First off, let me apologize to my political followers. This post is not about education, politics, elections, or unions. I should also apologize to my fellow writers out there. I do not plan on editing or making a final product of this blog. It is not a matter of quality writing; it is a matter of the heart. Matters of the heart are raggedy and oftentimes uncertain. This is a blog that I am writing to purge myself of some demons — to attempt to make some sense where there is none.
This is a blog that I am writing for me.
I love hiking trails and the woods feel like home. Forests are a place of beauty, serenity, and rejuvenation. Whether I am hiking, running, or backpacking, my quests through the trees are oftentimes of a spiritual nature. I leave feeling more myself than when I started out on my trek.
Currently, the woods are tainted with heartbreak and tragedy for me. I am looking for an emergency around every corner and inside any abandoned vehicle. It is for this reason that I write; I need an outlet to redefine what was once my paradise — to make room for this imperfection.
It was a week before school started. Mary Ann and I were hiking the length of the Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest as a consolation prize. We had set our sites on a backpacking trip in Washington, but failed to win the permit “lottery.” Since our route was not approved, we decided to make the best of it and get in a mini vacation closer to home. Had we won that lottery, we would not have been out on the Ice Age Trail. Had we “won” that lottery, this story would have a much different ending.
We were on our third and final day of hiking. We had endured running out of water, miscalculated miles, and blistered feet. We had enjoyed campfires, jokes, stories, exercise, simplicity, re-hydrated delicacies, and laughter. Our trip was winding to a close, so we hiked rigorously, taking very few breaks that day. It was just us and the trail.
Loving uninterrupted trail, we quickly crossed over a road and made our way back into the woods. I led the way at a brisk pace, but slowed to a halt when I noticed a vehicle. It was backed into the forest and it seemed so out of place.
“Mary Ann, why would there be a vehicle in the woods?”
We looked at each other, changed our course, and crept closer.
“I think it is running,” I observed aloud.
Mary Ann, being an oldest child, has this way of taking charge in a situation. She does it in such a confident manner that not many people tend to question her. So, when she replied, “See if there is someone in there,” I approached the vehicle.
There he was, reclined and covered with a blanket.
“I think he’s sleeping,” I said, though something just felt wrong. The woods seemed too quiet and the situation just felt wrong.
It was then that we saw the taped-on hose protruding from the car’s tailpipe and snaking its way alongside the car, and into the back window.
Mary Ann spoke the words that validated my sense of uneasiness.
“He’s not sleeping. He is killing himself. Open the doors.”
At this point, I’ll admit that I was afraid. I didn’t know this man or what sort of situation he was in. I immediately wondered if he had a gun. Mary Ann whipped off her backpack, fumbled for her cell phone, and dialed 9-1-1 as she made her way back to the road to figure out where we were.
I started by opening the back doors, but as I made my way to the passenger side, I ripped the hose out of the window, off the tailpipe and threw it. All of the doors were now open, but one.
Was I putting myself at risk if I opened the driver side door?
Mary Ann came back from the road with the intent of checking the man’s pulse. I was relieved to have her at my side as she opened that final door. Whatever happened, we were in this together. Given my choice of anyone in the world to have at my side at that moment in time, I would choose my selfless, brave friend hands-down.
“Mary Ann, how do we know this man is safe?”
“We don’t,” she replied matter-of-factly.
We peered in. The man stirred slightly. Mary Ann said a quiet, “hello there” and reported back to the 9-1-1 operator that he was alive. She went back out to the road to retrieve a map and figure out where to direct help.
I was left with the man in the car.
The man rolled his head to the side and looked up at me.
“What did you do? I was almost there,” he said, as he started to half fall, half stumble his way out of the car.
“I’m sorry. I know you must be mad at me, but this is what I had to do. I didn’t have a choice. I believe your life has value.”
Once again, he set his gaze upon me. I wished at that point I could see his eyes, but they were shielded by sunglasses and I wasn’t about to make any requests.
“This isn’t between me and you. This is between me and God,” he replied.
“Are you religious, sir?”
He shook his head. “I just don’t know any more.”
I wanted him to understand so badly that things wouldn’t always be this way, but I could feel his desperation as he rested his unstable body on a nearby rock. I told him that I knew that he must be hating me right now.
“I don’t hate you, but you ruined everything. I was almost there.”
I sat down between him and my discarded pack. Funny, I didn’t remember taking it off.
“Do you have any family?” I asked.
He looked at me, but this was not a question he was ready to answer.
“You know that I can just leave. What are you going to do if I just go?”
I worriedly scanned the car for his keys. They had been pulled out of the ignition. His driver’s license was sitting up on the dash, ready for whoever found him. Instinctively, I committed his name to memory.
It dawned on me that to get him to open up and stay put, I would have to give him a piece of myself, and somehow this felt like a fair exchange. I knew how he felt, but I also wasn’t sure how much of my life I wanted to share with a complete stranger.
“You may not believe me, but I know how you are feeling. I know what it feels like to be depressed and hopeless. I too wanted my life to be over at one point, but a girl found me passed out at a picnic table in a park shelter and called the ambulance. I was mad at her for years, but now I am grateful, and I know the world is a better place because I am here.”
His posture changed; he uncurled his body and turned toward me. “How did you do it? What did you do to try to end it?” he asked.
I summoned strength from within as I gave him a synopsis of the story of me as a teenager. It isn’t a story that I recount very often, since it is such a distant part of myself.
