THE BIG BANG
Drifting Through Time, Space, and
Wilderness on the Road to Mandalay
Not counting my childhood when moving state to state was someone else’s idea, I have made grown-up choices to live in jammed up cities and in desolate places for the adventure of it, for the attendant hoopla. I learned along the way that though it may come at cost, it is possible to study the avoidance of disaster to thereby survive another day. I certainly never once jammed up against anything potent enough to dissuade me from the hunt, from my journey on what I still think of as the road to Mandalay.
At 17, I drove myself across country from a small California beach town to big New York.
the author at 18
At 18, I went to art school in London, stopped in Paris, took a train west then across East Europe through the Soviet Union and Ukraine before I settled back in the states age 20, brief in Vermont, long in New York. Until near 30 years and a million careers tried in that electrifying town, my odyssey began anew. I left seven million Brooklynites for Virginia, immediate neighbors numbering but three.
I landed in a forest an hour west of Washington, D.C. on a modest-sized hilltop of the Blue Ridge range. My road was one of a couple of dozen long mysterious, tree-shrouded driveways which branched discretely off the narrow unlined public macadam, the main road, whose name I have forgot, a proper road which bisected my mountain.
the author at 48
Deep inside the dense woods were fascinating men and women: test pilots, engineers and chemists, code-breakers and map makers, retired politicians and military, astronomers, White House officials, secret agents, Navy SEALS, gun-runners, egg farmers, and writers. Some rich as Croesus and some dirt poor like me. I was paying 1/5th of my Brooklyn mortgage dollars to rent an 11 room house on six acres with all the modern conveniences, most of which I never afforded in Brooklyn. Leave NY and own the world!
The main road boasted three original bronze plaques set in stone briefly describing which acres were heretofore granted to whom by none less than our remarkable President George Washington. The highway looked to be black velvet ribbon laid down with easy style from north to south. It was additionally acreage rife with game and a bird watcher’s haven of migratory raptors and fowl. I had abandoned New York City for my wilderness experience. That’s what I got.
The second southern home for me two years later was an 1850’s log cabin on sixty acres of farmland south of Harper’s Ferry, perched on a flood plain that drained into the ferociously converging Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers 1/2 a mile away.
It turns out that a city girl can make a lot of bad judgment in the process of educating herself in the ways of wilderness living and yet avoid death. Chiefest to learn is that you rarely have some skilled pilgrim for a consult. And the rural countrysider has little patience. Even the unskilled local roustabout would only be into helping you out for his sport.
Family oriented Virginians were not comfortable with this New Yorker’s single status nor my honest bravado. My intent was to while away my John Muir/Isak Dinesen/Georgia O’Keeffe/Thoreau-inspired hours painting, sculpting, writing, and getting lost by sundown in the comforting delight of Jack Daniel’s (winter) or summertime Mint Juleps while on the porch rocker; Beethoven, a man for all seasons on the portable radio. Genuine farmers, cynical to such diversions as mine, were likely taking bets on whether or not I’d survive a month. The winter was just then delivering the thickest most dastardly blizzards of 200 years.
It comes to pass that life in the wilds is a full time job. I’d gone into all this not knowing that I’d wake to fallen trees across the only road out, or a bridge smashed free by logs hurtling a flooded creek; jump-start a 1938 Ford tractor; brave multiple snow drifts too deep to navigate on foot, days with no phone, no electricity. All of it was educational, incredibly beautiful, and loaded with drama. The wildlife was thrilling. The birds, breathtaking. The abandoned gardens, the farmland….
Have you ever snapped fresh asparagus tops off their six foot stalks and packed a fistful to eat as you walk? Marveled at the color of food growing wild? Stood at the edge of spring-fed marshland teeming with life? Traveled rapids on barn planks? Slid iced lakes on cardboard? Dug tunnels through 15 feet of snow to reach a road? Watched a twenty foot black snake circle an old stone building and drop his head into the fresh water trough, seen his jowls puff full from each drink, arch back and swallow? Felt your hair fly from an eagle’s wings speeding less than four feet over you? Watched bees tunneling a nest underground, or the massive ant hill mounds on rocky hillsides? At midnight seen the silent ballet of a red fox run like the wind on tippy toes across the crisp tops of white snowbanks, his path marked by the red bleeding catch in his jaws? Stumbled on a Civil War campfire’s rocks, still circled, ever cold? Have you shoveled new hatched hissing rattlesnakes from behind your stove into a coal shuttle and raced them to the woods? Heard the screams of night stalkers? Jumped at the earth shattering crash of dropped trees too slim to bear their iced-up limbs? Backed off downwind from a bear with her cubs? Run for the shotgun at the sight of a prowling mountain lion? Seen water animals you never knew existed, watching you watching them, both in wonder? Let baby water snakes bite you to know the feel? Run outside into dawn because a passel of screaming peacocks crash landed on your roof? Watched a day’s then night’s flood waters fill field and meadow up to within inches of your boot-toe, then (as the farmer predicted) subside? Turn your flashlight on eight, ten deer tearing across your meadow into the dark forest and never figure what spooked them? Seen wild turkeys roost in trees at sundown? Walked along a moonlit trail, felt the air move in a gust, you ducked a massive owl’s silent wings (was that an 8 foot? ten foot spread?) as he dives beyond you to his meal? Come up on hovering fragrance before the roses? Watched frogs burst from tadpole to land-hopping life overnight, carpet acres in every direction around the pond making a roaring, deafening, guttural mating song under starlight? Seen the spirits of things, conversing with old friends and strangers who were not there yet spoke aloud in your twilight ecstasies of solitude?
