If you spoke to me or my family last week you probably already heard the story. Ricky McCarthy was lost, in the wilderness of the foothills, for 20 hours. A one hour hike turned into a nightmare for Ricky, his family and mine. Ricky has written an account of his experience and given it to me to post. It is an amazing account of survival. Once he is healed and the experience has faded into memory, it will be Ricky’s greatest story yet. Enjoy:
On Monday, September 12, I woke up in while it was still dark and ate a boiled egg, some sausage and piece of toast. I washed it down with a swallow or two of water, took my medicine and away I drove.
I was heading to the Huffmaster Ranch. It is 3000 acres of foothill wilderness about an hour north of Sacramento. The Ranch is a contrast of long open valleys with large oak trees, and manzanita covered steep hills. It is rugged and dry. The Huffmaster Ranch is bordered by other large ranches that have never been tamed. In the Summer and Fall, there is little water to be found by plant or animal. The hills reflect the classic golden vastness found only in the American West.
My two hunting buddies have been driving this road to the ranch with me for 20 years. The road to the ranch from Maxwell takes about thirty minutes and this morning felt typical for a morning “hunt”. Everyone was in good spirits and full of stories and optimism. Over the past twenty years I have listened to many hunting stories from the generations before me. The Ranch carries with it endless stories. Today I listened to a new story of how three men were trying to successfully shoot a deer without shooting one another. In seventy-five years of stories, the decisions of men on The Ranch continue to gather notoriety.
In my jeep I keep your typical survival supplies. I had a Long Range Green Dot laser, 2500 lumen flashlight, plastic bags, site glasses, snacks, water, cell phone, ammo pouch. I have been hiking and hunting for decades so everything I need comes with me. Today’s hunt would be no different.
We decided to start with a short hike at what we call Cultivator Canyon. There is a ridge on either side of the canyon and a road through the middle. As we arrived the canyon was still dark. The morning had not yet arrived to the west side of the hills. We decided to split up and Cliffy took the west hill. I took “The Divide” a final ridge that separates the canyon and foothills from Antelope Valley, a large valley on the next ranch. Franky was to drive the canyon road. It is a one to two hour hike and so we left all the supplies in the jeep. In an hour we would meet up and start the real hike. That is when the supplies might be needed. So we made our plans and I did not grab water or my cell phone. Just a little warm up jaunt in the early morning sun and I would be back at the jeep.
The plan was set and off we went. I was told that when I see a place to go down into the canyon I should take it and meet up at the rendezvous. I started my hunt keeping sight of Cliffy on the other ridge and all was good. It was 8 a.m. and the wilderness was bright and beautiful. As we began to climb, the darkness in the canyon was behind us. As I crested the ridge the sun shone bright. Looking south you could see other ridges stretching out, shrouded in mist and fog.
As I walked, I found myself at the end of the ridgeline and so I began to take the path down the canyon to the right. This is where my story really begins. Turning to the right took me away from the rendezvous. Turning right took me off the land I knew. Turning right out me into a deep canyon that I could not climb out of and into land that was not known to me.
At this time I was unaware of my mistake. I hiked along enjoying the pleasures of God’s creation. I observed the trees and hillside. I heard buck bugle behind me. I absorbed the silence and the stirrings of creatures all around me and it was beautiful.
It did not take me long to realize I was lost. The land was unfamiliar. There was no sign of my friends. The directions I had received no longer fit this terrain. My morning walk had turned into a hike. I came across an ATV trail and I hoped it would lead me closer to my friends. It did not. I fired the three of my five shots. I wanted my friends to know that I was officially lost.
The ATV trail took me to an old logging road and I decided to take this back to the ridgeline. I hoped it would lead back to the land I knew. What I found was very fresh bear and coyote scat and wild boar markings. There are plentiful opportunities during the day to see evidence of animals that live in the wilderness. During the day, typically the animals keep to themselves and are not seen. It is in the darkness of night that animals feel comfortable in their environment to roam and hunt.
As I walked the path, I saw rattlesnakes warming themselves on their rock homes on two occasions as I walked. Once I did not see the snake, but only heard the rattle. I moved away from all signs of danger and kept walking. The logging trail that I was hoping would lead me to safety did not. I walked farther and farther away from my friends and the familiar terrain. Without a compass or phone, I had nothing to lead me out. My only hope was in putting one foot in front of another. I was not aware of time. The day had slipped away but in my mind I was still on the one to two hour hike. I expected to turn a corner and find my hunting buddies eating lunch and laughing at my late arrival. I put one foot in front of the other, and with each step the day slipped away.
I only had two bullets left and I realized that I needed to keep them for protection. I walked, never stopping, climbing up the mountains and down the canyons until I came to a very high ridgeline road. The mountain was covered in brush on both sides. The brush is terribly dense and extremely difficult to push through. Now in the clearing on top of the highest ridge, I fired my fourth shell in hopes that someone might see me.
My mental capacities were severely tainted at this time by exhaustion and dehydration. I tried to use a survival skill of estimating the time of day by the shadows. I estimated the sun was still rising, because the shadows were long. Soon I realized the sun was in fact setting. It was almost 7:00 p.m. and beginning to become dark. I had walked the entire day and had yet to find any sign of help. I could not see a road, or a house or anything familiar. Soon it would be dark and I would be in this wilderness without a flashlight or any item to help me through. I could not accomplish finding my way in the light of day, and I was sure to fail in the darkness.
But with the setting sun I could see lights far in the distance. I had been unable, in the daylight, to see any sign to guide me, but here in the twilight I found hope.
