Spirituality Found in the Winds

Editor's Note:
On a remote trek to see the solar eclipse from a mountain, a friend suffered a stroke - spurring Dr. Kelley Donham ('71) and fellow travelers to action as they worked, against the odds and terrain, to get Nancy to safety. Read Donham's tale, which he gave at the Des Moines Register's Storytellers Project.

Tom sent out an email early in 2017 suggesting that our annual buzzards’ wilderness backing trip should be in the Winds (the Wind River Mountains Wilderness area in Western Wyoming).  He announced the eclipse will be in totality in the Winds near Granite Peak.  We should be there August 21 to experience it.  Yes, was the resounding response from the core of “The Buzzards.”   

“The Buzzards” (aka crusty buzzards) is an eclectic group of hikers from various places in the U.S. We are not young (mean age of 68, range 12 – 73).  We have been together hiking in wilderness areas annually for nearly 20 years. The Buzzard core for 2017 (Nancy, Katrina, Steve, Debra, Richie, Tom, Kent, James, and Kelley) assembled this year in Pinedale, Wyoming, first for a day hike to acclimate from our flatland homes to 8,000 – 13,000 feet mountains. We started our assent to Granite Mountain from the trailhead under a bright sunny Wyoming sky. Our first day was a heavy climb going from about 8,000 to 10,000 feet.  We found a beautiful campsite above a boiling mountain stream.  We had our usual evening one-course trail meal and campfire and lots of talk and readings from selected books (our trail entertainment). 

We hit our tents and sleeping bags between 9 & 10. I feel asleep listening to a cow bell—of all things— ringing in the nearby meadow. (What was a cow doing up here a 10,000 feet anyway?) I was up around 7:00 AM.  I still was hearing that cow bell.  Looking out in the meadow, it was actually a horse wearing the cow bell.  I thought – what is that about? 

Shortly after 7 AM, Debra came to me and said, “Nancy is just not right, come and look at her!”  I approached Nancy’s tent, and she was seated with her knees drawn up and head between her knees.  Dr. Jim, a pediatrician hiking with us, was monitoring her vital signs.  A quick field neurological assessment suggested she was having some sort of neurological event. We monitored her vitals and cognition for an hour. Although her vitals remained steady, her cognition and level of consciousness continued to decline. 

At 10:00 AM we realized that Nancy was probably having a stroke and we needed to get her –somehow- to appropriate medical care – and soon!  But ……  but, we were in the wilderness, forty miles from cell phone service, 80 miles from primary care, and at least 180 from miles from tertiary care.  What to do?

We decided that Nancy’s daughter Katrina should hike down to get help. That would take most of a day to hike out to the trail head where our car was parked, and then drive another 30 miles to get to cell phone range to call for help.  Katrina was about ready to go with pack on her back, when Steve (Nancy’s brother) saw a cowboy approaching the horse in the meadow—the horse with the cowbell.  Steve yelled, “Hey, can you come here and help us?”  He did. We explained what is going on. The cowboy said, “I have another horse back at camp.  I can get down on these horses in half the time it takes to hike down.”  Steve said, “Can you take Katrina and her back pack with you?” “Sure” the cowboy replied.  So, the cowboy caught the horse with the cowbell, went back to camp and saddled up both horses, and returned to our camp in short time.  Katrina (having very limited riding experience) bravely got up on that horse with the 40 lb. pack on her back.  Just before they set off, Katrina pleaded “Please don’t let my mother die!”  Off they went down the mountain. 

We continued to monitor Nancy.  By now she was flat on her back - unconscious.  We were a nervous fretful bunch.  We knew that with a stroke, prompt urgent care is essential. 

