Finding Nemo: The lure of being lost

Kalie Swails

It is easy to understand why the Lakota consider the Black Hills sacred.

It’s in the granite outcroppings, modest to monolithic, which so embody the island of mountains in a sea of prairie.

It’s in the Ponderosa pines, some the United States Forest Service reports as ancient as 700 years, which dominate the landscape in one of the purest stands in the world.

It’s in the mineral called Mica which glitters in the rock face and flakes into the soil, bringing to mind the shimmering of fish scales.

Lakota holy man Black Elk nailed it when he reached the top of Harney Peak and the horizon looked so infinite that he likened it to seeing the “whole hoop of the world” beneath him.

Different strokes for different folks, but go for a hike in the Black Hills and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Take heart, though. Sacrality demands reverence is always ready to put you in your place. People underestimate how challenging and physically demanding the wilderness is. We overestimate our own ability. It seems that unless we stand daily on the shore of the ocean or the rim of the Grand Canyon that we forget how small we are.

It was Fourth of July weekend and the boyfriend and I were camping in Boxelder Forks Campground outside the small town of Nemo, S.D. Boxelder Forks is my kind of place. Campsites are limited, generously spaced and fairly primitive despite the luxury of a rustic restroom facility—no flushing required—for those of us ladies who love to be in the woods, but do not love to pee in the woods.

Boxelder Forks is as quiet as it is picturesque. The campground is shaded by mature pines and surrounded by Black Hills National Forest. Boxelder Creek rushes adjacent to the campground, brown and rainbow trout hiding in its rippling waters.

We woke up early. I boiled water for oatmeal on our tiny camp stove while my boyfriend set about loading lunch, bug spray and first aid gear into our pack. The day before, we spotted the trailhead for a path on the opposite side of the creek that riders on horseback had been enjoying throughout the weekend. After spending the previous morning trying to enjoy the enormously over-run shores of Sylvan Lake, we had yet to hike and were eager for some secluded foot-travel.

We set off into the wilderness. As we wandered down the trail, we talked about Black Elk and mountain majesty and the great misfortune of those who, voluntarily or otherwise, do not enjoy enough of the great outdoors.

As we hiked, we noticed the trail continually curved west. As if we had been tracking animals in the bush all our lives, we decided the path must be a loop, as horse trails commonly are. Emboldened by our imaginary navigation skills, we hiked enthusiastically, climbing steep hills, wading across creeks, traversing grassy hollows.

After some time, I began expecting to see the town of Nemo from the peak of every hill we climbed. A nagging uncertainty crept in the back of my mind, but as the trail spilled onto a remote gravel road we were sure we had driven on the day before, I swatted at my doubt like a cloud of mosquitoes. I have always been a worrier; I needed to loosen up.

As miles passed with no trace of Nemo, I felt the proverbial bad feeling sinking like a stone in my stomach. After an hour, I was legitimately concerned. After two, I felt the single deadliest emotion a hiker can feel: panic.

We were out of water. We had no idea where we were. We were lost.

My sense of calm confidence replaced itself with despair. Our dehydration increased minute by minute. I went through a mental checklist of the food we had left in the pack: some granola, a pack of fruit snacks and a pouch of tuna. The temperature had dropped below 40 degrees the night before. We were in shorts and T-shirts; what if we had to spend the night out there?

I thought of the map they would show on our episode of the Discovery Channel’s “I Shouldn’t Be Alive”. I could imagine the line tracing our trail, illustrating the deadly misconception that we were heading toward civilization when in fact we were descending deeper into the wild. I pictured rescue teams searching for our bodies. I envisioned our names and photos in the local paper.

No longer did the Black Hills seem charming and inviting. Instead, the landscape around me became treacherous, overwhelming, enormous. I felt as if I had been swallowed.

As words like hypothermia and starvation rang in my ears, we spotted a sign in the distance. It felt like a miracle, like a lighthouse in the pines.

“Nemo – 5 miles.”

I felt overjoyed. The trek back to Nemo and the two miles from town to camp would almost triple the distance we intended to hike that day, but our exhaustion gave way to elation regardless.

Seven very long, thirsty miles later, we arrived back at Boxelder Forks. We drank water from the hand-pump well like maniacs. We laid in the chilly creek as if it were a thermal spring. I was so happy to see our tent I could have cried.

As unnerving as the situation was, I am deeply appreciative for the some 14 miles I spent lost in the Black Hills. We live in a world determined to overpower nature rather than obey it. It is therefore a very humbling experience to be dominated by that which we try so hard to dominate.

I encourage everyone to get lost in the woods. Take lots of water. Bring a map and a compass and one of those blankets that folds to the size of a deck of cards. Do it in June, not January. And for the love of God, don’t do it while filming a documentary about a local child-snatching witch (we all know how that movie ends).

I don’t promote seeking an experience that will require bloodhounds and a helicopter, but I fully support anyone willing to step off the trail for a moment and savor the magnitude of the natural world. Learn about yourself and those you go with. Reawaken what your smartphone, iPad and TomTom try to tame.

Go forth. Get lost.

Editor’s note: Kalie Swails is a wildlife and fisheries major and a native of Tennessee. Contact her at [email protected]