Death brushed me again, but couldn’t keep a skeletal hand on me. Stunned at the close escape, I clung to the mountain side as eight horses stampeded within an inch of me on the narrow dirt path. Their galloping hooves pounded choking clouds of dust into my eyes and lungs. Their sides were soaked from their hurtling run down the mountain ahead of the two gauchos pursuing them.
A few hours before, my hiking companions and I had seen the two mounted gauchos with their six pack-horses heave their way up the mountain fully loaded with supplies for the hut at the top. The eight horses laboured so hard they stumbled and the gauchos urged them with the Spanish equivalent of what our cowboys would in English. We’d already started down the mountain so stepped aside for less than a minute to let them pass.
We felt an urgent need to get to the bottom before we were stranded on the mountain. The hike over the pass and into to the valley had taken more time than anticipated, we’d started from Estancia Peuma Hue later than planned, chosen a more distant route than discussed, and we’d stopped at the mountain climbers’ hut longer than expected. We were late, dusk was punctual. Dark would soon make the descent treacherous.
The path was wide enough for one person to walk at about a 35 degree pitch in some places, steeper than that in others. To the right was a fierce drop into a crevasse. To the left, the undergrowth was thick on the mountain wall. The forest was silent, and
smelled too dry.
I’d fallen behind the others, quads screamed in agony, knees too sore to bend, fiery pain stabbed my rigid hips, and toes hammered into the front of my hiking boots from hours and hours of rock scrambling downs steeper than mountain climbing ups. My left hand was scraped from clinging to sharp edges, my right was cramped in a vise grip on a climbing pole. Both arms ached from hauling my body over boulders. Everything except my earlobes stung, hurt, groaned, creaked or blistered.
And then, I heard the horses.
I looked back, my tired body twisted to see what was happening less than ten feet away.
The lead horse was unable to stop his mad descent, crowded from behind by the other seven. He was propelled along, two horses trying to pass him on a trail wide enough for one person. He tried to slow when he saw me and was broadsided from behind. His herd mates were running unloaded and empty towards their night’s rest and feed. They were in as much of a hurry for the same reasons as us, and much faster. The lead horse half-reared to turn, but had no choice except to continue galloping straight at me.
I ran. Not sure how, but it felt like a run.
“Brian, the horses.”
Brian McCutcheon heard my yell and turned. The danger was so obvious and the solution so wasn’t. Cliff down, rock face covered in underbrush up, or trampled in between. Brian must have assessed it all in less than a second.
The lead horse’s head was at my shoulder when Brian grabbed my left arm and the strap of my backpack. He threw me backwards and leapt onto the cliff after me. As my feet flew up, they touched the horse’s flank and the next horse thundered past and the next and the next … We had no place to move. As one horse hurtled past with empty propane tanks strapped around its girth, Brian shoved the tank away from hitting us. The two gauchos were last, still urging their lathered and exhausted horses forward. The gauchos were as motivated as the horses to get home.
Then they were gone in a dust cloud and we were left, shaken and unhurt. Had Brian taken a second longer to react, eight horses would have trampled over me.
Brian grinned. “If they’d been prettier horses I’d have grabbed one for you to ride down. They weren’t pretty enough.”
We found my partner, Decker, waiting ahead. They overtook him at a wider section and he simply stepped off the path as they barreled past. We all made it down, in the darkness, feeling our way after 14 hard hours on the trail, Brian’s iPhone our only light. Our wonderful hosts met us with flashlights and guided us to a waiting dinner.
A few years ago, Death in the name of late stage Triple Negative Breast Cancer had me in its sights. Decker felt something even though there was no palpable lump. The oncologist said that, untreated, Death was at most nine months away. Three days ago, Death was at most nine seconds away. First Decker saved me, and then Brian did.
So what am I to make of two such close escapes through the grace of two extraordinary rescuers?
What, I ask, is the purpose of the extra time I’ve been given? I’ve struggled with this as so many cancer or disaster survivors have. Where is the lesson, how am I different, who does it all matter to? The only answer that means anything to me so far is that I haven’t finished writing yet, or done enough for the environment yet, or seen our grandchildren grow up. Even these aren’t enough, so I search for more ways to be of use, to make a difference in this extended lifetime I’ve been gifted. I will write, do what I can for the environment and play with the grandchildren until whatever truth I’m supposed to know appears. I read of those who find their life’s calling from some horrifying misadventure. If something’s calling me, I don’t hear it yet but at least I’ve woken up enough to listen until I do.
Today, instead of hiking, I went for a horse-back ride, a safe, controlled canter through the Patagonian countryside, to savor the joy of living.