You hear it first, well before you see it, the unmistakable whoosh-rumble of a sizable volume of water falling a considerable distance. And then you feel it, a cool, drenching mist that hovers like a fog, while all around you moss-covered rocks and trees drip with condensation. You realize that it is very close by.
Beyond the screen of spruce and fir, cliffs three thousand feet high soar dizzily upward close by on either side, blocking half the sky of vivid blue. Snowmelt-laden rivulets everywhere cascade down vertiginous slopes. Rugged, snow-capped peaks tower in the distance.
The scenery is dazzling, but in an overpowering, distinctly unsettling way. This is not a friendly place; within such immensity you realize how very small you are, how minor and impermanent. It is the very definition of “sublime,” in the Romantic sense: beautiful yet terrifying. It all seems eerily familiar to me, and it should. Because I was here once before, a long time ago, on a lovely early summer day much like this one.
But I have not journeyed to this remote place to enjoy the view. My purpose here is a solemn one. Exactly fifty years have passed, to the day, to the hour, to the minute, since the death of my father, and I have come once again to the place that claimed his life and very nearly claimed mine.
If you were to ask me why I have come I would probably not be able to tell you because, in truth, I do not entirely understand myself. Is it to find answers? to seek solace? to mourn? to commune with ghosts? to apologize to my father for setting in motion the chain of events that ended his life? to achieve “closure,” whatever that is? Maybe a little of each. It feels, though, as if there is simply no choice; I have to be here. I have answered a call.
Death came, as it often does, suddenly and without warning. We had hiked up from our campground a few hundred yards away to see South Mineral Falls, a series of sharp dropoffs on Porcupine creek, just before it joins Clear Creek and becomes known, thenceforth, as South Mineral Creek. We had no particular plan, just a walk before dinner. Breathing hard from the tough climb, we stopped above the most spectacular of the falls to rest for a bit and to admire Nature’s handiwork. It was early summer, runoff season, and the stream was running high and fast with snowmelt. The falls were a thundering torrent. I inched cautiously forward to get a better view.
Something startled me, and I lost my balance and fell, sliding feet-first down the steep and slippery slope toward disaster, unable to brake my rapid descent. My mother screamed. I plunged into the icy current mere feet from the falls, somehow got hold of a rock, and held on for dear life. My mother lunged after me, but in her panic she overshot the bank and fell in as well. Her desperate flailing knocked my grip loose, and so I grabbed hold of her legs, struggling to keep my head above water in the powerful current. In seconds my father was at the riverbank and latched onto my mother, but the current was too strong, and it pulled him in. He shouted “we’re going over the falls.” And seconds later we did. We surrendered to the overwhelming force of the current and were flung over the precipice into the rocked-studded pool several stories below.
Because of the way we were positioned, I fell first, followed by my mother and father. I remember, as though it were hours ago rather than decades, seeing green and white, green and white, green and white as I tumbled. The landing was very hard and painful, and I blacked out from the shock. By chance my mom and I both landed in deep water. We floated to the edge of the pool a short distance away, battered from head to toe, but alive. My father fell, I believe, head-first and and was dashed against submerged rocks at the base of the falls. He survived the fall but was mortally injured.
Unconscious, I floated face-down, drifting with the current toward the next waterfall, a fifteen-foot drop onto a pile of boulders. Dazed but semi-coherent, with only seconds to spare my mother somehow grabbed me by the foot and pulled me onto the rocks.
I came to in time to see my father, fighting to stay conscious, repeatedly trying and failing to pull himself from the water. My mother was still too disoriented to help. He struggled for what seemed like hours but was probably only a minute or two, rapidly weakening with the effort, and eventually slid back into the water and sank from sight as we watched, helpless and horrified. Beside himself with panic, my brother screamed “what happened?” again and again from the clifftop above. When my mother came to her senses she shouted at him to go for help, so he ran the short distance back to the campground, intercepting a family as they headed upstream. With their help, we struggled up the steep slope to the trail and headed back to the campsite.
Word spread fast and in minutes we were surrounded by kind strangers offering assistance and what comfort they could. A knot of bystanders hovered a respectful distance away, wearing distraught looks, saying nothing. A middle-aged woman approached from the periphery, her face a mask of concern, and queried one of the bystanders. After a brief exchange, inaudible with distance, she shouted “Oh my God,” clamped a hand over her mouth, and hurried off. For a time I caught intermittent glimpses of her through the trees, casting sorrowful looks in our direction. Somebody went into town to get the sheriff, and after what seemed like hours, he arrived. There was really nothing to do at this point, so he took our statements. Mom had locked the keys in the car, and he helpfully pried open the window so she could get at them. She was too shaken up to drive, though, so someone ferried us back to town and found us a place to stay for the night.
