The sheriff’s dispatcher gave exact coordinates over the phone, out to seven digits I believe, so we knew exactly where the hiker was in relation to other planetary objects. But from where we stood at the trailhead looking vaguely in her direction, with the sheriff’s spotlights marking our position, all we could really see was the spotlights launched into heavy overcast with driving rain coming down on a cold, wet, landscape.
Since her phone was still working it was easy to ask whether she could see the spotlights, and help orient the physical search. She reported that her back was to the ocean and the spotlights were to her right, which meant she was off trail in the brush, somewhere to our right. With only her phone for a light she could not move although she could see lights in the distance, and at least one horizon; any direction she wanted to move in was closed off with brush she had no hope of working through.
I was there because I knew how we could traverse that landscape and actually get to the position. She had about ten percent life in her cell phone battery and had been in contact with the officers off and on as they drove down to meet me, so they knew she was not injured but was standing out in the storm dressed for a warm afternoon stroll. She probably spent a while in the dark before calling 911, because it was over an hour after dark before we were notified. The rain had begun as light showers just before dark and gradually intensified until by about 9 as we were starting the hike it was raining hard with gale-force winds out of the south.
Ordinarily, people do not venture off the trail between Whitehouse Creek and Gazos Creek, because the brush patches are either technically or literally impassable, even moreso at night.
Two years ago I located a lost hiker who had embedded himself in the brush like a bug in a wad of spiderwebs. The feeble light of his cell phone had provided just enough light for me to spot him from about 400 yards and work my way over some dunes and low brush, clearing a passage through the perimeter of taller brush for him to reach open ground.
He had apparently panicked as darkness became more complete, pushing harder and harder in the direction he wanted to go, which only made his position worse before he finally tried to make contact over a cell phone that worked only sporadically.
The hiker last night had made the same mistake: heading out the trail just before dark, venturing off trail, spotting the lights of the resort in the distance and assuming they were reachable by moving in a straight line, then moving in that straight line over the easily-crossed dunes as it got darker. In her case the rain developed from nothing to a raging storm in the first hour of darkness, before she called 911.
By the time she knew she was not just off-trail but stuck, she was in hip-deep grass and shrubbery cut with a meandering patchwork of deer trails that are nothing more than narrow alleys between walls of poison oak, willow, coffeeberry and heavy, matted grasses. Ahead of her was only a wall of head-high brush which she must have tried to break through, realizing after a struggle it was not passable.
We headed out the trail with the officers keeping phone contact with her as we swept the distance with flashlights and asked her to describe her location. She couldn’t really see anything and hadn’t been near the trail in several hours by that time so could provide only vague references. She used her cell phone light as a beacon which were able to spot about 200 yards in on the trail. She was out in no-man’s land several hundred yards out from the trail, with nothing but wet brush between us. At first we simply cut through the heavy grass on slanting deer trails, keeping her light ahead of us as we zigged and zagged. Off to our left where the trail cut through a hollow my flashlight picked up a set of shining green eyes following our uneven progress into the area people generally stay out of.
The work got heavier as the brush closed in around us. Every step was through something clinging or clutching. The rain continued heavy and the wind was at our backs. At first it felt like we would reach the light after a quick dash, but after about ten minutes it felt like we might never get there, as our flashlights swept over waist-high or higher brush in every direction, and her light was still visible, but seemed to be no closer.
One of the officers called her name, but nothing could be heard over the sounds of wind through heavy cover and surf close by on three sides.
It was always possible to find another deer trail cutting through in more or less the direction we wanted to move in, but the back-and-forth way deer move across a landscape is not designed to save time or energy.
About halfway over the grassy edge of the heavier brush a male northern harrier lifted suddenly out of waist-high grass, rose quickly into the gusts, and dove into the brush not far away. I followed him with my flashlight beam for the few seconds he was airborne, ghostly white and seemingly out of place, airborne in a gale. We disturbed him three or four more times until he managed to let the wind carry him out of our path.
By the time we made contact with the hiker, who was exhausted and soaked, none of us wanted to go back across the way we had just struggled. It would have been twice as exhausting to try and retrace the web of trails we had used to work through the heavy landscape. We could see the resort lit up out there in the southeast but between that and where we stood was a good half-mile of thoroughly impregnable brush. Deer worked their way though it by ducking down and using the passages meant for bobcats, coyotes, and mountain lion; human beings stayed out of it.
I showed them the way out by moving toward where I knew the trail would be, skirting the impassable brush I knew was in that direction and which was doubly-protected near the dunes by an invisible swamp which one of the officers found when he stepped into still waters which found a hole in his boot.
We were all pretty well soaked by that point but nobody wanted to go splashing through a swamp. I worked along the edge, as the ground became more and more sandy underfoot and the brush grew lighter. The first ridge I thought would be a dune was just taller brush, so we moved around that, finding better and easier pathways between the wilderness with each tack.
By the time we came to a real dune, brushy on the lee flank and clear on the windward, all I had to do was follow it to the left until we saw the trail below us.
From there it was a simple matter of walking home in the rain.