Deep Thaw: Escape, Endurance and Bobcats in the Colorado Rockies

deep_thawThis story was intended to be told live, on-stage at a Moth event in Seattle. Despite my recent foray into mental stimulus drugs, I still managed to miss the date and lose my chance to tell my story. However, since I've been practicing these lines over and over as I drive around town, I figure they have to come out somewhere. So here, for my blog readers' pleasure, is my story of survival in the Colorado Rockies. Trigger warning: References sexual violence and failed justice systems.


The Moth story prompt was cold.

When the freezing chill seeped its way through my truck cab, into my sleeping bag, and through my four layers of clothing to wake me from my sleep for the 15th time that night, I realized I might not make it to sunrise. At just past midnight, I sat up as though slapped, blinking in the dark. With a move now well-practiced, I clambered into the drivers seat and turned the key in the ignition. It took about 5 minutes for my truck to warm up. Another 5 for the heaters warm the cab to something survivable. I left the truck running an extra minute as indulgence, eyeing the gas tank now less than a quarter full, before shutting it off and falling instantly back to sleep. 15 minutes later, the cold conquered once more and I repeated the process.

I had pulled my truck off an unnamed forest service road deep in the snowy cleavage of a couple Rocky Mountain peaks a couple hours outside Denver to make camp. It was early March and temperatures plummeted after sundown. I was alone.

I'm a tough camper girl. My mother took me camping every other weekend in the Pacific Northwest where I grew up. Later, I backpacked through the Middle Atlas Mountains in Morocco and spent solo days in the Yellowstone backcountry. I'm not afraid of a little discomfort, wet and chill. However, the frigid Colorado winter rendered all my previous camping experience obsolete. I had no idea what I was getting into. I hadn't bothered to bring a tent, thinking it would be warmer in the truck. My sleeping bag boasted a -5 degree rating, which had kept me toasty in mild Washington. With three layers of fleece I should be fine, right? Had I done any research before leaving, I would have learned that the National Park Service was forecasting -40 degrees for my area that night.

But I haven't done any research. I barely knew where I was. I had simply put my finger down on a map and driven there. I didn't tell anyone where I was going and didn't ask for any advice. That was the whole point. I wanted to get as far away from people as possible.

A few weeks earlier, I turned 21. I celebrated with friends by drinking a single shot of something buttery and sweet. I still see myself there in that Denver dive bar, tilting my head back and laughing with my friends - one of those shimmering memories when life neared perfection. A week later, I was raped by a gentleman poet.

You may be confused as to how a gentleman poet may also be a rapist. I assure you, this threw me for a loop as well. So disbelieving was I that I shut down during the act, became something small and quiet. He drove me home after, told me to lose my friendship would be the worst thing ever. I wandered, dazed, into my building and went to bed. I stayed there for three days and three nights.

On the fourth day, a friend who had wisdom in such things, sat gently on the edge of my bed and asked if I wanted to report it. He asked without asking me what happened. He simply knew.

This wasn't supposed to happen to me. I'm a good girl. Not only that, I view myself as infinitely powerful and mighty. If I say yes, it happens. If I say no, it doesn't. As well, I had recently made a deal with God that should have exempted me from this kind of trauma. While I had accepted that religion and I don't go so well together, I still had strong faith and an authentic joy in my belief of a God of Love. So, I would quit youth groups, prayer workbooks and shocking sermons and instead gave myself in a life of service. I had left college and volunteered at AmeriCorps. At the time of my rape, I was earning about 15 cents an hour working at a detention center tutoring emotionally and behaviorally disturbed teenage girls during the week. I spent weekends on environmental cleanup outings.

Self-satisfied holiness practically oozed out of my pores. I had also conveniently avoided all questions of how I would support myself in my grown-up years while claiming the life of a pseudo-saint.

So you can see, this wasn't supposed to happen to me.

On that fourth day after the rape, that gentle friend of mine led me out of my room and to the local hospital. I was taken to a room filled with strangers, where I was stripped, laid back on a table, and asked to point to all the placed the poet's penis had come in contact with my body. Everywhere I pointed, they scraped off a layer of skin and plucked exactly three hairs. To survive this humiliation, I simply left my body. I hovered up near the fluorescent lights with some imagined angels and watched the scene like it was on TV. Prime entertainment.