It is unspeakably strange, really, having such an odd and unlikely event at the center of your life story. If it were a plot point in a movie or novel you might just reject it as rather unbelievable. Every now and again it occurs to me to wonder, rhetorically: Did that really happen? It is a story I do not particularly enjoy telling, and you more or less have to drag it out of me. As a consequence, there are people who have known me for years who have not heard it. And if I do tell you, you should take it as a compliment because it means you have entered the zone of trust.
Because this pilgrimage is a deeply emotional matter for me, and very hard to talk about, I have elected to inform only those who need to know to about it, and tell almost no one its true purpose. At the suggestion of my girlfriend, Carolyn, I am staying at the Prospector Motel in downtown Silverton, a place she has researched and found to be suitable. “A good boy-type place,” she calls it. It turns out to be a basic facility, solid and inexpensive, and perfect for my minimal needs.
While signing in, I chit-chat with the owner, an engaging refugee from Chicago by the name of Andy. He asks if I’ve been to Silverton before. It’s a fairly standard question, but I am not expecting it and it hits me hard. After a long pause, I respond in the affirmative. But the catch in my voice tells Andy that there’s a backstory, so he gently asks what brings me back. After a moment’s hesitation, I decide to go ahead and tell him. For a few seconds he is completely silent. Then, in a strangely flat tone of voice he tells me that on the day of the accident, his family was on their way to Silverton from Chicago. He remembers because his 10th birthday happened to be that day, July 7, 1964. They arrived a couple of days later. The town was still abuzz with talk of the drowning on South Mineral Creek, and he remembered hearing about it from one of the locals.
After I check in and unpack my bags, it hits me that this is the place they brought us to stay that night. I have a vivid memory of waking up in the middle of the night to see a pair of sheriffs talking quietly with my mother, informing her that they had recovered my dad’s body. I remember exactly the layout of that room. It is, I now realize, the room next door to the one I happen to be in. Passing this room on the way to inspect the other, I had glanced through its open door, and on doing so was immediately gripped by a curiously strong compulsion to occupy it, which puzzled me at the time because the room was in every way quite unremarkable. But Andy had said, no, that one’s not quite ready yet, so I settled for the other. A little later, as I walk to lunch, a hundred feet away across Greene Street I see a parked 1962 Ford Galaxie 500, the same type of car we were driving that fateful summer.
It had gradually dawned on me over the last couple of years that I would probably come here. As the date grew ever closer and the faint whisperings in my ear grew louder and more insistent, the idea began to take on an air of certainty. I wrote to the offices of San Juan County, asking for information about the exact time and place of the accident. It being a tiny office with few resources and no records of the time whatsoever, they referred my request to the editor of the Silverton Standard, the local weekly newspaper. The editor, a fellow named Mark Esper, searched the archives and found a microfilm copy of the original story, published July 10, 1964. He snaps a photo of the front page of that edition, containing most of the story, and emails it to me. It happens to be a really well-written piece, especially for such a small paper, and I am impressed. Sometime later, after formalizing my plans, I write Mark back to thank him for his efforts. I offer to take him to lunch once I arrive, and he accepts. Months later when I am actually on the way to Silverton, it occurs to me that this would make a pretty good story, so at the first opportunity I send him a note. Turns out he has the same idea.
From the beginning the plan has been to be at the falls at the zero hour: 6:15 pm, July 7. So that there are absolutely no hitches at the critical moment, I decide to hike up the day before to get the lay of the land and locate the exact spot. It feels a little like cheating. Although I remember the scene pretty well and could probably find it through dead reckoning, I want to be absolutely sure. It’s been a long time, and there has always been contradictory information about the exact location. The fourth falls, fifth falls, third falls; take your pick. The account in the Silverton Standard said fourth falls so I decide to go with that. On the first run through, I bypass the first couple of falls, headed for what I think is number four. But number four does not add up. It’s not high enough, there is no way to get close to the banks, and the pool at the base is too shallow and hemmed in by sheer walls; we could not have escaped. Certainly it would have changed some in fifty years, but not that much. It just doesn’t look right, either. I will know this thing when I see it.
