A Beautiful Place to Die

I knew she was dead even before I got close.  The mosquitoes were swarming over all of us at the crash… all except her.  She looked so at peace, as though she had just lain down in the soft dry dirt to take a nap.  Her face was relaxed, she hadn’t suffered.  Even her clothing was clean and neat, not at all indicative of the violent death that had just ended her life moments ago.

I had checked to see if her airway was clear but knew it was an empty gesture.  Her mouth and nostrils were packed with the same brown dirt she was lying in. I  started to remove the dirt but realized it was a pointless effort. Obviously, she had flown through the air and landed face first in the soft dirt.  No bruises or lacerations, no bleeding, no blue gray cyanotic tint to her skin.  She hadn’t strangulated so she was dead on impact… must have broken her neck.

A few yards away, the overturned pick-up was smoldering in a mangled mess of sheet metal, forest floor detritus, and dry brown dirt.  Most of the truck’s undercarriage had been ripped off… a wheel there, another in the woods, a shard of rubber here.  It was obvious that the truck had been moving at a high rate of speed when it left the road.  Probably flipped over three or four times, guessing from the damage and the scattering of wreckage.

We were on a section of the river known as “Thirteen Mile Woods”. Across the road, the Androscoggin River sparkled in the late afternoon sun.  The long shadows of the tall spruce trees stretched across the carnage, across the highway and cast a shadow on the riveredge below.  There was no breeze to cool the day or keep the relentless mosquitoes at bay.  Above the asphalt, the heat of the day rippled the thick, languid, late afternoon air.  Mountains of white cumulus fluff piled high into the stratosphere as the rising torrents of summer pushed them higher and higher.  A few crows at the edge of the gathering crowd picked away at some unseen scraps of roadside litter.  I swatted at the swarms of mosquitoes that covered my face arms and legs.

Time had come to a standstill.  The crash scene took on surrealistic aura of an overexposed snapshot.  The stifling heat, the baked soil, the clouds of voracious mosquitoes augmented the unnatural atmosphere.  Stunned and in shock, the young crowd shifted from one spot to another.  Sobbing teenagers consoled and hugged each other.  Apparently they must have been traveling in a convoy with the dead girl.  Hysterical kids milled about, mindlessly oblivious to the danger from oncoming traffic.

Phone reception was spotty and I kept losing my connection to the 911 operator.  I begged him to send  a state trooper to control the crowd and the traffic because another fatality seemed imminent.  The savage onslaught of the mosquitoes continued unabated while I struggled to maintain my marginal phone connection.  There was really nothing to be accomplished with the 911 operator.  He could not will the state trooper to be any closer or make the ambulance arrive any faster.  Somehow, I felt like he was my connection to reality as I went down deeper into the rabbit’s hole.

The shadows grew deeper and darker.  The billowed clouds took on the salmon tones of sunset then deepened to lilac gray.  Her tiny body was harder to see as she lay at the edge of the woods.   I felt so sorry for her short life.  She looked like someone I would have liked, whose company I would have enjoyed.

The serpentine river turned a deep blue ultramarine, the color of the evening sky.  The birds stopped their chirping and only the far away cry of a whippoorwill rang in the still night air.  When the ambulance finally arrived, darkness hovered at the edge of the woods.  The EMTs took the wheeled gurney from the back of the ambulance and set it down.  It immediately got bogged down in the soft dirt so they retracted the wheels and used it as a stretcher to retrieve the body… Sarah’s body.  Somewhere in all of the hysteria, one of her friends had told me her name.  Nice to meet you Sarah, wish we could have met under different circumstances.   The attendants started CPR immediately.  I shrugged… at the futility of the day, the futility of her life, the futility of their efforts.

For an hour, the voice on my cell phone, the 911 operator had been my intermittent connection to another world; a world where people lived and death was an abstraction. There was no point in talking any more.  The last of the day lingered on the distant horizon as they closed the door on the ambulance. I simply hung up!

The Androscoggin River flows out of the watershed of western Maine and winds its way through northern New Hampshire.  The area known as “Thirteen Mile Woods” is a pristine wilderness that is home to the loon, the moose, the polecat and many more.  Wilderness stretches through hundreds of thousands of acres of unspoiled wonder in all four directions.   The river is clean and wild save for a few old dams.  Flanked by towering spruce and cedar trees this ancient river is home to salmon and trout.   NH route 16 follows the river through the rugged North Country along its serpentine path to the Atlantic Ocean in Merrymeeting Bay.  Through primeval forests the river follows the path cut for it when the glaciers retreated 12000 years ago.  Inhospitable, uninviting, indifferent to our comings and goings, it’s a beautiful place to die