by Damon Nomad
Rated: 18+ · Short Story · Inspirational · #2282727
A short story about a struggle for emotional well-being.
| Journey Beyond the Abyss|
By Damon Nomad
About forty years ago in mid-autumn, Randy faced an existential crisis, a moment in his life when everything seemed to be spiraling into an abyss of despair. This is my account of the tale as I heard it from him about ten years ago.
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Randy's crisis was during his third year of graduate school on the way to a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. He was in one of the top engineering universities, a large public university in the Midwest. He had grown up in a small town, the first to attend college from either his mother's or father's side of the family. His parents had grown up in a tiny farming village, in devout religious families who took the Bible sincerely to heart. His two grandfathers had died when he was younger, his two grandmothers were proud of Randy, the first in the family to attend university, a model for his younger cousins.
Life took a turn for the worse after he got his undergraduate degree, his parents were split about his decision to go to graduate school. He had gotten some sizable grants and a small stipend for teaching, that would allow him to just be able to survive. He had already started on graduate credits and could finish his master's degree in a year and would go straight on to a doctorate. His younger brother had taken sick the previous summer and was diagnosed with cancer, he died just a few weeks before Randy left to start graduate school. The week before he left for school, his parents told him they were getting divorced. Randy thought he had caused the rift, a disagreement about his decision to continue his education. He tried to accept his mother's explanation; it had nothing to do with him. She said the stress and pain of his brother's sickness and death had driven them apart, the death of a child pushes some couples closer together and it drives a wedge between others.
After the divorce the large extended family gatherings of cousins, aunts, uncles, and his grandmothers stopped, it had been a tradition ever since he could remember. Thanksgiving and Christmas together and usually a large gathering around the fourth of July every year at one of the homes, it was like he no longer had any family. His mother's mother died the next year, and this past August his father's mother passed away. The funerals were miserable affairs, and the dark shadow of his parent's divorce had hit the extended family hard. That summer Randy had not even gone back to his childhood home, he stayed at school working on his research.
Randy parked on the street outside the old run-down house he lived in near campus, a long six-hour drive after leaving the funeral that Sunday in late August. He got a box from the rear of the old beat-up SUV, some things his grandmother had set aside for him. He took the box inside and found some pictures, some old Christmas cards he had made for her as a child, and a small soft leather-bound Bible, that had a short inscription his grandmother had put in there not long before she passed away. A message about the importance of faith and prayer, to weather the storms and difficulties of life. Randy knew she was sincere, the pages of the Bible were worn from years of use, it would break her heart to know that he had not been to church since his parent's divorce and that long since he had picked up a Bible. It had been her Bible for decades, he had seen her reading it when he was a child, he put it up on the shelf, but he could not bring himself to read it.
A month later, things continued to go wrong in Randy's life, his supervising professor died of a heart attack unexpectedly. The man was a world-renowned expert and had been a mentor since Randy took the professor's courses as an undergraduate. The head of the school explained to Randy the next week that his largest grant would be canceled at the end of the semester, it was contingent on the leadership of his professor supervising the research. The man was blunt, the competition for funds was great, and it might be difficult to find the money for him for another year, even at this top-ranked school. Without the money, Randy was not sure what he would do, he had lost touch with his father and his mother was struggling to make ends meet.
By mid-October Randy was beginning to feel signs of depression, difficulty concentrating, difficulty falling asleep at night but lethargic in the morning, it was difficult to get out of bed. He wanted to get away, to try and clear his mind. He had no ideas, but remembered the guy upstairs was a backpacker and hiker, and he went to him for some suggestions. The guy was from Colorado and he recommended Rocky Mountain National Park, he even had gear he would let Randy borrow as well as maps and trail books. Randy hit the road in the old SUV, with the borrowed gear and some routes suggested by his upstairs neighbor. He left on a Tuesday with a plan to return late the next Sunday with a new lease on life, he would drive non-stop in both directions, about half a full day each way. For reasons he did not understand, the last thing he packed in the small day backpack before he left was the leather-bound Bible from his grandmother.
Randy was not an experienced hiker or backpacker, but he had been a cross-country runner in high school and still ran several days a week. He was in good physical condition, his upstairs neighbor had given him two recommendations, one was a campground in the park near some challenging day hikes he suggested that was the best option for someone with little experience. The second option was a back-country wilderness camping area in the southeast part of the park in an area known as Wild Basin. There were two things he cautioned Randy strongly about one was the weather, which could get dangerously cold and the other was the altitude difference.