Thinking there must be more falls upstream, I hike another half-mile or so but see nothing but riffles and more riffles, and eventually abort after sinking up to my calves in a streamside bog. Back to square one. I return to the junction of Porcupine and Clear Creeks and begin hiking upstream, but there is a problem: I cannot replicate exactly the path we took that day because the footbridge that once crossed the creek is gone. So I must approach from the near side. Walking a path about midway up the canyon slope, I round a bend and all of a sudden, there it is, visible through a gap in the trees. Time freezes for a moment as everything clicks into place. I realize suddenly that I had been going about it the wrong way, counting upstream from the campground: first fall, second fall, third fall, fourth. When in fact it was the other way around; the first fall is the farthest one, the one the water crosses first. And the fourth and next-to-last is the one I am looking at this very moment. And it is a monster, with what looks like about a 60 foot drop, a deep, dark pool at the base, and rocks all around. I remember you, I think. You changed everything.
At this discovery I feel mildly vindicated, because I had always remembered the place as the first fall we encountered, not the third or fourth or fifth. My mom was so insistent about it being one of those others, though, that I assumed I was just remembering it wrongly.
Intellectually, I understand that this is an inanimate thing, without consciousness or malice, but I cannot help but personalize it. In my mind, it swirls with malefic energy, like some mythical, primordial vortex. It pulls and repels me with nearly equal force. Pull has a slight edge, though, so I continue forward, unable or unwilling to resist. The trail is slippery and the footing quite treacherous, and it occurs to me that there is a small but very real probability that I could fall and meet the fate I narrowly avoided 50 years before. Now wouldn’t that make a headline, I think.
By pure chance, this week’s Silverton Standard features photographs of kayakers plunging, voluntarily, over this same waterfall. The falls even have a name now: Hucking the System. It is also known by other, more colorful, names I hesitate to repeat. For the past ten or fifteen years, enthusiasts of so-called extreme watersports have converged here every spring, when the flow is at its peak, to run the falls in kayaks and canoes. It’s extreme alright; frequently one or another of them dies. It’s the sort of thing my father would probably have appreciated, though.
Of dead-average height but compact, muscular build, Hampton Kent Snell junior was a living action-guy stereotype. Marine Corps fighter pilot, racer of cars and motorcycles, fitness devotee before fitness was cool, award-winning photographer, energetic, charismatic, robust–in short a man’s man. He was a gifted natural mechanic and dedicated gearhead, and surrounded himself with all manner of machinery. There is, on my desk, a photograph taken of him at what must have been one of his happiest moments. He sits behind the wheel of the quarter-mile racecar he has just finished building from scratch, grinning from ear to ear. He would later drive this car to a series of winning finishes. My mother still has some of his trophies.
My father’s closest friend once described him as a genius. Even allowing for eulogistic exaggeration, there might have been something to that because at the tender age of 32 my dad was already knocking at the door of upper management at his company, being vice-president in charge of evaluating all new technology for Southern Pacific Railroad. Ferociously competitive and absolutely fearless, he once challenged a much larger man to to an arm-wrestling match. He lost three or four times in a row by tantalizingly small margins, and gave up only when his forearm snapped from the strain.
My father was also a man of strong drives and many secrets. The only child of parents who were themselves only children, his upbringing was a model of distant, dysfunctional parenting. Though he professed a grudging admiration for his dad’s smarts and ability to make a buck, he loathed his mother with an intensity he could scarcely conceal. I really couldn’t blame him.
A slender, once-beautiful woman with impossibly thick auburn hair, Margaret Snell was an ambitious, calculating, controlling, and devious social climber who delighted in the wounding comment, the subtle snub. When she talked to you she had a way of coldly looking you up and down, as though taking your measure, and if she found you wanting in some way, you would soon know it. She so apparently lacked the normal complement of human warmth and empathy that you might have mistaken her for a sociopath, had she not learned to fake it.
One afternoon when I was about four, I was left in her care. Not wanting to, you know, actually take care of me, she decided on a diversion. “You’re going fishing,” she said, and handed me a short bamboo pole with a string tied to one end. Dangling from the other end was a red rubber washer. She led me to a small bucket maybe half full of water and instructed me to lower the “bait” into the water and wait for the fish to bite. This was quite possibly the dumbest thing I had ever heard of, and I protested, but she shushed me and said, in effect, just do it. Offended that she would think I was so gullible, I nevertheless played along for a minute or two, until she disappeared inside. At which point I put down the pole and wandered over to the back yard, where I found something to amuse myself. She was furious when she learned that I had disobeyed her, and scolded me viciously. Later she complained loudly to my parents, who were unmoved, especially my dad. When his mother wasn’t looking he reached over and tousled my hair, as though to say “That’s my boy.”
