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This page is dedicated to Bridget.
"Oh shit!" I exclaimed. Sort of quietly, considering the awful, imminent danger involved. And the surrounding foliage hushed my words still more, to make my utterance almost comically subdued for the circumstances.
It was entirely my own fault. I wasn't concentrating on the task at hand, and suddenly I was clawing frantically at thin air.
For when you're perhaps 100 feet up in a tree (and in the dark!), you're supposed to be paying attention!
I lost my balance, and began grabbing at the nothing suddenly surrounding me, as I realized the enormity of my mistake.
I convulsively tipped over in excruciatingly slow motion, as in a nightmare. Then plunged downwards.
I was randomly pummeled by tree branches most of the way down. I knew though that no branches existed within roughly 30 feet of the ground, because I'd nested my airship here before. So once I was no longer being thrashed by the limbs, the ground would smack the hell out of me.
This fall was far different from one I'd taken years before, while escaping with my friend Steve from a lunatic's mansion, by leaping from the roof to a nearby tree. In that case the fall had been much shorter, and the foliage much lighter, thinner, and smaller-- since Steve and I could reach only the outermost fringe of the tree's limbs in an effort to grab hold of something to slow our descent.
In the present case though, I was much nearer the tree's good-sized trunk: where many branches (especially lower ones) might be the diameter of my thigh or arm, rather than the slender tendrils which had torn through Steve and mine's hands at that estate.
The good news was that such substantial limbs offered me a much better chance to arrest my fall than the sprigs of the previous event-- at least wherever they happened to come into reach.
The bad news was they seemed sparse in the corridor of my fall for the first 20 feet or so. Thereby allowing me to build up a terrible speed in my descent. Making the force and reaction speed required for me to stop myself to go up tremendously after that point.
But that wasn't the worst of it. For the new circumstances also meant if I struck such large limbs the wrong way, I could break bones, cave in my skull, etc., etc. Or be knocked unconscious, and rendered completely helpless for the remainder of the plunge.
I tried my best to grab something with which to arrest my fall, but everything was moving too fast. What few grips I managed were simply ripped away from me again by my momentum.
I'd never been a fan of heights. Working construction a few times had forced me to face my fear and overcome it in the past. But such confidence fades again if not regularly put to the test.
Now-- years after my construction job days-- I was braving similar heights again. As a part of my new illegal entrepreneurial venture deep in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
Basically I was doing outlaw farming on or near a few especially remote mountain tops in the region.
Unlike other such farmers though, I had a hard-won technological advantage: my self-built airship.
My airship allowed me to regularly travel between my various farming stations without traversing the difficult mountain terrain separating them. It also helped reduce the discovery and tracking risks involved in periodically resupplying my camps from civilization.
I was living at my little improvised farms all summer long, staying at one a week or so, then moving to another, to perform all the chores required for such projects.
I almost always flew between camps only at night, so as to avoid any witnesses to my airship's existence-- and thus my operation as well. During the days, being nestled among the tree tops and usually deflated, my airship's well-camouflaged upper surface provided visual protection from just about anything but a directly overhead low-altitude fly-over by helicopter. And even that I could overcome with suitable warning-- by folding up my deflated, semi-rigid airship's frame and pulling the whole thing down below the tree tops for near complete invisibility from the air.
But I mainly took such drastic measures only at the end of the growing season, when I needed to put my airship into hidden storage until the next summer rolled around. For airship folding and unfolding (without damaging the fragile behemoth) ranked pretty high on the hassle meter. And hoisting the giant apparatus back up to tree top level was no small task either!
During fall, winter, and spring, I attended college, some 200 miles away. The same college I'd dropped out of in my supercar days, some years before.
But my whole summer airship operation depended upon me 'docking' my airship in a suitable nest of surrounding tree tops for a week or more at a time. And then using various methods to move between my airship and ground level as needed.
Though not a summer photo, the above pic does give a good idea of the view from a mountain top in the region.
I'd figured out some neat techniques for such elevation-transport for myself and supplies. Big chunks of my operation therefore often functioned considerably better than I'd expected in my original plans.
But, that is, for those times I was high up in the trees anchoring or releasing my airship from a nesting location (easily changing weather, and the super-lightweight nature of the craft demanded anchoring), or transferring supplies, etc. For in those moments, any slip in concentration on the task at hand could be dangerous.
And that's exactly what I'd done here. Let my mind drift to something other than my current circumstance. And so lost my grip on safety-- and maybe life itself. Ouch!
I was sure I was now about to run out of branches to catch hold of-- and so face a high speed ramming into the ground below.
It was a nightmare come to life.
In that moment I didn't so much fear the impact as its aftermath. I wondered what would become of me, splattered all over the ground in this remote location, when no one anywhere on Earth knew where I was or what I was doing. And no one might accidentally come across me for months-- or even years-- with all the pains I'd taken to make my presence here near undetectable.
This was my state of mind as I fell through the blackness. For as usual for this summer stint of mine, it was full-on night when I was high up in the trees.
But I was surprised to abruptly stop short of impacting the ground. The near instantaneous stop took my breath away for a moment, as one side effect was a violent compression of my chest and lungs. For a moment I thought I was miraculously saved, as I dangled at least 25 feet above the ground from a solitary branch. I began squirming about seeking a handhold by which to better my position and get out of the mess. But things weren't nearly as rosy as I'd hoped.
It turned out I was hanging by my small backpack, which had caught on the limb. Its shoulder straps had transferred much of the resulting capture force to my upper body, thereby squeezing the air out of me.
I couldn't see what happened next. But I sure heard and felt it.
The daypack abruptly ripped to shreds in a matter of seconds, dropping me the rest of the way to the ground.
I tried to meet the up-rushing unseen Earth in some way to minimize injury, but failed miserably. I would probably have done better to have just gone limp, rather than bracing myself.
Again, I was effectively blind during all this, being that it was night-time, and beneath the tree tops. In places like this, it could often be pitch black even on nights boasting a full moon. And this was not one of those nights.
I'd had a red-filtered flashlight with me in the tree to guide me, but instinctively tossed it away in my frantic grab for anything solid at the beginning of my fall.
I hit the ground and-- after perhaps a brief total blackout in terms of thinking or feeling anything-- was immediately in howling pain. My left leg seemed to have broken in the vicinity of the ankle. OWWWWWWWWWWW!
Miraculously, a slight sprain in one wrist, a good-sized head bump, and miscellaneous lesser bruises, cuts, scrapes, and scratches would be all my other injuries incurred beyond the leg problem from this fall.
But being alone deep in the wilderness with minimal supplies and equipment, that was surely quite enough damage to do me in!
And it would take me a while to realize the true physical toll of my descent. In the first hours, I would fear injuries far worse than a broken leg.
My left ankle began swelling immediately. Fortunately, I removed my footwear to examine it by touch as soon as possible-- by which I mean after I'd finished screaming and cursing from the pain for maybe ten solid minutes.
Or maybe an hour. It sure felt like a long, long time!
At least no bone had broken through the skin of my leg, I was glad to discover by touch alone. But I feared internal bleeding in my trunk or head. Or other as yet unrealized injuries. And in the hours to come I'd worry my ankle skin itself would split open due to being unable to contain the fierce swelling within.
For my ankle would grow to an enormous size after my fall. So large and oddly shaped that I didn't even attempt to apply a first aid style splint to it. For such an ankle problem seemed different from a simple leg or arm break such as was seen in first aid manuals. I really didn't know what I should do about it. I hoped my emergency survival manual would enlighten me (I kept one in my daypack...).
Fortunately, I did have one of my custom-designed fold-out ground shelters in this place. Unfortunately, I had no idea in which direction it lay from my present location. Everything was pitch black around me, this deep under the trees at night.
If my lit red-filtered flashlight had fallen somewhere nearby, it sure wasn't visible. It might have broken on impact, I figured, despite being US Army surplus, and fairly tough in general. But being as how its red beam didn't carry far or strongly anyway (making it stealthy), it wouldn't take much at all in the way of adverse circumstances for me not to see it, even if it was pointed straight at me and laying only a few feet away. A single small rock or ground depression or slender tree trunk could block its beam completely.
There was also no way I could get back up to my airship Moonshadow. I did have a mini-pulley system here for shuttling supplies up and down. But I hadn't yet loaded anything into it up top before my fall. And it definitely wasn't rigged for a cripple to haul himself upwards with! Even if I could get to its lowermost end (located at least 12 feet from the ground, to reduce the risk of casual discovery by hikers, rangers, or lawmen).
Plus, even finding the proper tree to climb up could be a problem with my present effective blindness.
