What if one wrong turn meant life or death?

[My podcast transcript for This is Actually Happening, Wondery 2021]

“I was lost in a closed forest. I had no food, no water, no map. I had no cell phone, no coat, no flashlight matches, or a lighter. And worse, nobody knew where I was.”

So, for me, I don’t think I was in a disadvantaged position at all. We weren’t sitting around thinking, “Oh, my God, look what we don’t have.” It was really the opposite of that. We were like, “Oh, my God, we are so lucky to have this kind of fun, little family.” And when I would go to my friend’s houses, at that time, the father would come home from work, and he’d get into his undershirt, and there were always arguments. Our house wasn’t like that at all. Our house was silent. It was quiet because there was only one authority figure, and that’s who we listened to. When I would experience fathers at my friends’ places, for me, that was not interesting to me. So, the impact was that I was grateful to be in my little family.

“You are in absolute darkness, and until you are in that kind of situation it’s hard to understand what darkness is.”

I was so, so, so grateful to be in a family where there was just love without conflict, and we were raised to be whoever we wanted to be. What I started to notice as a pre-teen is that all the people around me had big houses and big cars and fancy things. I came home one day, and I remember this really like it was yesterday. I walked into the apartment, and my mom was sitting at the dining room table reading newspaper. I said to her, “Where are our fancy things?”

My mother just looked up, and she said to me, “You can have those things any time you like. It’s all here. Any time you want to buy something nice for yourself, it’s all here waiting for you. All you have to do is work for it.”

We had to learn early on that with actions, there are consequences, both positive and negative. We are responsible for ourselves. You can’t let people decide for you what your future is going to be. Not short-term. Not long-term in any way, shape, or form. I was not more than 12, and I thought to myself, “Well, okay. If I have to work to get those things, I’m going to work to get those things.” I started to work at a local pharmacy. I was delivering medications by bicycle and by walking. I would earn enough money to start traveling and caught that bug. So, I think that wanting to be elsewhere is something that’s just in you, like musicians and music or artists and art. I started traveling early. I would go down south like many Canadians do. I would head down to North Miami for holidays and then entire summers.

We’re talking about when I was maybe 15, 16. That really gave me the impetus to want to see more. So, I knew that that was in me. I 100 percent had that inside me. So, I saved enough money and traveled through Europe for several months in the mid-‘80s, sleeping on roofs and boat decks and train cars and beaches. It was really during that train trip that I traveled through the Alps for the first time. Sitting one day in a hotel in Interlachen, I watched sort of a lightning hit the peaks of the Alps. I just thought, “My God, why would anybody want to be anywhere else?” But like many other post-teen dreamers, I had a lot of life to live before I’d ever get back there.

“I watched lightning hit the peaks of the Alps. I just thought, My God, why would anybody want to be anywhere else?”

But like many other post-teen dreamers, I had a lot of life to live before I’d ever get back there.

I had university to finish. I had a career to start. I had the usual ups and downs of trying to sort out my place on the planet. But I suppose the next really relevant event in my life is that I lost somebody to suicide in high school, but just an acquaintance of mine. I realized at that time that one second you are here and then one second you are not. I was probably 16 at the time. And literally, when I came in the day after, the desk and chair were empty. This was a physical thing that I was able to see at a young age to say, “Oh, I see.” When they say an ah-ha moment, that was really a time where I — just immediately. It didn’t take me a year to reflect. It was, “Here he is. Now he’s not. That could be you. It’s time to do whatever you want to do. So don’t wait. There’s no waiting.”

Really, from that point forward, I decided that everything that I was able to do, I was going to do, and I wasn’t going to let anybody tell me anything that didn’t make any sense to me. So, with that in mind, combined with the radio experience, I went to work as the executive editor of a national travel magazine. It was really then where I was able to explore. I, over a period of years, had motorcycled through Europe and had chased tarantulas in Antigua, gone over the remarkable mountains in New Zealand, and all kinds of really fun, crazy adventure stuff. So, I was in my early 30s when I was working at the travel magazine. And then, one day, I was at my desk, and this large book landed on my desk. It was a list of international schools around the world. I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t know what it was doing there. It was just something that happened. It was strange. I was sort of thumbing through it, and I thought, “Well, that’s interesting.”