My father’s father, Hampton Kent Senior, was the marginally warmer, more human half of a very cold pair. Bald as a cue ball, of middling height, with the physique of an athlete gone slightly to seed, he exuded stern professorial authority. If you met him you most likely remembered his striking steel-grey eyes, eyes that narrowed to icy pinpoints when he was angry or displeased, which was often. He was, in his own way, a pretty impressive character. He earned a PhD in Economics from Yale at a young age and leveraged this achievement into a long career as a professor of Business at various institutions of higher education across the country, eventually earning a reputation as a top expert in the field of transportation. He also had a lucrative side career as a consultant to the governments of developing nations, such as Brazil, looking to build railroad and highway infrastructures worthy of their ambitious plans. In this line of work he did very well, and when he died he was worth millions, every last penny of which he willed to the University of Texas, where he spent the final twenty years of his career.
Only when confronted with the shattering loss of their only child did my grandparents’ icy facade begin to crumble. At the funeral they barely kept it together. Soon after, they retreated into deep, months-long seclusion to grieve in private. We saw them once or twice during this time. I remember my grandmother’s watery, red-rimmed eyes above a pasted-on smile. I remember my grandfather’s slow and weary tread, his stooped posture, and the way he suddenly looked so very, very old.
In many ways I am the spitting image of my father. I have his build, his eyes, his lop-sided grin, his volcanic temper, his strong primal drive, his penchant for secrets. But I am decidedly not fearless, and find this coldly beautiful place deeply unnerving. Frankly, it scares the hell out of me. A small, illogical part of me thinks that maybe Fate has summoned me here, so as not to tempt it overly, I vow to be very, very careful when I return the following day.
I arrive back at the motel as a light afternoon shower is moving in. I go inside to change clothes and decompress for a bit. Popping open a cold Bohemia, I sit at the foot of the bed and just vegetate for a few minutes. Idly glancing out the window I notice a man and a young girl standing together at the far end of the parking lot gazing intently at something. This goes on long enough that it stokes my curiosity, so I stick my head out the door to see if I can spot whatever it is that has captured their attention, and am immediately greeted by the sight of the most beautiful, complete rainbow I have ever seen in my entire life. Its near end seems impossibly close, appearing to be just across Greene Street. It is much larger than I am able to capture in a single frame with my camera, so I hurriedly snap an impromptu panorama, hoping to catch it in its entirety before it fades. But there turns out to be no need to rush, and it lasts for probably another fifteen minutes. One by one, people emerge from doorways to gaze at it until it seems half the town has turned out. There is a small traffic jam as people stop their cars to take pictures of the spectacle.
“Don’t californicate Colorado,” reads the faded bumper sticker on an ancient International Harvester pickup idling in a parking lot. Too late, I think. Nearly all the old mining towns have surrendered to the forces of gentrification, morphing one by one into uber high-end resort hubs, glamour destinations for the glitterari looking to rough it in luxurious style. Aspen, Vail, Crested Butte, Telluride–all teem with Hollywood royalty and Silicon Valley swells. Their lavish, faux-rustic, second and third homes litter the hillsides. On any given day in-season, you just might spot Oprah or Brad and Angie strolling by.
The tide of money laps ever closer to Silverton. Ouray, just the other side of Red Mountain, is the latest to succumb. Out-of-state developers with deep pockets and big plans bought up all the good properties a while back, promptly tore most of them down, and replaced them with structures more in line with the new order. They are easily recognized, constructed as they are in an overdone, faintly tacky ersatz Victorian style, some carpetbagger’s idea of local color. As in other gentrified locales, you’d be hard-pressed to find a room in Ouray for less than $200 a night.
Locals will tell you, proudly but with just a hint of worry in their voices, that Silverton is the last holdout. “We dodged a bullet a while back,” said one, referring to a recent rather ambitious project that failed, a ski resort up a scenic canyon a few miles from town. It was supposed to put Silverton, finally, on the map. But the developer, visions of Telluride II dancing in his head, unwisely chose to build in an area prone to avalanches, and as a consequence endured one too many unscheduled shutdowns. Giving in to schadenfreude, I cheer to the thought of some out-of-state hustler losing his shirt on a bad bet.
You sense that there is a battle raging for the soul, and the future, of Silverton. On the one hand you have the boosters who look with envy on the other towns that have cashed in, smell the money, and think “why not here?” And on the other hand you have the traditionalists, who are content with things as they are, and want nothing to do with that odious brand of prosperity, with all its poisonous side effects. My heart is with the traditionalists, but logically I know that money always wins.
