This is a guest post from Nancy Townsley who contributed in response to the American Vignette call for submissions. The setting is Oregon. Enjoy.
I remember it like it was yesterday, especially on days when the weather is just right, when the cloud cover is minimal and the smog over Portland’s downtown core clears out after a good rain and I get a fantastic view of Mt. Hood off to my left as I drive east on Highway 30 before heading toward my newspaper office. It used to be that when I saw the mountain, I’d put my mind’s meanderings on hold for a moment or two, long enough to consider and appreciate its stark-white majestic beauty and rugged, craggy appearance. “The queen of the Cascades” is indeed a marvelous peak to behold.
But in the last two years, since Jared fell from the Crater Rock area on Hood’s south side, dropping into thin air after a snow cornice collapsed beneath him, I’ve had to work hard to resist thinking of the mountain as an 11,250-foot monster that took him from us. When his body came to rest in the White River Canyon, his FitBit Tracker was still working. Data on the device gave his grief-stricken relatives some solace because it showed he had died immediately: there were no calories burned, steps taken, or activity recorded after he plunged from the precipice.
Since that terrible day in 2012, five more climbers have succumbed to the mountain’s twin personalities — allure and treachery — each sudden death bringing all those dark emotions flooding back.
Accidents happen, but they aren’t supposed to happen to someone you love. As tempting as it is to consider the wider, more cosmic implications of such randomly occurring events, and despite the sincerely good intentions of those who insist everything happens for a reason and that a celestial someone’s in control, I’m not at all convinced that a Supreme Being was anywhere near the awful soup of circumstances that came together when Jared, Mark, Kinley, Collin, Sebastian and Robert fell from Hood on blue-sky days in February, and May, and June, and August.
I can’t believe that an all-powerful god wouldn’t have plucked my stepson from the edge. Or that an omniscient god stood idly by and allowed him to die that day and be lost to his children and his wife, his mother, his father and two siblings who still fight back tears many days, when they miss the sound of his voice or the warmth of his touch. The only “perhaps” I can entertain is that a loving Someone or Something is now holding all six men in the vast and unknowable palm of his or her or its hand somewhere beyond the veil, where pain and sorrow are no more.
Still, I weep for all their families, the same way people have for ours since two winters have changed into a pair of springs and we’ve tried to carry on, looking for ways to honor Jared’s memory even as we silently scream into the ether that more than anything, we just want him back.
So many “whys” are on our lips as we continue to think about the “what ifs” of our personal and perennial loss. What if Jared had not gone up to the mountain that night? What if the wind had been weaker, the snow less slick, the sun less strong? What if he had not removed his crampons and his helmet when he stopped to rest after taking a dozen photos on his camera, breathtaking shots of the sunrise over the crater’s rim as that Monday, February 6 dawned bright and clear in the Pacific Northwest?
We will never, ever know. Mother Nature has her ways, and they are often beyond our understanding. Recognizing that questions are always more plentiful than answers, when I ponder these things I try to remember that the jungle — and the mountain — are neutral.
A friend of mine, who also fell from a great height many years ago but survived, believes that when we die, each of us immediately begins our next great adventure. She says this with a serene look on her face and an almost imperceptible hint of anticipation. That has become my mantra and meditation. If we are lucky, we live life to its fullest, and one day, at a time we often cannot predict, we die. At that moment we are spirited away by the gentle winds of transformation to a place of peace and joy so profound it can only exist in our imaginations.
But what of the now? This morning around six o’clock, Hood was cloaked in clouds. She wore her wispy white regal robes close about her shoulders, her mysteries hidden beneath their voluminous drifting folds. And though I know she’s entitled to her stories and her secrets, I’m still mad as hell at the mountain.
Nancy Townsley is managing editor of two weekly newspapers in Washington County, Oregon, where she has won numerous journalism awards. When she’s not on deadline, she runs marathons. Her essays and stories have appeared in “Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life,” published by Forest Avenue Press; The Riveter Magazine; Role Reboot; and Bleed, a literary blog by Jaded Ibis Productions. She lives in the river town of St. Helens with her husband Gregg, who writes western historical fiction.