I picked the job just really out of nowhere in a place that I’d never been or never heard of called Villars- sur-Glâne, Switzerland. People at work thought I was, perhaps, a little bit bonkers because I was in a relatively high-profile job, which was a lot of fun and involved travel, and why would I consider giving that up. I was still young, and my career was just starting. But I thought that would be a pretty good trade-off to go live in the Alps. In my mind, I’m thinking, “Who wouldn’t want to go live in the Alps?” And so, I didn’t listen to them, and I said yes.

I moved to Switzerland. It’s a four-season live-above-the-clouds, magnificent alpine cycling and skiing and skating, and everything else that you can imagine. I moved there with a bicycle but no car. And certainly arriving there so far up a mountain without a car, I was laughed at a lot by the locals, and they thought I was a bit bonkers. The job was certainly interesting and wonderful, but the focus was really on a different kind of outdoor lifestyle and just being, just living.

It was about a year and a half after I moved to Switzerland. I had just come back from Montreal after a short trip, and I was super jetlagged. It was April 30th, 2000, super cold but sunny days. I had to work the next day, and I was worried that I would be too tired from the jetlag to get to work. So, I rang a friend of mine in Geneva, and he suggested that I go for a bike ride to tire myself out even more. So, I said to him, “You know what? What I’m going to do is I’m going to take your advice, and I’m going to go up a road called Col de la Croix, which is a really famous Tour de Suisse, Tour de France road, which is super steep, super windy.

Of course, I arrived at that junction, and I thought, “Well, who in the world wants to go up when you can go down?”

I thought, “Well, if I go on that road for a few minutes, it’s going to tire me out, and I’ll just turn around and come back.” I was biking along, and I came to the intersection of this Col de la Croix and the town of Villars. You have a choice to go left, which means you’re going to be going straight up and struggling, or you can turn right and maybe pick up a croissant or a galette on your way out or on your way back, and that was downhill. So, of course, I arrived at that junction, and I thought, “Well, who in the world wants to go up when you can go down?”

I turned right, went through the town, and cycled along for another five kilometers. I saw a road that I didn’t think I had been on before, and it looked relatively steep. I thought, “Okay. Well, this is good. I’m just going to head up here, get myself tired out, come back down, go and get some croissants and chocolate and all the other yummy things in Switzerland, and everything will be great.”

I am starting my climb up, and I see a sign amazingly that says, “Col de la Croix.” And I thought to myself, “Well, that’s great. What I’ll do is I’ll just turn in here and take a shortcut home.” I made the turn left onto kind of a dirt pathway leading into a Swiss forest. There was a metal barrier, and it said, “Fermé,” so closed. But I thought to myself, “Well, closed to who? Not closed to me. I’m on a bicycle.” And it certainly looked clear, and it does say called Col de la Croix. So, I entered, and it was absolutely glorious.

I mean, you’re in the middle of the forest on a trail. You’re in nature. It smells great. It feels great. I was exhausted. So, it was just wonderful, the reason why I moved there. And every once in a while, I would have to get off the bike because there would be patches of snow. So, I would get off the bike, put it on my shoulder, and then sort of Frankenstein walk because the snow would be super sticky. I would walk until the next patch where it would be clear, and then off you go.

Each kilometer that I would be going on in the forest was just getting better and better. This went on for probably maybe an hour. I was starting to get really tired. And I thought, “Okay. Well, I will turn around and I’ll go out where I came.” And in the meantime, the sun went down. It had started to get dark, and it started to get cold. In my mind, I’m thinking, “Well, that’s okay because the sign did say Col de la Croix, and maybe I’ll just keep pushing forward, and I’ll come across the road, and then I’ll be home in a few minutes.”

But after maybe an hour of biking and walking and trudging through the snow, I was lost in a closed forest. I had no food, no water, no map. I had no cell phone, no coat, no flashlight matches, or a lighter. And worse, nobody knew where I was because I had told my friend in Geneva that I was going to go up Col de la Croix and I am now many kilometers away from their. My mother always taught me to never go out of the house without money. So, of all the things that I didn’t have is I had a windbreaker on, and in my pocket, I had a 50 Swiss Franc note. I had no food or water or anything else, but I had money.

