DECATUR, Ala. — It was on the second night, after 36 hours of eating briar leaves and drinking rainwater, when Rickie Gardner started losing hope. Listening to the yipping of coyotes, Gardner gazed up at the stars shining in Bankhead National Forest’s midnight sky.
“I’ll be up there soon,” he thought.

Immobilized by a broken left leg and unable to feel his hands, the Lawrence County man, who grew up exploring the forest, lay in silence next to his up-turned, all-terrain vehicle, certain he would not survive another night of below-freezing temperatures.

Then, out of the darkness, he heard someone call his name.

“I knew I was going to die. I was getting real religious and making my peace with everything,” the 54-year-old Gardner said last week on the fifth anniversary of the event. “It’s unbelievable that I’m alive. I’m so thankful to be alive. I shouldn’t be here today.”

And he is certain he wouldn’t be, if not for five determined friends and a mysterious light.

“For people who don’t believe in miracles, this is a good story for them to hear because it is a miracle Rickie is alive,” said Randy Coffey, Gardner’s friend and rescuer.

Nov. 12, 2013

Gardner, who started hunting with his father at the age of 8 and killed his first deer at 13, looked forward to the start of hunting season every fall. With 40 years of hunting experience, he knew the hot and windy weather on Nov. 12 would keep the deer from moving.

Not wanting to waste one of his days off from International Paper inside, Gardner hopped on his four-wheeler, crossed Alabama 33 and rode into the forest to scout potential hunting spots.

It was 1 p.m. He expected to be gone 30 minutes.

“My biggest boo-boo is that I didn’t tell nobody where I was going,” Gardner said.

When he got to the end of one hilltop, Gardner spotted another ridge he wanted to examine. Instead of backtracking, Gardner eased the 4-wheeler down the hillside.

“The 4-wheeler was new to me and I think I hit my front brakes and that made the rear end come up and over. It was about to pin me between a tree so I jumped off,” Gardner said.

After tumbling 15 yards down the steep mountain, he felt pain pulse through his left leg. It was broken.

“The first thing that come to my mind was the weather forecast. It was supposed to rain all night long and drop down to the 20s with high winds. I knew I was in serious trouble because no one was expecting me until the next day at noon and no one knew where I was heading,” Gardner said.

He tried maneuvering up the hill, but for every five yards he gained, he slid back 10, further into the forest. Every time he passed briar plants, he collected handfuls of leaves and stuffed them in his pockets for later. He had seen deer eat them so he knew they were safe.

Searching through his bag for material to make into a splint, Gardner found a Mountain Dew can. After drinking the soda, he cut off the top so he could catch rainwater. When the rains stopped, he licked the drops off of leaves.

As the sky darkened, Gardner prepared for the night. He could hear the coyotes and knew wild hogs roamed the land. Sitting with his back to the four-wheeler, he clutched a pocket knife in one hand and a stick in the other.

“I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, but I figured if anything got close, I could beat it back,” Gardner said.

The next morning, Gardner awoke to blue skies, freezing temperatures and wind gusts. He felt weaker. He prayed someone would find him.

From his home just north of the Bankhead Forest, Randy Coffey began to worry about his friend. Several hours had passed since he left a message for Gardner, who always returned his phone calls. He tried calling again. Still no answer.

At 9 p.m., Coffey arrived at Gardner’s house. He saw Gardner’s truck in the driveway and his wallet and cellphone on the kitchen table. When he noticed the four-wheeler was gone, Coffey called Gardner’s brother, Dan Gardner.

The two men, along with three others, gathered at Gardner’s house. With no idea of which way Gardner headed, the five-member search party split off in different directions. At 1 a.m., they met back up at the house. No one had seen or heard anything.

“We were about to call it quits for the night when my brother saw a light across the way. I knew there was an old road over there, but that was four or five miles away. All of us looked and saw the light. It was dim at first and then got brighter,” Coffey said.

Even though they couldn’t see any tire tracks, they followed the light, which eventually disappeared. When they could no longer see the light, Dan Gardner hollered his brother’s name.

“Where they ended up was right where I tumbled down. They asked me what light I was shining. I didn’t know what they were talking about. They asked if my four-wheeler headlight was on. I said no because I had come down here during the daytime,” Gardner said.

Removing Gardner from the forest took the rescue squad an hour. An ambulance transported him to Decatur General, now called Decatur Morgan Hospital, where doctors determined he would need surgery and sent him to Huntsville Hospital. His leg had swollen to three times the normal size.

“They took me into surgery immediately. When the doctor came out he told my family he was an inch away from cutting off my leg,” Gardner said.

Doctors repaired Gardner’s leg with artificial bone, pins and screws. On the day Gardner tried to walk with a walker for the first time, he suffered a stroke. Tests revealed he had a hole in his aorta.

“The wreck didn’t cause it. The doctor said I was lucky because if I had not had the wreck, then I wouldn’t have been in the hospital when it happened and could’ve died,” Gardner said.

After surgery to repair his heart, Gardner spent months in therapy. He returned to work after six months and took early retirement when International Paper closed. He joined a hiking club and continues to hunt.

A sheet of paper with a drawing of his property remains on the kitchen table. When he heads out alone, he places a quarter at the place where he’ll be.

“I’m so thankful for every day of my life. I’m thankful for my health. I’m thankful for my children. And I’m thankful for this second chance,” Gardner said.

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