- At the End of the Road
Early one afternoon, an ambulance screams past my house. A vehicle passing by sometimes is a major event in my day, and when I look out the window, I recognize a truck that belongs to one of my coworkers tearing up the road behind the ambulance. We are each first responders and members of our local volunteer fire department in the Smoky Mountains. Except in cases of large structure and wildland fires when many hands are needed, the department gets along just fine without me, and this is a good thing because I am without fail the last person to arrive on the scene of every fire I have ever fought. Most of the time, the mountains block out the radio signal from reaching me in the first place. Today, though, I do not need a radio to tell me something is going on. The noise of the siren breaks into the peaceful quiet of my kitchen, where I'm puttering around on my day off before it recedes into the distance.
Driving as fast as I can, yet slowly enough to avoid potholes and gaggles of tripod-wielding nature photographers, who in many places are hugging both shoulders of the road, I round each bend expecting to find the scene of an accident. I never do, though, and after several miles I come to the footbridge where the road dead-ends. I have only just arrived, but already the ambulance is pulling away and speeding in the direction I have just come from.
My coworker Charlie looks visibly shaken by what he has seen. The clues before me don't give much by way of detail, yet say plenty. Piled on the gravel in the middle of the road are a pair of jeans, a button-down shirt, and a T-shirt stained with a single splotch of blood the size of a fist. Every article bears a long incision mark so neat that it's as if, not scissors but invisible zippers were [End Page 39] used to expose the injuries of whoever was wearing them until only moments ago. Nearby rests a pair of cowboy boots, and they too are split wide open. I can't help but think of the bumper sticker warning motorists that a vehicle will be unmanned in the event of the Rapture, since evacuation from clothes seems just as likely in such a bizarre scenario.
I soon learn that the man was drunk and fell off his horse. While lying on the ground, his horse tripped over him, lost its balance, and landed on top of him. The human ribcage is not built to withstand a thousand pounds of horse dropped from a height of four feet. So the man's internal injuries are likely severe.
Charlie doesn't say much as he organizes his emergency equipment. Before I turn to go, I watch a park ranger donning rubber gloves lift each item of the man's clothing a piece at a time and place it in a garbage bag. Even if he makes it, he won't need them again.
Accidents have occurred before here at the end of the road, where visitors can continue deeper into the wilderness on foot or horseback, but not by car. A fisherman in his 50s blundered into a nest of yellow jackets in this same area once and suffered anaphylaxis. And an elderly woman strolling with her husband one windy afternoon was struck by a falling tree. If death is another kind of wilderness, it is one that some people have entered here in this spot, just as both the fisherman and the woman did, and also, I learn later, the man who was crushed by his own horse.
Every week or so, I notice a rusting yellow Subaru parked near the river. I recognize it each time by the broken taillight repaired with red translucent tape. Sometimes I spot its owner, an old man with a face full of intensity who looks lost in thought as he walks along the road. He never looks up as I drive past. Nearby trails afford greater privacy...