One dark road carved it’s way up a mountains back.
There were no stars, no moon.
Only my dull headlights washed over the ground.
Determined to conquer the mountain, I pressed onwards.
But the mountain had other plans.
I pushed up the road rising higher and higher.
As it wound its way up the peak the road fell away.
It narrowed until wheels crumbled loose Earth off the edge.
Dark branches reached out like fingers trying to hold me back.
Boulders were spat across the path.
Like tiny guardians of the mountain above.
Although some were not that tiny.
Holes riddled the way like the mouths of great beasts.
That tried to swallow me whole, the truck groaned and it leaned.
It threatened to tip.
My heart was pounding while my nerves were on edge.
It took all that I had to push forward through the might of those jaws.
To stop would be mean defeat.
It would also mean I was stranded, in a deep, dark forest.
With no one to help.
I kept moving.
I spat and I fought.
While the path never got better, eventually the trees faded.
I watched as they fell bellow me.
In the dark the world spread out around me.
Stars came in through the gaps the trees had kept close.
They shimmered and sparkled as I felt their warmth.
They told all the stories they had.
Some had travelled 12 billion light years just to greet me here.
I couldn’t let a dark road keep me away.
I wake up in a freezing sweat. Gasping for breath, I scramble into a sitting position, squeezed by fear. Frantically, my hand grasps at my chest. I’m scared to look down at my hands, expecting them to be covered in blood. When I manage to look, there is none. Just a nightmare. As the panic fades, pain starts to set in. A dull throbbing in my chest that quickly increases in intensity. Still struggling to breathe, I dig a Vicodin out of the end table. Wash it down with a nip of whiskey. I know that they don’t mix, but the whiskey takes the edge off faster than the pill alone.
Waiting for the Vicodin to kick in, I try to control my breathing. Only now do I realize how cold it actually is. I am freezing. Even under the heavy blankets on my bed I can feel the cold. I can feel it biting at my cheeks and my nose. I check the clock on my nightstand. The light assaults my eyes, but they slowly they adjust. 3:23 AM. With the clock illuminating the room, I can see my breath. It’s condensing and rising in front of my face in wispy clouds.
Ok, something is wrong. It definitely shouldn’t be that chilly in here. I need to turn the heat up. I don’t want to get out of bed though. I lay under the covers for a long while, my sleepy mind debating whether or not I can just ignore the cold until the morning. I know I can’t. Somewhat painfully, I push the covers down into a pile around my feet and slide my legs over the edge of the bed. As soon as my feet touch the hard wood floors, I regret not having any slippers.
Still groggy, I stumble down the hallway trying to keep my feet off the ground as much as possible. I’m sure my half-stumble, half-hop from foot to foot looks extremely uncoordinated, and if I wasn’t the only one in the house I probably would have felt self-conscious about it.
Halfway down the hallway I pass the bathroom and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, but I don’t pay it any attention, just attribute it to the cold. The darkness in the house is absolute and I’m navigating my way by memory, but at the top of the stairs that changes. Snow reflects a soft light as it spills into the entrance of the house through the doorway.
I stare down in surprise at my heavy oak front door, wide open, rocking gently in the breeze. Snow has blown in from outside and now covers the hardwood floor in uneven patches. Shaking myself out of a trance I rush down the stairs, across the floor, plunging my already frozen feet into the snow, grab the door and push it closed. After it latches, I slide the deadbolt into place. It locks with a metallic thud that echoes softly through the entryway.
My feet are throbbing. Quickly I waddle back into the main room of the house where the thermostat is. I have the heat on low, I can’t sleep if it’s too hot, but now I crank it to high. I stand there for a moment and listen to the soft hum through the house as the heating system rumbles to life, realizing all the work it as to do. Hot air begins to flow up through the vents in the floor.
While my toes thaw, I let my mind wander. Right now, the house feels especially empty, and lonely. My wife had moved out a long time ago, a few years after our son was born. She said she couldn’t be with someone who loved the Bureau more than he loved her. I can’t say I blame her; I always put my work first. But I think she misunderstood my intentions. It wasn’t that I loved the Bureau more; I was just trying to make the world a safer place for her, for our son. Whether I got the chance to see him grow up or not, I believe I was at least successful in that.