But for now, Silverton remains much as it was the first time I saw it. Ever since the mines closed it hasn’t exactly sizzled with prosperity, and it now straddles the line between dowdily charming and hardscrabble. There is a steady stream of summer visitors, but it is easy to imagine that once they leave for good in the fall things must get awfully quiet hereabouts. A rush hour of sorts happens every summer day around noon, when the trains arrive from Durango and disgorge their cargo of several hundred camera-toting tourists. For an hour or two, shops are crowded and empty tables scarce at local bars and restaurants. But then the whistle sounds, the tourists traipse back to the train for the return trip to Durango, and a quiet torpor settles over the town once again.
One thing that has changed about Silverton is the noise level. In the heart of downtown is a place that rents four-wheelers by the dozen, and from first light until dark, the streets and nearby trails teem with them. The incessant whirring of their engines forms a constant sonic backdrop. As I walk by the rental place, accompanied by a local, several four-wheelers and a pair of motorcycles all rev their engines at once, making conversation impossible. My companion shoots an irritated look in their general direction.
Fifty years is a span of time that seems to resonate with intrinsic significance. It is, after all, one of those special zero years, it is half of a hundred–an even more special zero year–and it is also about half as long as any human could reasonably expect to live. But in reality it is a completely arbitrary thing. If a hundred thirty million years of evolution had trended a tiny bit differently and supplied mammals with six digits on each limb instead of five, we humans would use base-12 numbering instead of base-10, and would fixate on 36 or 48 and 60 years instead of 30, 40, and 50. Though it bears on every aspect of our lives, we remain a little unclear about the nature of time. We think of it as a linear thing, yet somehow also recurrent. We perceive that in passing a day or a year we begin and end in the same place. But in reality, there is no such cycle. We simply persist, as matter is wont to do, while the physics of planetary motion impose the illusion of recurrence.
Yet the symbolism of fifty years is overpowering, and I surrender to it, as I surrendered to the current so many years before. So here I am. And the time has come for me to do what I came to do, even though I don’t yet know what, precisely, this will entail. With a heavy sense of portent, I head toward the falls.
I know that I must conduct some sort of ritual, but the exact form it will take has not yet jelled. Along the way I pass a field of bright yellow flowers, and it occurs to me that I might fashion a bouquet. An alternate voice in my head immediately says no, that’s trite, but I quash it. Got a better idea? On close inspection you can see that there are two different types of yellow flowers, one that looks a lot like a brown-eyed Susan, and another that might be mistaken for a buttercup but for its vibrant color. Mingled among these are a handful of flowers of the palest shade of blue, their delicate petals radially arranged around a dime-sized, stippled center the color of cinnamon. This is a good start. Higher up the steep slope I spot more flowers in a better variety of colors. I think momentarily about climbing up to retrieve some, but reconsider after factoring the difficulty that would be involved. But I realize that if I look around I could probably come up with a pretty good assortment. Manly man or not, dad would like that.
I continue up the road, past the falls to a spot where the valley widens. A meadow rife with blossoms of many different hues stretches from the road all the way to the base of the cliff, two hundred yards or so distant, and far up the valley. Plenty good pickings here. These flowers turn out to be delicate things, unlike their lowland cousins, and begin to wilt almost the instant they are picked. My inner decorator is mildly concerned at this development–wilted flowers simply will not do–so I pick up the pace. Time is growing short.
I realize that I have a problem. I need to be at the falls at 6:15 sharp, but the only timepiece I have is my trusty old flip phone, and its clock only works when there is a cell signal, which faded to nothing a few miles back. So I retrace my steps back to the last spot there was a usable signal, note the time and set a countdown with an alarm.
Historians and technologists often speak of disruptive change. Usually, they are referring to an invention, such as the Internet, or an event, such as World War II. On a personal level, though, the sudden, untimely death of a loved one produces disruptive change such as you cannot even begin to imagine until it happens to you. For the one that dies, of course, the disruption is absolute. Every single thing that he was, everything he is, everything he would ever have been is swept away in an instant. But the ripples of disruption travel outward and far. Every life that intersects the one that has ended has its trajectory altered in some way, the degree of alteration in direct proportion to the proximity. Those closest by are likely to have their lives completely upended, as we found out. For my mother, my brother, and myself, from that moment forward all was forever changed. The script of our lives was simply wadded up and tossed away. In losing my dad we also lost our means of support, our home, our network of friends and associates, our schools, everything that makes a life. Everything that was to have been no longer could be. Having little alternative, we moved to Austin, where mom’s parents and dad’s both lived, and tried to build a new life from the wreckage of the old.