“When I say lost, I mean lost in the dark. There was no moon or car lights or homes. You are in absolute darkness. And until you are in that kind of situation, it’s hard to understand what darkness is.”

I stopped, and I was in almost darkness. It was cold. I was wet, and there was just this realization where I suddenly froze. I just froze. I mean, physically froze. It was like I had hit a wall. “Okay. Fun over.” I couldn’t even see my footprints in the snow where I had just come from. When I say lost, I mean lost in the dark. There was no moon or car lights or homes. You are in absolute darkness. And until you are in that kind of situation, it’s hard to understand what darkness is.

I was still thinking that Col de la Croix was that way, whatever that way was, because I didn’t know at that point. So, I started to sort of blindly walk, hoping that I’d come across a road, any road, and I didn’t. “Okay. How did I find myself in this situation? How am I here without anything that anybody else would bring with them?” So, there was this, I guess it can be best described, as dread. Dread is really the primary emotion here, more than fear. It was really dread, and, “What in the world? I didn’t do anything right.”

I had started to shake because of the wet and the cold. So, it was really then that I thought, “Okay. If I’m not going to get out, I have to get warm. You need to sort this out now, so start thinking.” So, I knew that one of the first things I had to do was try to find shelter really more than anything else because I was starting to shake from the cold.

What I did was I continued to move forward in the dark, and I came across a chalet which was covered over entirely with snow, which is not uncommon for the region. What happens is they have summer chalets, and they just let them be snowed over in the winter. So, I saw a few of these. I went up to each one, and I put my bicycle down. I was trying to remove all the parts of the chalet that had been boarded up and was kind of hanging on to the top of a window where the top of, let’s say, a board would be. I was trying to pull it down with all of my body weight.

Unfortunately, I was just not strong enough to do it. First of all, I was still exhausted from jetlag. I had just spent an hour biking in snow. I just didn’t have the strength to do it. And I thought, “Okay. This is going to be bad.” So, I left my bike next to one of these snowed-over chalets, and I found another one. I tried the same thing to see if I could remove something or anything that will at least get me out of the cold for the night. And I was, again, unsuccessful.

“What do I do next without having any experience of winter camping?” So, I just started to walk blindly in the dark. In the meantime, of course, it’s getting colder and colder, and I’m getting colder and colder. And so, eventually, I come across, rather ironically, an information shelter made of wood. It had a bench that was just made out of a log. So, there was a giant map for skiers or cross-country skiers in season where they could stop and figure out where they were. I thought, “Okay. Well, that’s great because really what I need right now is a map.” But unfortunately, it was, number one, too dark to see, and there was no indication of where you were actually standing. So, the big map that was in this information station was of no use to me. But I did think this was a good as place as any to just stop and spend the evening.

I had started to shout for help, just random shouts for help until my throat hurt, actually. I was just super nervous as to what was going to happen or how I was going to make it through this night. Really, that’s when I started to set some things in motion, despite really winging it and relying mostly on TV and film for my survival strategy.

“But that was the first thing I did, was take garbage and shove it everywhere I could so that there would be a separation between skin and wet.”

The first thing I did was I saw that there was a garbage can, and I went in there and grabbed a whole bunch of whatever in the world was in there. I started to shove it down my clothes so that my skin would be separated from my wet clothes. And how I knew to do that is just beyond me. But that was the first thing I did, was take garbage and shove it everywhere I could so that there would be a separation between skin and wet. I couldn’t be on the ground because that was snow-covered, and I thought, “Well, that’s not good.” So, I propped myself up on one of the walls of this information center. I got a bunch of pine needles and branches and everything to kind of drape over my legs. I didn’t know how to make it work for my upper body, and that was the end of my survival strategy.

I didn’t have anything else. It’s just you. It’s you in the middle of a closed national forest leaning up against a wooden log with garbage down your clothes. Nobody is coming to get you. It was really total and absolute silence. Again, that feeling of dread is the primary emotion initially. After dread really came, I guess,

embarrassment. “What in the world are you thinking? You’re not a tourist. You’re not new to this. You’ve been biking for decades. Really, how dare you? How dare you put yourself in a situation that could be fatal for you? You did this.” This is the conversation that I’m having with myself.