I shake my head. Ok, time to get back to bed. I hope all the warmth hasn’t been sucked from my blankets yet. Nothing worse than crawling into freezing sheets. I walk back towards the stairs; double-checking to make sure the front door is still locked as I pass. Up the stairs, down the hallway, and as I pass the bathroom the hairs on the back of my neck stand up again, but I’m too tired to pay it any attention.
Back in my room, I pull the comforter down from the neatly made bed and crawl in, ecstatic to discover the sheets are still warm. I close my eyes and am almost instantly asleep.
I don’t know how much time passes. Five minutes, maybe fifteen… not long though before I realize something that jolts me wide awake. Like a jack-in-the-box, I’m sitting ramrod straight and breathing hard. Like a new Sun scorches off an early morning mist, the Vicodin fog is burned off immediately.
I didn’t make my bed. I left the blankets in a crumpled heap at the end of the mattress. Yet, it was carefully made when I crawled back into bed, under the covers. Even though the house is still chilly I start to sweat as my brain, now working on over-drive, unravels the situation. Someone made my bed.
Someone is in the house.
The bathroom… my mind finally paying attention to the fact both times I passed the tiny dark room the hairs on the back of my neck stood up like there was lightning in the air.
Before I have time to process what to do, I’m getting dressed. Quickly I pull on a pair of jeans and shove my feet into my boots. I guess somewhere in the back of my mind I decide that facing an intruder in my boxers isn’t the most intimidating.
Now dressed, I yank my bedside table drawer open. The force of it sends the flask toppling to the floor with a loud crash. I cringe, curse under my breath. I need to be quiet. I don’t want whoever is in my home to know I’m looking for them.
With more care, I lift my Smith & Wesson SD40VE .40 caliber pistol out of the drawer. I can tell by the weight it’s still fully loaded. I don’t have to waste time chambering a round; I always keep one in the throat. The silver slide shines in the darkness; so does my badge, but I leave that in the same spot where it has been gathering dust for the last six months.
I didn’t close my bedroom door, so I don’t have to worry about it squeaking open as I enter the hallway. I move slowly, being careful to softly place each step so that my work boots don’t make any noise, or at least any extra noise. I let my pistol lead the way down the hallway, the barrel sweeping over everything like a large, black third eye.
I didn’t close my bedroom door, so I don’t have to worry about it squeaking open as I enter the hallway. I move slowly, being careful to softly place each step so that my work boots don’t make any noise, or at least any extra noise. I let my pistol lead the way down the hallway, the barrel sweeping over everything like a large, black third eye.
At the bathroom I stop, keeping by back pressed against the wall to minimize my profile. The bathroom door is closed, further proof that someone is in my home. It was open last time I passed. My heart is racing. I can feel my veins pulsing in my neck and I almost feel lightheaded. It takes every ounce of self-control in my body to keep my breath low and steady. I haven’t been this scared since… I don’t want to think about it. I haven’t been this scared in a long time.
Old training kicking in, I crouch down close to the floor, getting into a position an attacker wouldn’t suspect. If someone is waiting behind a closed door for a full-sized man to come through, they look straight ahead, not at the floor. Low to the ground and using the wall for cover, I reach up and grab the doorknob, twisting it gently. The door isn’t locked; the knob turns easily so I shove it open. Hard. Use it as a battering ram to make sure nothing is hiding behind the door. There isn’t.
As the handle smashes into the wall I flick the tactical light under my gun on and lunge around the corner, flooding the small room with 400 disorienting lumens of searing white light. The scar on my chest starts throbbing as I move. The whole process, from opening the door, to turning my light on and clearing the room is something I’ve done hundreds of times and takes less than a second.
Bright light bounces of the hard porcelain surfaces, lights up the room as if the sun decided to rise up out of the toilet. Pull back the shower curtain quickly, gun raised but… Empty. My heart feels like a tom-tom drum. Sweeping around bathroom I notice something sticking out from under the toilet seat. Cautiously, I investigate.
It’s an envelope.
Tucked precariously under the toilet seat, it rested so that if the seat was lifted quickly it would have fallen into the bowl. Making sure to keep my back against the wall and the entrance to the bathroom in my sights, I inspect the envelope. Turning over the delicate white paper I see something that makes my blood run cold.
Neatly handwritten, is my name.
