Exploring outdoors, whether in a city or the wilds, can be relaxing, exhilarating, ennobling—and sometimes, extremely dangerous. We’re not talking about the kind of danger one knowingly faces, for instance, during an extreme undertaking like climbing Everest, where 11 people have died in 2019. Most injuries and even fatal incidents occur during much more low-key adventures. They result from twists of fate, lapses in judgment due to fatigue, innocent missteps, and just plain accidents. For example, it’s been a particularly brutal year for cyclists in New York City, with the death toll at 18 (not all “accidents,” strictly speaking) as of the end of July.
We’ve all been there or at least know someone who has. The worst cases end tragically and with breathtaking swiftness. They end with irrevocable loss and soul-crushing sadness. Other situations—the ones we live to tell or hear about—are variously known as brushes with death, close calls, or some other shorthand that falls drastically short of describing the drama and emotional untethering that accompany reaching the edge of nothingness.
All of that said, a good storyteller can help us make some sense of—and perhaps even draw a lesson from—a life-threatening experience. Here are just three examples.
Lightning, thunder, and the frailty of life
By Earl Swift
One summer I convinced my editors at the newspaper to buy a sea kayak and let me paddle it in a 500-mile circle around the Chesapeake, filing stories and pictures as I went. I pushed off from Norfolk, paddled 20-odd miles across the Chesapeake’s mouth to the southern tip of the Eastern Shore, and started north from there, my boat loaded with food and camping gear.
Three days into the voyage I pulled into a wide break in the shoreline at the mouth of Mattawoman Creek and beached for the night on tiny Honeymoon Island, a lump of sand in the creek’s middle sprouted with beach grass and a few water bushes. I set up my tent, broke out my stove, and cooked dinner. Then, as darkness approached, I crawled into my sleeping bag to read by headlamp before turning in. I was immersed in a book when, at about 9pm, I heard a low, long rumble of distant thunder. I paid it little heed. Not three minutes later I heard another snarl—this one much louder, and deeper, and closer. And just seconds after that a gale blasted the tent with sudden, extreme force, ripping up the stakes and prying up the floor and rolling the shelter onto its side before I had time to scream.
I threw myself to the tent’s windward side and stretched to pin down the corners with hands and feet, while from outside came the sounds of my cook set skittering away and the kayak sliding on the sand. I heard that for only a moment, though, because now came a deluge pounding the tent, and lightning in a flurry, bolts striking by the score, so close that the ground bounced under me, their blue-white strobes blinding through the tent’s two layers of nylon, and the sound of this hellstorm—the roar of the wind and rain, the concussions of the thunder—blotting out my every thought except that I was about to die.
My tent had an aluminum frame. I was trapped in a cage of conductive metal that stood tallest of anything for a quarter mile in any direction. I was certain the lightning would find me. As fast and close as it came, it seemed impossible that it wouldn’t. For 25 minutes I crouched inside the tent, wrestling the wind to keep its floor down, listening to the sky make sounds I’d never heard and haven’t since—like great sheets of fabric ripping and fighter jets buzzing just overhead. And layered on top, the cacophony of the strikes. And then, as suddenly as it started, it stopped. After a few retreating rumbles, the creek fell quiet.
The floor of my weatherproof tent was under an inch of water. My sleeping bag was sodden and all my gear soaked. I was so spent that I hardly noticed: I have probably been more frightened in my life, just for a moment or two, but never have I been so terrified for so long. I bailed out the water as best I could, collapsed on my wet bag, and slept like a boulder.
Mind you, I was on land. I can’t imagine what it would be like to encounter such a storm on open water in a small boat. I hope to never find out.
Excerpted from Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island (Dey Street, 2018). A long-time reporter at the Virginian-Pilot, Swift wrote six previous books and has contributed major features to Outside and other magazines. He is a fellow of Virginia Humanities at the University of Virginia. He lives in Afton. earlswift.com
The vital importance of a bicycle helmet
By Rachel Z. Arndt
The further I move from the accident, the more the scar above my lip becomes just another point in my morning makeup routine, the more the scuffed right bike brake becomes a slight rough patch I can feel with my palm. I remember not the accident itself, only what happened around it: the unremarkable February morning in Brooklyn, the black car I hailed from the street outside the hospital, the way my roommate’s mouth opened when he saw my eyes, the flowers my office sent, the swelling, the ever-ballooning swelling, the Vicodin-induced calm. It never hurt as much as I thought it should; I thought it should hurt. I was not stared at; no one stared. I was hit by a car; a driver ran his car into me.
I always thought it was a story about symmetry: Before and after, bicycle and car, unscarred face and scarred face, passive and active retellings. But the mottled narrative refused to seep out, and what could have been a trauma-induced fear of riding a bike never manifested in part because there was never any recollection to base it on. I’m not telling you I was lucky; that much is obvious. I’m telling you that retrospect looks empty from here because I still can’t describe what happened beyond what I’ve gathered from the moments that surround the crash:
A driver ran his car into me, throwing me over my handlebars, throwing me face first into the pavement, which cracked my orbital bone, my cheekbone, my nose, my sinus. It split the skin above my lip. It did not break my brain because it instead broke the outer plastic of my helmet, compressing the foam cells beneath into a spooned-out dent. I came to on the grass next to the street next to the bike path, and there were people, two or three of them, and one of them kept using the word “chunk” to describe the hole above my lip. I asked if my teeth were there, and these people, these strangers, assured me they were. I was taken away in an ambulance; an ambulance took me away. My bike came with. I was not afraid because I could barely name the president, and that seemed, there in the ambulance in 2012, like some kind of revisionist joke.
