Every parent has experienced it. That moment in the grocery store or the park where you turn around for just a second, and when you turn back, you can’t find your child. You heart stops and then lurches into a sprint. Your stomach turns. You become frantic in an instant.
Where is your child?
More times than not, your little rascal has just wandered off to the slide or is hiding underneath the clothing rack at Target. The scare lasts no more than a minute, but it feels like an eternity.
Yet, we all read see the news stories. For some parents, that horror can last a lot longer than a minute. For some parents, the nightmare can last a lifetime.
I’ve never really understood how those parents must feel. The anguish they clearly experience when, once a minute goes by, and then five and then thirty, their child does not reappear.
I’ve prayed for years that I would never understand that terror.
And I hadn’t. Ever. Until we took our children on a hike in a state park last month.
Let me being by saying that going on this hike was my idea. Looking back, I don’t know what I was thinking. I am not an “outdoors” person. I hate hiking. I hate sweating, for that matter, and we live in Texas. It’s hot here. I must have been delusional the day I suggested this family outing.
My husband, Rob, and I took all three of our kids to Enchanted Rock. As its name indicates, it’s a rock. A big rock. I really had no idea just how big – or how difficult for small children – it would be to climb.
When we began the trek, our three-year-old son, Bennett, was anxious to get moving. He quickly ran ahead of us. Our baby, Maclain, though, wasn’t yet two and just couldn’t keep up. Rob, as he began to chase Bennett, told me he’d keep up with the older two kids if I stayed with Maclain. I told him to not be surprised if Mac and I never made it to the top.
While Rob, Bennett and our daughter, Jordan, rushed up the rocky incline, Maclain and I took our time. Many of the rocks were as large as him and he struggled to climb over each one. The two of us, though, had a lot of fun. He was giggling and running around and pointing out all the various bugs he encountered.
Ultimately, though, we came to the very base of the big rock. Unlike the trail we’d taken thus far, it had no trees or small rocks to hold onto as we went up. It was just one solid, slippery, nearly-vertical rock.
By this point, Maclain had had enough and was standing at my feet, with his arms in the air, saying, “Up. Up.”
I looked up at that rock and then down at my 40-lb baby. There was no way I was going to be able to carry him all the way to the top. And, even if I could muster the strength, heaven forbid I slipped at some point, I risked his little head hitting the ground.
Nope. Going to the top was not a good idea and I made the executive decision that he and I would head back.
The way back took a long time. Maclain was tired, and still highly intrigued by every millipede he came across. Eventually, we reached the bottom and I saw, off to the side, a tall staircase - at the top stood an idyllic gazebo.
I convinced Mac to use those little, chubby legs to get to the top. Once we reached it, I sat on a bench while he ran around. I could imagine how much fun Rob, Jordan and Bennett must be having at the top of Enchanted Rock. I was sorry that we couldn’t be up there with them and, even more so, sad that I had forgotten to give them the camera so that they could take some pictures.
I don’t know how long it was between the time that Rob and the older two kids took off and the moment when I heard Maclain call out “Da Da” from the gazebo as he looked down. My guess is that it was about an hour and a half.
When I looked over the gazebo’s ledge, I saw Bennett running up the stairs towards me and instantly heard Rob call up, “Is Jordan with you?”
Confused, I yelled back, “No.”
At that word, Rob turned back in the direction he’d just come from and broke into run.
At first, I couldn’t figure out what was happening. My initial thought was, “Why is he running back towards the rock? If she’d run ahead of him and couldn’t find me because I was in the gazebo, shouldn’t he be running towards the parking lot?”
I waited for a few minutes, as the boys played together. After some time had passed, though, I began to question Bennett.
“Where’s Jordan?”I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he told me.
“Wasn’t she with you?”
I began to feel the panic building.
“What do you mean she wasn’t with you? When you got to the top of the mountain, wasn’t she there?”
“No,” he said again.
Thinking his three-year-old mind was just not comprehending what I was asking, I began again.
“Bennett, listen to me,” I held his shoulders and made him face me. “When you climbed up that mountain, you went with Daddy and Jordan, right? Was Jordan at the top with you?”
“No,” he said again. “Jordan wasn’t there at the top. I just climbed with Daddy.”
My whole body began to feel clammy.
