By Patrick Walker
Early on a misty June morning in Redwood Regional Park, in the hills between Oakland and Moraga, my dad and I were running ahead of the pack on a 20-mile run with my Boy Scout troop. This annual run helps us train for a summer High Sierra backpacking trek.
We were about 12 miles along and passing through a grove of ancient redwoods, quiet and still in the fog, when I noticed in the distance someone hunched on the side of the trail. It didn’t look right.
As I drew closer, I saw a person sitting with legs crossed, his head bowed and hidden inside a cinched hoodie. My SAR instincts and training immediately took over. I stopped a few feet away and asked him if he was OK. He did not respond. I spoke louder and authoritatively. “Sir, are you okay?” He shook his head.
I asked him to remove his hoodie so I could see him and with slow, deliberate movements he obeyed my request. He was a Caucasian male in his mid-20s, unshaven and bewildered.
“Can you talk?” I asked. He responded with a scarcely audible, “I think so.”
“Are you hurting?”
“I’m cold. Very cold.”
I asked how long he had been there. He said he came to the park the night before to “clear his head,” became disoriented when it grew dark and lost his way. He wandered in the night and eventually gave up trying to find his way back to his car and eventually found a place to sit down. He had endured a very cold and lonely night and was shivering, hungry, cramping up and confused.
I told him I have had medical training and could help him. For the first time, he looked up and offered a slight smile.
I asked if anyone would have reported him missing. With a touch of melancholy he said, “No one is expecting me back except my boss.”
I asked him to stand up. He was cold and stiff.
A couple of miles away was a Cub Scout camp where I knew they had fire, food and warmth.
“Can you walk?”
“I can try.”
Slowly, we began our trek. After a while, we passed members of my Boy Scout troop running along the path. They were surprised to see me going the opposite way. I told them that I was taking a break from the run to help someone. When I encountered the leader of the troop, he said, “Geez, Patrick, you find lost people even when you’re not looking for them!”
Our journey was painstakingly slow as he clearly was not well physically and maybe mentally. I was glad my dad was with me because I’m not sure I would have been comfortable alone with him. I suspected drugs or alcohol may have been an issue and he could have been suicidal.
As we walked slowly beneath the redwoods, he spoke. He said he felt lucky that we found him, and he said he appreciated our helping him. He asked my name and said his was Jeremy (name changed for privacy).
A half-hour later we made it to the Cub Scout camp. The troop had a fire blazing, hot chocolate and hot food, and the Scouts were generous in sharing it with Jeremy. I left him there with my dad, and then ran several miles further on to where a ranger lived. After explaining the circumstances and Jeremy’s current status, the ranger said he would take over and transport him to medical treatment.
I returned to the camp and Jeremy was seated by the campfire with a cup of hot chocolate, now warmed up, even smiling. We said our goodbyes and I rejoined the 20-mile run.
I was now in last place instead of first, but I knew that what I was able to do for a fellow human being – thanks to my training and experience on COCOSAR – was far more important than winning a race.