This is What Fear Feels Like
Tired. Legs a bit wobbly. Growing ever hotter as the intense Colorado sun beats down on the national park along with everyone and everything in it, including me. This is how I was feeling as Tony and I were in the homestretch of a 14-mile hike last Friday. I was thinking about filling up our CamelBaks at the nearby natural springs and taking some photos of the many hummingbirds in the area as we came into the last mile. Having already passed Calypso Cascades (a waterfall), the North St. Vrain River was rushing down the mountain next to the trail.
Tony jokingly mentioned dipping his head in the river to cool off as he ventured a bit off the trail to get closer to the water. I followed him a few moments later, thinking I would put my hand in to grab a bit of water to throw on my overheated face. As I began to reach down toward the river, I heard Tony’s voice, not registering what he said. The slimmest edge of my left toe, encased in a heavy hiking boot, dipped ever so slightly into the water. In an instant, I felt the slippery surface of the riverbank, and I was gone.
Thrust into the rapids of the rushing river, my feet and legs slipped out from under me as I tried to fight against what was happening. The river’s bottom was too slick and the water too powerful for my legs to find any success. I frantically looked up to search for Tony on the river’s edge only to find him amongst the rapids coming after me. The river was moving so quickly, my brain couldn’t keep up to assimilate what was truly happening. I crashed into rocks, brushed harshly against fallen trees that I desperately attempted to grab on to with no avail. This is what fear feels like.
Then, I was pulled under the water’s surface. My body was tossed about as I gulped in water with an open mouth, caught off guard by this raging river. It felt like slow-motion when I was underwater. Images of Naomi Watts in The Impossible flashed through my mind. I felt like I was in a movie, being pummeled against boulders and debris as I was kept under by the sheer force of the water. I had the fleeting thought that this might be it. This is how I might die. This is what fear feels like.
I surfaced, facing up-river, wildly searching again for Tony and gasping for air. He was close behind, the current moving him directly to me. He yelled to me, urging me to try and grab the fallen trees that we kept rushing by. Again, I tried getting a hold of anything I could to stop this nightmare from unfurling. It was so hard to hold on. Part of a branch would be in my hand for a moment only for it to slip away from me as the river kept pushing me downstream. We began edging ever more closer to the next set of waterfalls. This is what fear feels like.
Next, I feel Tony grab me. I’m still wearing my backpack and my camera across my shoulders, and thankfully, the river has forced Tony closer and closer to me that he is finally able to get me in his grasp by snatching up part of my pack. I hear him repeating, “I’ve got you. I’ve got you. I’ve got you.” The current pushes us farther from the trail edge of the river but that much closer to a downed tree. With his free arm, Tony manages to wrap it around the tree and stop our forward momentum.
I am gulping in air now. I grab on to the tree. My upper torso has actually slammed into the tree. I look searchingly into Tony’s eyes. He tells me over and over, “I’m not gonna let you go. I’m not gonna let you go. I’m not gonna let you go.” And I believe him. I start to think – to feel – that part of the tree, a stray limb, may in fact be embedded in my side. Although we are in some momentary safety, I am keenly aware that we might not be in this spot for very long. The current is still raging, still pushing, still threatening. This is what fear feels like.
Repeating words of my own begin to spill out of my mouth. “Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay.” I say it over and over. Am I pleading with my mind? With the Universe? Or is this just what shock does to the system? I glance down at my arm holding onto the tree branch and I see my hand and my wrist, noticing how pink and red my skin looks. That’s when something registers in my brain. I’m cold. This water that I am submerged in is very cold. We cannot stay in this river for much longer. This is what fear feels like.
While we are remaining fairly steady in our found bit of safety, we are also being shifted about at the whim of the river. I feel a huge rock under me and I try to wedge one of my legs behind it. I’m doing whatever I can to stay put. Hold on to the tree. Keep my leg plastered to this boulder. Do not go downstream. Do not go over Copeland Falls. Tony and I look at each other, and in that flicker of eye contact, I think we realize that we are not getting out of this river on our own.
Tony yells, “HELP!” Right, we need to call for help. Then I start screaming, “HELP!” My back is turned toward the trail, so it is difficult for me to see anything except the river and Tony. I can tell that someone has heard us, that someone has come toward the river and seen that we are in it. I hear Tony tell this person that we need help.
Then, a man quickly appears on the river bank. I turn my head to see what’s going on. I see this man trying to find his footing, precariously edging toward us. He’s looking for another fallen tree to use to help us get out. A few other men join him. There are four of them now. I realize that me turning back toward the trail is making my position in the water more risky. I look back at Tony and keep my eyes fixed on him. He reassures me we’re going to be okay. We’re going to be okay.
The men have linked themselves together, formed a human chain. The man in front extends the fallen tree he’s found toward us. Tony somehow manages to keep my pack firmly in his grasp, hold the fallen tree we have been clinging to for safety under his other arm, and then grasp the extended tree under the arm that is holding onto me. The four men slowly pull the extended tree toward them, hand-over-hand, pulling us toward them and toward safety. We get to the riverbank and one of the men pulls me out. I take a step forward away from the river and turn to watch the men pull Tony out of the rapids. We’re on land. Out of the current. “Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay.”
I stand on the river’s edge for a few moments. I think I am in shock. I take off my pack. Remove the camera from around my neck. And I still stand there. I look at the men, and I say to them, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you…” I burst into tears. We stumble up onto the trail. A mass of people have assembled to watch the scene. I’m outside of myself now. Is this happening? Did this all just really happen?
Two women from two separate groups of hikers start talking to Tony and me. They are urging us to get out of our clothes. They tell us we are shivering and cold. We reply that we are fine, we’re okay. We have no idea how cold we are. They continue to urge. They insist we have to get warm, now. They each have a warming blanket in their packs – those metallic, aluminum foil-type blankets – and they unwrap the blankets and then wrap each of us up.
The four men who pulled us from the river have gone on their way, nameless to us forever. Another man asks if he can walk us to our car. He offers to carry Tony’s pack for him. The Park Ranger arrives, relieved to see us on the trail and not in the river. He gets some information from us, and asks us repeatedly if we have hit our heads, if we think we have broken any bones, and the like. He tells us we are the fifth and sixth people to get swept into the raging water just this week.
We – the Park Ranger, the man with Tony’s pack, one of the “blanket ladies,” Tony, and myself – walk the last mile of our 14-mile hike. At the car, I finally take off my shirts to see that, in fact, I was not impaled on the tree limb. Tony and I both assess our respective bodies, and despite massive bruises, cuts, and scrapes, we have exited this waterlogged nightmare virtually unharmed, all things considered. Our new friends bid us good luck and goodbye. And with our faith restored in humanity and the sheer kindness of strangers, and my decision to spend my life with Tony reinforced yet again, we pulled away from the trailhead.
If you’re curious about this experience through Tony’s eyes, you can read his account HERE.
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