Untold Stories #2 – Falling Down

December 4, 2012

Readers may have picked up on the change in my religious zeal over the course of the book. In my sophomore year of college, my faith was in a place where a single bible verse dictated my actions and altered the course of my life. Years later in Thailand, I basically rejected an invitation to spend my time as a missionary. Here’s a missing story that takes place in between those events which speaks to that change.

When I crossed the finish line of the 2003 Los Angeles Marathon, I counted it as a victory. After all, as a first time participant, my primary goal was completion. But it hadn’t gone to plan. I was forced to skip my last month of training to rest an injury. I added jet lag to the mix by participating in a week-long east coast service-learning trip directly prior to the race. So I wasn’t exactly in marathon shape that Sunday morning. I kept my planned pace for about 20 miles (6 minutes of jogging alternated with 1 minute of walking) until I gradually degraded into a more humble form (1 minute of jogging alternated with 1 minute of walking).
austinmarathon
In the weeks that followed, an acute case of patellar tendonitis surfaced in my knee. I’m not sure if I incurred it with an abbreviated recovery period or if was just waiting to happen after I overextended myself to complete the marathon. Either way, it was a self-inflicted injury that I could have avoided. To be 20 years old and not be able to break into a jog was a rather pathetic reality for me to wrap my mind around. And as months went by without any significant healing, I had to consider the possibility that my condition would be with me, in some form, forever. Perhaps it was fitting that I was in my second year of college, because I felt genuinely sophomoric. While I had learned enough about my body to get into the best shape of my life, I was still ignorant enough to give myself a long-term injury. And I have no choice but to acknowledge my potential to do permanent damage to myself. So much for invincibility.

The following summer found me stationed at Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park, where I waited tables at a hotel restaurant. The job mostly consisted of refilling water glasses and bussing tables for busloads of elderly tourists, as well as navigating the human zoo of personalities that constituted my peers on the workforce. Take, for example, the tall pony-tailed waiter. Like many of us on the staff, he didn’t let Yellowstone’s bear population keep him from hiking in the backcountry. Only this guy chose to do it without packing bear spray. He told me that he wouldn’t feel right (temporarily) blinding a charging grizzly “in its own habitat” to preserve his own life. “Becoming one with such a majestic creature” seemed a more acceptable alternative, he claimed to believe. But I digress. I’ll have to omit the remainder of the menagerie and leave their stories for another place.

When I wasn’t working at the Old Faithful Inn Dining Room, or out on the backcountry with a fully loaded canister of bear spray, I spent a lot of time reading geographically appropriate outdoor adventure titles like Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster, Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park, and The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Mt. Everest. The spirit of discovery in those pages fueled my boots through my weekend treks with co-workers. It wasn’t long before we accumulated triple-digit mileages around the park. I found myself wanting a little more out of the hikes than I was getting. I wanted to break free from a group and get off the literal beaten path. So I did.
Middle and Grand Teton
Half way up a summit hike in the Grand Tetons, my group set up a base camp near a mountain stream. There wasn’t enough daylight left to continue the ascent of Middle Teton that day, but there was daylight left. I decided to use it for some extracurricular exploration. I grabbed two ice axes (the Tetons stay snow-capped year-round, so axes are needed for the ascent) and headed toward a slope above the base camp. We were at a point in the mountain range where ridges intersected and create a kind of rocky crease. We scrambled over a scattering of man-sized boulders and came upon an area where the shade preserved a long stretch of snow pack at a 30-40 degree angle.  We began a difficult two-axe scaling of the pack. This required bending over and hacking the axes into the snow and leaning on them while climbing one step at a time. My partner, who was 6 inches taller than me and a good bit wiser, soon determined that this hunched, hazardous hike to nowhere was not worth the backache. He announced his intent to return, yet I continued undeterred.

After another twenty minutes of work, I reached a break in the snow pack. It must have been a gap in the daily shade which had melted whatever snow had landed there. The exposed earth was covered in a layer of loose rocks, which were getting smaller as I ascended the crease. Between the incline and the loosening rock layer, I could only manage one careful step at a time. I proceeded upward like this for what seemed like another half hour. By that time, my entire path was in the shadows of the mountains. I needed to turn back soon before conditions got dark and cold. I was wearing board shorts, a vest, running shoes, and a baseball cap. I had no food, no water, no camera, no phone, no sleeves, and no desire to turn back. I had reached another stretch of virgin snow pack, one which led to daylight at the top of the crease. I couldn’t see what lay over the edge, but it looked like it may offer a stunning view of the setting sun. One which may have never been seen before.

