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September 25, 2019

The Day I Nearly Died

There are moments that force us to rethink our path and contribution towards life. One wrong move can change it all.

While camping, I woke up with the sun around 5:30, and packed a little backpack with my water bottle, my phone, the voice recorder, some snacks, and a notebook and a pen. And … I thought I also had a backup battery pack for the phone. That morning, I hiked seven and a half miles up to Sawmill Lake. Most of the time, the trail was pretty clear. Sometimes it was still covered by snow, that was no problem because I had the Topo map downloaded to my phone, with really accurate GPS.

I managed to finish the entire part two of my new novel on my way up there: almost 100 pages. I hung out for a while at Sawmill Lake, and then, ready to start on part three, I started the descent. I got all the way down to Penner Lake, still using my combined method of staying on the trail when it was clear and using my GPS as well, when … my phone died! 

So now I was on the trail without a phone. But no problem, I was halfway down already, maybe just three miles left to descend. For maybe 50 feet or more, the trail was obscured. When I thought I had found it again, I kept going. It slowly led me into a completely different landscape: huge, huge boulders, bigger than houses, that I had to navigate.

I ended up wandering around an area that was something like the moon, mostly rocks, with the occasional little lake. I must have wandered in this way for about three hours, until I realized that that I was returning to the same landmarks more than once. But the situation was still not dire. Judging by the sun, it must have been perhaps two or three in the afternoon. I had plenty of time.

So I came up with a plan. The place we were camping was pretty much due south from where I had been hiking. If I just kept heading south, everything would be okay. This was where I made my first big mistake. I thought to myself, “The sun is in the east, so if you want to go south, you need to keep your shadow on your right-hand side.” Of course, being a little dehydrated and exhausted by this point, I forgot that after noon, the sun is in the west. 

So I kept going, always in the same direction, always keeping my shadow directly to my right. Finally, I got to a trail: a very encouraging sign! I hiked on that trail for an hour and a half until I got to a place where it split into three. One sign said Sawmill Lake. That was no good, that was where I had just come from. Another sign said Frenchie Lake, also no good, very far from where we were camping. The third pathway had no sign at all. That must be the one to go home!

I descended down that trail for maybe half an hour, deep into thick, thick woods. There were fallen trees everywhere. It didn’t take long before that trail completely petered out, but I figured best just to keep going, keep going in the same direction, keeping my shadow to my right.

I was always going downhill through this thick forest. That seemed like a great idea, because if you keep going downhill, sooner or later you will either hit a river or a stream or a forest road, which are usually built in the valleys. I kept moving through that forest for hours, with no trail.

Finally, when the sun was getting close to the horizon, I realized I was in much more serious trouble than I would like to admit. I had not eaten anything substantial since 6:00 a.m. that morning, and I was getting delirious. I started to talk to myself. “Arjuna, you are f**ked. You’re moving so fast just to avoid facing the fact there is no plan here. You’re just moving and stumbling through thick forest.”

Then, as the sun got even lower in the sky, I reflected upon the fact that I was only wearing a thin white T-shirt and a fairly thin jacket, and little to no body fat … and that this might easily not end well. Truthfully, I had no idea where I was, no idea where I was going, and no logical reason to see a good end in sight. That’s when something unexpected took over.

I started to pray.

I don’t mean quiet, fervent, religious, correct churchy prayer, I mean I started yelling, loud enough that you could have heard me hundreds of feet away, “God, Goddess, whatever you are, I don’t know, but I know you are real. Please, please help me. Please save me. PLEASE help me.” I started making concrete promises to the great force. “If you save me, I promise I will …”

I’m not going to tell you exactly the nature of those promises, because they’re highly personal. I’m going to keep them private between me and that great force that I don’t really even understand.

Within a few minutes of this prayer building to a passionate, desperate crescendo, I found myself on the shores of a lake: a big lake, a huge lake. Right at my feet was a little fire pit where people had created a campfire. My whole body was flushed with gratitude, “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” I prayed, I was saved.

