My imagination is not especially vivid but I have on occasion realized that by making a single minor mistake, something as innocuous as stepping in the wrong spot, I could put my life in immediate peril.
Invariably these epiphanies explode into my consciousness while I’m hiking alone.
I do this often.
My trips are hardly expeditions, though, and my exploits decidedly modest.
I neither scale precipices nor swim whitewater rivers nor brave arctic gales.
(Well, sometimes it’s difficult around here to avoid the latter and still get some exercise outdoors. But I’m no Byrd or Shackleton, to be sure.)
Because I have neither a surplus of time or of ability — most particularly the latter — I rarely venture more than a couple miles from a road.
Indeed quite often I never penetrate far enough into the hinterlands to get beyond the range of the soft rumble of distant traffic or the piercing whistle of a passing freight.
(The train horn, especially, can push some of its considerable decibels into lonely folds in the topography that otherwise can feel as remote as the Outback.)
Yet I understand — albeit, as a I mentioned, generally at a subconscious level — that were I so unfortunate as to slip on a rime-encrusted log and snap an ankle or dash my skull against a stone, I could be in mortal danger even if I could still hear an occasional diesel truck accelerate on the nearest highway.
Or I could get lost in a fog and end up stranded in the chilly woods for a night. That ought not prove fatal in anything but the most frigid of conditions, certainly, but nature cares nothing about your core body temperature. People have died in less than a day, and in circumstances that don’t, in retrospect, seem particularly perilous.
Yet there is a corollary to these occasional fits of morbidity that overtake me while I’m negotiating a mildly challenging section of terrain, or when a storm slinks in and slashes the visibility to the range of a thrown rock.
This is the knowledge that whatever nasty fate might befall me, there are, at that very instant, people not far away who will put their own lives on hold — and potentially at risk — to spare me a potentially gruesome ordeal.
(I have no interest in sampling the piquancy of my own urine, for instance.)
Quite a lot of people, in fact.
I was reminded of this earlier in the week while talking with Baker County Sheriff Travis Ash about the effo rt last weekend to rescue two Washington snowmobilers, Scott Weaver and Michael Webb, who were benighted in a canyon north of Halfway.
Although Baker County has an official search and rescue organization, one with an admirable record, this episode started in a rather less formal way.
Ash phoned Taylor Kerns, an experienced snowmobile rider. Kerns in turn called another accomplished rider, Clay McCarty.
It was going on 10 o’clock on a Friday night, but both men agreed to spearhead the initial search.
This is no small thing.
Or, rather, it is no small thing to ride a snowmobile, long after dark, into terrain where more than 6 feet of snow has fallen over the past month or so.
But they went.
Kerns and McCarty didn’t find Weaver and Webb Friday night, as the GPS location that Weaver had texted apparently wasn’t quite accurate (possibly because they were in a canyon with dense timber).
But while the pair were searching, Ash and Undersheriff Jef Van Arsdall were arranging for about a dozen snowmobile riders from the Pine Valley club to assist in the search when the sun rose Saturday morning.
Baker Aircraft also volunteered the use of one of its helicopters, and the North Powder Fire District had equipment en route.
Ash said Brent Kerns, the Baker County Justice of the Peace, had rounded up five or six skiers who were also ready to head into the mountains if the snowmobilers couldn’t reach Weaver and Webb.
The snowmobile searchers found the two men before 10 a.m. Saturday, and were able to escort the pair, with their snowmobiles, back to Halfway.
Weaver conceded that it was an unpleasant experience — at one point he contemplated setting fire to his snowmobile to ward off temperatures that dipped to just above zero.
He was of course ecstatic to hear the staccato snarl of the rescuers’ snowmobiles approach.
But Weaver said he was also impressed not only by the selflessness of the searchers, but also by the well-orchestrated operation.
I am too.
And that’s the reason, whenever I feel that twinge of discomfort about what might happen were I to tumble down a rock-strewn slope, I immediately remind myself that a literal lifeline is ready to be tossed my way.
This of course depends on someone knowing where I am.
Which is why my wife invariably asks where I’m going when I grab the keys from their wooden knob in the kitchen.
The thought that people will come for me, if I get into the sort of trouble that’s beyond my ability to deal with, warms my heart.
As for my hands, I’m intrigued by Weaver’s story about his snowmobile.
I’ve never been stuck out overnight, but I think I understand how someone might consider torching an expensive machine if necessary to ward off frostbitten fingers.
J ayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.