It's easy to judge all such events in hindsight as armchair warriors are wont to do. But there's not one of us here that has not ignored that bit of unease. Taken that risk. Yet we managed to come home safely through simply chance or excess airspeed, having reached that place where the locomotion of a disinterested world accelerates just before that terminal precipice, only to quietly turn away from the edge.
If we are lucky, we learn.
That is why I'm always always surprised when I go to the outdoor range during the winter months and it's totally deserted.
Perhaps it's just the way I look at things. Shooting as not just recreation, a sport to hone the skills of hand and mind, or to hunt, but as a survival tool.
There are always excuses as to why not train to proficiency. Money, time, family, weather. Some are valid, many are not. You don't have to necessarily practice with the heavy iron. I regularly shoot with a favorite little Ruger rimfire pistol to improve my skills, stance and sight picture. I could shoot a whole ammo can of .22 for the cost of two or three boxes of .good quality 45.
I love the Ruger .22. It's easy to load and use. After I'd fired a few boxes through it, it didn't misfeed. I can shoot it all day for the cost of an hour with something else. Yet it's often overlooked in the great mall ninja discussions of 9 mm, .40 and .45 loads, relegated to the kiddie table in the kitchen at gatherings of gunnies. Don't think that way.
Is it what I carry for self defense. No. But .22 is more than a way to gently introduce someone to shooting, and it's a great way to keep your own defense skills honed when, due to ammo cost or availability, you might otherwise let them slide. Think .22 rimfire will be too easy? Try setting out some targets at 30-50 yards with a crosswind, and your hands freezing cold (no gloves). See how well you do. See how much you learn about ballistics and windage. Not everyone who wants to harm you you is going to stand still, 15 feet away wearing a T shirt with a circle on it, waiting until your warm hand can pull the trigger.
Certainly you want to be familiar with the operation and controls of any firearm you carry for self defense but it's not necessarily about the weapon, it's about YOU, and how you react to threat. It's what you can do, and how fast you can do it, when danger stirs, not yet more than a whisper in the air, a rumor, like thunder in a late afternoon, striking before you expect it.
One of my favorite books is called Deep Survival by author Laurence Gonzales, which is a scientific look at the human factors of survival. Why does someone with just a certain mindset walk out of a situation, where someone else, better equipped and more physical fit, sits down to wait, and dies. I read through it like I'd been waiting for it for years, and it explained much of what I've seen in my life and work. It tells stories anyone would understand and I've given copies of it to friends and family. It not only educated me, but it confirmed the way I looked at the world.
I grew up in the mountains, learning early on that the wilderness is ill suited for the unprepared. Especially at the higher altitudes. At noon you may see just a few white puffs of cloud, smoke signals to those down below that says, come on up and visit. But they hide in that sweet invite to the unwary, unprovoked bursts of violence. For afternoon storms can suddenly build and sweep, fierce air masses that rise and fall in thundering downdrafts, winds forming into sinews of air, thunderstorms looming in shadow, like the spires of an old hall of Justice. You don't' want to be out in the open when one of those hits.
Moving at night is even more treacherous. Even though the moon may light your path, there in the vast darkness fly great birds in the forms of evening storms and winds that deceive. Night predators looking for the small, the weak, ebony wings beating the air, their cry a clap of thunder as they sought their prey, the careless. One misstep as the wind causes you to close your eyes for just a moment, and you may be sent home on a stretcher, or in a box.
Yet the wilderness will always continue its siren call for those that have learned that in traversing its peaks you will pass beyond the borders of the real world into a realm so quietly elemental that it seems otherworldly. There is nothing quite like setting up a small base camp in the mountains, sitting in the dark with a mug of tea while points of lightning struck in the distance, cleaving the atmosphere, separating water and air, pointing out this life of separateness I lead. A journey of shadow and dew, of dreams of light that sparks more than the night, but something within us. It beckons to both the experienced and the naive, as we head outdoors and up, abandoning the drudgery of the cities, repudiating civilizations reaching fingers, as we ascend into a lovers smile of radiant light, flirting with nature.