That lasted only for a few minutes.  Then I saw a dirt road, going along the other shore of the lake. This was a big lake. It dawned on me that there was no path or trail on the side that I was standing. All of the little fire pits that I was coming across every now and then had been created by people boating across. I was on exactly the wrong side of the lake from anywhere where people or vehicles go.

By this time, judging by the sun, I had at most an hour left. I started walking … running to get right around the lake, but once again, I came to a place with huge boulders that were completely non-navigable. So I turned to run the other way. I was going really fast now, out of breath, because if I was going to make it, it was down to the wire.

This was going to work. I was going to make it around the lake alive. I was coming closer and closer to the top of the lake, and, yes, I would get to the other side.

Then I came to the point where Lake Bowman is fed from the mountains by a cascading waterfall, which is probably four to five times more fierce and active than I’ve ever seen these kind of waters before. Right close to the lake, it was like a fairly fast-moving river, maybe 20 to 30 feet across. The water was absolutely freezing cold. I looked up and saw the water was cascading down over rocks, and I quickly ascended to a much greater height. I hiked up beside that waterfall, thinking that I could find a spot where the rocks were close enough together that I could jump across.

After 10 or 15 minutes of scrambling, I did find a place like that. From the rock on this side to the other was maybe five or six feet. I can jump that. I’ve jumped that distance many times in my life, but between my rock and the one on the other bank was water so fierce, moving so fast, with such immense volume and ferocity, that if I was to slip, there is no doubt whatsoever I would die, 100% certain. My body would be thrown against the rocks immediately.

There wasn’t much time to think. Something deep in me, deeper than logic or understanding, knew that this was not a risk worth taking. I scrambled back down the rocks to the river, where it was 20 to 30 feet across. I could see that at least on this side of the river, it was not too deep, somewhere between knee and mid-thigh depth. So I took off my hiking boots and socks, I stripped off my long pants, I took off my backpack, and wrapped my phone and voice recorder into a plastic bag that I luckily had with me, with my pants. I strapped the backpack back on and started to wade out into the river.

This was the coldest water I can remember ever putting my body into. It caused immediate numbness. Halfway across, it got much deeper, and I was suddenly carried forcefully by the current. I managed to swim across the rest of the way, but now with all of my body completely drenched. When I got out on the far side, I was indeed now on the same side as the forest road, and the only chance of finding people. My entire body had gone into a kind of hypothermia response: intense shaking and shivering. I pulled off the soaking wet jacket and T-shirt and tried to wring them out as best I could. When I put them back on, they were still freezing and wet.

Now I could see the forest road a little more than 100 feet away. I started to run towards it. Then there was a stream maybe six to eight inches deep in the way. I ran right through it without even taking off my boots. With my body still uncontrollably shaking, I reached the forest road, just a bumpy dirt road in the middle of nowhere, and I started to run, my body instinctively breathing heavily and deeply. I had no idea which way was more likely to connect with other human beings. I had no idea where this road went. I was just running.

The sun by now was right on the horizon, all the colors were turning to black and white. That was when something in me recognized the truth of the situation. This is ridiculous. I am running along a dirt road, pretty much by now in the night and in the dark, in soaking wet clothes, with little or no body fat on my body. There is no one around, nor does it seem likely there is going to be. In this particular set of circumstances, the chances of surviving the night: wet, cold, exhausted, and very thin, were next to zero.

Instinctively, while still moving, I took off my backpack, and with shaking hands, I pulled open that plastic bag where I had put the phone and the voice recorder. I did all this while still moving.  I just couldn’t stop my body, it was like an animal, it just had to keep moving, even if it didn’t know where it was going. Now I had the voice recorder in my hand, and with chattering teeth, I was ready to press the record button and leave my goodbye message for my beloved wife Chameli and for my two sons. I was ready to apologize for all my shortcomings as a husband and a father, but also ready to pour out gratitude for their patience and kindness with me, and above all, to make sure they understood what had happened, that this was not a suicide or a kidnapping or something. I had simply got lost in the forest.