Guilt and grief are a potent combination, and there was plenty of both to go around after the accident. My brother retreated into a fantasy world in which everything was just fine. But anything that punctured the illusion was violently rejected. Two years after the accident, when I was eight and my brother was ten, some kids about our age moved in next door. Somewhere in the getting-to-know-you phase, the younger of them innocently asked, “where’s your dad?” This triggered an awkward silence broken finally when I said, “well, he’s dead.” Or rather, tried to. Before I could even finish the short sentence my brother had me by the throat, slammed me against the wall, and shouted in an agonized voice “He’s not dead; he’s away on business,” as tears streamed down his face. My mom coped in her own way, becoming morbidly alcoholic and periodically withdrawing almost completely from life for days at a time, leaving my brother and I to fend for ourselves. I got off easy, being merely haunted for years by nightmares and endless vivid recollections. And after a while I got used to being known as that kid who killed his dad.
Not wanting to reopen old wounds, I had decided early on not to tell my mom or brother about my pilgrimage. But I couldn’t just vanish for a few days without explanation, either, so for my mom’s benefit I fashion a cover story about attending a recycling convention on the West Coast. It is a pretty unconvincing performance, and she sees right through it. But not wanting to pry, she lets it drop. After a time, guilt gets the better of me and I end up telling her the truth. She takes it better than expected, and in the spirit of tit-for-tat, reveals to me some previously hidden details. She tells me, for example, that the trip almost didn’t happen. Dad was up to his neck in a high-profile project at work that was not going well, and had decided to pull the plug on the trip in order to tend to this urgent business. Mom would not have any of this. She said, more or less, “we’re going, or else.” And in the face of this ultimatum my dad backed down and we departed right on schedule.
This openness is a new thing; up to now the accident has been pretty much an off-limits topic. My mom and I have rarely spoken about it and my brother and I never have. A few years ago, in a moment of weakness my brother obliquely hinted to a mutual friend that he might have played a role in causing me to fall that day, although he would not elaborate beyond that. This was a revelation to me at the time because it answered all at once many nagging questions. I had always remembered being startled by something, a playful push or hands clapped loudly, but could not recall precise details. I was also a pretty cautious kid, very aware, and not particularly prone to accidents; it seems unlikely that I would have blundered into obvious danger. My brother’s extreme touchiness and pathologically deep denial about the accident were also inconsistent with someone who had played a strictly passive role. I suspect that he and I will never, ever talk about it though, so in the end it is a moot point. True to form, when eventually he learned of my pilgrimage, my brother asked not one single question, and had not one single comment.
After a few minutes of foraging, I manage to assemble a pretty decent bunch of flowers. Excellent color balance, good mix of lengths, good variety of blossoms. My inner decorator is pleased and signs off. I wrap the bundle in a leaf from the Standard to hold it together. At the last second I decide to write a note to my dad, but I have nothing to write on but complimentary EconoLodge stationery, which seems so completely wrong that it leaves me embarrassed. But it will have to do. I pause for a minute, hoping that some profundity will occur to me, but none does. So I write:
Fifty years! Can you believe it?
I hope I’ve made you proud.
It is down to the last few minutes, so I tuck the note in with the bundle of flowers, hurriedly gather up a few things and head to the falls. The trail to the falls is narrow and rocky, hemmed in on either side by lush growth. The spruce and fir trees lining the trail are all tipped with two or three inches of light green brand-new growth. Must have been a good year, I think. About this time the DJ in my head starts randomly playing a tune, some sappy pseudo-jazzy number, like the very worst of Kenny G, which I cannot seem to squelch. At least play something appropriate, I think. My DJ ignores the request. So I continue on, accompanied by my own personal, absurdly ill-fitting, soundtrack.
In the middle of the trail lies a freshly broken cobble the size of a grapefruit, surrounded by its various bits and pieces. I imagine the young boy who must have flung it there, maybe out of boredom, maybe to test his strength, maybe just for the pure hell of it. I imagine a boy perhaps about the same age as the one who skipped happily down this trail some fifty years before, oblivious of the fate that lay waiting shortly. And I think about the man the long-ago boy has since become, his path now mostly trod, an unknown, unknowable amount remaining.
And I think about the ways in which our individual paths were altered, irreversibly and forever, in a single fateful instant. I imagine the fabric of spacetime rippling a little from the disturbance, recalibrating, and instantly recalculating a multitude of new futures.
