Archives for July 2007

Death by Chocolate

For many years now, my personal theory of the universe has been that chocolate makes the world go around, and that peanut butter holds it together. I’ve also thought that the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup should be the new symbol for the United Nations.


So with a title like “Death By Chocolate,” one might be inclined to think that this is a story about a world-class desert. However, in this case, I am using the terms far more literally.

On this particular day, it just so happened that I had been away from home for nearly a week and things were not going particularly well for me. It culminated when I found myself with a large group of people heading out to dinner, and the choice was to go to a Bar-BQ joint that had nothing to speak of for a vegetarian. So while my comrades gorged on chicken, pork and ribs, I chose to go for a walk instead.

I soon came to a gas station (seldom known for fine cuisine), but entered with but a single quest: chocolate. I found satisfaction in the form of a Hershey’s chocolate bar, paid the clerk, and started my return walk back to my friends. To avoid some of the traffic along the road I already traveled, I walked along a more picturesque route behind some buildings and along a forested trail.

Apparently I was not paying much attention and I somehow managed to choke on a piece of my precious chocolate. Now, we’ve all had things go down the wrong pipe once in a while, but this time I was really choking. I could not breath, and I had hardly the air in my lungs to expel whatever was in there. I knew full well that my airway was obstructed and that I had to clear it, but my own attempts to do so were utterly useless. I tried to focus and think through my breathing rather than panicking, but the fight-or-flight response was in full force, complete with massive amounts of adrenaline and fear.  I heard this awful noise as I struggled to inhale, made all the louder in my heightened fight for survival. I tried to do the Heimlich maneuver on myself but it failed.

Moments later, I collapsed to the ground on the street behind what turned out to be an old-folks home. The traffic I formerly chose to avoid was now conspicuously absent when I needed it. From the ground, I saw a patio chair about 30 feet away.  I had fallen from dizziness, yet still needed to return to my feet to reach the chair. As I stumbled my way there through the dizziness I could hardly see straight.  I fell down again by the chair and fought an intense urge to go to sleep. I knew that I was on the verge of passing out. I managed to pull myself back up to my feet, placed my hands on its back, and hurled my abdomen into my hands, knowing I would not likely get a second chance to attempt the maneuver.

Whether because the chair was more effective at expelling the object, or perhaps the chocolate had melted, but I could breathe again.

At that point, one of the residents came by and asked if I was OK. I was still coughing profusely, which was a marked improvement from passing out.   I said no, I was definitely not OK, and that I needed water. I could barely get the words out through a still constricted and very sore throat.  She pointed me to a door through which I could get a drink, but it was locked.  I sat down in front of the door and just started bawling uncontrollably.

She came back a few minutes later with water, which helped a bit, and she started asking questions about where I was from, if I was alone, and if I needed further help. I told her that the worst was over, and that I had just managed to scare myself something fierce — I would be OK in a few more minutes.

However, that was not really the case. I started walking back towards the restaurant where my comrades and carpool mates Ray and Forest where eating.  They had actually gone looking for me by this time, and saw me walking on the road.  They beeped the horn, and as I got in they asked what was wrong. All I could say was “just drive” and I could not stop crying the whole way home.

I knew my response was way disproportionate to the events of the day, but I was still a mess.  We got home, and I asked to just be by myself for a bit in the car.  So they went into the house and apparently told Paula (another housemate) “you have good antennae…  Ashley is out in the car crying.  Go figure it out.”

I could not even tell her the story without reliving the experience still so fresh in my mind, and again the tears flowed like rain. Yet it did feel better to tell my story than to to live it. Together, we went inside and let the rest of my friends know what had happed.

Forest said he was glad I was still alive, because if they had to haul my body back home, it would probably start to stink by the time we had to leave on Sunday, especially without air conditioning in Ray’s car.

So while it is true that all of our days on this green earth are numbered, I can say with some degree of certainty that death by chocolate is not they way I plan to leave this world.

Watch Out For That Tree

There is a common saying among paragliders that they fall into two distinct groups: those who have landed in trees, and those that will land in trees. I may have just moved from one group to the other… I’m not sure.

All this past week, I have been flying in the Rat Race, off of Woodrat mountain in southern Oregon. It was my first paragliding competition. On this fateful day, however, I had an unplanned outcome to a forced landing on the side of the mountain. It started with significant sink right after launching from the upper part of the mountain, and continued as I made my way down the hill, approaching the second (older) launch that is maybe half way down the mountain.

It looked like I had a good setup to land in a moderately sized parking lot. I was facing south, the parking lot was right in front of me, the peak was to my left, with a ridge going down to my right. Unfortunately, 5 seconds before touchdown I hit even more sink and found myself rapidly heading right towards the backside of the ridge. I turned right to avoid the hill, but I was still clearly in trouble. However, there was a road below that gave me another 50′ of altitude above the ground and maybe another 2 seconds to think. That was good, because I needed 1.5 seconds to figure out what to do.

I could see that by going straight down the road, I would not have the horizontal clearance for my wing. That meant that one or both tips would catch high up on the trees, killing my wing and sending me forward to land on my back. So that option was out with half a second of precious time wasted.

In next half second, I chose to deliberately wrap my left wing tip on a rhododendron, anticipating that I would become a human tether ball spinning around at the end of my lines. Believe it or not, knowing that I was going to crash, I was actually picking and choosing which trees I wanted to land on.

In that last second before impact, I had time to take a deep breath, fly the wing at my target, and relax.

George of the JungleAs the road sloped upwards, my left tip caught the tree, I was spun left and UP, my seat remaining parallel to the ground. I flared like the dickens on the right to slow down and was placed on the ground as gently as a feather. I didn’t need to turn towards my wing because as the human tether ball, the tree did that for me.

With my feet safely on the ground, I switched to the retrieve frequency and let the support team know that I was OK. I did not yet know if I needed help extracting my wing or not.

That’s when an older man who was parked on the hill walked down and asked what the heck I did that for.Poison Oak

“umm, because I botched my landing, and this was better than landing at the top of the oak tree?”

“Well, maybe, but this poison oak is not much better.”

While my wing was mostly over the Rhododendron, all behind it was poison oak. I would have to carefully extract my wing, trying to minimize contact with the itchy shrub right next to it. The older gentleman tried to be helpful, but I had to continually tell him to not use brute force on my lines to get the wing out.

After about 20 minutes, we had my wing free, and I had a massive rat’s nest of lines to untangle.  15 minutes later,my lines were clear, and I walked up the road to that parking lot that I missed on my landing. From there, I was able to launch again from the middle if the hill, heading for the primary LZ.

I packed up, keeping my gloves on, and put all my outer garments in their own stuff sack. I washed up back at HQ and wouldn’t know about the poison oak for another day.

But at least I was safely on the ground.

P. S.: Two days later, I did indeed develop a small rash of poison oak. I was lucky enough to only break out in two pin-sized dots, one on the back of my hand, and one on my forearm.