That's when it occurred to me that I could have been struck blind by the fall, and not know it until sufficient time had passed for me to be sure I should be seeing daylight.
That was perhaps my worst moment, pure fear-wise. Pondering the possibility that I was both crippled and blind now, in this remote place.
I tried to shake off the new terror. Remind myself there was no reason to think I'd been blinded by the fall. For although there was a worrisome bump to one side of my forehead(!), I felt only a few small spots of the wet stickiness of fresh blood anywhere on me-- and just a tad on my head or face.
I also knew from experience it was supposed to be utter blackness down here at this hour. So my rational side battled with my little kid side to calm me down.
However, it didn't help my anxiety that I soon determined there was nothing more I could do until I could see again.
I had no choice. I had to wait until sun rise before moving from my present location. Else I might injure myself further for no good reason. And even put extra distance between myself and essential supplies and equipment, by moving in the wrong direction.
I typically docked my airship Moonshadow an hour or two before sun rise. But this morning I'd had a good wind at my back and so arrived early. That meant I'd have to wait considerably longer for dawn now, than usual.
At least I could keep the pain down by not moving, I thought. Grimly satisfied to find one good thing about my forced immobility.
However, as my ankle continued to swell beyond all expectations, I soon became alarmed by the increasing tightness of my pants leg around it.
Fortunately I had my Swiss Army knife in a pants pocket, and used both a blade and its scissors to cut apart my pants leg.
I used my smaller pocket knife rather than my large hunting knife from my belt sheath, in order to lessen the risk of accidentally stabbing or slicing myself with the larger blade in the darkness. Plus, the Swiss scissors were unbeatable for jobs like this.
This would turn out to be one of the longest nights of my life.
Oh yes: to add to my potential problems here, when I'd groped around my head and face checking for injuries and bleeding in the dark, I'd discovered my eyeglasses were missing. Of course!
I was badly near-sighted without my glasses. So I had to hope I'd be able to find them again after dawn broke.
My missing glasses were yet another excellent reason not to move around in the dark: for I might break them by accident. Or inadvertently push them under leaves or other debris, making them harder to find in the light.
Being forced to stay immobile and wait for daylight, plus having just suffered some real physical trauma, I soon found myself wanting to doze off despite the pain. But I couldn't allow that for reasons of possible concussion. If I'd suffered a concussion in the fall, falling asleep could be the worst possible thing for me to do now. For I might never wake up again, and simply lapse into a coma.
At least I thought that was the case. I really needed to check my survival manual to be sure.
For a while there it was a real struggle for me to stay awake. I got cold enough too that I worried about the sleepiness associated with freezing to death as well, in addition to that related to concussions (but of course my location likely got nowhere near freezing temperature that night).
I wasn't well-dressed for sitting still for hours in the chilly night air. Because my piloting position for Moonshadow required me to dress for hot conditions.
Moonshadow utilized a gas burner like most any other hot air balloon. Plus some other equipment which generated heat too. And I had to sit smack in the middle of all that stuff, with the open hole of the balloon envelope only a few feet above. So things got pretty warm there. Especially when we were just hovering in place, or there was no cooling breeze to speak of.
So I had quite a few special shirts for the job. Tunics, you might call them. For they possessed no sides, or sleeves. Fronts and backs only, sewn together across the shoulders and at the waist.
However, the tunics sported no pockets. So I usually wore a hunting vest over them too-- unless things got unbearably hot under the balloon.
Thankfully I'd been wearing the vest when I fell. Otherwise I truly would have gotten alarmingly cold on the ground like that. For the vest helped a lot about holding in heat. Especially when zipped closed.
After a horribly, horribly long wait, the blackness finally gave way to a very dim gray, and I could at last make out my surroundings well enough to do something constructive.
I badly missed my glasses: everything farther away than three feet or so was badly blurred now. But I took comfort in the fact that I could see at all!
I spent the next hour or so desperately looking for my glasses without unwittingly breaking them. But had no luck.
I finally gave up on that round of searching and instead sought out my tiny hidden refuge in the ground nearby: a concealed fold-up wooden A-frame arrangement under the ubiquitous fallen leaves.
Basically it was a plastic-lined 8-foot long, two and a half foot wide, roughly two foot deep trench with a couple large weather-resistant and enameled plywood boards roughly the size and shape of house doors to act as a roof. One folded over the other to make it all lay flat when not in use. When open, the boards attached to one another at the top edges, with a strip of plastic to seal their meeting place from the rain and wind.
The ends of the little elongated A-frame had some nifty features as well, depending upon how bad the weather was, or how paranoid about outside animals I might become.
I had brought in and built more than one of these contraptions for my farming efforts, for those spots where I didn't stay onboard Moonshadow, or make other arrangements.
Although Moonshadow's open air cockpit offered the advantage of being well-protected from ground animals and similar threats, it tended to move too easily with the tree crowns upon which it rested-- making sleeping onboard feel much like sleeping on a boat, I suppose.
Plus, you couldn't help but worry about somehow rolling out of it and falling 100 feet, too. No matter how many precautions you took.
And the possibility of an unexpected storm popping up and sweeping you away into the sky in an uncontrollable manner while you slept was always present too.
(If Mother Nature was angry enough, Moonshadow's nesting anchors would be no match for her; I was supposed to collapse Moonshadow's frame and pull it down to the ground for better securing in such a case; I maintained an open radio channel to local weather forecasts 24-7 during my Moonshadow summers in order to get sufficient warning. However, unpredicted freak storms also sometimes occurred.)
So I dragged myself to my local shelter's location, and set about uncovering it and unfolding it for habitation.
For it was my bad luck that this was my first arrival at this particular camp, this season. So the whole shop was closed down, and requiring set up.
It was a damn good thing I'd designed the shelter contraption to be unfolded fast and easy under normal circumstances! For now, with my bum leg, it required at least five times as long, with a generous helping of painful yelps whenever I accidentally made the wrong move.
I finally got it all unfolded and fastened together, and crawled inside, where I then stayed for a while. I'd gotten chilled having to sit near motionless on the ground outside for so long. Then greatly fatigued by the unusually difficult camp set up process, and the fruitless search for my glasses before that. And I'd been up all night too, prior to that.
I'd mostly avoided thinking of the mess I was in while waiting for sun rise. Now though, the full weight of what I'd done began to sink in.
I was miles from civilization, near a relatively remote mountain top.
Absolutely no one knew where I was, or what I was doing.
I did have a walkie-talkie style CB radio. But it was up high in the airship. So I couldn't call for help. Not without some miracle to enable me to get to Moonshadow again.
I usually kept some emergency supplies in these unfolding shelters through the summer. Unfortunately, again, as this was my very first visit to this particular station this year, I hadn't yet restocked its consumables.
All that was left were a few sparse remnants from last season.
Being that Moonshadow was basically an ultra light airship, its cargo carrying capacity was very limited. Despite its enormous size. So I did my best to carry in and out as little weight as possible. That meant there was hardly ever much 'extra' stuff left laying around my camps. It was simply too expensive in cargo-terms to bring in anything which might be superfluous.
Although the shelter cupboard was essentially bare, there was the original contents of my daypack to be considered: the pack which had ripped apart to slow my fall.
Once daylight had arrived in full (and I'd rested for a while; no sleep though because of the pain; my earlier drowsiness had dissipated) I crawled back out again to retrieve my daypack contents, as well as search once more for my precious eye-glasses.
The daypack stuff turned out to be spread over a surprisingly wide area; some of it seeming to have been flung away from the exploding daypack with unexpected forcefulness.
I ended up never ever finding some of the things I was certain had been stashed in there.
The pickings from my torn asunder daypack turned out to be slim indeed.
I did find the extra clothing: jeans, socks, underwear, a shirt, and a pullover wool sweater. And a roll of toilet paper in a zip-lock bag.
All those items had been relatively easy to find on the forest floor due to their size and/or coloring.
I couldn't find the case containing my spare eyeglasses though. Damn it! It must have been in the bag's main compartment, and so thrown out with everything else when it busted.
The hard protective eyeglasses case was of a color which blended in well with the ground covering here-- to now be virtually camouflaged and invisible to me.
And of course, my near-sightedness made it even more difficult for me to see it-- even if I stared straight at it from a distance.
Damn it! I'd make sure my emergency glasses case was a more stand-out color after this! Sheesh!
But even being colored brightly red was no guarantee something wouldn't be lost. For I'd had a small first aid kit in a red pack in there too, that was now nowhere to be seen either. Damn it!
I wondered if some of the missing items actually were sitting hidden in the tree branches somewhere above my head-- as it seemed awfully improbable that I'd lose so much of it...