The envelope isn’t sealed; quickly I fish the contents out. It’s a delicate feeling piece of parchment. I unfold it and stare down at the four words written in the same precise handwriting.
It’s time to play.
Reading the note over and over again, I can feel the blood draining from my face. The gravity of the situation is sinking in. The truth of what is happening makes me sink. My back slides down the wall until I’m slumped on the floor, feet stretched out in front of me staring at the doorway, feeling utterly lost.
The note tells me something I should have already known. This isn’t an ordinary home invasion. That should have been obvious from just based on the fact that they made my bed. What kind of person breaks into someone’s house and starts doing chores?
Short answer: An incredibly dangerous one.
One who enjoys teasing their victims. Who gets off on the manipulation and fear of an unsuspecting person. Someone who thinks of the whole thing as one big game. Someone who likes to win.
The second thing the note tells me is more unsettling than the first. The fact that my name was on the envelope, that it was customized for me, tells me this wasn’t random. It was premeditated, planned, and personal.
Both these discoveries together tell me the odds of surviving the night are stacked against me. I can feel despair starting to wash over me. Despair mixed with panic, self-doubt and prescription pain meds. Maybe I have been out of the game for too long. I’ve lost my edge and forgotten to trust my instincts.
Sitting on the floor with my gun in my lap, my heart just seems to be speeding up. I feel overwhelmed, unable to move. I can’t think straight, on some level I know I have to act, have to do something. But I can’t seem to make myself do anything other than curse my own stupidity.
That God damned front door. Everything I have seen, all the horrible cases I’ve worked, and I see my own front door swinging wide open in the middle of the night and I didn’t think anything of it. Just closed it up and went back to bed. Fucking idiotic. Perhaps I got too confident about living in an isolated area away from people, or just became complacent. Either way, to not investigate was foolish.
Something in my mind clicks. Whoever is in my home, whoever is toying with me, well, I’m doing exactly what they want me to be doing. Letting them get inside my head. I’m playing right into their hands. So, I force myself to snap out of it, violently shaking my head. Time to act.
First thing’s first, I need my phone. Which means getting back to my room. On my feet again, I start moving; peering around the corner of the bathroom door in both directions, gun first. Clear. Moving down the hallway I keep my back in contact with the wall. This way I can see everything around me and know nothing is sneaking up from behind.
The door to my room is still open, and I didn’t see anyone pass by the bathroom while I was in there, so I’m fairly certain that its empty. Airing on the side of caution though, I flip the light under my gun to strobe. Taking cover behind a bright flashing light will make my position hard to pin down, allowing me to move easier. The bedroom is much bigger than the bathroom; I won’t be able to clear it from one position.
Inside the room the bright strobe bounces off everything, lighting the room up for brief flashes. I’m already low to the floor and drop down to see under the bed. Nothing. Around the other side of the bed is clear too. I’m at the closet now, holding my breath as I prepare to pull the door open. I yank it open and fill the closet with the light. Empty.
I exhale the breath I was holding and take another deep one. My room is clear. I’m safe here for the moment. I flick the flashlight off and grab the home phone off the dresser. No dial tone, the phone is dead. I’m not surprised, cutting the phone lines is the first thing I would have done too. Tactics 101. Everyone knows to cut the phone lines, but not everyone actually knows how to do it. It’s one more piece of information I now know about this intruder. He’s not an amateur.
I put the home phone down and head for my cell on the bedside table. I turn the screen on, and now I am surprised. No signal, no Wi-Fi. I get excellent service in my home; there is no way I don’t have any. Unless he brought a cell phone jammer. More information about my attacker, although not information I like. He is a professional.
Ok, so… I’m cut off. There’s a psychopath in my home and I have no way to call for help. It’s time to leave. I don’t like the idea of going out into the woods but given the circumstances, I have no choice.
I move through the house as quietly as I can in the pitch black. With all the lights, off I have no way of knowing where the intruder is, but it also means he won’t know where I am either. I go to the backdoor, it seems less obvious than the main entrance. I also think the sliding door will be quieter than the heavy wood one.
Out the door, I’m moving through the snow, which spills over the tops of my boots. It’s only a few hundred feet to the garage, but right now it feels like miles. In the dark expanse of the woods, I feel my heart rate accelerate again. I’m acutely aware of how scared I actually am.