Just as I was trying to control the shaking in my hand to press the record button, I ran past a big sign: Lake Bowman Campground. It was at the top of a steep road going down for quite some distance to the lakeshore. Again, without really time or need to think, I ran down the road. The campground was deserted, except for one corner where a family had set up camp with two vehicles and some tents. They had a fire burning.

So picture the scene now. Out of the forest, in the dark, appears a tall, thin man shaking uncontrollably from head to foot in soaking wet clothes. My new hosts were understandably suspicious. Turns out that the father of the family was a police officer from Vallejo, and his wife was the police dispatcher. They had two teenage children. They looked very wary. Obviously used to a life of law enforcement where they’re brushing up against criminals all day long, they were understandably extremely wary of this new intruder. I asked if I could just warm up around their fire for a few minutes, and they cautiously agreed.

It was difficult to speak because my body was shaking so violently, but I tried to explain to them what had happened. The mother of the family was asking me questions. “So,” she said,  looking at her map, “If you parked your car at Carr Feeley and hiked up here to Sawmill, how exactly did you get down here when there’s no trail?” I tried to explain, but nothing I was saying seemed to add up or make any sense, and added to become a more and more convincing argument that the real explanation for my shaking and soaking clothes was much more sinister.

Her interrogation continued. “So,” she said, “If you really found yourself in the forest at night, close to dark, and you really thought you were going to die, how exactly did that feel? Tell me that.”

“Well,” I replied, still shaking, “You’re not at all religious, are you?”

She brightened a little. “Yes, as a matter of fact, I am,” she said.

“Well, then you’ll probably understand this. I just started praying. Honestly, I didn’t even really know exactly who or what I was praying to, I just started praying with great passion and fervor, like, ‘Please help me, please help me, if you save me, I promise to give my life to you.'”

“Really?” Her disposition changed completely. “Would you like some bananas,” she asked. “How about some beef jerky? Let me give you a blanket.” Suddenly we had found our common ground. I was no longer a potential criminal, I was a fellow child of the Lord.

My new hosts asked me about my plan. What did I have in mind? I had to admit that I was having trouble coming up with any kind of reasonable plan.

“Well, do you want to get back to your friends?”

I admitted I would really like to get back to the friends I was camping with, because they would be very worried by this time. My hosts offered to point me in the right direction for an appropriate trail. But then I reflected that hiking on a trail in the dark in soaking wet clothes might not end very well.

“Have you got an alternative plan?” they asked.

“Well,” I said, “Where does the dirt road go?”

“It goes to Truckee,” the father of the family told me. “But it’s 17 miles down a bumpy dirt road.”

“My son lives in Truckee,” I said.

“Well,” said the man, “How do you propose to get there?”

“I don’t know,” I had to admit. “Might I borrow your phone?”

“There’s no cell reception,” he said.

For quite a while it didn’t seem likely that anyone was inclined to offer anything more than advice, and curiosity about my plans. But eventually, that police officer from Vallejo kindly agreed to give me a ride into Truckee.

“I need you to understand one thing,” he said, “I don’t trust people. I’ve been working with criminals my whole life. So before you can get into my truck, I need to search you.”

“Great,” I said, “No problem. I completely understand.” Of course I’d been trying to heat my T-shirt and jacket over their fire, so there wern’t very many spots I could hide a weapon, but he frisked me anyway. Then he emptied the contents of my backpack. “Okay,” he said, “You don’t have any weapons. But I want to let you know that I do. I’m carrying a loaded gun in my holster, and I don’t hesitate to use it. Do you understand?”

“Absolutely,” I said, “Great idea. I’m with you all the way.” We climbed into his truck, and took off for Truckee.  We talked about God, about love, about service, about surrender, then some more about love, then some more about God, because honestly, that was all I cared about at this moment. Everything else had evaporated into distraction. I had been saved.

I only have two possible explanations for what happened that night.

Either my prayers were heard by a great benevolent and loving force, with which I have now made a deal about how I will spend the rest of my life, and I need to honor those agreements.

Or, maybe I did die that night, and everything that has happened since is actually some kind of version of heaven.

Either explanation is fine. Whichever one it is, I have found myself immensely much more interested in God, and love, and service, and compassion.

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