It was 5:38, 22 minutes to go on an early summer Friday, and there was nothing to do in CRM Life Insurance's Western Colorado office. My fellow cubicle workers and I had wheeled our identical black leather office chairs into an empty spot in the office, a Friday evening tradition, and they were all discussing their spouses. “My wife and I are thinking of going on vacation soon,” one of them said, to which another replied, “Where would you go?” “We haven't decided yet,” the first said, “somewhere nice.”
This all seemed like rather pointless conversation to me, but perhaps that was just because I couldn't relate to it. I was twenty-eight years old, and I was not married. I was one of the only people I knew over the age of twenty-five who hadn't yet eloped, and the others were all perpetual bachelors, a role I didn't fit well into. This fact had haunted me for the past few years. I felt a sense of urgency about it, like I was running out of time. It was the same feeling that made me drop out of college after a year and start working at CRM.
“Wes,” one of my coworkers said, looking at me, “how's your wife doing?” They all laughed. He was referring to my one true love, my mountain bike. About a year before, I had made the mistake of talking about my bike in the office, using the customary female pronouns, and they just couldn't get enough of it.
“She's holding up fine,” I said, playing along. “We're going on vacation, too. This weekend. I'm taking her to Utah.” The only time I ever felt truly happy was when I went mountain biking. None of them understood that, of course, so they just laughed.
* * * *
I shifted down a few gears, and pedaled faster. Every muscle and tendon in my legs burned as I pushed myself and my bike up the steepest incline on the trail. The mountain's summit stood several thousand feet above the desert floor, at the northern end of a small chain that seemed out of place in its surroundings. The trail I was riding circled it about halfway up. It was rocky in some places, dusty in others, and pine trees stood on both sides along the whole length of the trail. A few times, it crossed small mountain creeks, which were running low as the last of the snow melted from the very tip of the mountain, draining down to the Colorado River.
As I sped around a smooth curve to the right, there was a momentary break in the trees on my left, revealing a breathtaking sight. The mountain sloped downward steeply, plunging into the desert floor. A massive valley stretched out from the base of the mountain into the distance. Rock formations littered the floor of the valley, some clinging to the edges, others standing proud in the middle. They looked like sand castles. Just past the valley, I could barely make out the thin muddy sliver of the Colorado River. The clouds above were perfectly white and puffy, and looked so light that even the slightest wind would send them packing, but there was no wind.
Out of the corner of my eye I realized there was a sharp left turn less than ten yards ahead. I was going far too fast to take it. Out of instinct, I squeezed the brakes hard, but the front brake engaged a fraction of a second before the back. On a bike, when this happens at sufficient speed, it can be disastrous. The back wheel vaulted off the ground before its brake engaged to stop it, and the whole bike, along with myself, pivoted over the front wheel.
I had no time to curse my bad luck or my stupidity as the path came flying up to meet me. I landed on my chest first, the rest of my body flopping onto the ground a fraction of a second later. I slid about a foot through the dirt before coming to a stop. My mind went completely blank for a few seconds.
When I came to, my breath was knocked out of me, but I wasn't worried about myself. I'd crashed many times before, and I was bound to crash many times in the future. I knew that the only injuries I'd have would be cuts, scrapes, and bruises. What worried me was that, when I managed to lift my head off the ground and look around, my bike was nowhere to be seen. She must have gone off the edge ahead. Rolling onto my side and gasping for air, I imagined her catapulting over my body, tumbling off the edge, propelled by gravity haphazardly down the hill, and glancing off of several broad pine trunks before finally hitting one square on, stopping her dead and doing God knows how much damage. This thought hurt more than my own landing. She had cost me almost two thousand dollars, and I loved her.
I finally managed to catch my breath, and I forced myself to my feet, brushing the dirt off of myself and coughing from all the dust in the air. My whole body hurt from the impact, but I could move fine, so I knew I hadn't broken anything. My forearms, though, were covered in scrapes – the sort that sting like hell, but don't look too bad for a few minutes, before suddenly starting to bleed. I walked to where the trail veered off to the left, and my fears were confirmed. The hill before me was even steeper than I had imagined it would be, and the pines were thinner here than elsewhere on the mountain, so my bike had tumbled about fifty yards down the hill before one of the trees had stopped her.
I descended the incline sideways, slowly, careful not to lose my footing. As I neared my bike's resting place, it became quite clear that I would not be riding her again any time soon. The front wheel was impaled on a short, dead branch protruding from the trunk of the tree near the base, two of the spokes snapped and a few others bent out of the way, the hub structure totaled. At some point in her descent, the front brake and gear shifter had slammed into something; the shifter was gone, the brake was bent upward, and both the cables were detached. One of the pedals was missing. I would have to carry my bike several miles to where I'd left my car, and drive her into Moab for surgery, which would be expensive.
I couldn't bear looking at her anymore, so I turned away and looked further down the hill. Something metallic next to a nearby tree caught my eye, and I made my way toward it. When I realized it was another bike, my first instinct was to laugh; some other poor bastard had done the same thing I did! Then, as I got closer, I noticed something laying underneath the bike, and I smelled...blood. My heart skipped a beat in fear, then began pounding at twice its normal rate. Yes, I thought, that smell blended in with the smells of the forest could be nothing other than blood.