I eyed the snow pack in front of me. It was steeper than its predecessor. It started at 40 degrees but seemed to increase as it approached the top. But the climb looked doable. I didn’t want to think about a descent.

I started up the ice and developed a routine for progress. I had to drive an ax handle into the snow, kick in a foothold for my sneaker, and while leaning on the upright axe, take a step upward and repeat with the other side of my body. I put about twenty to thirty yards of ice behind me before the increase in slope rendered the technique nearly useless. The ice was too steep to allow for a foothold which could support stepping.

I transitioned into a more aggressive strategy. Instead of using the ax handles, I began hacking the ax pick into the ice and pulling my self upward with my arms.

It was a more productive attack, but extremely tiring. My hands began cramp. My arm muscled trembled. For the moment, I couldn’t manage another stride. But I was mere feet from the summit. Standing against the snow pack, which was now at a 60 degree angle, I lunged the axes into the ice and attempted to rest my weight for a brief recovery.

I was in a pathetic position, but gravity had no pity for me.

The ice around my axes crumbled, and in an instant, all 150 pounds of me was sliding down the ice.

The axes were still in my hands, so I attempted to hammer one of them into the ice that was reeling before my eyes like a film strip. But laid out flat as I was, I had no hope of engaging my core or shoulders for the motion. All I managed was a futile wrist flick with the blade, which barely scratched the surface speeding under it. I had no idea what might happen next. I thought I might die.

Within seconds, The ice spit me back onto the loose rock surface. Upon impact my body was tipped horizontal and I rolled on the rocks until they absorbed all of my kinetic energy. The *whoosh* of my body sledding was replaced with the crumble of the rocks I displaced. And then, stillness and silence.

I had landed on my back, facing the sky. My legs were crossed unnaturally, but seemed to be unbroken. A rock had sliced open my forearm. It was colorless for a moment, but as I stared at, the crescent-shaped cut (laceration) filled with red and soon it ran with blood. Without much personal history with deep cuts, my mind immediately turned to slowing the bleeding. I removed the drawstring from my board shorts and tied a weak one-handed knot above the cut.

As I sat there leaking blood and catching my breath, I tried to process what had just happened. I had other cuts on my arms, face, and chest. I was sore, but mechanically intact. I looked across the valley, where I could see make out hikers. I could yell for help, but what could anyone do? What if that rock had sliced me in a more vulnerable place, or if I had broken a limb or been knocked unconscious? What if I had impaled myself on one of the axes? I would have been helpless. And I wasn’t safe yet. I had no exit strategy. Going down the snow in a controlled way seemed trickier than going up. I had to hope there was another way back to camp.

Injuring my knee in the marathon experience was one thing, but this fall was quite another. I very well could have killed myself.

Yet I had been so confident. So fearless. I had so much misplaced faith in myself.

I’d graduated high school in the top 5% of my class. My test scores had earned me a dean’s scholarship at a selective university. I was cruising through my courses and tutoring multivariate calculus on the side. But at the end of the day, I was still an idiot who was barely keeping himself alive.

With luck, I did end up finding a way down the mountain before dark without having to risk another slide. Once back to camp, a fellow hiker produced a Valium tablet for me. I made a half-assed effort at cleaning off dried blood at the nearby mountain stream and laid myself down in a tent on a thin Thermarest pad.

Except for a few noticeable scars, my body eventually made a full recovery. But my confidence did not.

Image

Hold on kid, this essay isn’t over yet.

When our summer of backpacking and table-waiting at Yellowstone was over, my roommate and I made a road trip to Los Angeles to return his car to Pepperdine. I then planned to catch a flight home to Dallas.