The woods that I usually rejoice in, feel dark, unforgiving, and crushing. My mind is working double time trying to process everything around me. I can feel how fast my heart beating, but instead of a deep THUD-THUD, it feels more like the wings of a hummingbird.
Halfway to the detached garage I stop cold. I hear an angry growl that sends chills down my spine. Spinning in circles, I try to identify where the sound is coming from, but it’s bouncing off the trees, echoing around me. The growl gets louder before breaking into blood curling barking.
I manage to turn around in time to see a huge German Shepard hurling through the air towards me. My hyperactive brain processes everything in slow motion. I feel my eyes widen at the sight of the snarling teeth inches from me. My mouth forms a scream, but no sounds comes out. Somehow, I manage to get my arms in front of my face.
Now I do scream as teeth sink into my flesh. The sheer force of the dog knocks me straight onto my back. The breath is knocked out of my lungs and the pistol knocked from my hands. I don’t see where it lands; I can’t see anything under the huge ball of pissed off fur on top of me.
The animal has my back pinned against the ground, while it shakes his head violently back and forth. It unlocks its jaw just long enough to reposition its fangs before clamping back down with force that is nearly unbelievable. The teeth tear through my skin effortlessly; the pain is nearly unbearable. I squeeze my eyes shut and turn my head away, trying to escape the hot sour breath beating down upon me, accompanied by a deep guttural growl. I know the beast wants my throat; it’s all I can do to keep my arms above me.
It doesn’t take long for my muscles to get tired, my triceps are screaming. Blood has dyed the snow around me red and the familiar rusty iron taste fills my mouth. It makes me feel sick but seems to just be fueling the dog’s craze. I’m not sure how much longer I can hold it off.
The sound of it erupting through the woods sends new waves of terror through me. There is more than one attack dog. At least three by the sounds of it. I can’t tell where they are, but they’re getting closer.
A new wave of energy surges through me. With all my strength, I knee the thing, connecting just below the rib cage. It whimpers and jumps off of me but doesn’t release its grip. Instead, it jerks its head, forcefully rolling me over to my stomach. Sounding even angrier, the dog starts to drag me across the ground.
A bit of luck. It’s at least dragging me back towards the house. I’m still screaming in agony, I swear I can feel its teeth digging into my bones. But now instead of just fighting against the dog’s power, I’m working with it. Using my legs, I crawl, pushing through the snow while it drags me, closer and closer to the house.
Through flashes of pain I see the sliding back door. Almost there… I just need to escape the dog’s grip. With a sudden and forceful jolt, I roll over on to my back. With as much energy as I can muster I kick my legs up over my head. My shin connects with the dog’s skull so hard that pain erupts through my leg. The dog cries out and let’s go, and I’m scrambling backwards on my ass towards the door.
It only takes the dog a second to come after me again. It lunges, clamping around the ankle of my boot like a bear trap. Even through the boot’s thick leather I can feel the sharpness of the teeth; a dozen razor sharp needles. Scrambling backwards as fast I can, I see the other two dogs charging in towards me. I almost choke on my desperate cry. Another shove backwards; my back slams into the backdoor. In a frantic motion, I kick my free foot at the dog. My boot catches it on the front of the snout. The dog lets go of my foot with a piercing cry.
Quickly I yank the door open and tumble inside, slamming it behind me. On the ground, I lay face first breathing harder than I ever have in my entire life. All three dogs are barking furiously; I can hear their claws scratching against the glass.
I lay on the floor for a long time. For a while I worry I might pass out. Pain washes over me in bitter waves. As blood pools on the floor, I find myself re-evaluating all of my life choices. I think about how my walls are void of pictures. I think about my family, and wonder if they were better off without me; if I would have dragged them down. As I lay on the floor bleeding, I regret that I’m totally alone.
By the time I roll over and manage to sit up, the dogs have given up barking. Now they just prowl back and forth, staring at me with hate in their eyes. There is no way I’m going back outside. I’m stuck in the house.
Alright, new plan.
I’ve kept all the lights off to hide my whereabouts, but now… fuck the dark. I’m half eaten and unarmed, my gun is somewhere outside buried in the snow, I want to see everything around me. Time to get every light on that I can.
It’s a struggle to stand up, an even harder one to raise my arm to the light switch. But I manage to reach it. As light floods the living room a voice comes with it.
