As I sit on my flight back to Florida (from St.Thomas, for my lovely friend’s bachelorette party) I experience the full gamut of emotions. Flying induced stress starts about two nights before takeoff, the early morning hours find me anxious and panicked trying not to wake JB. I can logic myself out of fear, playing the probability card, but that only lasts for a few minutes, or until we experience the slightest bit of turbulence. The older I’ve gotten, the more afraid I am. Maybe it was all that studying of equipment failure rates in college. Although I feel quite certain it also has to do with our car accident; thinking death had knocked for me and the residing fear around the experience. That time death was just giving a passing wave, but one day he will enter my home. On this plane ride I brought my computer to blog and hopefully distract me– since I’ve been horrible about keeping the blog up to date; we don’t have wi-fi aboard and I get seasick staring at a computer. Instead, I decided to open up my photos and peruse what was on my computer during take-off, because, quite frankly I was too frantic to put together a complete sentence. With the onset of the iPhone and minimal use of my Nikon (since it’s not water proof), there weren’t many pictures to look at; just some from living in Alaska after college and of the road trip from Alaska to Florida that ended prematurely in California with our car accident.
I was going to write about JB’s and my first sailing adventure, but I was inclined to share the thoughts and emotions I’ve harbored since October 2014. This event changed my life, and if I’m being honest, I haven’t grown much from it, I’m still playing victim – I want to let go, and maybe writing about it will help. I wrote a draft post for my previous blog, VANimals, about the accident. But being only a month after it happened, I just couldn’t get the words out. I think the story is relevant, to share with readers now about where my inordinate amount of fear stems from, and the state of mind I found myself in when sailing for the first time. My current experiences are altered by this past one (my samskaras in full effect) because I give it power with my thoughts.
Living in the past is what humans often do, and then we contemplate the future, all the while missing the present. I am guilty. I have been stuck in the mud of my past, knee deep.
I quit my job as a process engineer in the oil industry in Alaska. JB and I moved into our Dodge high top conversion van and started the journey back to Florida. We were in no rush, both unemployed, gym climbers itching to touch real rock, and infatuated with the Northwest, van life suited us well. Somewhere in Canada JB got a call, and eventually a job offer, from a judge in St.Thomas – where he currently works. That changed our plans and we picked up the pace and some hitch hikers.
Matt from Jacksonville, Florida. What we thought was going to be a 10 minute drive up the road ended up being a week trip with him to San Francisco. He slept on our bench and was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. He didn’t know what to do, so he walked, and that is where we found him, walking somewhere in Washington. He was a gift to us, and the most ill-equipped hitchhiker I ever saw. There were a couple times he mentioned that I should sit in the chair with the seatbelt (there were only two captain’s chairs) because if we were in an accident it wouldn’t make sense for me to die/get injured. Are you that ok with death? I’m not. I hadn’t thought about it too much, I hadn’t needed to, he was forced to. Sometimes I refused, wanting him to get the best view of the Oregon-California coast. That part of the world just makes you be alive. We dropped Matt off at a California train station, offering him funding to continue his journey, he refused. He is one of the people I regret letting “life” get in the way of keeping in contact with, even if what was happening seemed important at the time. I’ve called his number, it’s disconnected.
JB and I headed to Yosemite. Having been there before and remembering it fondly, I was surprised at how quickly we both wanted to leave. With only 3 hours lost to us between the National Park gates, about a 100 yards beyond the park boundary we opened up the van doors to the quiet remoteness we had grown fond of in British Columbia. We let our dog, Mr.Chili, run wild as we laid in the fields. A place I would return to in the months to come, 3 feet deep in snow searching for Mr.Chili.
Plans to meet JB’s friend, Max, in Joshua Tree had us hitting the road again, descending the nearly 10,000ft Tioga Pass. A beautiful overlook had us stopping to savor the view while allowing the brakes to cool. JB would eventually note that there was a difference in how well the breaks stopped us at that final pull out. We laid in bed while JB read my blog post on our experience with Matt; the simple joy he had in watching waves crash, a dog play, a fog burn off. We got back into our captain’s chairs, I offered to drive but he said he was okay to keep going. That decision saved our lives. I was fumbling with my laptop (the same one I am typing on right now) when JB told me to put my seat belt on, I didn’t think twice about it. His voice elevated and he demanded I put my seat belt on, he had to specify that we had no breaks for me to act quickly. We also had no emergency break. He convinced me not to jump out the car as we approached a turn that we were going way too fast to safely make. That would have been the last turn to the bottom of the pass, it would have been straight from there and the incline tapered off quickly. JB later mentioned that if he had known the road ahead, he might not have done what he did, we might still have our dog, or we may have taken a couple hundred foot tumble: we will never know.
