Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Into the Creek

Then there was the man who had gone hiking on the forest service road up on Cherokee Mountain.

It had a switch back or two and in the late winter/early spring after the northern slope had been shaded long enough to keep the ground really cold, even after the air temperatures warmed enough to mix snow and rain, the roadway could be incredibly slippery. In the southeastern mountains, there were many places like this that created havoc for hikers and even more, for drivers -- four wheel drive and chains notwithstanding.

Once, they had a fire up in some hollow and the fire truck, so the story goes, of all the big machinery in the world to get stuck, got stuck. Slid off the road and hung up on the chassis. It took a roadway tow to get the fire truck up and onto the road and then inch it back down to dry pavement. They forgot about the house.

And that was the kind of conditions the fellow had gone hiking in up on Cherokee where it was too slick even for hiking boots. Once you began to slide it would be impossible to stop. Once you got up some momentum, gravity had a way of introducing itself without prejudice. Which is what happened. His boots lost their grip--on gravel or grass or pavement--it’s all the same, when you slip, you slip--and across the rough roadway he started. Down slope. Towards the trees and the creek below and nothing to grab hold to.

Usually you can sit down, or drop flat, or bend over--to get more traction or lower you center of gravity and then srabble for traction but sometimes nothing works. He went over the edge too soon after starting to slide so he didn’t have time to react. He might have been lucky enough to catch himself on the precipice against a stump or clump of grass with one boot on the slope and one boot or knee or hand on the road. Not this time. He’d been told to stay away from some hikes--this was one--or to be sure at least to walk on the uphill edge of the road--or to take it slow because the uphill might have been work but the down hill was usually just about being marginally in control.

He wasn’t new to the outdoors. He’d camped in the winter. Hiked in snow. He had weathered more than a few storms. And when he lost his job, his career seemingly vaporized, the first evening off, when he didn’t have to go back to work the next morning, he camped out and tried to lose his weary mind to the heavens and the wind.

He was not a fair-weather person. He helped friends stuck in the snow and he gone looking for puppies and cats that had wondered into the stormy nights. He tried to be conscious of his place in the world, that was why he liked the out of doors. His career--when he had one--let him roam and explore in the natural world. Weather had fascinated him, not hampered him. He was, he thought, able to take of himself.

And he could.

But, he was new to the mountains in late winter.

Over he went, wildly clawing at the smaller brush and trees along the bank and then clawing at the air. The banks had been cleared periodically and not much was there to grab but they offered hope. They were his rescue and right now his only hope, and he believed he defied gravity for a moment until a sapling bent over or his grip sprung loose or his feet kicked out from under him. He twisted like a kite hung up in a tree and then found himself staring down at the creek below and culvert poking out of the bank and it did not occur to him that maybe no one would be here for days and he’d get wet in the stream and die of hypothermia and he had to go to school tomorrow and his first paper was due and this professor would not believe his story. None of this went through his mind.

What went through his mind, directed by his eyes, was the steepness of the slope and what was between him and the culvert’s metal rim and the small rock-filled creek below him because there was nothing but air.

He spun downward, out of control, snow and ice and clumps of twigs and grass following him into space, his sense of balance wanting to right him like a cat, but just enough saplings and just enough brush to inhibit that natural survivability. He caught himself on edge of the culvert pipe, landing on one foot with one hand on the slope and maybe a pea’s chance of skittering off into more snow and at least slowing himself down just getting his feet wet when he landed. The car was within sight and he could extricate himself from this problem. If only....

The fender-hard metal of the culvert made his foot shoot out one direction but his head was already leaning the other and the net effect landed him on the culvert lower ribs first.
Air gushed out of him and pain shot through his side as his ribs crushed. He cartwheeled towards his head and twisted off the culvert head first, eyes aimed up at the gray, cruel uncaring sky.

He landed flat on his back which would have been satisfactory on a mat or a bed or a carpet. He landed disjointed on an unflat, unforgiving surface. He landed with a thud and splash. He landed on the small of his back and on the small of his head and the small of that part and the small of this part. He landed uneven. He landed hard.
Heavier lumps of snow and small gravel rained down after him. A dusting of twigs and grass hung in the air then settled in the water and on his chest.

He blacked out.

His air came back to him in whoosh. The cold water covered cascaded along his head and his shoulders. He shivered. He shook. He trembled. He could see the gray sky through the cold brown of the trees. The slope of the banks funneled away from him. He could hear the water past his ears. He could hear his heart race and pound. He could sense a general feeling in his body but his hands were losing touch in the cold water. He went numb rather quickly, he thought, his conscious mind noticing the cold working up his limbs.

He breathed slower. And quieter. His heart no longer pounding in his ears. He mind talked to his mind. His mom and dad. His student friends. The new girl he’d just met. His not-new girl in high school still back home. Safe.

He thought of his apartment. His car. His phone. His phone in his pocket. Help was as close as his phone. His numbed mind tried to get his stunned hand and cold fingers into his pocket for his phone. He could feel the slight dent of the phone against his left leg. In his front pocket. Safe from the cold water and the pounding, painful landing. He could feel the phone slip up in his pocket, his finger tips barely able to tell his mind what they were doing. His leg was still connected more to his brain than his fingers. He held the phone. It was off. With deliberate care his thumb scanned across the keyboard to the button of his survival.

Agonizingly long seconds ticked off until the little screen glowed. He waited, numbed by fascination and the cold, for the phone to prepare itself to save his life.

He watched his hand dial one number and he watched his hand drop the phone on his stomach. His belly did a better job of telling his brain where the phone landed than did his fingers scratching their way to the phone. He held the phone up and dialed the second number and as slowly as possible the third and the green button for his rescue.

And then, his mind couldn’t talk to itself anymore. His breathing slowed. The phone said, “Hello?” And he breathed, “Help.”

His eyes closed. He was listening but not hearing. His heart missed a beat. And then another. And then didn’t start after the next miss.

Someone eventually discovered the body once the ice had melted and the mountain was ready for someone to venture to it. The empty, abandoned car helped give him away. The sheriff was summoned. A two-man rescue crew went into the creek to get him and haul him up the steep slope that had killed him.

“Well,” said the sheriff, “not much left of ‘em, huh? He was reported missing, there was an un-located cell phone months back--hell, there had been several-- but, no one ever comes up here and no one thought to look here.”

“It wouldn’t have been any good,” said the veteran rescuer. “When he hit the water it probably stunned him enough the cold water got to ‘em pretty quick.”

“I’ll guess we’ll be able at least to ID him,” said the sheriff who had made calls like this one before. He’d found too many lost hikers. Sometimes college kids whose prowess was greater than their common sense. Sometimes it was hunters who spent too much time hunting the wrong things. Sometimes it had been drug dealers lost trying to locate a stash. Bunch of damn fool amateurs who didn’t heed advice.

“What I wonder is,” said the veteran rescuer, jerking a thumb over his shoulder to the deep ravine, “is what you’re gonna do with the guy underneath him?”

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