BASSI Falls: Part three, four, five, the end

Lenny La Rue, IPA

Sacramento, United States

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I look back at the crevice and make another decision: if I can’t make it out of here tonight, I need to make shelter. It’s a well-known fact up in the foothills of Nevada County that I don’t fear poison oak (seem to be immune), rattle snakes (tho all the rest scare the crap out of me), or loss of direction. I’m terrified by lions and California has a mountain lion population that is thriving. I could yell at a bear; I can’t do anything about a lion. It’s all up to what the lion decides to do. If you make yourself look big somehow, don’t look away, and NEVER run, you’ll still lion food. Chances are I’ll never even see a wild lion: either way.

The rocks are much warmer than the air, even on the underside but laying on the ground leeches heat from me almost instantly. Time for checking in. What now? {Use the forest.} Use it? I’ve never even been alone in a forest so I don’t have one second of experience with using it. Think. OK, try the crevice. Down beside it I see it tapers to nothing in the back and bottom, front is completely exposed, and head is a major problem. Wind whistles thru it and it’s uphill parallel to the hillside. It has to be blocked off.

Expecting a callback from the sheriff seemed certain; no need to waste precious daylight NOT preparing for the worst. I thought about that only a couple moments before I realized I didn’t KNOW what was ‘the worst’. Snow? No, that will be cold but shelter from the wind and some of the cold if it piled over the hole. Wind? Exposure was a possibility so better start with plugging the top opening. I stood up and remembered that I was suffering from a lack of air. I walked less than 10 feet before I was kneeling. OK, then. I need to use everything closer than 10 feet no matter how little or how rotted. I can do that.

I made about half of the front cover when I figured the sheriff wasn’t going to call back.

“911, what’s your emergency?”

“I’m the lost hiker in the El Dorado Forest.”

“Lenny?” Bliss! Both the 911 call centre and the sheriff’s department knew I was lost.


“OK, I’ve got a clear signal on you. Did you move from the last time you called?”

“No. I’m still by the rockface, in sight Massi Falls.”

“Alright. Stay there and don’t hang up. We lost the connection last time. It’s going to be OK.” That last bit was even more bliss.

Clicks, a transfer to the sheriff’s office and a different person answers but I’m not worried.

Where are you?

Above Massi Falls. Uphill from the river.

Is the falls near the river? (NOW I’m worried).

The falls is the river.

OK, don’t hang up. We’re looking for you. You’re going to be OK because you called us.

Click. Gone. I figure they know the number, they know who I am, they know I can’t make it out my myself. May not be able to make it out at all before sunset.

I love making light trails for photographs. That’s why I have a flashlight in my camera bag. Unless I’m doing a daytime shoot at freakin NOON. The flashlight is in the car, left there with other non-essential gear. I did have 16 ounces of water and had drank it all before refilling in one of the streams. I knew my body can do 36 hours without food and no ill effects. I also knew all my meds were at home. Little chance of me picking a fight or screaming at someone or just waiting for them to go away. BIG chance of Lamictal crash. That med causes an unpleasant side effect in some people: it makes a sensation of a severe buzz that’s best likened to an electric shock. The shock gets worse as time goes by. I’m one of the few people who have that happen to the extreme. The shock can stop me from ability to walk, talk, sleep… One of my other meds puts me to sleep or I will remain awake until I drop asleep suddenly, any time at all. Well, that’s not so bad if you’re trapped in the woods, alone in the dark, afraid of lions, cold, and twitching from Lamictal withdrawal. All-n-all things looked like a toss-up either way.

Back to making the shelter. It’s a lean-to built to stop the cold from coming in thru the front of the hole. Big dead branches with live branches that have foliage. 3 minutes and stop for air. Look at watch. Another 3 minutes. 2 minutes 40 seconds. While I’m gasping, I look at the sky (it will drop something, probably snow), look at my watch for the time of day (Funny but I do one or the other, never both at the same time), look at my progress, and figure I’ll be too tired to move before halfway to completion. OK, stop doing this; it’s useless.

This time when I call 911, they realize what’s happening: you can call out on 911 for an emergency from almost anywhere on the planet and some equipment can pinpoint you sometimes but they can’t call back. The service gives them a “blocked number” message they can’t bypass. This is news to all concerned. Bad flaw in the system but,

“Don’t hang up

“Lenny, hang on. You did the right thing by calling. You called us in time. You’re going to be alright”. I am relieved but I’m not sure why. We’re going to send a sheriff who knows the area. Can you walk?”

I don’t know the answer. I don’t even know if I’m supposed to know the answer. I’m getting muddled from the altitude. Now I’m questioning everything I’ve done so far? Was it right or did I just think it was right? Can I tell now? No.

