( Read Part I )
The White Mountains ranged low and drab to the east, and the Sierra Nevadas rose grand and snow capped to the west. Crisp wind rippling down the valley fumbled over a rusting gas station on the outskirts of Bishop with a sound like strong men shaking out great sheets of canvas.
“You see that little thing at the top?” The kid pumping gas pointed around the back of my VW van. “That little thing sticking up?” The crest line was rugged, but had no distinct features except for a very small projection where he pointed. “I don’t know what it is but somebody put something up there where the plane hit.”
He told me the fire had burned for hours. On dirt bikes he and a buddy had tried to get to the site, but even with all the blazing airplane fuel, the moonless night was so dark they could not see five feet in front of them. And if they kept going the chances were good they would have ended up at the bottom of one of the steep ravines that scar the slopes.
I tried to align the marker on the eastern crest line with the gas station and one of the Sierra Nevada peaks, then headed back the way I had come on Route 395. The first chance I got I turned left onto a dirt road that seemed to run almost directly to the base of the slope below the marker. When the road ran out I parked on the flattest patch of ground I could find and turned off the engine. I was already high enough above the valley floor to have an unobstructed view for miles to the north and south. The gas station was a small box a long way off.
It was about 2:00 in the afternoon. The crash had occurred in complete darkness between 8:24 and 8:28 pm. I reckoned I had maybe three and a half hours to find the point of impact and get my act together before it would be too dark to see my hand in front of my face. I donned my goggles, hoisted my pack on my back, looped the strap of the ice axe over my right wrist, and began climbing a ravine that seemed to run straight up the slope to a vertical rise just below the marker.
It occurred to me that I could easily lose course and waste precious time wandering around. The marker was already almost concealed by the outcropping on which it rested and I knew that very soon I would not be able to see it at all. I decided to remain in the ravine until it ran out, then try to stay aligned with it behind me as I approached the crest.
I could not have invented a more strenuous approach. From bottom to top, the ravine was full of sharp, broken rocks of all sizes that I climbed over and around, drenched in sweat, hands and feet aching.
Around 4:30 the ravine flattened out onto a slope from which rose a sixty-foot-high wall of rocks. I was pretty sure the marker – whatever it was – stood on a plateau straight above me. I was exhausted. Wearier than I had ever been in my life, and a biting wind seemed determined to carry away what little energy remained.
The terrain all around looked like someone had pulled a giant comb through concrete just before it dried leaving rows of ragged fissures, some very shallow, some many inches deep. The wall before me was more of the same, but stretched vertically so that its gashes were elongated, each tipping outward slightly in layered rows offering lots of places to grasp hold or plant a foot.
I sat panting with my back against the wall. In three directions there was nothing for miles between me and anyone who might be looking. If he had a scope and the least inclination, the kid at the gas station could see me. Whoever was on duty in the tower at the Bishop Airport could certainly see me if he chose to turn his field glasses my way. I was alone in plain sight, drenched in sweat, thinking that if I did not get up and keep moving I would fall asleep.
The Sierra Nevadas on the other side of the valley were brilliant with snow. But it was now pretty clear there would be no snow where I was going. That was a big plus. No ice fields or snow drifts to cross. And I felt certain I must be very close to my destination. Another plus. All I had to do was walk north or south along the wall until I found some way of circling around and up. Or I could take the shorter, more direct route, and just climb up the rock wall. I un-looped the ice axe from my wrist, tied it to the back of my pack, and began climbing.
About two thirds of the way up I found that I was too weak to move. My legs were twitching and I had no feeling in my arms. I leaned as close as I could against the rocks trying to recover, but the weight of the pack pulling me back from the wall prevented me from relaxing the tension of my grip. A chill stream of sweat ran down my spine. The ambitions that had brought me to that place seemed suddenly trivial compared to the consequences of being there. It occurred to me that I was probably going to fall.
I could not see how far I was from the top, but it looked like a very long way back down to the base of the wall. I pulled myself a little higher, and discovered, directly in front of me, just inches from my face, a piece of the airplane wedged into a seam in the rocks.