About noon, we heard a sound – a rapid whump – whump – whump.  Steve yelled, “Helicopter!” Sure enough out of the Eastern sky over the mountain ridge and trees, a black helicopter was coming our way.  It circled the meadow near where we were camped. We all ran out into the meadow and started waving and shouting. The helicopter circled, came around and landed.  Two EMTs jumped out.  We guided them to Nancy’s tent. Following a more detailed assessment, they concurred she was having a stroke.  They said, “There is a stroke center in Idaho Falls 180 miles away.  We will take her directly there instead of the closest hospital (Jackson 75 miles) where they would likely send her on, delaying best care.”  We helped get her onto a stretcher and into the helicopter. The helicopter lifted off, circled and headed west to Idaho Falls.  We all just stood there in that meadow – stunted at what had just taken place to our “queen” buzzard.  Seeing that helicopter lift off with Nancy, we stood not knowing what the outcome would be.  Would she live? Would she have permanent disability?  Will she ever hike with us again? It was an extremely emotional time.  Debra pulled us together.  We held hands in a circle.  Deb led us in prayer – for Nancy, for the help we received.  Most of us were crying or just so stunned we were numb. 

What we wondered ---  How in the world did that helicopter arrive on the scene just two hours after Katrina bravely got up on that horse and headed down? It should have taken most of a day to get to cell phone connection!

That afternoon, we just moped around like zombies.  We wondered -- How is Nancy?  How is Katrina?  Did she get the information that her mother was flown to the hospital in Idaho Falls? 

None of us slept well that night.  The next day, we decided to hike out – get to cell phone connection and find out how Nancy and Katrina were and what was happening.  In the late afternoon, we arrived at the car and drove out to cell phone communication.  We were able to connect to Katrina’s cell.  This is what we found out.  The cowboy on the way down spotted a guy he knew.  That guy had a satellite phone that would allow text messages, but not voice.  Katrina used it to text her brother who lived in San Francisco.  She gave him the map coordinates of where we had camped.  Then the brother called dispatch at the Pinedale Regional Emergency Service, who contacted the hospital and the air ambulance service.  That is how that helicopter got there in two hours.  Was it amazing—grace? 

Katrina had called the hospital in Idaho Falls, and found that Nance was stable, and was in excellent medical care.  Katrina sounded stressed, but in control and was on her way to Idaho Falls. 

Now, what were we to do?  We huddled and discussed.  Nance is in the best hands possible.  It does not seem we can do anymore to help Nance or Katrina.  We are still here in the mountains.  We decided to go back in and pick up on our original destination to Gannett Peak area in time for the Eclipse. 

Some heavy hiking got us to a campsite about 2 miles from Beaver Park in the shadow of 13,809 foot Gannett Peak.  At 8:00 the morning of Aug. 21, we headed out to Beaver Park to watch our solar system do its unusual thing. 

We donned our official eclipse glasses and sat or lay in various positions in the marshy meadow grass and stared at the sun.  We said to ourselves “OK, sun and moon, let’s see what you’ve got!” It started slowly under a sky that had just cleared to a bright cloudless blue.  At first, we could see just a little notch at about 1:00 on the sun’s face.  That notch grew - slowly.  By the time the notch took up about half the sun, the air around us took on a very eerie purple – blue, dusk-like appearance. It was like nothing I had ever seen before.  At 2/3 block of the sun, the air temperature dropped suddenly – falling perhaps 20 degrees in just a few minutes.  At totality, we could see the extremely bright corona, with marginal peaks from mountains on the moon, and solar flares.  Spectacular!!!.  (See the photo James took). Even though we were in a wilderness area, we heard hoots and hollers from unseen excited backpackers on various mountain perches surrounding the meadow. As we hiked back to our camp following the umbra, we noted the ground and leaves on the trees covered with pinhole images of the emerging sun behind the shadow of the moon. 