God, what should I do now? {Wait.} Just like the first time hours ago, the message is as clear as a bell. There’s nothing to it. It’s everything. It is neither quiet nor loud. It has no sense of familiarity; I can’t place a single thing about it other than it’s not a sound coming from me. It is not me.

“I don’t know. I think I have altitude sickness.”

“OK, this time we won’t lose you, I promise. I’ve got the GPS and I won’t hang up when I get them on the line.”

“Thank you. Wait. I hear a siren and it’s getting closer.”

“OK, let’s me see.” This time I can hear noises in the background and I’m positive the connection is intact.

“We have an officer in the vicinity. Is he close?” There’s a massive echo. I forgot I yelled “help!” a many times before I got to the stream. The echo that came back was loud enough for me to hear clearly. I also forgot I was asked how much battery I had left. The 911 operator was VERY happy to hear I still had a full charge. What I don’t know is how much battery is used up by the speaker as opposed to putting the phone by your ear. I can only hear clearly when the speaker is on and the phone is by my head unless there’s no other noise. There was either precious little noise up there or I couldn’t hear it interfering. I had to use the speaker tho.

“I can’t tell if he’s close because of the echo and I’m mostly deaf”. There’s wasn’t the slightest doubt conveyed to me and my hearing loss has been almost universally questioned by too many people to count, many where I job since I can hear and talk when there is no background noise that buries voices.

Then the calmest cop voice I’ve heard came on the phone. I’m not going to try to pull all the pieces of this part together. I’m sure he asked where I was multiple times before I heard him say *_+Bassi*_* Falls. I wonder where I was accidentally sending them. (A friend actually found a Massy Falls somewhere around New York. 911 calls have been known to come from other parts of the country. If they had been thinking as much…) He said he was by the car (spectacular relief) and asked if I could hear his siren. He said he stepped away from the car so I won’t hear it in the microphone. I heard it only faintly and couldn’t even tell what direction it was coming from. It must have been aimed a different direction when I DID hear it the first time.

We talked and I got weaker. My back was on the warm rock. I felt the camera pack beside me. The phone was laying on the side of my face with my head to the side (as I used to do often when people called me on my old wired phone. My old hands won’t grip for long unless I’m applying hard pressure. This is just something I’m now akin to at work and while holding a camera. I won’t even pick up a camera without the strap already around me).

He offer to come drive in to the fall but he couldn’t go past it. (Fall? Think Lenny. Not falls so he couldn’t mean water. We haven’t has summer yet so seasons were out of the question? What falls but is called a fall? A tree? You mean where the tree fell across the roadway? Yes. I don’t know how far, in what direction, how what’s on the ground between here and there? Go down to the water and follow it out. I tried but hit snow. I can fight my way thru a little but won’t make it far without getting stuck.

OK, Lenny don’t worry. We’re going to get you out. I’m not going to hang up. Are you getting my text? (There was a question I didn’t know. Checked the Android. Nothing.) Uh no, and I don’t know why. Did you text from the same phone? No, I can’t text from this one. Can you walk out? (Consider the question. Can I walk out?) Overdue on check-in time. God, can I walk out? {Wait.} No, I don’t think I can walk out. I think I’m too sick. OK, hang on… All sorts of noise thru the phone. Some have to be voices but I can’t tell.

Lenny? We’re sending a helicopter to guide you to the trail. OK. Tell me when you see it. (long time passes, what is long) I don’t see or hear anything. They say they’re right over you. OK, I’ll look. I sat up and made a slow 360 turn looking for anything in the sky. Not so much as a bird. No there’s absolutely nothing I hear or see. I don’t either. Just a minute. (time, time not to look at my watch because it is noticeably darker. I’ll have to go under the rock before it gets too dark to use my cell as a light. Can’t be concerned with temps or make-shift crap thrown together by a fool to be a windbreak. I’m not cold). The coordinates are all wrong and they’re on the other side of the lake. (Lake? I didn’t see a lake on any map but didn’t ask). OK, Lenny they found me. They are headed your way. Be out on the clear. I’ll be easy to find; I’m the only black guy up here. (He didn’t laugh, I didn’t laugh, God didn’t laugh. Damn, that must have been a real dud of a joke)

We can’t patch you in to talk to them; you’ll have to tell me what to tell them. I hear something I can see them they are going away from me. Lenny, you have to let me know when they get close so I can tell them. They turned back before they passed over. Which direction from your location? (To the right no there is no right if they don’t have a reference where did the sun go it went the way they turned back THINK LENNY. Got the direction correct tell them they went west so I had to be further east than they thought why can’t I say that and be sure) They need to go further in the direction they were headed when I said ‘I see them’. OK, be sure you tell me as soon as you see them. I hear them but can’t see them. I see them now they are way far to the right (damn it I know right isn’t a direction) Loud noise in the phone again, none of it intelligible. Lenny, I’m sending them back tell me what to tell them.

