I really wanted to film a short video about this experience. In fact, I tried to do just that about 2 weeks ago, but the video turned into what I can only describe as, "watching Anastasia weep while she wipes away snot rockets for 5 minutes and attempts to speak." I watched the video back, after I had finished recording it, and I couldn't stop crying. This was highly enlightening, because my original plan had been to talk about this experience on Facebook Live. Apparently, the fact that I couldn't even get through a short video on the subject was probably a sign from the universe that doing a Facebook live on the subject was decidedly the worst idea I had ever hatched.
But I digress - it's time to start from the beginning.
My parents arrived at our house in the first week of January to visit for the holidays and so that Aaron and I could take my mom on a few snowshoeing trips (my dad opted for winter steelhead fishing). Our first day of snowshoeing took us to Artist Point at Mt. Baker - this was a great way for my mom to get a little more comfortable on the snowshoes (this was only her 2nd time using them!). Artist point isn't difficult, and the views are fantastic. On this particular day, the wind was also fantastic - we were able to stand at the high point for a whopping total of around 76 seconds before the stinging pain of the frigid air forced a hasty descent.
Invariably, anytime that my mom visits, the weather instantly becomes atrocious. So, the fact that bluebird skies were forecast for the ENTIRE duration of her visit to WA was a rare gem of an occurrence. The temperatures were indeed in the frostbite category for the PNW, but clear skies in the winter? Yes, please.
Now that my mom was somewhat comfortable on snowshoes, it was time to kick it up a notch. I selected Lake Valhalla, off highway 2 near Stevens Pass, as our second snowshoe option of the trip - with an optional side trip to climb McCausland Peak, depending on how quickly we were moving. My dad had simultaneously planned a steelhead fishing trip on the Sauk River that day, and the night before I issued a word of caution to him about taking care not to slip and fall with the frigid temperatures, "Nobody really wants to die doing what they love", I jested to him. At the time, when I said that comment, I felt a slight twinge of discomfort while saying it - almost a foreboding omen. I ignored it - I had snowshoed to Lake Valhalla before, and I certainly wasn't worried about it.
Our snowshoe trip to Lake Valhalla did not go as planned, because, we didn't snowshoe to Lake Valhalla. Instead, we took an, "alternate route" (pro tip: if you call it an "alternate route", it sounds like you did it on purpose) up Union Peak. This was actually an extremely wonderful alternative to Lake Valhalla, because I had been to Lake Valhalla before - but what I really wanted to do was climb a peak. When I realized our slight detour, we decided to just keep pushing upwards.
The trail was somewhat relentless - we traversed a few steep slopes on narrow ledges (super fun in snowshoes - ha!) that made my mom a little nervous. After taking a quite break to reassess if she felt comfortable enough to continue - we decided to keep going. As we broke out of the trees and onto the ridge just below the summit, the tracks of whoever had most recently been in the area started to disappear. Leading the way, I struggled through deep, fluffy powder - sometimes taking a few minutes just to go a short distance. The trees around us looked like giant, cone-shaped marshmallows covered with rock candy sugar - everything was glistening. The air was crisp and sweet - the mountains around us sparkled in every direction as we pushed onwards and upwards - towards the sun, fiercely burning in the deep blue sky.
We didn't stay on the summit of Union Peak for very long - for one, it was absolutely freezing outside. And, secondly, there isn't much daylight in January, so we knew that with the descent, plus the road walk back to the car, we needed to make good time. We stopped on the top long enough for a few photos - and for me to leap off a small mound of snow into the soft powder. We hadn't expected to climb Union Peak, but now that we had, the three of us felt that tingly glow that you can only get from experiencing even a short burst of summit euphoria - those brief, precious minutes on the top of a mountain when you don't have to go up or down, but can simply just be.
After what seemed like an endless slog, we made it safely down Union Peak, down the Smithbrook Road and back to the car. Even as I write these words, I can feel my heartbeat quicken - because I know what happens next. After removing our snowshoes, and piling into the truck, we started back up towards Stevens Pass. The road was dry and bare - vehicles around us were travelling the speed limit. I was driving, and we were going around 45mph, because I was being very cautious. I didn't see any ice on the road, and neither did Aaron or my mom. We had only been driving for about 4-5 minutes, and we were all talking about what an amazing day it had been, when suddenly the back end of the truck started to fishtail. The truck began to drift towards the snowbank in the right shoulder of the highway. I don't exactly know what I did, because the next 10 seconds happened in what I can only describe as, "surreal slow motion." What I do know is this: the truck went into a spin and started sliding from the westbound lanes of Highway 2 into the eastbound lanes of Highway 2. I was trying to stop the truck, and I literally could not stop it. I remember three distinct feelings: helplessness, embarrassment and disbelief. Those feelings washed over me in a wave, almost simultaneously. As we slid across the highway and into oncoming traffic, I looked past Aaron and through the passenger side window and I saw a semi-truck with a blue cab coming eastbound on a direct trajectory for our spinning truck. One, and only one, thought entered my mind, "We are going to die." That was it. I didn't feel afraid, I didn't feel panicked - I just knew with absolutely zero shadow of a doubt that our truck was about to be struck, so I waited for the impact. It never came.
