I think about that every July 31 when one of these gorgeous summer days descends on us. I find myself quietly staring out at it, remembering the events and voices and faces and emotions of another July 31st in Colorado, over thirty-five years ago now.
I’d spent the day with friends on a ranch at the western end of the Big Thompson Canyon, right where that rock-walled Canyon, and its River, push together into the near vertical cliffs of The Narrows before spilling into the farmlands of Larimer County, an hour northwest of Denver.
We laughed and played and ate our way through the day. But as we relaxed after dinner, something happened that changed our mood—and our lives--in a heartbeat. In the coming hours, my twenty-something self was jolted into lessons and questions that are still with me all these years later.
A few miles west (and a half-mile up vertically), massive thunderstorms had stalled through the late afternoon, pounding nearly a foot of water into the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains near Estes Park where the Big Thompson River originates. And a flash flood was building, with two to three thousand people in its path. With little time to spare, sheriff’s deputies raced the length of Highway 34, doing their best to warn as many of us as they could.
A police car skidded into our driveway just before 9:00 pm, long enough for the officer to speak emphatically into his loudspeaker, “Get in your cars and leave. Don’t take anything with you. A flash flood is headed down the canyon. Go now.” And then he was gone, headed up the canyon to warn others in what became the last hour of his life.
Sparked by the man’s urgency, we ran to our cars, scrambling to make sure we had everyone. Someone yelled, “Go with the driver you came with!” And the last minute shuffle became fateful for a few.
Driving out of the ranch, we reached a literal crossroads: Do we turn left and cross that old wooden bridge over the River and make a dash for Highway 34, heading east? Or do we simply turn right up that steep dirt road and reach the immediate safety of a high pasture? It was dark. As the first driver out, I saw a figure in a yellow slicker directing me with a flashlight to turn right. I did, and two cars followed me. No one else that night saw the figure in the yellow slicker with the flashlight, and I still wonder about that. Other cars, just a few seconds behind us, turned left across the bridge, two found higher ground. Two headed east.
Once in the pasture, we got out of our cars and looked down on the roof of our two-story house, and beyond it up the Big Thompson River. I remember earlier in the day commenting smugly that in the Pacific Northwest, we would probably have named it the Big Thompson Creek. But as we listened and watched, lightening began to flash and within minutes, a nineteen foot wall of water burst out of The Narrows, crushing the old wooden bridge as it roared by below us, carrying on its crest cars, trucks and trailers, some with their head lights still burning.
Moments later that wall of water swept over low point in Highway 34 a couple of miles away, taking with it our two east-bound cars, just as those nine friends were probably thinking they were safely away.
We stood watching for a long time after the flood passed, both hoping and knowing. The thing is, a flash flood is just that, and then, except for the wreckage, everything becomes calm again.
The Big Thompson Flood destroyed homes, businesses and most of Highway 34. And it took 145 lives, including the lives of seven friends. Two others survived cold hours clinging to trees and debris before being rescued.
Though I had still to learn the extent of our losses, my questions as we hiked out the next morning were obvious: "Why me?" and "Why them?" Later, as our two surviving friends were rescued and began their recovery, I tested the easy theory that maybe God had simply taken the most gifted and gracious among us. On further reflection, there's probably more to it.
The more powerful questions that have grown important for me through the years are, “Now what?” And “Now how?” And “Can I live my life as a stewardship, as a gift? Can I live it with gratitude, generosity, integrity, honor and grace?”
You know that client I mentioned at the start of this story? If she’s right about the gift of still being alive, my mission in life is still being fulfilled now, nearly forty years on. Every day I get to ask some version of those powerful questions. I ask the brave people I work with and train, and I keep asking myself too.