I see them, they are coming my way they are almost overhead. (I’m up, waving, can’t hear anything but a HUGE roar. My lungs hurt but I’m NOT going to sit down.) Where should they look down? If they look out (my right, their left?) their… {Turn their way, not yours} (Turned my back to them, imaging looking down) their right window…right now!

They see you. I hear nothing more until I can pick out the sheriff’s voice say DON’T STAND UP. DON’T GO TOWARDS THEM. THEY WILL COME TO YOU. STAY DOWN. I felt something like the ground pulling me down anyway. No, wind pushing me down, not hard, just barely. I lay belly down on the rock and close my eyes until the roar is about to rip my head off. Wow, I can certainly hear right now. I am scared witless. (‘Don’t stand up’? You’ve got to be kidding me. I not going to LOOK up).

I never did look up. I looked across and saw an astronaut running hunched over, not towards me but to the side. The astronaut waved me towards (him? her? You just can’t tell with astronauts) and I grabbed my pack and got up. I don’t know if I ducked when I got up but I wasn’t jumping up and down anymore. 15, 20 feet? My chest is exploding but I’m not going to stop. Tunnel vision. I remember thinking ‘oh, that’s new’ when she (Oh, big wow. Wasn’t expecting a gender, may have had a really stupid look on my face.) said something. Pretty easy to guess what since she was handing me headphones. Well, not really headphones, I’m pretty sure. More like giant head pinchers that fit over your ears. No music but less roar. I heard her say something about ‘hunching down when I approached’. Dear crap on a biscuit. The rather gruesome story of an actor and child being beheaded by a helicopter slammed into my mind and I almost puked. Helicopter look pretty tall. It’s not like I’m a 7’ tall basketball player and she wasn’t taller than me but was ducking too. Two choices: say ‘nevermind, I’ll wait for morning and find my own way out’ or ‘OK’. I told the astronaut something she interpreted as the ‘ok’ and she pulled me towards the noise. I didn’t look up when I got to the door open door either. I’m not quite sure how they got me into that thing but I didn’t fit very well. It wasn’t all that tiny in there but it was a bit tighter than it would have been under the rock. Nevertheless, I was praying thanks. (Unknown to me at the time, a family of five was also praying, for me, at the car.)

All but umbilically (new word meaning ‘attached sorta like an umbilical cord) attached to the inside of the helicopter I could hear nothing. The roar was all but gone and replaced by my now-familiar ringing ears, my chest wasn’t a body part so much as a tire permanently stuck in blowout; it felt like the first dead guy in the movie Alien must have felt. Astronaut gave me a mask that didn’t seem like it was doing anything at first so I closed my eyes and started the biofeedback malarkey for migraines that never seems to work until after it worked (or after the codeine makes it seem like it worked). I felt a tap on the shoulder and she said something but I couldn’t hear it or see her mouth so I had no guesses. Then the nod and ‘thumbs up’ made it clear and I nodded, might have said something. That’s when the cool part of the headphones happened: she plugged them into something and I could hear a voice. It sounded encouraging, asking me with obvious concern so I nodded again.

I looked out at the large rock expanse where I thought I was going to spend an interesting 12-18 hours and heard/felt the change of motor sound. That was good enough for me. I closed my eyes. I didn’t need to see anything else so I don’t know what it looks like: from inside a helicopter watching the ground go away; know what it feels like to fly over the mountains as opposed to valleys; to see cuddling clouds ‘come down’ on my head. It just felt smooth from end to end. The backend of the flight (I was now calling it a “rescue” in my mind) wasn’t thrilling cuz I got the opportunity to feel the sound of landing; it’s decidedly more freaky when you’re IN it rather than squirming UNDER it. You can duck and think about horror scenes in movies on the OUTSIDE. On the INSIDE, you’re just hanging on. No options = no worries. What happens is in the hands of God and a pilot. There may have been a tiny sense of touching the ground but, if there was, it was too slight for me to be sure it happened. But that blessed sound of the engine changing pitch signaled I was on solid ground again. The wetness on my cheeks didn’t surprise me. But the highly concerned look on Astronaut’s face and the tone of her voice hinted that it may have worried her. It took a while before I could figure out they were making sure I was OK to drive or if I needed an ambulance. I thought I’d said I was OK before and was just repeating that, wondering why they didn’t understand. Two things may have been mixed up. The first was that I couldn’t hear myself and was more than uncomfortable with yelling because of that. The second brought gales of laughter. It hadn’t occurred to me to tell anyone,

