The Day I Went Missing

It was a cold, windy afternoon near Birch Branch in northeast Tennessee. I had been having consistent emotional breakdowns on this hiking trip with my school. This trip was my second, everyone else’s third. The worst breakdown was on the third day of the expedition.

We had been hiking out of our last camp for what had seemed to be a couple of hours. By this time, we were about seventy-five percent of the way to camp, the last stretch being uphill. I felt another breakdown coming. And it came hard. 

Breathing hard and crying, I froze on the trail. My whole body reacting to my emotion at the time, I was shaking. In my physical and mental condition, I could not continue.

One of the instructors on the trip with us noticed I was struggling, and helped lighten my load by giving some other students the heavier stuff from my pack: my personal food, my sleeping bag and little did I know that the coming six days without these things were going to be some of the toughest in my life.

My panic attack subsided within a couple minutes, but I noticed I was left alone. Alone in the woods, with nothing more than a tent, some small snacks, and some other miscellaneous things. I decided to start walking, I didn't really know where, but I was hoping I would end up out of the woods.

On the first day alone, I told myself I was going to walk until sunset, then set up camp. Now, if you have gathered anything about me at all from this story, you can probably guess that that didn't happen. The first hours on the ridge alone were difficult to say the least. Without a sleeping bag, I was worried my first trial was the cold. My pack felt like it weighed almost nothing, now that all the important stuff was gone. The wind made noises that sounded almost supernatural. The only things protecting me from the cold were my clothes, my tent, and a thin emergency blanket I found in my pack.

Now, let it be said that these things were not the proper amount of stuff that I should have had. But then again, I also should have had a group with me, along with a ton of other supplies so nothing was the way it should have been. The first night alone was one I spent in a confused and worried state. My brain went back and forth between I’m going to be okay and Oh no what is happening? Soon enough, I tired myself out at a very early hour, and decided to get some sleep.

* * * 

Days two through six are sort of a blur. Most of it was spent writing or sleeping. The only thing I purely remember about my time in the woods was moving my camp on day two. I remember heading downhill initially, but I can't recall much of my [mis]adventure in the woods. The one major thing I have managed to piece together is my rescue.

* * * 

I remember being in my tent, writing, and getting ready to nap. I napped almost everyday, mostly because I didn't have anything better to do. Right as I started to get ready for my nap, I heard my name, and whistles. My immediate reaction was to ignore it because I thought I had been hearing things. It didn't take long for me to hear it again and again, and very quickly, I realized that someone was actually calling my name.

“AVA!” I yelled back, now leaving my tent, and not really knowing why I was yelling my own name. I soon found the people that were calling my name coming towards me. Not long after spotting the two men who were calling my name, a golden retriever type dog ran toward me and started barking. From behind the dog, the two men approached me and the barking dog.

“Ava?” The shorter one asks.
“We are Search and Rescue. Do you need anything? Food? Water? First aid?”
“I could use some food. And I have some blisters.”

These exchanges went on for about ten minutes before we started packing up my campground and one of the men made some walkie-talkie calls. It didn't take long before an ATV showed up to take me and my pack out of the forest.

The ATV ride down and out of the forest was varying levels of surreal. For one, I was convinced I was going to die. Out there. Alone. Secondly, my brain hadn’t really wrapped the fact that I was going to be okay. I’m not really sure how long the ATV ride was, but I do remember seeing the red rescue truck on the road when we got there. It’s a weird thing to say now, but seeing that road after so long felt great.

The truck ride home was filled with questions from both sides. The man who drove the ATV told me that there were a lot of people at the fire station waiting for me. I was just wondering who. So many people (that I didn't know were there) greeted me with hugs and kisses and tears.

Now, I am so glad to be home. It took me a long time to write this. Remembering and bringing this all up has been hard. A lot of this story has been a blur, going slow and fast at the same time. I want to thank all of the people involved in the search for me. I didn't get to meet all of you, but the ones I did meet of you were wonderful people, and I appreciate everything you did to save me and help bring my family back together. I would also like to thank everyone sending love and prayers to my family and I when we needed it most.

Written By: Ava Zechiel

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xo McKenzie - My Darling Catastrophe

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