I am resurrecting this long-dormant blog (active 2010-2012, and not since – maybe don’t read the archives?) because I need to write about what happened to me this summer. The TL;DR version is that I fell off a cliff on June 21 and miraculously survived, but there’s obviously much more to it than that. I’m still sorting through trauma, pain, frustration, and gratitude to be alive. I think these kinds of experiences change you; at least, I think this experience changed me, somehow.
Over the course of the next few weeks (months?), I plan to write a series of posts about my experience. I have been thinking about writing this since early July, but I’m doing it now. My friend Stevie inspired me to do it with her own beautiful, vulnerable discussions of embodiment, medicine, and trauma.
This first post is just the who-what-when-where of my accident. Be warned – there are some gory details ahead.
My plan for the summer was to travel for three weeks and spend the rest of the time studying for my PhD comprehensive exams in August, working on my dissertation proposal, and picking wild berries in the Pennsylvania forest. After ten days in Denver visiting my mom and brother, I flew to Los Angeles to visit my boyfriend KC. He lives about 80 miles north of LA and works at a federal research lab in the Mojave.
I arrived in LA on Saturday afternoon, and on Sunday morning KC and I went out for a short hike in the Angeles National Forest. We chose a 3-mile trail that went from the Buckhorn Campground to Cooper Canyon Falls. We turned off the main trail too early and ended up at the top of the waterfall instead of the base, on a steep rock face a few yards above the edge.
My mom has had a terrible fear of heights for as long as I can remember. Our family vacations were punctuated by her insistence that my brother and I not get closer than ten feet from the edge of anything. In the past several years she has improved significantly through a combination of various therapies and what I assume to be sheer force of will, but she still steers clear of all edges and dropoffs. I somehow managed to avoid developing the same phobias, and was proud of my bravery, but perhaps I should have been more careful.
I have the image of my feet going over the edge seared into my brain. I took one wrong step and lost my footing, slid about ten feet down the rock face, and watched as my boots flew into empty space. Then I was in water, surrounded by people. They were talking about needing to make sure my spine and neck were not fractured before moving me. I was alive, I was not paralyzed, but I was disoriented and everything hurt. I remember asking, “is this real?” Then I saw my blood in the water. It was real. I had fallen between thirty and forty feet, bouncing off rocks before landing in shallow water.
My memory is kind of jumbled here. One of the people surrounding me, a college-aged man with an orange hat and a red beard, introduced himself as Jasper and said that he had wilderness first aid training. Jasper and his friends picked me up and carried me to shore. The pain was terrible; at that point the whole left half of my body was undifferentiated agony. They laid me down and someone put a silver thermal blanket over me, then Jasper handed me a t-shirt to hold against the gash on my chin. A few minuted later I saw a topless woman nearby, and realized it was her shirt – she had literally given me the shirt off her back to stop the bleeding.
Around this time KC finally got to where I was, and he was a wreck. He had watched me skid past him and fly off the edge of the cliff, he had heard the sound of my body slam into rocks and then water, and later he told me that, for a moment, he thought I was dead. When he reached me and the other people, I heard him tell them, “I’m so glad you’re here; I don’t know what I’d do if you weren’t here.” I was glad too.
At some point I realized that I was seriously hurt – I guess it took a few minutes for my mind to catch up with reality. I announced, “hey, I think I need to go to the hospital now,” as though that wasn’t obvious. There was no cell reception where we were, and two of the people at the bottom ran to the trailhead to call for help. They ran into an off-duty park ranger named Collin who was out for a Father’s Day hike with his family. Collin and Jasper took care of me while we waited for help to arrive. My face, left leg, and left arm hurt the worst, and they told me that they were likely broken. Not the jaw, I thought. Please not a broken jaw.
Several firefighters arrived. I don’t remember much other than that they moved me onto a board, which was extraordinarily painful. The search and rescue helicopter had to fly over the spot a few times to find us. It was loud and windy, and small rocks and dirt flew into my face. The area was hilly with dense trees, and I couldn’t figure out where this thing was supposed to land until I saw a guy rappel down on a cable. They were going to winch me up into the hovering helicopter like in some spy movie.
The man from the helicopter was wearing a big black helmet, sunglasses, and a nametag that read “Jerry.” J-E-R-R-Y, my dad’s name. My dad died in 2011, and here I was on Father’s Day 2015 being rescued by a man named Jerry who was taking me, skybound, to safety. I still don’t know what to make of this.
As I was being winched up towards the helicopter, first I was afraid that Jerry and I would swing into the cliffside, then I was afraid that I would fall off the board (despite being thoroughly strapped in), then I was afraid I would fall out of the helicopter. They asked me my name, but when I tried to tell them, muffled sounds came out instead of words. My face and tongue were so swollen that I couldn’t speak or even close my mouth. The helicopter ride seemed quick, maybe ten minutes, and then I was on the roof of a hospital surrounded by doctors and nurses. Arriving at the hospital was such a relief: I was safe now, I could relax. I was going to be fine.