Likely you have, and more.
Yes, you’ve seen it too.
But this, the phenomenon of life in wild places was new to me, touching to the core. Exhausting. Sometimes scary.
There were many exceptional experiences. Not too many hours in on my experiment I said to myself: You need contingency plans in case there’s something you can’t handle.
Everything was compounded by isolation though I thought I could handle everything. I had survived a dangerous population in New York City. Alone now on secluded farmland (and I was set back on 60 acres bordered by dense forest, rolling farmland, and powerful tributaries of aforementioned rivers) I had to think around being able to reach neighbors if necessary over problematic roads in vehicles that don’t work on ice, in flood. Or which way on foot, for medical care. I pretty much figured that I better not need help. If I needed help I’d have to bring myself to it.
One January I woke in the early dark of morning. It had got hard to breathe. My fingertips told me my face and neck were swollen. Why? I’d been cutting trees that poison ivy had been growing thick on, a day of ripping off the vines and burning logs with some of the toxic plant still attached. That had to be it, though it took 12 hours before I knew what I’d done to myself. When it made itself known, by God, I was headed for anaphylactic shock.
Initially it was a minor reaction. I stayed uncomfortable but functional. I got up and dressed and had some tea. I waited til six a.m. to call the neighboring farmer’s wife and she told me not to worry, it would settle down. It didn’t. I bundled up and fishtailed the 45 minutes on ice sheet roads (in my absurd 15 year old Ford Fairlane with bald tires) to the Food Lion grocery store in the closest town, parked and went straight for the pharmacy in the back. The pharmacist looked up briefly and said: “I want you to go there, end of the counter (he pointed), pick up that pink bottle, open it and drink half now. Go. Now!”
I was feeling bewildered and open to command. I did as I was told. The relief from swelling was immediate. My entire body relaxed. I walked back smiling to thank and to question the pharmacist. He looked at me closely then said I was about (holding his thumb and forefinger separate by 1/2 an inch) this close to coma, anaphylactic shock. The pink stuff was Benedryl. I’ve never been without it since. I was very lucky. The darling man had been a medic in Viet Nam.
Now nineteen years hence, I have maintained an emergency plan wherever I lived that stands alone: Plan A. Nothing more complicated than how to get to medical help if I need it. Anything else but fire was not an emergency for at least 48 hours. I never thought to accommodate my environment to something safe or easy. I was in it for the view from a canyon’s precipice, for thrilling flora bunda perfuming the air, for roaring rivers, for turbulent skies that elevate the soul, pounding surf, pink sand; for lucky commune with wild animals if offered, for gardens of enormous variety running as they please, even amok. Years of watching people and now I was become a watcher of the land and sky around me to see what we had to offer each other, to understand who I am in it.
I have had a full, fairly emergency-free life despite some derring-do I wouldn’t a done without. When I broke my leg in a fall in 2002, my only broken bone ever, I was on a horse ranch with a lot of people within shouting distance.
But not when I had a heart attack, five short months ago. September, 2014. Eighteen years on from Virginia; 22 years out of Brooklyn, my heart gave out. I used the back up plan I’d set in motion in Virginia and had thought through the steps for this out of the way place I’m now in on the Central Coast. Despite no phone, no internet, living with a cat but no other full-time human in range, it worked again. I’m writing this out to recommend the use of a contingency plan to you. It doesn’t involve more than thinking. And possibly pen and paper, maybe a flashlight.
