I have several life mottos, all of them about dying. “Every man dies. Not every man really lives.” “I am as safe in battle as I am in bed.” “I know I shall die, and I shall die on time. Therefore, I must make the most of the moments between here and there.” But the one that gets me weird looks: “That which doesn’t kill me makes me a better writer.”
I’m not an adrenaline junkie. No, really. Find a real one and you’ll agree. But I do have the frantic need to turn life into words, to shoplift snippets from God’s saga, to steal anything that touch my five senses (or my friends’) and harness them with my own syllables. Anything is fair game. Anything. I know what it’s like to slice a lopsided smiley face into my finger with a breadknife, get the wound stitched up, and then have the stitches removed when one of them has pierced a severed nerve. Know what pulling that stitch feels like? Like placing a long thread of dental floss inside a deep, wide paper cut and ripping it all the way out. Thank you, friend. Your pain is my gain. (My gratitude is real.) It will show up in a story somewhere.
God speaks, I echo—stuttering.
But it isn’t just about the hunt for story grist. I am a tumbleweed on a summersault through life, picking up sights and sounds and feels and laughter and pain and people. I don’t want to die small. The world is too big. So I’m learning to roll towards the things that scare me. Maybe someday I will have the courage to choose the slopes where I can’t see the bottom, the corners that are completely blind. (I’m a hobbit—specifically, a Baggins, so it doesn’t come easily. I talk about mountains and dragons, but the hardest thing is leaving the secure, the predictable. I grow where I’m planted and my roots are deep. To switch metaphors: This stick really likes its mud.) But for now, I aim for the stuff that simply makes me nervous.
On Memorial Day 2014, this tumbleweed headed for the Salmon River.
* * *
White water rafting. I know when I sign up (deliberately giving no thought to price, safety, or comfort) that if I fall overboard, I’ll have a new story to tell. A weird tension takes my mind. I expect to fall out—but am confident that I won’t. I talk about when, not if, the boat tips, but then I sit down in the raft with absolute certainty that it will stay right side up and I will go home perfectly dry, even though I’m busy browsing google pix like this:
There are six of us together: a hodgepodge of college friends, work friends, and we-both-like-war-movies friends. Lindsey is broad-shouldered, drily witty, and capable. If anything panicky happens, she won’t be the one to panic, or at least she won’t panic the worst. Melissa is sunny with an infectious laugh that sounds like jiggling jello, and she knows something about everything, especially Dante and politics and My Cousin Vinny, which proves useful for conversation in between rapids. I don’t know Anoma that well, but she has the sweet, natural deferment to others that feels as magical as if she just pulled it out a top hat. I honestly don’t know where she gets it. Janelle is a petite strawberry blonde whom I met on a hike one summer—a capable tomboy and near-EMT whom I’d depend on to provide both outdoor savvy and a cool head. Justin, the only guy in the group, is ex-Air Force and is already joking about how much life insurance his wife will get if he dies in the river before the military officially lets him go on June 1. Looks like he’s picked the perfect weekend to drown. He’s a bona fide thrill-seeker, fresh out of one of the world’s most stressful jobs as air traffic controller, and I’ve seen him do 90 pushups in about 70 seconds, all of which seem like they’ll count for a something when water goes crazy.
Warm sunlight bathes the tiny town of Riggins, Idaho’s whitewater capital, when we arrive at 8:45 a.m. Our river guides give us wet suits first. Mandatory. The water is cold enough that we’ll get hypothermia pretty fast if we fall in. (Me, internally: When we fall in.)
The rafting company has an age but no height requirement. They should probably think about getting one. The tall, lanky redhead, Steve, holds out a long, sleeveless wetsuit, looks me up and down, and says: “Maybe it’ll work.” I roll up the pant legs and the suit fits just dandy, besides being the most unbecoming nonsense I’ve ever put on. Perhaps if I feel as large as a seal, I’ll also be able to swim like one. (Though I won’t need to, I tell myself.)