Nobody did this to me. Nobody is responsible for this except me. I chose to go somewhere that nobody knew where I was. I chose not to bring anything that would be of any value. I chose to keep going when I knew that I was getting wet and time was passing. It’s not like that was a surprise. I did also have a history of being lost before. So, the feeling that I had sitting there as it’s dark and the stars are out and really quite beautiful if your life isn’t in danger was, “You did it, and now you are paying the consequence. You should know better.” I was raised to know better. I did know better. And, in fact, I didn’t.

“More than hyperthermia. More than all the other things that you would think you would be worried about at that time were really overshadowed by, You know better. And yet, here you are.”

I didn’t see my life flashed before my eyes. There was none of those dramatics. Really, what I was thinking of is, “My mother is going to get a phone call about a missing girl who had been found in this closed national forest. We think it’s your daughter.” The idea that my family would receive a phone call that would say, “I’m sorry, she’s missing.” And then another call that says, “Sorry, she’s dead,” was overwhelming, absolutely overwhelming. More than hyperthermia. More than all the other things that you would think you would be worried about at that time were really overshadowed by, “You know better. And yet, here you are.” That was really the emotion sitting there for what seemed like many, many, many hours.

Also, I guess the irony of having turned right instead of left — that’s another irony which just goes to show you that life really is here, and then it’s not because had I come across that junction of turning left to go to Col de la Croix or going right, which would take me downhill to the croissants, I should have turned left.

If I would have turned left, I would have been tired and back home in 15 minutes. “Now, I’m here in the middle of the night, in the dark, I’m freezing, and I still don’t know how I’m going to get out of here.” I was propped up against this log and thinking to myself, “Okay. Well, what happens in movies is that if you fall asleep, you may not wake up.” I didn’t know if that was true or not, but I just thought, “Well, I’m definitely becoming hypothermic.” So, I really tried to get up every once in a while, stand straight up every once in a while, move around. I would pace back and forth and shout help, which of course, nobody was going to hear.

I spent the night staying awake, trying not to fall asleep because my feeling was really that I may not wake up. Being lost was not something that was new to me. Direction is just not something that I have in my brain. I have had difficulty with direction really since I was a kid. This was not the first time that I had been lost. I had been lost on a Bulgarian beach at one time. I been lost in Munich. I was lost once in Sweden, where I was biking and couldn’t find my way home. I really have been lost in almost every city that I’ve been to. It’s quite frightening and not something that I was really willing to accept as a deficit in my cranial function because I considered myself relatively intelligent and all of the kind of things that you like to think are good about you. And yet, I could not find my way out of a paper bag, as they like to say. So, it’s part of the, “I should have known better,” because this was not the first time this had happened to me.

“After a night of shaking, adjusting garbage, pacing, shouting, the sun first rose. And when it came up, I can tell you it felt fantastic.”

It was taking so long for daylight to come. It felt like 1 night was 30 nights. And so, you have all this time to sit and think. The length of time that you’re able to sit and think about really the mistakes that you made, and I made them just hours ago. If only there was one slight glitch in what had happened, I would have been perfectly fine. All of the if-onlys were really the darkest time of the night because you have all this time to think about how one small movement, one small decision, would have made an enormous difference. “Maybe I would have still been lost, but I wouldn’t have been worried for my life if I would have had a match.” That’s really what you think about over what turned out to be really the longest night of my life.

After a night of shaking, adjusting garbage, pacing, shouting, the sun first rose. And when it came up, I can tell you it felt fantastic. It was like a new day had dawn, which was true, and it was warm. I was warming up. I thought to myself, “Okay. I can do this. I can find a way to get out of here.” The first thing I did was quite incredibly continue off to the right because that’s where the sign called la Croix had initially pointed. I had walked that way for about 20 minutes, and I had noticed that it was going downhill sort of further into the forest. I stopped, and I thought to myself, “Okay. How many bad decisions are you going to make in one 24-hour period?”