The climb to the lip of the falls is steep and difficult, and before long my heart is pounding. This is concerning because fatigue breeds mistakes. I repeat yesterday’s vow to be very, very careful. Even so, part of me is beginning to think that this might just be a really bad idea. I feel a little like one of those stock characters from a horror flick, about to open that fateful door as every audience member silently screams Don’t do it!
Reaching the lip of the falls, I am greeted with a view that brings a flood of memories, and I relive the events of that day with an intensity I have not experienced in decades. A strangely familiar blend of wonder and terror washes over me. For a moment I am that young boy all over again. The reverie is broken by the alarm going off, barely audible over the sound of the falls. It is 6:15. It is time.
I carefully pick my way to a relatively safe spot just short of the precipice, searching for an appropriate place to present my offering. I notice a slight dropoff of a foot or two just before the precipice; in its lee the water pools for a moment before plummeting over the edge. As gracefully as I can manage, I toss the bundle into the churning current. It vanishes in an instant. The speed of its disappearance actually startles me, and I instinctively recoil, losing my footing for a heart-stopping second. But because I am in full-on self-preservation mode, I have maintained a tight grip on a small fir tree with my left hand throughout. So the slip is quickly corrected. Had I not thought to do so, I might indeed have fallen with catastrophic results. All at once the power of this place overwhelms me, and I begin shaking uncontrollably.
After a few minutes I regain my composure and prepare to leave. I know that I will never see this place again so I take a moment to burn it deeply into my memory. I feel utterly spent, yet oddly unfulfilled. Being here has raised as many questions as it has answered. There is no sense of closure, no weight lifted, only a feeling of anticlimax. With primal urgency, I ache for the intimate company of a woman, any woman. I want desperately to lose myself in another as never before in my life.
I am far enough along in life now that death, including my own, is no longer an abstraction. In my mind’s eye I see it out there waiting for me, a foreboding, forever presence impassively regarding my steady approach. For the moment it is merely a figure on the horizon, comfortingly distant, indistinctly visible, its murmurings faint and unintelligible, hence easy to ignore. But with every step it looms infinitesimally greater, and soon enough it will be upon me, vast, overpowering and inescapable, authoritatively commanding my full attention. I feel acutely now the reality of time, and observe with melancholy fascination the subtle and irreversible gradations that come with its relentless passage. Though traces of the boy remain, when I examine the reflection in the mirror I see someone clearly in the late-middle part of life, his elderly, final self just beginning to emerge.
It is completely clear to me now that by all that is logical, death should have had me that day. But somehow, it did not. I turned a certain way as I fell and survived; my father turned another way and died. I have thought much about death over the years, but in the last few months such thoughts have become my constant companion. A thousand times I have tried to imagine what my father experienced in his final moments. He knew that his wife and child had survived. Did he realize that he would not? Did he feel death’s hand close over him? I have long suspected that when death finally comes, it feels familiar to us, and that we simply know. Did he? Was he, as they say, at peace?
And beyond, that philosophical and ontological elephant in the room: What came after, if anything? What comes for us all when our physical self is no more?
It is inevitable, I suppose, to wonder if I have been spared for some reason. On this issue my heart and head are in vigorous disagreement. The rigorous, coldly logical part of me says no, you were just lucky; don’t flatter yourself. Taking this line of reasoning to its logical end, this part of me also considers that we are but temporary aggregations of matter, our consciousness an accidental by-product of organic evolution and the thinnest froth upon the biochemical soup that is life. There is no “meaning,” a nebulous concept at best, only simple material existence, ordained by what unique laws of matter and energy congealed from the chaos of the Big Bang. All of which will end, with a whimper, when comes the eventual heat death of this particular universe some incomprehensibly distant time in the future.
Furthermore, if the Universe had meant to impart some sort of life lesson to us, it chose one hell of a way to do so and, frankly, shouldn’t have bothered. Since the day of the accident, each of us who survived has been damaged goods. The accident broke something inside my mother that never, ever healed. Seeking the refuge of oblivion, she spent decades in an alcoholic, anhedonic fog. My brother was an emotionally stunted wreck for many years, alternately seething and withdrawn, his natural exuberance all but extinguished. My father’s parents were completely broken by the death of their son, and never fully recovered. Eventually, they chose to deal with his death by avoiding all reminders of his life. To this end they sundered all contact with us and systematically, permanently removed us from their lives. We learned of their eventual deaths from the obituaries. From early adolescence onward I was an utter mess, caustically cynical, without direction, and reckless, and could easily have ended up dead or in prison a dozen times over. I never married, never had children, never forged a “life” in the traditional sense, which now pains me more deeply than it is even possible to describe. Only in the last few years have I managed to make something of my life, and it is a fragile thing at best. I fear that on my deathbed I will be tortured with regret. Yes, perhaps adversity builds character, but fuck that. I want my dad back.