When the crowd filtered out, I entered my body again to pull clothes over shaky limbs and take a ride to the police station.

They made my friend stay in the lobby, took me alone to a little grey room with a steel table. There were two cops. They asked me to tell them exactly what happened. I told my story from start to finish, sentence cohesion causing me difficulty as now I'd been awake for days. They brought me papers to press charges.

"Wait, I said," remembering what happened at the hospital. "What happens exactly if I press charges?"

The cops looked at each other. One left the room. The remaining cop acted out another scene I was certain I'd seen on TV before. He paced, he yelled, he puffed out his chest, he banged his fist on the table. He told me if I didn't press charges, the man would certainly rape ten more girls at least and it would all be my fault. I stopped making sentences. I cried. On cue, the second cop appeared, told his partner to take it easy. Cooed at me. Told me he knew I was tired. He knew it wasn't my fault. Just sign right here sweetie and we'll take care of this. I signed.

After another week of interrogations, a request from the hospital to repeat the exam since they lost my rape kit, and well-meaning advocates that asked me to tell them everything again, and again, and I could I please start at the beginning again, I finally got word that the prosecutor declined to take my case. My word against his. Too hard. The good cop told me I could still feel like I was raped if it made me feel better. The advocates disappeared, no longer returning my calls.

I returned to my room, thought of dying. Instead pulled out my map, closed my eyes and put my finger down. Kelsey Creek. No shit, really? I squinted at the map, confirming my name peeking out from under my fingertip. Amazing. Kelsey Creek it would be. As long as it was remote enough to not encounter a single, horrible, human, I would be happy.

In my freezing cab that night, I could have surrendered. I could have closed my eyes and let the cold be my excuse.

Instead, I popped up like a jack-in-the-box every fifteen minutes and flipped on the heater. At dawn, I had just enough gas left to make it back down the mountain, so I decided it was time to get up and get moving. Desperate for fresh air, I opened the truck door and poured my many-layered, chilled-to-the-bone self onto the ground outside, landing on my hands and knees.

There, not eight feet away from my face, stood a stunned Bobcat.

My heart stopped. The bobcat blinked.

In all my travels, I had never seen a wild cat. No other animal strikes me as more magical, terrifying, elusive. My body trembled and cracked, but I willed myself to stay as still as possible so as not to startle the beast.

He stared me down. White rimmed his wide eyes. Black tuffs of hair topped his ears. His spotted legs stood braced, ready to sprint.

I blinked. He spooked.

I sprung to my feet and gave chase. Adrenaline surged through my veins. It could not have been instinct that spurred me after the beast, as surely such an instinct would have killed off my ancestors long ago. Rather, a deep desire to keep eyes on this animal as long as possible, spurred me to sprint across the ice-covered snow. Had I any breath, I would have yelled, "Don't go."

The bobcat pulled ahead, turned beneath a large boulder outcropping. Somewhere deep in my fuddled brain, rational thoughts surfaced one by one, popped like bubbles on the surface of my consciousness.

Don't wild cats attack from above?

This bobcat looks smaller than I expected.

What if his mother is above me on those boulders?

My feet came together. I stood watching the wild cat bound away. I climbed the boulders, thinking perhaps I could see where he went. The cat disappeared into the white, but when I climbed the outcrop, my breath caught in my throat. The morning sun crept over the eastern slopes, turning the sky a wild red. Thin clouds picked up the color, placing lines of hot pink kisses over head. The grey snow lightened, reflected the color. I felt as though I had tumbled into the glittery end of a child's kaleidoscope.

From my perch on the rocks, my little brown truck looked so small and lonely in the vast white forest. I jumped down and ran to the cab, started up the truck and rocked my way out of the snow trench that had formed overnight. As fast as I dared, I drove down those winding roads, heater blasting, desperate to find someone, anyone, whom I could tell about what I'd seen on the mountain.

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