I began solo hiking and overnight camping at an absurdly young age. One of my favorite things to do in late August, as the next school year loomed up, was to check out the entire summer reading list from the library and hike off into the woods near my home in central Virginia, not returning until I had plowed through all the books.
I had no idea what I was doing; we hiked a lot when I was a kid, but my knowledge of overnight backpacking was totally derived from a book someone gave me when I was about 10. (If I could remember the title, I would distribute copies of that book like Johnny Appleseed. It was a marvelous, straightforward introduction to how to pack, provide for yourself, and not get killed in the wilderness.) Everything else I know about hiking is self-taught, which means I'm still learning.
It was in those early years that I went through an unfortunate hiking rite of passage: I got lost. If you've never been lost in the backcountry, I can't begin to explain the profound sense of disorientation and panic that can take hold in the first moments after the realization that you don't know where you are. It's like being struck blind while driving on a busy highway. Your orientation of self in space is as profound a sense as any other, and when you lose it, the most common reaction is a kind of flailing, desperate run in search of something to orient yourself. (This is the worst thing you can do. I did it, until I forced myself to stop and get my shit together and solve the problem methodically.)
I've been mesmerized recently by accounts of wilderness search and rescue, and the complex integration of cartography, backcountry experience, and human psychology that goes into targeting searches to look for lost hikers. In a riveting series of blog posts, engineer and wilderness rescuer Tom Mahood chronicles his long search for two German tourists and their children, whose rented van was found abandoned deep in Death Valley, months after it had been reported missing by the rental agency. By the time he became fascinated by the case, they had been missing for 13 years - vanished, despite all efforts to locate their remains.
Owing perhaps to his engineering background, Mahood provides a lot of technical information on the intricacies of a rescue operation (or in this case recovery, when it's suspected that the individuals are already dead). This would be the stuff of some fantastically nerdy fiction novels. More descriptions of his "cold case" recovery operations, including the ongoing search for a man who disappeared in Joshua Tree National Park, are here.