Life ends in a moment. One false step. One lapse in our attention. One wayward bump in the road and mortality collects its dues. Life and death are determined by fractions of time and distance.
Our close friends are part owners of a 4000-acre ranch in the mountains of Humboldt County. It is not a ranch like you might be thinking of, with flat pastures, barns, and grassy fields. No, this is a hunting ranch intersected by the Mad River with streams, old-growth forests, rugged peaks, valleys, oak stands, grasslands, lots of poison oak, amazing fishing holes, and abundant wildlife including bear, deer, turkey, grouse, elk, and rattlesnakes. It is one of the few properties in the area where marijuana is not commercially grown.
It is not far from the nearby lawless region notoriously nicknamed “Murder Mountain,” based on the number of missing persons and homicides which have occurred in such a sparsely populated area. At night the distant hills around the ranch light up with the glow of illuminated greenhouses filled with the hopes of the prospectors, capitalists, gangsters, foreigners, and “green rushers”.
When you go to the ranch, you better like roughing it, at least a little bit. The adventure begins on Highway 36, a serpentine road that climbs 3000 feet from the coast to the mountains. It frequently narrows to a single lane and is the cause of major car sicknesses, and accidents. To get to the ranch, you drive to Dinsmore and turn left on an unmarked dirt road just before the old store. As a side note, the Dinsmore Store is an amazing place to people watch. Much of their business comes from supplying the marijuana growers. The clientele is a hodgepodge of growers, “trimmigrants”, tourists, backpackers, addicts, brokers, rednecks, loggers, hippies, and RV’ers who look way out of place.
After turning left, shift into four-wheel drive and proceed uphill to the first locked gate. This is the first of three locked gates that one has to open in order to get to the property. Continue for nearly an hour on the semi-private, potholed, dirt road. You are now “off the grid”. Drive slow, and smile at anyone who you cross paths with. Navigate through a maze of unmarked driveways, side roads, dust, mud, and steep climbs. At the very end of the road is the old rustic cabin with sheet metal siding and a barn.
The cabin has a propane stove for cooking, a generator, beds, bathrooms, and a fireplace. It sits on a ridge with a big deck and breathtaking views of a deep valley created by the Mad River. On the horizon to the east are fire-scarred ridges leading up to the snow-covered alpine peaks of the Trinity Mountains. Behind the cabin, there are apple trees that typically have a couple of the locals (blacktail deer) feeding lazily underneath.
For the past ten years, Heidi and I have spent time every summer at the ranch with our friends, Nathan and Shelley. There is not much to do up there besides fish, ride ATV’s, lay in the sun, float the river, shoot guns, and read books. It is a great place to unplug and unwind. It is a piece of paradise with its complete privacy and exclusive access to more than a dozen amazing fishing holes and beach-like sandbars. There is very spotty cell phone service, no internet, or television. While there you are truly tucked into an unseen corner of the world. The biggest decision each day is deciding which fishing hole to go to. Once that decision is made, we pack lunches and ride quads to the spot where we spend the day fishing, napping, swimming, and reading as we watch the sun move slowly across the sky.
The small ranch roads that crisscross the property are not passible with a car or even a typical SUV. The hills are too steep, the roads are too narrow, and the ruts are too deep. This terrain is the reason why quads were invented. Before quads, there were three-wheelers but that was before my time. Quads can get you up and down these hills although some of the roads require great skill to negotiate. I have seen my friends ascend hills that look impossibly steep. Skilled riders have a way of keeping the wheels on the ground in ways that defy gravity.
For decades, riding with a helmet has been optional at the ranch. Why? Maybe it is because this ranch predates helmets. In fact, it predates cars. Also, I have never seen someone hunting from a quad while wearing a helmet. I have never seen a rancher driving his or her property on a quad while wearing a helmet. Perhaps I have lived a sheltered life, but in those scenarios, helmets have seemed out of place. Of course, you will always wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle, or driving on a street, or while in the sand dunes, or where speed is one of the goals, but not on the ranch.
