On a cellular level, we die every day, but we are also reborn—a minute by minute trick where our hair grows longer and follicles pop and fail to regenerate. We seem to enter the world fresh and full of pink promise, pushing into the vigorousness of youth and young adulthood before teetering into middle age, senility, and death; but the truth is not that life begins at the point of conception, but death, and we spend all moments of our brief cattle-run on earth in the process of decay, rushed to the slaughter house, dodging bullets, swollen creeks, and rattlesnakes at each turn. I concede that some elements in the world try to give us life—food, water—and many claim love or spiritual sparks light fires to keep us warm, but stand on any cliff, over-looking any ravine, and the world spreads before us not as a well into which we can throw the pennies of our dreams, but a dark hole at the bottom of which our bones will bleach, one set of phalanges reaching toward the light.
I nearly died in the fall of my forty-second year while rafting the Royal Gorge with a group of eighteen-year-old students. As a supplement to the literature course on “The River in Literature” I was teaching at Colorado College, twelve of my students and I split into three rubber rafts in September to challenge the Arkansas River, which was running low and fast. The day started cool, and the green water coursed through exposed rocks like spit through worn teeth. I spilled in Sunshine Falls, a collection of granite slabs sheered from the cliff face and their unruly, smaller neighbors piled at their feet, when the guide yelled “right, over!” and the raft hung on boulder the size two vans welded together; I reached over to keep one of the students from pitching into the narrow gulley of water, lost my balance, and tumbled backward into the foam.
I quickly discovered myself in a hydraulic, trapped three feet beneath a waterfall of about four feet in height, the falling water keeping me underwater, circulating with just enough pressure that my life jacket could not bring me to the surface. I could feel the bubbles on my face and, as if through clouded glass, barely make out the contours of the mountains rising majestically on both sides of me.
I have nearly died in traffic, at dinner, and while sleeping; I have avoided the casket and headstone by careful attention to medical advice, by the intercession of strangers, and by luck. How many times does each of us nearly die, in a car accident or a sinus infection that spreads, before the reaper finally gathers us? How many of us throw away the tuna sandwich laced with botulism because a friend asks us to lunch and we never know how close we came to a messy, unpleasant death? Ask any mosquito (carrying Malaria or West Nile or simply looking to breed), the ways to die are numerous: frogs, fish, hand slaps, dehydration, starvation, disease.
For humans, perhaps the list is even more numerous because so many people have designed ways to kill each other. In addition to food poisoning, AIDS, genetic defects, errant drivers, chunks of chicken in the esophagus, necrotizing fasciitis, falling electrical wires, ice storms, heart failure, aneurisms, blood disorders, fires, floods, hurricanes, lightning, poisonous snakes, rabies, staph infections, avalanches, drowning, the Plague, the Flu, the Ice Age, alligators, careless pharmacists, ex-wives, muggers, drug dealers, allergies, tetanus, cholera, lightning, macadamia nuts, and pilot error, but we also have guillotines, AK-47s, firing squads, death squads, the Janjaweed, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Attila the Hun, hand grenades, pipe bombs, mortars, snipers, bouncing betties, F-22s, razor wire, electric chairs, sodium pentothal, thermolite, machetes, straight razors, Saturday Night Specials, nooses, axes, chainsaws, Iron Maidens, cyanide, poisoned arrows, napalm, wood chippers, garrotes, nuclear submarines, IEDs, smart bombs, anthrax, shrapnel, fragging, suicide bombers, hellfire missiles, switchblades, repeating rifles, and flame throwers.
Most of us simply wither and die of our vices—destitute, coughing up a lung, ultimately alone on a hospital gurney or in some back alley surrounded by garbage bags.
When we were juniors in high school, my friend Aldo and I took my father’s 1976 VW bus across Colorado to see my brother at Ft. Lewis College in Durango during Christmas break, and we nearly died three times. The bus, shaped like a loaf of bread, sported a four cylinder engine and tires fit for the highway—if the highway is dry and not too rough. We charted a path through the south west of Colorado that included an excursion over Red Mountain Pass, which looked squiggly on the map, but was the shortest route. Looking at the map was nearly the extent of our planning, though we did bring some warmer clothes and a few candy bars.