“I know this sounds stupid right now, but do you want to talk? I can’t do much to help you, but I can listen and I will understand.”
Before he began, he reached out his hand. “My name is David.”
“Hi, David. My name is Karen and I’m really glad we got the chance to meet.”
He began to tell me about what brought him to this point in the woods. He was jobless, homeless, and penniless. All he had left was his car and what he thought was just enough gas to “finish the job.”
While I listened, I forgot all about Mary Ann, who was out in the road on her phone. At this point, she walked back to us and leaned down toward David.
“Help is on its way,” she offered.
I knew this was the last thing David wanted to hear, but it was also not wise to let him be shocked by the impending sirens.
He looked at me in panic. “They are going to handcuff me. I don’t want to be handcuffed,” he nervously asserted.
Again, I drew from my experiences. I told him about the people in my life that I had loved who I had seen handcuffed. I let him know that I was not going to let them do that to him. I had no idea whether or not this was a promise I could keep, but I was certainly going to do my best.
Then the sirens came. We could hear them from both directions. Apparently, we were between townships, so would get two of everything.
I stayed with David as the paramedics approached. They were busy and loud, which clashed with my own tone.
“Hello sir. What’s going on?”
“Gentle please,” I admonished. My sense of protectiveness heightened as I turned over David to the experts.
Out on the street, a second set of paramedics arrived. Now, there were also two squad cars. Mary Ann was busy recounting the events to a deputy.
I stood between the two groups, unsure of my place in the current situation. The paramedics were asking David a barrage of questions and checking his vitals.
Finally, one of the deputies approached me, notebook in hand. He got my side of the story and wrote down my contact information. He explained that he needed it in case we were subpoenaed.
At one point, the other deputy came walking up, interrupting my story. “You mentioned a hose. I couldn’t find a hose.”
“Oh, yeah. I was upset. I threw it pretty far. Look for it in the woods.” The anger I had felt as I ripped the hose from the tailpipe came back to me at that point and that’s also when I realized that David was right. He did break the law and he really may have to leave the scene in handcuffs.
The deputy asked if we had any further questions. Mary Ann asked him what would happen next.
He explained that they would admit David to the hospital, keep him under observation for three days, and that professionals would help him to come up with a plan. At the end of the three days, he would have to appear before a judge and agree to follow through with the plan.
My metaphorical hackles went up. I was worried about how David would be treated.
“Are you going to handcuff him? He does not want to be handcuffed.”
“If he leaves in the squad car, yes. We have to handcuff him. If he leaves in the ambulance, then no. Do you have other questions?”
Mary Ann looked up at the patch on the side of his uniform. “Sheboygan County. What kind of resources do you have for homeless people in Sheboygan County?” she asked skeptically.
For the first time in the past hour, I was amused. Leave it to Mary Ann to stick it to the man.
The deputy assured her that they did indeed have resources and that David would be connected with people who could help. He then offered us a ride back to our car.
“No, we are backpacking,” Mary Ann and I practically shouted in unison. Without consulting each other, we knew that we needed that time on the trail to decompress. This is one of the miracles of our nine years teaching together. We didn’t usually need words.
We hoisted our backpacks onto our backs and proceeded to the trail. As we walked by David and the paramedics, I wasn’t sure if I could just leave this to the professionals. I hesitated.
One of the paramedics noticed.
“You girls did a good thing today,” she assured us. “You should feel proud.”
My eyes watered up and she gave me a compassionate hug.
“Can he please leave in the ambulance,” I asked.
“His oxygen level is below 87%. He is leaving in the ambulance. You two got to him just in time.”
Relieved that he would not be handcuffed, I patted David’s back and said my goodbyes.
We hit the trail with a fervor, both of us fighting back tears of disbelief.
Mary Ann put what I was thinking into words, “It’s hard to feel good about saving someone’s life when they didn’t want to be saved.”
I knew exactly what she meant, because I was feeling it too. We had just been in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to save David’s life, but all I could feel was sorrow.
Those last few miles went by quickly. When we came out of the woods and into the parking lot, it was as if the whole world had shifted. I wasn’t sure what to say, what to do, how to act. The world was continuing around me, though for a moment it had seemed as if everything should have stopped.
Mary Ann offered her maps to a woman in the parking lot who was waiting for her husband to come off the trail. I shook my head and smiled. Mary Ann never seems to miss a beat and doesn’t ever hesitate to offer her assistance.
And now, I was ready to give something back. I triumphantly pulled a bag out of the car and raised up Lay’s Sour Cream and Onion chips and a family sized bag of Twizzlers. Mary Ann smiled at our tradition as she got into the driver’s seat.
I won’t mention how much of the chips and licorice we ate on the way back to my car, but I can tell you it was consumed in unparalleled camaraderie.
One month later, I continue my weekly ritual of running in the Kettle Moraine, but I have not been able to leave David behind. A card from the Sheboygan County Sheriff’s Department still sits on my nightstand. For some reason, I am unable to discard this last proof of David’s plight. Periodically, I type David’s name into my search engine, nervously looking for an obituary that I am hoping never to find.
It hits me the hardest when I am running. I cannot run past abandoned vehicles on the trail without looking. A sense of panic fills me when anything is out of place. My idea that there is a place on this earth where sorrow cannot be found has vanished. The woods remain my cathedral for running, but I now know that no matter how fast or how long I run, the world is never far behind.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1 (800) 273 – 8255