The wilderness of the Pacific Northwest has never been what one might consider a hospitable locale. At times, the freezing, untamed wilds of Oregon are more like a primordial forest than a weekend camping destination. This is especially true if you happen to be a six-year-old boy, lost and alone in that untamed place.
Cody Sheehy is one of the few people to have traversed this sometimes inhospitable wilderness on his own. Despite 18 hours of bone-breaking walking and cold, Cody made it out alive and lived to tell his tale. After 32 years, he’s going back to retrace his steps and discuss how this amazing survival experience really did change his life.
When Cody Sheehy wandered away from his family, he found himself standing among the pine trees. The towering evergreens stood tall in the darkening sky, obscuring the setting sun. Cody had been used to living outdoors, his family were ranchers and he spent most of his time outside; but not in this type of rugged, untamed wilderness.
Little and Lost
Cody was only six years old. He was three and a half feet tall, he weighed a little under 40 pounds. The primeval world around him was as daunting as anything he’d ever experienced in his entire life. As he stood there, frozen with uncertainty, he wondered how it had come to that. He and his older sister Carrie had been playing while the family picnicked, but somewhere along the way, he’d gotten separated.
Carrie and Cody had been playing a game called explorers. Though this particular game would only prove ironic to them after Cody found himself lost in the unfamiliar woods, of course. They’d go off in opposite directions, find interesting things to show one another, then return to share their findings. On one of the subsequent trips, however, Cody didn’t come back.
At first, Carrie was merely annoyed that Cody had failed to return, but in time, the whole family became embroiled in the search for the now missing boy. As for Cody, he’d gotten turned around whilst heading back to the tree they’d marked as “base” and wandered into an unfamiliar meadow. By the time he’d headed back into the treeline, everything seemed wholly unfamiliar.
Back to Base
From there, Cody circled for a while. He left small footprints in the earth, but they went every which way. Even a talented tracker would have been hard-pressed to find out which way he went. A search party soon sprung up at “base.” Riders on horseback crisscrossed the Blue Mountains to find the boy, but came back to base unsuccessful as the temperature plummeted to just above freezing.
It wasn’t quite snowing in the Blue Mountains, but there were patches of snow dotted about the lower parts of the countryside. When he’d first gone missing, in his sweatpants, gloves, sneakers, and puffy, hooded coat, Cody thought that he’d be plenty warm to combat the setting sun. He was about to find out how wrong he was.
Before he went and got himself lost in the woods, Cody was the type of kid who spent his free time outside, away from the prying eyes of adults. His family were cattle ranchers and so Cody spent many days out hunting crayfish, hiking with his parents, or simply walking along the far-flung edges of the Sheehy property.
Not so Helpless
Cody was confident and well-versed in the ways of the wilderness. He had even hiked with his father in Inner Mongolia when Dennis Sheehy had worked for the International Fund for Agricultural Development. Thus it was that Cody picked up his feet and began the long trek back to his family. If they couldn’t find him, he’d find them.
Toughest Guy Ever
It is no surprise that Cody went right into survival mode, even at six years old. He learned from the best. His father Dennis was a Marine Corps vet who had crawled through a rice paddy to rejoin his own lost comrades during the Vietnam war. All this while bleeding from a gunshot wound. He was a rough, tough, cowboy and he never quit. How could Cody do any less?
Even standing in that unfamiliar meadow, Cody knew what to look for. He saw a dirt road leading away from the area and knew that it had to go somewhere. His assumption was that if he picked a direction and headed down the road, he’d end up somewhere – perhaps even somewhere settled. He ended up miles away from the area where the search party had begun.
Sit and Wait
Some argue that Cody should have just stayed where he was and waited for rescuers to show, but it was far too late for that. In this way, rescue parties can comb closest to where you were instead of trying to figure out which direction you headed off in. Instead, Cody followed his gut and marched down the road.
Wild and Running
Over the next 18 grueling hours, Cody walked approximately 14 to 20 miles. Luckily for him, he had picked the right direction. Instead of going deeper into the mountains, he had headed into the sparsely populated Wallowa Valley. His trip down into the valley would see him falling into a river, climbing a tree to escape coyotes, and risking hypothermia.
News Across the Sea
At the time, Dennis Sheehy was in Inner Mongolia, helping agriculturalists and farmers to take advantage of better soil. He hadn’t known at all that his son was even missing. If he had, he might not have worried. After all, he’d taught his children well. Though Cody’s mother, Marcie was more than nervous enough for the two of them. Though not entirely so.
Not Her Fault
If this story had happened now instead of in 1981, she’d have been chastised for her “negligence” all over social media. For her part, Marcie didn’t feel as though she was a bad mom. How could she? Cody and Carrie were both capable kids, and a picnic in the deep Oregonian woods was as normal for them as a walk through the cattle fields.
While Marcie was heading up the search, Cody was doing his best to survive. At one point, his primitive “reptile brain” took over and the cold, exhausted, starving young man had to hide in the bushes from a passing car. As he knelt down, he felt his ankles beginning to weaken. He didn’t know it yet, but he’d developed acute tendonitis in his ankles.
As he walked, slowing with exhaustion, Cody heard the frantic panting of the coyotes in his wake. Knowing the two canines were incapable of climbing trees, he dashed up the nearest one as fast as he could. He barely made it that time. But it wasn’t the coyotes that posed the most danger, it was the cold.
Cody was finally found. He was cold, tired, hungry, and the tendonitis put him on crutches for the better part of the following weeks, but he was alive and safe. Before long, the miraculous tale made headlines across the country. His grandfather, a cowboy poet, even wrote a ballad about his amazing journey. People from all over sent Cody letters of congratulation, money, and believe it or not, bibles.
Recently, Cody decided to return to the place where he had lost himself so many years ago. He wanted to retrace his steps and see what it was like. The original journey had been a transformative one, an experience that ultimately changed the way he was living his life. And who better to go along the route with than Everett Roberts, a member of the original search party.
Cody’s belief about the experiences is that getting lost truly pushed him to fight. It was a mentality he took with him wherever he went. “Over the course of your life, you push through a lot of physical barriers,” he explained to Outsideonline.com. “As a little kid, I had this opportunity to be tested and learn that there really aren’t any barriers.”
Cody concluded with, “I think a lot of people figure that out. They just might not figure it out at six.” As for Mr. Roberts, who is himself a Marine Corps veteran like Cody’s late father, he believes that it was fate that Cody should survive the ordeal. “His dad, Dennis, survived Vietnam. Maybe it’s just fate,” he explained.