Together with our five river guides and four barely graduated high school students from McCall, we pile into the big white van (which smells strangely of curry) and drive about 14 miles down a slow, windy road along the river to the launching point. John is our driver: late twenties, scruffy hair, a beard just long enough to curl. He has a bum knee so this is all he does today: drive. His girlfriend, Elizabeth, is fit and boyishly slim with a ready smile, sun-bleached hair, and smooth, tan skin. She introduces the third guy as “Mr. Tom Heffrey”—an odd nickname for someone named Jeff. Jeff is tall and zero-body-fat with eyes, hair, and skin all the same baked brown color. Cody, the youngest and buffest, has just passed the river guide exam, which involves paddling down the same long stretch of river six days in a row to pass. As for Steve, the redhead, he’s the designated safety-boat guy of the day. Alone in his own boat, he will paddle ahead to wait for us at the end of each rapid in case we need help.
Not that we will, I tell myself.
More gear waits for us on the shore. Life vests cinch our lungs so tight that we start to drown before we even hit the water. Our guides assure us that they’ll loosen up as they get wet—and they will get wet. Bright blue splash jackets are recommended, because the spray alone from the river is freezing. I pass. If the Salmon is cold, I want to feel it. Last of all, helmets. I clip mine on over my baseball cap.
We look mostly like this:
All puff-bodied and bulbous-headed, we stand on the shore while Elizabeth teaches us how to row. Sit on the boat’s edge, secure your feet by wedging them into the boat crannies, then plant your paddle in the water and use your abdominal core to pull back. When you paddle, watch the person in front of you so that you row in sync. Never let go of the end of the paddle, called the T-grip. Excited rafters swing their paddles around and that T-grip can knock your friend bloody.
If you fall out (Elizabeth continues cheerfully), DO NOT PANIC. Stay calm, assume a reclining-beach-chair position, and use your arms to steer yourself down the river (which is always moving faster and stronger than you). Look back at the boat to see what the guide is telling you to do, because they will always point you in the direction you should go. If the guide pats herself on the head, you either pat your own head in return (signaling that you’re okay) or wave any other crazy gesture (to signal that you’re not). Sometimes a little swim is nice and you honestly want to stay in the water; that’s when you pat your head. But if you’re not okay, the boat will pick you up asap and everything will be peachy. Your friends will grab you by the straps of your life vest, push you down to get momentum, then throw themselves backwards into the boat, lugging you in on top of them.
If you fall out and get stuck under the boat (my throat constricts at the thought), pick one direction and follow it, using your hands to walk yourself along the bottom until you’re out from under it. What if the whole raft flips over and everybody gets dunked? Simply gather around while the river guide hooks herself to the underside of the boat (using rope and a carabiner), and then everyone help her pull the boat back, flipping it onto its bottom again.
Elizabeth is so relaxed and humorous, I honestly feel like I’m listening to the “if we experience a sudden loss in cabin pressure, the oxygen masks will automatically drop” speech—as in, this will never happen, which is almost a bummer. Too bad I’ll never get to practice this, I think. But I’m totally ready for it if it does.
We launch. Jeff and Cody take the McCall kids; Elizabeth takes the six of us. Lindsey, myself, and Janelle are on one side (front to back), and Anoma, Justin, and Melissa on the other. High on a separate seat in the stern, Elizabeth keeps both hands on the main steering: two thick, long paddles that dip in and out of the water like awkward, bony bird wings.
I follow Elizabeth’s yells and watch Lindsey’s stroke as we set out into the quick-sliding river.
“Forward TWO!” Elizabeth yells. We all paddle two strokes.
“Back THREE!” We paddle backward.
“ALL FORWARD!” We paddle. Keep paddling. No stopping till she says stop.
“Stab that white whale!” Elizabeth calls as we lean, stab, heave; lean, stab, heave. “Anybody read Moby Dick? I like to say STAB THAT WHITE WHALE!”
