Lost for 17 days in a Hawaiian jungle, all alone in only a tank top and capri yoga pans, I’m not sure what I would do. Would I work past my fractured leg, blistered wounds and terror to survive? Would I eat mystery fruit and moths and sleep in the mud or a wild boar’s den? Would I do the things Amanda Eller did, or would I go crazy after two weeks and throw my emaciated body into a ravine?
A less plausible scenario for me would be doing what Nebraska farmer Kurt Kaser did. Having gotten his leg caught in a farm machine’s rotating steel blade (foot already gone), would I have had the guts to take out my pocketknife and cut the leg off? Would I have had the brute strength to then crawl about 200 feet to a phone to call for help? Or would I have stayed there alone on that day, screaming for help as I bled to death?
Both stories fascinate because they center on regular people who were not out looking for adventure. A 35-year-old physical therapist and yoga instructor, Eller thought she would be taking a short walk on a trail in Maui’s Makawao Forest Reserve, a path she had taken before. She didn’t even bother to take her bottle of water. Kaser, 63, was just moving grain between bins on his farm outside the town of Pender.
Kaser is someone to look up to for advice. His lesson, he said, was, “Take time and think — and don’t get in such a hurry.” That’s something we might consider the next time we rush absent-mindedly down a perilous flight of stairs.
But the bigger lesson from Kaser is not the easily learned one: the importance of staying calm in the face of catastrophe and carefully doing what must be done. “He was his own 911, his own pre-hospital, his own surgeon,” a surgeon at the Bryan Trauma Center in Lincoln said about Kaser. “He saved his own life,” he added, “and he made it very easy for us.” All the doctors had to do, really, was clean up the amputation.
Well, everyone is being modest here.
There are other lessons. Stay focused on the present. On this, Eller’s yoga practice must have helped. She later called her trial a “spiritual journey” to stay alive.
A few other practical pointers: Don’t go out alone without your cellphone. Both Eller and Kaser did that. Also, it helps to maintain physical strength. Eller was obviously in good shape through exercise, and Kaser through farm work.
As we’ve seen, Kaser’s feat of self-preservation was basically a one-man effort. Eller, on the other hand, survived not only through her own perseverance but also through that of her rescuers. Amazingly, they were volunteers.
The Maui fire rescue squad had stopped the search upon reaching its 72-hour limit on missing-person work — although it helped support the volunteers who took over. (One would be hard-pressed to blame anyone who stopped looking after more than a week.)
Even the experienced search-team members faced dangers in this very difficult terrain. They need machetes to cut through the dense forest. A wild boar attacked at least one of them. But the army of volunteers kept looking.
Recognizing that her happy ending was a group effort, Eller said, “This was all about us coming together for a greater purpose of community and love, and appreciation for life.”
Needless to say, she came from a very different cultural landscape than the Nebraska farmer. But both worlds made people strong in body and determination. Their stories must lead many of us must ask, Could we survive as they did?
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at email@example.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.