Traveling has been the thing which has brought the most joy into my life. So many of my favorite memories involve exploring some amazing new place, or experiencing the hospitality of new friends. Traveling has changed me and made me into a much better person than I was.
Some of my most terrifying memories come from experiences had while traveling–memories which haunt me. These have also changed me, sometimes for better, but sometimes for worse. This is about one of those memories.
It was cold enough to snow, but warm enough that the spray from the waterfall didn’t freeze. The sun was out and the apple I was eating was tart and crisp. I looked up at the falls and watched the mist and snowflakes fall.
The sound of rocks falling shattered the peace, and I heard a gasp. Spinning towards the sound, I saw objects tumbling down the cliff face; a girl stood below and to the side with her hands pressed to her face in horror.
I don’t remember dropping the apple or getting to my feet; I just remember finding myself in motion. Something clicked then, as my mind caught up with what was happening. Horrified, I realized it wasn’t just rocks falling. A body plummeted down the cliff face, bouncing and cartwheeling to the bottom–totally limp. It was a girl.
I don’t remember her hitting the ground, but I remember how still she was. She’s dead, oh my God, she just fell and died right in front of us.
“Call 911!” I shouted, but my friend already had his phone out. The girl I’d heard gasp was beside me, whispering her friend’s name in horror.
The girl’s face was a ruin–a gaping wound on her forehead and deep gash in her cheek. I knelt beside her and pressed my fingers to her neck. Unbelievably, I felt a fluttering pulse.
“She’s alive!” I managed. “I feel a pulse!”
She breathed in a shuddering gasp and her eyes shot open–wide and terrified, pupils nothing more than pinpricks. Concussion, a bad one. A moan found its way through her lips, repeating like a mad sob. Over, and over, and over…
I grabbed the button-up shirt hanging from her hand and pressed it to the wound on the side of her face; her forehead wound was worse, but wasn’t bleeding as much. Bright, thick blood flowed out of her mouth and pooled beneath her head.
I don’t know how long we sat there on the rocks, stabilizing her head while we tried to keep her calm and reassure her that everything would be alright. Several times she went terrifyingly still and her eyes drifted shut, only to flare open again when I flicked her ear. Throughout it all, I felt like I was drifting in a nightmare–numb to everything except her, hyper-intent and hoping I didn’t slide into mindless panic.
When the rescuers arrived, they worked quickly to stabilize her and assess her injuries. After what seemed to be an eternity, we strapped her to a gurney and carried her to a clearing where the rescue helicopter hovered overhead–its rotors beating the trees below. We watched it lift her through the canopy, then bank and head for the city.
“You might want to clean up, man,” my friend remarked.
I looked down and saw the blood covering my hands, arms, and chest. Shaking, I went to the icy stream running from the waterfall and did my best to scrub it all off. A few involuntary sobs slipped out as over an hour of adrenaline dissipated and I tried to maintain composure. The break down could wait.
After they airlifted her out, the rescuers walked us to the base of the trail, where we gave our statements to the police and avoided the hovering
vultures reporters. We left after exchanging info with the girl’s friend so she could keep us updated.
The rest of the day seemed to drag. Both my friend and I were shell-shocked by what had just happened. As we drove, I couldn’t help but think of all the times I’ve unwittingly–perhaps wittingly–placed myself in harm’s way; when I climbed up on some rock for a better view or stuck my feet out over a cliff edge while enjoying a picnic. My thoughts drifted to the time I crashed a scooter in Thailand and smacked my face on the asphalt despite wearing a helmet; and when I decided to make my first motorcycle ride a solo trip through the Mongolian countryside; then that time when I was walking through side streets on the outskirts of Nice and got jumped by a gang of four; and even years ago, when I decided to try a solo hike in the late winter and ran into both a white-out storm and a black bear. How could I have been so stupid, so reckless? How had I been so lucky?
Sometimes it’s hard to know where the line separating bravery and stupidity is drawn. I’ve ended up on the wrong side of that line more times than I care to admit. Reflecting after the events of the day, I felt the panicked impulse to never again climb anything, to never again place myself in such a dangerous situation. But what would be the cost? I love the payoff, the thrill, that feeling of accomplishment which comes after facing a challenge and conquering it; that’s not an easy feeling to give up.
Part of the reason I love to travel is to prove to myself that fear doesn’t hold sway over my life. Fears should be faced and conquered; they are the obstacles which we must overcome to grow stronger and become happier. I never, ever, want fear to control who I am.
But caution… I could probably do with more of that. I only get one go at this life, and I want to see it through to the end. If that’s the change I can come out of this with, I think it will be a good one.
How about you? Have you had any difficult travel experiences which have changed the way you think about travel or life in general? If you like, share your thoughts in the comments below.
Note: The girl lived and was able to fly home with her family a couple weeks after the accident. She’s doing well (all things considered), and doctors seem optimistic about her recovery–which is just about as good of an outcome as we could’ve hoped for!