Not long after my separation I got stuck in the snow at the top of a mountain. I’d fled San Francisco due to my inability to pay $4k a month in rent, and by my very selfish need to live through my forties without five roommates. With no real plan, I drove north up the coast to crash with my cousin who lived in a little town in the middle of Oregon.
My prospects back then seemed slim – after picking up a diagnosis of chronic PTSD, I’d pushed everyone out of my life through neglect, and now that I’d run out of options there was nobody left to turn to, save for this incredibly gracious relative that I’d only recently gotten to know.
So I packed up a rental truck, grabbed one of our two dogs, and hugged my soon-to-be ex-husband goodbye. He had tears in his eyes because he worried that I wouldn’t make it far in my compromised condition – guided by a head full of dark things and surrounded by a brutal fog.
“I’ll be fine,” I told him. “I’ll be just fine.”
I didn’t know where I wanted to live. Portland? Eugene? Some small cabin way up in the mossy woods? Where would I work? My cousin’s little town struggled, devastated by the decline of the timber industry. By the time I’d arrived it was attempting to resurrect itself as a destination for antiques, but even those stores seemed closed half the week.
I bought an old 4Runner that got me around even with a check engine light that a couple of mechanics couldn’t fix, a light that remains on two and a half years later, and that probably stands for some kind of metaphor that I won’t discern until I trade the truck in.
Adding complexity to my job search was my over-attachment to Agnes, the long-haired Chihuahua who’d picked me a few months before and who I couldn’t stand to be apart from for any real length of time. Thinking about leaving her at home while I worked for eight hours kept me up at night, and registering her as a support animal felt like an embarrassment.
Thinking maybe I could make this small town thing work for me, I applied to a bunch of forestry department jobs and landed an interview at a park on the other side of the Cascade Mountains, which rose to the east of my cousin’s place. I set out on a cool summer’s day with Agnes, who rode shotgun in her little elevated seat, taking a road that skirted the mountains, and an hour later I stopped in the shade of a tree overlooking a park station, told Agnes to wish me luck, and went inside, weightless and awkward in my khakis and dress shoes.
My interviewers held inscrutable expressions as I tried to persuade them that my past office jobs fully prepared me for a job in the woods (they later offered the job to someone else), and with the rest of the afternoon empty and waiting, I set off to explore Mt. Bailey, in the Umpqua National Forest, back near my cousin’s place.
Using my phone’s GPS, I navigated roads that twisted through the dark heavy woods, running alongside lakes and over rivers, driving for an hour or so until I reached an area high up the mountain where the trees thinned out and where my GPS and cell coverage failed. The sun was beginning to fade but I did not yet panic. I kept driving, using my own faulty sense of navigation, which only got me further up towards the peak, where snow still clung to the ground beneath the trees.
Up here at the beginning of June the air was cold and crisp and I steered around a curve which led to a large patch of road where the snow clung. I eased the 4Runner to a stop and considered the snow, thinking it looked passable; all I had to do was hit the gas and barrel thr –
Halfway through the patch the car got stuck, and adrenaline flooded me as the tires spun, throwing snow and mud in the air, working the car deeper into the patch that had looked so thin from a few yards back. I went nowhere. I threw the car in four-wheel drive for the first time ever, but all four tires spun helplessly, getting me good and wedged at the peak of this fucking mountain.
I took my foot off the gas, sweating and cursing as Agnes sat confused and frightened beside me. I rocked the car back and forth. I got out into the cold fading sun, found a few pine branches, and threw them under my wheels. Still I got nowhere, and the light now was fading fast and my phone was searching for reception and I thought back to the last time I’d actually passed another car, a good 45 minutes behind me, 45 minutes when I could have chosen another fucking road.
The sky darkened. I tried to assure Agnes that everything was okay, Daddy was mad at the snow, not at you. I held her till she stopped trembling. My breathing evened out. “Little Girl,” I told her, “we’re going nowhere.”
I had no map of the mountain. My phone was useless. Even the radio was out this far up. I’d been multitasking, busy inventorying all the ways that I’d fucking fucked up getting myself into this fuckery. The countless reasons I was unprepared for the real world, especially alone. I could find only one bright spot; a couple of weeks back I’d tossed a sleeping bag and a heavy wool shirt in the back of the car.
In the morning I’d start walking for help, but for tonight I was stuck. I shared some cold French fries with Agnes that I‘d picked up earlier that day in what felt like a different life. I let her pee outside in the dark before picking her up and climbing into the back of the 4Runner, where I took off my dress shoes (who the fuck wears dress shoes to a forestry job?), pulled on the wool shirt, and crawled into the sleeping bag. With the back seats down, I just barely fit. Agnes curled up at my chest and I told her how good she was and how I’d get us out of this mess.
The night came on cold and fitful. Every hour or so I climbed back in the driver’s seat and let the engine warm the car, trying to conserve the quarter tank of gas I had left. Agnes moved deeper into the sleeping bag. Chihuahuas, I’d recently learned, love to burrow under blankets and pillows, and I softly pressed my feet against her, trying to warm us both.
A few minutes of sleep here and there. I pictured my cousin’s fear as the hours passed and I failed to return. At that moment nobody in the world knew where we were.
