Let me tell you a story about what I saw in the forest that day. But first, I have to tell you why I was out there by myself, well away from the nearest hiking trail, mud-stained and perspiring, and playing a grown-up game of hide-and-seek.
It all began with Sydney and Melbourne. They came to us as waddling balls of black-and-tan fluff, floppy-eared, bright-eyed, and as cute as German shepherd puppies can be. They were the product of a dedicated breeder and my youngest child’s obsession. When she was very young, my daughter dreamt of racing a team of sled dogs across Alaska in the Iditarod. But, in time, she’d accepted that east-central Illinois was a poor training ground for even the most determined trail musher, and her dream slowly evolved. Shortly before Sydney and Melbourne entered our lives, she announced that she had decided to train search-and-rescue dogs, and then she headed for the library to learn all about German shepherds.
Training a search-and-rescue dog begins with simple games of hide-and-seek where the dog is always “it.” At our house, one of us would hold the puppy and count slowly to 100 while other family members scattered to hiding places throughout our big, old house. Sydney and Melbourne, in turn, would be prompted to “Seek!“ The puppies learned to search attic and basement and the two floors in between. They were taught to look under, behind, and on top of furniture; among tangled blankets and piles of laundry; and inside closets and cabinets. Whenever a puppy found someone, its reward was enthusiastic praise (which was all the motivation Melbourne needed) and a tossed tennis ball (which more than pleased the ball-obsessed Sydney). As Sydney and Melbourne got older, hide-and-seek moved outdoors, with friends and neighbors drafted into the game. Search areas expanded from the confinement of backyards to school playgrounds and city parks and then to friends’ barns and farm fields.
Then my daughter and I joined a search-and-rescue team and the real training—of dogs and humans—began. Hide-and-seek became more serious and helping to find a missing person was the payoff for hard work. Although some of our searches—practice and actual—were in town, our team focused on Illinois’ remote and forested areas, where people often got lost.
Air-scenting dogs are ideal for finding someone lost in the woods. Sydney and Melbourne would run yards ahead of us, locating and following traces of human scent carried on the air currents. Driven by the need to find someone who was “hiding” (even if they were, in fact, truly lost), the two dogs unhesitatingly crashed through thorny thickets, moved straight up steep ridges, forged across stream beds, and raced down embankments in all types of weather, enjoying the game and making an enthusiastic bee-line for the victim. As for the humans, it wasn’t very long before my fit, well-coordinated, and totally dedicated daughter became a very competent handler and I—older, slower, more averse to being sliced up by thorns, and more likely to trip over a tree root or fall into a stream—became the person most likely to be designated as “it.”
Some would have grumbled because there was more speed, excitement, and exhilaration in “seeking.” But I was content hiding. I had an excuse to wander off the trail, explore the forest, and poke around for a perfect spot to hide. When I found it, I had a wonderful, guilt-free excuse to sit quietly, enjoy the solitude, and just watch nature. On that particular day, I spent an hour hiking in a hilly, ravine-cut area where sunny fields and scrubby trees dappled the old-growth forest. I’d followed the marked trail briefly, then struck off along one deer path and then another. I slid down a muddy embankment, mostly on the seat of my pants, so that I could walk along the bank of a shallow stream for a little while. Then I crossed the stream by stepping from rock to rock and climbed up a crumbling embankment into a sunny meadow thick with wildflowers and overgrown with patches of wild roses and raspberries. It was there that I found my hiding place. After using my walkie-talkie to invite my daughter and Melbourne to come find me, I climbed up onto a thick, low-slung branch of an ancient cottonwood tree that grew halfway between the stream and the woods. I settled in with my back against the trunk, enjoyed a snack from the daypack I carried, and waited.
Beneath my perch, a herd of deer meandered by and spent a little while grazing before moving on. Otherwise, it was quiet except for the sounds of birds and the humming of insects. I reapplied my mosquito repellent, took a swig of water from my canteen and, tired from my hike and encouraged by a warm breeze, I closed my eyes and drifted.
I was awakened by a woman’s cry. Not my daughter’s voice, and no accompanying dog sounds. A hiker, I thought, though it was odd to encounter another person so far off the trail. And the cry sounded distressed.
From my vantage point, I searched all around me. Then I heard the cry again, and my eyes focused on its source. A few dozen yards from me, in the opposite direction from the stream I’d walked along, I saw a woman standing alone in the sunlight, among the flowers at the edge of the meadow. Behind her was a thick stand of trees and the beginning of a wooded ridge crisscrossed with the tumbled remains of fallen trees and overgrown by scrub and vines. The woman wore a short-sleeved cotton dress that was a very pale, perhaps faded, blue; it hung loose from her shoulders and ended just below her knees. Beneath the dress, her legs were bare, but the meadow grass hid her ankles and feet from my gaze. Unlike my hair, which was braided up tight and tucked under my ball cap to deter the forest’s inevitable ticks, her brown hair hung long and free, brushing the rise of her breasts.
I slid from my perch, took a few steps forward so that her view of me would be unobstructed, then lifted my arm and waved.
“Hey, there!” I shouted, “Are you okay?”
She didn’t answer. Instead, she turned on her heel and began walking into the deep shade beneath the trees.
I would have ignored her, would have assumed that she, too, was enjoying some solitary time in the woods and resented my interruption. But then she cried out again and, this time, I was convinced she was in some kind of trouble.
I followed her deeper into the forest, up along the damp, overgrown, shadowy ridge. I tried to catch up with her, to ask her if I could help her. And, although I wasn’t as fast or a fit as my daughter, I was fit enough to keep up with the dogs if I needed to. So catching up with the woman should not have been a problem. But, try as I might, I couldn’t close the distance between us, even though she never appeared to be hurrying. But she apparently didn’t want me to abandon my chase either, because each time I lost sight of her, she would cry out. And the sound became increasingly heartbreaking.
Then, behind me, I heard a dog barking. My daughter yelled my name and Melbourne came crashing through the undergrowth. He tagged my knee and flopped down at my feet. I leaned down briefly to pat his broad head, absentmindedly telling him what a clever boy he was. And, in that moment, I lost sight of the woman forever.
There was anger in my daughter’s voice when she reached my side, and I noticed that her face was grubby and there was a thin trail of dried blood along a scratch on her forehead.
“What the heck were you thinking? We’ve been looking for you for hours! You were supposed to be hiding in place, not wandering through the woods!”
I glanced at my watch and realized, with a start, that three hours had passed since I’d left my perch in the cottonwood tree. Somehow, I simply hadn’t noticed.
“I was following a woman,” I said, pointing to where I’d last glimpsed her. “I’m sure she needs help.”
My daughter, Melbourne, and I played hide-and-seek in the woods for an hour longer, trying to find her. But we found no one. And heard no more cries. We made a report that included her approximate location to the state conservation officers, but nothing ever came of it. No one lived in the area and no one of that description had been reported missing.
To this day, I still ask myself who—or what—she was. Had I stumbled across someone so shy or frightened that she’d hidden from us and, somehow, managed to evade even the acute senses of a very skilled search dog? Had I glimpsed some poor, sad spirit forever doomed to walk the same path, crying out for help but unable to accept it? Or had I, with luck inherited from Irish ancestors who chased Will-o’-the-Wisps through the bogs, guilelessly followed something not-quite-human deep into the woods and lived to tell the tale?