A mother's nightmare: When your son goes missing in the mountainsNovember 23, 2016 9:46am

Nov. 21-- When you are on flat land, a thousand miles from the Rocky Mountains; when you can look outside your window and see the house next door, you forget how huge and vast the Rockies can be.

But all that changes when your son, who left at 1:30 on a Monday morning in August for a hike intended to last 14 hours still isn't back 32 hours later. And as you visualize a huge topographic map of trees and trails and boulders, you mentally pop a thumbtack in the middle of it and think, "He could be anywhere."

Turns out, Charlie is fine. But until you know that, you all but lose your mind with worry. You memorize the emergency phone number for Rocky Mountain National Park, stay up half the night texting with your sisters, try mightily to push what-if questions from your head, the news stories of people whose children have been missing for years.

And, amid all the emotional frenzy, you are utterly astounded by the care and compassion of people, many of whose names you had never heard until you posted on Facebook that your son is missing.

Your head keeps reminding you that he's not some kid who just wakes up one day with the idea to climb Longs, the highest peak in the national park. Not at all. He is sensible and methodical and serious about this.

On his days off from the YMCA of the Rockies, where your family has vacationed for decades and where he has worked since May, he has honed his hiking skills. He's young and he's healthy and he's in wonderful shape. Hiking has not only made him more fit and stronger; it's also, he tells you, given him more self-confidence.

All of which sounds fine and dandy weeks later, when you're visiting him in Colorado and having dinner together. But step outside the restaurant, and a glance in any direction reminds you how tall the mountains are; how the trails (if they even exist) can be rocky or winding or tangled with roots; how moonless skies are deeper and darker than they could ever be at home.

You go on a 5-mile hike together-a mere lap around a track compared to his 32-hour hiking marathon. The scenery takes your breath away and the altitude steals whatever's left. You feel your body working and your heart pounding and you look at him ahead of you, strong and sure, and you think "Ah, yes. This is why."

When you reach the trail head where he started out that early morning, you see the very topographic map where he stopped to get his bearings. You make yourself focus on your breathing; otherwise, you're all but certain you'd have to reach for his shoulder on your plummet to the ground.

By the time summer ended, he'd collected 50 patches to mark each of his 50 destinations. For the record, though, you only learned about most of these hikes after the fact. That worked out fine; there were just so many, and your worry monitor would be ablaze had you tried to keep up.

But he has let you know about this one-his second trip up the 14,259-foot Longs with two friends who had never made the trek. He calls from the summit around 10:30 a.m. and his voice sounds clear and confident. They'll head down in about a half-hour, he says; he'll text when they reach the trail head.

Around 5, when you're getting ready to head home from work, you realize you haven't heard anything for awhile. The vague unease you felt when he first told you about this hike inches up a notch. You send a text, reminding yourself that he is in the mountains, after all, and service is bound to be spotty.

Here's an excerpt from the texting that comes next:

Charlie: We're on the other side of Meeker [another extremely high peak] with some older, very experienced hikers. We tried going down via Meeker to Chasm Lake, but it's too dangerous. We're now thinking about going down the ridge of Meeker and end up at Wild Basin [not the trail head where they began].

You: Charlie! Leave! Be safe! Be careful-er than careful! Want me to call the park rangers?

Charlie: I trust these guys.

You: Let me know if you want me to call the park rangers. I'm serious.

Charlie: One of the guys said not yet.

Oh good Lord. So of course you call. They don't send out the cavalry like you would have hoped (and baked them cookies for life if they had), but they are very calming. They ask questions; they reassure you that lots of hikers underestimate how long they'll be gone. They promise to check the trail head parking lot for Charlie's car and, if it's there, send someone out in the wilderness to look for him.

By this point, communication has all but stopped. You haven't called him for awhile because every time you do, it goes directly to voicemail. You try not to think about how the temperature plummets at night, or to wonder whether he has a flashlight and enough water, or to remind yourself how quickly storms approach in the mountains and how dangerous they can be.

You realize about now that Facebook, which for all its flaws, foibles and time-steals, turns out to be even more of a godsend than it is on your birthday. You posted a note about Charlie missing and it was shared over and again. Within a matter of minutes you're getting texts and personal messages from people you know well, some only peripherally, and some whose names you've never heard.

So many stand out: The mother of one of his former classmates tells you her son worked at a national park in Alaska. He has a ranger friend, she writes, who probably knows rangers at Rocky Mountain National Park.

Another offer is from the sister of a Girl Scout who was in your childhood troop. You haven't seen her since she was 12; she now lives in Estes Park and puts the word out on neighborhood newsletters and Facebook pages that Charlie is missing. If you're coming up and need a base, she writes, we have plenty of room.