We started late. We hadn’t consulted a weather report, but we knew the temperature was dropping, and when we stopped near Dillon Lake to refuel, ice had formed on the hubcaps and undercarriage of the car. Snow was beginning to fall, and already shadows spilled toward us down the mountains like a tipped can of paint.
We travelled safely, and slowly, through Glenwwood Springs and then through Carbondale on highway 133, but we decided we’d better stop and rest before tackling McClure pass in a blizzard: the snow came toward us horizontally, careening through the area of darkness the headlights illuminated as if we were a spaceship in hyperdrive and each flake a star whizzing pass. The storm obliterated the trees and flattened the landscape; even the road-signs were transformed. The van handled the packed snow on the highway, but we were getting sleepy.
I turned off a side road into a heavily wooded area, hoping we could find a cut out where we could sleep for a few hours. The snow made it difficult to tell how fast I was travelling. A sign said “road closed ahead,” but I didn’t see any other construction cones or barriers, so I assumed the sign had been accidentally left behind. Aldo and I were chatting as we looked for a place to stop. I had just asked him when he would take the SAT when we came around a corner, pinched on both sides by large clusters of pine, and faced directly in front of a large collection of boulders piled in the center of the road nearly fifteen feet high.
I slammed the brakes, and the rear wheels of the van immediately began to slide out toward the right side of the road. I attempted to correct, but I had lost control of the front wheels, too, and the question was not if we would hit the rocks, but rather if we would hit them sideways or head-on.
Fortunately, the slick asphalt road gave way to gravel ten feet before the mound of stones, and the van struck the gravel nearly parallel to the rocks, shuddered, seemed to want to tip on to its side, and settled back on all four wheels, about three feet from the rocks. The engine stalled and quit.
Aldo turned to me, both hands on the safety bar just above the glove box. He hesitated. “This seems like a nice place to rest.”
The snow settled on the windshield, and the wipers cleared the glass. The scene in front of us was spectacular—deep woods flooded with snow.
I started the van and pulled out of the gravel. I parked as close to the edge of the road as I could. The snowfall was already erasing our accident, smoothing the tire marks.
Neither of us felt sleepy anymore, but we tried to stretch out on the back seats. We had not brought sleeping bags or blankets, and once the heat from the engine dissipated, the inside of the van absorbed the cold air from outside. After forty five minutes of shivering, we decided to move on. I drove cautiously toward the highway. We had traveled nearly three miles from the main road; no one would have found us for days.
I don’t know if we would have died had we wrecked the van, but the conditions were right—frigid night, blizzard conditions, a long way from rescue, inappropriate clothing, no food or water. By the time we were on the highway, though, ready to tackle McClure Pass in a 1976 Volkswagon Van at one in the morning during a blizzard, we didn’t think or talk much about our near miss. We were young. Graveyards were for the valleys, and they were covered in white.
A plow, clearly, had gone over the highway recently, and the snow seemed to be thinning. I had to back up, rev the engine, and slam through the two feet of plowed snow that marked our road from the highway, which, when we finally were hurtling forward again, stretched before us like a ribbon leading to some fabulous gift, and we needed only to see the bit of silk directly in front of us to keep moving. What lay ahead, in the box, would be the morning and sunshine.
We stopped for a late lunch in Montrose and decided if we were going to get to Durango, we needed to push on after only a small nap, which lasted three hours once we found a spot in the sun. The snow had stopped, but the day was cold and clear. The joviality that began our trip had begun to fade; we were both tired and uncomfortable and ready to reach our destination. The drive was beautiful, lots of trees, a reservoir dotted with ice fisherman, cascading rivers shielded by frozen bridges of ice, etc., but we wanted the Inn.
We arrived at Ouray as the sunshine was fading. The rim of mountains announcing the Uncompahgre National Forest were bathed in orange, an orange more fluorescent than the orange of the barricade preventing us from staying on Highway 550. “Red Mountain Pass Closed,” the sign said simply. We sat in the van looking at the map as the engine idled. If we didn’t go over Red Mountain Pass, we would have to drive back for nearly an hour and then detour through Cortez to the west or South Fork to the east, adding five or six hours to the trip. Red Mountain Pass was a straight shot to Durango.
