Finding Home

Prologue — May 2010

If you don’t leave your pack, you are going to die, said a voice in Rae’s head. Snow swirled around Rae and her dog, Blossom, obscuring visibility beyond fifty feet. They had been hiking through three feet of fresh powder and packed snow in the high Sierras for more than ten hours. The pack on Rae’s slender frame weighed 65 lbs, more than half her body weight. Every twenty or thirty steps, her snowshoes caught on a downed tree or sank into a rock well, sending her off balance and throwing her to her knees, her side, or her face. Her shins were bruised. Her down jacket was soaked through. She hadn’t felt her feet for hours. Slowly, she pulled herself up, dug her hiking sticks into the snow for balance, and then climbed up, one foot at a time, wasting precious energy.

The last time she had any water was eight hours ago. Her urine was already a dark brown. Boiling water crossed her mind, but each time she rested for more than a moment, she began shivering uncontrollably. Hypothermia was close to setting in. Icy cold water would do more damage than good. She needed to move and she needed to move fast, but which direction?
Blossom repeatedly returned to the river. The dog was worn down from breaking trail in snow up to her belly. They had to leave the river and cross a ridge to get to the road that would lead them back to Rae’s car. If they crossed too early, they would end up bushwhacking down a ravine, adding hours to the journey. Rae had dropped her tent behind a log near the riverbank hours ago. The leak was the impetus for attempting to hike out during the snowstorm. Most of their gear got soaked the night before, including Blossom’s dog bed, which caused her dog to wake up shivering.

They were surrounded by black stalks of what were once trees. A fire a few years back had devastated the area.  They had no shelter, no way to get warm or to start a fire in the snow. Night was setting in. Rae called Blossom away from the river, climbing upward, toward a high ridge. She stumbled, falling on an icy slope. Blossom leaped on top of her, snapping her teeth in Rae’s face—an attempt to claim the alpha role. Of wolf descent, Blossom had grown wilder than Rae over the past two weeks, but there could be only one alpha. Rae flipped the dog onto her back and put a hand to Blossom’s throat. No.

They needed to rest, to eat, to drink. Blossom had had breakfast and a bowl of food on the trail, but that was nowhere near enough calories for the energy she burned. Restless and scared, they continued. The river below gained strength the further south they moved, crashing against rocks and boulders, carving out canyons with steep, ice-covered walls that couldn’t be passed. Rae paused to take in the rocky crags, the monochrome blend of black, gray and white, of rock, river and sky. If I die, at least it will be here.

To get out alive, everything needed to be left behind: food, sleeping bag, extra clothes. Everything. Rae didn’t have the strength to carry any extra weight. All she took with her was her SPOT personal locator beacon. She had received a confirmation message for the last four messages she broadcast, but had no way of knowing the device hadn’t actually sent them. Fog wrapped tightly around Rae and Blossom. Rae cursed, overwhelmed. She moved at a crawl, too exhausted to push on any faster. They should be fine, as long as they didn’t circle back, as long as it didn’t get dark. Then, getting lost would be easy.

The sun dropped behind a ridge. Time slipped away. As evening turned the clouds from gray to deep blue, Rae put one foot in front of the other, stumbling, every hundred feet or so, into empty holes under downed trees. Everything that might have indicated where they were was buried under the snow from one of the Sierra’s record snowfalls. The once-familiar landscape disappeared as the winds picked up, pulling at Rae’s hair, pushing her back. Snow swirled, cloaked, continued, still falling after three days. Rocks and trees offered no bearings. An unfamiliar landscape. One foot in front of the other. Rae fell again. Snow equaled comfort, a place to sleep … a coffin. Give up. Eyes heavy. Body exhausted. Sleep creeping closer.

Wanting to cry, she found herself laughing—laughing until tears streamed down her face, because she had come out here, to the wilderness, to the granite, to live. She hadn’t come home to die.