My great grandmother, a fiery Portuguese with a penchant for prayer, claimed he was an angel until she died. I was in diapers when it happened, but I remember how violently the tires pounded down the muddy slope. When my mother recalls the day this so-called angel met us on the side of the mountain, her tone is one of disbelief, reverence, and gratitude all mixed in one. She tells me it went like this:
Our burgundy Chrysler van headed up one of the many hills on Bottle Rock, a backroad between Middletown and Kelseyville constructed on steep grades and obsidian. The roads were wet and a light rain fell as Grandma Maggie, my sister and I rode the turns with my mom behind the wheel. Bottle Rock held two dangers. The left could crush you with fallen pines or boulders while the right dropped hundreds of feet with only manzanita and poison oak to catch you. Yet people drove it to shave fifteen minutes off the normally 45 minute commute around the county.
She rarely sped and that day was no exception. But it was cold, wet, and primed for disaster. In fact, we had driven nearly to the Highway 29 cutoff before the road threw us. As our van turned a corner down a steep grade, the wheels lost their grip and we were left at the mercy of our own inertia. A haze of mountainside and brush under a haze of smeared windshield spun past the windows as we were thrown against the sides. Grandma Maggie’s instinctive prayers to Jesus leapt from her lips in chorus with mom’s own pleas to God.
The spinning Chrysler caused us to lose sense of time, as if watching vicariously in slow-motion our own bodies swirl helpless atop the hidden, black ice. I was told I clutched my Cabbage Patch kid in my car seat. Maybe I remember Sarah clutching the headrest in front of her. But when the elements have taken control of you, it all becomes a waiting game.
But then the real danger came.
The spinning turned to violent bouncing. Our bodies flung forward, held back by our safety belts as the van had spun off the side of the mountain and now crashed into the unknown we had only safely glimpsed through our rear windows until now. It rattled us inside, drubbing into the mud, rocks and brush as my mom desperately tried to steer us around tree trunks and boulders. I remember being tossed around and wondering why it was happening, unaware at any moment a brilliant light could summon us all into heaven. It seemed like the chaos lasted an eternity. But then the van jolted.
Though the engine still rumbled, the stillness brought both relief and awe. We were alive for now. My mom turned back to Sarah and I.
“Are you guys ok?” she asked.
We both responded by crying. Grandma Maggie rambled off in tongues of praise. A light rain fell on the windshield which had miraculously been spared from the descent. Mom turned back around and faced the decline in front of us. Ironically, the only thing preventing us from continuing down the sudden drop off was a massive poison oak bush.
Needless to say, we had had enough of being in the van and not much faith a poison oak bush could hold our battered and mud soaked vehicle in the rain. Mom opened her door and stepped out, struggling against the steepness and slipping mud as she made her way around to the passenger side. First, she helped Grandma Maggie out. Her weathered, 84 year old body shivering in the cold.
Next, Sarah and I were helped out. Mom held me while Grandma tried to help Sarah navigate the heavy grade. Like a group of ragtag survivors, we stood alone on the verge of a vast wilderness with the faint sound of traffic on Bottle Rock far above us. Just us, the van, and creation.
Mom and Grandma decided we needed to get help and couldn’t bide our time waiting for help to come. So, a petite woman with her 80 year old grandmother and two young children traversed and climbed through mud, rocks, and the aftermath of our destruction up the side of a mountain. The climb seemed to take forever, but we were able to get about fifty feet from the road.
That is when we heard a voice call to us from above.
“Is anyone hurt?” A man in a red coat stood at the edge and called to us from the edge of the road.
“No,” Mom replied.
Without a word, the man climbed down and, one by one, began hauling our soaked bodies from the mountain side to the road. He lifted my Grandmother easily and took her to his red pickup and placed her in the cab. Next Sarah, then me, and finally my Mom. Cars whizzed past us as he placed us into the back of his red pick-up truck.
Mom told him about the accident and the van down the ravine. During her speech, he only nodded. Almost as if this information was nothing new. He stared with his intensely blue eyes below soft, blonde hair. The characteristics so striking, my Grandma Maggie stared at him with more awe than when we crashed through the brush.
When Mom had finished, he said with an authority of kindness, “I’ll drive you to your husband in Lower Lake.”
Without much choice, Sarah and I rode in the back of the pick-up. The rain stung our faces as he drove back the way we came, leaving our ordeal behind us.
Inside the cab, my shaken Mom and Grandma tried to talk with this stranger with the intense, kind eyes.
“What is your name?”
He shrugged off the question.
“Do you live around here?”
“What were you doing on Bottle Rock?”
“Where are you from?”
Though he evaded answers, it was never as if he had something to hide. The subtle calm he exhibited meant something more, as if his answers may be beyond comprehension or inexplicable for us. We rode with him to the tow yard in Lower Lake in a strange yet comfortable silence, an aura of assurance nestled in the air. When we arrived, he helped us out of his old, red truck and waited while Mom called dad and told him what had happened.
After the phone call, we turned around to thank this helpful stranger who somehow had found us out on that mountain in the rain.
But he was gone. Vanished without a name.
My mom and Grandma never saw him again. Not even his recognizable red pick-up. They even asked around but no one knew anyone by that description. And this was in a town of 1,000 people.
When my mom told the story, she echoed what my Grandma Maggie suspected all along without a hesitation and with the same conviction.
“He was an angel.”
And, frankly, I am inclined to believe her. More than likely, mom and Grandma Maggie are sitting around a picnic table, drinking tea with Andre Crouch, Corrie Ten Boom and the angel in the red pick-up.