To say the least, this was a giant wow factor!!  I am not sure what others in our group were thinking and feeling, but I think all of us were affected by a feeling that something just happened that is bigger than we are.  It brought home that the sun is everything.  If it were not for the sun, we – none of us or anything living – plants, animals, viruses, bacteria, or liquid water – would be here.  It hit me right in the face of the reality of “relativity”.  We as individuals are relatively infinitesimally small - like one grain of sand on a million beaches.  Relatively, we are here on this planet for a mere blink of an eye in the 4 ½  billion years history of this 3rd rock from the sun.  There are things, forces much larger than us that we are not in control of and do not fully understand. We witnessed a bigger picture of something – a glimpse of our universe – much of which remains a mystery.  That realization reduced my daily concerns, pains, and circumstances in the orb of this bigger picture. That --- was an experience of spirituality. 

Following this experience, we all started to think again about Nance, and how she was doing.  I started to think about the chain of events that happened to get Nancy off the mountain and to appropriate care in a relatively short time. I thought of the amazing, unpredictable chain of events that resulted in evacuating Nance out of the wilderness and into excellent care in approximately a two-hour period (probably as fast as if she were in her home in San Francisco).  What are odds of the following?

  1. That one of our Buzzards was a physician (This was his first trip with us);
  2. Hearing the cow bell in the middle of the night;
  3. Noticing in the morning that the cow bell was on a horse;
  4. That we noticed a cowboy coming into the meadow to look for his horse with the cowbell just as Katrina was about to hike down to get to communication;
  5. That the cowboy was more than willing to help out;
  6. That the cowboy had another horse back at his camp and was willing to put Katrina on that extra horse with her 40 lb back pack and lead her down the mountain;
  7. That Katrina, (She is not a horse person) had the courage and confidence to jump up on that horse and go down the mountain;
  8. That part way down the mountain, the cowboy saw a friend, and that the friend happened to have a satellite phone that allowed text communication to distant cell phones;
  9. That Steve and Tom thought to give Katrina the coordinates as to where our camp was in the mountains;
  10. That Katrina was able to communicate to her brother through that satellite phone;
  11. That the brother was able to communicate readily to the regional emergency system from San Francisco, and that he remembered to give them the coordinates;
  12. That we camped in a woods next to an open meadow where a helicopter could land
  13. That the helicopter pilot and flight EMTs had the coordinates that led them to the meadow near our camp;
  14. That the EMTs had the foresight to fly directly to the stroke center in Idaho Falls (saving precious time), rather than a closer general hospital who would then probably have to send her on to the stroke center;
  15. Finally, we were left with Nancy’s pack, how were we to get that out while carrying our own 40 lb. packs? Well, it just so happened that some other horse people came by and they were more than willing to pack out her backpack.
  16. How likely was all of this happening?

Today, Nance is still recuperating, but she can get around. She enjoyed a beach Thanksgiving Day with her children and grandchildren.   

What are the odds for all the 15 links in the chain of events above that allowed Nance to get to appropriate care from the wilderness of the Winds in such a short time?  There are too many assumptions to compute a probability. Was it just blind luck? Was it thoughtful people being in the right place at the right time? Was it divine intervention?  We will never know.  But what this experience said to me – we experienced spirituality – again! 

What is spirituality?  Of course the term has changed over many centuries, as is originally pertained to the Christian faith.  Modern philosophers take a more secular interpretation, i.e., spirituality beyond religion. The Oxford Dictionary uses a simple definition: “Relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.” My personal addition to this definition is a belief in a power or force greater than us as individuals. A force or power that we do not understand, leaving to wonder the unknown. 

The Winds events this summer helped me to experience spirituality.  My message this Christmas is that spirituality is around us – most everyday- if we are open to it, we can experience it.  Being more mindful in our everyday life can help us gain these experiences. Certainly, Christmas is a time to experience it – if we can get beyond the tinseled materialism and experience the wonder of it all.  Sometimes, spirituality may just hit you in the face –head on and big, as it did to me and the rest of the buzzards in the Winds this summer.  Other times it may be more subtle.

My wish to you – go find your Winds.  It may be subtle, but I am sure it is there if you are open and ready for it. 


Kelley J Donham
Christmas 2017