It's hard to resist. The nights quiet freedom around a campfire, the day's flaws hidden in the ebony of velvet night. Waking up to a new day of exploration. The high mountain air was a substance whose ethereal beauty so entranced me that on those long hikes alone, I had to remind myself to check my bearings and the time, as I knew that getting lost out there might be deadly.
For when your soul is entranced it is easy to go down a path you otherwise would not have, sometimes with consequences you never foresee. It doesn't have to be the woods or the desert, it can be a job, it can be the desire for a possession, it can be a relationship, those directions we take with the best of intentions that lead to a path overgrown with dark roots, sunk deep, that grab at your ankles as you try and decide which way to go to save yourself, with nothing to guide you but the unrelenting earth, discomposing and harsh.
It can happen to the most experienced of people. The trail disappears, the sky goes dark with a sudden turn in the weather, clouding familiar landmarks. You set out with the best of intentions when the small frayed tether between you and civilization is broken. Even in familiar territory, it can happen. The Boy Scouts say "be prepared" for a reason. If you can't take some minor preparations to provide for and protect yourself if something unexpected happens, you need to stay home. Being "lost" may not kill you, but being without shelter, food, and needed medical attention will.
Prepare for change, especially the weather. The weather now may not be the weather in 8 hours. Look at the forecast. In the wilderness, trust the weather forecast in the summer like you would a politician. Trust the weather forecast in the winter like that "looking for the love of my life" guy on Match.com with the wedding ring, hook for a right hand and eye patch.
Wear clothing in layers, peel them off as the temperature dictates, but you'll have them if you need them. The wild notwithstanding, don't travel with a light or no jacket in the winter just because you're going from your sheltered parking garage to directly into your garage at home. A few years back a few motorists in Colorado died for that very reason.
Carry a compass, they're small and take little space. Always have matches and a lighter. Keep them dry. I took a course in survival where we were given a scenario that we'd been in a helicopter crash (bad weather, mountains) and had only a dozen items available from the crash scene. We had to rank them in order of their use. The match/lighter was my first pick. If you get hypothermia, the map, aspirin, Spam and string won't help, but they'll have their uses.
Shelter, warmth, water. You can get by for a surprisingly long time with just those. Always bring more water than you think you will drink and drink what you need to stay hydrated. Refill the bottle(s) if able. Don't consume snow, it takes away body heat and may cause internal cold injuries. Take a small metal cup or tin to melt snow for drinking by your fire. When ice is available, melt it before snow. A cup of ice yields more water than a cup of snow.
Keep to a trail. Without tools or experience, straying from a trail far away from civilization is about as smart as getting the Quiki Mart sushi. Just as you can drown in an inch of water, the novice can get lost in only 5 minutes of off trail "exploration" when they suddenly find mother nature is not as cuddly as they expected
If you don't want to post your schedule at a ranger station, tell a neighbor, family or a friend where you are going and when you will be back. A simple phone call you can keep a short outing from being permanent.
Carry a whistle, the sound will carry if someone is looking for you. But remember, it won't work on a rapist in the woods any better than it will work on one in a deserted parking lot at 2 a.m. Pack a small flashlight or take a headlamp and always extra bulbs/batteries for light or a signal. A knife is a must, no matter how short of a trip, even a small one or Swiss Army style.
If signaling for help, select a site close to your shelter such as a clearing, shoreline or hilltop, where visibility is good. A search will probably start from your last known location and sweep over your proposed route. During the day, you could also use a signal mirror, your belt buckle, any shiny device can work. If you are using a fire to signal, and not just for warmth, build three fires in a triangle or in a straight line about 100 feet apart. Three fires is a recognized distress signal. Stay put if you know others will be aware you are missing and in what general area. Have a bright piece of clothing to wear or use as a signal, bright colors show up well against the snow.