He pulled into the left lane, closer to the mountain. As we gained speed, Mr.Chili kept jumping up on the engine bay to figure out what the commotion was about. I kept yelling at him to get down; that’s the last thing he heard from us, me yelling at him as he tried to protect us. JB started to steer the van into what little brush there was next to the ascending cliff in an attempt to slow down before hitting his target, the tree. Once the dirt got kicked up we lost all line of vision, I really only remember screaming I love you and hearing him say it back. There, that moment. That is the moment I relive when we went out sailing for the first time, and again here on my bumpy ride in 20F. Being forced to think about my mortality in a 60 second interval from start to end, I didn’t come up with much. I didn’t think about my family. I was selfish, I thought about me, about missing JB. As we hit the tree I looked out the window and watched a face in a passing car. His startled eyes staring into mine, which were now stuck in slow motion. I don’t remember the exact moment of impact. I looked over at JB, he was alive, I was alive. Mr.Chili, as many dogs in shock from car accidents do, silently jumped onto my lap and out the window; he wasn’t our concern then. The passer-byers were quickly out of their cars, my bloodied arms reached out the window to them, they resisted. I have since asked myself what I would do if a blood ridden person were reaching for me. My ear was severely lacerated, giving the impression I was bleeding from my head, causing a lot of panic. By the time JB hobbled around to me on one foot, I was already laying down on the floor. We both laid there, holding hands, telling each other how much we were at peace.
Someone asked if that was our dog running down the road. It is so easy to look back now and think if we had just paid a little more attention to him, called his name once or twice, he would be with us. Animal control found my cat wrapped up in the mattress that flung forward along with everything else in the van, she was fine. I was stitched up and discharged that night. JB was in surgery, he had punctures in the right foot and knee. Amazingly, the tree lodged itself dead center in the van, and at 40mph that saved each of us from a much worse outcome. They rolled me by his curtain on the way to X-rays and I could hear him softly reach out to me “I tried to hit my side of the van, I am sorry.” JB, I love you. More than you know. How selfless of a human, I couldn’t do the same, I hope one day I can. We had nothing, no clothes, no family, no money. I technically wasn’t a patient, but they let me sleep and live in the bed next to JB, they fed me, and in their spare time they went out to look for Mr.Chili. What an amazing community of people, mobilizing, on our behalf. Humans showing their most beautiful light. People that we didn’t know, or remember from the day of the accident, visited us, a few informing us how every few years there is an accident on the pass, and no one ever survives.
JB, immobilized from surgery, felt helpless in the search for Mr.Chili and we left California without him. Spending every day thereafter on shelter sites, sifting through hundreds of lost dogs. We had bunches of people calling from California, still out there searching the pass, the valley, the mountain side. THANK YOU to all the selfless people of Lee Vining and Mammoth Lakes, people I didn’t meet, and names I don’t know.
And then one night before bed, we got a call, he was spotted not even half a mile from the accident site, common for skittish dogs hoping to find their owners. We flew out the next day. Long story very short, we lived out there for over month doing all we could to get him back. Camping out in snow storms, unknowingly tracking mountain lions, hiking and re-hiking the same mountain, posting flyers, leaving food piles and dog traps, crying, praying, barely sleeping, having professional drone flyers donate their time and efforts, plowing roads, snowshoeing, cross country skiing…. We were brought warm food, camping gear, helping hands- writing about it now makes me appreciate it even more. Words can’t explain the gratitude, so I won’t try.
We left California brokenhearted: knowing he had been spotted even while we were there, just never by us. JB had to start his new job which had already been postponed, and with Chili’s emaciated state, the plethora of coyotes, mountain lions and wolves, and amount of snow fall, we were hopeless and needed to get out of the every moment depression we were living in. Again we can logic ourselves into thinking “we are so lucky, we just lost a dog” but that knowing doesn’t remove the pain and sadness and fear. How beautiful of a place, tainted with an experience that now lives only in my mind.
I challenge myself to be strong, to move on, to go sailing and not be stunted by fear. That doesn’t mean JB doesn’t have to look me in the eyes and let me know it will all be okay as we move downwind at 9 knots. Living in the present moment strips us of our ability to claim victim hood, to lash out, to blame others, to blame ourselves – it just says hey, this moment is THIS moment, break free of the bondage of your past, enjoy the wind on your face, the salt in your hair, the open ocean, the sails moving you forward, the rolling of the ocean, it is all perfect. Each moment is complete, don’t worry about the next for it is no guarantee.