Being lost is always a fearful experience, but it has its special hazards in the tropical, mountainous rain forest in the province of Abra in Northern Luzon in the Philippines. My wife, Mickey, and I had gone to that area intending to translate the New Testament for one of the mountain tribes.
At 7:18 A.M., I left Agsimao headed for Bacag, about thirteen miles away, where Mickey was staying. The trail crosses a low ridge, about three hundred feet high, then a stream about fifty feet wide passes a village named Balantay, then goes over a ridge about fifteen hundred feet high, where it winds through uninhabited jungle for about ten miles.
Filipinos rarely travel alone, so my host asked the inevitable cultural question, “Who will be your companion?” My answer was, “God will be my companion.” I didn’t realize how significant that would be for me before the day was over. No one in the village seemed interested in being my companion, so my host was helpless in pressing his concern that I have one. I had traveled that trail alone before without mishap, so he finally accepted my assurance that I could make it all right. My compass had gotten crushed on a previous hike, and I decided not to take my bolo because I didn’t think I’d need it—a decision I later regretted very much.
In a little over an hour, I reached the stream below Balantay, but took almost half an hour to cross it because of removing, and later putting back on, my boots, and because of adding a few band-aids to potential trouble spots. Soon I was on the other side of Balantay, passing familiar landmarks above the rice fields.
About an hour later, I came to a guava tree, a kind of fruit that is about the size of a small apple, and stuck a few in my pockets, which I munched on as I walked along. This distracted my attention a little, but I was brought sharply back to reality a few minutes later by the realization that I was on an unfamiliar trail. Of course, I hadn’t memorized every foot of the trail, but I knew the regular trail didn’t have anything like what I was passing through. I didn’t remember passing a fork, but knew I could have while my attention was more on the guava than on the trail. I was only mildly concerned because there are many short cuts where the trail divides for a few yards, sometimes for a half mile or more, and then comes back together again. I figured that I was on one of those and would soon be back on the main trail again. The fact that the trail I was on was going slightly uphill, away from the river, plus my fairly strong feeling that the main trail was above me, confirmed my decision to continue on.
As I progressed, the trail became less and less like a trail, though there continued to be what looked to me like clear evidences that human beings did occasionally pass that way. By this time, the trail was going up a small stream, switching frequently from one side to the other. Another factor came, which became increasingly influential as I pressed on, the thought that “I have invested too much time and energy in going this direction to turn back now.” When I became convinced that the main trail was below me, this factor kept me going. My hope now became to reach the top of the ridge and follow it along until the trail crossed it southeast of there. The sky was clear, and I could use the sun in relation to the time of day to determine approximate directions. With that and a general knowledge of the contour of the land, I knew about where I was and the direction I was moving at all times. For that reason, I never felt that I was really lost.
Eventually, the trail faded into nothingness, and it became necessary to strike out across country. This meant going uphill. The hill was covered with a tall grass, about eight feet tall. The stem was about a quarter of an inch in diameter. When a stalk dies, it falls down, so that the area was covered with a thick mesh of these fallen stalks. My bolo would have been a big help here. The height and density of the grass made it impossible to see more than about fifteen feet at any time except for the top of an occasional tree a little farther away. The horizontal stalks made progress frustratingly slow and difficult, probably about one to two hundred yards per hour. Often, it was easier to get down and crawl under them than to try to crawl over them or force my way through and break them.
From time to time, I passed through places where some forest animal had evidently spent the night. I knew I couldn’t go on indefinitely through this stuff, and realized that I might have to go back down, but I still wanted to keep going up until I could get to a place where I could see enough to pick the best way down. I thought I might have to spend the night there, but that prospect didn’t frighten me. I knew that, as my companion, the Lord would take care of me in that event.
Along the way, of course, I began to ask myself, “Why and how did I get into this?” Having recently read Merlin Carothers’ book, Praise Works, I took the position, “I am where God wants me to be. Therefore I must praise and thank Him that I am where I am, and seek to learn what He wants me to learn.” I continued to praise Him and pray and trust Him in my heart, and sometimes aloud, throughout the time I was off the trail. This attitude gave a calmness and assurance of spirit through experiences that would otherwise have been a much greater hardship, and in places, quite terrifying.