It was too bad all the trees around me were far too big for me to be able to shake them. And the nearest limbs too high for me to prod with anything at hand. I did try throwing some things to dislodge any hidden items I could, but nothing came of it.
Other things I keenly noted the absence of were any sort of hat or cap; my green Army surplus poncho; as well as my small survival reference manual in its own zip-lock bag. Which I toted around for just this sort of crisis.
Well, Murphy's law did imply that the first things you'd lose in a disaster were those most important to survival. Ouch!
Besides the loss of both my primary pair of eyeglasses and my emergency spares, I'd also lost the big bag of self-made trail mix I'd been carrying.
As I was already very hungry, in that moment I missed the trail mix almost as much as my glasses.
Thankfully, the single small outside pocket of my daypack had remained intact, thereby saving for me all my smaller tools and supplies in the one spot. And though the pack had ripped to pieces slowing my fall, its shell had remained attached to me by its shoulder straps.
Between that small daypack pocket, my scramble vest, my pants pockets, and the results of my desperate ground search, I managed to salvage a few useful items. The most important of which were:
A Swiss Army knife (the so-called 'Explorer' model for its time, I believe).
A spool of white nylon string.
A couple pen flares.
A small, cheap combination thermometer and compass (key fob-type device).
My loaded 38 Special pistol. My large hunting knife (both attached to my belt at time of fall).
Almost one full reload for my pistol (some bullets seem to have been lost during my fall).
A tiny sewing kit.
A very basic pocket-sized fishing kit.
A small fresnel lens magnifier card in protective sheath (the Swiss Army knife also had a magnifying glass)
A short piece of nylon cord (thicker than the string and so easier on the hands for strenuous pulling)
A small pair of vise grip pliers.
A roll of thin, un-insulated wire.
A few different sizes and shapes of tightly folded up plastic sheeting: all of it black and opaque.
A USGS map of the area.
A small candle.
My main compass (kept on a string around my neck and under my shirt)
Several zip-lock bags protecting their contents from moisture.
A small supply of aspirin.
A bottle of water purification tablets.
Some Army surplus cooking tablets (fuel pills, basically).
A camper's snake bite kit.
A cheap pocket box-cutter.
A small emergency flashlight.
A small waterproof case of matches with striking flint built into the bottom.
I also had my car keys and wallet. You might be tempted to laugh at those, but the keys being left to jangle freely outside your pockets can help keep away things like bears on hikes.
I regularly used an Army surplus plastic canteen of water in those days-- with matching aluminum double-handled cup for cooking-- but I'd apparently left it aboard Moonshadow.
Besides the canteen and cup, I had probably at least sixty pounds worth of other supplies and equipment up there which would have helped tremendously down here.
I somehow managed to fall into a fitful sleep inside my shelter, and didn't fully rouse again until around nightfall.
My summer sleep schedule was skewed by the necessity to often travel at night.
I was very thirsty by then, but there was no water to be had. And it was too risky for me to look for some outside in the dark, half-blind as I was without my glasses. So I tried to simply rest some more until daybreak. But I pretty much stayed awake the whole night.
The next day I crawled out and collected some suitable supplies to make me my first crutch. I did it in a hurry, so it was far from perfect. But I badly needed a way to get off the ground and get some water.
I was ravenously hungry too by then. Being injured sometimes seems to increase hunger pangs. Long periods of immobility or boredom can too. But I was in no shape to hunt or forage over much territory at all.
I did have some wire and string and know-how for rigging animal traps. Plus the small kit packing the essentials required for fishing. But I'd never actually had to do any of that before, and didn't want to start now. For one thing, successful trapping and fishing typically required lots more mobility than I had at present. Plus, I was still in extreme denial about the severity of my predicament.
Being too spoiled by the trappings of civilization-- even those meager trappings available to citizens of little money-- can dramatically increase one's risk of doing too little, too late, in a real survival situation.
On my new crutch, I roamed about the vicinity in a much wider range than before, basically combining a search for water with looking for one of my missing pairs of eyeglasses, and the bag of trail mix.
I did manage to spy a possible small spring source deep in a steep ravine a ways from camp. But I couldn't confirm it. For my semi-crippled nature put the bottom of the ravine out of my reach. The climb in and out just looked far too treacherous for my present circumstances. Especially since it basically just looked like a wet spot to my near-sighted eyes-- I could have been completely wrong about the presence of water all together. There also wasn't any telltale trickling noise to confirm it that way, either.
It was starting to look like I'd have to collect rainwater to drink.
Fortunately this region was a fairly wet one. You didn't usually have to wait long for rainfall. Indeed, frequent storms were one of my biggest problems with Moonshadow!
But it hadn't rained since my accident. Or even the day before.
I tried to comfort myself with the notion it just had to rain soon, for that fact alone. Despite there being not a cloud in the sky that day. Ouch!
So I set about trying to rig up a collection system for rain.
At another of my farms I had a fabulous hillside arrangement for collecting solar heat with large plastic sheets, which could also double as a rain collector (I used the solar heat to save fuel inflating Moonshadow for take off from that camp). But all that was there: not here.
I also knew from experience that great gobs of water would pour down from the underside of Moonshadow during cloudbursts, when we were nested. But the location of those flows usually changed from event to event.
I had been forced to attach some guards or catches to the bottom of the balloon to keep lots of water from all flowing down to fill the large rubber raft I used for a cockpit, due to it usually being positioned at Moonshadow's lowest drainage point-- especially when we were airborne. All that water was not good for my equipment kept there! Those water catchers were the most predictable source of drainage streams; but even those didn't always work as expected. For sometimes the flow just didn't converge on the center bottom of the balloon, but run off an outer edge somewhere instead. Especially when Moonshadow was nesting and deflated.
No, I'd have to set up a catch basin of some sort and move it to the water flow wherever it presented itself.
So I spent my spare time and energy that day putting together a good sized container I could move to catch the water when it came.
As the spill sometimes flailed about wildly on its way to the ground-- or changed course at times-- I wanted a fairly big mouth for the container in order to minimize any need for re-positioning during a rain. I also wanted to catch as much as possible in one event-- since I was now so vulnerable to thirst.
I ended up with an arrangement of long wooden poles made from small trees and long branches, held together with knotted string and slightly cut out notches here and there, with my largest piece of plastic inside the framework serving as combination capture surface and storage container.
The finished product was about the size of half a trash dumpster such as you might find behind a restaurant in those days.
I tried to design it for easy dragging around. However, I worried if it collected too much water it might burst, or otherwise spill.
And no: this collector wasn't one of my best works, by any means. I wasn't accustomed to using natural materials like branches for construction of anything but small and temporary camping shelters, or trip-wire-based harassment obstacles for discouraging hikers from entering certain areas in the woods.
Temporary shelters were easy. Basically just brush piled up a certain way, sometimes tied down to prevent the wind from disturbing it, or you yourself accidentally knocking it out of whack. Prank or harassment tricks in the woods were a bit more delicate to put together than shelters: but still no big challenge.
I took great pride in most of my technological projects like Shadowfast my supercar, or Moonshadow my airship. But for those I'd used man-made materials and tools exclusively. And enjoyed comparatively lots of time to consider and refine my project plans, as well as been able to easily pick up spare parts or better tools at my local hardware store, auto parts place, or junkyard, as needed. I'd also been able to refer to all manner of books and magazines for tips and info to make my work easier. Finally, I'd never been crippled leg-wise during those tasks. Or bereft of my eyeglasses. Or dying of thirst and starving.
By contrast, improvising in the deep woods with little more than rocks and sticks while one-legged, hungry, thirsty, and without my glasses would turn out to be much more problematic for me.
The skies remained clear until nightfall. I was so dehydrated my thinking processes were beginning to suffer.
I knew I couldn't go much longer without water. I'd soon have no choice but to try to climb up to Moonshadow, or down that dangerous ravine to get some. Yikes!
Exhausted by exertion and worry and pain, I fell asleep around nightfall. Dry as a bone. Sitting on the ground just outside my shelter, reclining, with my back against one of my shelter's angled roof panels. For I was that fearful of missing any rainfall which might come.
Around 2 AM I was startled awake by a light, cold rain (my shelter was not beneath Moonshadow).
I turned on my small flashlight (I was conserving its irreplaceable batteries as much as possible), grabbed my crutch, and headed towards my rain catch, which I had parked just outside the area covered by Moonshadow (for I'd fretted I might be unable to properly move it quickly enough, and so figured the open air location to be a good default choice).
I couldn't tell that much water had collected in the plastic as of yet. Though I could hear the impact of drops against the surface when close (the whole woods were alive with the sound of impacting drops).
