The Needle in the Haystack

It was just your regular old weekend excursion. Some close cousins spending the day together to explore a natural landmark – the series of waterfalls known as Diana’s Baths. I didn’t expect to be praying to metaphorically find a needle in the haystack. It started out as any normal trip does.

But it would soon spiral quickly into an absolutely chaotic disaster…

Or perhaps I’m being a bit dramatic. Why don’t you be the judge?

It’s about a 30-minute hike from the parking lot to the beginning of the falls, and the seven of us spent the walk talking casually and throwing a miniature Frisbee forward and back along our little family column.

The sky was partly cloudy – it was certainly a bit on the chilly side, and this weather seemed to keep away the majority of the other hikers. There were a few other groups but compared to a typical summer day, this place was a ghost town.

And that was totally fine with us, of course.

It gave us more room to explore the falls and the surrounding woods. We quickly skirted past the other explorers at the easily accessible base of the waterfalls and made our way to the deserted upper sections.

There were several steppe-like protrusions of rock along the way where we rested, put our hands and feet into the cool water, and enjoyed the day. On a couple of the bigger slabs of exposed rock, we had room to chuck the Frisbee a little bit. The owner of the Frisbee, however, was not present, and I had made it very clear on the walk from the cars that we would not be losing it down the river. Only the Frisbee-coordinated cousins were allowed to partake so close to the falls (and it added a significant yet manageable level of risk to the equation, too).

Conquer Fear the needle in the haystack
Not the exact spot of the river, but this shows how fast the water was rushing by.

My brother allowed one of my un-Frisbee coordinated cousins to throw the disc towards him at a bend in the river, and foolishly allowed it to go right past him. I yelled for him to grab it before it floated away, but he was much too slow. In an ill-fated split-second decision, I jumped down onto the rock, laying on my belly to reach out and attempt to grab the frisbee as it was carried past by the swift waters of the river. 

Then, the unthinkable happened.

I felt something slide out of my pocket.

I turned and swiped my hands at the space where my car keys had been a fraction of a second before. Empty space. I hit the rock as the keys slid down just under my fingers, and into the rushing water.

The only keys to my car. The car that we had taken to Diana’s Baths.

And now they were in the river.

I immediately began freaking out. I yelled at my brother to get into the chilled water and search for them, and I bounded down a few rocks to get into a position where the shallow bend narrowed to a singular stream.

The idea was that, maybe I would jump in and grab the keys as they floated past? Honestly I didn’t know. Everything was happening so fast. That was my plan immediately following the catastrophe, and as the precious seconds ticked away and I waited for the keys to sweep past me and be lost down the river forever, my mind was spirited away to my new future.

In this future, my best option might be to borrow a cousin’s car and drive the 6-hour round trip back home to get the spare key. Which meant that without any delays, I could pick my car up from Diana’s Baths just after midnight. The other option was me remarking, “Well, perhaps I’ll learn how to hotwire a car today…”

I waited at the narrow point in the stream for a few moments where time seemed to stand still.

The frisbee (which I had neglected to grab after the horrible realization that my keys had splashed into the dark river depths) came around again and I jumped in to grab it successfully this time (this will NOT be for nothing damnit!). A few loooooong seconds later, my brother yelled over to me that he thought the key was still in that area upstream.

I stashed my phone and wallet in the frisbee which I then left in a divot in the rock above (making absolutely sure that it had no chance to be knocked into the river as well), and then I headed to a boulder in the middle of the stream near where I thought the keys would have a good chance of being caught on a rock or something.

It seemed hopeless that we were ever going to find my keys in the water.

I couldn’t even see the bottom – it was too dark. I was sure that the river could have washed them away anywhere, or perhaps they had fallen down into a crack or crevice in the rock – there was just no way for me to know.

Nevertheless, I plunged my hand into the stream of melted mountain snow. I had to put the entirety of my arm up to my shoulder into the frigid water. But I was relieved to find that I could feel the bottom. Still, I found nothing but pockets of smooth riverbed rocks. As I retracted my arm from the water, I saw what looked like a glimmer on the riverbed. I couldn’t be sure if it was the reflection of the sun on the water or a shiny submerged object.

I swiftly reached back down, curious. A rock, another rock, and then the cool, smooth surface of metal – the bottle opener on my keys!

I’d found it! The needle in the haystack!

Conquer Fear the needle in the haystack
No keys were harmed during the shooting of this reenactment.

It’s quite literally impossible to accurately share the emotions that I felt after I wrapped my finger through the hole of the bottle opener – which is basically the ONLY thing that is attached to my key. I yanked that key from the river with gusto and brandished it. That got the attention of my brother, who was equally as astonished as I was.

I was so relieved, so happy, so frustrated at getting into that situation in the first place… The keys had gotten caught at the bottom with the small, smooth rocks. They could have flowed off down the waterfall or fallen into a deep crevice that was lurking below. But they did not. I was so thankful for that.

I was incredulous that I had pulled it out of the river with just my second attempt. What luck (ha!) – What chance, that I would correctly determine the spot where it might get stuck…

When all was said and done, there were a myriad of lessons to be learned from this: 

1.) Don’t let untalented Frisbee players chuck the disc near volatile environments

2.) Always keep a spare key nearby

3.) Hike with better pockets

4.) Know how to hotwire a car (I could be a stellar car thief & just not know it yet…)

et cetera, et cetera..

But perhaps the best lesson of all is this…

That life is just a near-infinite web of interconnected and overlapping decisions and probabilities generated by billions of living organisms that share the planet – and for some of those decisions and probabilities we have vastly more control over than others.

However, sometimes you’re just going to catch a break and find that needle in the haystack.

Be grateful when it happens, but don’t count on it. Learning to minimize unnecessary risk in your life is one of the most valuable skills of all.

Originally Posted July 28, 2017

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