The slower pace and quietness of mountain life called out to our family during the 90’s. After the birth of our fourth child we purchased a home in the northwest corner of North Carolina, high enough to see into Virginia and Tennessee, and close enough to the Blue Ridge Parkway we could hike there. Yet the cities lay just an hour drive down the mountain.
Our 3,500 ft. elevation gave us resplendent Indian summers, but before the end of October, bone-cold nights and snow flurries checked in – to stay.
By late November, Winter fell like the ax on the neck of the Thanksgiving turkey. She hunkered down with diamond-studded frost or snow, and branch-snapping winds. Often, after a solid week of fog, we’d bundle up, hop into the car, and drive “down the mountain” to Charlotte or Winston Salem just for a glimpse of the sun and the more alive smell of fall foliage.
One such trip took us to a family reunion, making our light-sweater day especially long. Long after dark and everyone’s bedtime, we reluctantly headed home to our mountain paradise. I leaned my head back on the headrest as we accelerated against the incline, around the switchbacks – up and up into cold air. All four kids (two toddlers and two teens) snuggled under their coats and dropped off to sleep. The quietness in the car felt good.
About five miles from the summit, my husband spotted what he thought was a deer carcass on the side of the road. A bit lighter in color than the usual deer, it almost glowed in the headlights of a car we thought may have hit it.
Two men stood over it, yet for some reason my husband decided to look closer. I stopped breathing as he made a fast u-turn back to the scene.
When we pulled up and got out, my throat tightened and I suddenly felt hot. I saw one of the men sort of kick at it, and in that moment I breathed a thank you to God that our two toddlers stayed asleep. For it wasn’t a deer.
“You guys stay in the car,” my husband warned. “Try to keep the little ones asleep.”
I grabbed coats from the older kids, and ran to cover what now was clearly a half-naked woman. She was alive, moaning incoherent, face down, but not visibly injured.
My husband asked the men what happened.
“Dunno… got here jis’ a minute ago. She was a-lying here, but we bin drinkin’ an’ well, we gotta go ‘fore the police come. We called 911 anyways and was jes’ fixin’ to take off when yous came.” They couldn’t get away fast enough.
I noticed a small pile of clothes close to the car but said nothing to my husband who paced, waiting. As night deepened in utter quietness, all I knew to do was pray out loud for this woman. Her nails dug into the grass as I cradled her over the coats.
In a few minutes the place swarmed with the swirling lights of police cars and men searching, wondering if a perpetrator might still be close. I kept my position over her, praying and consoling her.
When the ambulance came, the EMTs replaced our coats with their blankets. Rolling her onto her back they yelled, “What is your name?”
Her response, a loud fear-filled “Aaaaaah!” told that she’d been drinking. That fact and her car’s freshly cut tire provided a rape scenario (or conjecture) which supposedly began at a bar up the mountain. It seemed as though we’d been dropped into a CSI episode. As they prepared to lift her onto the gurney, the men EMTs asked females present to do as much of the steadying as possible. Their utmost concern for her dignity impressed me.
As I returned to our bewildered teens in the car, I wondered… would this woman be able to tell them what had happened? Would the authorities work hard to find who’d raped her? Would I ever see her again? How will I talk to my teens about this?
About three weeks later when the phone rang, I happened to pick it up first. The long silence after my hello clued me who had called.
Heart beating fast, I allowed the pause. Be patient. Give her time.
In an almost inaudible whisper she finally spoke. “You …prayed … I remember your voice…”
More silence. What do I say? “Are you alright?”
“Yes, but I had to find you. I asked around. Can we meet?”
“Yes, of course. Where? When?”
We met at a local restaurant. The scene felt surreal. In a booth with ordinary lunch banter going on all around us, I sat before a woman in her early forties with pleasant eyes and smooth complexion, talking, or almost talking, about the most horrific thing imaginable. It seemed. As she thanked me for being there, I knew there had to be more.
“See, my husband beats me. I just wanted a break from it all.”
She went on to tell me about her clandestine plan to meet “another man” down the mountain. No mention of the bar, or her drink. The car started to act strange, she said. When she pulled over, a car came up behind, and a man came over to offer help. The darkness hid his face. When they walked around to look for the problem, he attacked her, dragged her down the embankment and raped her as she dug her fingernails into the hill. After he sped away, she crawled up the hill to get to her headlights. Temps in the 40’s meant hypothermia, pretty fast.
Next thing she knew, I was praying over her.
I met her once again a few months later. They had never found the perpetrator. She was fine, she said. “Life goes on.”
My mind reeled. She just wanted me to know that she knew I prayed.
Of course I hardly knew how to talk to my teens about the event. Even after clipping the brief article from the paper I didn’t know what to say.
Do we think there are answers, or some better situation, down the mountain, up
the mountain, or on the other side of the mountain? Or fence? Will we reach out to
others with whom we can hardly relate? How will we do it? When it seems there’s
nothing we can do, will we simply move on in the face of tragedy? Will we pray out
loud when it seems silly to do so?
Possibly one of the most important questions is: How do people cope with life’s knock-downs without a real, rock-solid Home to come home to?
I walked into our warm house on the top of the mountain that last night we met, and realized that prayer is sometimes all we can do. It was my minimum at the time and I must believe it was also my maximum. She knew I prayed.