally trying to spell the bird calls she heard. When she reached the ridge overlooking Stoddard Lake, her first thought was, "What a perfect place for a wedding." Trees framed a snow-spangled granite crag against a deep blue sky, under which shimmered the crystal waters of Stoddard Lake.

The view was so entrancing that on the way down to the water Cox didn't notice whether she was on the trail or not. As a result, when she started back home later that afternoon, she found herself following myriad crisscrossing game trails that petered out in piles of rocks and stands of manzanita.

She was annoyed, but not alarmed. She could always return to the lake and spend the night with the campers there. On the other hand, if she didn't return to her cabin the sheriff would have to organize a rescue party and Cox would look like a fool--not to mention the hysterics this would inspire in her 73-year-old mother.

As she wandered back and forth across the ridge, Cox found herself becoming increasingly cranky. Instead of the two large meadows she had seen on the way up, she now encountered a single, small sodden one that tugged at her tennis shoes. Once, coming across a large rock pile, she looked up and was startled to discover Mt. Shasta floating on the horizon, surrealistically perfect, covered with snow and wreathed in delicate shades of blue and green. "That's nice," she snapped. "Now where the hell's the trail?"

A self-confessed "city softie," Cox became nervous as the terrain turned steeper and more treacherous. The first time she fell, she stopped her roll with her walking stick. When she realized that she couldn't make it back to the trail head before dark, tears of frustration filled her eyes. "This is ridiculous. This is an hour's walk. What's wrong with me? Where's the trail?"

Although she hadn't exhibited much of it during her first day in the woods, Cox prided herself on her quick wit and common sense. Back in Los Angeles she worked as a reporter, covering the Board of Supervisors for the Daily Journal, the small but influential legal newspaper. At 40 she was regarded with awe by her co-workers for her prodigious memory, great contacts and a laugh that could be heard all over the newsroom. Because she was less angry than amused by the foibles of people in public life, her profiles of politicians and judges were all the more devasting for not being unfair.

This is not to say that her editor, Ken Jost, didn't occasionally criticize her poor spelling and her habit of treating inviolable deadlines as mere advisories. But those were small matters. She never lacked for story ideas, and she was also unusually self-reliant--one reason that no one was particularly surprised when she decided to vacation alone in the rugged, pine-covered Trinity Alps.

Cox spent the first two weeks taking walks and reading books on butterflies and basketry. She studied the history of Trinity County and visited museums and cemeteries. On hot afternoons she swam in Coffee Creek, sat on the porch of her alpine cabin making baskets from fallen pine needles, or read "The Magic Mountain" by Thomas Mann. A formidable cook, she had brought along a large clay pot of growing herbs--strapped into the passenger seat of her car--so she'd have fresh savory, tarragon and marjoram for seasoning omelets and stuffing the native trout. In the mornings, sipping freshly brewed French Roast, she'd sit on the front porch of the main building, talking to owners Fran and Don Lethbridge.

Fran Lethbridge isn't the sort to keep tabs on her guests, but when Cox didn't return from her hike by the following morning, she telephoned both the sheriff and Jost. Jost was alarmed, not only because Cox was missing but also because he needed her in the office the following Monday to do a major profile of the new city attorney, James Hahn. He could assign another reporter, but that somehow implied that Cox wasn't coming back.

Within hours, volunteer rescue associations began converging on Coffee Creek with dog teams, posses on horseback, Jeep patrols and trail runners who stayed in the woods, sometimes searching all night. By Wednesday morning searchers had discovered Cox's car at the Stoddard Lake trail head and talked to campers at the lake who, in retrospect, agreed that when they last saw Cox on Monday afternoon, she seemed exhausted and confused. A young boy said that she had acted "dingy."

Lethbridge didn't know what to think. Although Cox was overweight, she was also quite strong. And yet, reports from the campers made it seem as though she had been staggering around on her last legs.

By Friday morning the sheriff had several helicopters and more than 100 searchers at his disposal, including a former English teacher turned paramedic named Barbara Levy. Drawing on her long experience with people lost in the woods, she prepared a psychological profile of Cox to aid in the search.

Levy had at first been dismayed when she heard that the missing party was a "200-pound female wearing a muumuu and carrying a purse." But once she began talking to Cox's family and friends, poring over her books and photographs, searching her car and otherwise looking at any scrap of information that could suggest what Cox might do if lost in the woods, she formed a picture of a strong-willed perfectionist who believed that if a thing was worth doing, it was worth doing to excess. Cox didn't smoke, avoided jewelry and doctors, loved horses and brushed her teeth with fennel toothpaste. In the trunk of her car were two bottles of homemade oregano vinegar, a grapefruit, a coffee cup with a picture of a cat on it, a dog leash and a stack of doll clothes in a box labeled "Eureka."