I stepped slowly closer to the bike, and the man beneath it coughed. He sat with his back against a tree trunk, his mangled bike pinning him to it. This was probably how he landed from his fall down the hill. He looked up at me as I approached, and he seemed relieved. The first thing he said to me, between shallow, difficult breaths, was, “Oh, thank God . . . I heard something crash . . . I thought someone else . . . fell down the hill . . . Are you okay?”
I couldn't believe my ears. This man was likely in more pain than I'd ever been in my life, and he was worried about my well-being? “I'm fine,” I said, kneeling beside him, my legs trembling. “How bad is it?”
“Bad,” he coughed. “Can you get . . . this bike off me?” His breath rattled inside him. I slowly lifted the bike away from his body, laying it aside. He was a mess. One of his arms was broken, snapped halfway down the forearm at an unreal angle. Both of his ankles were shattered, his feet dangling lifelessly to the sides. The thing I was worried about, though, was his chest. Even through his bloody t-shirt it was obvious he had several broken ribs. At least one had broken the skin, I guessed from the blood that soaked his shirt and a few inches of ground in every direction around him. I figured from his breathing that one of his other ribs had punctured one of his lungs. “See?” he said, “Bad.” He coughed again, and blood dribbled out of the corners of his mouth.
“How long have you been here like this?” I asked, barely able to believe what I was seeing.
“Oh . . . a few hours.”
“Good lord, we have to get you to a hospital!”
“I can't walk . . . and no offense . . . I don't think . . . you're strong enough to carry me.” He took a deep, rattling breath and laughed. He was right, of course. He was probably a few inches above six feet tall, and weighed at least two hundred pounds.
“Then I have to go get help.” I stood up.
“No . . . don't leave . . . there's not enough time . . . I don't want to . . . die alone.”
I knelt beside him again. “You're not going to die,” I said, though I wasn't sure I believed that myself. The amount of time he'd been there, how much blood he'd lost, and the fact that he had internal bleeding were all very bad signs. He probably only had one working lung, the other was probably filling with blood, and who knows what other organs might have been damaged as well. Still, I had to be as optimistic as possible, and I had to do something. “At least let me go make a sign on the trail or something, so if someone else comes through they can help me get you off this mountain.”
He smiled weakly. “If it'll make you feel better . . . go ahead.”
“I'll be right back,” I assured him, and began making my way uphill.
“I promise . . . I won't go anywhere,” he said.
When I reached the top of the hill, I gathered rocks and sticks from the sides of the trail and piled them in the middle of the path. The path was clear otherwise at this point, so no one coming through could miss it. I swung my backpack off, pulled out a tattered black spiral notebook I used as my journal, and tore a page out of the back. With the pen I kept tucked in the spiral of the notebook, I wrote in large letters on the top of the page “PLEASE HELP”. Below that, in smaller letters, I wrote, “A man is seriously injured down the hill ahead. I need help getting him off of the mountain.” My hand shook as I wrote, and I feared it might not be legible; so I drew a large arrow pointing up the page, and set the page atop my makeshift roadblock so the arrow pointed toward the spot. I anchored it in place with a rock, and rushed back down to where the man was lying.
“See . . .” he said as I sat down on the ground beside him, “I didn't . . . go anywhere . . . I promised you I wouldn't.” He laughed. “What's your name?”
“Wes,” I said, relieved that he was still alive, “yours?”
“John . . . Nice to meet you, Wes.”
“Do you have family?” I asked.
“A wife . . . and a daughter.” He coughed, and spit a chunk of clotted blood onto the ground beside him. “I have to tell someone . . . I didn't marry my wife . . . because I loved her . . . I married her . . . because I figured . . . she was the best I could do . . . and I had to marry sometime . . . I've . . . never been in love, actually.” His eyes filled with tears for the first time, and I could tell that this fact was more painful than all the bodily damage his fall had done to him. “Now . . . I never will be.”
I, of course, knew exactly what he meant by feeling the need “to marry sometime”. It was easy for me to imagine myself in a few years, married without being in love. “You don't know that,” I said, trying to comfort him. “We're gonna get you out of here. You have the rest of your life ahead of you to find what you're looking for.”
He shook his head slowly. “Wes, are you married?”
His breaths were getting shallower, and the rattling was getting louder. “I don't want this to . . . sound cliché . . . but it's important . . . Don't get married . . . unless you're in love . . . Don't . . . let the world . . . tell you what . . . you have to do . . . like I did.” He closed his eyes slowly, and they did not open again.
My job existed solely because people die, but I'd never seen it happen. It shook me to the core, and I couldn't help but cry.
* * * *
As I left the hotel, I picked up a 50-cent copy of the Moab Times-Independent from a newspaper dispenser, wondering if there was a story about what had happened. I searched the whole paper, and found nothing until I got to the bottom of the second to last page. His was the only one that day, but it was still labeled with the plural, Obituaries:
Jonathan Richard Thompson, 41, died Saturday in a mountain biking accident in the La Sal Mountains. Jonathan was a lifelong resident of Moab, and an avid outdoorsman. He is survived by two siblings, his wife, and his 8-year-old daughter.
Three sentences. That's all they gave him. The injustice made my stomach turn. But I knew that, even if he didn't mean much to the world, he meant the world to me, and his real obituary would be the effect he had on me. My whole outlook on life had changed literally overnight. I knew I couldn't rush into marriage, or forget any of my dreams. I would quit my job, and go back to college. My life, from now on, would be my own, not society's. I would not give up.