“Welcome back Jason.”
The sudden sound makes me jump so badly that I fall back to the ground. Hurriedly I push up, looking around, barely able to get my arms up into a defensive position.
“I am glad you had the chance to meet my dogs,” the voice continues. It sounds like it is coming from all around me. My vision is blurry with pain and tears, but I’m pretty sure the room is empty. It echoes awkwardly around the house; already disoriented from my tango with the pups, I can’t place it. “It is important to me you know that you can’t leave. I wanted us to be alone together Jason.”
“Who the hell are you!” I cry out, hardly recognizing my own voice.
“I’m an artist Jason. This is my masterpiece.” The voice taunts.
God Damnit. I hate these delusional wackos.
“What do you want!?” I say, sounding more like myself.
There is silence for a moment, I start to think that maybe he can’t hear me, but before I call out again it answers, “I want this.” The tone of the voice sounds nauseatingly satisfied to the point where I can almost picture the sickly grin on his face.
The voice continues talking as I stumble into the kitchen, turning lights on as I go.
“You realize the great irony don’t you,” it mocks. “You’ve dedicated your life to chasing monsters, and the whole time, one was hunting you.”
The voice sounds strangely familiar, but I can’t place it. Try hard to focus on it but its position keeps changing; as if he is moving around the house, strategically avoiding me. In the kitchen, I fall on the counter for support before pulling a drawer open.
“Shit!” I mutter under my breath. All of the kitchen knives are gone. The drawer is empty, spare for one tiny butter knife; mockingly left behind. Think to myself, how the hell did he have time to do all this? I need to keep the voice busy while I come up with yet another new plan.
“Why?!” I yell.
“Why? You know why Jason.” The way it says my name chills me.
“No. No I don’t. You have what you want; it’s just you and me! Now tell me why.”
Another long pause.
“Attention Jason. Because I want your attention. You spent a career chasing the worst of the worst, trying to make the world a safer place. But you never caught the worst of them Jason. You never even investigated him. You never bothered to look for me!”
For a minute, I don’t know how to respond. I was well aware that this might all be out of revenge, but I thought it would be from someone I arrested, or the family member of someone I put behind bars. I never would have thought it would be someone I’d never interacted with.
“You are doing all this because I never tried to put you in prison for the rest of your life?” I can’t help but keep the confusion out of my hoarse voice.
Apparently, I’m missing the point, the voice no longer sounds calm, it sounds enraged. “I’m doing this because I deserve to be recognized! All those years you hunted others I should have been at the top of your shit list, not swept under the rug and ignored!”
“Why do all this now then!?”
The voice regains its composure. “Because Jason, you almost died six months ago,” I feel a lump in my throat develop. “After you were shot in the chest and you were forced into early retirement on disability, I knew you’d never know my name. I waited patiently until you recovered, planning. I wanted you to have a fighting chance.” The voice goes from calm to confident, “But that all changes tonight. After tonight, you’ll never forget me.
“Why don’t you come introduce yourself then! Or are you just going to hide in the dark until I come kick your ass?” I wish I felt as confident as I sounded.
Again, that same grotesquely satisfied tone, “Good luck Jason.”
I had started talking to buy time while I thought of a plan. But the conversation left me with more questions than answers, and I haven’t thought of what to do now. The only thing I know is that I need something to defend myself with. I have an idea, but it’s not one I like.
Down in the basement I have some old sporting equipment including a metal baseball bat. If I can get it, I’ll at least have something. There are a few problems though… for starters, I really don’t want to go into the basement. It is a small confined space with one way in, and one way out.
I’m also not keen on the idea of using a bat as a weapon. They are long and require a lot of force to use effectively. The big wind up makes it slow, easy to block, and to take away from somebody. Plus, with the condition of my arms, I’m not sure I could swing one if I wanted too, but I don’t see any other options.
Earlier I tried to be stealthy. Now, it’s all I can do to just stumble down the hallway. At the top of the basement, I stop and look nervously down at the steep wooden staircase. I’m not sure I can make it down without falling.
Somehow, I manage. Even with the light on, the basement remains incredibly dark. I feel blindly through boxes of junk looking for the bat. I’m not even sure where it would be. My heart knocks aggressively against my chest. Every minute I’m down here is a minute he is free to do whatever he wants upstairs. I feel helpless, trapped.