For about two hours I struggled up the hill, and about noon stopped and ate my lunch near the top of the grassy section, though I didn’t know that that’s where I was until a few minutes later after I started moving again. The lunch consisted of rice, a hard-boiled egg, some peanut butter and some crackers. I had also brought half a dozen small, hard chocolates for occasional, fast energy on the trail. I was amazed at the way I continued to have strength—just one of many evidences that God was indeed with me.
It was wonderful to get up out of the grass and into the trees. Once in a while I could even take two steps without striking an obstacle! But those I did strike soon made me realize that the going wasn’t going to be a whole lot easier. One was a small vine less than an eighth of an inch in diameter, but very strong. I was often caught by one, but rarely could I break it. This was where I really missed my bolo. Usually getting by was a matter of lifting my foot over it, though sometimes I had to back up and go around it.
Another obstacle was a plant with fronds like a palm. Along the stem of the frond were many needles over an inch long. At the end of each frond was an extension like a rope about two feet long covered with thistle-like barbs. It wrapped itself around my arms and legs and held on and had to be unwound or pulled loose. My arms became covered with tiny scratches from these menaces.
Visibility, of course, was much better here. I could see a hundred feet or more, but all I could see were trees. The peak of the ridge I was on was more to the southwest than I wanted to go. I could see the next ridge, but I couldn’t see what was between me and it. My desire to see the area and pick the best way to get where I wanted to go, whether down or over the ridges, was completely frustrated.
I walked around the ridge until I could hear the sound of water below me. It was another stream flowing down into the main one at the floor of the valley, and if I could follow it down, eventually it would cross the trail. There are a dozen or more small streams that do. The stream descended rapidly over rocks. The nature of my path was now different, but once again, very slow. I was picking my way carefully down over the rocks so I wouldn’t slip and fall. God was gracious in sparing me from anything worse than an occasional slip and thud.
In a little while, I came to a waterfall about thirty feet high. The contour of the ground made it impossible for me to climb down to the foot of the waterfall, but I was able to climb along the face of the hill to a point where I could follow the stream as it flowed on down. As I moved along the face of the hill away from the falls, I sat down once for a little additional security on the steep slope. If I started to slip, I wanted more of my body to be dragging on the ground to slow me down and hopefully stop me from falling. I sat right on a hill of big red ants and got the most painful bite I have ever gotten from an ant. It was almost like a bee sting. I got off of there as fast as I could in keeping with the safety precautions demanded by the situation.
From there on, the immediate walls of the stream rose perpendicularly twenty feet or more, and then tapered off to what seemed to be an angle of about seventy degrees. There were numerous small trees and small rocks along here, and it was possible for me to descend the hill parallel to the stream, though quite a ways above it. There were many times when a rock, dislodged by my foot, went crashing down the hillside. Rarely did I trust my weight on a rock; I know most of them did not extend very far below the surface. The slope was too steep for me to ever depend on friction to hold me. Small trees and roots, about two inches in diameter, were my mainstay. If one of them had ever given way, it would have been all over. When I got a little farther above the stream, to the point where the ground began to level off, it was covered with grass that looked like what I had struggled through all morning, and I decided I’d rather take my chances on the hillside than battle that again. There is no doubt that God was watching over and protecting me in a special way through this part.
Eventually, I came to a place where I could no longer follow the stream, and I had to go up. I discovered that it was a different kind of grass, about three feet high, so I could see over it, but so dense I couldn’t see the ground, but that was no real problem. I was not far from the top of a knoll, so climbed up there hoping that it might be the survey point I had been seeking for so long. In a few minutes, I was there—and it was. I saw immediately that there was a straight ascent to the top of the ridge, but quite a bit of it was through the tall grass, and then the ridge itself was thickly covered with trees. I knew I didn’t want to go that way. Instead, I descended the other side of the knoll until I came to the next stream, which I started to follow down to the trail. The trail climbs as it goes around the mountain, and with each new stream, the distance to the end of the trail decreases.
