Real America

By Amy Hirshberg Lederman
The Arizona Daily Star, April 11, 2004

“Hiking with friends on a glorious spring day through a canyon in Arizona, I saw the face of America. Not the one that is receiving failing grades in its public school systems and depleting its social security and Medicare coffers. But the America that is genuinely caring, compassionate and involved: the America I had almost forgotten existed.

We had backpacked in the night before; five women between the ages of 30 and 55, with necessary essentials like food, sleeping bags and water as well as some luxury items like gourmet brownies and a bottle of Merlot. We set up camp on a sandy beach encircled by cathedral-like walls of striated granite and deep gold. Our sleeping bags lay open under a starlit canopy as we were serenaded to sleep by the sound of waterfalls and desert frogs. In the morning my stomach yearned for good coffee while my back screamed for a double dose of Advil. Even so, I felt totally content and at peace.

The solitude of the canyon was remarkable. It had been two days and we hadn’t seen a soul or heard anything but running water, frogs and birds. We sang, swam, ate and sunbathed on huge boulders like lizards on a rock. It was as near to perfection as anything I could think of.

Until, on our hike out, Trisha slipped off a steep rock and caught her leg under a fallen tree branch. In a matter of seconds, everything changed. The silence was broken by screams of pain as we stopped short and stared in disbelief and fear. She lay in the water, conscious but unable to move her leg. What were we going to do? How could we carry Trisha out of the canyon when we could barely scramble across the rocks ourselves? How could we get help when the one cell phone we brought in had lost its reception a mile back?

Suddenly, as if in a Lassie movie, we heard the barking of dogs. Within minutes, three large dogs came bounding through the water followed by two young men.

“You haven’t seen a doctor anywhere, have you?” I inquired of them half-jokingly.

“Sorry, I haven’t,” one man replied, but then finished his sentence with four magic words. “But I’m a paramedic.”
Talk about having a guardian angel. Here, in the middle of nowhere after two days of seeing nobody was the answer to our prayers. Jeff was a volunteer paramedic who worked with Southern Arizona Search and Rescue, out hiking for the day with his friend Bill. Without a moment’s hesitation and with genuine kindness, they became part of our group as if they had been with us from the start. They offered everything from time, body strength and a cell phone (which miraculously worked) to encouragement, humor and emotional support.

We assembled ourselves intuitively, like the inner workings of a clock, each person playing a vital role in our effort to get Trisha out of the canyon. Some cleared the path of branches while others lifted her leg or acted as a brace to hold her up as we slowly and methodically moved her from rock to rock. Separately, none of us could have done it, but together we became like one seamless body with a single mission: to get Trisha safely to the hospital.

Because Jeff volunteered for Search and Rescue, he knew just whom to call. Another miracle. Search and Rescue had a helicopter available and would be able to land it on the beach where we had slept the night before. It would be hard and take every ounce of our strength and concentration to get Trisha back to that beach, but we would get her there. Together, one rock at a time, we would do it.

Hours later, when the helicopter lifted upward with Trisha inside, the knot in my throat finally loosened and I tasted the salt of my own tears. I hadn’t even realized I was crying. I felt the fragility of life, touched it with my own trembling hands, saw it in Trisha’s pained face as she waved goodbye from inside the helicopter. I looked at the scratches on Jeff’s arm and the worn out bodies of my friends and understood, more than ever, how each one of us is so essential and important to existence of all of us as a whole.

It was getting late and I willed my exhausted legs to move quickly over the rocks and water back to our car. I looked at my friends, stumbling with exhaustion and relief, and knew without a doubt that what we had experienced was nothing short of a miracle. Because even though Trisha’s accident was horrible and frightening, we had met Jeff and Bill – two strangers who gave us so much more than extra hands and a cell phone. They gave graciously of themselves not for recognition or reward but for the simple reason that they were good people who wanted to help.

I get tired of reading the papers and listening to the news where the face of America looks so ugly and unappealing. I am ashamed of the violence, poverty, medical and social problems that fill our homes and our cities. Sometimes I get mired down in our problems and forget about the people like Jeff and Bill who make up our country. People who are willing to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. People with compassion and a generosity of spirit that will go the extra mile for the sake of a hiker whom they may never see again. And then I remember: This is America, too.