Survivor of the Issue: Marian “the Librarian” Shostrom


Megan Freeman, Editor-in-Chief

Walk in the Miramonte library today and you’ll probably find Marian Shostrom patiently teaching a class how to use the databases for research papers. Flash back to 1986 to the law library of the University of San Francisco and you’d likely stumble across a similar scene. That scene, however, would soon be interrupted by an incredible and harrowing experience that is still fresh in Shostrom’s mind 26 years later.

“I had just finished teaching a whole freshman law student class how to use the law databases and decided to go away for a four-day weekend,” Shostrom said. “A backpacking trip.”

The librarian had been on plenty of hikes before, but never overnight. She and her friend John Miller, an experienced backpacker, planned to spend the long February weekend hiking and camping in the federally designated Ventana Wilderness area in Big Sur.

“We left on a Friday and planned to be back on a Monday,” Shostrom said. “It was really pretty warm so we hiked comfortably, but the trails were overgrown. We kept losing the trail and then finding it again a little later.”

The pair spent the first part of the weekend enjoying the seasonably warm weather and the natural beauty of the ridges and valleys, but when it was time to pack up and leave, they ran into a spot of trouble.

“On Monday when we decided we were going to hike out, we lost the trail and we couldn’t find it again. And we didn’t have a topographic map, we only had the forest service map, like a regular trail map,” Shostrom said. “We knew we were really lost.”

Stranded without a map, and without a clue as to which direction the trail might lie, the two spent the night sitting up on a ridge planning their best method of survival.

“We knew that you could survive a long time without much food as long as you had water, so we decided to go pitch a tent down by a stream. We had a little backpack stove to boil the water. It had been really dry and we lit a fire and tried to do some smoke signals.”

The pair spent several days in the clearing, waving colorful ponchos and tent canvases to try to signal possible rescuers in passing airplanes. After a few more days, more bad luck arrived in the form of dark rain clouds that drenched their equipment, but did nothing to dampen Shostrom’s hope.

Meanwhile, back at the University of San Francisco, Shostrom’s co-workers noticed her absence and began to worry. Thinking it was unlike her to just not show up, they contacted Shostrom’s family, who in turn called the forest service to send a team out to look for their daughter.

“I was convinced that there were search parties out looking for us,” Shostrom said. “But John wasn’t. It kept raining and raining and then it started to hail really badly. Finally we had this back and forth discussion on whether we should stay put or try and hike out.”

Eventually they decided that the best bet was to try and hike out on their own. They knew that if they continued west they would eventually hit the coastal highway At this point, they knew they were not strong enough to carry heavy backpacks up and down the terrain and through the dense shrubs, so they made a list of what items to take with them. Ditching the tent and finishing off the last of the rationed freeze-dried meals, they packed dried fruit, a compass, sleeping bags, and a bacon bar in one backpack and set out to find their way back to civilization.

Only about an hour after leaving, however, the hailstorm resumed and they were forced to take shelter in a primitive lean-to they constructed. When the storm let up in the morning, they trudged onwards.

By this time, Shostrom and Miller had been gone for over a week, and time was running out. If they didn’t get out of the forest soon, they would die of hunger or cold. The National Park service knew that their chances of survival grew slimmer each day, and by then decided not to risk sending out more men in dangerous weather on what they assumed by now was a body search.

“We kept walking all the next day until we came into a redwood forest,” Shostrom said. “John was sure he could find a tree we could get inside. And sure enough, we found this tree with an opening we could go through and inside there was space for both of us. Somebody else had been in there in 1983; there were newspapers from that year, there were dry logs, there was a little shelf where somebody had built a fire, and there were little candles stuck with mud to the walls.”

Using the supplies inside the tree, they lit a fire and managed to stay warm and dry throughout the night while rain continued to fall outside.

“If we had been out in the rain another night we most likely would’ve gotten hypothermia.  It was an amazing piece of good luck.”

The pair knew they were close to civilization, so the next morning they left the hollowed tree behind. Around 9:30 a.m. they hit offshoots of Highway 1, which were sporadically dotted with vacation houses. Nobody was home at any of the houses they tried, so they walked along the highway for a few more hours.

“About one o’clock in the afternoon a motorcyclist came up the road and stopped and looked at us and said ‘are you Shostrom? Are you Miller?’ and we said ‘yeah’ and he said he was a volunteer firefighter in the area and had been out on crews looking for us.”

The motorcyclist quickly went back and alerted people that the missing hikers were found, safe and in relatively good condition, albeit a bit dirty and skinny. A helicopter flew out to the highway and picked them up to bring them back to where their friends and families were waiting.

“We came out on day 13, and we had only been planning to be gone for four days. I was really wiped out and exhausted and grateful. We had hiked for two and a half days straight from morning until night. Your body just does things that you don’t think you can do.”

Within a couple weeks, Shostrom returned to life as usual, working once more at the law library, but the memories of her backpacking trip stay with her to this day.

“When we were lost and we were in that tent for days I slept a lot to pass the time, and I had incredible dreams about my whole life. I think the whole experience kind of triggered a lot of understanding of who I was. It was incredible. But I’ve never gone backpacking again.”