When I was ten, my best friend broke his arm.
He was riding his bicycle, the same way he had a hundred times before.
I’ll never know the specifics of what happened, but he lost control. Grasping for his brakes, he hooked his hand in the brake lever and flipped forward over the handlebars.
In an instant he went from being totally in control, to completely at the mercy of gravity and friction — literal forces of nature.
It would be a stretch to trace my current fascination with disasters back to this one event, but we’ve all encountered this phenomenon on some scale. One instant you’re completely in control. The next, you’re a cog in the wheels of nature and physics. Slipping on an icy sidewalk. Tripping down the stairs. Being hit by a car.
There’s a moment when you’re tossed into the air. Your legs are knocked out from under you. You are helpless. The bottom falls out of your stomach. You get that icy feeling in the back of your throat. The hairs on the back of your neck stand up. You taste blood… or is it just panic?
Some seek this feeling out on roller coasters, mountain bikes, and in free fall just before they pull the rip cord on their parachute.
Others have had this feeling thrust upon them by nature, or through human error.
My fascination with disasters centers on the human being staring up at a ten-story-tall tsunami, trapped in an inferno that was once their hometown, or watching their civilization crumble around them at the hands of an invisible plague. One moment, they’re in complete control. The next, they are bodies in motion, governed by physics and biology.
Disasters are the great equalizer. Kings and paupers, philosophers and soldiers, artists and builders. It doesn’t matter how much you know or what status you hold in society. Nature doesn’t care that we’re here, and it won’t care when we’re gone. The universe existed for billions of years before we reached the current point in our evolution on Earth. It will exist for billions of years after we are gone and the sun has consumed our planetary home.
Yet, in the face of these immense forces, humans survive. In 1846, the Donner Party was led through a “short cut” on their passage from Illinois to Oregon. Their path, on foot and in wagons, would lead them through the scorching heat of deserts and salt flats that left their skin dry, cracked, and bleeding. It would also take them through the mountains, where they would be stranded in unbearable cold and immense snowfalls without winter clothing or anything approaching adequate supplies.
The Donner Party’s story is a gruesome one, and best saved for a full telling. What’s most amazing about their tragedy is that some of the party survived. Those that did made it over uncompromising terrain, under brutally cold conditions, and while woefully ill-equipped.
History is punctuated with disasters, and with human perseverance in facing them. This is at the core of why they occupy so much of my mind.
Falling from his bike and hitting the pavement, my best friend was reduced to an object made of muscle, fat, and bone. One of those bones broke.
Then he rose.