WIND OFF THE NEARBY CONTINENTAL Divide by now has erased the footprints our group stamped around Rocky Mountain National Park searching for my lost boy at sunset last Sunday.
But the scramble to find Andy, 8, as we did, haunts me still.
Parents push the panic button when a child goes missing somewhere between frozen food and canned goods aisles at King Soopers.
Imagine losing track of a kid at dusk around an alpine lake that sits at a 9,450-foot elevation in a national park on Oct. 30.
Looking back, I see how this happened.
I figured that my middle son would be safe on the switchbacks up from the Bierstadt Lake parking lot as he hiked between the lead adult and me bringing up the rear with my youngest son, Ray, 6.
Many times that afternoon I watched Andy hiking above me on the terraced trail — a perspective akin to watching shoppers on escalators zigzagging to higher floors in mega malls.
Andy circled back to me along the way before pushing on and somewhere going rogue.
When our party regrouped above to hike together to Bear Lake, we shouted for him and only wind whispering through the pines answered.
A very deep and utterly unfamiliar fear gripped me then.
I dropped to my knees to pray, and then we three adults quickly carried out a rag tag search and rescue mission.
Tammy Zarn, my old college roommate visiting from Wisconsin, and Ray stayed at the switchbacks to catch Andy if he returned.
Her nephew, Reed Larson, a soldier stationed at the Fort Carson Army base near Colorado Springs — sprinted around Bear Lake twice.
My oldest son, Carl, 10, and I took left turns at trail forks to veer away from the lake before doubling back to the shore. Every few minutes we cupped our hands to shout, “Aaaaaaaaaaaandeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!”
When we met three college girls, they told us they passed him — a blond boy wearing a red Trout Lake Camp sweatshirt — on the bridge 30 minutes earlier.
“Why didn’t you grab him?” I wondered aloud.
Honestly, though, I don’t think they viewed him as lost. He never asked for help and didn’t seem distressed.
It was about 5:15 p.m. and there — by some miracle — I could call my husband, David, on my cell phone. He called the Estes Park police who dispatched a RMNP ranger.
Meanwhile, Carl and I dashed along the path strewn with rocks and twisted tree roots to overtake Andy.
But he was long gone…
With the inky slime of fear getting in my eyes, I knew we needed to focus on faith instead to stay sharp, swift, and big hearted.
The most important fork for us that day was not on the trail, but in the soul.
Carl prayed aloud with his fingers laced as we hustled along.
I lifted my hands and breathlessly sang songs to God through those woods and, like Carl beside me, I prayed aloud — in a froggy voice told God all about how I let the chain of custody break. Told him all about my fault.
And I asked him to hear my broken heart and to please wrap his lovin’ arms around Andy until we found him.
When a 402 area code call buzzed my phone, I answered, and a smallish faraway voice filled my ear.
“Hi, Mom…” Andy began.
He had crossed paths with a couple from Nebraska, and Andy remembered the ten numbers I have taught him since his preschool days.
How many times have I repeated another preschool-era guideline to myself and my kids — “We are Jell-O, not jellybeans” — whenever we cross streets or shop at Costco or line the holiday parade route in Longmont?
Reed soon caught up to Andy and the couple, and Reed used his tiny cell phone flashlight as they emerged from the woods like miners from a coal mine at quitting time.
At home, Andy scarfed chili by then overcooked in the Crock-Pot. He took a hot shower, and David and I tucked him into his bunk bed above Ray.
Andy’s orange kitty cat, the one he named Bow and Arrow when he was 4, hopped on the denim bedspread to curl up there at his feet as they drifted off to sleep.
Thanksgiving is still weeks away.
But I am ready to celebrate it with feasting today because of what I learned at Bear Lake about mistakes and regrets, about fear and faith, about being lost and found.
And about help — seen and unseen.
Some footprints never leave tracks.