The air was cold. I crawled out of my tent like any other morning in the mountains. A low fog was hanging over the meadow. I saw my breathe as I sauntered idly to the picnic tables, frozen grass crackling beneath my feet. I tried to walk lightly so not to hurt the vegetation. Toads in the creek were too waking up, although their nocturnal croaks made me feel as if they didn’t sleep at all, and some birds began to sing their morning songs, flapping their wings, warming their bodies and taking flight. I settled down at the table and lit my stove, quickly warming my hands over the newfound heat. The thought of coffee and oatmeal got me excited to start the day. As I waited patiently for my still water to boil and my friends to wake from their slumber I began day dreaming about the day ahead. Surely it would be an amazing one. We were in the Red River Gorge for a weekend of of rock climbing and I couldn’t wait to tie in.
The playlist I put on in the car was helping stir our tired bones and provide rhythm for the day. With full bellies and thermoses of coffee and tea we drove through the rolling hills of Kentucky in the direction of our first rock climbs. Me, driving my beloved Subaru, felt proud to be the captain of our journey. Hannah was in the back graciously observing the morning countryside while Mike, my co-pilot and trusted climbing partner, sipped coffee and bopped his head and feet to the groovy song. The scene was mellow and patient but the excited anticipation for the climbing day ahead of us was slowly building up.
Paved highway turned to dirt road as we began the muddy portion of our journey. Each curve and bump in the road became one less as we navigated through the backwoods in the direction of the crag. Eventually, a steep downhill, littered with deep potholes and uneven terrain, stood between us and the trailhead that would lead us to our rocky promised land. We decided to leave the car at the top and walk down so to avoid getting the car stuck later in the day.
With the doors and trunk flung open we readied our packs. We packed slowly in order to take advantage of each precious space in our bags. Harnesses, shoes, quickdraws, rope and other hardware all made it into the now bulging backpacks. The food for the day elegantly placed on top so it didn’t become smashed beneath the weight of our gear. Humping our packs onto our backs we closed the doors of the Subaru, only after checking that the keys were most definitely not inside. We left the car, descending down the trail, already looking forward to its dry and warm embrace at the end of a long and tiring day of climbing. We wouldn’t be back until sundown.
Me with my long legs and eagerness to arrive at the climb walked slightly ahead of Mike and Hannah. We chatted casually as we circumnavigated puddles and slippery mud. Above us wet trees shedded extra water weight from the rains the night before, fat droplets of water padding our impermeable rain jackets. Every once and a while one would find its way in your collar and down your back providing a chill and bumpy goose flesh. Sun was now peaking through the trees as we squished our way along the path, mud curling up and over the sides of our poor shoes with each weighted depression. I wondered to myself, “Would these footprints one day becomes fossils and join the ranks of the other dinosaur remnants in the area? What silly shaped feet and skin patterns the future archaeologists might think”.
The trail flattened out and suddenly my cellphone came to life. It must have found a small hotspot of service amongst the otherwise off-grid Kentucky mountains. I remember the noise gave me a slight thrill, as I had become accustomed to only the voices of my friends and the whispers of the woods. One message, two messages and then three. My wet and cold hand found sweet but short solace as I reached into my pocket to pull out my phone. The messages came from my friend Travis. Without much detail he asked, rather promptly and sternly, to call him as soon as I could. The cryptic messages began to make me worried. We hadn’t spoken by phone in a while so I rationalized that maybe he had a quick question to ask. But this early in the morning? And why did the messages seem to frantic?
In that moment my phone began to ring again, this time from a phone call. And this time from a friend who I hadn’t spoken with in an even longer time. For some reason my heart sank. I let the phone ring and ring, staring at the name of my friend Anthony. I felt sick, my stomach like after the first scary drop-off of a big rollercoaster. Mike and Hannah, having noticed I stopped in my tracks to address my phone, became curious about the unexpected cellphone activity.
My cellphone rang for a second time, it was Anthony again. Between the messages from Travis and the calls from Anthony I knew something was deeply wrong. I turned to Mike and Hannah and said, “I think I am about to receive bad news.” In the moment I didn’t say it, but I knew someone was dead. Mike and Hannah looked at me blankly. I could tell they were scared also. I remained where I was so to not loose cell service and answered the phone call to barely comprehensible gibberish. Between sobs Anthony told me, “Eric Cruz is dead.” The first thing I said was, “what?” He repeated, “He’s dead. Eric is dead.” After that I don’t entirely remember what happened. Nausea overwhelmed by body and I felt weak. Falling to my knees and then to my face, directly in the mud, suffocating, was what I felt like doing. I looked at Mike and Hannah, tears already flooding from my ducts, “my friend is dead”, I said, with disbelief.
The next thing I remember we were back at my car. Sitting in the trunk, huddled together, hugging, crying. The rain had begun again, as if the earth was accompanying us in our sadness. A sadness now shared. We smoked hand rolled cigarettes in silence, watching the smoke unfurl into the cold air from our still alive lungs. The head rush from the tobacco almost making the nausea worse. Like still-drunk cigarettes the morning after a late night of drink. Paralyzed we sat. Smoked. Cried. Trying to make sense of the senseless.
The sound of raindrops on the roof, amongst our exhales and sniffles, were the only sounds it seemed for miles. There would be no climbing today. When enough motivation was mustered from within what felt like my lifeless vessel, we took our seats in the car. Our breathe and body heat fogged the windshield. In neutral, the car started as it should. First gear. We began to accelerate and roll down an unfamiliar road, despite having just traveled it, into a entirely unfamiliar world.
Powerfully written, my friend. Thank you for sharing
Thanks for reading brother. Much love. Eyes out for part 2 tomorrow. And part 3 on Wednesday.
You capture the photo-perfect details of memory when something tragic happens. The way we pack our climbing gear, the feel of rain droplets sneaking past our collars. Looking forward to the next parts. And thank you for being vulnerable here.
Thanks so much for reading and appreciating. It’s a day I’ll never forget.
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