We drove around the barricade. The snow didn’t look so bad, really, and the van was handling pretty well. Detours were for people who were afraid of a little adventure. We’d conquered McClure Pass in the dark and only slid a little.
We could not immediately get back on the main highway, but a side road seemed promising—we figured we could follow the side road around the ditches lining the highway and jump back on in a more hospitable spot. The smaller road led to a forestry cabin and dead-ended at a river. A logging road inclined at about thirty degrees and ran along the river.
We let the van idle as we got out and considered our options. The falls paralleling the road had accumulated ice, which billowed and boiled in a magnificent, iridescence portrait of nature at its most wild—frozen as if in a snapshot. The snow was deep. When we stepped off the road, our legs dropped to the hip, and we had to help each other back onto the packed snow. The forestry cabin was abandoned, covered with plywood and padlocked.
“We could see what’s at the end of that road,” I said.
“That road?” Said Aldo, pointing. “It’s pretty steep.”
“The van can do it,” I said. “Otherwise, we’ll be on the road for another eight hours.”
Aldo is one of the smartest, most clever men I’ve known. He nearly aced his SAT/ACTs that year. He took all the Advanced Placement classes, attended a good college, received a masters degree, and writes for a large, urban newspaper. I always thought I was smart and clever, too. Despite our intelligence, however, we decided to try and drive up a steep, unplowed, snow covered and icy road in an underpowered, awkwardly weighted, and decidedly unstable van.
We made it up the hill nearly twenty feet before we realized we would be unable to go further, so I put the van in reverse and began sliding down. We gained speed quickly, and I was unable to stop the van from sliding off the road into a small, mostly buried clump of juvenile pines. When we got out to assess the damage and to determine how best to free ourselves, we stood at the back end of the van, barely clinging to the pines, and realized we were moments from tumbling nearly two hundred feet into a ravine at the bottom of which was a gash of blue water, an assortment of sharp rocks, and an entire winter’s worth of ice.
Only the tops of several small trees and some deep snow kept us from being some hiker’s grizzly spring discovery.
We found some loose timber near the cabin and successfully freed the van and ourselves. We traced our tracks to the barricade and drove back through Ouray to Ridgeway where we turned east onto Highway 62 and began the long drive through the San Juan National Forest to Dolores. The roads were snowpacked, but not too icy; wind swept loose snow through the headlights. I was disappointed that we had not been able to travel Red Mountain, and I drove to quickly over Lizard Head Pass. I never noticed, because Aldo and I were chatting amiably about Dorothy and the other cheerleaders, about trying to become valedictorians next year, about finding a place to stop for a burger, how narrow the road was and how tight the curves. Several times, I hit gravel on the side of the road, but kept my pace quick.
Years later, when I drove the road in the daylight, I realized how close to death I had come again. Most of the road follows a river, and the highway is cut into the side of the mountain. No guardrails protect the one to two feet of shoulder that keeps the road in place. Just past the shoulder, the mountain tumbled five, six hundred feet toward the river and old railroad lines.
But we managed to stay on the road, and we arrived in Durango around two in the morning. My brother attended Ft. Lewis College, and Aldo and I drove the mesa to get to his dormitory. The snow had started again. My brother’s directions were bad, but we finally found a place to park, and I backed in, thinking, wisely, that it would be best if I could pull straight out in the snow. Once parked, Aldo and I went to the back of the van to get our duffles and nearly stepped off a cliff. The wheels were, again, feet from the edge of a precipice. No one had marked the cliff with rocks or timber; if I hadn’t stopped on instinct (what did make me stop rather than back up further?), we might have found ourselves at the bottom of the mesa.
I never acknowledged those near misses other than with a shrug or a smile. I knew I wasn’t going to die. Death is, always, for other people. I’ve driven Red Mountain Pass several times as an adult, and I’m always struck by the severity of its grade and the number of white crosses that dot its progress—markers for those whose brakes malfunctioned or who panicked and over-corrected on a turn. Several skeletal remains of burned out cars, like the carcasses of buffalo stampeded of a cliff, pile on top of each other in the ravines directly opposite two of the harshest curves.
One winter, I drove the pass when it was open and marveled at the snowdrifts, cut sharp by plows and bulldozers, that towered on either side of the road fifteen feet high.