But the contemplative, feeling, intuitive part of me has a different take altogether. It seizes on little things that seem to provide, if nothing else, a small measure of comfort. This part of me sees a hidden hand in the odd coincidence, the unlikely alignment. It notices the Galaxie 500 by the side of the road and marks its significance. It spots the odd confluence of times and dates and places and events, and perceives a deeper pattern. It concedes that maybe, in spite of all logic, the laws of matter and energy, time and space, might actually allow for life to have something that could be called “meaning.”
Years ago when I was in college, I commuted to and from class on a motorcycle, an old Yamaha 650 twin. The machine was a fickle beast, and required constant adjustment. But when it ran well, it was a thing of pure joy. One summer afternoon I was riding it to nowhere in particular, letting it take me where it would. The old Yamaha was running exceptionally well. At some point the thought formed in my head that the bike might be running better than it ever had. A millisecond later, as that thought still lingered, the bike’s engine simply quit. “What the hell?” I thought, as I drifted to the side of the road.
I am my father’s son, and pretty good with a wrench myself. So I did as he would have. I broke out the bike’s toolkit and did a roadside teardown. Ignition was fine, spark fine, timing perfect, compression good. Had to be a fuel problem. The flow from the tank was good, so I figured there was a blockage somewhere in the lines. I checked the fuel lines but both were clear. I cut off the fuel petcocks and removed one of the carburetor float tanks. It was nearly dry. I pulled off the other carb’s float tank. It, too, was nearly dry.
At this discovery I was completely bamboozled. A motorcycle carburetor is a simple mechanism of nearly perfect reliability: Fuel flows by gravity through a tiny valve into a chamber containing a float. The float valve and float are connected, so that as fuel fills the float chamber the float rises and presses on the valve, stopping the flow of fuel. As fuel is consumed, the float falls and the valve opens, allowing fuel to flow once again. Both floats were operating perfectly, and both fuel lines were clear. Yet somehow gas was not getting through to either carb.
But then I spotted the problem. Somehow, both carburetor’s float valves had inexplicably, independently, simultaneously become stuck, blocking the flow of fuel, an occurrence of such mind-blowing unlikeliness that it gave me chills. I tapped each valve lightly in turn, and each instantly released. I put everything back together, started the bike and was on my way. When I got home I disassembled both carburetors and tried for the better part of an afternoon to replicate the problem, completely without success. I drove the bike almost daily for several more years and nothing even remotely similar ever happened again.
Unable to explain what happened, I filed it away as just another example of random weirdness. It was maybe a week later when the realization struck me with the force of a physical blow that this extraordinarily odd event had occurred on July 7, 1984, twenty years to the day since my father’s death. And since the moment of this realization I have not spoken or written about that experience, until now.
In this life we are, each of us, largely shaped by events beyond our control. The accident that killed my father and almost killed me has been, for better or worse, the defining event of my life. It casts a shadow over everything I have ever done, and everything I will ever do. It is never far from my thoughts. It may well be the last thing I think about when I die.
Nietzsche is supposed to have said “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.” For years I took offense any time someone quoted this to me because, in my experience, it was absolutely not true. Some things just hurt you, period, and leave you permanently changed for the worse. For me, the accident was a staggering, soul-shattering blow from which there was no release, ever. It damaged me in ways I still do not fully understand. The idea that it might somehow have had some kind of silver lining seemed absurdly, offensively naive. And as any survivor of high-order trauma can tell you, even time, that great healer, is in truth only a fair anodyne, submerging the white-hot dagger of pain under layers of experience and memory but leaving it more or less intact, where the right disturbance may bring it once again to the surface. By pure luck, the accident didn’t kill me but more than once I have wished that it had, because, ultimately, I had been the one who caused the terrible thing to happen. And I, not my father, should have been the one to pay the price.
Nietzsche might have been onto something, though, because as I have come to realize, every occurrence, every circumstance, no matter how dire, eventually yields a positive, though it may take many years to do so. Because of what happened I eventually came to lead, albeit much later than I would have liked, a life examined. I have thought and felt deeply in a way that almost certainly would not have been possible without that uniquely searing experience. Having trod a hard and winding path has made me, in the end, a much better human being.
A long time ago, on a lovely summer day, in a remote place of great beauty, I came face to face with death but somehow survived, and it changed me forever.