I moved beyond the rain collector, throwing my meager light beam around underneath Moonshadow, looking for any good streams to which to move my catch.
I couldn't see any.
Of course, Moonshadow covered quite a bit of area. And in the dark like this, without my glasses, and only the weak, narrow beam of a small light, I needed to move over quite a large area to be sure I wasn't missing an important flow.
While beneath Moonshadow I was out of the rain myself, no longer feeling its impact. So when it intensified, I detected it mainly by the increased noise.
Suddenly there was a rush of new impacts, and a downpour had begun.
It took another minute or two, but finally I spied a good-sized stream of run-off from Moonshadow some hundred feet away.
I hurriedly hobbled on my crutch back towards my rain-catch, then began enthusiastically dragging it to the flow.
Maybe a little too enthusiastically.
This of course pulled the bin out from under the open sky and beneath Moonshadow.
At that moment my crutch collapsed on me unexpectedly, and that made me put weight on my bad left ankle.
I would determine later that the crutch collapse came about due to its getting damp in previous minutes, loosening the tied connections holding it together.
Suddenly I was in blinding pain. Which made me forget just about everything else in that instant.
My instinctive response was to get off my left foot again, and shift my weight elsewhere.
The only elsewhere available at that moment was my water catch construction, gripped by my right hand (in which I'd also been holding my flashlight).
My sudden weight shift somehow caused one corner of my water bin to give way too.
That in itself wasn't a complete disaster. For the bin still offered a decent water catch, even in that state.
No, what really hurt was what happened next.
When the bin partially collapsed on me I was taken by surprise-- precisely when I was already off-balance and over-compensating from the crutch disintegration-- and so fell bodily atop the bin myself. Squashing it to the ground. Nearly flat.
Then the rain stopped.
I wasn't sure what the best thing to do next was, but instinctively I wanted to crawl towards the still flowing runoff from Moonshadow, dragging what was left of my collector behind me.
However, that desire was stymied by the fact I'd lost my grip on my flashlight too when I fell onto the bin, and couldn't immediately retrieve it again.
And without the light beam, I couldn't find the runoff stream in the dark. Agh!
I wasn't sure with my blurry vision, but I thought I saw a very faint glow of the light somewhere underneath the multiple folds of collapsed plastic now comprising the ruined bin.
I frantically rummaged around the debris of the bin for the flashlight, further destroying the contraption as I did so.
I finally found it again, and relocated the runoff column.
It took me still more precious time to get there by crawling and tugging along my trashed bin. But I did manage it before the ever diminishing trickle had completely disappeared. And as utterly devastated as the bin was by that moment, I still succeeded in collecting several cupfuls of water with it-- which I drank just as soon as the flow seemed to have quit entirely.
I was still monstrously thirsty after that. And knew that Moonshadow's deflated envelope above likely held quite a few gallons in large, deep, and delicious puddles spread across its top surface.
But even had I not been crippled, it would have been tough to get at that supply. No, if I could get to Moonshadow at all, the cockpit raft with its canteen and other goodies would have been a far more practical choice.
The rainwater collection debacle did help me survive one more day, though.
By the third day in the camp I knew for certain I was in trouble. As my leg remained useless, walking-wise. I'd hoped merely staying off it a couple days would put me into sufficiently good shape to slowly and carefully hobble out. Or maybe even climb up to Moonshadow, and retrieve some supplies (flying anywhere was out of the question, since climbing around to release the anchors would definitely be beyond me). But it didn't happen. I'd then waited in vain a third day, for good measure.
But I could no longer stay where I was. My leg might well be broken, but I had insufficient supplies to stick around. The lack of water alone was turning into a potential killer. And the chances of someone accidentally finding me up here were nil. I'd selected these spots for minimal risk of people walking in. Now I was paying the price for that.
And even if I could have called for help, I sure would have hated to do so. From this location, I mean. For it was an illegal marijuana farm! Sheesh! A call for help from here was a direct ticket to jail!
If I tried getting back up to Moonshadow in my present condition, I risked injuring myself far worse than I already had.
I'd just have to take the chance that Moonshadow wouldn't be discovered for some time here. His envelope was already deflated to a rumpled mass atop the trees. I didn't have him anchored as well as I would have liked, but he was at least partially into nesting configuration, with two of the three normal tie-downs in place.
He'd be vulnerable to certain speeds and directions of wind now. So a storm of a specific kind would surely steal him away and dump his pieces somewhere I'd never find them. Or worse yet, deposit him somewhere the cops would find out about him-- maybe even leading to an investigation by the feds! Agh!
My fingerprints had to be all over Moonshadow.
But what could I do?
I could only try to save my own dumb, lone wolf ass, here.
I spent the fourth day preparing for the trek out, trying to brainstorm exactly how best to get out of there with a bad leg and minimal supplies.
I mean, I'd already been pondering such things all the days before, of course. But as it all looked so bleak, and I still harbored hopes of my leg getting better to make the hike out more plausible, I'd put off any detailed planning or hard preparations. So I had to do those now.
By the time I was ready to leave, I'd already had to do without any food for several days. There was quite a bit upstairs in Moonshadow, only maybe 100 feet distant. But it might as well have been a hundred miles away.
So I felt starved before the journey even began.
But at least I now had a definite plan for making an attempt to extricate myself from this terrific mess.
If, that is, bad weather, a bear or wild dog pack, poisonous snake bite-- or plain old lack of water-- didn't do me in first.
Or, maybe worst of all, some evil local human beings happened upon me in my vulnerable state. Agh!
But I tried not to think about all those contingencies any further than required for outfitting myself for the trek out.
Indeed, as I still-- still!-- didn't fully appreciate the depth of the hole I was in, my biggest worries continued to be about my prized airship. For designing and building it had been one of the most difficult things I'd ever done in my entire life. In some ways Moonshadow had been a far more demanding project than Shadowfast.
Oh man! I lamented, mental-wise. There was no telling how long Moonshadow was going to have to remain parked here!
Fortunately, this outlaw farm was on a remote mountaintop. And it wasn't unusual for me to be parked here for days at a time. But I feared I was looking at weeks here, as opposed to days.
And that might be a best-case scenario. If my leg truly was broken, it could take over a month to heal. A month beginning after I saw a doctor. And an exam which could occur only after I'd returned to civilization. Still worse, if I was out here too long the doc might even have to re-break it to properly set it. Ouch!
On two good legs I was sure I could reach my VW bug, well-hidden near my airship's seasonal launch site some miles from here, with about a day or two's fast hike (the mountainous terrain was a far tougher and more circuitous slog than flatland would have been). And drive the bug to town after that in just another hour or so.
But I was one legged now. Even assuming I made it to my bug, it was a straight shift, requiring two legs to work the gas, brake, and clutch. Shadowfast had been different, being an automatic. I could have worked him with one foot, for casual driving circumstances. But I no longer possessed Shadow. And even if I had, it was doubtful I could have gotten him into the territory I now had the VW.
No, the only reason I'd head towards the VW was because it was between me and the nearest road of which I was aware. I figured I could use the bug as a temporary rest stop on the way: if I was very lucky there might even be some edible food or drink in there that I couldn't recall being left there at present.
Yeah, I'd rest in the bug for a while. Maybe make one or two attempts to drive it crippled as I was (though I was sure I'd fail in that). Then continue on to the road which was maybe half a mile beyond the car. Ouch!
Once to the road, I'd follow it out until I encountered someone willing to take me to a hospital. With any luck, that would happen within just a few hours of my reaching that leg of the journey. With no luck at all, I'd make my way the couple more miles(!) to the paved state highway, and try again to get some motorized assistance.
Wow. Did that plan look awfully long on challenge and short on hope, or what?
But it was all I had.
Well, that and my makeshift bundle of supplies.
As I was unsure just what problems I might encounter on the trip, I was loathe to leave behind hardly anything of what few items I had on hand. Despite the fact that carrying much at all would be a substantial burden in my present condition-- and so therefore pose its own risk to me actually making good my escape. Or survive period, I mean.
I would even carry out my useless left shoe with me. For up through the very last, I hoped my ankle would get better, allowing me to don my shoe, and walk out normally the rest of the way.
But I never would get to put that shoe on again.
I tried to look at the bright side though. It was summer-time. So cold spells would definitely be limited in duration and intensity to mainly overnight and early morning. Or whenever I was soaked by rain.
Whenever I felt chilled, I pulled on my extra set of clothing recovered from my destroyed daypack. The wool sweater was especially warm and comforting. Plus, would keep you warm even when wet, too. It was too bad I couldn't say the same for my two pairs of jeans. And yes, I'd had to cut apart the left leg on the second pair of jeans too, in order to accommodate my ankle. Actually split it open higher than the first pair, to get my leg into it.