Lean, stab, heave. Lean, stab, heave.
“And STOP!” Elizabeth hollers.
We stop, panting, even though we’re still gliding along calm river. I can already feel the burn down my right side from angling sideways and using my core to heave back and forth. My knees, cocked funny, are complaining, but I don’t dare budge them. They are what’s locking my feet into the boat: one foot jammed under the rubber bench in front of me, the other squished into the natural fold between the floor and wall.
The first rapid isn’t even in sight as Elizabeth talks about the river, which is about 50 degrees and barging along at 65,000 CFS (cubic feet per second). What does that mean? Cut a one-foot cross section of the river and imagine 65,000 basketballs filling up that space. That’s how many basketballs are rushing through that cross section every single second, only it’s not basketballs, it’s water: cold, melted snow gorging the riverbed so full, it’s almost up to the highest watermark on the rocks that line the shore. We are floating along a chilly, overstuffed monster in a race with itself.
“There are different classes of rapids,” Elizabeth says, calmly double-paddling as we sit and watch the shore slide by. “We’ll have a couple class fours. Those are fun.”
“What’s the biggest?” I ask.
She smiles. “Class four.”
Sun on my bare shoulders, paddle idle in my hands, I find myself staring over the side at a thick, 20-foot tree trunk shooting smoothly past us like a sports car passing a semi. This time of year, the river picks up lots of fallen trees. The log is quickly sucked out of sight around the bend.
We round the corner. There’s a sudden shift in the boat. Someone sits up straighter. Someone else grabs their paddle, ready.
“Look,” I say.
The first white-tufted waves appear on the river’s horizon: tiny, like distant sea gull wings against a dark green sky.
“That’s it,” Elizabeth says.
Our first rapid.
I tighten one hand on the T-grip, the other close to the blade, ready to stab. The river is pulling us closer without our help. Here it comes. The noise builds first—the sound of giant water, a sound I’ve heard before in waterfalls, but now we are rushing straight into that sound.
Why aren’t we paddling yet?
“Forward TWO!” Elizabeth yells at last.
We paddle two.
One. Two. Three. We stop and watch, paddles at the ready, as the white waves toss larger and larger, thirty feet ahead. I see the big log go straight into the side of a wave. Swallowed. Regurgitated. Shoved left and right. Spat and rolled and swallowed again.
The river grows beneath us until the waves are bigger than our 16-foot boat, swelling under us, pushing us up on their shoulders, dropping us into troughs, crashing against the prow. We can hardly hear Elizabeth above the thunder, but we keep paddling up one wave and down the next as the rapids swirl and punch and jostle and tip us.
“ALL FORWARD!” Elizabeth screams.
We’re stroking up towards the crest of the biggest wave yet. If we don’t stroke fast and hard enough, we’ll be stuck at the bottom of the wave by the time it curls and the whole thing will crash down on top of us. Or it will roll us inside a water burrito and we’re all going for a swim.
I shake the water out of my eyes. Lean forward. Stab. Lean back. Drag the paddle back. Lean forward. Stab. Lean back. Drag. Shake the water again and blink, waiting for my contacts to swim back over my pupils. Laugh. I can’t help it. It’s exhilarating.
Paddles frozen mid-air, we let the boat slide down the back of the last wave. We are foam-speckled and breathless, floating in abruptly stable but fast water.
“Everybody give a paddle high-five!” Elizabeth yells.
We lift our paddles to form a teepee over the middle of the boat. “Ay-yai-yai-yai-yai!”
We sound like Indians. We sound awesome.
“And…there’s our log,” I say, pointing ahead. The big tree has made it through, now floating slowly along.
“It’s been following us a while,” says Melissa.
“Guys, it’s Gollum!” I whisper.
“Look up there,” Elizabeth says as we drift.
We look up at the brown hills to the east.
“You can see where a big forest fire stopped a couple summers ago. That line—that’s where they dug the trench. That’s where the fire turned around.”
