When I was wandering off from my values, death brought me home. When I had forgotten what my purpose was and why I came to the woods, death came gently, reminding me. When the dreaded knot of “other people’s values” had tangled itself all around my work and my knowledge, death came by to show me what matters most. When I had lost my relationship to the woods, my relationship with places, death forced me to slow down, to heal, and to begin again. To learn those difficult lessons we never feel like learning.
It was quick, uncaring, brisk accident that nearly left my children without a mother. I lost my footing and just like *that*, I was released from the rock and began my tumbled descent backwards across the slab, head cracking against the rock swiftly with each turn, cartwheeling toward the edge I knew was right there.
I screamed my son’s name as I fell. I was powerless to stop myself as the edge approached rapidly.
One last head crack, and then I flipped into a chute. I landed, miraculously, standing upright, in a little cut where the water runs off the slab. Looking down, I saw the sky behind my feet. My tongue slid across my teeth; none were broken. I crawled back up on to the slab to sit, rest, be still. I wanted to lay my cheek against the cold, uncaring rock of the mountain and feel its stillness, be held in is embrace once more. I was filthy and bleeding, the wrist on my right arm began to swell; I would later learn it was broken. My left elbow also swelled, my left hand rendered unusable. I down-climbed off the mountain in the sunset, with two fingers on my left hand and the forearm of my right, triumphant upon reaching the basin floor. Triumphant to still be alive, but fully broken open, weeping.
Death came for my life, but then decided to teach me a lesson by taking my arms and breaking them instead. Leaving me unable to rock climb, which at that time was my greatest passion. I was at the peak of my fitness; incredibly strong from a continuous, four-season schedule of hard, limit-testing days in the mountains. I bounded up the steepest trails with ease, felt unchallenged by twenty mile days. Relatively new to rock climbing, I was brashly fearless, getting stronger all the time, and delighting in the way it was changing my body. I had never had an accident in the back country. I had never been witness to one. I guess I thought it would never happen to me; I thought rock climbing had taught me how to control my body in the mountains. I felt invincible. I did not have any fear that day. I underestimated the uncaring cruelty of the mountains.
As the bones of my radius knitted themselves together again, all the muscles in my forearm wasted away. All the strength I had worked to build slowly faded as the weeks passed. The cast was almost loose enough to slide off on the day they removed it. I did not recognize my own skinny arms anymore. They seemed to belong to someone else.
I had thought I understood, from the beginning, how to process the emotional tax of the accident. I immediately thought to myself, “Where will this feeling go if I don’t allow myself to feel it right now?” So I cried. I cried all day and into the night. I cried in the arms of my friends, I cried while I held my children. I cried in the shower, on the toilet, in the backyard while watering my garden. I thought I could just keep crying and eventually, it would work itself out. I drove my car to the woods several times each week, sobbing gently on the mountain highway.
The most haunting experience of all was the false memory that had implanted itself in my mind. I could not remember back to that day without imagining my own death. My memory of landing upright in a safe place was buried beneath the fear fantasy I had constructed. Replaying in my mind the events as they actually transpired took conscious effort.
Otherwise, I pictured my death vividly. I could remember the scrambling motions I made to try and stop myself as I hurtled toward the edge; fingers reaching, grasping and finding nothing. The way it felt when I left the rock, the rock left me, and I fell through the sky. I imagined my body crumpling upon itself like a sheet of paper as it crushed against the hot, rocky talus slope below. I felt the wave of pain, the wave of regret, and then nothing at all. I died a false death, alone, under the blinding sun, every single time.
I didn’t understand why I had been cursed in this way. Hadn’t I done everything right? I cried, I cared for my body inside and out, I sat with my feelings and my fear. I was so determined to learn this lesson the first time around. What didn’t I understand?
Facing, and somehow still missing the point all along, I couldn’t “make my body heal”. I kept trying to make my brush with death a simple footnote, another wild story, a project to complete, something to move beyond.
Meanwhile, I had returned to the woods.
The place I chose was one of convenience. Easy access from the highway. Closest wilderness area to my house. No big, show stopping destinations. Just a quiet, shady place to go do some miles in the forest.
An old friend once advised me to stop spreading myself around in the various forests of the Pacific Northwest. The key to knowing a place, to learning it’s secrets, is returning again and again. Listening. I decided it was time to take his advice.
This place; it would become my place. It would become my forest home. I would come to know not just the trails, but all the woods they moved through. Places where you could leave the path and investigate along a ridge, or pick your way through the fern grotto to reach a small sandy beach along the river. Places where the feeling in the forest was always heavy and strange, where the birds went quiet, where it always seemed dark, even in the heat of august. Portals. Some almost sing out to you as you pass; are they calling you closer or issuing a gentle warning? Either way, I like staring into the abyss.
I kept on crying as I shuffled up and down those trails. I kept dreaming of that perfect moment when I would finally understand the lessons. All would be revealed! I would be healed in my body and soul! I would be released! The forest magic would provide a complete, instant transformation. I would return to my pre-accident, fearless self. A little bit wiser, but unchanged. The fear in my muscles and bones would be only a memory.
Summer gave way to fall on the trails in my forest home. Each week, I watched the leaves change from green to yellow to red and then drop in full sheets across the ground. The air became crisp and the rains returned. I continued my dutiful miles along the ridges and into the canyons, rarely seeing anyone else. The spooky places called out to me and I found myself calling out to them, too. Exploring their edges, wandering in to them, getting closer.
Fall gave way to winter; the ground froze and the rain got colder. Mushrooms sprang up through the earth. Hoarfrost formations, crunchy leaves, ethereal low-hanging mists. As I pressed through the slide alders, who’s work reclaiming the old logging road was nearly complete, my breath formed great clouds. The ravens announced my presence. Small birds would follow me, flitting from branch to branch; their cheerful little songs felt serene. I occasionally felt the energy of a larger animal, a predator, nearby. I was being watched, but not followed. I never saw any deer or elk. I never saw any other mammals.
The winter pressed onward, and the snow started to fall. I added another layer under my rain shell, put on my micro spikes, and kept hiking. I slowed down. The forest silence was powerful on those darkest days. I felt held by it. I felt seen by the trees. I saw no one else. I returned again and again; the magick unfurling at my feet in new, subtle ways each time.
My perfect moment of realization never came, no matter how many times I longed for it. I never regained my fearless charge to see every ridge-line for myself. Instead, something softer, and more authentic grew in its place. I had connected back into myself, realizing the destination was always just a distraction; both in the backcountry and in my longing to be made whole within. There would be no “return to”’ because it was time to go somewhere else.
I have so much yet to learn.