Plastic Reality

I got a message last night. “I guess you heard about Jamil. I can’t believe it.”

Until that moment, I hadn’t even known that the guy who died was Jamil Khan. I d seen a story on the news about a kid from New York, who died in an avalanche, but they hadn’t said his name because they hadn’t found his parents yet. For some reason I put it together right when I heard the message on my answering machine. “I guess your heard about Jamil.” That’s all it took.

A few days after Jamil died, rescuers found a 14-year-old snowboarder by himself, sitting on the bank of a stream. He had been out in sub-zero temperatures for five days, with no shelter, or food. Interviewed on TV, one rescuer said, “I found some footprints and I followed them. They took me over this ridge and I looked down and saw this kid just sitting, staring at the water. I was about to call out to him when he turned his head and looked at me.” As he spoke, it seemed like a chill passed through his body. It made me shudder. Something was so visceral and scary about the rescuer’s story. To think about living through all those days with no one to check yourself against. And then the way he described the kid; the image of him was so intense. To me, it sounds like a supernatural short story, totally unreal.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Survival under those conditions seems impossible to me. How did he stay awake? If he slept, how did his body stay functioning? They said on the news that he was very tired and hungry. They said that he thought it was Tuesday when it was Friday. They said that his clothing was appropriate for the weather and that is what saved him. But that’s all they said before going back to their Monica Lewinsky drivel.

If it were me, I’ll tell you right now, I’d be dead. I would use up all my energy panicking. The moment of panic is different for everyone. For me, it happens fast. Especially if I’m alone. I can think of times on the mountain riding through steep, empty trees, realizing there’s no one around. My breath gets increasingly labored, I start to wonder, “Am I being a wimp right now, or is it right that I’m worried?” Then there’s a split second where I go from happily snowboarding to panic: “Did I turn out of bounds somewhere?” The strange relativity of time and space start to bear down on me, winding me up: How long have I been alone? This snow is too deep to hike in. How many miles must I be from the lodge? Is it too steep to take off my board? To ride? I start to seize up, sketching out on turns that just minutes before I was confidently burning through the powder.

I realize how relative the concept of distance is when you’re riding on a snowboard. If, like me, you are not a mountaineer, you don’t have a realistic concept of distance. With lifts it takes five minutes to get down a mountain and five minutes to get up. We don’t really think about how far we travel on snowboards. I get little tastes of real space when heavy deep snow catches me on a flat. Two hundred feet can take 20 minutes to cover if I have to unstrap. It’s like when driving in the desert: you pull over to pee and realize that the bush that seemed right off the road is actually 800 yards away. Then you realize that those mountains that are “right there” are actually 20 miles away.

Is this the sort of stuff that was going through that kid’s head while he sat by the stream and watched the water rush by? Was he experienced in survival, or did some unknown instinct come to his rescue?

Cars, planes and snowboards have given us such a plastic understanding of time and space, and getting lost in the wilderness would be very un-plastic. A little too real for me. I recognize that. I don’t go out of bounds by myself, or rather, when I do, I swear I’ll never do it again. As a city gal, the best thing for me to know is my set of limits. Those would be the little signs that say SKI AREA BOUNDARY.