This is a story long needing to be told, because it will make those involved laugh. I hope. It may also make them cringe, but I’m already smiling as I start to write. In the early days of Austin being missing, we really believed that we’d be able to quickly figure out where he was, go get him and drag him home whether he wanted to be there or not. We had people ask what would happen if we found him and he didn’t want to come home…. well, mom just laughed and said not to worry, she’d take care of that. While it was certainly a difficult time, it was also a time of leads and possible sightings. It was a time of having somewhere to look. It’s a time I miss in some ways.
One possible sighting came in from the Northside area of Jacksonville, and we didn’t hesitate to jump in the car and drive all over the area. We stopped often, crossing property lines, peering in windows of abandoned homes, and investigating any spot someone could be camping in. During our drive, we came across the Jacksonville Baldwin Rails to Trails entrance, and the thought occurred that if you wanted to disappear, there was a lot of land along that stretch you could safely camp out in. So, we knew we should explore it. But 14 miles is a long way to search, and there had to be a better way to cover the distance. So, a new plan was developed by this savvy group of searchers. We could drive the trail at night when there wouldn’t be pedestrians, and would be less likely to be law enforcement to explain our illegal activities to.
A group of four strong, independent women set out close to 11pm, with a plan to go find him. Each time we set out, we truly believed that would be the time we succeeded. We drove very slowly, and each time there was an area of interest, we’d get out and search. It took us over an hour to cover it well, and I was so relieved as we reached the end. You see, I am terrified of getting into trouble. Blue flashing lights give me a panic attack, and it’s been true my whole life. It started with the horrid memory of a traffic stop when I was about five, though my parents swear I never had a traumatic law enforcement experience…..I’m not sure I believe them. But enough about my own craziness for now…
By the end, I was driving, having given up on walking the woods in the dark. It’s true, I have many fears. It seems my fear of being arrested for driving this crazy gang was less than the dark woods. One of our cohorts had been getting calls from her son all along the trail, and she kept reassuring him we were fine and no, he did not need to come rescue us. That last call had just been made when the trail abruptly ended and I somehow hit the curb, burst the tire and got the car stuck. You see, the trail wasn’t really meant for cars so it ends before the road. Apparently they weren’t planning for a car of women to drive it after midnight, so there were also no lights. We were tired and punchy and laughed hysterically. This is when it really got funny. To those of us in the car anyway.
My mom called AAA because we clearly needed help, but they needed to know where we were. That was a problem, we had no clue. We knew we were at the end of the trail, but no idea where that actually was, and there wasn’t a road sign for a half mile. The representative asked, “well, what road did you turn on to get there?” and wasn’t ready for the laughter that followed, since we didn’t really want to explain that we’d arrived there by 14 miles of bike trail. In the meantime, the cohorts son called back, found out what was going on, and within a short time had 3 carloads of people there to try to help, which really just meant waiting for the tow truck. Eventually, it arrived and got us lifted off the curb and back in business, ready to find our way home.
We didn’t find Austin that night obviously, but we did find support and laughter and healing that comes from such a night. We knew then, as we had been learning over those weeks, that we did indeed have people in our lives who would go through the woods in the dark with us. Not just metaphorically, but in real life if that’s what it took. I thank God daily for those who’ve walked those dark woods of all types with us.
For I am the LORD, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.