Perhaps living is nearly as easy as dying. Perhaps we should calculate the times we barely missed being truly alive rather than the times we nearly missed death.
I remember more vividly, though, the time I was walking in downtown Denver, Colorado, near dusk on a cool fall day. I had just passed a homeless man holding a bible with one hand above his head as if offering the book as a sacrifice, mumbling about the end of the world. He asked if I knew the end time was coming. I smiled as I passed and stepped off the curb, my chin down as I reflected on the absurdity of spending one’s days telling others their world is about to end, and the bus brushed passed me travelling twenty miles an hour, close enough that I felt the steel of its flank on my fingertips and the rear wheel struck the toes of my shoes. My head was just below the side mirror.
I stepped back on the curb and waited for the light.
I remember, too, the near misses of my friends and family. One of my students descending too quickly while scuba diving, beginning to fly, he told me later, with nitrogen narcosis before the dive master sprinted after him into the trench and pulled him back into the light of eighty feet. Or my father who a drunk hit on a mountain pass, killing the driver and putting my father in the hospital for over a year, the left side of his head nearly scalped and his brain jarred irreparably. Or my college swim coach who got caught in a rip tide and taken out to sea when he was fifty; two of his swimmers, who just happen to see him waving far off the beach, brought him back—he never went in the ocean again. And even my first dog, Brickslee, who crossed traffic one day when she escaped the leash, was struck, rolled across the sidewalk, stood, walked back to me, put her head down, a drop of blood in each nostril, and whimpered.
I imagine I’ll die near water. Most of the times I’ve nearly died have involved oceans or lakes or rivers. I was trapped in the channel between Cozumel Island and Cancun in a leaky, small boat as a storm approached; the engine died, and the fellow with whom I was fishing and I had to take turns paddling and bailing as the waves increased in size and intensity and as the current pulled us toward Cuba. Once we hit shore, the far southern tip of the island, we had to hitch-hike back to the town. I rescued one of my age-group swimmers from drowning when I was a coach—he suffered an epileptic seizure at the conclusion of a race, and because of the general confusion as swimmers exited the water, no one noticed until I saw him on the bottom from across the pool. And I came close to drowning in Sunshine Falls rapids in the Royal Gorge as twelve of my freshmen students watched from their own rafts.
I took all the precautions to be safe—we hired a guide, wore helmets and life jackets, endured a nerve-tingling twenty minute training session that highlighted all the ways someone could be injured on the water and just how far the guides were willing to go to save someone (only so far as they would put themselves in danger, apparently). I am a strong swimmer for years of competition. I’m a healthy man of forty-two, still playing basketball and lifting weights. As far as I know, I have no diseases or debilitating muscular or skeletal concerns. My mind remains mostly sharp.
If death were coming for me, he’d have to be positioned for an ambush because I had taken all the steps to avoid him.
Once I hit the water, falling out of the raft that had tipped to a forty-five degree angle, my first thought was to protect my head, so I put my hand over my skull, fearing I’d bash myself on some rocks and lose consciousness. I had fallen in an eight foot drop of water, and the water falling on top of me kept me under water and spinning. I realized quickly that I had on a helmet, so I put my hands out in an effort to gain traction in the water, to hold myself still. I was up-side down; I could feel the water hitting my feet from above. Bubbles swarmed like bees. I noticed how green the rocks surrounding me were as they shimmered with moss.
I didn’t panic. I knew I could hold my breath. I attempted to kick myself to the surface, but the hydraulic motion of the water, as the current from the falls drove me under and backward, prevented me from moving: I was pinioned in place, undulating a bit with the current, but neither moving down with the current or toward the surface—a bit like seaweed moored in a tidal zone.
The raft had proceeded through the chute where we flipped, and I could see the bottom floating above me, several oars working to come back to the falls. They seemed far away, and I was too far underwater for them to help me.
I experienced a strange moment where I remembered a friend telling me about her own rafting adventure several years earlier when they had passed just such a hydraulic and saw a bloated cow swirling in the rapids just below the waterfall. Their guide, she said, had remarked that cow had been turning in the water for nearly a week. The guide said many animals had been trapped in the falls, and curious divers could find their bones throughout the river.