My wife, Heidi, is an exceptional beauty. I know that every husband will say this about their wife but those who know Heidi will emphatically back me up on my assertion. When people see me and they see her, they get confused. I can read their minds; “How did they end up together?” It is a good question, but life’s greatest blessings will forever remain a mystery to us.
Heidi also grew up with two brothers. They and her father made her tough. There was nothing that boys could do that she could not do, because of her gender. If you even suggested that there was something she should not attempt to do, she would prove you wrong, no matter the price. This is as true today as it was when she was growing up. I know this from my firsthand experiences.
We had just spent four days at the ranch having a wonderful time. We were sunburnt, rested, and not wanting to go back home. That morning during my run I had scared a large cinnamon-colored black bear who had outrun me through the woods and gone crashing through the brush below my trail. It was an unforgettable sight. We had caught and released countless trout, acquired some poison oak, eaten the best food of our lives, and eluded one large rattlesnake.
As pastors, we have church services on the weekends starting on Saturday night. At the end of this week, I was preaching, and my wife had no assigned responsibilities. Our friends, Nathan and Shelley, were staying at the ranch through the weekend, so Heidi opted to stay for the final two days while I returned home to the church. I was jealous that they could stay for two extra days, but I also had a job to do. I returned home late Saturday afternoon.
After the close of the Saturday night service, I received a call from Shelley. “Matt, we are on our way to Redwood Memorial Hospital in Fortuna and you need to meet us there. Heidi has been in an accident and she should be OK.”
“So, she is OK? She is there with you? Do I really need to go to the hospital?” I asked nervously.
Shelley replied, “Yes. Go there and be there when we arrive.”
At that time the cell phone service cut out and the call dropped.
Heidi and Shelley had just gone on an evening ride to the top of Pee Wee’s Rock. At 4000 feet above sea level, this is the highest vista point on the ranch property and the best place to watch the sunset. Both ladies were carrying sidearms for protection against rattlesnakes, bears, and cougars. I know these are not really serious threats, but they are an excuse to carry a gun like Annie Oakley while on the ranch.
Because of the dust, while riding the quad roads it is important to leave some distance between yourself and the other riders. Side by side is also an option, but most of the roads are not wide enough to do this. After watching the sunset Shelley led the way towards the cabin down the hill. Once the dust settled, Heidi followed.
Dusk was quickly enveloping the landscape. The ruts, potholes, and rocks had become less visible with twilight. Coming down an especially steep section of the road, Heidi attempted to negotiate a small trench that crossed the road to divert water off the road and down an edge that went down to a creek bed. We do not know exactly what happened next, but the momentum of the 600-pound machine moving at 15 miles per hour down the steep grade, into the eroded trench caused her to endo with the quad, off the small road, and into the creek bed that lay ten feet below the level of the road.
The first impact was Heidi’s mouth smashing into the handlebars, splitting through her upper lip. Next, her face took the full impact on the rocky ground, shattering her orbital, cheekbone, nose, and lacerating her face. Her sunglasses (which she was wearing for eye protection) embedded shards into the skin surrounding her eye. The impact knocked her out cold.
She regained consciousness alone in the ditch, stunned. She stood up shakily, without a broken back, neck, or limbs. She instinctively tried to upright the quad, but that was futile and pointless. Blood was pouring down her face and dripping onto her shirt and the ground. Realizing how badly she was bleeding, Heidi took a handkerchief and wrapped it around her face to apply pressure to what was bleeding. She felt the severity of the damage to her lips, face, nose, and eye. Staggering up to the road, she looked for Shelley, but she was alone. It was quite dark. She pulled out the pistol that was in her holster and fired it in the hope that Shelley would hear it and come back up the hill to help.
