LIFE, NEAR-DEATH, AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

If you're my mom or dad or if you work for my health insurance company, look away. Don't read. Stop. Right. Now. 

 

Still reading? Okay, cool.

 

A couple weeks ago (a month ago?  I hate math), Akina and I decided to head to Ouray, Colorado for their annual Ice Climbing Festival. Neither of us had ever been ice climbing before and we were dying to get our hands on some ice picks and bad-ass crampons. We both got off late-ish on Friday and headed east toward an icy weekend. 

The drive was relatively uneventful; it was mostly dark, we were hyper and obnoxious as only two road-trippers in their late twenties can be. We sang, we stopped for food, we complained about eating too much food, etc. The closer we got to Ouray, the more snow fell from the darkened sky. I  was uneasy. Not a great time to be in between health insurance coverage. What if I fell while ice climbing? What if I jammed an axe into my leg on the way down? I tried not to think about worst case scenarios for the rest of the drive.

We rolled through town in a near white-out storm around 1am. We were creeping along the road at an agonizingly slow pace but we couldn't see far enough ahead to go any faster.  I was getting impatient. I've never seen an ice park in person and was dying to go check it out, blizzard or not. 

"Let's go check out the ice park first and then find somewhere to park the car," I suggested. Akina didn't seem thrilled with the idea but I knew she was just as eager as I was to see the park, even if the weather was shitty. We cruised past the edge of town and began to wind up the road toward the park. 

Soon, we came to a fork in the road, the right hand side leading up the canyon had been blocked by a flimsy-looking temporary barrier. Akina continued on the unblocked road to the left, I pouted quietly for a second and tried again, "Hey, on the way back down, let's just go up and check out the park. Come onnnn."

The road was too flat to give us a good view of the sleeping city below. So we turned around and headed back toward the blocked off road. "I don't know, it looks like it's blocked off for a reason," she said. I rolled my eyes, "Oh, come on. If they really didn't want us to go up there, they would have tried way harder. I mean, at least block off both sides of the road, you know? That's such a half-assed barrier."

Still reluctant, Akina began to head up the canyon, rolling slowly past the barrier. I was giddy. I really love getting my way. 

Now, let me make this clear. By nature, I'm not a rule-breaker per se. I don't like getting caught breaking the rules and I don't like blatantly disobeying laws. BUT I am definitely a rule-bender. If there is a loophole, I'm so there. I'm a rule pusher, boundary toe-r. If the barrier had been all the way across the road, I don't think I would have been ballsy enough to get out and move it. Plus, it was below freezing outside and the snow looked pretty deep.

Up, up, up the canyon we went. Big, fat flakes of snow whirled wildly around us. STOKED. We were going to see the ice pa-

"Dude, there's no way my car is going to make it up this," Akina cut into my thoughts. "Look at how much snow is on the road." I looked. Ulgh, she was right per usual. The snow was settling onto the road, covering it with a thick blanket of powdery white. She looked out at the white-speckled night, "Yeah, fuck this. I'm turning around." I sighed and stared out the passenger's side window past the sheer drop off and toward the city lights twinkling in the distance. Mad bummer. I really don't like not getting what I want.

She put her SUV in reverse and went to make a quick three point turn. She didn't even make it to the second point. The next few seconds felt like they lasted a lifetime. As she pressed the brake, the car instantly went into a slide. Backwards. Fast.

"Fuck! Fuck! What the fuck!" She screamed. 

"Akina! Put it in drive! Drive!" I shrieked. 

"IT IS. I ca-can't fucking stop!" the pure panic in her voice shot a surge of adrenaline through me.

Both of us scrambling around the center console desperately searching for the emergency brake while our right hands scrambled for the "oh shit" handle most car doors have. No luck. We were heading straight toward the cliff edge, where we would tumble hundreds of feet to our icy doom. The SUV was hurtling backwards now; the deep powdery snow eliminated any hopes of traction. 

Suddenly, the car jolted sideways as the tires miraculously found some grip. We shot across the road toward the mountainside and slammed into a snow bank. Stunned, we sat in silence for a beat. Snow whirled outside.

"Well, shit." 

Akina stared at me. I stared back. I couldn't even speak. Then suddenly I erupted into laughter. Hysterical, crazed laughter. I don't even know where it came from, it just bubbled out of me like a spring. The only way explanation is that my body was completely shocked and ecstatic to still be alive when it must've thought it was facing the end. 