It was, I guessed, the frame from the back of a passenger seat. A sheet of aluminum about sixteen inches across shaped rather like the upper quadrant of a coffin. It was uniformly perforated with holes about an inch and a half in diameter. And its edges were pinched over on themselves about an eighth of an inch holding blue and green nylon material in place that was almost entirely burned away to charred beads of reddish brown resin.
The frame was shiny. Not bent or dented. So delicately thin that the chill wind whipping past set it vibrating. An incongruous, finely-crafted fragment ensconced in a place it was likely no one had previously seen it.
The sun did not flash into my eyes off the wreckage, but in a movie that would have happened to suggest the impact the discovery made upon me. Half my weariness, I realized, was the growing instinct that I was on my way to nothing. Now it was clear that complicated something lay in shambles just a little higher up. My spirits and some strength returned. Moments later I pulled myself onto a plateau where I lay on my side, chest heaving.
Before me the ground tilted down slightly to the south but rose straight ahead to the east about fifty yards then dipped away out of sight. To the north about twenty yards, there was nothing. I was at the crest of the outcropping where the plane had hit. Near my feet stood the marker – a column of neatly stacked rocks about four feet tall.
Here and there short wooden stakes were wedged into cracks that laced the ribbed surface. Tied to each stake was a length of red plastic tape. The tattered strips fluttered frantically in a cold wind that boomed endlessly up from the south and flew away over the top. There was a darkness around each stake. The ground was stained.
Sleep enveloped me in an instant. Deep sleep of the sort where the tether slips entirely, and if one dreams there is nothing but the dream. No recollections or hopes to mitigate the moment. Whatever happens is pure experience, be it joy or sorrow or terror.
I stood, facing out over the cliff. Only moonless void and certain death before me. I knew I would jump. Knew I must jump. Knew I would collide and shatter on jagged rocks in the darkness rather than face what stood behind me roaring like a savage animal. Like a huge engine. It’s breath hot on the back of my neck.
I awoke with the monstrous sound ringing in my ears, heart pounding, but as far as I could see in the failing light I was alone. The sun had set behind the Sierra Nevadas silhouetted across the valley against an orange sky sinking fast under the weight of an ink-black night. There were stars above me and lights twinkling in the valley below, but nothing near at hand around me. I knew the ground rose a bit to the east, or so I remembered it from before I fell asleep. Now there was no separation between earth and sky. No eastern horizon. Just the sense when I stared long and hard that at some point the stars began. And I was very, very cold.
It was 7 pm, or thereabouts. An hour and a half before the moment plus one year when Rick and 35 others had died within a stone’s throw of where I crouched, wide eyed.
With trembling hands I rummaged in my backpack, my numb fingers struggling to recognize what they touched. I decided it would be best not to unpack until the last moment so I did not misplace something in the dark or risk it rolling or blowing away. I waited.
The darkness was unnerving. Every few minutes I rose up enough to see the lights in Bishop and the luminous dots moving north and south along Route 395. Then crouching down again I could remind myself where the plateau ended and keep my back to it. This kept me oriented enough to concentrate on whatever might be approaching from other directions.
The wind seemed positively malevolent. It blew colder and colder, and its boom was so loud and constant that someone pounding on a drum could walk right up to me and I would not know they were there until they touched me.
I wanted to remember the Chaldean verse that ends…
In the repose of thy heart the days fly.
But like a song I could not get out of my head, a different verse from the same epoch intruded again and again upon my thoughts.
I will attack the door, I will break down its bars,
I will attack the enclosure,
I will leap over its fences by force.
I will cause the dead to rise and devour the living.
I wanted to concentrate on Rick, but whatever was behind me in the dream had hold of my will. A form possessed of a boundless, consuming desire, whose roar was overture and finale, leaving nothing whole in its wake.
I smeared Oil of the Tortoise over the veins of my wrists and in the hollow of my neck, then poured kerosene into a shallow aluminum pan. I could feel the pan rattling on the rocky ground and moved around a bit to the south to shield it from the wind.
at the door thou appearest.
I struck a match and quickly touched it to the pan before the sulphur was consumed. The kerosene flashed up orange and blue, then stretched out long and low over the ground away from me. The glow was comforting but short lived. When I leaned back on my heals the wind flipped the pan into the air. For an instant an oblique blazing shape ran away into the night, and with it the last of my resolve.
