Stranded Helpless in the Woods
Nov 14 ● BY Meghan McGuire
Midcoast Maine is sprinkled with subdivisions, residential tributaries off main roads that loop away from nauseatingly quaint downtowns and winding dead end cul-de-sacs. The streets are named for trees or bodies of water or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The subdivisions are separated from one another by The Woods, the patches of trees that haven’t been bulldozed yet. They’re a gesture toward wilderness, but when you’re six years old they feel like capital W Wilderness.
On Labor Day Weekend, 2001, my family attended the annual start-of-school potluck with my dad’s coworkers from Bath Middle School. I was dressed to the nines in my freshly unboxed back-to-school light up sneakers.
I loved these potlucks because someone always brought Swedish meatballs in a crockpot. Twenty years later, there’s still no Ikea in the state of Maine, so those meatballs remain a novelty.
I usually spent family events like this exactly half a step behind my older siblings, Patrick and Sean. I was their shadow, counting on them to find their way into some shenanigans that I would also enjoy. Patrick was twelve years old, all arms and legs. He was our ringleader, loud and opinionated. The year before, Patrick had gotten detention for squeezing a sponge out on the lap of a kid who was bullying him. Sean was nine, a tidy mess of freckles and curls, aggressively quiet and reserved. In third grade, a girl in Sean’s class approached them at recess, poking their ribs and exclaiming “TALK QUIET BOY TALK!” To this day, I am a curious combination of the two of them, shy and loud, wanting to be the center of attention but also DON’T LOOK AT ME.
My dad introduced me to the daughters of another teacher. They had cool girl names like Caitlin and Caroline and wore cool girl things like tank tops and stretchy chokers. In my mind, they were only a few years away from buying houses and recording outgoing messages for their answering machines. In reality, they were probably a few weeks away from getting braces and lying about their age to make a MySpace profile.
“Do you want to play ‘Stranded Helpless in the Woods’ with us?” Caitlin asked.
* * *
Like learning about the dangers of moose collisions in driver’s ed and memorizing the Sixteen Counties of Maine song in the fourth grade, learning about Donn Fendler was a rite of passage for any student in the state of Maine. Coming across a moose in the roadway, having to recite all sixteen counties at the drop of a hat, and getting lost in the woods are not UNlikely occurrences in the Maine coming-of-age experience.
In July 1939, Donn Fendler, a twelve-year-old boy, was separated from his group while climbing Mt. Katahdin. Katahdin is the tallest peak in the state of Maine and the beginning or the end of the Appalachian Trail, depending on which way you are facing. It’s known for its treacherous terrain. In some places, rungs have been hammered into rocks to make the steep boulders climbable. I lived in Maine for more than two thirds of my life and never attempted the peak. The most famous trail includes the Knife’s Edge, a narrow granite wall that requires the coordination of all four limbs to traverse from one peak to the next. Just the name of that section was enough for me to write off the whole damn mountain.
On that day in July, a storm rolled into Baxter State Park. Donn’s friend Henry wanted to wait for another hiker up ahead on the trail. Donn, however, was getting scared, cold, and impatient, so he turned around to meet his dad and brothers who were still on their way up.
As fog, wind, and hail encased the forty-acre plateau below, Donn lost the trail.
* * *
The rules of the Stranded Helpless in the Woods are as follows:
- One person is selected to be stranded. This person shall henceforth be called the Strandee.
- The Strandee selects a difficulty level: Easy, Medium, or Hard.
- Everyone else, who will henceforth be known as the Stranders, will blindfold the Strandee and lead them into the woods.
- Once the Stranders have located the perfect spot, they spin the Strandee around somewhere between three and ten times.
- While the Stranders run back, the Strandee counts to one hundred.
- At one hundred, the Strandee will open their eyes and find their way back, thus unstranding themselves.
First, Caroline went to show us the ropes. Despite selecting Hard she found her way back in a matter of minutes.
Next, Patrick volunteered. He picked Medium.Caitlin and Caroline led Patrick through the woods while Sean and I followed close behind. I stifled giggles as the Cool Girls directed Patrick to step over rocks and roots. Sean shushed me.
Caitlin and Caroline silently agreed on a spot with a nod.
“OK!” they announced and began to spin him around.
And then we bolted to the backyard in different directions to throw him off our trail.
Patrick returned in three minutes, tops.
Seeing his success only confirmed my desire to be stranded.
“Easy, Medium, or Hard?” Caroline asked.
I wanted to pick Hard. I knew I had what it took to fight my way out of the wilderness. I was born in Alaska after all, a fact I used in my elementary school years as a replacement for having a personality.
A knowing glance from Sean; the slightest shake of their head made me falter.
“Easy,” I sighed.
