Singular moments in my life have left an indelible impression on my perspective. These instances may be buried by the detritus of everyday life, but they’ll never disappear. A sight, a scent, or even a sound can trigger these powerful memories.
During my recent trip to Glacier National Park, an event that occurred when I worked there twenty years ago bubbled up:
It was a hot afternoon, late in the summer, when six of my coworkers and I decided to go cliff diving. It was a bad idea for so many reasons. Not only were we breaking multiple park rules but we could’ve been seriously injured or even killed.
None of those pesky details mattered enough to stop us; we were heady with the hubris of our youth. I, at least, had a smattering of sense; I didn’t jump first. I waited to see others swim out safely before I took the 30-foot plunge.
I stood atop that cliff in my black swimsuit and solid leather hiking boots, swinging my arms, and psyching myself up. The sun warmed my shoulders and the breeze played in my long, blonde hair. With a now-or-never shoulder roll, I ran three steps forward and launched off solid ground.
Air whistled past my ears and I crossed my arms over my chest to protect my breasts from the coming impact. The sharp slap of the water on my rear shocked precious oxygen out of my lungs. Then I plummeted into the cold, glacial-fed lake. Short of breath and deeper underwater than I had anticipated, I struggled toward the surface. My boots felt like concrete blocks. My heart pounded. I was panicked by the time I finally broke the surface.
Gasping for air, I flopped wildly trying to find the shore. I slowed my strokes in the shallows to compose myself before joining my friends. Laughter chased off the fear. Invigorated, exhilarated, and thrilled to still be alive, we planned our next jump spot. We decided we’d stop back at the general store, motor inn, restaurant, and dormitory compound where we all worked and lived before driving to another cliff.
That is where my recollection usually fades, but while driving Going to the Sun Road this summer, I saw the pullout where we parked two decades ago and the rest of that afternoon zipped into focus:
Cars parked along the road were clues that something wasn’t right. Park rangers allowed us into the compound since we were staff, but the main parking area was cordoned off.
We scrambled out of our cars to find out what was wrong. Ruth, who worked in the general store, explained that our parking lot had been cleared so that the helicopter bringing the doctor could land. Peering over her head, I saw a man lying on the pavement. My vision shifted as I disassociated. Everything else that day I perceived through a hazy lens.
I watched my boss, Jaime, and a park ranger take turns performing CPR. They were sweaty and visibly exhausted. According to Ruth, they’d been at it for fifteen minutes by the time we arrived. As the excruciatingly long minutes ticked by, it became more and more obvious that it was a lost cause. My father was a firefighter, so I knew even if they had managed to resuscitate the man the odds of him walking out of the hospital hovered under 20%. Yet, as is protocol, they continued mouth breathing and chest compressions until a legally qualified medical practitioner could certify time of death.
It was devastating but I couldn’t tear myself away, so I stood there in that hot parking lot in my swimsuit and hiking boots. Ruth needed to talk; she had sold a bundle of firewood to the man and his wife, who were celebrating their anniversary with a camping trip to their first national park, but on the way back to the car, he dropped dead of a heart attack.
Dimly, I noted the woman sitting frozen on the nearby steps. We honored her request to be left alone. In the background I heard my friends chattering as they headed out to continue their adventures. They may as well have been talking in a foreign language; it meant nothing to me any more. In fact, I was furious not only with them but with myself. How dare we foolishly risk our lives when it could be snatched away at any moment!
Thump-thumping signaled the arrival of the helicopter. The rotors never stopped turning; the doctor hopped out, assessed the body, filled out paperwork, and hopped back in for the return flight to Missoula. The body left in the parking lot was now enclosed in a body bag; life-flight was no longer necessary.
The frenzy over, our attention turned to making arrangements for the survivor. Since the couple had flown into Great Falls a few days before, it was imperative to get them both back there. Wanting desperately to do something, I volunteered to help. The newly widowed woman was understandably in shock, so Jaime drove her in his car and I followed in their rental car.
After settling her into a hotel, it was close to midnight when we climbed into Jaime’s car for the three-hour drive back. We didn’t speak at all during the entire trip. My day had been filled with a gamut of emotions, there was nothing to say. I stared out the window at the stars sparkling in the blackness and vowed to live my moments fully since there were no guarantees.