For three days over a weekend and into Monday I’d had a couple of episodes of severe chest pain. In each case it lasted about five minutes then went ~~ as if nothing had happened at all. The Internet diagnosed Angina. Something like 9 million Americans have it. It requires a change in diet and more exercise. Okay. I can do that. I took an aspirin and started both.
Tuesday night around 7:30 p.m. or so, one of those chest pain episodes hit hard. This time it would not end. Took an aspirin, took two, tried gardening, doing Tai Chi, drinking a Bloody Mary, smoking my (last) cigarette, walking, lying down. Over 45 minutes. The pain did not go away and was getting worse. What was this? I’d never worried about my heart; my health had always been good and I’d always been strong. But now, fast increasing, my left arm was killing me, the pain was a nightmare, like a truck crushing it by driving back and forth fingertips to shoulder. And the unrelenting pain across my chest, horizontally right to left, was horrific. I wrote it out in my journal so that whoever found my corpse would know. Then I stood up in the middle of my room and thought: This is serious. Am I dying? I looked at my left arm trying to figure out exactly where to amputate so as to end the excruciating pain.
I knew without question that whatever I did in the next five minutes was going to affect the rest of my life. I sat on the edge of the couch, and didn’t realize it til months later but the predicted life flashing before my eyes kind of happened, I was seeing something of carousel whirling in front of me, and my different ages and expressions of me on each horse that whizzed by. It lasted a few seconds then dissolved.
It was all impossible really. This could not be happening. My best friend, my big beautiful striped cat Thomas Jefferson, had not been well for a week, so I was hand feeding him. He was due for baby food at seven o’clock but I hadn’t been able to manage just yet. If I ended up in a hospital Tommy might not survive. So that was out of the question.
But the pain got worse. I wasn’t dizzy or faint. I did not want to pass out. I didn’t want to die. I was some scared and I was annoyed. I wrote a note to my neighbor who has his shop near me. He’s a marvelous guy, a saddlemaker. He had gone to San Francisco the day before. I didn’t know if he’d be back the next day but he was all I had.
I looked at my Tommy fighting back my tears, made the effort to lean down and patted his head, and said: I hope I’ll see you again sweetheart, and pulled the front door closed between us. It was one of the most awful experiences imaginable. Even writing it out now is the worst part of all this. We both needed help. It’s not supposed to work that way.
The note I’d written to my neighbor said:
If this is still in your door in the morning, I’m either dead or at CHOMP (Community Hospital of Monterey). I’m having a heart attack. PLEASE KEEP TOMMY ALIVE!!! He has GOT to be hand fed, he’s not eating, food on the sink counter with the extra car key, he may be hiding in the closet. The car’s in the Safeway parking lot, please drive it back here if possible.
I got up my garden staircase, stood at the top, and observed I was still alive. Walking another twenty feet, I slotted the note in my neighbor’s door and got in my car noting I was that far yet I lived. I put the key in the ignition, cranked the engine and turned on the headlights. It worked. I was still alive. 8:30 at night. I said outloud: I am going to drive the six blocks to Safeway and not pass out or die and NOT cause an accident.
I drove. I pulled up to the welcome sight of lights and people. I thought not to park in front because I might need the car in a day, overnight it might get towed. I parked under a tree still alive as I turned off the headlights, pulled out the ignition key, opened the car door. The place seemed almost empty. My chest and arm hurt like nothing imaginable, of great intensity. I was one hundred percent focused on the lights inside like a beam to a ship at sea but wondering if I was going to make it that far.
I did. I walked up to the front doors which opened in front of me, and walked in, going left to the one cashier on duty. Two customers, one a woman who’d paid and was getting packed up, the other a man waiting his turn. I came up behind the cashier, tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to me. I said: “Excuse me. Please. Call 911. I think I may be dying. I think I’m having a heart attack.”
The bright and competent fellow turned and picked up his phone and punched up 911 before two seconds had passed us by.
What sort of magical sequences do we have set up in our brains and souls, maybe it’s a lifetime’s construction. I’d be willing to bet we’d every one of us felt it~~cert right in the knowing I am safe now. I’m okay.
I burst into tears for the first time in days, my arm pressed across my chest and clutching my left arm and weeping freely. The kind woman at the end of the checkout line came over and put her arm around me.
“Over there,” was all I could say, and we headed for the flower display. I do think of myself in maybe uncommon historical terms. There was no question even that moment I would let myself die crumpled next to plastic bags and the cache of customer discards due to get restocked. Not me. If Barbara Sparhawk was on her way out she was going to be in the middle of the flower display and that’s where I went and where I sat. I had more than once been saying really loud:
“Not now Jesus!! I have things to do! Wrong time! It’s me, remember me? Too much unfinished, NOT NOW!!”