* * *
In Chicago, where I’ve lived since college, there’s not much opportunity to get lost. Most of the parks only wink at Wilderness and most of the streets form a grid.
When I get lost these days, I’m sitting perfectly still.
I accepted the human resources—excuse me, people operations—job at the mental health startup in the spring of 2021. This is a values-driven decision, I assured myself as I docusigned my offer, jumping at the promise of health insurance after months of pandemic unemployment and unpredictable contract work.
I had been a therapy enthusiast for eight years at that point and had collected my diagnoses in a box on my bedside table: Adjustment disorder, Major Depression, Generalized Anxiety, and my crown jewel, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In exposure therapy for OCD, we talk about making choices that align with our values. Does checking the knobs on the stove ten times before bed align with your value of getting a good night’s sleep? No. Does working for this company align with your values? That answer was TBD, but my values, it seemed, were built around therapy and mental health, just like this company.
Our young, self-centered, Ivy League MBA-ed CEO, whose teeth never seemed to touch when he spoke, promised we were improving access to high quality mental health care at scale on the frequent but ineffective Zooms where the chat was disabled. I believed him. I parroted the Glassdoor talking points about how refreshing it was to be doing meaningful work for a mission-driven startup. Plus, I bragged, it’s fully remote. As other companies in Chicago were starting to force people back into the office, I could work while wrapped in a blanket with my ill-behaved pandemic cat.
The first red flag was on the first day. As the old guard trained the newbies, I could see the circles under their eyes darkening and deepening.
“We’re so excited you’re here,” one said. “Now, I don’t have to work sixty hours a week.”
“You can’t mess this up,” another cautioned, “or else, [Redacted] will yell at us and I’ll have to take the time to fix it.”
A voice deep inside of me wondered if this was a mistake. Another voice chided the first, reminding her that all jobs are overwhelming at first. A third voice recited the cost of Zoloft without health insurance. I let the voices tire each other out so I could focus on syncing new hires’ calendars to the electronic medical record, a process that required three browser windows and none of my HR experience.
* * *
The woods loomed bigger in my head in the darkness of the blindfold. The trees stretched high toward the pre-dusk gray sky. Decades of dead leaves crunched and squished under my feet, illuminated by the red flashes of my shoes.
Caitlin and Caroline guided me over the treacherous terrain with their hands and voices telling me when to step up and down.
One of them rested a hand on my shoulder to stop me.
“Now spin,” she said.
They spun me three-and-a-half times before scurrying off into the woods.
“1, 2, 3, 4…”
Look at me! I thought. Most six-year-olds they know probably can’t count to one hundred.
“22, 23, 24…”
I already know which direction I need to go in and I’m not even done counting yet.
“47, 48, 49…”
Can you imagine the look on their faces when I walk back into the party in no time at all?
“Oh wow, Meghan, you’re so cool.”
“Meghan, how did you do that so fast?”
“Meghan, do you want to come and watch ‘Mulan’ and choreograph dance numbers?”
“‘Let’s get down to business.’”
“83, 84, 85…”
I’m so smart.
I’m so cool.
I can do anything.
It is entirely possible that I started walking before I opened my eyes.
I stepped over roots and kicked twigs out of my way. I could feel in my feet that these were the exact same obstacles I had been guided over. My feet remembered the path like I had walked it one hundred times.
When I reached a piece of water that could generously be called a stream, I wasn’t doubtful. In fact, I was impressed. Wow, I thought, as I tested the stability of a smooth rock in the middle of the water with my right foot. They managed to get me across this stream without getting my feet wet. I swung my left foot to the other side of the stream, launching with my right off the rock. My sneakers flashed when I landed. And I kept walking.
I miss the powerful combination of unearned grade school confidence and absolutely zero real life experience. I cannot count the number of things I said or did with such conviction, and with the flimsy justification that “actually, my mom’s a doctor, so I should know.”
* * *
The search for Donn began the night he disappeared and stretched over nine days.
It started with his father, brothers, other hikers, and the Forest Rangers.
It only took a few hours for the word to spread and for hundreds of people to be searching the side of the mountain. Police and fire departments from Millinocket and other nearby towns joined. Even the Great Northern Paper Company contributed to the cause, sending in woodsmen, who had experience traversing the terrain. Paper mill workers left their jobs to join the search.
The Maine State Police brought in their two bloodhounds to trace Donn’s scent. Their soft paws were soon ripped to shreds by rocks, and more dogs, this time with leather booties, were rushed in from New York. They lost Donn’s scent on the plateau.
The governor mobilized the National Guard, who sent dozens of guardsmen and set up a field kitchen to feed all of the searchers.
After five days, searchers began to give up, but a small volunteer group, led by Donn’s father, continued the search.
