Captive Backpacker Suffers Helsinki Syndrome

Slide-show links  photography by Carole Scurlock, Bob Hansen, and Rey Reed.

I was taken prisoner for six nights and seven days by a Sierra Club Local from southern California. I am now suffering from Helsinki Syndrome. I fell in love with my captors.

They marched me up tall mountains, some more than 11,000 feet above sea level. They led me into an isolated northeast corner of Yosemite National Park. They did not need to blindfold me for the sun was blinding at those dizzying heights. My vision was filled with blue sky so deep it had the loft of velvet. Scintillating, light-reflecting lakes with diamonds bouncing off the surface finished (Finnish-ed )the job. For I was a captive audience. They didn’t need to lure me by appealing to other senses, say, like filling the air with a fragrance so divine – of pine and vanilla of wood baking in sun. But they did.

They insisted I stay between our Leader and someone called Sweep. I noticed that more than one of them was named Sweep. They were not very talkative, so I didn’t ask a lot of questions. In fact, they lacked a sense of humor. I mean no one laughed when I suggested the setting was perfect for a golf course, condo complex, spa, and pool.

We slept in a base camp in this far corner of utter wilderness where we saw almost no one else for the entire week, not even a black bear. We did see lots of deer and other wildlife. Mercifully, this Group had mules carry in our supplies for the tenure of our captivity. I was lured by color. Flowers bursting like songs from the high country where we were sequestered. My heart leapt with joy at the sights and sounds. Although it was later declared an infraction, I was able to pitch my tent not far from a creek, called Return, that sang louder by night than by day. Oh my, the color, the flowers. The lupine, paintbrush, groundsel, arnica, columbine, tiger lilies, penny royal, asters, and so much more.

Soon enough I forgot I was a prisoner and that one day my time would be up and I’d be set “free.” One afternoon, nine of us prisoners were led cross-country, which is code for “on a trail you will never find your way back to camp on alone if you try to escape.” Group meant group, they said.

I had no intentions of trying to escape. Except for a few brief moments as we traversed the brushy slope with many boulders jutting out like old bones, with low-growing willow, drainage ditches, grassy patches. And then voila our way opened upon a spreading field of shoulder-high delphinium more purple than the sky over Santa Fe. I nearly hid amid the nodding stems. Just to lie and die there was enough at that moment. But alas, I’d be missed – they took a head count every few feet and my head stuck out because it was the only one not covered in a hat – which I had lost on the trail in. And besides, I’d miss the big event of each day: Happy Hour.

Yes, the captors held this thing called Happy Hour every day at 5 pm. They brought out canned fish, nuts, cheese, crackers, olives, nuts, corn chips, and more victuals than you could shake a walking stick at. And they put out these big boxes filled with a potion that was intoxicating. The boxes were labeled FRANZIA, which I’ve come to believe is Latin for Truth Serum. Hey, they couldn’t fool me. One sip and I was fired up, found myself telling the truth—how much I loved being held captive in these mountains, how I didn’t miss electricity, lights, indoor plumbing, or my car. They nodded happy as a delphinium. I said how I wished they would never release me. They all just took in, nodded silently again, stalks of delphinium. I think that was because most of them had brought these sun showers while I was left to bathe daily in the icy creeks, imagining the baptism of renewal I was getting amid these peaks and trees. I wondered if any of them—the trees, that is—were virgins.

One night after Happy Hour, I even divulged my secret life back in the city: dancing tango. A hush went through the crowd. In concert, they all took a giant step backwards. At first I thought they were showing me how they knew step number one of the 8-count tango basic. But then I realized they were afraid I’d start in hugging them all. I must have had that hungry (for tango) look in my eyes. The next night I hummed Hernando’s Hideaway and grabbed a leader to dance torso to torso. He demurred – I have a wife. Oh, I was getting out of hand. After all, I was the captive, not he.

While leaning into another human was frowned upon, hugging trees was outright encouraged. There were many lodgepoles and some Jeffrey pines sending their vanilla fragrance into the sun-baked air. We saw at least one white-barked pine. In one of the slide show I hve linked to, you can see a photo of a leader demonstrating how to hug a tree. Notice that the tree is hugging him back. “Have you hugged a tree today?” might have been the logo on their T-shirts.

The daily marches were filled with terms of endearment, not for each other, but for the ridges, flowers, trees, the views around every turn in a trail, the tongues of talus and scree. I was never allowed to go out on the trail alone. That seemed to work OK for me until the last morning. But first, about the fly fishing.

We had arrived on a Sunday. On the following Friday, the sixth day of captivity, I got inspired to go on a hike with one of the captives who professed to be a fly fisherman. Makes sense, Friday was always fish day in my home. (Actually, there were two fisherman, but the other one said his fishing spot was a secret and he wouldn’t show it to me.) D— and I headed down Return Creek, a valley to inspire and move the imagination to paroxysms of grandiosity, not to mention loss of breath. In a vast length of valley, there were many downed trees, seemingly from a natural event such as heavy snow, avalanche, or high waters, about 20 or 30 years ago. The downed logs were all silvery, smooth, and in beautiful decay, spelling out some message we couldn’t not decipher. The power of elements always stuns and silences.

Just when I thought it safe to ask D to plot an escape with me, he revealed to me that he was one of “them.” He was training to be a leader and take other groups of captives into the backcountry and show them how to love trees and the wilderness. I should have guessed as much, as the day before he went on a field trip with Them, learning to use a compass and topo map to get his bearings and be able to go cross-country. I saw no downside to walking the paths and trails already worn over time by millions of feet, since who knows when. But this group was big on cross-country jaunts.

So, I spent the whole day with D and I learned to cast a fly line: You hold it at one o’clock, then eleven o’clock, pause, then cast and let your line present itself on the water. I learned how to strip and mend as needed. I learned to tie a caddisfly and to moisten the knot with my saliva – the knot is called a clincher. No barbs on the hooks. If D had a hook with a barb, he cut off the barb with a pair of scissors. I learned to catch (got two) and release – and about all the strikes and ones that got away.

Late in the afternoon, D and I strolled back toward base camp, lamenting how the trail had been lengthened since the morning – at least it seemed. We made it back just in time for our last Happy Hour. It was a great last night and I slept well, eager to rise early, break camp, and be released like a trout back to its stream.

I wanted to get out the wilderness early enough to drive the length of I-395 in daylight, given my poor night vision. But the Captors were big on discouraging my walking out alone. Too late in the day, I learned that all I had to do was sign off the trip—to release them (from confining litigation fear). Or to make a bad pun, all I had to do was log off.

And so it goes. I learned that I was free the whole time. The only prison bars was those of my own signature, my own making.