From the time I had started down, I prayed and hoped that I might get out before dark. The time I got to the trail would determine which way I would go. If I got there early enough, I would go to Bacag; if it was too late to reach Bacag before dark, I would go back to Balantay. Then I remembered something: tonight was the night of the full moon. God had let me get lost on just the right day! If I could get to the trail before nightfall, I could follow the trail by moonlight—if the clouds were not too thick. It was the middle of the rainy season, and though the skies are usually clear in the morning, it often clouds up and rains in the afternoon, and sometimes the clouds, and maybe also the rain, continue on into the night. Many clouds passed overhead that afternoon, but there was no rain. I just trusted the Lord to let enough light get through so I could see to walk.
As I neared the stream, I could see that the situation was similar to that of the previous stream—precipitous walls, and then a slope covered with small trees—but in this case the slope wasn’t as steep, and the trees were bigger. I followed it for a ways, but there were many of the strong thin vines and plants with needles and thistle-like extensions, which made progress very slow. So, I went back up to the grassy area a little farther above the stream. The descent was still steep, and there was the added danger of falling into drop-offs covered by the grass. Fortunately, I encountered no big ones.
As I continued on down the hill, the grassy area moved gradually away from the stream. This didn’t distress me because I figured it meant I was coming to the face of the knoll, and that the trail should be somewhere down that face. Shortly after that, I came around a hump and saw the trail about a hundred yards below—the most beautiful sight I had seen in a long while! Even then, I descended carefully because I didn’t want to injure something in my excitement on my way down. When I jumped down on the trail, I stepped back and knelt down and kissed the spot where my foot first touched. Once again, I praised the Lord, as I had many times before on that day. It was exactly 4:30 PM, just six and a half hours after I had first gotten off the trail. Even though I was back on the trail, I was by no means finished with my journey. I didn’t know how far it was to the top of the ridge, but I knew it was still quite a ways. With God helping me, I hoped before dark to be able to get over the top and through an area where the density of the grass would make it difficult to see the trail even in broad daylight. Going through that by moonlight would be quite difficult.
So, I pressed on and reached the top at exactly 5:30 P.M. When I came to the grassy area, there was still enough light for me to see my way through, but I discovered a couple of ‘fringe benefits’ the Lord had provided. Large sections of the grassy area showed signs of having been burned, and larger sections were withered and dry, as though they hadn’t had rain in weeks, though they had had some almost every day. The hillside must have been struck by lightning since I was last over it ten days before. New green shoots were already springing up from many of the plant bases. This benefit made the trail much easier to see. Another fringe benefit came to my attention as I walked through the grass. My trousers quickly became quite wet, and my feet slipped from time to time on the trail. It was evident there had been a pretty heavy rain on that side of the ridge that afternoon, but God had kept it from raining on the side where I was.
The sun set, and its light waned as I continued down the hill. I figured the time would come when I would have to stop and wait for the moon to get high enough to light the trail enough so that I could see to walk. Meanwhile, I would keep walking by sunlight as long as I could see. The fading light definitely forced me to slow down. The many rocks on the trail that are no problem in broad daylight are a real hazard in dim light. But the time never came when I had to stop because of lack of light, though general weariness prompted a couple of rest stops. When the moon came up, it was bright and clear. There were only a few times when its light fell directly on the trail where I was walking, but the few clouds in the sky were far away and did not obscure its light. In passing over streams and through wooded areas, progress was extremely slow, but it was still progress. At one point, a weak knee, which gives me problems when it gets tired, got twisted a little bit, and the pain slowed me down a little more. But I figured that was the Lord’s way of keeping me from going faster than would be safe with the amount of light I had.
I reached the bottom much quicker than I had thought possible and headed along the last mile, parallel to the river, to Bacag. Crossing a small stream, my foot came down sharply on a rock, probably because of inadequate light, and made an instant blister on the bottom of my big toe. But it was only a few minutes later, at 7:45, that I walked up to Vice-Mayor Molina’s house, much to Mickey’s surprise, and felt her loving, welcoming hug. Praise the Lord!