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Victoria Grover has always loved being out in the wilderness, but she’s learned a rule about making mistakes.
"You get three mistakes," she says. "The first mistake, you’re probably going to recover from that, and everything’s going to be fine. The second mistake, it’s a little bit more difficult. The third mistake kills you."
Six years ago, Victoria traveled from her home in northern Maine to southern Utah to do some hiking. For this busy, 59-year-old physician assistant, this was going to be a well-earned vacation.
On her first day, a Monday in April, she found an interesting trail on a map. She went down to the front desk at her guest lodge to ask for directions to the trailhead.
"The last thing I said to him was that I’m going to be going, and I’ll be back no later than 8 or 9 o’clock," Victoria says. "And I think I asked him, if there was any supper, if they could hold it for me. And he said, yes, they could do that. And I looked him in the eye and said, 'So, I’ll see you tonight,' and he said, 'Fine.' And I left."
The First Mistake
Victoria drove down a road called Hell’s Backbone, and soon she was exploring the red rock cliffs and canyons of the Box-Death Hollow Wilderness.
"I don’t know if ecstasy is the right word, but I was just really, really happy," she says. "It had been so many years since I’d been there, and so many years since I’d been able to do anything like that. So I felt like I was flying down that trail. And I got down the trail. And then I, kind of, went up more into the hills, and I got higher up. I was so happy.
"And all of a sudden I noticed that it was getting dark."
Victoria immediately started heading back for her car. But before long, she had to pull out a small flashlight she carried in her emergency kit.
"As it got darker, that little flashlight was just pathetic. And I got more and more frantic because I did not want to have people come looking for me," she says. "So I just kept going faster and faster. And I slipped at one point, and skidded about 3 or 4 feet down towards a 20- or 30-foot cliff. And that was the point when I stopped. And I sat down, and I said, 'You're going to die of stupidity if you keep going tonight.' And I said, 'I guess I’m spending the night here.' "
Forty years earlier, when she was 19, Victoria had taken a month-long wilderness survival course in this same area. So, although she felt bad that the hotel staff would be worried about her, she knew she could take care of herself.
"And, of course, nobody’s made a fire out there in a million years, so there was lots of dead wood," she says. "And I had a very nice fire, and watched the stars, and listened to coyotes, and had a nice night. It got quite cold, but the fire was really good. And I kept it going all night."
As soon as the sun came up the next morning, Victoria headed back toward her car.
"The wilderness is safe. It’s safe. It was safe then. It still feels safe now. It’s civilization that’s so anxiety provoking."Victoria Grover
The Second Mistake
"So I started going down. I picked out what I thought was a good, safe route to go down. It was a series of little ledges into a bowl," Victoria says. "It had been a waterfall at some point, anciently. So what I was doing was throwing my gear over the edge and then lowering myself down, over each little four- or five-foot thing."
She did fine until the very last ledge. But on that one, as she dropped to the ground, she lost her balance.
"And I fell sideways," she says. "And my left leg hit a rock that was just angled at the right angle to shatter several — the bones in my left lower leg in several places. And I looked at my leg. And my knee was facing up, but my foot was lying on its left side on the ground. And I thought to myself, 'Oh, I have a tib-fib fracture.' "
As a physician assistant, Victoria was more than qualified to diagnose her own injury.
"And the next thing I thought was, 'Well, at least they’re already looking for me,' " she says. "And then the thing I thought after that was, 'That's my second mistake.' "
Victoria knew she was in trouble. This was a bad injury, and there was no way she was getting out on her own power now. She fashioned a splint for her leg, then started making as much noise as she could.
"I yelled three times. I had rocks I would bang three times," she says. "I didn’t have a whistle, but I had other — you know, I’m a pretty good yeller. And I did that all day."
By late afternoon, Victoria realized she could be on her own for another night. She started dragging and scooting herself toward a stream and got there just as the sun was going down.
That gave her access to water, but with night coming on, she had another problem. The temperatures were near freezing, and the only thing she had for warmth was a dollar-store poncho. She discovered that if she wrapped it over her head, she could capture some of the warmth from her own breath.
"About every five or eight minutes, I had to take the poncho off — because there was so much condensation inside — I had to take the poncho off and shake it. And then I would turn it inside out, and then I would wrap myself all up in it," Victoria says. "But that was my night."
'Today, They're Going To Find Me'
The next day was Wednesday. Victoria had told the lodge she’d be back on Monday night, so she figured, by now, they’d have alerted the authorities and have a full search team out looking for her. She napped when she could, and the rest of the time she continued yelling and banging on rocks.
But the hours passed, and again, by evening, there was no sign of anyone. She was hungry and cold. But then, that night, it started to rain.
"And then, after a while, I realized that the flowers all around me were blooming," she says. "'Cause it smelled really good. In the desert, the plants bloom at night, in the dark, and they do it only after it rains. And it just smelled, for about two hours, the smell was so wonderful.
"So Thursday morning came, and I said, 'OK, so today they’re going to find me.' I mean, Monday night. I told them I’d be back Monday night. This is Thursday."
But again, the day passed, and no one came.