After a night in Salt Lake City, Jeff and I stopped in Las Vegas and were shown the city by a group of girls who Jeff had met on a previous visit. After a summer immersed in natural wonder, a hot night in Sin City came as a shock to my system. I lost my optimism for the night. By its end, I was mad at Jeff for plenty of reasons and none of them were any good. We had hoped to couch surf that night, but never caught a wave. Instead of springing for a cheap hotel, we decided to press on to Los Angeles without sleeping. To that point, our summer travel had taken us across 8 states plus a province and we’d always found a campsite or a friend’s spare bedroom. I suppose taking a hotel room would have been some kind of a defeat for us.

I took the first driving shift. My anger with Jeff somehow translated into refusal to turn over the wheel when I started to feel drowsy. He fell asleep in the passenger seat. And then I fell asleep in the driver’s seat, doing about 70.

Sometime between midnight and sunrise, I woke up to tail lights. Our sedan was about to rear end the vehicle in front of us. I swerved left and veered into the divide of the divided highway, where we came to a stop. The squeal of tires and the off-road detour woke up Jeff, who immediately began to try to calm me down. “It’s okay, it’s okay” he assured me. I was shaken and panicking. Because it wasn’t okay.

“No… I hit somebody.”

Behind us, an upturned car laid helplessly on the opposite side of the interstate.

The next two hours were a slow-motion blur. Running to assist the victims. Dropping to my knees and asking for forgiveness. Calling 911 from a cell phone, but not having any idea how far along the interstate we were. Running through a field toward the lights of a gas station and colliding with an unseen barbed wire fence. Waiting for the ambulance as the sun rose over the California desert. Delivering my statement to the police.

The passengers of the other car were ambulatory and walked to the ambulance with minimal assistance. But with the morning sun, it was clear to me how lucky we all were. While their car had rolled off of the highway, it missed the pillar of an overpass which could have killed them on impact. Our sedan was mobile enough to limp to the nearest mechanic, where enough of the dents were banged out to allow the completion of our road trip. Our final day’s itinerary was abandoned and one result was that I arrived to LAX about 8 hours early for my departing flight.

Over the past 5 months, I’d been reckless with my health, and then my life, and then the lives of others. And now I had 8 hours to sit alone and think about that.

To help distract my mind, I picked up a book from an overpriced airport bookstore. I stuck with an author I knew, most recently from another book that summer. My choice was Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer. It was a departure from the more outdoor adventure oriented Into Thin Air and Into the Wild. It was an outsider’s critical take on fundamental Mormonism, as viewed through historical events and a recent murder case in which the killers claimed God had instructed them to kill through revelations.

In my humbled state, I became enraged at the arrogance of the religious followers I read about. My faith in myself had hit an all-time low. I could hardly trust myself to take a jog, take a hike, or take a drive without risking death. And this contrasted radically with what I was learning about the players in Latter-day Saint history. Between the magic glasses, golden plates, and suspiciously timed revelations, I was overwhelmed with the self-faith being displayed. How could a person ever trust themselves so much to believe the thoughts in their head were divinely inspired? And how could such a revelation-oriented religion gain such a following in an industrialized, educated country? And was my “post-materialist, denomination-free” Christianity really any different, at its core? Isn’t every expression of faith in God also an expression of faith in one’s self? One’s own “revelations”? Faith used to seem so humble, and now it seemed so arrogant.

Tangled up with all of these seemingly rational thoughts was simple guilt for causing the accident. Christianity offered forgiveness for my mistakes. Since that seemed too easy. I needed a way to deny myself the forgiveness that I didn’t deserve. And being confronted with this new universe of doubt gave me my out.

My original path to the Church wasn’t one paved with calm logic. My parents’ divorce drove me to religion. I was a lonely 12-year-old boy crying on my bedroom floor. Having sworn off my own father, I was suffering that removal. Christianity’s image of the Heavenly Father offered me a kind of replacement. And so it felt like the right thing to do. I trusted that personal revelation and ran with it. But now, as a 20-year-old screwup losing faith in myself, my worldview demanded a more substantial foundation.

In the end, I didn’t renounce religion. That seemed just as arrogant as finding it. Just like running, it was simply something that couldn’t currently be a part of my life because I was incapable of participating. Running on my bad knee would have just made it worse. And just as I would need time to see how my knee would heal, I would need to keep living life to gather more experience before I could make any decision about what I believed.

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