I could have become a cross-country-skiing statistic, a carcass found after the spring thaw. Lost for 10 hours, hungry for 17, wandering 18 miles -- I got a whole new perspective on life and a new respect for blood and muscles.

That day, I saw the most beautiful sunset of my life -- an orange wafer nestled between two peaks of the Blue Ridge somewhere near Blackwater Falls, West Virginia. But as the sun lit the peaks, I cursed the coming darkness.

The day had begun before sunrise. At 5:30 a.m. I was putting together whole-wheat sandwiches with peanut- butter mortar and tossing them into my knapsack. That accomplished, I siphoned a few ounces of cognac into a silver flask and went to have breakfast with my friend Mary. I was excited -- I had done only downhill skiing when I lived in New England.

We headed out to the Virginia foothills to pick up another friend, Nelson, and continued into the wild, wonderful mountains of West Virginia. After a quick stop in Davis -- a town that seems permanently stuck in the '40s -- to rent ski gear for me, we careened through the Canaan Valley to Blackwater Falls Lodge. Nelson and Mary had skied there before and were eager to show me the pleasures of snowy trails under boughs of spruce on mountains mirrored in the Cheat River.

I asked whether I should haul along the fruit and sandwiches I'd prepared. Nelson and Mary retained fond memories of the homemade vegetable soup at the lodge; by mutual consent we opted for two hours of skiing, lunch at the lodge, and heading for home around 3. Mary had promised to meet her husband for dinner; I looked forward to soaking a few untried muscles, and Nelson was anxious to return to check the day's activities at his store. Nelson and I also decided to leave behind our down jackets, having properly layered from long underwear outward.

It was a beautiful day -- strong sun, cloudless sky, no wind. It all made sense.

The sun had melted a few patches on the trail. I got the hang of cross-country skiing rather quickly and fell only once. It was fun, it was exhilarating, and I was thankful that over the previous three months I had toned some tissue by swimming laps a few times a week. We passed a few groups of skiers trading advice about icy areas. At about 1:30 we were all hungry and ready to dive into three bowls of steaming soup. We each had a hit of cognac. Mary spit hers out. We decided to head back.

Or so we thought. In a rush to get on the trail and with the confidence that Nelson and Mary had conquered this wilderness a year ago, we had neglected to pick up a map. After all, they said they had kept crossing the road and were always within earshot of activity.

We found some state-park yellow-and-brown carved wood signs reaching out in various directions. We looked at the signs, our watches and the sun and concluded that "Lindy Run Trail -- 2 Miles" was the quickest way back.

We were wrong. We sensed it soon enough -- if three miles is soon enough. A few minutes later, after losing sight of Mary, I asked for the first time if she was okay. The answer was calm but plaintive. I trekked back to find that she had sunk into a muddy stream up to her waist. I helped her out, she shook off the water like a wet puppy, and we continued. Half a mile or so later, we saw a lean-to shelter and skied over to it, hoping for a map or a clue inside. I saw a large paper on the far wall. It was a register for campers.

We walked back to the trail, which was marked by evergreen sentinels slathered with fading squares of blue and yellow paint. We traded wishes like young children before Christmas. A hot meal, a shower, some rest, home. We were getting tired, my legs ached, and we were hungry -- we hadn't eaten save for a few dried apples in the car since six in the morning. It was about 3 o'clock.

We finally came to a crossroads in the trail. There were battered signs -- another one that said "Lindy Run Trail -- 2 Miles." It went downhill. It seemed to go in the right direction (I had no compass). We took it. The snow was suddenly three feet deep. We took off our skis and carried them -- sank into white stuff up to our tail bones and forged ahead. After two miles the trail dead-ended in a rhododendron tangle.

We kept to ourselves the expletives rising from our souls and resignedly traced our way back to the cursed signpost. We exchanged skis -- Mary's were vintage wooden models and twice as heavy as either Nelson's or mine. We were in this together, after all. At the top of the hill we heard snowmobiles, dogs and people! We quickly headed down another trail in their direction. I wanted to yell help. Nelson wouldn't let me. But we did find them -- on the widest and smoothest trail yet -- about 4. We flagged them down. They were reluctantly polite.

"Do you know where the lodge is? We're lost."

"About nine miles straight on this trail. At about seven miles you'll cross a toboggan run, then see some cabins . . . Can't miss it. I think you can make it before dark -- you have a good hour and half of sun left."

I breathed a thank you, checked my watch -- now frozen at 4:06 -- and dug my poles into the snow, which seemed to cover a jeep trail. Mary fell and I asked for the second time if she was okay. I expected a broken leg and got an "I'm fine. Just tired as hell. Are there bears out here?"

We weren't cold, yet. We were very hungry but we'd have a big dinner. My legs felt like Silly Putty. Maybe I was too used to the city. But it would be dark soon. What would happen? I began to have doubts. Nelson had doubts, Mary had doubts. We didn't share them.

