As in every week, a lot has been going on. But my mind keeps going
back to James Kim.
As I’m sure you know, Kim, his wife, and two children were missing for
days and days in the Oregon wilderness. On Monday his wife and
children were found, safe and healthy. On Wednesday James Kim’s body
We were in the car when the news came over the radio. James Kim was
found today in a shallow creek, the reporter began. I shut it off
before Henry could hear. Parents always come back, we’ve told him. He
doesn’t need to know about one who didn’t.
Since the news came of his death, I keep thinking about him. So does
everyone else, it seems. I’d like to think that it’s not because he
was so much like, you know, us: educated, technology-savvy,
plugged in. I’d like to think that our preoccupation isn’t wrapped up
with our hubris, our certainty that something like this couldn’t
happen to us, even when the reality of it is staring us in the face.
When a tragedy like this occurs, we automatically separate ourselves.
We search the accounts for the victims’ mistakes, and we feel relieved
when the errors are so obvious, so not anything we would have done. We
become selfish and petty and grasping, just a little, just for a
moment, because more than anything, more than any respect we may have
for the dead, we need to believe that such a thing could never happen
But what happened to the Kim family could happen to anyone, no matter
how smart or educated. They took one wrong turn. We’ve all
taken wrong turns. For most of us, our road trips are graded on how
many wrong turns we took and how long our inability to read maps
detoured us. Their wrong turn happened to be in the middle of nowhere,
during a heavy snowstorm. By the time they realized how lost they
were, it was too late. We’ve all kept going even as the evidence of
our mistake mounted up around us. We’ve been able to turn back. They
He was so close to being okay. This is what I keep coming back to, how
easily this tragedy could have been turned around. When his family was
found on Monday, my first thought was, he’s already gone. No
one, starving for that many days, underdressed, wearing tennis shoes,
could survive the cold for long. Of course he’s already gone.
But he wasn’t. Even as I was thinking that, as probably everyone was
thinking that, he was still going, still searching for help. His
efforts were described in the press as superhuman. As the undersheriff
for the area said, he was a man who was “very motivated.”
His body was found only hours after he died. No more than a day,
certainly. If only they had found him just one day before.
Even more painful to fathom is that he didn’t know his family was
rescued. As parents, we just want our children to be okay. That’s the
nightmare that wakes us at 3 a.m., the thought that can veer our car
to the curb and leave us shaking. They might not be okay.
That’s what kept him walking and walking. When he fell, was he
delirious from the cold, or did he know what was happening? I don’t
want to believe that he was filled with despair even as his body
failed him, that his last thoughts were of his failure. I want to
think that on some level he knew, or he thought, they were okay.
They’re still talking about it on the radio, right now. “If he had
stayed in the car, would he still be alive?” the radio show’s host
asked the reporter. She wouldn’t say. Of course the answer is
yes. Really, what kind of a question is that? If he was still there
when the rescuers arrived, would he have been rescued? But what
father could sit there, believing that by his inaction, his wife and
children would all perish? Any parent would have done what he did. We
want to believe that if it was us, we would have found that lodge; we
would have managed to stand up and keep going after that fall into the
creek. He was superhuman, but our superhumanness would somehow have
Each new detail breaks your heart just a little more. Today, the news
that there was a lodge located a short distance from where his body
was found. A closed fishing lodge filled with supplies. He was one
And the lock-did you hear about the lock? There was supposed to be a
lock to keep tourists off of the road. It had been stolen by vandals.
One lock could have erased this story.
Just one lock missing. Just one wrong turn; just one mile; just one day.
I hope his family finds comfort in the knowledge that the world
regards James Kim as a hero, what every father dreams of being when
his family is imperiled. I hope his children know how much he
accomplished, how hard he worked to save them. I hope over the years
they don’t think too much about how close he was, how easily
everything could have turned around. Right now it’s hard to think
about much else.