But there was still more to be optimistic about. I was in the Smoky Mountains rather than somewhere like the Rockies. Heck: compared to lots of other mountain ranges, the Smokies were about as gentle and forgiving as could be! The terrain only got truly wild in relatively few places, and the most extreme altitudes were nowhere near high enough to threaten breathing, like some other locales.
Fresh water abounded here. And even if-- like me-- you might be unable to easily walk far to get to a stream, if you could wait a few days you could simply collect rain to drink (in theory, anyway)! For this region didn't lack much to qualify as a rain forest, in terms of precipitation (at least during the period of these events).
I also didn't have nearly so many large wild animals to worry about here as other spots. What few bears I might get near would usually be spooked and run away just by my making sufficient noise. The still more rare black panthers would likely leave me alone too-- at least unless and until they decided I was suitably injured or weak to easily kill. Yikes!
But it was doubtful I'd encounter such a large cat at all. I never had before. Only heard about them from others.
Of course, it was always possible I'd been stalked by them on occasion without knowing about it...
But no: I was fairly sure my most realistic animal concerns lay with packs of wild dogs, and poisonous snakes. Or even a rabid skunk.
I had my snub nose 38 and a near-reload for things like the dogs and skunk; but successfully avoiding the snakes might be a different matter.
Especially without my glasses!
My crutch abominations would ultimately become a major problem in themselves. The catastrophe with the water bin turned out to be a harbinger of things to come.
First off, I'd greatly underestimated the need for padding the handle end on which my armpit rested. Only an hour on the move proved to me I simply had to stop and spend some time beefing up the cushion there.
I made use of my extra clothing for that. My wool sweater and some spare socks I'd begun wearing overnight for extra warmth. At least one pair sometimes used as mittens. I still got cold, though. Even with some plastic sheeting and leafy insulation too to enhance my circumstances. But during the warm days I could usually let stuff like my sweater pad my crutch instead.
The initial crutch fix took a while. Then after only another 30 minutes of walking, I found I needed to make a major change in the crutch design about where my hand held it roughly two-thirds up its height.
That stop took much longer than the cushion fix.
Once I finally got moving again, I walked maybe another 20 minutes before my crutch catastrophically collapsed on me with little warning, causing me to tumble to the ground and wrench my ankle anew. OWWWW!
Apparently my inexperience at crutch-building, combined with the rigors of trail-use and the rough natural components necessary for assembly, left my design and construction sadly lacking, endurance-wise.
So I spent another hour and a half rebuilding my crutch into what was hopefully an improved configuration.
Unfortunately, that frequent collapse and rebuild of the crutch would become a regular feature of the walk out from that point on. Badly slowing my progress.
It just seemed that no matter what I did, or new things I tried, I couldn't get my crutch to hold together for very long. Its parts would gradually loosen, and finally the whole thing would just disintegrate from underneath my arm. Often with little or no warning.
And yes, I several times tried using all new parts, plus cutting notches to help intersecting pieces better hold together. I tried tying different knots and patterns in how the string criss-crossed the critical hubs; etc., etc., etc. Even melted wax from my candle onto the junctions once. For some reason nothing would hold up on the trail for long.
I spent three days this way. But the nights were worse.
My leg would amazingly throb much worse at night than during the day, making it exceedingly difficult to sleep.
Being alone in the woods with barely anything between me and it; badly injured; hearing the constant rustle of leaves nearby; and often feeling things scurrying right over your body or face in pitch black darkness, wasn't conducive to a good night's sleep either.
Occasionally I'd get bit or stung by something, too.
I did have plastic sheeting which helped me put up some minimal shelters. But the sheets I had on hand weren't as large as I'd have preferred for such purposes. Especially as I simply had to keep some big ones in reserve for rain collection.
I did at times make a fire, but couldn't keep it going for long. Mostly because of the tremendous chore it was to gather sufficient wood for the thing.
As bad as it was to have my crutch fall apart and reduce me to crawling during the day, it was much worse at night. And the more I moved around gathering firewood, the more likely my crutch would fail on me. My crutches would take just so much mileage before they broke down again.
And if I needed to move quickly after dark, I'd desperately need the use of my crutch for at least a few minutes.
Yes: A strong, one piece forked stick would have been fantastic for a crutch. But like so many things, you can't find one when you really need it. The closest candidates I found were either too thin to work, or too big and heavy, or too old and rotten.
I did have other fire options. Lots of different ways to start them, in fact. Even some alternatives possibly allowing me several hours of continuous dim light without the need to gather wood. Such as my candle and fuel tablets.
But the small flames those things allowed seemed to offer insignificant heat against the cold, and no protection at all against animals. For they were in no way what you'd call a camp fire. In fact, I was afraid the tiny flames and their smells would simply attract curious bears or dogs or big cats while I slept. Or even malevolent humans. And I also feared their fire somehow getting out of control while I slept, to burn me alive. Thus, their negatives seemed to far outweigh their positives. Therefore I didn't use them except for when I was awake and needing to see after dark, but trying to conserve my flashlight batteries.
I also had nothing to cook with my tablets. Though I knew they could be handy for boiling suspect water to make it safe.
So long as I drank just rainwater though, there was little need for such sterilization.
Heck: I even had some pen flares! Basically super-hot signaling fireworks you could carry in your pocket. They were designed for attracting help at sea. Here, they'd likely start a massive forest fire if triggered. At least if the woods were sufficiently dry. And I was in no condition to try outrunning a fire! But as such stuff had proved handy to my survival in the past, I always made sure to have some onboard Moonshadow, and/or in my scramble vest. In this instance, I was thinking of using them as a backup weapon if I ran out of 38 ammo. My pistol; my flares; my crutch; my hunting knife; my fists; my teeth: that was my preferred order of defensive weapons use here.
Sometimes I'd awaken in the darkness to the sound of dogs howling or barking in the distance.
And when I could hear nothing at all, I'd wonder if a black panther or bear was close by, scaring all the other animals into silence.
Even the damn birds and insects would sometimes all go dead silent at the same time, for a while. It was spooky!
There were a few tense moments when it did seem I heard large, heavy beasts prowling through the darkness nearby. What little sleep I managed to get tended to be filled with nightmares of varying intensity.
This routine had me run completely ragged in no time at all.
Thankfully, my closest daytime encounter with a large bear happened near the very beginning of my walk out.
I say thankfully, for my strength and mental capacities deteriorated so rapidly after that, I'm not sure what would have happened in a later case.
Of course I didn't know at the time I'd be apparently free of bear threat the rest of the trip: so I fretted over it near constantly the whole journey.
When I met the bear, this is what happened:
I smelled it before I saw it. It was a really rank, strong odor. For a moment I thought I might have come across a skunk.
But then I saw it. Looking at me from maybe 20 yards away.
My crutch was in pieces at the time. So even a casual hobbling getaway was out of the question.
I was repairing my crutch, and so likely been almost silent for a while, except possibly for quiet under-the-breath cursing on occasion.
When on the move I'd been much louder, with the racket helping keep things like bears at a distance.
My jangling car keys hanging loose from a belt loop helped for that. I also talked to myself and yelled on occasion. And sung. Mostly to keep the bears away. But partly for keeping up morale, and getting the attention of any other human beings who might be around, in order to get some help.
My unrelenting thirst on the trip sometimes made it hard to keep up the racket, though.
My favorite song for personal singing (ever!) was one often heard on the Hee Haw TV show in those days. My friends and I had often sung it together in an effort to cheer up the one of us feeling most despondent in a particular moment. It was a mix of comedy and tragedy, and began with "Gloom, despair, and agony on me-- woe!"
It seemed like I could readily identify with the sentiment in that song throughout most of my adult life!
If I encountered bad guys, well, maybe my 38 would motivate them for some sort of help-- even if all I could do was steal their water and food. And try to get them to contact the police to come get me.
But my crutch repair stop had kept me quiet for a while, thereby letting the bear get close to me before it realized I was there.
I must have been downwind of the bear too. Which explains why I smelled him so strongly-- and why he didn't detect me earlier.
When I saw him, I immediately froze in place. My mind began racing.
I first thought of my pistol, sitting securely in its holster on my hip. With its safety on.
I knew I was supposed to scare the bear away, by making noise and trying to make a spectacle of myself. That is, make myself look as large as possible.
Then again, I was afraid if I did anything too abrupt, I might make it panic or get angry and charge me.
So I decided to start small and build up gradually.
