As I gaze out the window of the plane upon the mighty Rocky Mountains, towering mesas, deep cut gorges and desert flatlands that mark the way out of Grand Junction, Colorado, I can’t help thinking how this wasn’t the homecoming trip I expected.
The plan was to spend four days at a luxury ranch nearby and write it up for the magazine. It was supposed to be another grand adventure in my old Colorado home, but that’s not the way it turned out. The trip was cut short by disaster, and the only thing I’m returning with is pain and grief.
Truth be told, I’m still in shock. I can’t believe this is real.
On Friday, the first full day of our ranch tour, a group of writers, a pair of ad agency girls and I went out for a post-lunch four-wheeler ride up the switchbacks of the canyon. With guides leading and trailing the group, we left the lavishly decorated walls of the main ranch house.
A few minutes after we left, the first few riders and I stopped atop a bluff to wait for the others. We waited for Ashley, the ad agency lady who was next in line, but she never crested the last hill. We waited a bit longer, then saw a stream of ranch vehicles speeding down the road behind us, all headed to the same spot, just beyond our immediate view. My heart sank for the first—but not the last—time that day.
We rode back to the site, and as Janie, Ashley’s friend and colleague, walked down the road to where the staff vehicles were parked, she raised her hands to her head and cried, “Oh my God, Ashley!”
I sped down the hill, directed her away from the crash site, and asked a staff member to take her back to the ranch. He did.
Our primary guide, Jim, was already performing CPR, and I walked down to where they were to see if he needed any help. I immediately realized there was nothing I could do. It’s a helpless, terrible feeling.
I went back to gather the remaining riders and we returned to the ranch house; I figured it was the best thing I could do to help in that moment. When we arrived, I heard over the radio that Flight For Life was on the way, and then someone radioed the manager, saying, “You better get down here right now.”
We jumped into a truck with him and sped back to that dreary hillside. On the way, we heard a failing voice over the radio: “The paramedics have arrived. Please call 911 back and tell them the helicopter is no longer needed.” It was one of the worst moments of the day. We arrived at the scene, where reality came again like a sledgehammer: Ashley was dead.
We’re still not sure exactly what happened, except that the four-wheeler left the road, tumbled down the hill and Ashley died at the scene from her injuries. No one saw the wreck itself, so whatever caused her to swerve off the road, as well as the exact events that followed, remain unclear.
Back at the ranch house, Janie approached me and asked, “What’s going on? What happened?” I could think of nothing to say except that Ashley had died. David and I held her as she collapsed to the floor, weeping. I then went and told the others what had transpired.
It was a day of long silences and blank stares. We were all trying to remain calm for each other, but the hurt was written on every face that day. It was on Jim’s face, who acted quickly and bravely in a terrible circumstance, gave Ashley CPR, and teared up as he said more than once after it was over, “I wish I could have done more.” I’ve had the same thought again and again: I wish I could have done more. His was one of the saddest countenances I’ve ever seen.
Sheriffs, paramedics, a coroner and a therapist all came and went. Corporate people flew in, families were notified, and we each spoke to a grief counselor. We all gave statements. None of it seems real. All of my trivial, daily problems suddenly feel so silly, life so overwhelmingly fragile and the emotions so raw.
We stayed up late with the staff around the campfire, trying to console one another as we talked. In the early morning hours we retired to our rooms, but almost everyone gathered at sunrise after a restless night. We had to force ourselves to eat, though hunger is still a stranger.
Naked we came from our mother’s wombs, and naked we shall return. The Lord gave, and the Lord took away (Job 1:21). Ashley’s death was and is a sobering event that still hits like a ton of bricks. It makes the world feel like it’s coming apart. There aren’t any answers, no reasons why. Right now I’m at peace with the fact that what we need is not an answer to the question “Why?” but a comforting Shepherd who holds us in our grief. He is our answer.
And we need each other. We need to talk and cry and pray and hold each other as our hearts break. We need the promise of our Maker that as bad as the pain is at this moment, and as dark as the night gets, He won’t leave us alone. The sun will rise again in our lives. In the meantime, we weep unashamedly (Psalm 30:5, 139:12) as we hope in the God who uses a fallen grain of wheat to bring life to others (John 12:24).
And we’ll miss Ashley. Not only did she do her job with excellence, she was a bright, sweet person to be around. I’m reflecting and praying for her family, and for all who lived through that terrible day in June. I hope you will do the same.
(Photo: Ashley loved Tess, the sweet springer spaniel who lives on the ranch and is everyone’s best friend. After I learned of her death, I was crying on the steps inside the ranch when Tess found me and rested in my lap. It was a moment I won’t forget.)