Worst Nightmare: Entwined

A hair-raising tale of wilderness terror that will haunt your backcountry dreams
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A hair-raising tale of wilderness terror that will haunt your backcountry dreams

Amy didn’t love backpacking. She hated bugs, for starters, and she cringed at the thought of going to the bathroom in the woods. And she was scared of bears, even though she’d never seen one in the wild and her boyfriend, Paul, told her that the Sierras were totally safe, you just had to hang your food from a tree. Food! Yet another thing Amy found distasteful about the whole enterprise. She had been raised in Brooklyn’s Chinatown, where her grandmother, Wei, ensured the family never encountered anything resembling gorp.

But Amy loved Paul, and Paul loved backpacking, so she was trying. The two had met in their junior year at UCLA, in an anthro class called Culture of Intersubjectivity. They didn’t get much from the course—who did?—but the diminutive, black-haired New Yorker and the blond San Diego kid who didn’t surf remained a couple more than a year later. Early on, Amy determined that she wouldn’t let backpacking be a “guys” thing that Paul did without her. Indeed, it was Amy herself who proposed they hike to Diamond Lake for the weekend.

She’d been there once before—with Paul, of course—and despite the mosquitoes and the peeing in the woods, she could see it was a special place. Granite spires rose sharply above the lake and a mirror image shined in the glassy water. A meadow-side camp afforded a perfect view of both the peaks above and the canyon below, where a river filled the air with the soft, distant hum of moving water.

“I’ll pack the food,” she’d told Paul. She wanted everything to be just right. The place. The meal. The reflection in the lake. She smiled to herself when she realized this must be what men go through when they plan to propose. And really, wasn’t she planning a proposal of sorts? She was pregnant. She was pregnant and they had just graduated from college. What else would they do? She would tell him under the magnificent summer stars.

“Watch your step,” Paul said as they hiked up the canyon toward the spur to Diamond Lake, “these rocks are slick.” They’d come six miles, and had just another mile to go. But the scene didn’t match Amy’s vision. A light rain obscured the view of the mountains. And when they reached the river crossing, the water level was much higher than on their previous visit. Had it rained hard higher up? Paul stopped and surveyed the river from a streamside rock. The waist-deep water ran fast and loud, so Paul had to raise his voice.

“The current is too strong,” he shouted, “We need to go back.” It was obvious Paul was right. But Amy felt devastated. Would everything be different if she couldn’t tell him at Diamond Lake? She’d packed smoked salmon! Still, she nodded agreement and started to turn. Then, without thinking, she turned back to face Paul, who was still standing on a rock above the current.

“We’re going to have a baby,” she blurted.

“What…” Paul said, and instinctively took a step backward, like he needed more space to understand the words. But there wasn’t enough rock behind him. Paul’s right foot landed on the wet, sloped edge of the boulder and slipped off. He teetered on his left foot for a second while Amy watched in horror, then his weight passed the tipping point and he plunged into the current. “Paul!” Amy screamed.

Paul didn’t panic. He swung his legs downstream and turned his attention to unbuckling his hipbelt so he could shrug his heavy pack off. He took a deep breath and let his head sink below the water so he could better grapple the buckle with cold fingers. Got it! He pulled his arms free and raised his head—just in time to see he was heading straight for a tree lying in the river. There was no way to avoid it. The current sucked him under, and he came to a sudden, painful stop; he felt like he’d been stabbed in the arm, chest, stomach, and both legs. He was pinned against the tree’s branches, trapped underwater.

Amy raced frantically along the bank. But even as she searched for Paul, she replayed the scene in her mind. Had she caused him to fall in? Had Paul been so repelled by her news that he had to step away from her? “Paul!” she shouted again, forcing the thought from her mind. Surely his head would appear downstream, bobbing in the swirling water with that silly grin he’d flashed this morning when he’d accidently poured coffee into his cereal while rushing to pack.

But Paul didn’t surface. He struggled to push his way through the pine’s branches, but they were too close and dense. He couldn’t move an inch upstream. The river was running at 1,500 cubic feet per second. After 30 seconds, Paul felt his chest tighten, but he knew he could hold his breath longer than a minute. He continued to push against the branches, though his arms were weaker now, his muscles deprived of oxygen. Push, he told himself, push.

After 90 seconds, all he could do was fight the urge to breathe. Then his body rebelled. He involuntarily gasped, filling his lungs with icy water and searing pain. The water roared in his ears. Where was the peaceful silence of drowning everyone talks about?

With one last effort, he forced his hand down through the water, where it came to rest on the ring in his pocket.