It’s hard to imagine dry heat, crackling flames, and poisonous smoke while so much water is around us.
“Guys, they say that drowning is worse than getting burned alive,” I say, staring up at the burned slope.
A chorus of no way’s.
“I’d rather drown,” someone says. “Sorry.”
“What makes you say that?” someone else asks me.
“Books I’ve read,” I say. “Fire, you’re probably going to die of smoke inhalation before any serious trauma. The panic and the pain is worse with drowning. And longer.”
Drowning is especially vivid in my mind right now. I’ve been reading Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm where he writes seven pages straight about what happens when you drown, based on laboratory experiments and the accounts from people who have really drowned—and been resuscitated.
The instinct not to breathe underwater is so strong that it overcomes the agony of running out of air. No matter how desperate the drowning person is, he doesn’t inhale until he’s on the verge of losing consciousness. At that point there’s so much carbon dioxide in the blood, and so little oxygen, that chemical sensors in the brain trigger an involuntary breath whether he’s underwater or not. That is called the “break point”….
Until the break point, a drowning person is said to be undergoing “voluntary apnea,” choosing not to breathe. Lack of oxygen to the brain causes a sensation of darkness closing in from all sides, as in a camera aperture stopping down. The panic of drowning is mixed with an odd incredulity that this is actually happening. Having never done it before, the body—and the mind—do not know how to die gracefully. The process is filled desperation and awkwardness. “So this is drowning,” a drowning person might think. “So this is how my life finally ends.”…
When the first involuntary breath occurs, most people are still conscious, which is unfortunate, because the only thing more unpleasant than running out of air is breathing in water. At that point the person goes from voluntary to involuntary apnea, and the drowning begins in earnest. A spasmodic breath drags water into the mouth and windpipe, and then one of two things happen. In about ten percent of people, water—anything—touching the vocal cords triggers an immediate contraction in the muscles around the larynx. In effect, the central nervous system judges something in the voice box to be more of a threat than low oxygen levels in the blood, and acts accordingly. This is called a laryngospasm. It’s so powerful that it overcomes the breathing reflex and eventually suffocates the person. A person with laryngospasm drowns without any water in his lungs.
In the other ninety percent of people, water floods the lungs and ends any waning transfer of oxygen to the blood. The clock is running down now; half-conscious and enfeebled by oxygen depletion, the person is in no position to fight his way back up to the surface. The very process of drowning makes it harder and harder not to drown (pages 179-181).
I don’t think any of this out loud, but I remember.
My buddies are unconvinced. “I’d still rather drown,” someone says.
I look at the deep water below. I’ve been burned before: my right hand, finger-tips to palm, covered in blisters because I slapped it down on a burner that had just boiled water, but I’ve decided a long time ago that I’d still rather die in a flaming house than a sinking boat. Putting my face under water is one of the most unnatural things you can ask me to do. I’ve got too many things to worry about, such as losing my contacts (I’m blind without them) and, well, not being able to breathe. Growing up in Florida, I knew the trick of keeping water out of my nose, but then we moved to the landlocked northwest when I was ten and I lost it. Now I prefer to dogpaddle. No face in the water. No.
“Meh, I’d go for fire,” I say aloud, and no one contradicts.
We talk about other things as we course along. Elizabeth tells us about the geography, the history, the rapids waiting for us downstream.
“Ruby’s next,” she says.
All the rapids have names. And they are all “she.”
“What class is Ruby?” I ask.
“Four. She’s a wild one. She’s big enough there’s actually a waterfall at the end. You’ve got the waves chopping this way with the current, and then you’ve got cross-waves slamming in from the side because of the rocks under the surface. Some people stick to the other side of the bank, go around. You guys want to go to the side?”
We all look at each other. Justin appears confused at the question. “Hey, this is what we came for.”
“Yeah, this is why we’re here,” I say.
Everyone else agrees.