As for shelter, you'd be surprised what you can do with just a poncho and a few bungee cords. Lacking that, there is a whole forest full of building material provided you start before dark. Sticks, logs, stones, leaves and even moss. Build against another object, like a felled tree, rock face, etc., creating a sturdy base with movable stones or logs. Insulate all but one peephole with moss, leaves, mud or snow to retain and hold in the heat from your own body.
If dark is fast approaching, look for natural shelters, such as the large spreading roots of a tree, the hollow on the leeward side of a log or fallen boughs that are sturdy or can be lashed together to reinforce them. Branches can form a lean-to or extra cover, leaves on top can help shed rain. If you have no time for even this, seek shelter in a ditch or behind something, out of the wind. bedding down on dry materials to keep the ground from sapping your heat (aren't you glad you brought your coat and hat? )
Few people think about survival, beyond having money for cable. They don't think about a peek at the updated weather when they're only driving 40 miles. They don't think "I should have gone to the range more" until they hear the crack of wood as the front door of their home is broken down. Look at the victims of violence who, by force or choice, remained defenseless, or stand on the side of the mountain and gaze at a young couple dead, not from the accident, which was survivable, but from simply not having warm clothing or survival gear because it was just a day trip. Both scenes will equally haunt your sleep.
I don't spend my day in fear's blind crush, that breath-stealing conviction that things are always going to be worse. But I am prepared for the transgressions against my safety for which the only penance may be the discharge of lead. For I'm well aware that on any given day, there is no guarantee that when we breathe out we're going to breathe back in again.
I like to lay the odds in my favor, which is why, in addition to knowing basic outdoor survival, I know the basics of survival in small country town or big city.
I carry a firearm. I also carry the mindset that I can use it, and I will use it, without hesitation or fear, if necessary to protect my life.
Mindset is everything. Anxiousness can be replaced by calm, and even when a challenging situation occurs, often fluid as nature, there's usually a way around it, if you keep your head. If you can keep calm, you have more options, ones that can keep you safe and renew your faith. Not a blind faith that all will be well, that feeling has been the death of more than one intrepid weekend warrior, but the faith that gives us the courage to venture onward, to fight back. You will have the blessed understanding that although nothing is fixed, as long as you are breathing and have a few basic tools that you know how to use, you can survive more than you know.
Whether I am in the woods or walking alone across a dark parking lot, my gun is beside me, tangible and honest and real. Like all the tools I use, if I care for it and treat it right, it will not fail me; it's an affirmation of trust in a web of iron and wood. The slap of my gun against my hip as I stride deeper away into the trees or across fields of pavement is a constant, like the sound of a beating heart to a baby, comfort in the dark.
Some say we are safe in our nation's parks, just as they say we should be safe in small town America. Despite the country setting, and red white and blue speckled mailboxes, there is no truly safe place anymore, especially for a woman. Though there are certainly more crimes where more people live or where the the law-abiding are disarmed, the heart of evil roams equally at will through asphalt and country roads. Predators are among us, watching from a line at the corner market, waiting in the darkness of a rural parking lot or that untraveled, unbeaten path. Waiting for that sign, that manner, that tells them that you are un-toothed and un-fanged, a soft and vulnerable target.
When the day is done, I stop and set up camp for the night; with darkness coming down, I know it's not safe to continue. I might be in a tent in the wilderness. I might be alone in a small home, readying a fire to keep me warm. I ready my safety, and set my fire, looking down at the cord of muscle in my hands, strong yet delicate, holding the match, precious source of warmth, buried deep in my jacket. That one inch piece of sulfur tipped wood will last longer than memory or grief, its flame, so tiny, one bright flash in the darkness, is fiercer than bravery or regret. I have my tools. I have courage and will. I have found my own means of deep survival. It is within me, where it was all along.