I attempted to swim to the surface, but the current held my feet, as if I were tied to the bottom, and I felt the first flush of fear as I realized I might not be able to catch my breath. I imagined my bones, over-time, separating from the ligaments and dispersing throughout the river, a hip downstream, my skull nestled against a weedy bank.
I told myself to relax, to think through the problem, but I was beginning to panic, and I could feel the first creep of fuzziness. I raised my legs to my chest and used my hand to spin myself, trying to aim myself, after the roll, downstream into the current with my feet forward, and as I was turning I felt my legs brush against one of the boulders half under water, a boulder that had sheared from the cliff face hundreds of years ago, and I sprung open, kicking and pulling. I produced just enough momentum for my head to break the water. I breathed quickly, and then the current took me under, but I was out side of the hydraulic and heading down stream into the rest of the rapids.
I rushed past the raft, where I heard several people scream for me to reach up, which I did, and an oar hit my hand and cut three of my fingers. I grabbed the side of the boat, the rope cord that surrounds the perimeter, but the current was too strong, and I knew I had to ride the rapids. I could breath now, on top of the water, and the danger was not drowning but rather getting sucked into a collection of rocks, breaking my leg, striking my face and becoming unconscious, ora otherwise not maneuvering myself through the rocks safely. I set my feet and tried to scull as I bounced over stones barely submerged, slammed against several flat walls of stone, and endured the spanking the river provided me as a warning not to misbehave again.
Once out of the rapids, I pulled myself into a different raft positioned to collect me. My hand was numb and a bit bloody, I had bruised my elbows and tailbone, and I thought my heart would pop the buckles on my lifejacket.
The young ones patted me on the back and said, “That was intense, man! Intense!”
And then we joked about my near drowning. One of the young girls, apparently, had said, “Who will teach us for the rest of the semester” while I was underwater, and that became the joke for the remainder of the trip down the river: “What would we do with Dr. Torke if he drowned? Tie him to the side of the raft and head for lunch!” And another, “Do we all get A’s if our professor dies?”
I asked the guide, “Exactly when, at what point, where you going to come in and get me out?”
“Come in?” said the guide. “I wasn’t going to get you.” He had warned us, after all, to stay in the boat.
We had only a few minutes for teasing, though, because I fell out in the next rapid, too—Sledgehammer—but I merely enjoyed the ride through the bumps and turns without much drama. I managed to stay in the boat for the rest of the day, including a return trip through Sunshine where I had difficulty finding the spot where I spent a minute or two underwater, anticipating, if even for a moment, my demise.
My students’ joviality, which I saw partially as their fear, evaporated quickly, and we enjoyed the rest of the day together, mostly in warmth, mostly in sunshine except when the cliff walls cast shadows across the rafts. I imagine they have already forgotten the moment when someone they knew could have died, probably have spent little time—being so young—thinking about their own deaths. No doubt they have known death—animals, grandparents, brothers or sisters, friends—but, if they are like me, they can’t concentrate on the moment we don’t return, the moment the curtains close and the audience, the stage, and the lights themselves all recede.
Thinking about our death would impede too much our ability to live. Any moment, we could lose traction in our tires, swallow in an awkward way, slip down stairs, suffer an aneurism: being alive is a daily walk through a prairie of landmines, and we don’t know what flower, what ant pile, what minute disruption of ground contains the trigger. So we must walk straight ahead, smiling with those who also walk and turning, finally, from those who don’t make it across.
When I was underwater, the oxygen in my cells dissipating and burned away, as the panic settled in and I was about to lose my ability to focus, I did not think about my own death; I did not review my life or have the significant moments flash before me. Death is for other people. I freed my legs and kicked toward the sunshine, leaving the dead and their bones to swirl behind me.
Kyle Torke has published in every major genre, and his screenplays have won awards. Most recently, he published ‘Tanning Season,’ a collection of short fiction, through World Audience Press (2008). He also has two collections of poetry (‘Still in Soil’ and ‘Archeology of Bones’) in addition to a collection of essays about triathlons (‘Dead Triathletes Speak’ with Tom Arcaro). He is the Colket Fellow in Reading and Rhetoric at The Colorado College and an Associate Professor at the United States Air Force Academy. When he’s not teaching or writing, he’s assisting his sons with their appreciation of Milton’s poetics or providing them tips on how best to wrestle alligators.”