One day I nearly died in thick white fog on a snowy mountain top. I was driving back from Chapel Hill where I had been visiting my girlfriend and the road curved slightly as I started down a mountain toward my home in Hayesville. I turned the wheel, but the car kept straight, having lost purchase entirely in the snow. On either side of the road for some time had been snow-covered mountains and fog and a rather large amount of nothingness. It was gorgeous and terrifying to drive through.
I applied the brakes. Nothing doing. I wasn’t moving fast. I just wasn’t stopping at all. I thought of falling forever and forever in the car. Maybe there would be time to compose a note or make a quick cell phone call. It would be hard to say anything meaningful as the ground rushed up to meet me. Harder still to focus my thoughts in a brief auto-obituary as I plummeted. “This sucks,” would not look good on a gravestone. The snowy peaks and thick mist would make for a scenic death at least.
The car continued in a straight line and ran diagonally up a bank with two wheels on the ground and two rolling up the side of the bank until coming to a rest with a thump, the slow momentum finally exhausted. I blinked for a moment. Then I found my glasses on the floorboard where they had flown off of my face upon impact. This is certainly an interesting development, I thought. A nice older man with a four-wheel drive truck pulled up alongside me a minute later. “I saw you leave the road,” he said. “Thought you were gone for sure.” I nodded. “Me too.” He gave me a ride into town. I eventually got a new car, and moved on to other death-defying adventures.
This was not the first time I felt I might leave this earth falling off the side of a mountain. Back in Asheville, Granddaddy Carter used to pack all of his grandchildren in the back of his red Ford pickup track and trundle up to Buzzard Rock with us. The sky went on for miles there with mountains sloping in every direction. The town, cradled in a valley, was a sea of lights at night. The road to Buzzard Rock twisted and turned in a series of hairpin curves. Cousins banged around against each other in the flatbed like loose marbles. I looked down at the road and the inches that seemed to separate us from falling into miles of nothing. My sister and my cousins were laughing and screaming with delight. A few years older than all of them, I felt a sense of mortality. I closed my eyes and thought of the many brilliant things I would never do if the Ford took one slight shift to the right. Maybe my grandfather would have to sneeze. I really hoped he wouldn’t. I knew it was an automatic response to close your eyes when you sneeze. Nobody could fight it. I opened my eyes and tried to appreciate the beautiful mountains in the distance and forget the thought of the fall. Thankfully, he never sneezed as we wound around the mountain roads.
Many years later I was excited to own an inflatable kayak and eager to try it out in the waterway which runs between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean. We were renting an apartment in Carolina Beach, a tiny beach town near Wilmington. The apartment came with a dock. I plunked the kayak in the water off the dock and set out in the pretty bay. It was a beautiful day, and I had gone out towards the point where the water from the sea meets the water from the river. I found out this is not a good spot to be in an inflatable kayak. The two opposing forces began to assert themselves with my little kayak in the middle. I struggled to keep the boat from being swept into the ocean. I really don’t want to take an inflatable kayak into the Atlantic, I thought. Sharks and whales. Not good. I had a single water bottle and a granola bar and a life vest. Nice, but not enough against the ocean. But this is about to happen unless something changes quick, I thought.
I looked around at the gulls diving for fish around me and the sun hitting the water. The gulls hit the water like bullets and never seemed to miss their catch. Beautiful. At least I was going to die a scenic death. I had nothing to write with, but if I did, I would have been able to compose a much lengthier message this time. It would still boil down to: “Taking an inflatable kayak into the ocean was a dumb idea.” That would not look good on a gravestone. I hate to be obvious.
Of course, I managed to eventually fight the forces drawing me to sea and make it back to the shoreline. I even paddled back to our home dock with no harm done. I wasn’t so eager to plunge back into the water for a long time after that.
Fast forward a year to when we moved to New York City last summer. I noticed that the apartment my wife rented for us while I was packing up our stuff back in North Carolina was a scant block away from the new World Trade Center Tower. Could we get closer to Ground Zero? I thought. Could a bigger target be painted on our backs? Doesn’t every foreign fanatical enemy our country has want to lob a bomb at this exact location on the map to humble us and hurt us again as a nation?
It was an adjustment, but I began to let go and look around. I managed to dwell less on the mountaintops, valleys, oceans and beaches I’d left behind in the South and appreciate the new landscape of man-made wonders I now lived among in the North. Towering buildings that reflect clouds. Magnificent bridges spanning wide rivers. Grand Central Station with its airy magnificence. Central Park with its oasis of greenery. The Statue of Liberty sits not far off a leaf-lined esplanade along the Hudson River I walk daily. I’ve traded boating and hiking mountain trails for expeditions to museums and walks in Central Park.
I never thought about cornices and facades before I lived here. The Flatiron Building is a man-made wonder. The lights at the top of the Empire State Building change at night with the occasion. Manhattan’s skyline seen from Brooklyn at sunset is amazing. I appreciate the gargoyles perched in splendor lining high rooftops. Cornices and balustrades. Towers and arches in odd places. I’ve fallen slowly in love with all the “angels in the architecture spinning in infinity“ I heard about in a song.
I worry less now about dying a beautiful death and enjoy living a life celebrating the wonders at hand no matter where I am.
NOTE: Paul Simon penned these lyrics for “You can call me Al.”
“A man walks down the street. It’s a street in a strange world. Maybe it’s the Third World. Maybe it’s his first time around. He doesn’t speak the language. He holds no currency. He is surrounded by the sound. The sound. Cattle in the marketplace. Scatterings and orphanages. He looks around, around. He sees angels in the architecture. Spinning in infinity. He says Amen and Hallelujah!”