Elizabeth smiles. “All right. She’s coming.”
I grip my paddle. Bring it.
What I don’t know is what Elizabeth isn’t telling us: a lot of boats flip in Ruby.
Soon enough, she appears. The river ahead turns almost completely white. The only difference is some of the white is bigger than others. The river not only tosses up and down, but crashes far left and turns back on itself in a perpetual roll—those sideways waves Elizabeth was talking about.
We see Jeff (Mr. Tom Heffrey) and the McCall kids paddling ahead of us.
They go in: a small boat of bright colors bobbing in and out of the white.
We grip our paddles, waiting for the signal. Elizabeth is still the boss, but by now we’re pep talking each other.
“Come on, guys,” I say, ready to stab.
“Let’s do it.”
“We got this.”
“Forward TWO!” Elizabeth yells.
We stab. We’re in a foam fury, desperately trying to paddle straight to keep the boat from getting spun sideways. If we hit a wave broadside, we’ll roll like a marble. We go up and down, up and down. One second, I’m hitting the wave as we climb up, the next second my paddle stabs awkward air because we’re on the crest and there’s nothing below us until we slam down and the river jars my paddle when I’m not ready, bruising my palms.
“KEEP forward, KEEP forward!” Elizabeth’s shouts are dim behind us. “Stab that white whale! Stab that white whale!”
“Come on!” I yell, blinking, stabbing. “Come on!”
Justin keeps shouting, “Yeah, buddy. Yeah, buddy!”
I feel the boat rise like we’re crawling up a roller coaster. A seething wall bursts over Lindsey in front of me. I don’t know I’m falling until a waterfall pours over my head, shoving me beneath the roiling surface, and I sink backwards into an ear-clogging shriek of bubbles.
I’m underwater. Blind. Can’t breathe. The river’s weight is pushing the bill of my baseball cap down onto the bridge of my nose. My helmet feels like a giant iron hand holding me down.
I flail. Am I under the boat? Am I under the boat? I can’t breathe. I didn’t take a breath before going under. My helmet is too heavy, my suit too heavy, I can feel the river’s current sucking me down, not just downstream but down, down towards the bottom like someone just pulled the plug and the whole river is draining. I remember reading about a grunt in Vietnam who almost drowned because he was in full gear and strapped with ammo, and I think: I’m going to die because I’m wearing this stupid helmet. Death by helmet, death by helmet.
The bubbles start to sing higher and I know I’m rising. Thank God for the lifejacket that is way too tight. I pop back up, my lungs squealing as they try to unstick from each other. They feel like wrinkled deflated balloons.
I discover that the only thing more terrifying than coming up under the boat is coming up with no boat in sight. Nothing. There’s nothing but you and your tiny body heading into a washing machine of cold, angry water. You can’t see where the rapid ends because you’re in it, you’re below each wave, you have no control.
I am alone in Ruby. And I discover something about fear. About myself.
When you’re nervous, you feel like something’s nibbling inside you. A little invader has released butterflies in your stomach, but a bit of deep breathing will make them go away. Fear is different. People always say “filled with fear,” but that’s not true—at least it isn’t for me. Not right now. This level of fear leaves you feeling stripped and vulnerable, like your whole life you’ve just been wearing a full-body suit of composure and someone suddenly rips it off and it’s just you, the real you, exposed like a nerve and everything that touches screams.
I know that I am exposed and that the real me is out, but I am too scared to care about loss of dignity. I still can’t breathe. Open-mouthed, I keep catching water. My windpipe is shut. It feels like I’m dragging air in through a chewed straw, and it sounds worse. I hear myself: each inhale a loud groan for oxygen that never comes.
I wonder whether they’ll get me out in time, whether the next real breath I draw will only be when I’m back on the boat, and I realize that that will be too late. I’m going too fast, the river is sucking me further and further away from the boat and people and safety at 65,000 cubic feet per second, per second, per second.
