- Vol. 08
- Chapter 05
He never could decide if it was God or a mirage that brought him home that day. In the end, perhaps it all boiled down to the same thing. One moment there was nothing but the lake and the pines, a drab sky looming over them; the next, the clouds had split to form a cave of dazzling light. Its walls were thick and made of ice, or something that looked very like it, and the angle was such that the glow appeared to radiate from the very back, from a spot that was, as it later turned out, more or less directly above the town.
That was how it was in the story he told, anyway. One moment nothing, then nothing but light, and he knew with sudden certainty in which direction to walk. When the rescuers finally found him, four days later, he was weak and raving but remarkably chipper. He even posed for a photograph with his saviours, a picture that then appeared on the front page of the newspaper beneath the incredulous headline: HALLUCINATING HIKER WALKS 80 MILES ON BROKEN ANKLE. No mention of God, at that stage.
‘I just knew where to go,’ he always said. ‘I knew, deep down, and my subconscious showed me. I just had to keep moving in that direction.’ His fiancée, Emily, had been the one to raise the alarm, and they married as soon as they possibly could, the pins still fresh in his ankle. They named their son Clark, after William Clark, one of the greatest explorers in American history. Never mind that Clark had traversed Louisiana, not Alaska. He was intrepid and rational, and that was what counted.
Five years later, a second child. A little girl, baptised Grace.
Grace grew up with the story of how her father had once been lost and injured in the wilderness, how the sky had split open above the water with a beam of light so blinding he had known it could only be God’s work. He had fixed his eyes on the horizon, he told her, on the spot from which the light had streamed, and he had gritted his teeth and walked in that direction and four days later, praise God, he had been found. ‘The Lord is merciful and He has a plan,’ he said. ‘Your job is simply to trust it.’
Later, Grace would sit by his bedside, listening to him describing that icy vision. ‘There was water, you know, at the very top. Like the lake had parted, pushed half itself into the sky. The cave was in the middle, its walls all sparkling. And you know what? I wish. I wish I had seen inside.’ She would hold his hand then while his eyes brimmed over; gently squeeze his gnarled and trembling fingers. Leave only when the sun was setting, glancing back from the doorway. See him sitting there in the picture window, frail outline bathed in a pool of brilliant light.