Time and again, your instant-message app signals a note from someone else channeling courage, sending prayers for his safe return.

"God knows where Charlie is," they tell you. You take comfort in that, because as you pace your living room and make futile circles in the kitchen, you can't quite fathom-or maybe you can, and that's what's so scary-where he is. You imagine yourself a bird caught in an updraft, and start feeling a little dizzy as you stare down through the dark and deep blue sky.

Finally, at 2 a.m. you say good night to your sisters.

You sleep fitfully; when you go for a walk before sunrise, you take your phone with you-which you never do. A close friend calls and you burst into tears-which you've been afraid to do for fear you won't be able to stop.

"I can't wrap my head around what you're going through," says she, herself the mother of three sons. Neither can you. You just want to wrap your arms around Charlie.

When you get home, you call the now-memorized 586-number again. Park rangers located Charlie's car in the trail head parking lot, and have sent two climbers up Longs Peak.

"The climbing staff knows this area quite well," you're told.

The rangers, Kevin and Mitch, put you on speaker and ask you all sorts of questions about your son. Do you know what he was wearing? (Surprisingly, yes. Just two night ago-which seems like about two weeks ago-he sent you a selfie he shot wearing the brand new jacket he bought for this hike.)

Do you think he packed enough food and water? (Oh, probably, you try to make yourself believe. Yes, he's organized and keenly aware of what his body needs. But he hadn't planned to be gone longer than 12 hours, and certainly not 24.)

What's he like? (What's he like?! Steady, stalwart, smart, loyal, enthusiastic, calm, joyful. Everything to me.)

You thank them again and again, jotting their phone numbers and names onto a Post-Note, which you add to the collection amassing on your kitchen counter top.

Looking at these now, weeks later, months later, they bring it all back-the fear, the worry, the love, and, perhaps most of all, the reminder that life is so very tenuous. No matter how much we prepare, we're all still a rock in our path, a tangled root away from tripping and falling and changing everything.

A call from your brother, whom you don't talk to nearly often enough, reminds you of that. There are a thousand reasons, Ben says in his calming voice, why the group isn't back yet. One of them (not Charlie, of course), could be having trouble with the altitude, or might have twisted an ankle. They probably stopped to sleep, realizing that once the sun came up, the world would look a lot more different; the path to civilization a lot more clear.

Turns out, they didn't sleep. They wandered around a willowy area that had no trails, stepping over rocks caught in the beam of their flashlights. At some point before dawn, though, they realized the lakes they'd been seeing were in fact only one.

But you don't know about that ongoing nocturnal slog yet, which is a good thing because you took a sliver of comfort in imagining him asleep and starting out fresh the next morning.

When you come right down to it, maybe we're better off not knowing everything about the whereabouts of everyone we love. How can life be an adventure if there are no secrets along the way?

When the call comes from the National Park Service that could change your life forever, you're on the phone with your brother, struggling for feigned normalcy as you sit outside in the scorching sun waiting for a new tire to be put on your car.

You finally talk to Charlie an hour or so later, after he and his group have been interviewed by the park rangers about their adventure and been given the go-ahead to leave. In a nutshell, a storm of sleet and hail initially waylaid them, and so affected the trail that they had to find another way, one that entailed sliding down and crawling along dangerously loose gravel and throwing them completely off-course.

In typical Charlie fashion, he's a bit perplexed that so many people would be worried about him. Even now, months later, he-and you-still run into people who express relief. He just smiles and says thank you. It's all you can do to keep from bursting into grateful tears.

You had asked him in that first conversation if he was ever afraid. "Only that I'd be late for work," he tells you. When you talk again in the evening, he still hasn't slept. He's doing laundry, and wonders why you're a bit apoplectic about this sleep thing.

Because, you think now, maybe it's easier to chide him about not getting enough sleep than it is to throttle him for scaring the daylights out of you.

We wish, as parents, for our children to be smarter than we are. To be wiser and kinder; to be more worldly and more caring. We cross our fingers that their courage will surpass ours; toss salt over our shoulders that their opportunities will outnumber ours. We roll the dice for double sixes so the limbs they go out will be steady and strong.

When they take those chances, your first thought might be, oh no no no. Please don't; my heart can't take it. But of course it can. And you know as sure as you know your name that if he ever stopped hiking and your pulse slowed down, you'd really worry.

So we pack their lunches and we kiss them goodbye. We send them into this scary, beautiful world that bursts with possibility. And then all we can we do is take deep breaths, know that they love us, and believe with every bit of fervency we can muster that all in good time, they'll find their way home.

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