I stopped. I turned around, and I just started to walk up. Whenever it was up, that’s the way that I was going to walk because I thought, “If I’m ever going to be found, it’s going to be from above and not from below.” So, I had walked for maybe an hour. Suddenly, I come across a closed village is the best way to describe this place. There are a couple of chalets, and, again, they’re covered over in snow. And so, I’m thinking to myself, “Okay. I think I know where I am, and it has a name. I am in Taveyanne.” I really felt a change in my attitude. I really went from survival, survival, survival to, “Holy cow. I know where I am. Something good is going to happen from this point on.” I just didn’t know what, and I didn’t know when.

“I climbed up, again, in my Spiderman technique, opened up the metallic box, and there was a telephone with only one digit on it, and the digit was 1.”

I look up, and I realize that I’m under the ski lift line. Standing there, there was something that was shining in my eye. I looked over at one of the chalets, and there was a triangular yellow metallic box posted close to the roof of one of these snowed-over chalets. On it said, “S.O.S.” Now, I’m thinking to myself, “Is there more of an S.O.S position than this one? No.” So, I walked over to this chalet and its snow. I climbed up, again, in my Spiderman technique, opened up the metallic box, and there was a telephone with only one digit on it, and the digit was 1. I picked up the receiver and just pushed 1 like there was no tomorrow. Lo and behold, a few seconds later, I hear, “Hello?” On the other line was a policeman, and I was able to explain to him that I had spent the night outside and that I was lost. He said to me, “Don’t worry. We’re going to come and get you. I know where you are. Click.”

Okay. Hang up the phone. Yay for me. So, I climbed to the top of this chalet, panoramic view of the Swiss Alps all the way into France. It’s just the most gorgeous, beautiful, sunny blue sky day. I’m there waiting to be rescued, sitting in the snow on top of this chalet. I sat like that for about an hour or an hour and a half. What I started to hear was a thump, a jolting sound, where your body moves every two seconds, thumping and thumping and thumping. Suddenly, sort of up from below me comes a helicopter.

They land, and a guy comes running out with his emergency case. He’s running and running and running towards me. I’m sort of shimmying down, and he races up to me and grabs me. He says to me words that I will never forget. “Are you the one who called?” Now, I want you to understand that there is probably not another human being within five or ten kilometers of where I am sitting right now at 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning on an alp, having spent the night outside in the cold, and this gentleman wonders whether it’s me who has called.

I say to him, laughing, “Yes. Yes. That would be me.” So, he escorts me into the helicopter. He takes my vitals and asks me a bunch of questions. And a few seconds later, we start to take off. 7 seconds later, I look down, and I see the local policeman coming up in his truck to where we were. I said to him, “Listen, do me a favor, put me down, and I’ll go with the local policeman.”

They said fine, and they put me down. The local policeman came, and then I got into his Jeep. He asked me a bunch of questions. He took me back to my chalet. Really, mostly what I was was cold and hungry and thirsty. So, I was really just physically exhausted but certainly happy to be found. He takes me home. I go upstairs into my chalet, and I take a very, very, very hot bath. I call my boss saying this has happened and I won’t be in. Everything was okay. I went to see the nurse. She said, “Everything just seems fine. You’re just probably experienced mild hypothermia, and now you seem okay.”

I just went home and slept for good 15, 16 hours. I got up and started to get my life back together. But of course, in the meantime, everybody knew what had happened. Everybody knew that I got lost in the forest. Everybody knew that I had to be helicoptered out. They found it generally quite amusing, mostly made fun of me. There wasn’t a lot of sympathy. People around me thought, “Listen, you should have known better, and you didn’t. Too bad for you,” which really isn’t wrong.

People in this very small community, including my very good friends, were Swiss ski instructors, which is an extremely hard profession to obtain, triathletes, really serious outdoors people. The idea that this North American bikes into the forest and can’t find her way out. They were not sympathetic really at all. My friends did find the situation funny. And I did, too. So, there was really a sense of embarrassment. All the same emotions that I had felt sitting in that shelter, I felt again afterward because I thought, “Oh, what’s my defense to this?” Then, I received a bill in the mail, and the bill was from the very nice folks who had arrived with the helicopter. It was for a 17-second helicopter ride, and the price was $3,000.

I thought, “$3,000 seems like a lot of money for 17 seconds, but I’m in Switzerland, and I have a lot of insurance,” which is mandatory there. So, I call the primary insurance company in Germany, Switzerland. I say to him, “Okay. This is what happened. And here’s the bill.”

