It was a simple loop trail on the map. Walk behind the castle, ascend a set of railroad ties masquerading as stairs, and hike in a clear half circle that’ll take you back to the main road. Simple and sunny, so I took my books along to stop and read maybe halfway and put my iPod in to listen to the stories of Mike Birbiglia and Dan Savage on This American Life.
It had been about twelve steps before I was pausing for a water break. The main road was steeper than the 2-D map showed, but every few minutes I’d get a good laugh from the podcast, so I pressed on to the Queen’s Canyon Outlook sign and took off down a skinny path of mixed stones and earth. I hiked past a series of caves and past an overlook of the actual canyon, where the segmented lines between different types of rock were clear and impressive. Hike, hike, hike.
I rounded a corner in my hiking innocence and my heart quit beating and hid behind my shoulder for a second. There was an overturned car smashed into a dead tree, pushing the tree into a dangerous lean with its weight. I’ve seen an overturned car only once before, right as it was flipping. I was driving with my girlfriend, Kelly (during which, I always fear for my life) from Lake Michigan Drive onto I-96 at the S-curve, just South of downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. Two cars crashed at the merge and the smaller one rolled over twice and landed on the roof, with two people inside and hurt. When we called 911, there were already authorities on the way. Searched the paper for a few days to find out how things turned out, but to no avail. Regardless, the image of the people trapped in the overturned car was branded in my mind on that day.
My steps toward this car in a similar position were slow-motion steps with a soundtrack of screams and splintering metal. The trunk was crushed and open, the bumper mangled about 6 feet from the car, the airbags had gone off and hung limp and punctured inside open doors. My imagination couldn’t have construed a story of the crash because the summit was hundreds of feet up. And there wasn’t a road system up there. It was a weird conclusion to hold, but whoever drove this car off the cliff did so on purpose.
The thunder started while I was at the car wreck. With no clue as to my position on the path, I guessed that I was more than halfway and hiked on. In only a handful of minutes, I came to a spiky fence and no discernable trail in any direction. I stood there in the approaching thunder for too long, trying to choose a route. Back was the smartest way to go, but it couldn’t have been the fastest. The thunder rumbled loudly, drowning out even the music in my ear-bud headphones, so I ran. I ran for fear of getting caught in the rain, for my books in my bag to get soaked and ruined, and for the likely possibility that I would be struck by lightening on this mountain and decompose for days until they found me. The faster I ran, the more plants I ran into, all of which held little puddles of water in their leaves. I was soaked before the downpour started, but the downpour started just as I could see the main road, about 15 minutes before I could get to it at full-out-of-shape-7,000-foot-elevation-sprint.
The path had looked so simple. Next time I’ll ask for a 3-Dimensional map for better planning. I don’t seek out these adventures, these gambling games with my life and belongings, but they find me with ease. All I wanted to do was hike a few trails and here I was walking to my car, soaked and surely breathing out of one collapsed lung. Then the rain stopped between blinks, but my jeans were wet for hours.