I keep shoving the bill of my hat up so I can see, but there’s nothing to see except water much bigger than I am, trying to swallow me almost as hard as the life jacket is trying to keep me out of its belly.
My brain is going fast, careening out of control. I find myself thinking: “Note to whoever directed that Lassie movie in 1994 (was it 1994?): the boy shouldn’t have been able to scream going through the rapids. You don’t have breath to scream. Too much water in the air. Stupid director made him scream just for dramatic effect.”
I tell myself that even if I swallow enough water to go unconscious, the jacket will keep me afloat and they will pick my body out of the water and I will wake up onshore because somebody in this group knows CPR. “Thirty minutes,” I tell myself, “this will all be over. People have survived thirty minutes after getting water in their lungs.”
I begin to pray, which scares me worse than anything. Good people die doing fun stuff all the time, but oh, God, don’t let me die in this water.
I realize what I’m doing. Somewhere in my head, there’s a drill instructor. “You’re doing exactly what Elizabeth said not to do,” my brain barks. “You’re panicking. Why don’t you stop thinking you can’t breathe and just try to breathe.”
I slow down. Exhale first. How surprising to realize that relaxing actually releases the choke hold I have on myself. My throat opens. Air flows in and out. In and out. I remember to put my feet downstream first and use my arms to keep my face above water. What if the others think I’m okay? What if they think I’m having fun? At the same time that I’m embarrassed at how scared I am, I also can’t stand the thought of them letting me stay in this river one second longer than I have to. I want out. I’m shooting along at uncontrollable speed and I have no idea where the river is going to take me next.
I wait until my voice has returned. Then, face to the sky, I suck in a huge breath and yell: “Help! Me!”
That’s all I can manage. I know they can’t hear me anyway. I want to use my arms to signal distress, but I can’t stop treading. Suddenly, it hits me: Look back! Look back! They will point you where to go. They will be telling you something.
I look back. The boat is about 100 yards behind and it looks like a bright, upside centipede with ten arms all pointing frantically towards the safe shore—now on my left because I’ve turned.
They’re screaming. They’re all screaming.
A quick, irrational thought enters my head: “Easy for you to say—you’re safe on a boat! Why don’t you get out and swim?”
Then I see it.
Barreling down on me. For the first time, I realize how big it is. Solid, perfectly round, a foot in diameter. A raft! A raft for me, right on time. I want to swim forward and grab it, but my people are still screaming and pointing, so I disobey my instincts and swim towards the bank instead. The log passes by, nonchalantly carried on a bed of swift froth. I still don’t know why I’m letting it go, but now the boat is rowing closer and Lindsey is already holding out her paddle.
I lunge upstream. Serendipitously, my paddle is floating right towards my hand, and I grab it, thinking two things at once: Just like Marcus Luttrell’s rifle in Lone Survivor! and What presence of mind!
But that presence of mind evaporates as soon as the boat reaches me and I grasp first Lindsey’s paddle and then the safety rope lacing the boat’s side. I’m too far below the wall to do a gosh-darn thing. I need help.
“Get me in,” I command, clutching.
As if they aren’t planning to.
I don’t see who grabs me. Lindsey and Melissa, I think—seizing my straps, pushing me down into the water, heaving backwards until I fall into a push-up position in the bottom of the boat and lie there for a second, palms flat, arms shaking. One second. Then I sit up. Adrenaline is pouring through my body like an electric charge.
People are asking me if I’m okay. Yes, I’m okay. I’m surprised to see that they’re all a little shaken; I had thought I was the only one. I pick up my hands and realize they’re empty.
“Guys, I’m useless—I don’t have my paddle.” I must have dropped it at the last second. Presence of mind indeed! “Am I the only one who fell out?” I ask, looking around.
Justin and Janelle say that they also got tipped—and came up under the boat. They remembered what Elizabeth had said, picking one direction and sticking with it till they were clear.
