Growing up, we lived on a few acres at the end of a dirt road, bordered on two sides with woods. Austin and I made fast and forever friends with the kids who shared another side and had even more property.. We spent countless hours exploring those woods, always in a pack and always finding something to get into. They really weren’t that dense or deep, but we had such a sense of independence in being able to roam.
Years later, Michael and I bought our first house in a small neighborhood not too far from where I grew up. Just about a week before Austin disappeared, he found himself depressed and unable to settle down in the house for the night, needing some space and time to wander. He cut through a neighbor’s yard and out into the woods, wandering much of the night, even though the pain in his knees grew with each step. I had been alerted to his mental state by a friend, and I worried but had no idea what was coming. When asked about what was going on after finally coming in, he insisted he was okay and had just needed some time. A few days later, he again insisted the same to my mom when she came to visit, and after hours of conversation with him, she also didn’t know how serious it was or what was to come.
The morning after we realized Austin was missing and the report had been filed, those woods were walked and searched by several people who had no formal training, but were driven to find him. I’ll never forget my Dad searching ceaselessly, and worrying that he couldn’t withstand much more of the heat and terrain with his breathing difficulties. But he wouldn’t stop until he felt he had covered it all. I was so worried about him holding up for what might take days or weeks. I had no idea it would be years.
There were more woods in that area than I ever could have imagined. We had no idea what needed to be covered, so we traversed it all the best we could. We called in volunteers and friends, had family drive hours to help (time after time) and kept at it. But we couldn’t believe how many square miles of woods were around us, the aerial maps astounded us. What was also hard to believe were the numbers of people living in them. There were whole families, young kids to elderly people, all making their home right there. They were off the beaten path, and out of the public eye, so easily overlooked or forgotten. They were mostly kind, mostly offering hope that he would be found.
The sheer amount of woods and the people living there made such an impression on everyone involved. How could we live right there all along and not really see what was there?
But what I’ll never forget about those early days, more than anything else, were the friends in the woods. Each of us had friends involved, and I’ll forever be grateful to them all. But the ones that stand out to me the most are the friends who never knew Austin, yet quietly and without being asked went into the woods. I am rarely caught without words. However, I’ll always remember when I heard about a group of five ladies who ventured into the woods together to help. They weren’t asked. They didn’t want to be thanked. They faced fears of spiders and snakes, got dirty and scratched. They gave me hope. Several months later, another friend casually mentioned that he felt sure Austin wasn’t in a specific area because he had been searching there. I looked down as he spoke and realized that his arms were covered in scratches that were quite bad. He had not been asked, and didn’t want to be thanked. He gave me hope. I had no words to thank any of them then, and barely do today.
As a kid, the woods were magical but as an adult they’ve become a place of learning. Learning about Austin’s last days, learning about seeing what’s around us, and most importantly about how real friends will go anywhere, even in the woods.