We were getting scared. We polished off the cognac. Mary begged for seconds this time. We stopped at a stream and brought handfuls of crystal spring water to parched lips. I had to rest. Nelson and Mary begged me to keep walking. We exchanged skis again. We kept walking. We drank in an incredible vista -- we were on a ridge that dropped hundreds of yards to a wide river. Between two mountains ahead, a persimmon-colored blaze licked at the stony precipices. It was the most beautiful sunset we could remember. Maybe we thought secretly that it could be our last. But we cajoled onr another. Mary said she wanted to ditch her skis -- we convinced her she'd need them as props when she told her grandchildren of this fateful day. We laughed a little. I cursed the sunset aloud. It meant darkness.

We were incredibly good to each other. An already strong friendship became cemented forever. We prayed a lot silently, as we later confessed. We told ourselves stories about weaker people making it through worse circumstances. I had just seen a film about concentration-camp survivors who had escaped after months of internment and crossed the Alps to safety. I ran the images over and over in my mind. I think it kept me going. I was scared. For the first time in my life, I thought I was going to die. I wondered whether anyone knew enough about where we were to look for us.

At 7:30 or so, after two hours of walking in total darkness, we came to a wide stream. Again Mary suggested ditching the skis. They were digging permanent troughs in our shoulders. I would have to buy mine if I left them. About $70. What should I do? We went on. We somehow managed to search out stepping stones and no one got wet in the icy rushing water. Where were we going? It seemed like we had walked for nine miles. We hadn't eaten in 12 hours, and had skied or walked constantly for eight.

Mary fell. Again she said nothing was broken. I was selfishly relieved -- I don't know how I could have carried her. We came to another set of signs. I tried to focus on them. They spun. Nelson read them. If we could trust the signs -- we had reason to be wary -- Davis was 11 miles away. At least we knew something was somewhere if we continued. Somehow we did. Mary began to have lapses in logic. Nelson saw lights which I never saw. What had beee ban needs a few hours ago -- a hot shower, a snug bed, even food -- had become luxuries. All we wanted now was life itself.

We came to an even wider stream and the trail seemed to end. We saw nothing but trees on the other side. Mary cried, Nelson threw down his skis. My life was worth a hell of a lot more than $70. Why hadn't we done that miles ago? We held on to each other and waded across the stream. We held hands, hugged each other, walked like Dorothy and her compatriots through an unreal world.

I wanted a cave to crawl into. I wanted to spend the night. I didn't think I could go on. I thought alternatively of nothing, of everything. Someone would find us in the morning, I told myself. The moon was a sliver and barely lighted a path through the snow 10 feet in front of us. I would have stayed there and probably frozen. The wind whipping briefly across the ridge had died down, but the temperature had fallen to 13 degrees, as we later found out. Nelson and Mary wouldn't let me stop -- we had to keep walking.

It was nearly 10 when Nelson saw lights again. I saw them too, about 50 yards ahead and downslope from the trail. I somehow ran toward them. I saw what I thought was a campfire. I yelled hello. A voice answered hello. My brain still functioned well enough to know that it wasn't an echo. I saw a figure near the fire. I slid down the slope on my back.

"Stop. I'll come get you."

I couldn't stop, I slid, then ran and then collapsed into someone's arms, I think I cried.

"We're lost. Please help us."

"I'll go get them. Stay here."

Another body appeared by the fire.

"Are you okay?"

"Yes, I think so. I'm alive."

We had chanced upon the only two campers in the state park. They warmed us by their fire. We told them our story. They helped Mary get her frozen sock off her numb left foot. They served us warm Koolaid. It was the best thing I have ever tasted. They were spending the last of four nights camping near Blackwater Falls. The lodge was a mile and half from their campsite.

They were both named Jim and had been camping for years. We devoured a bag of green spearmint candy leaves. They had been just about ready to douse their fire and turn in. They wouldn't have gotten out of their tent if they heard strange voices in the darkness.

We had some warm applesauce. We stuck our toes near the flames. They gathered more firewood. They said the maps were terrible and the trails poorly marked. They had been lost themselves. They were saints. I think I told them that. They told us that we probably had had another hour or so of life left in us. I felt incredibly lucky. The relief engulfed my body and my psyche. We were warm, alive -- hot sugary liquids were sending reinforcements to the adrenalin that had pumped through us for hours.

We talked about frostbite and checked Mary's big toe, still numb and turning dark. I told them I had eaten snow to keep from dehydrating. They said that's one of the quickest ways to bring on hypothermia. The energy loss in melting the snow far exceeds the benefits of the few drops of liquid that trickle down your throat. I felt dumb but I was alive.

It was 11. We knew the lodge was a mile and half away. It was the first time we really knew, since about noon, where we were. We believed them. They were smart. They had saved our lives. They got up. They walked 20 yards to their tent and began to discuss our fate. I was ready to walk back to the lodge. We heard them agree to break camp and lead us to the lodge. We couldn't argue.

Next to the bed was a Gideon Bible. I opened to the table of contents. My eyes riveted on the eighth entry -- "Comfort in Times of Weariness, Page 368."

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. . .""ba