“First responder” has become ubiquitous in our daily and political lexicon — an overarching term for police officers, firefighters, medical personnel and others who respond to every crisis, great or small. For me, it took on a more immediate, personal meaning in a California ravine last week.
Being rescued is hard to explain and, for some of us, even harder to accept. My preferred explanation back in D.C. has been that I went into the desert to find my spirit guide, only to discover it was Lanny Davis — and that was when I stroked out.
The fact, however, is that I found myself in the ultimate no-spin zone: caught in the heat emergency paralyzing Southern California with raging temperatures and brush fires. It was my turn to be “that guy” on the trail, overwhelmed by elements he failed to fully anticipate.
I’ve spent a lifetime hiking and backpacking in remote areas, from Brazil’s Amazonian forests to Alaska’s tundra, including desert hikes. So, when asked to speak to the Ninth Circuit conference in Anaheim, Calif., I jumped at the opportunity to hike in the Santa Ana area — a mix of mountain and desert conditions. I settled on a roughly 10-mile trek in Cleveland National Forest.
I took all of the steps I’d learned the hard way over decades of hiking, from giving my wife my trail plan to being above the recommended water and supplies. Indeed, I’ve done much higher elevations and longer distances. And everything seemed fine as I reached the summit right on time, although clearly it was hotter than expected. Then, as I headed back down, with five miles ahead of me, I discovered my camel backpack was out of water because its seal hadn’t fully locked.
The temperature quickly soared beyond 100 degrees and, with virtually no shade to be found in the rough terrain, my heart rate soared too. After a couple of hours, I began to experience telltale signs of heat exhaustion. I phoned my wife and told her I was out of water but pushing ahead. I started to break up the hike by stopping under occasional shade, but my increments became smaller and smaller. Pretty soon it was difficult to simply get up to stagger 20 or 30 feet. I tried to call the ranger station but they were closed on weekends; I then called Orange County to see if any officer was nearby with water.
About the same time, my wife phoned 911 after I failed to check in with her as planned.
Before long, I was speaking to an incredibly helpful Orange County sheriff’s deputy named Rod, who was on the trail trying to find me with some water. We couldn’t locate each other and, in an effort to get to higher ground, I tumbled into a steep ravine.
That’s when I spotted the helicopter — one of those humiliating moments when you think things can’t get much worse and then they do. After I moved to open ground, the helicopter spotted me, and Reserve Deputy Jim Slikker, of Orange County Sheriff’s search-and-rescue team, descended from it.
He quickly worked his way through the thick brush, found me and concluded that I was severely dehydrated as the helicopter with Deputy Jason McLennan hovered above.
These are the guys you always wanted to be growing up: tough, professional, patient, empathetic. I kept on apologizing to Jim, like an idiot, as he patiently tried to get my vitals. Soon, he was hooking me to a harness for a short haul skyward; I would dangle from the helicopter for the hop to the nearby trailhead. As luck would have it, when we started to ascend, a wind gust slammed me into the rock face of the ravine, which I really felt I deserved.
As we approached the trailhead, I was amazed to see that some huge accident must have occurred, with multiple fire trucks and police cruisers. Then it hit me: They were there for me. Whatever ego was not left in the ravine then fell 200 feet. We landed near my car, and Orange County paramedics Michael Ray and Byron Alexander checked me out. I declined to go to the hospital in favor of going to a store near the trailhead for a couple hours of hydration in air conditioning.
In the end, it was not embarrassment but gratitude that I felt most. The Orange County Sheriff deputies, firefighters and paramedics are the ultimate professionals who come, no matter where or who you are. I’m not sure if I could have made the last leg to the trailhead, but I would not want to have bet my life on it. More importantly, those Orange County personnel weren’t willing to take that bet. They rescued me.
I cannot tell you how hard it is to say those words: They rescued me. I’ve spent my life enjoying solitude and self-sufficiency in the wild. But what I found is that you are a lot lighter for an airlift when you leave your ego back in a ravine.
I always say that every trek leaves you with something unique — an image, a smell, that indelibly links you to a place. This trip will remain memorable in a very different sense: Rather than the impressive chaparral yucca or beautiful orange bush monkeyflowers on the trail, I have an image seared into my brain of a stranger literally appearing out of thin air to help me in a sun-scorched ravine during a heat wave.
That was no abstraction. That was my first responder — one of those people who are prepared to be there, every day, when needed.