Finally, my hands wrap around cold metal. Yanking the bat out of the bin sends other things crashing to the floor, the sound of metal on concrete bounces around the small room. No time to worry about the noise now.
Using the bat as a walking stick I fight my way back up the stairs. In the dining room, I look around cautiously, but don’t see anything. With every step, the bat hits the ground with a loud PING. I get to the study and stop. The lights are off in here still but light from other rooms is trickling in.
For the first time, I see him.
Standing at the opposite end of the room, masked by shadows. I can’t make out any details, he has a hood hiding his face. The only thing I can see, even through the dark, is that God damned smile.
Adrenaline surges through me; screaming, I charge him. I don’t think he was expecting it, I’m swinging the bat before he can fully react. He starts to dodge out of the way but isn’t quick enough; I make contact with his left shoulder blade, drop him to the ground. I realize I haven’t thought this far ahead, it takes a beat to figure out what to do next. I raise the bat over my head, ready to swing with all my might. Before I do, he rolls onto his back and foot-stomps my knee. I hear the tendons snapping like harp strings as my knee bends backwards. I collapse to the floor, crying out in pain.
It hurts so badly I can hardly think. But I can’t quit now. From the ground grinding my teeth, I swing the bat at his head; he rolls out of the way. The bat slams into the hard wood floor with so much force it reverberates out of my hands. He grabs it as it bounces across the floor and is back on top of me. He clocks me across the face with his fist before he pushes the bat down against my throat.
“ENOUGH!” He screams. “This is not how I wanted things to go!” He is breathing heavily; shaking with rage. He takes a deep breath, then another. “We are going to start over.”
Keeping the bat pressed against my neck he stands up. Staring down at me from behind his hood, he smiles. He seems as if he can barely contain his excitement.
There is something about his eyes that feel familiar. I know them from somewhere but, just like his voice, can’t place them. Bright green, they glow with energy.
“That’s enough for tonight I think,” he’s regained his composure; his confidence is back.
I’m struggling to breath, the end of the bat is pushing down against my trachea, the room is starting to spin. I’m having trouble focusing.
“I trust you’re going to keep my visit between just the two of us. I can’t have you spoiling all the fun I have planned. Don’t do anything rash, I’d hate to have to pay a visit to Shannon…”
I squirm at the mention of her name. I haven’t seen Shannon since she left me all those years ago, but the thought of this psycho hurting her because of me makes my blood boil.
He chuckles at my pathetic attempt to fight back, “Ah I see you remember her, Good, I thought after all this time perhaps you had forgotten. We have an understanding then?”
I try to respond, but the air is stuck in my throat.
“I’m sorry, what was that?” he lets some pressure off my burning lungs.
“Yes, I understand,” I manage to cough out.
“Good. I’ll be seeing you real soon Jason,” he lifts the bat off my throat, tosses it up to switch his grip, swings it down against my head.
There was a time where on almost any nice summer day, I could found at Lake Granby, sitting at the helm of a sailboat. Wheel in one hand, a cold beer in the other, there is nothing quite like sailing in the mountains. At least every weekend we would make the drive up to Granby to take the 25-foot Catalina out on the water.
My dad grew up racing sailboats in New York on the Hudson River and the Atlantic Ocean. When he moved to land-locked Colorado, sailing got left behind on the East Coast. But not for long. When my sister and I were old enough to start “learning the ropes” of sailing, we did.
Lesson #1: There is only one rope on a sailboat; every other line is called a sheet or a halyard.
Which seemed weird when my instructor told me that on my first lesson. I mean, sailboats are covered in ropes. But no, if you ask someone to hand you the main rope or tighten up the front sail rope on the right side, they’ll look at you like you’re an idiot.
Lesson #2: The left side of a ship is port, while the right side is starboard.
So, in proper sailor speak, if you needed the forward sail tighter, you’d say, “Sheet in the jib on the starboard side!” The first part of learning to sail was really just learning to speak the language, understand what you were being asked to do, and how to tell others what you wanted them to do. Sailing is a sport where slow reactions and miscommunications will end up with a capsized boat.
The second part of sailing is learning to read the elements around you. Especially in the mountains, the water, sky, clouds, and even ducks can tell you all you need to know.