Morning came, and the snow at the peak looked blue and the trees gray in the heavy mist as we set off together down the mountain. I figured we’d hike an hour, maybe a little more, till we crossed paths with someone, some local or some ranger who’d rescue the stupid city boy and his little dog too from this mess. My feet slipped a bit on the decline in the dress shoes, and blisters rose quickly, barely thirty minutes into our walk, and I knew that I was bound for pain. Every single step.
I stopped at a stream that ran cold and clear at the side of the road and we both drank. Agnes ran ahead of me and I called her back, sure that at any moment a car or a truck would come around the corner. They’d come and save us. The sky was cloudless, the air clean. Though I could only see the stretch of road ahead of me, to the side I could see for miles, the white peaks and the dark swaths of mountain trees. Hawks spun in the air. Sometimes the brush alongside the road would rustle, and Agnes would freeze in place, her tiny nose sniffing the air.
We crossed below the snowline as the sun climbed in the sky. I peered over cliffs to see the road switchbacking down the mountain, disappearing into the thicker line of trees below us. I passed an overlook where yesterday I’d taken a selfie with Agnes, and I thought how young and naïve that man had been, clueless to what lied ahead.
Every step hurt. An hour stretched into two. Every few minutes I’d try the phone without luck. I limped down the mountain, wondering how the fuck could someone in America find a place in the woods where they wouldn’t cross paths with another person for hours. I thought of how many horror movies start out like this.
Five hours. I slipped Agnes into my empty backpack. She rode quietly for a few minutes, then got restless to walk again. Trees and more trees. Streams. Pinecones. I had to will each step forward, stopping rarely, trying to get myself down this godforsaken road. I could only guess at the miles we’d covered. Ten? Twelve? It felt like twice that.
Agnes trotted dutifully beside me, taking a bunch of tiny steps for each of mine, and her trust in me nearly made me cry. My ex used to say to the dogs, “We’re going to take care of you forever and ever,” and I said this to her now, silently pledging that I’d never disappoint her. Not like everyone else in my life. Not like the others I’d abandoned. I’d protect this damn little dog, this little trooper who would, in the coming months and years, be at my side. We’d sleep in the car and motel rooms and spare rooms in basements. We’d cross the country near-broke, and I’d stop and take selfies with her all along the way. As we pinballed from state to state I swore to myself that no matter how many changes life threw at us, I’d remain for her the one true constant.
The dress shoes dug into my blisters. I wanted to cut my feet off. I wanted to eat everything. I wanted to throw this fucking phone over a cliff. We’d been walking now for eight straight hours.
Yellow lines appeared on the road, and I prayed that they indicated civilization. I prayed that way for another couple of miles, wincing with each step, my stomach now singing a full chorus.
When I saw the first truck behind us on the road I suddenly got embarrassed, and I froze in place for a second before grabbing Agnes, turning, and waving my free hand, locking eyes with the woman riding shotgun. They zoomed right past me. I kept waving but the truck never slowed. I cursed at their tail lights till they disappeared.
We kept walking. Eventually we passed a sign: Oakridge, 24 miles. I’d thought I was actually close to the town. I nearly cried again. The afternoon would soon pass into evening. The sun would go down behind the mountains. Checked my phone again. Nothing.
I heard the second truck before I saw it, coming up fast behind me. I held Agnes and raised my hand and the truck slowed and the window lowered and a young man in the driver’s seat asked if I was okay.
“No,” I said. “I’m actually not okay.” I told him about my car.
“Do you want a ride?” he said, and the relief that flooded me felt like the cleanest, purest river, and I nodded, and climbed in beside him. My feet burned in my shoes.
We set off for Oakridge. He told me his name was Jeff, and he was shirtless and beautiful in that way that young men can be, and we talked for the next two dozen miles, and he told me all about his favorite places to camp and to fish and to four wheel, and somehow the subject of my impending divorce came up, and he confessed to me that he’d just been dumped by his girlfriend.
“It’s awful,” he said.
“The worst,” I said.
“I’ll tell you my head goes to dark places sometimes.” Our sudden intimacy didn’t feel strange, in light of the fact that he was my literal savior. I told him I knew exactly what he was talking about.
“You do?” he said. I nodded. “I’m kind of lucky, though,” he said, “because I’ve got Jesus Christ to turn to. Do you believe in Jesus?”
Fuck. Here we go.
I told him the truth – that I didn’t know what I believed. I thought about the higher power I’d lost faith in somewhere along the way. I wondered if I could even get it back. Strangely, wondrously, he let the subject drop, and told me about the time he got stuck at the top of a different mountain, and then we were coasting into town, and my phone vibrated with a half dozen voicemails from my cousin, each one escalating in fear, and I told Jeff he could drop me at the first open food place, which turned out to be the same DQ I’d stopped at on my way up the mountain.
I slipped Agnes into the backpack, waved at Jeff, then went inside, where I ordered two huge value meals before calling my cousin from the safety of a bright red booth by the window. The next day, after more of my cousins towed my car out of the snow, I’d hit up Walmart for maps and a bunch of camping gear including a portable stove and some freeze dried food, all of which I stored in the back of the 4Runner, and later at my cousin’s I’d check the distance and discover that Agnes and I’d walked together for 18 miles.
But for now I stuffed my face and cooled my heels and waited for rescue, slipping French fries into the hole in my backpack, and she took each one politely with her tiny teeth. “Good girl,” I said. “You’re such a good girl.”