Anniversary of not dying – story I wrote last year.

Exactly a year ago, I had a little brush with the beyond. This is the story I wrote that day. I am thankful to still be here so that I can continue to have adventures of this sort, and some less intense too.

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What not to do if you live by the Mississippi.

By Melissa Park. (3/25/2011)

I was in a very bad mood this morning, so I decided to go air myself out by the Mississippi. I have just met the river, but already it has provided me with good ideas, great sunsets and even an ice climber, so I hoped it would cure my case of the blues.

First, I was shocked to find out that the Mississippi flows towards the airport and not away from the airport past where I live. Because I had not yet walked to the other side of the bridge, I had not seen the middle part of the river that is not trapped under the ice. I was sure it flowed the other way. My mental map of where I live has been backwards since I got here! Pleased with having this wrong righted I decided to walk south, which is what I mistakenly thought I had been doing all along. My mood had already improved by the time I got to the other side of the river. This was a new trail, and I needed an adventure.

I found a path in the snow and followed it down to the river. The trail meandered through trees then out onto a flat snow field along the river. Now, I have never seen this river in the summer, so I don’t know what sort or banks it has. Is the steep part the banks? Was I walking on snow over a sandy shore, rocks, water? I really liked the trail because it was down from all the city commotion and I felt as though I was walking in the wild, plus it was in the sun. I thought “Well, there are steps here, and they look no older than yesterday based on the light dusting that covers them. The person who made these, based on the size of the footprints, was much bigger than I am and he (most likely a he) didn’t sink that much. And, it’s colder today than yesterday, so if yesterday was okay for a big man, even if I am over water, it should be solid enough to hold me”. They say that every accident in retrospect can be pinpointed to one bad decision … I committed to the trail on the flat.

It was a gorgeous day out despite the well below-freezing temperature. I took photos, enjoyed the sun, took deep breaths, looked at the trees. I walked this way, being careful to walk by the steps but not in the steps (because I sank less than whoever made the steps), for about half an hour. I was approaching a bridge when I noticed there was ice at the bottom of the man’s steps. I started the thought, “That’s weird. I wonder if the snow in the steps thawed and then refroze as ice with the colder temperature, or if the ice here is so thin that the water from the Mississippi is …”. Jolt of adrenaline, I was suddenly down to my left hip in water, left hand and arm included. I swore. My other leg was folded over the ice still, so I tried to push myself out, but the ice gave out under my right leg too. I grabbed onto the snow towards the shore, but the ice was breaking from the hole in which I was to wherever I tried to go. Finally, in a very ungraceful commando maneuver, I beached myself on the ice, kicked my legs out and belly crawled to the shore until I had a tree firmly in hand.

My heart was racing. I swore a couple of times to clear my head and said out loud “Who the hell is so stupid as to go hike alone on top of a frozen river!?”. I took my gloves off to wring them out, but they froze solid in their wrung position. I cracked the ice off them and put my hands back in quickly lest they become so frozen as to make them unwearable. My left leg and boot and my left arm from the elbow down were covered in a thin sheet of ice. A pain in my left thigh let me know that I will have a bruise to commemorate this event.

Without much thought except that of getting away from the danger zone, I started scrambling up the slope. Right up there, only 30 feet or so up was the road. I just needed to get there. But as the slope got steeper, I realized my epic exit wasn’t over yet. I stopped about midway and considered my options aloud (I don’t know why I speak aloud when I am epicking by myself; maybe to make it sound like somebody else is there). There was no place to walk below except for the trail I had followed, and with the day advancing I figured I was risking more icy baths by the minute. I was lucky on the first one, but not willing to tempt fate any further. It was too steep and the trees were too sparse to traverse. I could go up, but it only got steeper. I dug in the snow to figure out what lay below. More ice! Nice slick rocks covered in ice with heavy caked snow on top. I think at that moment I was not any less concerned than if I had been on a high alpine route and discovered I took a wrong turn.

That was the deciding factor: although the way up was scary, it’s the kind of scary I know, and so far God or the universe or whoever looks out for small dogs, old ladies and stupid climbers has always had my back. A little off to the north, I saw a rabbit trail. I figured animals are much smarter than we are about trail finding, so my best bet would be to follow it. It was the right call, except for the fact that I weigh slightly more than a rabbit. I was soon stuck on a tree belay, just 6 feet below the lip to the road, with not another hold for feet or hands within reasonable reach. I stayed at the tree pondering whether to try my luck elsewhere or leap for a branch hanging over the lip to the road for a while. I thought that without an ice axe, if I missed, I’d likely tumble all the way back down to the river and break a leg or some other body part. My pants were freezing back into a solid object, so before I got too cold, I lept for the branch. That branch led to a tree that had a branch that led to the top. And that is how I got out.

It felt so anti-climatic to find myself on a road in a pleasant neighborhood with cars driving by, while I stood there, a death-defying ice-caked weirdo, that I just laughed for at least a full minute before moving on. Maybe it was  nerve release too.

I walked home on the road and by the time I got here, my gloves and pants felt like they were made of inflexible plastic. It took me a while to thaw, but I am well and warm now. Thank you to all who worried about me.

Epilogue – As I thawed in the shower I thought … what if I had fallen all the way in? Would I have known how to get out? Nobody could have seen me from the road where I was. Nobody would have worried about me until tonight. Would it have seemed strange to my friends if I died in the Mississippi? In the middle of a city? Is there anybody to whom I would have regretted not saying goodbye? Or made peace with? Maybe the adventure was not so epic as to warrant such thoughts, but I’ve been pondering a lot of existential questions lately, so it hit me at a good time. It was a good reality-check. A don’t be blue, you’re still alive-check. So, although I don’t plan on doing anything quite that stupid again anytime soon, just know that I am selective in my choice of friends. If you are reading this, then you are special to me, and I am thankful to have you in my life.

XO – Mel.

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