* * *
The sun was beginning to set, or as I used to say, it was “darking.”
I’m not sure how precisely I knew I was fucked. I don’t know what triggered it, but the realization that I didn’t know where I was or where I was going descended suddenly.
As a child, I could do an emotional about-face at the drop of a bucket hat. I went from “I am the smartest six-year-old alive” to open-mouthed scrying (that is, scream-crying). Within moments, the dogs in the surrounding neighborhoods joined in, barking and howling along, which only heightened my hysterics.
“Help!” I screamed. “HELP!”
Back at the potluck, my mom gathered the teachers around. “Meghan hasn’t come back yet.” Most of the teachers shrugged their shoulders and went back to piling potato salad and meatballs on their plates. My mom threw together a small search party: herself, my dad, and the father of Caitlin and Caroline, who likely felt partially responsible for the whole ordeal.
As they fanned out to search, I picked a nearby stump to use as my fainting chaise where I sobbed.
* * *
“This is not sustainable,” I pleaded on my Wednesday morning Google Meet with my boss the week after Thanksgiving. “We need more people doing onboarding.”
The job wasn’t what I had signed up for. Instead of running new hire training or refining the new-hire experience, I spent forty (or more) hours a week creating accounts and linking those accounts to one another like a monotonous, digital daisy chain. The time I didn’t spend copy-pasting, I spent following up with therapists on their HIPAA training or explaining to them how to sign into their email accounts.
“You type in Gmail.com into the address bar . . . No, the address bar at the top of the browser . . . Well, the browser is the application you use to surf the Internet. …Yes, THAT Internet; the one Al Gore invented.”
My days were long strings of the same, broken up only by my cat digging his teeth into my ankles when he wanted attention or the beep of the electric kettle telling me my tea was ready.
When I was younger, all I wanted to be was a grown-up. But this wasn’t it, right? I spent my days following up and circling back on action items that no one acted on, while wondering, “What the hell am I doing with my life?”
After a particularly difficult week in which, without warning, most clinicians lost their full-time salaries and with it, the promise of benefits, I began to wonder, “Should I leave?” And then the other voice said, “Where would you go?” And the third voice began to recite COBRA premiums.
“We just need to get through the end of the year,” my boss said as her eyes drifted to the corner of her screen to read a Slack message.
She had told me at our last one-on-one that we just needed to get through Thanksgiving.
My boss was the child of moon-charged crystals and the smell of incense that permeated clothing you buy in a global import store. She spoke in meandering sentences that snaked through misplaced semicolons and commas, malapropisms, ableist slurs, and light transphobia.
She typed a response to the Slack message, her fingers heavy against the keyboard.
“You’ve been more irritable lately,” she told me. “Is there something going on in your life?”
What life? I considered screaming.
I took a deep breath to draw the ball of emotion rising in my throat it back into my lungs.
“I’m just … so burnt out,” I said.
“This is what it means to work at startups,” she said.
“I’ve worked at—”
Her phone rang. She answered before tapping the phone screen to trigger her front gate.
“Access granted,” the robot in the phone said.
“Things are always changing and you have to be adaptable. You know, I’ve worked at a lot of startups. And you need to have a good attitude about it, about dealing with all the changes.”
But nothing’s changing, I didn’t say.
I bit my tongue and dried my eyes, thinking that a few more dollars an hour in my bank account would help if I could just make it to the performance reviews.
I sat down on the stump and I stayed, hoping something would change.
* * *
My mom heard the dogs first, followed by my scrobs (that is, scream-sobs). She crafted an image in her head of her precious baby child fighting off ferocious suburban dogs. She visualized herself staggering back into the party shouting, “A Dingo Took My Baby!”
“Meghan, don’t move!” she shouted to me.
Over the deafening clatter of my emotional roller coaster, I heard my mom calling to me.
“Mom!” I screamed back, hopping up. “MOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!”
And then my mom emerged from the trees like Gandalf, except instead of a white robe, she was rocking a seasonally-appropriate tan fleece with red and orange fall leaves on it and her crisp end-of-summer perm.
As my mom led me back in the—and I won’t sugarcoat this—exact opposite direction that every instinct led me, she called out to her search party of three: “I FOUND HER!”
* * *
Nine days after Donn disappeared, most of the remaining searchers had lost hope. Experienced guides and woodsmen had accepted that they were searching for the boy’s corpse.
At this point, you may think to yourself: I assumed Maine was pretty backwards, but it’s pretty wild to teach a bunch of children the story of a young boy who dies on a mountain.
Donn appeared at a remote hunting camp on the East Branch of the Penobscot River, only accessible by canoe or tote road. The sharp rocks had shredded his shoes, and his pants had been swept downstream days before. When he was found, all he had left was his underwear and a burlap slack that he slept in. He was emaciated and covered with scratches, bug bites, and sores.