I grabbed both boys and told them we needed to go look for Jordan. To say that neither of them were cooperative would be an understatement. As we walked down the gazebo steps, they began to come undone. They were tired. They were misbehaving. They were not about to walk in the direction I needed them to go. And, they were both too heavy for me to carry.
Once we reached the start of the trail, the boys were really giving me a hard time. There was a little stream there and they decided to go splashing in it, shoes and all.
As they got themselves wet, I saw a couple heading towards me from the rock.
“Have you seen a little girl in a pink Tinkerbell shirt and blonde hair? We can’t find her.”
“No,” they told me, a bit sadly. “We’re sorry. We didn’t see her.”
“My husband went to look for her.”
“We didn’t see either your husband or your daughter, but there are a lot of trails up there.”
“Oh,” I said, defeated.
“Do you know your son is drinking that stream water?” the man asked me, as the couple started to walk away.
“Huh?” I looked at Bennett, who was refilling his water bottle in the dirty water and sipping it. “Bennett – stop that!”
I glanced at Maclain. He’d taken off his shoes.
I bent down to put them back on and started to cry.
The couple walked back towards me.
“Listen,” the woman said. “We’ll help you look for her. We have kids, too. We understand.”
I almost hugged her right then and there.
The woman and her husband began to talk. He took her cell phone and said he’d head back up the trail. She said she’d go to the car to get his and stay with me. I told both of them that my husband didn’t have his phone on him and that mine wasn’t getting reception.
As the woman helped me “rein in” the boys, and we made our way back to the parking lot, I asked her name. She told me it was Tricia.
As we reached the end of the trail, she told me she was going to look in the restrooms. After checking both the men’s and women’s facilities, it was clear Jordan wasn’t in there.
We decided Tricia would get the cell phone out of their car and then she’d drive with me to the ranger’s station. We loaded the boys in the car and, as we drove, I told her the little that I knew and how Bennett said Jordan hadn’t been with them at the top.
“I don’t understand it.” I told her. “And, because of that, I don’t know how long she’s been gone.”
When we reached the station, Tricia told me to wait in the car with the boys and she’d go talk to the rangers. A minute later, she returned with one of them.
He asked me a lot of questions – what she looked like, what she was wearing, when we had last seen her. I told him what I knew. I got the feeling he thought I was irresponsible for losing my child. Looking back now, perhaps that was just my own panic and guilt speaking.
“You need to go back, with your car, to where you were parked. She knows that’s where your car is, so she might go looking for you there.”
“She’s really responsible,” I kept telling him. “She’s the type of child who will tell someone she’s lost. She wouldn’t just wonder off.”
He nodded. “Just go back to the parking lot and stay put.”
Tricia and I got back into the car and started to drive. I remember thinking that, though I was scared, the chances were good Rob and Jordan were together already, walking back down the rock. I was fairly certain that when we returned, they’d be there waiting for us.
As we approached the parking lot, though, all of my hopes were dashed. I immediately saw Rob walking towards us – and he was alone.
I rolled down the car window. He took one look at my face and by my expression, must have known she wasn’t with me. I started to cry again.
“I’m heading back up to look for her again,” he said.
“Her husband is looking, too,” I told him, indicating Tricia. “And, we’ve told the rangers.”
Rob nodded and began to run back towards the rock.
I parked the car and Tricia began taking charge of the boys. It was if in the past hour, I’d become an incompetent human being. She had to tell me to change the baby’s diaper and I just stood by and watched her pack snacks and drinks for my boys. We decided it would be best to put Maclain in the stroller so we’d only have to deal with Bennett walking.
Tricia began to stop other hikers, who were either returning from their hike and asking them if they’d seen Jordan, or telling others to look for her as they started up the rock. I remember some old lady hugging me as I sobbed, telling me she was so sorry this was happening, right before she began to walk towards the trail.
To say I was a basket case, by this point, would not do my hysterical state any justice at all. I couldn’t think. Tricia kept asking me if I had a photo of Jordan and I could barely comprehend the question.
“In your camera?” she asked, as I shook my head. “In your phone? What about your wallet?”
I finally remembered that I had one and handed it to her, and then I told her I needed to go throw up.
My mind just kept repeating the same words, over and over again.