I began talking to the bear. At first in a normal voice. But gradually increasing in volume and threatening tone.
"If you know what's good for you bear, you'll get out of here," I told it.
He just stood there, looking curious.
Curious is bad, where a full-grown black bear is concerned.
I raised my voice, and became more scathing in my delivery. I also stood up, bracing myself against a nearby tree as my crutch was in pieces at the moment. Standing up made me look bigger.
"Get out of here, you dumb bear! Don't you know I might shoot you and eat you!?" I mock-threatened it.
I pulled a good-sized piece of black plastic sheeting out of my make-shift travel pack and punched one of my crutch sticks through it, then held up the improvised flag above my head.
I also drew my 38 and took off the safety.
I began waving my black plastic flag above my head (making me look bigger still), while yelling at the top of my lungs, and shot a single round up into the air-- while mentally preparing myself to drop the flag and aim the pistol with both hands at the bear to shoot it if it charged.
If it came at me, I'd do my best to put my remaining four bullets right between its eyes. If that didn't stop it, I'd pull my hunting knife and try to cut its throat or stab it in the heart or an eye while it ravaged me.
Lucky for me though, I saw the bear act startled, turn, and run away.
And I breathed a huge sigh of relief!
As I said before, that happened early on. I likely wouldn't have fared as well later.
With what felt like was my last hurrah build-wise, I tried to make something like an old person's four-legged walker to use instead of the crutch. For my left arm pit and shoulder were killing me from its use. And I was getting oh-so-tired of reassembling it over and over again.
I wanted to make sure the walker would be stronger than the crutch, but inadvertently made the first version too heavy for practical use. I then made a lighter version, and that one set a record of not falling apart until almost time to stop for the night again! But it only did that well its first day. The next day saw it collapse even more often than the crutch ever had. Grrr!
A shortage of water would plague me the whole trip, as I didn't happen across any accessible streams or springs from which to drink along the way. I was badly limited by my injury in this regard.
I did do better during subsequent rainfalls however, at catching some precious h-two-oh. But no matter how I tried to prepare ahead of time, something always seemed to happen to limit what I caught, or how much I could store, and for how long.
The rain proved maddeningly elusive to collect. Especially on the move as I was. If I'd been staying in one spot I'm sure I could have bettered my score over time.
I was also hurt by the fact things seemed unusually dry during this period I was struggling to walk out of the woods. I mean, the rains didn't come as often as they typically did, and when they did show up, they were just momentary sprinkles which wouldn't collect anywhere in quantity, or else very brief rainfalls which would end almost before I could get suitable collection assemblies in place for them. Agh!
But thankfully I did get enough to live on. Barely!
As for food, I simply did without, for the most part. After the first four days my hunger pretty much disappeared for the remainder of the trip. I mean, I'd eat if and when I had something: but I no longer practically lusted after it like I did at first.
I also knew a person could go for weeks without eating. I'd even fasted a few days at a time before (in civilization), as an experiment. And I was sure I'd be able to find somebody before too much longer. So I wasn't that worried about food.
Plus, I did glean a tiny bit of food here and there. It was very little, to be sure. But I'd be remiss if I didn't mention it.
What food was it? Acorns. Not a lot of them: for the pickings seemed to be sparse for most of the trip. Maybe because I just couldn't see very well: or maybe because acorns are somewhat camouflaged on the forest floor, coloring-wise.
Acorns taste bad. At least raw. And most of the ones I found were small: with more packaging than meat to them. I also avoided eating any with visible worm signs on them.
I was afraid to eat too many acorns, due to fears they'd at least upset my stomach, if not worse. Plus, I hated not having much water to drink with them, either. But as it seemed the local animals had eaten most of them before I ever came through there, it turned out eating too much of them was one thing I needn't have worried about at all.
The chronic food shortage ended up weakening me quite a bit as the days wore on. And sometimes I'd get dizzy. The shortage of sleep and nagging pain didn't help either.
Finally, late afternoon of the seventh day, my walker broke or came apart on me, and I couldn't put it back together, or find the proper sticks to make a new one.
It was getting hard for me to think anymore. I felt ridiculously tired. Like the ultimate punch line to some joke regarding extreme exhaustion.
My hands and arms and back were also hurting a lot from using the walker. So I decided to dispense with it altogether, and just crawl the rest of the way.
Like I said, by this point I was no longer thinking very clearly.
I also abandoned my makeshift pack of goodies then. Justifying it to myself several different ways: I'm almost to the VW, so I can come back and get it later; I won't need it on the road; I still have my 38 and hunting knife on my belt; I'm almost out now (which was far from the truth).
But there was no good way to crawl with my busted ankle. With every move I made, I seemed to hurt it anew.
In fact, the farther I got, the more every move whatsoever seemed to hurt me. To drain me. Not just at my ankle, but all over. Even the ground itself seemed to be covered with sharp and hard objects, hidden beneath the leaves.
If I'd been thinking more clearly, I might have realized it was requiring more strength and energy for me to crawl along, than it would have to put together another replacement crutch, and continue to move out that way.
But I was too far gone. I eventually took to groaning aloud as I moved, and even going several feet at a time with my eyes completely shut.
I don't know how long it took for me to realize I was groaning aloud like that. Maybe minutes. Maybe hours.
Time became very distorted for me. Then everything got dark...
"You've got to keep going Jerry, or they won't be able to find you," the delightful and soothing feminine voice told me.
I then realized it was Bridget's voice. Bridget? Bridget!
I awoke with a start. It was cold. It appeared I'd covered myself in leaves the night before.
It seemed not long past dawn.
I'd been unconscious and dreaming I was still crawling towards my VW Beetle along the forest floor.
Then suddenly Bridget's disembodied voice had intruded upon my illusion, and woke me up.
I felt really groggy. Amazingly tired and weak. I definitely didn't feel like moving. But if I didn't make it out soon, I would die here. I was beginning to grasp the seriousness of my situation at last-- when it might be too late to do much of anything about it.
I realized I'd lost my pack. But it no longer mattered. I couldn't reverse course to retrieve it. I didn't have the reserves left for that.
I decided I had to keep moving. No matter how tired I was. Or rather some small part of me did (most of me was dead set against it). Bridget's voice in my dream was right. So I willed myself to keep on dragging my near useless body forward, a few inches at a time. Trying to remember to always set myself a visual target straight ahead by some good distance, to avoid getting too far off course.
My vision seemed to be getting worse. I was very bleary-eyed. And couldn't seem to clear the new blurriness away.
My VW bug couldn't be much farther! I silently pleaded with the universe. Utterly ignoring the fact that reaching my car would still leave me a long ways to go to get to civilization.
It felt like I'd been dragging myself through the woods now for months. I couldn't feel my finger tips any more. All I seemed capable of feeling was my painfully throbbing, useless boat anchor of an ankle. And my appalling full body weakness.
I could no longer remember when I'd last had water. Or the last time it'd rained. I silently cursed the mountains and the sky. They'd many times terrorized me with furious storms before. But now, when I was in dire need, they held back their liquid life. Left me to dry up and shrivel away.
I tried to dredge up every ounce of willpower I could to continue. To push on. To move forward just one more foot. Then another. And another...
I don't know how long I lasted in that mode. Probably not long at all. At some point I collapsed into unconsciousness again without even realizing it.
For even after that, in my mind I was still clawing my way forward, inch by agonizing inch...
My body-- and my mind-- were shutting down.
Again, I heard Bridget call to me. Urging me to wake up.
"Jerry, they're here! You've got to wake up and answer them! Jerry, they're here! Wake up!" Bridget kept telling me, in a very insistent manner.
I was dreaming I was back in Texas again. Back before Bridget's death. When everything was wonderful and happy and bright. And she was trying to shake me awake for something. Something important.
But I wanted to sleep. I was so very tired...
So of course Bridget suddenly screamed at me. Directly into my ear. My right ear. In so shrill a fashion that even today, decades later, my ear drum buzzes just thinking about it.
Bridget had never, ever screamed at me like that before.
I suddenly fretted that she was in danger! I had to wake up! NOW!
But I couldn't!
I actually couldn't wake up! I couldn't remember anything like this happening to me before!
Now my happy dream of Texas dissolved into something darker. Something awful. I felt like something was holding me down. Like I was buried alive or something.
I couldn't move!
And what was worse, I could no longer hear Bridget!
Bridget! I tried to yell. To get some indication she was alright.
But I got no response.
I had to break out! I had to get to Bridget! Something was wrong!
I heaved with all my might, thinking I was twisting and turning my body; for I seemed to be trapped in a coffin, or buried underground. I couldn't move my arms or legs at all.