“I’m afraid of flying”. Well, I am and curiousity be damned, I was more freaked out up in the air than I was under a billion ton boulder with 3 inches of wiggle-room. After all, what was I gonna say if they asked me ‘are you OK with flying’? “Uh, no. Can you just leave me a spare one of those space suits you all are wearing? A small flashlight would be cool too.” I’m not that stupid. Well, I got into that mess so “stupid” was debatable. Again, I don’t know what mindless expression was on my face; people don’t look into mirrors when they’re mindless, do they? I may have looked as scared as I had felt before landing. Who would have thought someone who could just hop into a helicopter and drop 50 years of accumulated terror about flying? Then the laughing stopped all at once. Someone must have thought I’d be offended or embarrassed. For the record, I was neither. I was far too busy being grateful.

I’m going to skip the part between then and finally meeting Calm Voice sheriff. Stuff happens, ya know? But meeting him was the culmination of a piece of my screw-up. So was spending more than 10 seconds looking at Astronaut. Omg. If you added their ages together and tossed in a few years for kicks, they wouldn’t have totaled as old as I am! One is plucking morons off mountainsides. The other is carrying a gun. (sigh) I wanted to borrow the gun to shoot myself but it would have meant these KIDS had wasted their time. Both could have been on a beach knocking back some beers and making guys like me wanna ‘dream of the old days’. In my case, days that never happened because I was never “buff” nor escorting someone beautiful with sand between my toes. I didn’t even taste beer until I was 30. All I could do was stand there, this time KNOWING my face looked like an ancient dumbass far too far from flat land.

Calm Voice sheriff (Damn it. He’s gonna want to kick my ass if people start calling him that because of me. But what am I going to do? Ignore the fact he was the person who knew where I was despite my mis-said name for it? He knew it so well he realized he couldn’t drive all the way in and offered to WALK in to get me. I’ll take the asskicking.) did more thanking me for calling when I did than chewing me out for messing up. In fact, he didn’t say a word about me messing up. What he DID say was that I was blessed to have the helicopter team come out for me. He said they did it because they CHOSE to. For that knowledge I am thankful. I never would have known so I never would have written this so much gratitude in my heart. It’s one thing to be flying around doing a dangerous job “on the clock”. It’s a whole new ballgame to be with a private company and volunteering to do it. It seemed obvious that the CALSTAR team didn’t know him yet worked with him seamlessly as he juggled communications from CHP, the sheriff’s department, CALSTAR, and the flight crew. This guy was the kind of person you only meet once and never in the mirror, the kind of guy you hope your son becomes.

Regardless, he put me in the back of the cop car. There was some stuff on the front passenger seat. That was a really neat way to not have to say, “Into the back of the car, sir.” It was a lot more roomy than the helicopter but it WAS the back of a cop car, a place I’ve have the opportunity to spend precious priceless moments: the time I was almost arrested for stealing tires from a store 2 miles away while wearing nothing more than my shorts and a t-shirt; the time I was almost arrested for being a purse snatcher when I ran a red light on my bicycle; the time I was almost arrested as a Guardian Angel for being inside the Guardian Angels headquarters because I came outside without ID in my pocket and the keys in my hands; the time I almost got arrested… Nah, never arrested. Never did much of anything, much less something to get arrested for. But I was still trying not to think about being in the back of a cop car again. One of the few things I could hear while back there was that I was “the suspect”. There probably isn’t a word for The Fool On The Hill unless you’re in a famous rock band from the 60’s. (sigh) At least I DID something this time even if it wasn’t illegal. OK, I can live with that.

Calm Voice drove we to where I had parked. It was a surprising long drive and that was AFTER the helicopter brought me out. I really hope that wasn’t the distance I was hoping to walk back to the car if I hadn’t gotten lost. Damn.

I read the note after everyone had left and I was sitting at the gate. I don’t want to share it yet; it is still too precious. But it came from the 5 people who started praying for me when they saw the unoccupied car and heard the chopper coming. They guessed the two things were related and stopped to pray for my safe return. They were so excited to see me I could feel the warmth. These people didn’t know me, didn’t know about me, didn’t ask my name when Calm Voice and I got out of the car. Maybe they saw the fish on the back of the Volkswagen and just knew I shared their belief, their faith. Their note was more comforting than their open smiles were and that’s really saying something. It wasn’t signed. It didn’t need to be. I will keep it as the new thing on my apartment wall. In fact, it will remain the only thing I have ever put on those walls.