The cashier was fielding questions about my condition between me, the kind lady at my side, and the 911 operator. The Carmel Valley Fire Department medics showed up in minutes. I was back on my feet headed through the exit while they were beside me through the ”in” door, me busy pointing to myself and shouting, “Here! It’s me!!”
I don’t remember a lot of what happened next except I started feeling okay despite knowing something had gone very wrong with my primary internal engine. I recall sitting on the curb next to a fireman. I got walked to and stretched out on the gurney and tucked into the ambulance. My blood pressure was skyrocketing. The fine fellows (were there 3? 4?) worked their miracles. They were all delightfully good looking, strong, and young so I refused to tell them my age. They said I’d be riding backwards in there, facing the back of the truck, was that okay or might I get sick from it.
Hell, I told them, no way! Why, no. Me? I used to ride outside the bright yellow Blue Ridge Mountain Volunteer Fire Department truck, suited up in boots and hat and coat and hanging onto a pole and leaning way out airborne over our folded canvas hoses, feet planted firmly on our highly polished chrome step, over the exhaust pipes, and the Chief hitting 90 mph. Go on boys, do your stuff.
I ended up attached to many tubes and machines in a bed with full bells and whistles, admitted as a patient, gussied up in a hospital gown inside the very fine Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, known as CHOMP. Nurses and doctors came and went and spoke and read my beeping monitors and consulted and queried and medicated.
By noon the next day my dearheart neighbor called me at the hospital. He saw my note, leapt into action with my cat Tommy and fed him, organized three other friends to help out, and was on his way with a buddy to retrieve my car.
Two days later in the hospital I had another heart attack which was so quickly attended to by these remarkable people that it barely had a chance to go full blown. For the next several days I was being stabilized, monitored, medicated, calmed, comforted, and fed three squares by their divine four star kitchen. What a fabulous place it is. One week later I had surgery. A stent wouldn’t be enough repair. They’d calculated a triple bypass to replace something like three 95% critically blocked arteries. When they went in they did a quadruple bypass instead. The very brilliant team of Dr Gregory Spowart, Dr Hisashi Kajikuri, and Physician’s Assistant, RN Mariselda Peralez.
The initial surprise is about five months past me now, but frankly the monumental impact of what happens to your body in a heart attack doesn’t leave you. There’s a lot of pain at first, that diminishes. There’s caution, fear, weakness….most goes with time, too.
There were other problems turning to emergency. My eyes had been going progressively bad from cataracts before the heart attack, and even worse afterward. I was able to arrange for cataract surgery, both eyes, the month of February. If it had not become a crisis of blindness on the way I’d have put it off. It’s a lot to go through, all that in a short time, and I would not recommend such doctor-packed surgical episodes.
But my God, sight! I did not dream I’d be able to have the color and depth, detail and contrast restored. I can paint. Read. Drive long distances, day and night. I will never fail to be spellbound at what I almost lost but now have. There’s another serious miracle in my life that I can see again, 20/16, unbelievable. Dr Leland Rosenblum, thank you.
I am, of course, alive, writing this, and hear often of those who don’t survive heart attacks. And what I had is just as common in 20 and 30 years olds, Triathlon athletes, long distance runners, vegetarians, and the unbelievably fit non-smokers. Life will, I suspect, never be quite the same. There is an irreversible change to everything, I know it already. Nothing seems to be the same, nothing at all, nothing at all.
My darling Tommy, who got two veterinarian visits with my doting friends while I was in the hospital, did not survive. He was about 13 years old, and very ill even our last week together though he didn’t show it a bit, purred til his last breath in the arms of a good friend, and Tommy and I loved each other equally which was a lot. He had a good many fine adventures with me and was a fantastic, brave explorer. He did, because of splendid caring friends and devoted animal lovers, never experience being alone while I was away, something which will move me to tears likely til my last breath. Every time I call his name out, and I do it often, my voice catches, tears held back, sometimes released. I’d done a painting of him last year, The Cat Who Loved Flowers, and he did.
You sure have a face-off with your mortality in a major medical emergency. A neighbor said he thought me strong, not just for my survival but the up and at ’em (expected by doctors and nurses) in short order. It was nice to hear, to cling to. I hope I get back to feeling strong again. As I had cried out in something of a delirium: There’s still so much left to do! And SO much more to witness, to touch, to know. I want to be here for all the dawns and sundowns and all the inbetweens I can muster.
Okay, I’m here. I’m painting again. On to new writing. Glad to be here.
Did I say thanks?
Oh yes, yes indeed. I said thanks.
Glad you’re there, too.