Bridget! I'm coming Bridget! I tried to yell, but no sound came forth.
At some point I realized my present crisis was somehow a contest of willpower. Against who or what, I had no clue. I just knew I had to move! To summon up everything I could muster, to break free!
I finally jerked awake. To utter confusion. I had no idea where I was.
It was dark. But there was a bit of light. Artificial light! Not much of it, but a little. Shining through the trees.
But what was so special about it being artificial light? I wondered. Still just semi-conscious. My frantic effort to rescue Bridget now a rapidly fading memory.
Then I felt the pain of my ankle, and recalled where I was. In the woods. At night. Laying on the cold, cold ground.
I dimly remembered something about Bridget saying someone was here...
I thought I heard voices. Wow! I thought. I'm really addled! For it seemed the voices were shouting my name!
I knew that was just plain impossible!
But it was impossible for Bridget to have been speaking to me too, I realized. I wondered then if I was dreaming, still.
The voices continued their yelling. Punctuated on occasion by more muted discussions I couldn't make out.
I was so damn tired, it took considerable effort just to lay there as I was. Thinking. Contemplating the differences between dreaming and wakefulness.
I slowly came to the realization that I had to respond to the voices. Even if I was only dreaming them.
I began to shake off my lethargy. Began to faintly realize this might be my only chance at rescue.
I inhaled a great breath, rolled myself over onto my back, and let loose the greatest yell I could marshal.
But my voice wouldn't cooperate.
My throat was so parched I couldn't produce a normal yell. All I could do was make a loud croaking noise, hoping it would sound human to anyone who heard it.
It seemed like I'd gone for so long without talking, that my throat had forgotten how (but it was actually dehydration).
Man, was I ever disappointed with my first call for help! After all this, my last chance of rescue might be defeated by a clueless, bone dry throat!
Somehow I mustered a bit more strength and tried again. And again. And again.
It seemed like I had to tear out those loud croaks a million times-- until finally my tortured throat wouldn't allow even that. I quickly hoarsened to become almost totally mute. And my pleas for deliverance became reduced to agonized little coughs and gasps. Likely inaudible among the trees farther than 20 feet away.
If I'd had the water in me to do it, I'd probably have cried in exhaustion and frustration in that moment. To be so close to rescue, and yet be unable to go the final few yards-- and even make the necessary sounds!-- to reach salvation.
I could remember when I'd been able to make a racket much more easily...
After losing my voice, I struggled to roll back over onto my stomach again, then crawled forward maybe another foot or two, with everything I had left-- before apparently passing out again.
"Mr. Staute? Is that you?" I heard someone's voice ask. As I choked and gagged on a cool liquid being poured down my throat.
I seemed to be hallucinating again. But it wasn't Bridget's voice. So why answer at all?
It seemed like I felt somebody trying to lift me up. It sure didn't feel like a hallucination! I opened my eyes to see several teenage boys man-handling me. One or more of them had a flashlight. The beam (or was it two?) was dancing madly over the whole scene for some reason.
"Ow! My leg! Be careful with my left leg!" I told them. In an incredibly hoarse whisper. Almost illegibly. The liquid seemed like it was being absorbed by my vocal chords like a sponge, though.
"Mr. Staute? Are you Mr. Staute?" someone asked.
I turned my head towards the speaking teenager nearest my right shoulder.
"Who wants to know?" I croaked out suspiciously, out of pure instinct. Then coughed a bit more.
"Charley. Charley Sowders," the boy told me.
Charley Sowders. The name seemed to ring a bell. And the boy's face looked familiar. But not right, somehow. I got a decent look at him, as a flashlight spot conveniently stopped for a moment on Charley's face, before resuming its mad wavering again.
"You remember me, don't you Mr. Staute?" The boy said, smiling, but with a look of concern, as he and his friends now carried me to their car over the uneven terrain.
"You remember helping me get my family out of Kutton?" The now invisible again boy continued.
A light beam flashed across some distant tree limbs above me.
Kutton. Kutton Kentucky. I'd been there once, years ago. Helped a ten year old boy save his family from a murderous feud...
"You're Charley? Little Charley?" I asked incredulously. The words garbled by my injured throat. But somehow Charley understood me.
"Yep!" Charley beamed at me. "Well, not little Charley. I'm sixteen now."
"Charley! I can't believe it's you!" I choked out the words. If my eyes hadn't been as dry as sandpaper, I'm sure they would have welled up at the recognition.
Charley had been a remarkably brave ten year old I'd found on the side of the road while looking for directions. He'd gone on to practically single-handedly save his whole family from some murderous enemies, while I offered the killers a distraction.
If Charley checked my hip holster now, he'd find there the same 38 snub nose pistol I'd loaned him for his rescue back then.
"I can't believe it's you either, Mr. Staute!" Charley exclaimed.
Oh no. I realized I had to be hallucinating again. Charley lived in Kentucky. Nowhere near here. I couldn't possibly have dragged myself hundreds of miles into Kentucky. Could I? My dazed mind momentarily wavered in its logic. No! I couldn't have! Part of me insisted. And no way Charley could have just happened to find me here-- in Tennessee.
I was dreaming. Unconscious. Had to be. My wild hopes of rescue sank like a stone.
"I'm dreaming you, aren't I Charley?" I asked him, my throat beginning to complain mightily about so many words produced on so little moisture.
"Dreaming, Mr. Staute?"
"You can't really be here. I'm in the middle of nowhere. You can't be here."
The boys carefully maneuvered me into the back seat of their car. My injured ankle sure did hurt a lot for all this to be a delusion. The pain spiked tremendously when it got bumped or turned. I yelped involuntarily.
"Oh! Sorry!" someone said. Then Charley responded.
"Yeah Mr. Staute, it is weird that I'm here. But somebody told me you needed help, so I came. And you're really here!"
"Somebody told you?" I asked.
"But nobody knew I was here. So you can't be real."
"A waitress told me."
"A waitress at Donna's Diner. In Corbett." Then Charley added as an afterthought, "Kentucky."
Charley then related how a pretty waitress in a stained uniform from the small restaurant Charley and his friends had been talking in front of walked up to them and asked for him by name.
"I told her I was Charley Sowders, and she said someone had called the diner saying they had a message for me, and it was a matter of life and death.
"When she said your name, I didn't remember you at first. Then she said the caller told her to tell me it was the guy with the black car from when I was ten years old, and just seen my two uncles killed. I knew right then she was talking about you.
"She said the caller told her I was the only one who could save you, and I'd have to leave right then to do it.
"She wrote down directions on a couple pages from her order pad, and gave them to me while we were talking. She even went over them with me in case I had trouble reading her writing.
"You sure were lucky there, Mr. Staute! Lucky that my friends and I were looking for something interesting to do right then. Because otherwise I don't know if I could have gotten a ride here in time."
"He's got that right, partner!" Eb threw in from the front seat. I knew his name from the ongoing back and forth among all the boys up to now. "We were raring to go when Charley got the word. A real-life rescue mission! Ha, ha. And even if you hadn't been here, it'd still have been an interesting trip. Since we've never been to these parts before."
"I sure appreciate you coming, Eb! You and Charley and Herb!" I did my best to remember all the names I'd heard them using since they'd arrived-- and hoped I got them right.
Charley and his teenage friends reminded me of me and mine, from years back.
After a few minutes I realized I wanted to see the waitress' scribbled directions for some reason. But Charley couldn't find them, and decided he must have lost them when he and his friends had been outside the car, looking for me and then carrying me out of the woods.
I was mystified as to who could have given such pin point directions over the phone to a waitress in Kentucky about my still unfolding plight in Tennessee hundreds of miles away. And how they knew about Charley and where to reach him during that time frame.
It made no sense at all to me.
After a while I began believing that what I was experiencing was real after all. Somehow. That Charley truly was here; and I really was being taken to a hospital.
But the waitress who knew impossible things still stuck out like a sore thumb.
Then I realized something.
A woman...who knew the impossible.
"Charley!" I exclaimed.
"The waitress you saw-- did you recognize her? Know her?"
"But you've seen her before?"
"No. I don't think so. She was pretty, so I think I'd remember."
"Did she tell you her name?"
"Um-- I don't think so."
"What about her dress? Did she have a name tag on it?"
"Um. Maybe. But I can't remember seeing any name. Sorry!"
"Charley-- what did she look like?" Surely the description wouldn't be anything like I hoped.
"Pretty. Older than me. But still kind of young I think. Nice figure. Blonde hair. Not long, though. She was about my height."
So far the description was eerily close to twilight zone territory.
"What color were her eyes?"
"Um. Blue, I think."