My deepest thanks goes out to the entire team of people who put together conflicting GPS signals, cell phone limitations, misnamed locations, and transferring/finding dropped calls, recognizing I was in trouble, linking numerous wireless signals to guide the CALSTAR team to me, and a myriad of other details I can’t begin to name. I wasn’t going to write this part because I was so rattled I couldn’t remember any of the four people’s names who I saw face-to-face. But the heartfelt kindness of Astronaut once I was on the ground and unlost can’t go unnamed. “Astronaut” turned out to be Jennifer Drennan, a RN and flight nurse for a private company named CALSTAR, a nonprofit community service who VOLUNTEERED to go and get me. Nurse Drennan has more professional initials AFTER her name than I have letters IN my name. If you ever have a bit of money you’d like to put towards a priceless service, donate it to CALSTAR. (You can skip the part about hearing of them because they rescued my sorry ass from the El Dorado Forest. Thank you very much). The only reason I remember even one name is because I was given a CALSTAR business card. I am ashamed to admit I remember more detail about such miniscule aspects of this affair than I remember the names of the people who saved me. I hope they can forgive me but they know who they are. Nurse Drennan can pull together the names of the awesome pilot and “Happy Voice” (I know: what a terrible way to remember a person who risked her life to save me. Yet her voice was so nonchalant, professional, so happy I regret never having seen her other than as ‘the helmet in the right front seat of the helicopter with the happy voice’. She is gonna want to kill me for this. Co-workers are gonna start calling her Happy Voice. Her boss is gonna have that sly smile bosses have when they know they better not say something like ‘Hi Happy’. The pilot will never let her forget it. Well, if you’re reading this bit, I either forgot to delete it or thought I’d never be tracked down and slapped by her.) All the 911 logs will have been audio recorded and make me eat my words where I accidentally put firm quotation marks where I should have put the single (infirm? Do quotation marks get old and infirm and become only have what they used to be?) ones.

I saw the pilot’s face once and he was smiling. I heard his voice a couple times tho I could not tell what he was saying. He was just cool as could be. There was more bumping around in a commercial passenger airplane than I felt at his hands. I’ve heard that’s not what’s to be expected while in a helicopter. If that’s correct, Mr. Pilot (Alright, damn! What am I supposed to say? We weren’t actually formally introduced during a state dinner in the Governor’s Mansion. Yeah, it sounds inane. Tell you what. If I get any responses from this post that clarify all the names, I’ll pull out all the gunk, replace it with only the actual human beings’ names, and nobody will have this crap hanging around unless they’re weird enough to save it from the website or an email address. Cool? Cool.) did a primo job of flying. If I wore a hat, my hat’s off to him. He’s the one who had to decide whether or not to land on the side of that mountain. In the end, he was the only reason I got out of the woods that night. He may have been the only reason I got out the next day. Sir, may you fly with God each and every day you fly.

The Cliff Notes (Arrghhh! That was one of the worst names I’ve given this part of my writing. It’s also the most true.)

I had no flashlight but I did have light. If my cell wasn’t going to get the rescue team to my location, I was going to set the cameras to shoot in the ‘red eye reduction’ mode and aim them upward and behind the helicopter when I saw it. The flashes would have been obvious even if it not aimed straight into the eyes of someone flying an aircraft. Duh.

The cell phone may or may not have been able to call out when I was under the boulder. If it hadn’t, I would have called out one last time for the night to tell the emergency crews I would be out of contact and in shelter. I would have set the alarm on the cell to ring once an hour to make me aware of how my body was doing. If I was going to freeze to death, I was going to know about it before it happened, damn it.

God hasn’t placed a call to me, turned me around, or shown me a vision since that last one. We’re still in touch tho.

On a photography shoot the next week in Coloma (Yeah, into the woods. However, there was a distinct clearing about 100 yards in diameter where the picnic was. I didn’t leave it without being more than 20 feet from away. I crossed the 2-lane road twice. I was in direct line-of-sight constantly. I have been taught.), I heard a noise and looked up to see a helicopter high above. The only thing I could tell about it was that it wasn’t a bird or a plane. But I had presence of mind to aim my camera at it anyway to see what, if anything, I could make out when I blew it up later. In the second and last shot, the distinct CALSTAR logo was visible. I don’t know if it was CALSTAR 6, the team that got me. But I saluted anyway.

Any sales from any portion of this story, the posted images, or any of the others I took will be donated to CALSTAR, the non-profit organization that plucked me off the mountainside. They’d appreciate your donations as well. Spread the word. They are worthy. They are more than worthy.

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