"That’s the one evening that I remember crying and getting mad and yelling," she says. "I just didn’t want to spend one more night shivering all night. You just shiver violently. It’s like jumping into a cold, icy lake, and not being allowed to get out. There is no place, not one place, where you aren’t excruciatingly cold. And the shivering is just as bad as the cold, because it’s so exhausting. It’s like doing pushups and never being allowed to stop."
Victoria made it through that night, but the next afternoon...
"I realized that I had not needed to pee for a while," she says. "And I knew that was a bad sign. So I knew that what was happening was that my kidneys were beginning to close down. And so, that night, it started to get cold. And I did not start shivering, and I knew that that was bad, too.
"And that was the first time I said to myself, that night, I said, 'Well, maybe I’m not going to survive.' You know, I still thought they were looking for me, but I was thinking, 'Maybe they’re going to find a body, not a living person.'
"And then, the next morning, they came. Just in time. Just in the nick of time."
'No One's Been Looking For You'
A search helicopter had spotted Victoria lying next to the stream. She’d been out in the elements for five nights by then. The searchers were amazed when she sat up and waved at them.
They wrapped her up in some blankets and flew her to a local hospital.
"So I called my husband. And told him I was OK, and I was sorry that everybody had spent so long looking for me — that I’d inconvenienced everybody so much," she says. "And he said, 'No one's been looking for you. No one even knew you were missing.'
"And that was when, emotionally, the bottom, kind of, fell out of my psyche."
They took her off to surgery before she could learn any more. The next morning, she woke up to the telephone ringing in her hospital room.
"It was some woman calling from Anderson Cooper's office in New York, saying, just in this big, bubbly — 'Oh, we’ve heard all about your story, and we want to fly you to New York. And we want you to be on television. This is so inspiring, and Anderson Cooper wants to see you,' " Victoria recalls. "And I said, 'I’ll talk to you later.' "
And that was just the beginning. Reporters kept calling, and she kept putting them off. She was fine taking responsibility for her own mistakes, but there was something she didn’t want to talk about.
"I didn’t want to say, 'I told somebody where I was going and when I’d come back, and I have no idea why he didn’t tell anybody when I didn’t come back,' " she says. "I don’t know why.
"And all these reporting people who were suddenly so fascinated would get a whole new story. They’d get a story about: 'This woman almost died because this young man neglected to tell people where she had gone. Shame on him.' And they would all go down, all those sharks, and eat him alive. And I didn’t think I felt comfortable being responsible for doing something like that. So I had no idea what I was going to say.
"The only alternative to that story was, 'I was so stupid. I walked out in the desert and broke my leg. And I had never told anybody where I was going.' Which I’ve never done in my life."
The phone calls kept coming. Finally, Victoria agreed to do an interview with some local reporters. She hoped to avoid the whole topic of whether she’d told anyone her plans. And it almost worked.
"So they came. And we got through an hour or so, or 45 minutes, of this interview. And they asked me different stuff," Victoria says. "But then, it was finally all over. And I thought, 'Good. I got through this. I got through this without ever having to answer the question, 'Did you tell anybody?'
"So they were packing up and winding up. And the guy who was the TV station reporter, as he was packing up, he says, 'Well, I guess you’ve learned your lesson. You’re never going to go hiking again without telling somebody where you’re going.' And I was tired, it was the end of the day, and I found this particular young man very annoying when he said that — very patronizing, right? And so I kind of mumbled and said, 'Next time, I’m going to be more careful about who I tell.'
"And I remember this so clearly: everybody in the room froze. Then the TV person turned to me, and he said very slowly, he said, 'You didn’t tell anybody where you were going, did you?' He said it exactly like that. And I looked at him, and there was a silence for about 10 seconds. And I said, 'No.'
"And then he said, 'Oh, OK.' And they all packed up. And they left."
Several days later, Victoria was able to talk to the owner of the guest lodge, and it was only then she was able to piece together what had happened.
Not long after Victoria had left on her hike, that young man she’d spoken to at the front desk finished up his shift and then left for a few days vacation. He didn’t tell anyone her plans, and no one at the lodge noticed she was missing until she failed to check out on Thursday. They called the sheriff’s office the next day, and that’s when the search finally began.
'I Forgive You'
It’s now been six years since Victoria was stranded out in the desert, and she’s had time to think.
"As time went by, after that whole experience, if there was one thing that I knew I did right, after coming off the desert, as ashamed as I felt — as all those feelings that you get after you've been lost and people have to rescue you — as bad as those feelings were at the time, the further I got from it so it wasn’t so bad, the more glad I was that I had not sacrificed these other people for my ego’s sake," she says. "I was a much happier person."
"If that young man happened to be listening to this broadcast right now, and you had a chance to talk to him, what would you want to say to him?" I ask.
"I’d say to him, 'I’m over it.' I hope he is, too. He made a mistake. And, fortunately, I lived through it. And, you know, it’s OK. Don’t agonize about it. I forgive you.' "
Victoria is back in Maine again, running her busy medical practice and still heading for the outdoors any chance she gets.
"The wilderness is safe," she says. "It’s safe. It was safe then. It still feels safe now. It’s civilization that’s so anxiety-provoking."
This segment aired on May 12, 2018.
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