Lesson #3: Watch the water, waves move with the wind.
Which might sound pretty self-explanatory, but it comes in handy. You can catch gusts of wind coming across the lake by spotting rough patches of water and make adjustments to the sails before the wind reaches you. If a patch of water is calm, you know it’s a dead-zone with no wind, and to avoid it. The waves can even tell you how fast the wind is blowing. If waves are white capping, the wind is blowing at least 15 knots, which is a pretty hefty speed.
Lesson #4: Like anything, sailing takes practice, spend time with it and don’t give up.
Which is exactly what my family did. We bought a beautiful 25-foot sail boat that was basically a floating camper. Below deck there was a queen-sized bed, a stove, table, seating area, and even a small bathroom. During the weekend, my family and I would pack a big cooler full of food and drinks and hit the water. An afternoon spent of the lake was an afternoon well spent.
There is something about the mountains and something about water that people naturally seem to connect with and be drawn to. The combination of the two is spectacular and the only way to really describe it is magical. Even though Lake Granby is one of the biggest lakes in Colorado, it receives very little traffic, and on any given afternoon, you might be one of four or five boats on the water. That feeling of freedom and ownership of the water only adds to the experience.
Late June was by far the best time to sail. Long warm days meant you could stay out on the water well into the evening. The water was warm enough to swim in, but still a cold refreshing wave from the hot sun. Lying on the deck listening as water lazily slaps the side of the boat and taking in the view quickly became one of my favorite ways to relax.
Since Lake Granby is over 100 feet deep in most places, the water is a deep, rich blue, and every little wave catches and refracts sunlight in intense golden beams. Massive mountains surround the lake on all sides, some reaching up to 14,000 feet. All of them are high enough to keep snow all year round. Sitting in a bowl and staring at snow-capped mountains all around you, then jumping into the water to cool off is a surreal experience.
Sunset was by far my favorite time to be on the water. When the sun started to drop behind the mountains and the sky turned a fierce red, all the colors were reflected and amplified by the water. Massive clouds would roll over the mountains and add to the show, creating impressive views that looked like they could have come from paintings. Along with this picturesque landscape, came the smell of the mountains. Fresh air, pine needles, sap, the smell that a mountain candle tries to capture, but can never quite get perfect.
After the sun went down, the stars came up and created a whole new show. A big lake in the middle of the mountains is a great place to escape light pollution, so the skies bright and the Milky Way can be seen. As long as you don’t get sea sick, falling asleep to the gentle rocking of a boat under a blanket of stars, while protected by high mountains is something I couldn’t get enough of.
Lesson #5: There are good days, and there are bad days.
Lake Granby is feed by the Colorado River, and on years when there is lots of snow pack and a good rainy spring, you can sail a ways up the river. The river was full of coves and places to anchor and hang out for a while. Many times, we would strap paddle boards to the deck, sail into the river, find a nice spot to drop the anchor, and hang out for a few hours. Swim, eat lunch, take the paddle boards out and explore what was around. Everything moved at a slower, more relaxed pace.
Since the river had carved its way through the mountain, it is protected on both sides by fairly high walls. Which means it is protected from the wind and conditions that the rest of the lake is exposed to. With almost no wind, the water was nice and calm, great conditions for paddle boarding. The protection from wind also meant the surrounding trees were popular spots for eagles to build nests. I spent many afternoons paddling as close to the nests as I could get with a telephoto camera lens trying to get pictures of those majestic birds.
Which is exactly what I was doing one afternoon when I got caught in the worst storm of my life.
My dad and I had sailed out in the morning and then headed up the river for the afternoon. One of the drawbacks of the river being so protected is that it’s hard to see what is happening over the rest of the lake. It was a beautiful day up in the river cove, and well after 5PM by the time we started to head back towards home.
Our nice day ended abruptly at the mouth of the river where we were greeted by choppy water, high winds and dark skies. A huge black cloud had started forming over the middle of the lake and was sinking lower and lower the bigger it got. The waves on the water were white capping, which meant it was windy enough that hats and anything else you didn’t want to blow away went below deck.
Even though this evil cloud was massive, it didn’t cover the whole lake. There were still blue skies around the outskirts, so our plan was to try and sail around the storm cloud. The only problem was, the wind was blowing up lake, the exact opposite direction we were trying to go. Sailing into the wind means tacking back and forth, basically moving forward in zigzags. Not the fastest approach when trying to outrun a storm.
