By Hal Walter
The phrase “No matter where you go, there you are,” could not be more true than it is for an autistic child. For when one is fully contained in his own mind, he truly cannot be lost.
And thus it was for my son Harrison one recent Saturday.
Since Harrison finally learned to ride a bike last spring, it has opened up a new world for him. And for his parents, too – now we can go for a run and he can ride along, sometimes pedaling for many miles. Lately he has gotten even faster and more independent.
Recently, I watched as he rounded a sweeping curve, maybe a half-mile or so ahead of me, and then vanished.
We live about 15 miles east of the town of Westcliffe and four miles by dirt road from Hwy. 96. Over these past months, Harrison has explored the dirt roads and trails in the area, and on occasion I’ve also allowed him to ride on the actual highway with my supervision. He often tracks his routes and looks for new ones using Google Earth on his iPad.
We’d had a disagreement before heading out that day. He had insisted that he did not need “supervision” while riding his bike. I told him that he needed to stay close and not get too far ahead. About a half-mile out I reiterated that he needed to wait up if he got too far ahead.
At about two miles out I saw him rounding the corner maybe a half-mile ahead of me. I could only guess he was heading for the highway. I thought surely he’d wait before going out on the pavement, but I was not sure. When I reached the curve where I last saw him, I could not spot him up ahead.
A neighbor drove up from behind and I hitched a ride. As Terri drove I explained to her what had happened. She is a retired teacher and knows Harrison from school. When we got to the highway, we looked both ways but could not see him. She drove about a mile east, and then we turned around and headed west toward Westcliffe. It’s nearly all downhill the 11 miles to town, and I realized he could be moving quite fast.
Terri had a cell phone so I called home and told his mother what had happened. Mary also got in her car and joined the hunt as we searched along the highway to town. My worst fear was an accident involving high-speed traffic. Harrison is not always really aware of his surroundings and doesn’t ride in a perfectly straight line. When we arrived in Westcliffe and had not found him, I had Terri drop me off at the sheriff’s office.
While driving to town I’d had a very short moment of panic and then went dead calm. I started to consider all the possibilities of where he could have gone, and also to form a plan. First, we needed to get Mary back to the house so she could be near a phone and let us know if Harrison had found his way home. Next, we needed to rule out that he had not taken the highway east, toward Wetmore.
From there, we could focus the search closer to home. Maybe he had turned into Bear Basin Ranch, or taken one of the trails. Since I had seen him rounding that curve, I was pretty certain he had not gone down the Brush Hollow Road, a county road that also leads to the highway. Bike tracks could provide a clue there.
As I explained to the dispatcher what had happened, I had visions of all the stories I’d ever read about autistic kids getting lost. The Custer County Sheriff’s office issued an alert, and three deputies were on the lookout, checking Hwy. 96 east to Wetmore, and also Hwy. 165. Meanwhile, I caught a ride with another deputy back out to the area where I’d last seen him.
As I rode along, there was discussion over the radio about the search. One of the deputies asked how severe Harrison’s autism is. I said that I didn’t know how to answer that. “On a scale of 1 to 10,” the deputy posed. Great question, but I still didn’t have an answer because Harrison’s reactions are situational, and to some degree, random. But it made me realize the deputies really were concerned and also maybe a little nervous about how to approach Harrison if they actually found him.
On the way back we stopped at various points of interest for Harrison. There’s an old road and bridge to Querida that’s been closed for years. He’s fascinated with it. No tracks. We continued on, checking roads, driveways and trails. All I found was just wind-swept dirt. I called home using the deputy’s phone to make sure he hadn’t come back. Mary was near tears.
We checked another major fork, known locally as Boneyard Road, and turned around.
And then I spotted him. Standing with his bike at a gate. The road behind that gate leads to the home of our friends Gary Ziegler and Amy Finger, who own Bear Basin Ranch. The road also continues on past their house and is a backdoor route to Uplift Mountain, a religious camp. I recalled right then that he’d been looking at Uplift Mountain on Google Earth earlier that week. Apparently he’d been back there exploring for the nearly two hours he was missing. I called Mary and told her we’d found him and that he was okay.
We drove up to the gate, and I got out of the sheriff’s vehicle. Harrison didn’t act like this was anything abnormal and cheerfully told me about how he’d found a “resort.” I listened to him chatter away happily for a while, before finally finding a pause to say, “That’s nice, but we’ve been real worried about you, and we had to have the sheriff help us find you.”
To this Harrison went berserk, exploding in shouts and wild slapping. The deputy watched this from his vehicle. He now had a demonstration of how the scale of 1 to 10 works. When Harrison finally calmed down, the deputy asked if we wanted a ride back. I told him no, we could make it back from there, and thanked him for his help.
Then we headed for home, Harrison quickly outdistancing me on his bike as I put one foot in front of the other in this life that seems to be spinning more out of control around every curve.
Hal Walter is a 30-year resident of Custer County and the author of Full Tilt Boogie – A journey into autism, fatherhood, and an epic test of man and beast.