Although one search leader concluded from all this that Cox was a "quirky" novice who would undoubtedly walk in circles, Levy believed that Cox might very well walk out on her own power. The only thing that bothered her, she told searchers at the Friday morning briefing, was the dog leash. "I don't know what that means."

"I know," Lethbridge said. "It means she has a dog."

The room turned to Lethbridge as one. "Well, where is it?"

"In the kennel," she announced. Cox would have brought him along, but he liked to bite strangers.

As it turned out, Levy's analysis of Cox's character was more accurate than she knew. On Monday evening, when Cox tripped and fell, she stopped right there and thought: "It's time to reorganize priorities. I am definitely lost and I have been doing everything wrong and people who are lost panic and they go in circles and they die and how did I get into this fix?"

The major dangers, she decided, were heat exhaustion, dehydration, breaking an ankle, hitting her head, and having her tennis shoes fall apart. Less likely were snakes and hypothermia. Too remote to bother with were bears, starvation, maniacs, lightning and ghosts.

Most likely, she thought, she would spend a long, cold, miserable night in the woods. Then at daybreak she'd hike down to the stream, where she would sit and wait for rescuers to find her, probably about 1 or 2 in the afternoon.

To sleep, Cox curled up in the fetal position and used her purse and shoes for a pillow. Occasionally she heard rustling in the bushes nearby, but when she said, "Go away," in the firm voice one would use with a dog, the rustling always stopped.

At dawn she wrote a jaunty note on the back of a Mike Antonovich press release, one of a sheaf in her purse, saying that she was uninjured "if you discount my acute embarrassment at the problem I'm causing." The note offered freshly baked cookies for anyone who could keep her mother and boss from finding out that she was lost.

On Tuesday afternoon Cox saw a white helicopter flying away from her over a steep ridge. She tied her purple bathing suit to her walking stick to signal the copter on its next pass. But it never came back.

When her spirits were really low, she tried prayer. "Hey, you know," she said, "I really want to get out of this." She pointed out that she generally didn't pray when she was in trouble or otherwise ask for favors, but that this was an exception and she was "calling in her chits."

On Wednesday morning, having spent the night on an exposed ledge worrying about snakes, Cox decided to find her own way out by following a nearby stream.

It wasn't that easy. The stream ran down a rocky gorge filled with boulders and fallen trees, and the steep banks were lined with impenetrable brush. At times Cox would be struggling through manzanita so thick that her feet didn't touch the ground. When one bank became impassable she'd ford the stream and try the other side. If both were impassable she'd walk down the middle of the stream until she hit rapids or waterfalls.

To help the searchers, Cox left little piles of stones indicating her direction of travel. The one thing she didn't worry about was food. She was too terrified to be hungry, and anyway, she reasoned, if the average person can survive 30 days without food, at her weight she ought to be good for double that.

Late that afternoon, Cox came across a small, level clearing with a well-constructed ring of stones. There was a pile of decaying firewood, two flat rocks for chairs and a rusted Olympia beer can. Knowing that someone, if only a slob, had been there before gave her a feeling of vast relief. Lying down, she promptly fell asleep.

She woke up to the sound of a helicopter flying low over the opposite ridge. Still not sure whether she had dreamed it or not, she raced around her campsite, trying to start a fire with dry pine needles and the remaining press releases. She was was still feeding the flames when suddenly everything went overexposed and spotty. Despite sitting down on a nearby log and putting her head between her legs, she pitched forward in a faint.

When she came to, the sun had gone down and the fire was glowing embers. She restarted it with twigs, then propped a long, flat log over the flames to reflect the light and heat toward her. It also restricted the fire's visibility from the air, but she had worried about helping the searchers long enough. Now it was time to start helping herself.

Making decisions, Cox discovered, immediately boosted her spirits. And when she got up Thursday morning she resolved to spend the day recuperating at her campsite.

That afternoon Cox saw the same red-and-silver helicopter she'd glimpsed the day before. Although she waved her walking stick, the helicopter disappeared again over the ridge. "Please," she begged. "I want to get out now. Don't make me spend another night."

By that point she was in rather bad shape, with a knot on her left shin and a great purple discoloration on her calf. A cut on the inside of her right leg was trickling blood. A great mass of scratches surrounded her left ankle. Her lips were swollen and cracked, she'd lost all the skin from a big toe, and her shoulders were a solid welt of mosquito bites.

