The story of three independent women saved by a couple of Johns
By Steph Imig
“I’m pretty sure he’s here to kill us.” Both Ashley and Sara confessed to being certain about the silver-haired man’s spurious intentions.
“Yep, watching him slide those gloves on his hands as he approached us on the street, I knew we were done for.”
Luckily for us, John (whose generic first name seemed to align perfectly with the horrific scenarios reeling through Ashley and Sara’s minds), did not meet our expectations. In keeping with our entire day, he would, in the most unexpected ways, wildly exceed expectations.
We start the day as virtual strangers, united through our online community of runners and our yearning to run somewhere new. We decide on a 2-hour drive to the coast so we can run free from ice, snow, or familiarity. Our trail takes us through lush coastal forests, spruce, cedar, uprooted trees. We slither under, sidle over, swing through branches like primal children.
Our progress is slow, which leaves lots of time for conversation. First, we stay safely on the surface—what races are you running, favorite trails, recent encounters with snow and mud. But soon, like the mud through which we run, we go deeper: marriage, divorce, marriage again; step children, foster children, NICU babies, future babies; secret elopements, dogs, love, more dogs. We cover a lot of ground. I could trace our friendship growth along the contour lines of the map.
Through breaks in the leaves, and along ridges overlooking the ocean, we bask in the February sun. Oh what we have been missing! The ocean spreads to the horizon. 2 bald eagles survey the surroundings from the ridge. Seals frolic in the waves. This is real.
We reach the beach, watch surfers wait idly for waves to ride. We head back the way we came; it is sunnier, warmer, and has already become familiar, the metaphors of friendship rolling like the waves we leave behind.
We cross 101, climb a mile up and know we have nothing but downhill (and a few downed trees) between us, dry socks, and food. We high-five and whoop it up as we exit the slippery bridge and stop at the car.
I walk up to the driver side door and touch the handle to unlock the car. Silence. No beep. I take my pack off, thinking that the key is too far from the handle to register its presence. Silence. Panic slowly rises in my chest. I unzip my pack to find the key. It is not there.
“Oh my god, you guys, the key is gone.”
It is funny, we all speak so calmly, double-checking pockets, asking the usual questions about when I last remember seeing it. Then Sara asks, “Wait, is it just rectangular and black, like a clicker?”
“I saw it! I saw it as we were running out. It caught my eye, and I thought ‘that’s weird. What is that?’ but it just didn’t totally register. But I am sure that’s what it was!”
We are elated. We figure that when shimmying under one of the trees, a limb must have snagged my pack just enough to open the pocket where I had stashed my key. Somewhere in the first 2 miles of the trail the key is sitting there, waiting for us. We are tired, cold, hungry, my dog is thirsty, and we had thought we were done, but with the hope that we might find the key, we are bolstered forward. We spread out, Kodiak and I going ahead, and working our way all the way back to the Hwy 101 crossing, Sara and Ashley fanning out on the earlier parts of the trail. We are sure we will find it.
Before long, hopes deflate. Every wet shard of basalt shimmers like black plastic. The mud is boggy; it swallows my entire shoe. How quickly could it inhale a FOB? When I reach Ashley, she is sitting on a stump, waiting for me to return. Empty. We continue back, quiet, humbled, still carefully surveying the ground. Nothing. Kodiak sprints ahead, alerting us that we are back to Sara. Nothing.
“I really thought we were going to find it,” Sara says.
“Me too,” Ashley and I echo.
Perhaps we were naïve, but what, other than hope, does one have at times like this?
We collapse on the remote street, which is when we meet John. He saunters out of his house, which butts up against the trailhead. A relic from the pre-smart-phone era (when our brains still knew how to store memories), he tells us phone numbers of local gas stations and lock smiths. I dial, again hopeful, but only for a moment; hope quickly snuffed by George at the gas station, who, with no hint of sympathy says, “Well, what you can do is you can get your spare key.”
“But my only spare is in Portland, 2 hours away.”
With even less sympathy this time, he repeats, “Yep. You can get your spare key.”
Not even a reassuring “good luck” as I say goodbye.