With the coming dusk I needed to find any road. It was getting dark and I needed to stay on a road lest I stumble into a mountain lion’s den and fall prey. Any road would allow me some level of certainty and protection.
As I walked a 185 pound boar came out of the brush in front of me. He did not even acknowledge my presence. I debated using my last shell to get some protein and use the pelt for something to stay warm. At this point in the evening, my sweat soaked t-shirt was becoming a bit chilly. I decided to save the shell and instead yelled at the boar in hopes that it would move along. The boar just stopped, continued to eat grass and minded its own business. So I waited until it went back into the brush. This was the first sign that in the coming darkness the animals were waking and on the move.
As I continued to walk the ridgeline in the setting sun, I heard the Search and Rescue Helicopter. I prayed that it was for me. I prayed no one else was lost. The helicopter searched the mountain just to my right but they couldn’t see me. I was on top of the ridgeline waving my shirt and cap. Then the helicopter came directly over me. I was so relieved! I was saved! They had found me in this wilderness and I would not spend the dark night in this place! I fired my last shell to signal my location. The helicopter paused and then turned around and was gone. No helicopter ride. No rescue. No hope of sleeping indoors tonight.
This disappointment left me even more emotionally exhausted. I could not keep going all night. I decided to lay down. Unfortunately, I could not find rest on the ground because it was simply too cold. I needed to walk to stay warm.
As I was climbing, I fell down a mountain ridge. I fell head over heels, out of control. I slid down the shale rock face of the ridge on my backside and had a large wound from the fall. I did not want to go on. I did not have the strength. I did not have the will. I was ready to just hunker down in tall grass. So I did. Just as I laid down, I saw a small light in a window of a barn and a few cars going from my right to my left. I knew the lights of those cars, far off, were friends and family trying to find me.
I did not have it in me to get to the road and I was hoarse from yelling until could yell no more. I had nothing left.
I found a spot where I could lay down. There was an area with tall grass on the side of the mountain. I laid down and dreamt of feeling the heat of the first morning light. As I lay there I heard dogs barking and the sounds of coyotes returning the call. The nocturnal animals were coming out and on the move. Then to my left about 10 yards, I heard a pack of coyotes and their pups. I saw a couple of pups pop out of the brush. I couldn’t stay, I had to move. I could not be found between a pack of coyote and their pups. I slid down the hill into a small canyon. I crossed into an open area. At this time, I was aware of every animal known to live in the wilderness come to life all around me.
I had no shells left. I had fired my last round at the rescue helicopter. I had only my pocket knife. I knew I couldn’t go toward the coyotes and pups. I knew I didn’t have much strength left.
I checked the area for anything. The sky was completely dark as the moon had also set. I got to the bottom of the canyon and saw what seemed to be a car. I told myself if I want to survive, if I don’t want to continue hearing animals around me all night, I must push through one last time. I must get to the road.
The sky was super clear and gorgeous. I mean gorgeous. The vastness of the stars in the heavens was inspiring. So I stumbled on. I tripped through a multiple sunken holes in a field hoping it would be my last ravine crossing. As I took a step into the ravine, a rattlesnake started to rattle. I slowly backed away in the opposite direction of the sound. I climbed the ravine wall.
I saw a fence pole and figured there must be a fence attached. I collapsed with my back against it. For a moment I felt safe. The moment passed quickly because two wild boar came out of the ravine toward me. I quickly climbed over the barbed wire fence and laid on the other side. Again I hoped I was safe, but the boar kept sniffing around and came closer to me. So, despite my exhaustion and desire to just lay down and give up, I kept moving.
I crossed a dirt road and laid in the grass again. While I rested I got bit by two spiders. I decided I had no choice but to get to the house that I saw from the ridgeline. I was on a dirt road. I could not see it but my feet felt the change in the land. I drug my feet to make sure I could still hear the dirt of the road as I walked. I kept an eye out to see an opening in the trees, a visual path signifying a road below.
I walked and walked, my sense of time completely gone. Then in the starlight I saw a telephone pole. There must be a home nearby! I walked a bit further and could see a driveway. I drug my feet to make sure I was on that driveway all the way to the house.
The house belongs to an older lady named “Lady Bug.” I realized I needed to hide my rifle so she didn’t think I was there to hurt her. I knocked and knocked with no response. I heard a TV on. I waited for a commercial and knocked again. This time a voice came back. It was not a welcoming voice, instead she yelled and asked if I was drunk. It was three in the morning, we were fourteen miles from anything. She was as startled by me as I was by her question.
I quickly explained my situation and she came to the door with her pistol loaded and in her hand. After a few clarifying questions, she let me in her home, gave me some water and a phone to call my family.
By the grace of God I drove to Maxwell at 3:30 a.m. with no broken bones and no open wounds. My feet were blistered and I had deep bruising and scrapes from my falls but I walked to safety.
In the darkness I would not have blamed the animals for thinking of me as prey, as its their home, but they did not seem to not notice me. I received the following from my little buddy, Hope, who is five years old: “I was praying when Ricky was lost. In my mind I saw a tall Angel over Ricky. The angel had a big shining sword. He was there to keep the animals from Ricky. His sword shined a light so the animals can’t see Ricky.”
In the wilderness I learned that it is ok to rely on God. It is ok if He is all you have. If you keep walking, if you never give up, you will be amazed at the outcome. You may be sore at the end of your journey, but God will lead you through. Similarly, I learned that when God is the only one you have to talk to He will be there, in the darkness and in the light. He is there and He is waiting to have a conversation.
I want to thank all those who prayed, searched, supported my family, and never gave up hope.