She began to laugh uneasily after a minute, too. Understandably, she was worried about the state of her car. I hopped out into the knee deep snow and inspected the damage. Based on the sounds we heard, I was expecting nothing short of total fender carnage. Nope. Nothing. The grinding and crunching we heard ended up being icy snow being broken up under the front bumper, not the snow-covered boulders we had imagined. Luckily, we had service. We called the local police station to see if they could send somebody out to help us out. After waiting for about twenty minutes, a kindly officer in a Jeep helped shovel us out of the snow bank. He probably thought we were idiots. I'm glad he didn't confirm that fact by looking at my California ID. Oops.

But shit. What a crazy feeling, though. Not the laughing, which sounded more like breathless barks of relief than any type of glee, but the seconds we spent trapped in time, speeding out of control toward our inevitable demise. If you've ever faced your death, whether you were in actual danger of losing your life or just thought you were (like this story of mine), you know what this is like. Everything is happening at hyper-speed yet each millisecond feels stretched out and suspended in time, spread out like beads of water in zero gravity. In that moment, however short it was, I knew I was going to die. And oddly, I wasn't sad. I wasn't mad or panicked. I felt weirdly at peace, like a humble acceptance of the finality of it all. "Well, alright, self. This is it. We're at the end." I didn't find myself thinking about my family (sorry, fam) or seeing my life flash before my eyes, I was somewhere deep inside, in a place I've stumbled upon only a few times before. The feeling was somewhere between a long sigh and a tired smile. 

While it may not seem like much, that experience has stuck with both of us. It shook me to the core. It reminded me that we are constantly assessing situations and obsessing over limiting the risk in our lives. We forget that there are still innumerable factors we can never control. The whole time I was worried about the perceived risk posed by ice climbing yet what actually almost killed me was a situation I would have never thought to include in my worst case scenario planning. Not everything in this situation was out of our control. Yes, heading past the barrier was definitely our error (okay, my error, Akina, but would you really want to live without me? no) and not the result of some freak accident. However, shit happens. Think of how many car accidents do we see every day on our way home. How many times do we turn on the news to see the reports of fatal auto accidents, murder, or mass bombings?

A friend of mine from college passed away a couple weeks ago in a horrific car crash, which is partially why this topic and that night have been weighing so heavily on my mind lately. The night he died he also made a couple of choices that fateful night that made the difference between him driving around town today and not, just like I did. Why was I so lucky? We can be so quick to blame others for the decisions they made that lead to their deaths (Why was he not wearing a seat belt? Why was that girl walking through that part of town? Who the hell vacations in the wartorn Middle-East?) but we fail to recognize how many times we've made similar choices but walked away, completely unaware that the choice we made just saved our life. How many times have you texted while driving? Not worn a seat belt? Didn't look both ways before crossing? And honestly, how many times have you gotten behind the wheel after a night out when you probably should've called a cab? Maybe these scenarios don't apply to you. Maybe you follow all the rules. But living carefully won't always protect you from those who choose unwisely. And that could mean the difference between you getting to see another morning or not. 

But this shouldn't be depressing news. In fact, this should be a little freeing. Why? Well, because usually the shit we stress over in our daily lives is very rarely life or death. It's often self-imposed, unproductive, and completely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. In 100 years, will anyone remember? Probably not. Putting too much emphasis on work, social, or personal situations robs us of the time we do have on this planet, which never seems to be as much as we'd like to think. It takes away time better spent being productive and cultivating happiness. We should be taking more time to just enjoy the things and people we're lucky enough to have. Tell that person how you feel. Smile at a stranger. Smile at your reflection. Hug your mother. Let go of grudges. Pick up that book. Travel to that place. Drink in the sunshine. Breathe deeply and enjoy it. And the next breath and the next one, too. One day, this will end and for most of us, we won't be ready. We have so much left to do. But we're the masters of putting things off, claiming, "I'll do that tomorrow/next week/next month" when we know damn well that we won't do it. Do the fucking thing. And that thing, do that, too. Do it now.  Maximize your time on this planet. Get the most out of this human experience we're given. We always convince ourselves we have forever but the truth is, we don't always have more time.

 

If you'd like to donate to the Brett Jones Memorial Fund (to help with funeral expenses and flight costs for his brother overseas), click here.