It was the summer of 1984, and we had decided to take the newly acquired (used) Nimrod camper out. If you're unfamiliar, it's pretty much a pop-up tent that folds flat into a wee trailer, so that you can tow it behind your car. Our destination was at the Southern tip of Illinois - the Shawnee National forest, to be more exact the area called the Garden of the Gods, in Herod.
It's a spectacular place, and very rustic, as in there are no 'hook ups' for water or power. They did have restrooms of sorts, scattered about the various camping locations. A low cement building whose interior reminded me of an outhouse, I learned later these are called 'vault toilets'. I've heard that in some areas they have cabins you can rent, but the forest is so huge we neither saw them, or even evidence of other people when we pulled into the area we had been assigned to, almost at the rim of a very deep valley.
My son, Josh, was only 2 1/2 at the time and insisted he wanted to help Daddy set up the camper, while I gathered firewood, and set up the rest of our site. (Say it with me - oooh, lawn chairs!)
I wasn't gone long. Firewood in a forest is easy to find, my husband was still setting up the camper. Well fidgeting with getting the door in right. "Where's Josh?" I immediately asked not seeing him in plain sight.
My then husband, half turning said, "He's right -" and froze looking at empty space. We both started calling his name and searching the area.
He was gone. No where to be seen, and I strained my ears for any muffled cry or anything.
I studied the ground for hints of his trail, clues to which direction he may have wondered off in. My now ex, thought I was crazy, kneeling down in the spot he'd last seen my boy and slowly turning in a circle. But, I was making myself Josh-sized, and trying to see things as he had. Straining my eyes for bent grass, a partial print, any thing to say 'this way'. Inwardly, I was both praying, and summoning up every scrap of knowledge I had ever learned about tracking, while in my head I heard the words of the old man at the registration cabin saying, "Watch out for bears and coyotes. There's some snakes too," on repeat. Josh was only a baby - he'd think they'd behave like his cartoon characters and be friendly... I felt his dad's hand on my shoulder and I hissed, "You go back to the registration area. You go back and tell them, our boy's lost. They'll get us help. I'll keep looking." He opened his mouth, to protest I think, then turned to get in the pickup truck. He knew, city boy that he was, this was more my world then his, and I stood a better chance.
Still kneeling, I forced myself to breath deep, to find that inner core of strength, and open myself. I found myself getting up and wandering to the opposite side of the camper and staring down into the valley, where large boulders jutted up out of the ground, and trunks of trees towered up. Some mere saplings, others the size of a dinning room table in diameter. Below me, eagles circled and soared. The glory of this beauty nearly lost to me as I scanned for a small figure. From my peripheral vision on my left I saw something move on the ridge. I spun in that direction and saw nothing for a moment. I dropped to my knee - there! In the distance in the shadows of the trees, a dark child size shadow ran. "Josh!" I called, it paused looking at me, I think, then ran behind a larger tree, lost from view. I was up in a flash running towards where I had seen him.
Logically, at some depth of my mind, I knew though toddlers can move like greased lightening, this was not my boy I was chasing down. This dark shadow was always a head of me, just far enough I'd see him but not details, but it obviously wanted to be seen, and followed. I heard a man's voice,"Leave a trail. Won't do any good to get lost yourself." I responded by purposely breaking twigs, and snapping long stemmed flowers as I passed. A blind tracker could follow me. I talked to the air,"Help me find my boy!" Tears were threatening to flow, but now was not the time. Again, just ahead and to the right, I saw the shadow boy, and again I was running. The voice would yell, "trail marker!" and I'd snap something on the fly. I was not quietly stalking, heck I was no longer even tracking. I forced myself to stop panic searching. I forced myself to stop, right where I was, and become still. Not just outer still, but inwardly. Panicking like this was not the answer. Blindly chasing shadows, was not the answer. This was not the way to find my boy.
I closed my eyes and focused. Imagery slowly emerged,, from behind my closed eyes. I saw a kind of tunnel with my child inside. I frowned. That made no sense.
Something whacked me in the shoulder, not hard but enough to make me jerk my head, with my eyes flying open in that direction. Perhaps two yards away, closer than ever before was that dark child. A bit more than shadow, but still very vague, as in I couldn't make out details such as clothing or facial features. Older than two, but quite young. This time instead of darting off, he waved me to come. I snapped another twig and followed, because I felt I should. He stayed just a bit ahead, and from time to time his form would twist, as if looking back to be sure I followed.
I lost him somewhere, or perhaps he just vanished. I sat down on a large fallen log and looked back the way I'd came. "Oh, Baby, where are you?" My voice a coarse whisper from all the calling I'd been doing. To the forest spirits I cried, "What the hell was the point of this? I don't understand!" My voice broke, and lowering my head, I began to cry, out of fear for my boy and frustration. I felt a small hand on my thigh and heard,"Why cry?" Turning my head, I saw my son, miraculously standing there! I snatched him into my arms before he could evaporate, for I was sorely afraid he was just a trick of my mind. But he was real! He was my boy! How I laughed to hear him say, "You squooshing me!"
"Where you been, Pumpkin? I've looked everywhere for you."
"There," he pointed at the log. I was baffled.
"I didn't see you?"
He giggled, "Inside. My friend woke me up. He says you here."
"Inside where? Can you show me?" He gives me that look that only small children give well, it asks if you're an idiot because to them it's so obvious. Taking me by the end, he led me to the end of the log I'd been sitting on, and pointed. Squatting down, I see it's hollow inside, and I recall my vision of a 'tunnel'. "I playing wit' my friend and got tired. He said safe there."
I nod,"Yes safer there than in the open." In my head I added "Where bears or coyotes could get you easier." Out loud, I say, "We should get back to Daddy. He's looking for you too. Why'd you go off like that?"
We followed my 'blind man's" trail back with my son telling me his adventure. From what I gathered, he'd gotten bored helping Daddy, because he wasn't allowed to do anything, and he got tired of digging in the dirt. So he started looking around. When he was on the other side of the camper looking down at the birds and stuff, this boy came up and told him it wasn't safe to play there, and led him over to the trees. The boy's name was Chaska. After awhile Josh became very tired, and he and his friend curled up in the log for a nap. Then I was there.
Of course no one else believed his story, they thought it was all imagination, with the exception of the old man for the reception area. He looked at me, the sage way, some old country folks have, and said, "Chaska, Sioux for first born son." Of course, I never told my side of the story. Let them think I'm a star tracker.