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A Walk in the Woods : When you're lost in the mountains, you can either stay in one place and wait for the searchers, or you can take action to save yourself. The first way enhances your chances of being rescued. The second enhances your whole life

December 22, 1985|PAUL CIOTTI | Paul Ciotti is a staff writer for Los Angeles Times Magazine

When Gail Diane Cox went hiking, she talked out loud to God. It wasn't prayer so much as comment and critique. Coming across a particularly artful arrangement of sky, water, trees or rocks, she'd speak up in appreciation of God's handiwork. At the same time, she didn't hesitate to criticize when he blew it, as she felt he had with the view of Trinity Lake from the Stoddard Lake trail. The lake was so symmetrical and the water so blue it reminded Cox of a cheap calendar photo. "You're going commercial," she said. Three hours later he made up for it with a stunning view of Mt. Shasta, but by then she was too angry to enjoy it.

Cox was, at the time, on a three-week vacation at a rustic retreat in Northern California's Trinity Alps. Deciding on a Monday morning to go see the wildflowers of Stoddard Lake, she set off in a caftan and tennis shoes on what she had heard was an easy one-hour hike. Instead she found the trail both steep and indistinct, not to mention blocked by fallen trees.

Walking slowly in the summer heat, Cox entertained herself by singing "Seven Golden Daffodils" and mentally trying to spell the bird calls she heard. When she reached the ridge overlooking Stoddard Lake, her first thought was, "What a perfect place for a wedding." Trees framed a snow-spangled granite crag against a deep blue sky, under which shimmered the crystal waters of Stoddard Lake.

The view was so entrancing that on the way down to the water Cox didn't notice whether she was on the trail or not. As a result, when she started back home later that afternoon, she found herself following myriad crisscrossing game trails that petered out in piles of rocks and stands of manzanita.

She was annoyed, but not alarmed. She could always return to the lake and spend the night with the campers there. On the other hand, if she didn't return to her cabin the sheriff would have to organize a rescue party and Cox would look like a fool--not to mention the hysterics this would inspire in her 73-year-old mother.

As she wandered back and forth across the ridge, Cox found herself becoming increasingly cranky. Instead of the two large meadows she had seen on the way up, she now encountered a single, small sodden one that tugged at her tennis shoes. Once, coming across a large rock pile, she looked up and was startled to discover Mt. Shasta floating on the horizon, surrealistically perfect, covered with snow and wreathed in delicate shades of blue and green. "That's nice," she snapped. "Now where the hell's the trail?"

A self-confessed "city softie," Cox became nervous as the terrain turned steeper and more treacherous. The first time she fell, she stopped her roll with her walking stick. When she realized that she couldn't make it back to the trail head before dark, tears of frustration filled her eyes. "This is ridiculous. This is an hour's walk. What's wrong with me? Where's the trail?"

Although she hadn't exhibited much of it during her first day in the woods, Cox prided herself on her quick wit and common sense. Back in Los Angeles she worked as a reporter, covering the Board of Supervisors for the Daily Journal, the small but influential legal newspaper. At 40 she was regarded with awe by her co-workers for her prodigious memory, great contacts and a laugh that could be heard all over the newsroom. Because she was less angry than amused by the foibles of people in public life, her profiles of politicians and judges were all the more devasting for not being unfair.

This is not to say that her editor, Ken Jost, didn't occasionally criticize her poor spelling and her habit of treating inviolable deadlines as mere advisories. But those were small matters. She never lacked for story ideas, and she was also unusually self-reliant--one reason that no one was particularly surprised when she decided to vacation alone in the rugged, pine-covered Trinity Alps.

Cox spent the first two weeks taking walks and reading books on butterflies and basketry. She studied the history of Trinity County and visited museums and cemeteries. On hot afternoons she swam in Coffee Creek, sat on the porch of her alpine cabin making baskets from fallen pine needles, or read "The Magic Mountain" by Thomas Mann. A formidable cook, she had brought along a large clay pot of growing herbs--strapped into the passenger seat of her car--so she'd have fresh savory, tarragon and marjoram for seasoning omelets and stuffing the native trout. In the mornings, sipping freshly brewed French Roast, she'd sit on the front porch of the main building, talking to owners Fran and Don Lethbridge.

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