At the hospital a nurse asked me to rate my pain on a scale from one to 10, and because I could not feel most of my face, and because I could remember only that it (my face) was made of fragments, and because that was an odd way to behold my own body, I added a few numbers to the dull ache of my forehead and the sharp line above my lip and said seven, which seemed strong enough to reflect what I was learning was a bad injury.
When I look at the series of photos I took of my healing face, one a day for a month, I see myself reemerge, as if machined from a heap of flesh, winter-pale and imperfectly blended. I see the right side slowly deflate to become more like the left, the cut’s redness fade into pink and then white, the red splotch in the white of my right eye shrink imperceptibly each day until, at last, it was gone.
Now, I rarely study my face so seriously. And I rarely think about breaking my face, lacking the language to come up with the right thoughts. Or I am unable to force the language I do have, finding it unrealistically brutal: I never say, “A driver hit me on my bicycle.” I say, “A car hit me,” or, more often, “I was hit by a car.” The driver disappears, and the story turns mechanical. It is called an “accident.” A “crash.” A “sudden shock.”
And when I do think about breaking my face, I can almost convince myself that I just fell, that there was no gray minivan riding the line between street and bike path. Maybe it was my fault. I broke my face. But then I remember the people who were there—not the driver, not the other drivers, but the cyclists who stopped. The point is they stopped. The point is I got back on the bike, and I started thinking about symmetry, trying to force a tidy package around an event whose memories I never formed.
But no matter how hard I thought, the symmetry never emerged. It was an accident, and nothing lined up, not even the voids. I’m now learning to give up trying to assign meaning to every detail, down to the pill the hospital nurse slipped me, the calipers to measure the cheekbones’ asymmetry, the drying blood beneath my fingernails. More often than not, there’s nothing there: The narrative won’t yield. Or there’s something, but it’s not the lesson I for so long thought I deserved—the lesson of recovery and learning to accept that a bad thing happened because bad things happen. Nothing wraps up, and what remains is only the story of how I was hit by a car—of how a driver hit me with his car and then drove away.
Rachel Z. Arndt is a writer and editor. Her debut essay collection, Beyond Measure, was published by Sarabande in 2018. She received MFAs from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, and a BA in creative writing and Spanish from Brown University. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Popular Mechanics, Fast Company, and various literary journals. She now lives in Chicago. rachelzarndt.com
Missing the train
Hundreds of miles on a bicycle, one fateful decision
By Chris Register
Financial security, respect in one’s community and profession, a loving relationship, reaching old age—achieving these goals requires making good choices, time and again, one behind the other, every day, in a nearly unbroken sequence. But one bad decision—just one—can send a lifetime of good decisions into oblivion. I was reminded of this while riding my bike one late afternoon in Sandusky, Ohio, when I was nearly killed by a train.
Just thinking about it makes me feel queasy. It happened at the end of a full day of pedaling, as my mind shifted to finding the house of a nice couple who had offered me a place to crash for the evening during one of my multi-state bicycle tours. I was cruising along a highway running parallel to (in this order) a line of trees, a railroad track, more trees, a line of houses, and a street I needed to get to. The map on my handlebar-mounted phone showed that I could continue a half-mile or more, turn right, and then turn right again onto the street, and backtrack to the house. Or, I could shave a mile off my ride by cutting straight across the tracks and through the woods from where I was—a tidy little shortcut.
When we hear someone say they almost got killed, I think it’s natural to imagine a tense, touch-and-go situation from which the survivor just barely escapes. When you read “nearly killed by a train,” I’ll bet you pictured my bike halfway across the tracks as I realize the imminent danger, dodging the speeding hulk at the last moment, my helmet rattling in its wake. Maybe you envisioned a skilled conductor instantly assessing the situation and applying the behemoth’s brakes with just enough force to slow it down and buy me time as the train’s growing headlight washes out my face, and its furious horn roars my demise.
The truth is—though I very nearly died that afternoon—I never got near the locomotive. My brush with death occurred several seconds before the train even neared the crossing, as I flirted with a decision that could have been the most cataclysmic of my life. Here’s what really happened:
I came to an unmarked farm crossing—a gravel drive departing the highway and running across the tracks, making my shortcut idea even more appealing. I vacillated for a few pedal strokes, literally leaning towards the crossing, glancing back at my GPS, still rolling along the highway. At the last moment I chose to stay on course, mainly because of the bike’s momentum (it was packed with 100 pounds of gear) and my desire to avoid riding up into the wrong backyard by mistake. Turning my head away from the tracks, I noted a low rumbling nearby. I had just begun wondering about the sound when its source burst out of the shaded wood with terrifying speed, severing the gravel crossing in two.
Though surely just an Amtrak commuter with its dull silver cars, or a freight-hauler covered in bulbous graffiti, my memory has long since cemented the train as an evil thing—a matte-black harbinger of destruction, bellowing acrid smoke, guided by the searing eye of Tolkien’s Sauron, fixated on my death.
Flying past, the beast left me dumbfounded, disturbed, shaken. As I had been considering whether to take the shortcut, it never so much as flitted through my mind that an actual train might actually be hurtling towards the crossing at that moment. Had I decided to cross the tracks, I would never have thought to slow down and look before doing so. I would have arrived a split-second before the train, and then exploded into a thousand pieces.
But I hadn’t chosen to take the shortcut. That fickle decision that turned out to be right, that flip of a coin in my favor, is the only reason I’m here to tell the story.
Chris Register is the author of Conversations With US—Great Lakes States (Spoke & Word Books, 2019). He is an instructor at Charlottesville’s Writer House, runs a writers’ critique group at the downtown library, and is in the process of writing more volumes for his Conversations With US series. conversationswithus.com. spokewordbooks.com