I do not know how I stopped the truck. I do not know how the semi truck missed us. All I know, is that very suddenly, we were sitting perpendicular to the road, blocking both east and westbound traffic. I managed to stammer out some awkward verbiage, "Well, that was interesting." As my vision and senses started to come back into alignment, I realized that we needed to get out of the middle of the highway. I got the truck pointing in the correct direction, and continued heading home - except that everything was now completely different. I couldn't get the thought of what had happened out of my head - I tried to think about what an amazing day of snowshoeing we had experienced, but all I kept seeing was the semi truck thundering towards us.
When we got home, the reality of what had happened slammed into me, like the impact that I had been bracing for. Except, instead of one, life-crushing impact, the thoughts slammed into me over and over again. I didn't understand why we were still here. I blamed myself for the truck hitting the ice. I second guessed everything that I had done. I felt oppressive guilt. I obsessed over the mental image of my dad arriving back at my house after a fun day of steelhead fishing, only to receive the news that his wife, daughter and son-in-law had all been killed in a car accident. To say that this thought crushed me, is an understatement. That night, I laid in bed and wept.
For the next two days, I found it hard to function. It sounds ridiculous, because in reality, nothing happened. We didn't die. The truck was fine. We didn't get a scratch or even a sore neck. Nothing happened. And yet, I felt a fundamental change from the experience - like I had received a glimpse into a moment that many people do not get to talk about - because, the impact comes when they were expecting it, and they never get to describe what that moment was like. We felt that moment - my mom and Aaron and I felt it together - and it wasn't scary at all, it was just sad. Thinking about it now is sad for me, because I am addicted to life and I am so fortunate to have the life that I have made for myself.
My mom and Aaron and I had the most wonderful day climbing Union Peak. I wish that I could detach our amazing summit bid from the almost-car-accident, but I can't - the two events are permanently fused together in my mind. I thought back to the comment that I had made to my dad in jest - the one about, "Nobody wants to die doing what they love." At the time, I thought I understood what this meant, but now I realize that I had no idea. While I certainly do not want to die in a car wreck, if that truck had struck our vehicle that day - and if we had been obliterated into nothingness - I know, without a shadow of a doubt that I have lived my life to the fullest, doing exactly what I want to be doing, and spending time with people who mean everything to me. There are so many people that cannot say the same thing - and I am so very blessed. I remember climbing Del Campo peak with Aaron last year - we arrived at Foggy Lake in Gothic Basin and we started up the steep slope to the peak, surrounded by mountains in every direction ... I looked at Aaron and said, "Gosh, I want my life!"
I don't write this to make anybody feel inadequate - you don't need to be ascending peaks in order to be living your dream life - we are each in unique situations that may or may not accommodate our every desire. But living big, in anyway that you can - being a good human being - having gratitude for the things you have - absorbing every ounce of this world that life has to offer - surrounding yourself with life-sized snow marshmallows on a bitterly cold day in January when the sky is so blue that if somebody were to tell you that you were in heaven, you would believe it ... those are the things worthwhile in life. The same things that make having a glimpse into, "what may have been", feel so achingly sad are also the things that make our lives so grippingly beautiful. When you truly allow yourself to experience the intense beauty of being alive, it makes any loss so much more painful. The glimpse for me, ultimately provided a clarity that I had previously never felt. I believe that each person on earth has their own personal passion and mission - for me, living big comes naturally, but that is only one piece of the puzzle. You can 'live big' your entire life, but still feel completely unfulfilled. For me, the missing piece is sharing what I've learned with others - encouraging them, providing resources and knowledge, swapping ideas, helping them reach their own unique summit - those are the ideas and thoughts that keep me up at night with brimming-over excitement. As much as I love planning my own adventures, my mind is obsessed with wanting to give the same experiences to the thousands of other people in the world who crave them. I don't know entirely what this looks like for me yet, I only know that it is what I truly love and where I want to direct my energy. I am doing it in a small way already with this blog - now, the real task is to go bigger ... taking small steps, each day, in the right direction, or maybe the wrong direction, but still taking steps.
When I think of my own life, and the feelings I experienced as a result of our almost-car-wreck, I've chosen to view it as a positive experience. At that moment several weeks ago, I honestly needed it. Somehow the universe knew that, and it spoke - very loudly. Obviously, I do not want anybody else to have to experience a terrifying-near-car-wreck in order to achieve mental nirvana - but, I still want others to have that gift. The ability to look at their own life and know that when the time comes to brace for that impact - whether it is soft, or slow, or quick, or expected - that when it comes, they will feel both the same sense of deep, genuine joy and indescribable grief at the comprehension of the miracle of being alive. When it comes down to it, all we really can do is try our best at life, and keep climbing towards that glittering, burning sun.