The Thin Divide
I left Cookie in the meadow and started to climb. The wall of rock I was headed for was easy to keep sight of, a long, crescent of gray shale that broke from the pines to crown the arête that curved around our campsite on Boulder Lake. A single light gray line split the view of its center: the bleached, twisted trunk of a dead white pine. No branches remained, just a few sharp stubs that studded the tree’s ghost, a pale post that leaned against the wall of stone my cousin told me he had crossed the day before. There was no trail leading to it, but I figured if he had made his way up and over it, I could do the same.
The meadow gave way to a stand of pines that got thicker as the ground curved to form the wall of the basin I ascended. I lost site of the ridge from time to time as I bushwhacked through the dense scrub. I pushed up and in, forcing my body through gaps between the springy boughs and kicking for any foothold I could find amid the rocks and roots.
After an hour of work, the trees began to thin, and I got my first distant views of the glorious green world around me. I had come west to spend the summer with my uncle’s family, perched along the Pacific in their home in Port Angeles, Washington. I was now on a vacation within my vacation, camping for a week in the heart of the Olympic National Park.
I had followed Cookie onto the bus that took us from the church parking lot to the trailhead and later, into her tent. I fell fast and hard for her lithe limbs, auburn hair, and easy smile. I did everything I could to impress her - I was certainly climbing to impress her now - but also to test myself - to see how fast and high my 16 year old legs and lungs could propel me through the first true wilderness I had ever known.
I surveyed the basin’s floor. It was a patchwork of huckleberry, heather and Indian Paintbrush, with a large brown boulder floating amid the sea of greens. I could make out Cookie’s white silhouette stretched across its top. I waved, but received no reply. She was either too far away or perhaps had succumbed to the warmth of the mid-summer sun and was napping through my performance.
I turned back to my work, diving into the brush, focused on my goal of ascending and crossing the wall. The perspective I needed to assess where I was and what I was doing would come only later in life – a later, it turned out, I was lucky to live to see.
Another hour of scrambling through brambles bought me to the top of the ridge where I stood at the base of the wall. It rose 20 feet high and curved four or five times as wide. From my position at its end I surveyed possible routes across either side, finally deciding it would be easier to scale the face that was hidden from our campsite. I tackled the problem of crossing it piece by piece, picking out each foothold along its base and handhold across its face as I slowly made my traverse. Twenty minutes into my slow claw across, I finally awoke to the situation I had put myself in.
I had reached for a hold when a large chunk of shale gave a crack and came loose in my hand. The unexpected motion threw me off balance, and I pin-wheeled to the edge of losing it before dropping the rock behind me and then lunging to hug the wall. I waited to hear the stone hit. They were the longest four seconds of my life.
An object’s velocity increases at a rate of 32.2 feet per second, per second as it accelerates towards earth. Those four seconds meant I could count on a trip of 193 feet if I were to follow the rock off the wall: the equivalent of a dive off a 19 story building. When I craned my neck to finally gain the situational awareness I so desperately needed, I realized my trip wouldn’t have ended there; the backside of the ridge the wall was perched atop was a long, steep slope of open ground that would have simply redirected my trajectory as I continued crashing towards the scrubby rim of pines that would finally catch what remained of my body.
I turned my head back to face the wall and froze.
I hadn’t had a conversation with God in quite awhile. Our last chat had taken place some three years before, during the dark winter before my nine year old sister had died of cancer on the first day of May. I hadn’t placed a call since.
Now, standing on the same threshold that Pammy had crossed, I immediately reached for the aid of some one or thing within or beyond me, with an urgency born of instinct. There was certainly no reason involved. Reason would have been a handy aid to draw upon with my life on the line, but that faculty had fled into the silence of the dropped rock’s fall. It was replaced by buckled knees, a dry mouth, and the sound of the pound of my heart in my ears - all followed by a call for help from a God I no longer believed could keep anyone from harm.
