“Everything you can imagine is real.” ~ Pablo Picasso
I expect this is how I will die. I think this as I drive through the canyon where I live, a canyon deeply incised by the Cache la Poudre River, creating narrow chasms and gorges cut into Precambrian granite and gneiss forming a stunning variety of rock formations, some towering straight up from the water’s edge for hundreds of feet.
The lower section of the canyon is un-glaciated and therefore has a characteristic V-shape through The Narrows where Gothic spires, turrets of ancient castles, and broad-chested exposures of stone loom large. It is surreal terrain. I expect to see Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli chasing Orcs, or Native American Indians on horseback working their way through the landscape. I also expect to see rocks loosening, threatening my passage. This is how I will die. Crushed by a rock slide.
I hunch forward as I drive, craning my neck, eyes skyward towards the top of the cliffs, the steering wheel’s life expectancy rapidly decreasing given my stranglehold. Every drive through the canyon offers evidence of the inevitable – rocks of all sizes litter the road’s shoulder. The fallen rocks haunt me. The mountains are forever crumbling, and I travel through this granite gauntlet. With enough momentum even a softball-sized projectile hurtling from above could easily smash through the windshield, and if not a direct hit causing instantaneous death by decapitation could just as easily send me careening head-on into the canyon wall, crumpling the car like an accordion.
Or it will be a massive rock slide that pushes me over the edge of the canyon road into the frigid, turbulent waters of the river sixty feet below. So if not initially crushed by rocks, they will still be the root cause of my death by drowning, trapped upside down in the car, fumbling to unbuckle the seat belt as the water quickly fills the space, robbing me of air, filling my lungs.
There are times I jerk awake when sleeping, startled by a vague dream about falling into a rocky abyss. Other times I’m the hero, pushing someone else out of harm’s way only to become entangled myself, maimed under the brunt of a slide. In those dreams I hear music, a sound made by the rocks clattering and clanging together. The smaller stones are the strings. Larger rocks the horns. Boulders are the deep winds and percussion. A symphony uniquely its own.
And once in the canyon again, my dreams morph into an inexorable certainty. I will be hit. It’s simply a matter of where and when.
One morning driving up canyon just below The Narrows as the road begins to slither into a serpentine route, I butted up against a lumbering bulldozer, yellow caution lights flashing, gripping the shoulder as far to the right of the lane as it possibly could. I slowed at first until the road straightened enough for me to pass. You don’t see a dozer cruising the road very often. Like never. Where was it headed? Probably on its way to or from a construction site somewhere hidden in the hills. Another mile ahead, rounding a blind curve, I found my answer.
Holy shit!, I thought. There was a Stonehenge-sized slab of granite that had fractured from the mother rock to dead-fall across a lane and a half of the canyon road. On the other side a car had stopped, it’s driver out waving his arms as a signal to stop. I stopped. Not that there was much of a choice.
It must have just happened, otherwise there would have been more cars backed up. And timing is a funny thing. A few minutes here or there and that dream of mine would have become the ultimate nightmare, a car flattened, squashed like a stepped-on bug, with me inside. A moment later the bulldozer arrived and the other driver and I watched as the operator maneuvered his equipment to muscle the slab over the edge of the road and it slid heavily to the edge of the river.
The bulldozer operator didn’t say anything, just nodded and turned around to head back to wherever it was when CDOT first received the call that a rock was on the road. Its reasonable to assume that whomever called it in must have said “huge rock” or “gigantic rock fall”, otherwise the emergency responder would have arrived in a pickup truck with a flat head shovel. This was a monster. How many eons did nature’s forces, freezing and thawing, wind and water, work their way into the first small crack? How long had the fingers of that slab begun to grow tired of their tenuous hold on the mountain, losing its grip mere seconds before I arrived. The dreams are omens. I will be crushed. Just not this time, if only by divine intervention.
It didn’t used to be like this. I had no fear of falling rocks, only fascination about the secrets hills held. Nearly every summer as a child I traveled with the family across the country from Colorado to North Carolina in the way back of a Chevy Caprice station wagon, hypnotized by the changing topography, my imagination creating stories woven from the patterns of the world flying by the windows at sixty miles an hour. I was especially enamored with the repeating dip and rise of power lines mile after mile.
As we traveled through the Smoky Mountains I saw a sign that read “Watch For Falling Rock”.
“Dad” I asked, “what does that mean? Watch for falling rock?”
“Where did you see that?”
“The sign on the road said watch for falling rock – what does that mean?”
“Well…” he paused. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that this moment was the first of many where Dad demonstrated a certain genius. It took us three and a half days to get from Denver to Red Springs. One thousand, six hundred and eighty-three miles at sixty miles an hour. With four boys. There’s only so many coloring books, Hardy Boys novels, requests for mom to pour another cup of water from the cooler jug at her feet in the front passenger seat.
“There’s an Indian who lives in these parts,” he continued, “his name is Chief Falling Rock and he’s been known to be spotted up on the hillsides and cliffs. If you keep watch – very closely – you might see him yourself so pay close attention.”
My jaw gaped. That’s all I needed to hear. Pay close attention? Did I ever! I looked for tell-tale signs of the Chief. Would he be on horseback? Maybe I would spot the feathers of his magnificent headdress behind some branches before he came into full view. I wondered if he would be menacing looking. I imagined not, rather that he’d be kind-looking but stoic at the same time. I watched for hours. The Smoky Mountains morphed into smoky foothills as we worked our way into central North Carolina, the hills into flat-lands as we traveled further east. And soon my thoughts turned to the beaches of the Outer Banks and the new adventures that awaited after visiting grandma in Dad’s hometown. I didn’t see Chief Falling Rock but thanks to my dad I knew he was there. I just knew it! But I also knew the chances at spotting him were not very good. That’s a lot of territory he has to cover, after all.
When the transition happened, I can’t recall. I grew up. I became wise to Dad’s tricks, genius as they were. As my body changed from boy to teen to young man my mind also evolved to a place of caution rather than wonder. I got married, had kids of my own with whom I could employ bits and pieces of little white lies into my stories to stretch their own fantasies of the world. Exactly when my caution then turned to a visceral fear I do not know. Here I am now, a child’s imagination muted by age and cynicism, convinced my mortality is inextricably linked to the earth’s slow, perpetual crumbling, dying to the sarsen sounds of an orchestral clamor.
The engine of the bulldozer faded down the canyon, leaving only the white noise of the river. The other driver and I, pointed in different directions, shared a look of relief and disbelief. I wondered if his sphincter was tingling like mine was. Was his adrenaline pulsing through his veins, did he momentarily reflect on mortality or providence? With a shrug and a wave, he resumed his journey, albeit likely while peering warily up the sides of the canyon walls believing the forces of nature act in unison, that the conditions loosening one slab are the conditions that loosen all. The world will, over time, completely disintegrate itself into a pile of sand. My fear is palpable. There is no escape.