I watched the cloud grow as we moved back and forth across the lake. By the third tack, it was clear that the cloud was growing faster than we were going. The blue skies on the outskirts of the lake were shrinking alarmingly fast. Our plan to sail around the storm was quickly failing.
To this day, I still haven’t seen anything quite like that cloud. It was almost like a living thing. You could see it breathing. The dark edges swelling out and collapsing back down on itself in an uneven rhythm, each time expanding just a little farther than the time before, consuming more of the sky.
It sat so low in the sky I swore if we sailed straight under it the mast would touch it, which was terrifying. You could see lightning building inside the cloud, just brief flashes of gold deep in the center, and I could feel the hair on the back of my neck starting to stand up. I looked from the cloud, then to the 30-foot metal mast sticking straight up into the air. Dark wisps were reaching down from the cloud like fingers clawing for the water. Several of them actually connected with the surface of the lake.
Again, I’d never seen anything like it. I’d never seen a cloud breath or reach down and touch the ground the way it did. I’d never seen a storm grow so fast and couldn’t believe how nice it had been in the river just a few minutes ago.
Lesson #6: The calm before the storm is a saying for a reason.
Even though this was a saying I’d heard many times, and even said a few, throughout my life, I had never really thought about why it was a saying. Until This moment. It was all I could think about. The wind had abruptly stopped. The air was perfectly calm, and the water had become still. This sudden and absolute calmness was unsettling. Coasting under a massive death cloud with no wind felt like something out of a movie. Something not real.
“I think we should drop the sails…” my dad said, eyes transfixed upwards.
I pulled in the jib as quickly as I could, then we both lowered the main sail and tied it up.
“Time to get the motor going,” I was trying to sound calm, but not succeeding all that well. Getting the motor going was probably something we should have done earlier but giving up on sail power is a pride thing.
After a few pulls, the engine sputtered to life, and then it was over. The storm destroyed the abrupt calm with a vengeance. The calm water quickly became white a foamy from breaking whitecaps from wind that was howling so hard you could hear the metal mast stays vibrating.
The cloud now dominated the entire sky and seemed furious at us, the only boat remaining on the lake. The raging wind seemed to scream, “How dare you try and sail on my lake!”
The tiny motor was meant for getting the boat in and out of the dock, not speed or power, and keeping the boat straight in the storm was becoming more and more challenging.
The most powerful gust of wind yet grabbed the back of the boat and jerked it around sideways, where wind continued to pound the side of the hull, pushing it over. The boat keeled over so hard water slopped over the side and onto the deck, despite the 2,500-pound weight on the bottom designed to keep this exact thing from happening.
I have no doubt that if the sails were still up, the wind would have taken the boat all the way over and at least one of us would have fallen overboard.
“What do we do?” I called back to my dad, my voice instantly getting ripped away by the wind.
“I don’t know.” He yelled in reply. Which is possibly the worst thing he could have said. He grew up sailing and was supposed to be the expert. Hearing him say that was disheartening. I have never in my life felt so small and powerless. We were in the middle of the lake, not another boat in sight, and completely at the will of Mother Nature.
Somehow, we managed to get the boat straightened out and pointed into the wind, so it wasn’t keeling over anymore. But going around the storm was no longer an option. We were motoring straight through the center of it. A freezing and forceful rain that made the deck slippery and moving around dangerous joined the wind. After a few minutes we were both completely soaked and still a few miles from our dock.
The storm was growing more intense and lighting was starting to increase in frequency. Rough water pitched the bow of the boat upwards, and the whole thing would shake as the hull slammed back down into the next wave. The going was slow and miserable, and frightening.
After about a half-mile, we ended up taking shelter behind a small island. It provided enough protection from the wind to drop the anchor and get down inside the cabin, out of the rain. We sat in the cabin, soaking wet, huddled under towels for over an hour waiting for the storm to let up enough for us to keep going.
When the storm had subsided enough for us to venture back out onto the deck, we pulled anchor and continued motoring home. I was still shaken by the whole thing, but when I looked back at my dad he smiled and said, “I think we should get raincoats for the next storm.”
Lesson #7: Always have rain gear.