At the most conservative of estimates, Donn traveled 35 miles down and around the mountain, living the Maine adage: “You can’t get there from here.” He survived by following a stream and telephone wire. He foraged berries for meals and came face-to-face with two bears.
After eating what I have to imagine was the best soup of his whole life, Donn slept at the camp, uninterrupted by bears or windstorms. The following morning, he traveled by canoe and ambulance to the hospital in Bangor. Despite his external injuries, the doctors noted, Donn was remarkably healthy.
* * *
I tried to explain to my mom that I had counted the number of times I’d turned, that I could see the angles in my hand, that I had done the calculations that made it clear in the total darkness that I knew exactly which direction I needed to go in.
“But did you stop and take in your surroundings?”
“Mom, I counted the turns.”
If I had stopped for a second, I would have heard the music from the party, seen the lights of the backyard through the trees. All told, I was gone at most fifteen minutes. To me, it seemed like an eternity. Why, that was half an episode of Arthur, including “A Word from Us Kids!”
I attached myself to my mom’s hip for the rest of the evening and asked her to put more than my fair share of meatballs on my plate. As I balanced the plate on my hand to grab a Sprite with the other, one of the teachers bent down in front of me.
“That must have been scary for you,” she said.
I buried my head in my mom’s sweater.
“You were only, like, 50 feet away,” Sean muttered to me as a welcome back.
* * *
In January, my boss recited my performance review to me.
After a wave of praise quoted from my peers, she launched into the “what needs improvement” section.
“Meghan,” she read, her eyes on her second monitor and her cheek facing the camera, “should raise a hand to flag to me when she needs support. She needs to stop questioning authority and process changes in public forums. She has a bad attitude that makes others uncomfortable, and she needs to control her emotional responses. Perhaps, if Meghan was able to propose solutions, she would have a better attitude.”
In short, I would not be getting that raise I had been counting on.
“I have been saying for months that I am burned out and to have my attitude, which, by the way, is a direct result of that burnout, be used against me is unfair. I have only put up with it because I expected my compensation would increase.” I was not yet shouting, but my tone of voice had changed enough that my cat stuck his head out from behind the curtain where he was lounging.
I was more surprised than he was, though. I will go a mile out of my way to avoid confrontation, especially with an authority figure.
“We’re all burnt out,” my boss responded, “and, look at me, I have kids and a family, but I still find it in me to manage to sign in each morning with a good attitude and a smile. You need to react better to being burnt out.”
I was alone in my apartment as I shouted into the abyss of teleconferencing, “I resent the idea that I need to be polite in response to mistreatment! If everyone is burnt out, that is a problem with the conditions of employment, not the fault of the individual employee.”
My well-formed responses were not a testament to my own eloquence, but rather a testament to the pro-labor orange tabby I had recently followed on Twitter.
“I can coach you on having a better attitude in a fast-paced environment and then maybe we can revisit this at the next performance review cycle.”
Six-year-old Meghan would have stopped wondering if she should and leave. She would have already started writing the email before the end of the call: “To whom it may concern, I am quitting to spend more time with Beanie Babies.”
After all, she started walking before she even opened her eyes.
* * *
Caitlin and Caroline’s father marched the girls over to me. They hung their heads, their stick-straight blond hair shielding their faces. They glanced through their hair at me and muttered an apology.
“Well, it’s dark out now, so I guess that game’s over!” their dad said.
My hope of a Disney movie night with my cool older friends vanished as they walked away.
* * *
At the age of six, I had not yet gone through the state-mandated ritual of reading the book Lost on a Mountain in Maine, Donn Fendler’s as-told-to memoir, but with two older brothers working their way through the Brunswick, Maine School System, I had absorbed the salient points by osmosis. Growing up in Maine, you have to know how to fight your way out of the wilderness, even if you don’t know what it will be yet.
* * *
After the potluck, my family went to Movie Gallery to angrily debate what film we should rent for the evening. Despite my protests that it looked too scary after what I had just gone through, we settled on The Neverending Story.
I sat down on the floor in front of the TV with a notepad that said FLONASE at the top, a free gift from some Pharma rep at my mom’s office. As The Neverending Story whirred to life in the VCR, I poised my pencil to make a tally mark every time something scary happened to prove my point.
That was the last year of the back-to-school potluck.
* * *
I put in my notice on the first Friday in February, almost ten months to the day after I started.
I agonized over four drafts of an email. The first draft was scorched earth. The final draft was an unopened box of matches. My pointer finger hovered over my mouse for a full minute before I forced it to click the send button. I lifted my hands up before I could click “Undo Send.”
I had nothing lined up. I just knew I needed to go.