I simply don’t know how I got moving again, if reason returned or a trumpet blew to summon a band of angels who lifted me high, but the next thing I knew, I was on the top of the wall - precariously perched - but balanced, as I inched my way towards safety.
When I reached the dead pine that marked its middle, I stopped. Though on safer terrain than minutes before, I was still suspended above unforgiving ground. I stretched my foot to brace myself against the tree, desperate for the support of anything other than the slab of rock I was so desperate to descend from.
Pinus Monticola, more commonly known as the Western White Pine, is a giant of a tree, often growing to 200 feet and living for as many years. There was so much I didn’t know about the particular tree I touched: how tall it had soared in its prime, the lightning strikes and gales it had survived or the history of the generations of furred and winged creatures that had called it home. I only knew that the few pounds of pressure my tired leg applied that day were all that was needed to end its reign on high. I jerked to regain my balance as I found my foot touching only air. The trunk fell away in slow motion, accelerated into a leisurely turn, then fell faster before exploding in a shower of splinters that blossomed upon impact with the ridge, launching new missiles of torn trunk back into the air to rain on the rocks below.
An eerie quiet filled the void left by the tree. The chickadees and thrushes that had chirped and trilled in the meadow during my ascent had been silenced by the crash from above. At least it got Cookie’s attention; I could see her now, a fuzzy bright form that jittered against the boulder that had darkened with the fall of the sun. I waved from my perch, straddling the wall, one leg dangled over the face that some act of grace had ushered me across, the other poised for the first firm step that would lead me home. I crouched and duck-walked to the end of the face, pausing before making the body-length leap it took to quit it. I landed in the scree that covered the far side of the ridge, straightened up slowly and sighed. I took stock of the cuts that pockmarked the palms of my hands – a small toll to pay for the road I had taken. I turned and tunneled my way back through the brush to the open meadow and arms waiting for me below.
When we got back to camp, I found my cousin, and I pointed to the space where the pine had stood, detailing the route I had taken to its destruction. I asked him how he had made it over the wall. His eyes grew wide and he waited a moment before answering. I learned he had hiked only to its base, not across it, and certainly not over it. His father mirrored his expression at the end of the week when I told him my tale. He answered my story with the cold statistics of the lives lost in those mountains every few years by those who ventured from the trail.
It’s been 35 years since I crossed that ridge, yet those hours are etched in a singular pattern: a deep, but broken line - engraved by the force of the strange alpine alchemy that brewed in the currents of hope and fear that coursed through my body that day. I can recall each escalating shift in my awareness that preceded the heart of that event.
First, my senses sharpened to place me firmly in the present. There were no thoughts of Cookie or cousins or camping, I thought only of myself, every inch of myself, and the dangerous topography around me. Six or seven million years of human evolution kicked in quick to help me concentrate only on what I needed to make it back to the campfire that night.
As my sensory focus sharpened, my perspective expanded. It widened to reveal my integral relationship with a world I was apart of. My physical survival depended on a philosophical shift: a rejection of the myth of my duality in favor of an intimate awareness of the union of myself and everything I perceived. Suddenly we were one: fingers and slab, feet and ledge, wind and neck, eyes and the crag I slowly crabbed across.
Then finally, somewhere up there, I lost all sense of my separate self. The doors on either end of my life opened, and though I still have no idea of where they lead, they have never closed since that day.
Yet what carried me over - the pivotal point of that adventure - remains a mystery to me. Perhaps my amnesia is the byproduct of concentration: a focus on survival so complete that it tapped my mind of the energy normally reserved to record an event as memory. Maybe, however, my thoughts were burned clean by the intervention of an agency so foreign to my experience that I simply had no frame of reference to make a memory of it all. Whatever the cause - superhuman or supernatural - I lost the short span of time between my discovery of just how thin the divide between this world and whatever comes next is, and whatever kept me on this side of that line.
I’ve been looking for those lost minutes ever since.