Randy decided on the wilderness campsite, not far from Thunder Lake starting from a trailhead at Wild Basin ranger station. He started on the trail on a cold morning, surprised by the heavy weight of the backpack and thin mountain air, the trailhead was around eight thousand five hundred feet above sea level. The weather was overcast that day, but not raining, there was no one else on the trail, and the forecast was for cold rain off and on the next few days. Randy made it to the campsite at over ten thousand feet, about six miles from the trailhead he was shocked at how slow he had been moving on the trail. He found the spot, not far from Thunder Lake, he got his tent set up and after eating some soup, quickly collapsed in his sleeping bag and fell fast asleep.
The next morning, the weather looked about the same, still cold and gray he decided to stick with his plan to try and climb a nearby mountain. Tanima Peak was just over twelve thousand feet and was more than a hike but not rock climbing. The depression was not getting better, the initial excitement of the trip had worn off and he struggled to climb out of the sleeping bag. He hoped the climb would help snap him out of it. The route required rock scrambling up talus slopes to a rocky ridge, but no technical climbing. The trail book had a picture of the mountain and two routes up some avalanche gullies to the main ridgeline he could follow to the summit. He just had to move slowly and cautiously it was not too difficult for someone in good shape like Randy. Randy headed along the trail that led to a small clearing near the mountain, it was a beautiful spot with panoramic views just above the tree line.
He knew he was in the right place when he got to the clearing, there was an old one-story log cabin maintained as a park ranger patrol post. It had been built in the 1930s but was well maintained, he saw it was all locked up no one was there. He sat on the small covered porch studying the route he could take up to the summit, the wind was picking up, clouds were moving in and the temperature was dropping. The bad weather darkened his mood as he stared at the peak, he knew that he should turn back this was the kind of weather that could lead to hypothermia, especially if a cold rain started. He continued to stare at the summit, what would it be like just to get up there and lie down? Let hypothermia take the pain of life away. It had not been his plan when he came here, but it would be a way out of all of this and an end to the deep dark hole he woke up to every morning.
Randy scampered up through the difficult footing of the talus slope and made it to the ridgeline, there was no trail but the occasional pile of stones, cairns marking a route along the rocky ridge towards the summit. He felt a small rush of energy as he came up a steep section, surprised at how quickly he had reached the top, only to realize it was another false summit. He still had another twenty minutes of steady climbing to the top, he felt the energy rush out of his body as he sat down on a boulder nearby. He got out his water jug and a bag of classic trail mix, peanuts, and raisins aka GORP. Good ole raisins and peanut is what he had read the name meant in the trail book. He decided he wasn't hungry and didn't want the water. He saw the Bible at the bottom of the day pack, he had forgotten he had put it there.
A gentle cold rain started to fall as a misty cloud shrouded the top of the mountain. He knew the safe thing was to head down, he stood up and left his day pack laying on top of the boulder and slowly moved up the ridge toward the summit. He was starting to shiver as he got to the top in the thick gray mist of the clouds. He lay down resigned that this would be his fate. After some time had passed, he felt a warmness and a sensation that he was floating away bathed in soft light. He had read similar descriptions from people with near-death experiences, caused by a cocktail of chemicals flooding the brain. A form of self-defense taking away the terror of impending death.
Randy woke up, groggy he was not sure where he was, he was warm lying on a small bed under a few blankets, he realized it must be the patrol cabin. There was an electric space heater at the foot of the bed bathing him in warmth. He heard the sound of an electric kettle boiling water in the corner with a park ranger next to it. He saw the ranger pour water from the kettle and he came over to the bed with a cup, "Let's get a cup of hot tea into you."
The ranger explained that he had seen the backpack up on the boulder near the summit just as he arrived to do a supply check of the cabin, "You must have gotten disoriented in the mist and laid down, you were unconscious when I found you. Didn't take long for me to get you back here. You have been out for a little while, but your color is good now and your body temperature is normal."
Randy was confused, afraid to tell the ranger about what had really happened on the summit. The ranger smiled with a wave as he put away the space heater and kettle, "If you are good, I need to get back on patrol." The ranger moved to the door, "Just close the door when you are ready to leave, it will lock."
Randy sat up, "Thank you so much. What's your name?"
The ranger smiled, "Gabe, your backpack is on the desk." He gestured to a small desk in the corner. "May your journey be peaceful and serene."