"Blue eyes? You're sure?"
"Yes, I think so. They kind of stood out, so I really noticed them."
"Stood out? How did they stand out?"
"It's hard to say. It was like they shined-- or were lighter than most blue eyes, I guess."
"You mean she had pale blue eyes? Unusually pale blue, I mean?"
Charley thought about it for a moment.
"Now that you mention it, I think that's what they were. Pale blue. And big. Big, pale blue eyes."
I doggedly pursued the topic for more description details from Charley for another couple minutes. And finally lost all doubts as to the identity of the mystery woman.
"Bridget!" I wailed, bursting into tears at the realization. Apparently the plentiful liquids Charley and friends had been plying me with for a while now had reached my eyes.
"So you know her?" Charley asked.
"Yes! I know her. Or I did..." I choked out.
"Charley, did she touch you? Or you touch her?" I asked, gasping out the words.
"Did anyone touch her?" I asked again.
"No. I don't think so."
"Did she touch any of you? Put her hand on your shoulder, or touch your hand? Anything like that?"
"No." Charley's friends also seemed to agree none of them had touched or been touched by her.
"Why, Mr. Staute? You don't think we'd be getting fresh with her, do you?" Charley smiled. I could see fairly well inside their car, though all the flash lights had been extinguished. Just the glow of their dash lights seemed to illuminate everything in a remarkable fashion. In retrospect, this perception may have been related to me having spent so many nights in pitch black darkness before this.
"No. I wasn't thinking that," I replied.
"Then how come you're so interested in knowing if we touched her?" Charley queried.
"I-- you wouldn't believe me if I told you, Charley," I said in despair.
"Well...remember that I warned you!"
I took a second or two to better compose myself, before continuing.
"I almost married a girl in Texas once. But lost my chance. Outside of my dreams, I've only seen her one time since then."
"You talking about the waitress?" Charley prompted me.
"Yes. I think that was her," I said-- and my words led to me sobbing openly. I didn't care that the boys saw me this way. I was past caring about stuff like that.
Charley mistook that as a sign of physical pain, and reassured me.
"Don't worry, Mr. Staute. We'll have you in front of a doctor real soon, and you'll feel better."
"I'm sorry Charley. It's not my leg. It's the girl," I corrected him.
"The waitress? She's what's making you cry?"
"Why? Because she wouldn't marry you?"
"No. I never got to ask her."
"You mean she dumped you?" Charley asked in a somewhat quieter tone.
"No. She died in an accident on the job. She worked construction."
"Wait a minute, Mr. Staute. I'm mixed up. I thought you said the waitress was her."
"I believe she is."
"But-- you just said she died."
"Yes. Five years ago. In Texas."
Charley looked worried for my sanity then.
"Mr. Staute, I think you better stop talking and rest now, OK?"
"I know it sounds crazy, Charley. But her ghost saved me once before--"
"Mr. Staute, don't even worry about it. Everything's going to be just fine."
After that, Charley and his friends thought I'd gone delirious. And steadfastly refused to take me home with them to Kentucky, in search of that waitress. For I no longer cared about seeing a doctor then: I wanted to see Bridget!
I'm not sure if I ever did get Charley to believe in a ghostly Bridget. But after this, I sure as hell did. I mean, up to that point you could almost explain away everything weird about Bridget's life, and what I'd experienced after her death. But not this. Not this!
There was no way a random waitress in Kentucky could have known my predicament hundreds of miles away in the wilderness. Even my own closest family and friends hadn't known I was there!
About a week and a half later I talked my cousin Ethan into driving me (leg cast, factory-built wooden crutch, and all) up to Kentucky where Charley had seen Bridget. I managed to round up Charley himself too while we were there, and relocate the eatery where he'd been alerted to my plight.
Although we couldn't find any hint of Bridget there, at least I got the satisfaction of Charley being confounded by the denials of everyone in the place regarding ever seeing or knowing any waitress like he described. We also made the rounds of the entire vicinity for maybe two city blocks in diameter, asking various working folks about her, before we gave up.
I finally felt I now had solid proof Bridget's ghost was more than just a figment of my own imagination. There was just no other explanation for events. At least not in the wildest stretches of my own imagination, or that of Charley or Ethan.
But that was a scary thought in itself. In the weeks following I felt in some indefinable way different from before. It was a bit like a shallow daze, or disconnection from reality. And it wasn't from any pain killing drugs given me by the doctor. No, they didn't give me anything-- and they really should have. For at night my ankle hurt like hell. Much as it had in the woods. Enough to bring tears to my eyes.
Sometimes the odd unconnected feeling-- plus the intense pain-- made me wonder if I was still trapped on the mountain, but in a coma, and just dreaming I'd been rescued. I half-expected a final curtain of darkness to descend upon me at some point there. But it never did.
On the other hand, I couldn't accept some sort of fairy tale explanation for Bridget's after-death existence. And she'd told me when alive she didn't believe in God, but in love.
What was her true status? Her state of being? She sure was kind enough to be an angel. But she'd never given me any direct impression that's what she was now.
She'd indicated in my first vision of her after her death that she wasn't supposed to let me see her. But apparently-- based on the events just past-- others could. And they could perceive her as a solid, living person, rather than the semi-transparent wraith I'd witnessed in my car.
This made the second time she'd interceded on my behalf.
Did this mean I might get fresh news of her any time I was near death? I wondered.
Whoa! I had to stop thinking stuff like that! For that way led to madness. To purposely seeking out doom, in the hope I might be rewarded with a glimpse of Bridget as a result. That made no sense at all, and I was certain Bridget would not approve. And so wouldn't show up if I did purposely do such a thing.
Maybe I'd get to see her again after I died myself, I thought. In whatever strange place she now inhabited.
But with my luck, I figured my own death was probably a long, long ways off.
I was sure God wasn't done having fun with me yet.
It turned out I hadn't broken my leg after all. I'd broken ligaments in my ankle. Broken them loose on both sides of my ankle, from the bottom of my foot, as indicated by bad looking bruises on my sole in the aftermath.
Apparently breaking ligaments is near as bad as breaking bone-- since you have to wear a cast for the same length of time. And it hurts like bloody hell for weeks!
The doctor said I shouldn't have been on my feet at all after the injury: that doing so had likely worsened the severity of the damage.
I just told him I couldn't help it. I'd been alone hiking, with no one knowing my whereabouts, and no way to radio for help.
My doctor also talked like I might need an operation to replace my ligaments. To cut ligaments I "didn't need" from elsewhere in my body, to put them in my ankle. YIKES!
I couldn't imagine that I had ligaments anywhere that I didn't need! So it was a big relief to me when such an operation turned out not to happen after all.
Six weeks and three days after my rescue I returned to my remote camp. My cast had been removed, but I was now wearing an ankle brace for a while. The brace allowed me to wear my normal clothes and footwear for the most part.
I did my damnedest to take every precaution I could against new injury in the fresh jaunt. Plus make some better arrangements for adverse contingencies than I'd possessed before.
But still I had to venture in alone, or risk all sorts of bad consequences.
I dreaded what I'd find. I figured my VW bug would be gone. Plus Moonshadow either be completely vanished, or ripped to shreds by storms in my absence.
Wonder of wonders, though! My Beetle and camp-- and most importantly my airship-- were all much as I had left them so long before!
There was no indication of anything disturbing them in my absence, but for normal natural processes.
Moonshadow had slipped down some from his nesting moorings at one end, probably due to gusting winds and the weight of collected rainwater on the deflated envelope. But remedying that would be loads easier than the normal launching and take-down operations necessary at the beginning and end of the season, respectively (or in emergencies regarding the law or imminent major storms).
My accident did, however, cost me a good chunk of the growing season. Leaving me to make considerably less money than I'd planned to that year. So I'd be forced to skip the next three quarters of college I'd had planned.
But it was worth it. Worth it all. Because it'd led to me learning Bridget was somehow still around. And still cared for me. Even if she couldn't show herself to me directly for some reason.
And I figured that maybe-- just maybe-- it really had been Bridget speaking to me in that wilderness. Not a dream, but Bridget herself. Urging me on. Alerting me to Charley's presence. Saving my life! From both ends! Charley's and mine!
I hoped this meant I'd get to somehow see or hear from her again sometime.
After that I began sometimes talking to Bridget in my head-- just in case she might be able to hear me. When nobody was around, I'd do it out loud. In case she couldn't hear me thought-wise.
Yes, I know it sounds foolish. And she probably never did hear me. But if nothing else, it sometimes made me feel better to think that she could.
Besides-- I now knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that a ghost of a chance wasn't the same as zero!
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