“I got to admit, a minute there, I was thinking, ‘This is it; can’t hold my breath anymore,’” Justin says, shaking his head. “And then all I can think is, ‘Oh great, and we were just talking about drowning!'”
The strange urge to be completely honest grips me. “I was scared, guys,” I say. I’m still sitting in the bottom of the boat and I’m shivering. I hadn’t felt cold in the water; my five senses were bombarded with too many other things. But now I’m starting to shake. “I kept trying to signal, but I couldn’t raise my arms out of the water.”
“I was scared,” Lindsey exclaims.
“Yeah, you had me nervous there, Gwen,” Justin says.
“It was that stupid log,” Lindsey goes on. “Before that, we were like, okay, she’s gonna be fine, we’ll just go get her, but then that log was headed straight for you and even Elizabeth was like, oh man, things have officially hit the ‘oh sh—’ moment.”
I’m surprised until I remember the size of log. Not exactly the thing you want clipping you in the back of the head, which is what would have happened if I hadn’t turned around, in which case it would have simply busted me in the face. And it wasn’t just the log, either. The others tell me that Ruby had almost sucked me down to the bottom of the rapid where she turns in a perpetual death roll like an crocodile spinning its prey, slowly drowning its dinner.
“You missed the hole,” Elizabeth says now, calmly rowing. She doesn’t look like she ever gets scared. “You went to the right of it. That could have been bad.”
We row on. We have more rapids to catch.
Within minutes of safety, I’ve hit two extremes: one physical, one mental. I don’t feel cold on the outside, but a deep shudder is contracting my stomach and my teeth are chattering so hard that when I clamp my jaw, the chatter simply vibrates through my skull. I’ve always thought that teeth chattering is more or less a sign of weakness. Well, maybe it is, but if so, it’s one that you apparently can’t always help. Elizabeth lends me her fleece pullover and gives me my splash jacket. Snugly wrapped in both, plus my life jacket, plus the 80 degree sun warming overhead, I finally stop trembling.
The mental extreme is a contradiction. I’m sort of trafficking in contradictions today. I profoundly hope never to fall into the water again—and am deeply grateful that I got to do it. Janelle and Justin say the same thing about themselves, too. And by the end of the trip—three hours and several class-four rapids later—a few people are actually a bit jealous.
“You went for the longest swim,” Justin says as we paddle the last stretch to the shore where the white van is waiting to take us back to town. “You have the coolest story.”
Which is, after all, exactly what I had set out to gain.
* * *
I am warm, dry, starving, and dehydrated during the two-plus-hour drive back home to Moscow, but it gives me a long time to think. If writing instructors are going to insist that I write what I know, then I want to know everything there is. Is reincarnation really such a silly wish? Sure, because that isn’t how God made the world, but if He had, please let me come back as a lawyer and a fireman and an Alaskan fisherman and a pararescue jumper (one of these days, I will learn how to put my face in the water!) and a Marine and a surgeon and a court stenographer and a missionary and a mountain climber and a film score composer and someone who digs wells for orphans in Kenya. I write best what I do first, so I want to do it all.
But it’s also simply part of being alive. What sort of stories do I want to tell my children and grandchildren one day? “I sat safely on dry land my whole life and never went hiking and never almost fell off a cliff and never blew a tire at 70 mph and never got scared in the face of something that could kill me.” I’m well aware that you could be stupid and selfish with this mindset. You could also be stupid and selfish with its opposite.
God has made this world, this giant storybook filled with mountains and bugs and deep ocean trenches and distant stars and sticky jungles and spiders that should be shot on sight. And He has said to take dominion, which can actually be a lot of fun. Some if it is grueling, like the push to liberate France after D-Day. Some of it is more like jumping in mud puddles. We forget, marching through this enemy-occupied world, that we get to taste and see that the Lord is good along the way. He points to that mountain and says, “Climb.” He points to that ocean: “Dive.” He points to that water frothing itself silly and says: “Try to get through that.”
That which doesn’t kill me…makes me a better person.