It worked. Shelley had been waiting to regroup with Heidi when she heard the gun blast. She wasn’t sure what it was about. Perhaps Heidi had been attacked by a cougar. Whatever it was, Shelley did not wait to guess any further. She started the quad, turned around, and went back up the road.
The miracle is that Heidi was alive. There was no way to know how severe her head trauma was, or if she had suffered internal injuries. Thankfully, she was conscious and fully mobile. But with head injuries, there was no telling how grave her condition was.
When Shelley saw Heidi, she immediately noticed the blood and the brokenness of Heidi’s face. Seeing the quad in the ditch, she realized it was a bad accident. Heidi got onto the back of Shelley’s quad and rode carefully back to the cabin. Shelley kept talking to Heidi while praying that Heidi wouldn’t pass out and fall off.
Back at the cabin, Nathan and a couple of other guys heard the quad approaching. Seeing one ATV instead of two left them confused and wondering had happened. Nathan came up to the quad just as Shelley stopped.
“Heidi was in an accident. Grab some ice.” Shelley directed.
Heidi carefully removed the bandanna and Nathan cringed, “We need to get her to the hospital now!”
There are no hospitals near the cabin. There are no ambulances. The choices are to either call in a helicopter, or to drive to the hospital yourself.
Nathan grabbed the keys to his Toyota Tundra, along with Heidi’s bag, and the three of them began the treacherous drive back to the town of Fortuna. Bouncing down the jeep road was especially painful for Heidi. You can only go so fast on those roads, and there was concern over the loss of blood and internal injuries.
I left the church in a fog of confusion and fear. I got into my car alone and began the 30-minute drive to Fortuna. I had received the kind of call that we never want to get, but at least Heidi was all right. Or was she? I had no idea what to expect. I tried to call Nathan or Shelley, but they were obviously out of the range of cell phone service. It was 7:45 p.m. when I arrived at the hospital. There were no signs my of wife and friends. Fortunately, the Emergency Room was mostly quiet and empty.
I went inside and told the nurse that my wife had been in an ATV accident and should be there any moment. This gave them time to prepare for her arrival. They grabbed a wheelchair and waited to meet Heidi outside. Moments later, Nathan’s black truck sped into the parking lot, heading directly to the ER entrance. As the nurses helped Heidi out of the passenger’s seat, our eyes met, welling up with tears of emotion. They wheeled her quickly to a room that was already set up for her.
For the next hour, her face was painfully cleaned, removing rock, dirt, and glass from her face. I cringed, looking away while holding her hand as she squeezed mine and endured the pain. Her injuries were scrubbed and disinfected. Her nose was straightened. A CAT scan and X-Rays were taken. Her lip and eyelid were carefully repaired with stitches.
Her face was a patchwork of gashes and slashes. I did not think it would heal very well. I have a very frightening photo that shows how bad it was. We both knew that it would take plastic surgery or a miracle to repair the damage. Her external perfection had been marred but she was alive. The miracle was that she didn’t have a brain injury. She hadn’t broken her neck. The quad had not landed on her. Her back had not broken. She had not lost any teeth. She had not broken an arm, or a leg, or lost an eye. She had no internal injuries.
We were sent home late that night, and Heidi recovered miraculously. There would be follow up surgeries or visits to the emergency room. One week later we were speaking together to the church on the weekend.
Today, Heidi has scars that tell the tale of that accident. You must look closely to see them. I do not think they take away from her beauty at all. They are evidence of the grace of God. They remind us that God is not finished with us yet.
Our scars, physical, emotional, and psychological – tell stories. Stories of past pain. Stories of past healing. Stories of the experiences that we survived through the grace, mercy, and intervention of God.
External beauty is fleeting, but the beauty of grace, godliness, and love are timeless.
While one type of beauty fades, the other ever grows as God forms our character through the crucible of life.
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
1. Describe a time where you sensed the supernatural protection of God over your life.
2. Why do you think Jesus kept his scars?
3. What scars do you carry and what tales do they tell?