“This is how it begins. When your child vanishes, this is what it feels like.”
Tricia and I and the boys started to walk back to the base of the trail. By the time we got there, I could see a ranger with binoculars searching the rock and he told me there were rangers already up there looking for her. He kept telling me that I needed to stay near the car and near the base of the trail. He kept repeating, “You need to be here in case she comes looking for you.”
I have seen a hundred crime shows on TV where, when a child goes missing, the police or FBI always tell the parents they need to “stay put.” More times than not, one of the parents become hysterical and starts to argue or fight. “I need to look for my child!” they always yell. When I’ve watched those shows in the past, I’d always think, “Don’t those people understand that it’s best for everyone if they remain in one place?”
Suddenly, though, I found myself in that very situation and instantly, I realized how absurd my judgment has been of those families. The ranger was telling me to stay in one place, but instead of understanding his reasoning, I wanted to punch him and begin to run up the mountain, searching for my baby. “How can I just stand here?” I wanted to yell, “when my little girl is out there somewhere without me?”
If it hadn’t been for the fact that I had two little boys with me who, without a doubt, could not make the climb, I might have done exactly that.
Tricia continued to stop people on the trail, showing them Jordan’s photo and asking them to look for her. I saw two more trucks, full of rangers, arrive to begin to search. I was relatively surprised by this point that I hadn’t passed out yet.
After what seemed like days, I saw two specks coming towards me on the path and I realized they were Rob and Jordan. I yelled to Tricia to watch the boys and I began to fly towards the rest of my family. I reached my little girl and swung her around, crying harder than I think I have ever cried in my life. She asked me to be careful. She told me she was covered in cactus prickles.
It took some time to find out what had happened to her. Apparently, while climbing with Rob and Bennett, Jordan had gotten tired of the speed with which they were going. Bennett was running up that rock. She told Rob that she wanted to wait and climb with me and Maclain. Rob, as he chased after Bennett, told her that was fine, but never really looked back to make sure I was nearby. Because Maclain was having such a hard time, Maclain and I weren’t in the near vicinity and so, as Jordan began to backtrack, looking for us, she took the wrong path. Once she realized she was going in the wrong direction, she turned around, but on her way back, she somehow fell off the trail and down a rocky embankment, out of sight of the other hikers.
Because Rob thought she was with me, he continued to the top of the mountain with Bennett. And I, never knowing she was supposed to be with me, wasn’t worried about her whereabouts. By the time we even realized Jordan was gone, she’d been missing for over an hour.
When we found Jordan, she was scraped and bruised, the butt of her shorts was completely ripped off and, as she had said, she was covered in prickles because she had landed in a bunch of cactus. But, the sight of her was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
Jordan told us she’d yelled and yelled, but no one heard her. She eventually heard Rob screaming for her and, when he didn’t respond to her cries of “Daddy!” she began to yell out, “Rob!” He heard that and within a few minutes, was able to locate her and climb down to where she was.
I have never experienced such terror as I did that afternoon in that state park. To be honest, I didn’t realize the depth of fear one could experience until I thought my child was truly missing. There’s been a news story these past few weeks about a 7-year-old who apparently “vanished” from his school. I see his mother on the news and I have a whole new empathy for her pain. Mine lasted hours. Hers has lasted weeks. I honestly don’t know how she’s still breathing.
And, for the rest of my life, whenever I hear people refer to the “kindness of strangers,” I will always think of Tricia and her husband (whose name I later learned is Scott). I don’t know how I could have survived that day without Tricia. It turns out that she and her husband were on vacation from their home in Kansas. I bet they never expected to be searching for some strangers’ little girl when they planned their trip! Tricia told me, later, that all she wanted to do, once we found Jordan, was return to Kansas to hug her kids. We’ve kept in touch since that day and I have a feeling that we’ll be a part of each other’s lives from this point on. I could never repay them, but I continually thank God for them.
The day after our ordeal, our family went to church (we had much to give thanks for) and while sitting in the pew, my mom asked Jordan about her “adventure.”
“Daddy must have been so excited to find you!” my mom said. “What was the first thing he said to you when he reached you?”
Without missing a beat, Jordan told her that he’d said, “Hurry. Mommy’s crying.”
You have no idea just how hard, baby. You have no idea.
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