“The sooner you fall asleep the sooner it will be morning,” I told myself, but it did not help. I lay on my back staring up at the star-filled sky, certain if I closed my eyes, then opened them again, I would find dark figures standing over me. Hours passed. Finally, it seemed to me that one of the sparkling dots high above was moving. It had a reddish hue and was traveling slowly south to north. “Satellite,” I muttered and my eyes closed.
Another dream found me. Radiant. Nurturing. Perfect in its compact completeness.
My eyes popped open. Bright morning light filled me. I felt euphoric and somehow vindicated. The nightmare of the howling beast had been a slap in the face. A call to awaken from unknowing. A tearing down to make room for a second dream. A dream that summed me up. Not handsomely, not as I would have wished, but truly.
“I see! I see!” I told the ragged crash site. The stakes and their fluttering red banners. The booming cold wind racing past.
In haste, with trembling fingers, I collected relics that had lain for a year in cracks and fissures. A blistered Max Factor rouge compact, half of a tortoise shell comb, a frizzled black wig singed auburn on one side, the assistant director’s charred check book.
I donned my goggles, looped the ice axe strap over my right wrist, and set off down the slope on the north side of the site. I could see my van far below. There was no way to get lost now. The ordeal was behind me. I was homeward bound.
Happy and content, I let the second dream play again and again in my thoughts as I descended.
I was in the office were I worked in the Max Factor Building across from the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. But the walls were gone. Each floor of the building was a terrace verdant with foliage. Hanging gardens like in Babylon. I could see the exotic architecture of the theater across the street, and through a mist the beautiful hillside beyond where handsome man-made structures nestled among the trees.
On the terrace around me my coworkers sat at café tables. Colorfully dressed. Some admiring the view. Their demeanors like contented tourists. I moved among them carrying a silver tray from which I served almonds. It was me but not as I had previously understood myself. I was a faun.
Exultant, leaping from rock to rock, I lost my balance. Suddenly I was falling face first. My hands instinctively drew together in front of me, and the ice axe strapped to my right wrist whipped around in front of me as well. Its chopping blade wedged into a crevice positioning the pick spike pointing upward.
There was no pain. Still, I knew I was injured. Looking down I found that the spike had gone through my left hand but not my chest.
I pulled my hand off the spike. Strands of muscle dangled from the wound. My blood was orange.
It’s the altitude, I reasoned. Oxygen is what makes blood red. I must still be very high. And that logic satisfied me until I reached the van and removed my yellow-tinted goggles.
There is a difference between what I see and what is. It is a lesson I try to keep in mind. Nonetheless some moments linger, seem solid and true, and worth the price of admission. Among them my wife standing in our doorway. Her tears of joy and welcome when I got home.
I like to imagine Rick as an old man sitting with his kids and their kids around the dinner table. Telling them again about when he was young and just starting out. And the part he thought would be his big break.
“Back then I had all this dark frizzy hair that was always sticking out from the sides of my head. I know, I know, but it was dark in those days. And I got cast as a Neanderthal man. So, you know, I’m all excited. And I’m telling myself this is the part your frizzy head was born to play. You’re gonna to stand out. You’re gonna shine! But what happens? We’re up there in the mountains, in the snow, and it’s cold. And I’m sitting in the makeup trailer shivering, and I look down the row of chairs, and what do I see? They’d made up everybody in the cast to look exactly like me. No kidding, exactly like me! It’s like a frig’n hall of mirrors. A whole row of frizzy-haired Rick Ackerman clones. And I’m like, no, no, no! I mean, I’m totally bummed. Totally…but only for about a minute, ‘cause the rest was fun. It was always fun. Great people. Lots of laughs. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
I like to imagine that in the repose of his heart the days fly.
i was so happy when pt.2 came through my email.
fascinating. your memory exceeds all expectation and your descriptive writing does it justice. fantastic story. next time i see you, i expect to see the scar in your hand from the ice ax!
Wow, what an amazing experience and gripping story! Thank you!
My father was killed in a plane crash (small plane, just him and his pilot) in the Sierra Nevadas in 1991. These posts are chilling. Thank you for writing them… I’m intrigued….
Very sorry to hear of your loss.
Thank you for this amazing story. It will haunt me for a long time to come!
Pingback: The White Mountain Crash | Evening Pilgrim