Randy turned and saw the pack on the desk, he turned back toward the door, but Gabe was gone. He stood up, pondering the curious phrase Gabe used about his hike back to camp, it seemed familiar.
Randy walked over to the desk, he saw the Bible laying next to the backpack, it was open to Second Corinthians Chapter 4, and the silk permanent page marker was laying across the start of the sentence for verse 8. Randy read verses eight and nine to himself.
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.
Randy stared at the Bible, Gabe must have flipped through it waiting for him to wake up, a bit curious. Randy shook the fog from his head, put the Bible back in his backpack, and closed the door behind him as the ranger had asked, he looked up at the mountain. How had Gabe gotten him down by himself, that was quite a feat.
Days later Randy packed up his camp and headed back down the trail, and went to the Ranger station at the trailhead looking to find Gabe to thank him again. The ranger in the station told him that there were no rangers on staff named Gabe or Gabriel and was puzzled by the rescue story. There had been no ranger sent to the patrol cabin all week, and the cabin had no electricity for a space heater or water kettle to make tea. From the Ranger's expression, Randy figured the guy was going to have him searched for drugs if he kept pushing the crazy story. Randy headed back to the SUV and sat quietly for several minutes, he could picture Gabe's face as clear as day. He reached into the back seat and got the Bible out of his day pack, he looked at the inside cover again, at the closing sentences from his grandmother's inscription.
May God send his angel Gabriel to watch over you after I am gone from this earth. May God's strength lead you on a peaceful and serene journey through life.
Randy felt a chill run down his spine and then a feeling of warmth, he remembered what his grandmother had told him about God's messenger the angel Gabriel. The name Gabriel meant God is My Strength. Randy was sure that the angel Gabriel had come to him on the mountain when he was near death and in the depth of despair. Brought him to physical safety in the cabin and left him with a Bible verse to help him heal his soul. Randy said he felt as if a heavy weight came off of his shoulders, a sense of peace he had never felt in his life and was resolved that he would make the most of every moment and would avoid the slippery path of despair that had pushed him towards a dark abyss.
That is the story pretty much as Randy told it to me about ten years ago at a campsite in Yellowstone national park on a warm summer evening. I was there camping alone, dealing with some of my own demons at the time. Randy came up to the picnic table I was sitting at and asked if he might borrow some instant coffee. For some reason, out of character for me, I invited him to sit down. I made some coffee and we talked about hiking for a while, he said he sensed I was facing difficult times and asked if he could share a story with me about his own struggles. I listened to the story, not quite sure what to say when he finished, I had not been to church for many years and was not a believer in supernatural tales about angels. But he seemed quite sound of mind and sincere. When he got up to leave, I asked him if life had been difficult in the decades since that summer.
He nodded his head slowly his face filled with joy, "My journey since that time has been full of wonderous miracles." He smiled and wished me peace and serenity on my journey.
A few days later I was in a hotel room for one night, ready to fly home the next day. I noticed the hotel Bible was open on the side table and I glanced down it was open to Second Corinthians Chapter 4 Verse 8. I had not put the book there and the coincidence startled me, I sat down and started reading the Bible for the first time in many years. I went to Psalms and read until I was tired and went to sleep that evening, with a sense of peace I had not felt in a long time.
When I got back home, I kept thinking of Randy and started to search for him on the internet, I did not know his last name. I knew where he said he had gone to college and figured he might have gotten that Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. It was late on a Friday evening when I found an old newspaper story about a graduate engineering student who had been killed in a car crash, returning from a camping trip in Rocky Mountain National Park about forty years ago, a young man named Randy. My heart raced as I searched to find a picture of him. I sat stunned staring at the computer, it was the face of the old man I had met in Yellowstone, but decades younger.
I turned off the computer and stared out the window, unwilling to accept what this meant. Then I felt sad, the young man had died just as he was overcoming his depression. I thought about the last thing he had said, that his journey had been filled with wonderous miracles since that time. The joyfulness in his face was, well it is hard to describe, it wasn't an earthly pleasureful look. The look of deep peace and serenity, unburdened by fear or loneliness, a look that comes from a divine existence bringing the gift of faith and peace to other souls. I turned off the lights and stared out the window as I gazed at the night sky. I felt a heavy weight come off of my shoulders, and a deep sense of peace settled in my soul. I would make every effort to avoid the slippery path of despair that could push me toward a dark abyss.