Mark Baxter still isn’t sure what to make of what he calls his recent misadventure near Damnation Creek — an afternoon jaunt that landed his girlfriend, Amy Regan, in ICU in Portland with a broken back and no feeling in her arms and legs.
“There was a bunch of stupid decisions all down the line,” Baxter said last week of what was supposed to have been an afternoon hike. “I got lucky. I got damn lucky.”
The two didn’t bring a survival kit, and were wearing sweatpants and T-shirts. A friend has since reassured them that their clothing sounded appropriate for a two-hour hike along a popular trail.
“At first, the trail was great, so we continued,” Baxter said. Eventually, however, “we needed to turn back; it was getting dark.”
When they did, Regan and her dog, Luke, slipped and fell down an embankment.
“I heard her fall, cry out, then a crash, then nothing,” Baxter said. “I called out, ‘Amy! Can you answer me!’ And I heard nothing … for minutes.”
When he did hear something, he didn’t think it was human. But it was, and it was Amy.
“I do not think I have ever in my life witnessed that much suffering and agony,” he said. “It is a sound I hope never to hear again.”
Baxter and his dog, Ezra, scrambled down the hill to her.
“She’d landed on her back, on the rocks at the bottom of an old creek bed,” Baxter said. “And she kept saying, ‘No! No! No!’ over and over ... and told me she couldn’t feel her legs.”
Baxter struggled back up the incline and worked his way about a quarter-mile down the dark path until his cell phone finally got one bar. It took at least four 911 calls — and disconnects due to poor reception — before he was able to relay their situation to the Del Norte Search and Rescue Team.
No, he didn’t think he could get back to his vehicle. No, he couldn’t describe where he was.
They tried to ascertain his GPS coordinates, and Baxter’s phone died.
A few hours later, he was getting cold. He had the dogs with him, but he’d left his sweatshirt with Regan.
And he couldn’t tell if rescue crews were approaching through the thick trees and the dark night.
Baxter is blind.
Mark and Amy
The 44-year-old Brookings man met his girlfriend on Facebook — he the disillusioned musician and she looking for a new life away from the strip-mine town of Butte, Mont. She joined him here six months ago.
Amy has her own challenges, Baxter said, with psychiatric issues and a condition that leaves her in constant pain. Hence her service dog, a lanky German shepherd with steely copper eyes.
“But we instinctively knew we were real (emotionally) close,” Baxter said. “She is the most loving, caring, intense person I know. She is the bravest person I’ve ever known.”
Saturday, Baxter wasn’t feeling so brave, he said. He periodically shouted out for the rescue team. He huddled with the dogs. He listened.
“I’d done all I could do,” he said.
The hikers had thought they were still on Damnation Creek Trail so rescue workers were sent down the trail’s 1,000-foot descent to the ocean, but found no one in the darkness. They turned around and climbed back up to where the trail is intersected by the Coastal Trail. One group then headed south and another north.
The team that went north eventually found Baxter, who heard someone calling his name.
In many ways, it was just the beginning of their travails. It took hours to get Regan backboarded and out of the woods. It was 3:30 a.m., about 12 hours since they’d set out on the hike.
As Baxter walked out with a Search and Rescue volunteer, they talked about the dogs, the school that had trained Ezra, dogs in general.
“I think he was mostly just trying to take my mind off what had just happened,” Baxter said. “And as beat-up and tired as I was, I cannot imagine what it was like for Amy to be stretcher-borne out of there.”
He got a ride home from a park ranger; Amy remains in intensive care at Oregon Health Sciences in Portland with a broken thoracic spine, three broken ribs and a collapsed lung. Ezra is sore and tired; Luke is confused and sad.
“It’s very possible Amy could recover from this,” Baxter said. “It’s too early to tell. They’re just caring for her day to day. I don’t know anything about her prognosis. And I have not yet stopped sending my gratitude to ‘Dog’ for walking with me, for saving our lives.”
Deep in the dark
Numerous elements resulted in their survival that night.
“The reason we got through that was my martial arts skills, keeping a level head, and doing what you have to do,” Baxter said. “It’s been a theme of mine throughout my life.”
“It is horrifying, and also amazing,” said Dawn Nelson, a friend of the couple who lives in Nevada. “It’s a testament to the power of love, the abilities of guide dogs, the service of others, and the ability to do what needs to be done, despite nearly insurmountable obstacles.”
Baxter, born blind, has always refused to think that way.
“When it came to anything at all — from high school and passing an exam, from riding a bike to going camping — I had to blaze the trail,” he said. “I had to tell everybody that, ‘Yes, I can do this; don’t put me in that box.’”
He sought out experiences, began “collecting skills,” overcompensating to prove to sighted people that he had no weaknesses, no disabilities, that he was no different than them.
“If I had been sighted, I would have been immobilized,” he said of the couple’s ordeal last weekend. “How a species can evolve with a dominant sense that is useless 12 hours a day ... I just don’t get it. My skills don’t involve sight at all.
“Hearing,” he said, “is a more beautiful and useful sense.”
That comment, from a man who is also profoundly deaf.
He is a tactile human, feeling the world around him through his feet as he walks, through pressure changes in the air as surroundings change.
“Ask the land where to go,” he said. “It’s getting in nature, sitting with Earth. Am I getting too New-Agey here?”
He attributes that to Sensei Toda Yoshi, Baxter’s martial arts instructor. With the attitude of ‘just do it,” the then-26-year-old learned the ancient Japanese tradition of Shaolin Kempo Karate.
There are a lot of fist, foot and body moves in karate, but there are also the soft skills of the warrior: focusing the heart, power and energy through the mind and into the body, Baxter explained.
“I credit him with helping me save Amy because without his teaching, I would not have been able to channel the panic in my heart, through my mind, into my body, into actions, that got us out,” Baxter said. “Without what I know about balance, and the strength that I have through keeping up my exercises, I would not have had the physical ability to get out.”
Other skills he learned through Tom Brown Jr.’s “tracker school,” a nature and wilderness survival school based in New Jersey, where participants gain a “closer attachment to the Earth and the skills and philosophy to live in harmony and balance with creation.”
“That’s what helped me stay on the trail, stay safe, and be calm enough in the dark, in the night, in the woods, to use the skills I had to get us out,” Baxter said.
Even though Regan’s out of the California woods, she isn’t out of the medical woods.
The most recent report Baxter has on Amy is that she has a shattered thoracic vertebrae near her neck — surgeons put a permanent metal rod in her spine for stability — and while she cannot move her arms or legs, she can wiggle her hands and toes. She has five broken ribs and a ruptured lung.
“With rehab, we hope this will get a lot better,” he said. “I constantly send my gratitude to the great spirit for the intervention I know I received, information from the land and my dogs and the night itself, which allowed me to stay oriented, sane, and on the path to rescuing her. This will all get better; it’s the waiting for Amy to come back that’s the hardest part for me.
“It’s far from over,” he added. “I frankly have no idea what comes next. I will not consider her rescued until she is back with me.”