“He said to me in relatively broken English, “We don’t pay for stupidity.”

He said to me in relatively broken English, “We don’t pay for stupidity. If you are skiing and you fall, and you break your leg, you would be covered. If you bicycle into a closed area and get lost and get hurt, you are not covered. Thank you very much for calling.” Click.

In the end, of course, I paid it. I deserved it. Aside from all the other prices that you pay, that was one that I had to fork over. The short-term effect of what happened was minimal in the sense that I was able to see the humor in it. I did not mind being made fun of. But of course, the effects of that event long-term were a bit more serious. I think it was really when I left the mountain, I moved from Villars to Lausanne, which is also in Switzerland. I really thought to myself, “This happened, and you can’t just forget that it happened. You can’t laugh off that it happened. It was not the first time you had been lost, and you almost lost your life because of it.”

So, the way that it affected me was really to accept the fact that there really are some things in life that you cannot overcome. You just can’t. And the fact that my sense of direction is not fantastic is not something that I can study out of or learn out of or train out of. It’s just something that is. To accept that there really are hurdles that you can’t get over. For all the years leading up to that, I had refused to believe that this was a part of me.

I was raised to believe that there really were no or very few hurdles in life, that if you really want something, that you can achieve that. I’m very, very grateful to have been taught that lesson young because I followed it, and I believed it. It has enabled me to live what I think is a fantastic and fun life that I’ve worked hard for. I lived my life as if there were very few barriers. And then, this was one that I had long known about and then not recognized or accepted as part of me. But getting lost that time really did remind me that there are things that you cannot overcome.

I think what’s most interesting to me about having gone through this long term is that it’s still with me. It’s not something that I consider a trauma in the sense that it’s something that was so horrific that you wake up in the middle of night thinking about it. It wasn’t that. It was something that I experienced that reminded me of mortality, of course, but also made me accept things about myself that I had really refused to until that point, despite many, many red flags before. The idea that there was something about me that I couldn’t fix in some way, I think it’s a kind of impatience with an imperfection that should be something that’s easy to solve. This acceptance was really quite profound.

After all of the story, a friend of mine who was an Army guy in Sweden, he actually took me out to a forest in Sweden and tried to teach me how to read a map because of what had happened to me. It was just a complete and total failure. It didn’t matter how many times he said to me, “It’s only three meters to the right,”

I was like, “I don’t know what you’re saying to me.” There is something ironic about understanding and accepting that I don’t have a fantastic sense of direction, and yet I’m somebody who has been traveling since I was 15 years old. I really identify as somebody who loves to explore and loves to do really fun, great things. And yet, here is something that is like a huge cinder block.

“Once I learned to accept what happened and that it is a part of me, I put that into real-life practice. That includes today and yesterday and tomorrow.”

This limitation was not something that I accepted easily. You know instinctively that you should not be doing this, and you do it anyway is just a remarkable part of human nature. It really takes this kind of drama to make you understand that hoping that something is going to go away doesn’t make it go away. You have to deal with it, and you have to accept it, and you have to act on it.

This experience did not slow me down. It just changed the way that I approached traveling and living. So, it didn’t stop me from swimming with eels in central Estonia. It didn’t stop me from motorcycling in Chile. I bicycled in Bulgaria and motorcycled through Europe, canoed in the South Pacific, and kayaked in the South China Sea. It certainly didn’t stop me from going back to the same place in Switzerland almost every summer to continue biking in the Alps. All kinds of adventures that I had had in my life, I had to now understand and accept that I can still have any kind of adventure that I want, but I always have to make sure that I’m safe.

So, in real practical terms, I, from that point forward, did not go out without telling anybody where I am, something that I continue today. Even if I’m going kayaking on a summer’s day, I will call somebody and say, “Listen, this is where I’m going to be.” I always have someone or two or three of the safety things that I should have had in the first place. Of course, I always have my cell phone with me. I even have a backup battery pack with me.

Once I learned to accept what happened and that it is a part of me, I put that into real-life practice. That includes today and yesterday and tomorrow. So, that was really lifelong. And really, what is most surprising to me is that it’s lasted all these years. It informs the decisions that I make even today. Today, I would have just turned left.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store