While Cox waited for the helicopter to return, she sat on a flat rock and watched the insects that swarmed to her wounds. Each species, she found, had a different personality. The flies were villains, brutish and persistent about her cuts. The small bees were insidious, hovering an inch away from her toe. The big black ants she rather liked. They didn't deliberately crawl on her. And if she swatted a fly or bee, the ants quickly carried the carcass away. But when it became clear that the helicopter wasn't coming back, she picked up a stick and pounded the daylights out of the ant colony, then watched in bitter satisfaction as the walking wounded dragged their half-mashed bodies away.

Thursday night was the coldest yet, but by careful tending of the fire Cox found she could sleep an hour at a stretch. The next morning she washed her caftan and swimming suit in the river. She put on the swimming suit wet and had just finished drying the caftan over her signal fire when a voice said, "Hello there."

Cox turned to discover a young man standing 45 feet away. He was carrying a creel and fishing pole. He wore leather boots and had shortish red hair.

"I've been lost out here since Monday by myself," she said before her throat tightened. "And I am very glad to see you."

Whatever Cox expected when she walked into the Coffee Creek ranger station, it wasn't a freeze frame. Eight men in uniforms or jump suits and a young woman with blue eyes stared at her incredulously. Cox looked directly at the woman behind the desk and said, "I'm Gail Cox." There was no movement, no sound. More to fill the vacuum than anything else, she added, "I've been lost."

"We know you've been lost," the woman said.

Someone stuck his head out of a back room. Several other people got to their feet, while others sank slowly into their chairs.

At the nearby elementary school, Cox made an effort to appear OK at the debriefing. "I'm fine," she kept repeating, as people she'd never seen before came up and hugged her. "I'm in really good shape. You wouldn't believe what good shape I'm in."

When Lethbridge heard that Cox was back, she drove Cox's mother, who had flown up from Los Angeles, to the school. For Lethbridge, it was a very emotional reunion. She was hugging Cox and crying. Mrs. Cox was hugging her daughter and crying. Everyone was hugging Cox and crying, except Cox herself. That bothered Lethbridge. After what Cox had been through, Lethbridge thought, she at least might have the courtesy to shed a few tears.

While waiting for her mother to arrive, Cox called her editor. "I got out. I'm OK," she announced without preliminaries. To Jost and her fellow reporters, Cox seemed positive, cheerful and not at all tired. In an effort to allay their concerns, she belittled her injuries, saying only that she had a blistered foot. And she left the strong impression that she'd be back at work the following Monday.

Consequently, Jost was confused when Cox called from San Francisco that weekend to say that she wouldn't be in until Thursday.

He had just run in the door with a bag of groceries and was still out of breath. "Aren't you going to be in tomorrow?" he gasped.

"What?"

"What about the Jimmy Hahn profile?"

Cox had been trying to please people all her life. It had been her unwillingness to upset others by spending that first night with campers at Stoddard Lake that had gotten her lost in the first place. "Ken," she said, "I can't do it."

"I've got to find a way to do the Hahn profile," Jost protested.

But this time Cox was adamant, not to mention lightheaded, shaking and nauseated. And, there being nothing more to add, she said goodby, hung up, then did something she hadn't done when she first got lost, when she was wandering in the wood s and even when everyone

was hugging her at the elementary school--she broke down and cried.

Afterward, the rescuers told Gail Cox she'd done all the right things to save herself. Though she returned from Coffee Creek more or less unscathed, not everyone is so fortunate. The day after her return, a 21-year-old Army Reservist with survival training and previous hiking experience in the Trinity Alps was reported missing within a few miles of Stoddard Lake. After six days, his body was found at the base of a cliff.

As to what Cox learned from her own ordeal, she doesn't consider her insights to be especially illuminating. When she goes to throw something away, even an item as insignificant as a paper towel, she first asks herself, "Is this something I might need?" And for a time she marveled at the luxury of being able to get a drink of water without having to lie on her stomach beside a stream.

But she is also more self-conscious now. When she recently stayed in a cabin at Idyllwild, she was always aware of what her room looked like, in case she got lost again and someone had to go through it to see if "I was one of those people who would walk in circles." More profoundly, she is conscious of her own mortality. After she returned, some of her friends gave her a birthday party. Since she knew of it in advance, it really wasn't a surprise party. But considering what might easily have happened, she found herself telling her friends that it was surprising that she was there to celebrate at all.

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