WEST JORDAN — The sign welcoming Paul Meiling home simply read: "A Christmas Miracle."
"(It's) truly, truly a miracle in many ways," Meiling, 77, or "Papa Paul" as he is known to his family, said as he was greeted Wednesday by loved ones who wondered if they would ever see him again.
Meiling himself admitted there were times over the past two days that he also wondered whether he would make it home alive.
"I didn't know if I was going to get out of this or not," he said.
Meiling became stuck in a remote area of southeast Idaho on Monday and survived with no food for two days by starting fires in an abandoned residence and a farmhouse, and then hiking until he could get cellphone coverage.
Family members cried tears of joy when Meiling returned home Wednesday morning after being found alive.
The amazing tale of survival started when Meiling drove to Idaho State University in Pocatello to deliver some books. He was scheduled to return home Monday. When he didn't arrive, family members feared a medical episode may have caused his vehicle to go off a road somewhere.
Meiling said he took a "side trip" on the way home and made a "dumb decision" to take a road that had signs posted indicating that it wasn't maintained during the winter. His goal was to go past Daniels Reservoir, a place he calls a favorite fishing spot.
But his truck became high-centered and stuck.
Unfortunately, Meiling had not told anyone he was taking the side trip.
And the only radio station he could get reception for was playing, "I'll Be Home for Christmas," he said.
"Nobody could have known where I went," Meiling said, noting that he was in an area that was "as remote as you can get" when he became stuck.
"A person could sit there for weeks," he said, and not see another vehicle.
Meiling found what he described as a vacant "single-family residence" and stayed warm by starting a fire inside. Later, he built a bigger fire and the entire structure ended up burning down, he said.
"It was too warm," he said jokingly.
The next night, Meiling found an abandoned farmhouse. Inside, "the only thing of use was 14 pieces of coal," he said, something he called a blessing.
Meiling made another fire and was able to stay warm while the temperature outside dipped into the teens.
The next day, he hiked east until he could get cellphone reception.
Family members, meanwhile, had begun searches up and down I-15 between West Jordan and Pocatello looking for him. When Meiling was able to get reception again, he called his son, who was already out looking for him.
Meiling was found near Hawkins Reservoir in Arimo, Idaho, a small town near Pocatello.
"Our hearts are completely full of gratitude," a family member posted Wednesday on a Facebook page set up to aid in the search. "We are so touched by the search and volunteer efforts."
Meiling was dehydrated when he was found, according to family members, but otherwise in good shape and declined to be taken to a hospital.
He said he was very appreciative of all the support he received. Meiling also noted that the lesson for others to learn from his adventure is to let people know where they are going.
Contributing: Jed Boal