John is still with us. I feel terrible. I can tell he wants to help, yet has no idea what he can do for a muddy mess of stranded women and dog. It is later that I learn that while I am lost in my guilt, worried about inconveniencing nice-old John, Ashley and Sara are engaged in their emotional conjurings of axe-murderer John’s scheme for our imprisonment and death. I suppose when the body is stuck, the mind has to go somewhere.
I am still a little bristled by gas-station George’s bluntness, and yet, it is also the truth. Sara calls her partner—another John as it turns out. I do not know the exact words they exchanged, but from the outside, it seems quick, like it is no big deal, almost like he is happy to come. I am relieved that the imposition feels slightly smaller—like it is just any old favor to stop mid-tattoo, borrow a car, retrieve the spare key and drive 2 hours to pick us up. He has a long drive, and we have a long wait.
Our spirits rise, knowing that someone is coming for us. At the same time, we become more acutely aware of how wet, cold and hungry we are. Ashley raids her emergency food stash in her pack. Ashley and Sara ravage a Snickers Bar (the original power bar!), and Ashley gives me a Skout bar that I decide has reached new heights of deliciousness. Kodiak wonders where his emergency ration is.
It might have been the shivering that propelled John #1 to offer further aid. He has a truck with an extended cab and camper shell. It has just enough dirt on its floor and in its bed that we feel like we can accept his offer to drive us the 8 miles to Cannon Beach so we can wait somewhere inside, warm, and with food. As we climb into his truck, he loans Sara a sweatshirt (which she confesses “smells like horse, and has pockets filled with sunflower seed shells”, but since we are literally beggars, we will not be choosers), Kodiak settles into the back, and John drives us to Fresh Foods in Cannon Beach. I feel so grateful I could cry. I am surprised that there have not been tears before this point.
We slop into the grocery store. We are acutely aware of how dirty we are, but are so grateful to be somewhere warm and dry that we choose not to care. It is true that I love the grime and grit of the trails, but there are times when you just want to be warm and dry again.
The café in the grocery store at first is deserted, but then a kind woman with a bowl- cut and a gentle voice asks if she can get us anything. It is almost like she does not even notice the trail of mud that traces our exact route from door to counter. In addition to serving hot soup, beer and wine, she thinks we are wonderful and loves our story, because she sees it instantly as a pure story of adventure and kindness. She does not raise an eyebrow as we leave chunks of mud everywhere we move.
Two beers later she introduces us to a local man, “a writer who knew Prefrontaine. These ladies just ran 16 miles today!” In her introduction we share the same spatial plane as Pre. I chuckle inwardly, but I will take it, just for this moment, because every act of kindness holds back the wave of guilt I feel for each minute that has transpired since we first returned to my car. We do not learn the man’s name (John, perhaps?) but revel in his stories of running around a barrack loop in Cambodia during Vietnam. When he returned home, he lived with Pre’s trainer, which is how he got to know Pre. He cries just mentioning his name, apologizes, and then continues with the tears and the stories.
I let his stories of Pre and war and kindness pull me in. Time seems to dissipate. When he excuses himself to head to the “Screw ‘n Brew”, a local haunt part hardware store, part brewpub, we return to our own conversations.
Talk ends when Sara exclaims, “He’s here!”
John #2, with a visible smile, turns into the parking lot. We scramble to clean up our area in the café as best we can (which is to say, really terribly!), and dash into the parking lot. I grab Kodiak, and we pile gingerly into the car (the cleaner car makes us far more aware of how dirty we still are). I feel so simply happy. I am awash in the endorphins of hours of conversation magnified by the knowledge that the waiting game is over.
Spare key in hand, we arrive back at my lonely car. Sara returns John #1’s sweatshirt, who was luckily not a serial killer, but who was instead a kind stranger, one of many who made our day so perfect; who transformed a routine adventure (an oxymoron for sure!) into an epic story about friendship, and the reflexive strength we experience when we have to lean a little more on one another.
About the Author
Steph Imig is a parent, partner, teacher, writer, vegan cook and trail adventurer from Portland, OR. She is committed to creating the world she wants to live in, one step at a time.