What It's Like To Lose Your Son In The Wilderness—And Everywhere Else

by Jeff Vrabel
Originally Published: 

I mean, we didn’t lose him lose him, in the sense that he was gone for days, or even hours. It was maybe 40 minutes, tops, although it’s hard to tell because time stands still when you’re tromping through riverbeds and into small valleys and over fallen logs muttering a near-constant torrent of curse words. There were four of us: me, my wife, our effervescent and adventurous 11-year-old and his much wobblier, less calibrated 3-year-old brother. If you’ve ever gone hiking, or walked on a beach, or in a parking lot, or in your house, you know it’s not easy to keep a party of children together, especially one of varying ages. So we came to a spot that required some climbing, and the 11-year-old went first, leaving the three of us behind. And apparently this is where there was some miscommunication: Where we said, “Wait for us at the top,” he heard, “Please wander off alone into the forest, and if you could take the bag with the water bottles, that’d be great.”

He’s been lost before. He gets lost a lot, come to think of it. He’s something of a wanderer, in the sense that he’s often unsure where he is because his head is a lightning storm of imagination, characters and stories, very few of which are remotely connected to the room he’s in.

Me: “Hey, do you want some Lucky Charms?”

11-Year-Old: [five-second pause] “What kind of Wings of Fire dragon do you think has the strongest armor? The MudWing or the IceWing?”

Me: [five-second pause] “So, Frosted Flakes then?”

I’ve had to seek him out in Target, where he’ll amble off because a T-shirt catches his eye. Or at a ballpark, where he’ll think, I smell hot dogs, and wander 500 yards in the direction of a food cart. We used to take bike rides on the beach, and he’d pedal ahead and ahead and ahead until he was little more than a speck in front of the sunset; we’d place little bets on when we’d see that speck stop and turn around, having just realized that his parents were a couple of football fields behind him. One night, when he was about 4, he awoke, got out of bed, opened his bedroom door, walked down a flight of stairs, went to the back door, opened it, and wandered out into the Carolina midnight for a good 15 or 20 minutes before the cops found him. He’s a traveler is what I’m saying, although now that I’m typing this out I’m getting nervous. Is this normal? Seriously, at this point when the nice people at the children’s museum bring my 3-year-old back, it’s less “Thanks for returning my beautiful boy!” and more “Thanks, Edna, how’s the sciatica?”

Anyway, lest I begin to sound like someone who’s less “trying to be funny” and more “coming off as severely negligent,” I can report that once lost my son kept his wits about him. I think? He headed toward the park’s bridge entrance and ranger station. He asked for directions from people he found trustworthy, he said, “because they had a 6-year-old with them.” He hung his food up so the bears wouldn’t get it. Okay, I made that part up.

But for all the attention issues, I was reasonably confident that he could find his way back to the bridge entrance to the park, unless, of course, he’d fallen into a gulch or been carried off by a bear, which was unlikely because my son is super-skinny and would barely qualify as a candy bar. Kids are weird and have different approaches to the real world. I’m pretty sure that, given the chances, we could drop him in the middle of the Atlanta airport and he could probably get back to his house in Indiana in a matter of hours with an extra Cinnabon for us. Ask him to come downstairs with his Little League uniform facing the right way, though, and you’ve got maybe a 50-50 chance of backward-facing baseball pants. Point him to a map of the New York City subway and ask him how to get from A to B, and he’ll figure it out while I find some way to ask my phone.

I foster that independence, I treasure it. I default to it, largely because it’s not something my parents taught my brother and me. When we were growing up, the world was often presented as a place that offered new and inventive ways to murder you every day—tornado warnings, or turning left through two lanes of traffic, or swimming less than an hour after eating, or eating bananas (long story). So to overcompensate, I go the other way. Not, you know, “It’s Okay If You Walk a Mile Ahead on This Twisting Wilderness Trail” overcompensate, but some reasonable compromise. If I’d have gotten lost in a state park at 11, I’d have frozen cold in a spot until someone got me—some rangers, or Yogi, or whoever. I asked my son how he knew which way to go. “I memorized the map,” he said, matter-of-factly, while I fumbled for a map on my phone, cursing it for having the audacity to lack a signal in the thick of an Indiana forest.

Such is the case and the lesson with kids, and it is a lesson I am terrible at learning because it’s terrible to learn. “Relax,” said the map of the state park while I was semi-furiously scanning the trails to figure out which ways he could have gone and where I could head him off. “Be easy,” sighed the trees and the wind, although they probably weren’t doing that because trees don’t talk—I was probably hallucinating that. “Hey jerk, watch where you’re going,” said the nice family I splashed with mud water while I tried to slip by them while crossing a river—sorry about that, guys. He was fine. He wasn’t lost for long. He knew he was in trouble. “Can you stay close?” he asked my wife, as she found him first. “I’m pretty sure Dad’s gonna lose his mind.” I didn’t. I gave him an Important Speech. Took Minecraft away for a good long while. Posted a funny little joke about it. Went back to life. Felt a little better about how he’ll fare when we’re not around to catch up to him.

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