By Bridget Manley, publisher
The accident has haunted Harrisonburg resident Lori Mier her entire life.
At 3 years old, Lori and her older sister Rachel London survived the unthinkable — thrown from the back of a pickup truck as it careened off a ravine in the mountains of Glide, Oregon, Labor Day weekend 1984.
Their parents died that night. Evidence suggests that their mother was alive after the accident, but died in the hours that followed.
Lori and 4-year-old Rachel spent the night cold and alone on the mountain, calling out for each other in the dark.
And after their extraordinary rescue, both girls spent the majority of their lives with questions.
In the summer of 2019, on a whim, Lori Mier posted a request to meet her rescuers on the Glide Fire Department Facebook page, and her rescuers started responding. She decided then that she needed to make the pilgrimage back to the scene of the accident, to reconnect with the family she left behind and meet the rescuers who saved her life.
Her will to return never wavered — even as the pandemic threatened her travel plans, even as her social activism angered her rescuers and caused them to rescind their offers to meet. She knew the trip was necessary for healing.
And so, in August, she went. Her sister Rachel — who lives in Park Rapids, Minnesota — decided she needed to be there too. So the two of them, along with Lori’s husband, Vince, and their son, Jackson, as well as Rachel’s daughter, embarked on the first pilgrimage together back to the place that changed their lives forever.
Obstacles crash against the will to heal
As Lori began planning the trip back to Oregon, she had no idea that 2020 would be so…2020. The cost of the trip was hard enough, but friends and family stepped up to help financially and made the trip possible.
Rachel also realized she could come. She said she thought it was important for the two to walk this road together and to heal together as the only survivors of such a traumatic experience.
“It was definitely important we did it together as we were both traumatized in similar ways and share much of the same story and miss the same family,” Rachel said. “We have been distant a long time, and that is difficult for our relationship.”
As COVID hit, their trip seemed doomed. The sisters held out hope, and by August they all felt that they could take the necessary precautions and travel safely.
As the trip crept closer and Lori realized they could, in fact, travel, other obstacles brought disappointment and sadness. Some of the rescue workers could not meet with the sisters because of a last-minute family emergency. Others decided not to meet because of political differences.
“That hurt for a little bit,” Lori said. But she realized that the trip was much bigger than meeting every single rescue worker.
Lori and Rachel met with Holly Hutchings, the daughter of the couple who first spotted the sisters on the mountain the morning after the accident. Hutchings’ parents were enjoying opening day of bird season on their four-wheeler that Labor Day weekend 36 years ago, when they thought they heard children crying.
Hutchings, who told The Citizen last year that her parents spoke often about the girls, said her mother, who died in 2010, and her father, who died in 2015, would be incredibly happy to know that they survived.
Lori said that they spent an entire afternoon with Hutchings and her family, talking about the details of the accident and what the sisters lives were like now.
“It was just so lovely,” Lori said. “We just talked and talked.”
“Holly and her family were great, spirited, lovely people who I felt honored to be with and share with,” Rachel said. “We talked about the day of the crash, other memories, our current lives, future plans…Honestly, it was fun meeting them, whereas many parts of the journey were dramatic and deep. That was comparatively sweet and down to earth!”
The sisters also tried to find the site of the accident during the trip. A reporter from The News-Review in Glidetagged along, as the girls spent hours poring over maps, snaking through dirt roads and searching in vain for the site. They couldn’t find the spot in the end because many of the roads have since been closed.
They did visit “The pit” — or, as Rachel called it, “the mud pit.” It was one of the last places the family spent together right before the accident occurred. For Rachel, this was a place she found healing.
“Visiting ‘the mud pit’ was such a beautiful experience in which I could remember through my senses that I had been there before, that I played there, and to be honest I really felt like I was a child again wanting to play in the mud,” she said. “The mud pit was the place we were before we crashed, when all seemed right in the world. It just hasn’t felt right since they left.”
‘I knew intuitively our parents were gone’
Rachel and Lori both said Lori didn’t feel the same connection to that particular spot, but she said she watched as Rachel connected and felt peace.
After all, she was a year older than Lori and has more memories of the night they spent on the mountain as their parents laid at the bottom of the ravine. She remembers using her navy-blue button-up sweater as a blanket and not being able to stand up.
Lori told The Citizen last year that her sister remembered a bear on the mountain that night, a detail Rachel confirmed.
“I remember waking on the mountain in the dark night and seeing a full-grown bear… The bear was many feet away and we stared at each other a moment until I realized it wasn’t going to harm me,” Rachel said. “However, I carefully pulled my sweater under my chin and told myself I should remain very still anyway because it is a bear!”
Rachel said she also remembers screaming for her sister, and recalls Lori screaming back and then the pair screaming in unison for help. She said she distinctly remembers the screams echoing throughout the canyon.
“I recall the way it all sounded and looked. The road was visible from where I laid,” Rachel said. “It curved around the canyon and I saw a few vehicles pass by and that is when I would scream for Lori to scream with me. We did this several times. It seemed instinctive that we had to save ourselves. I did not move my body the entire time aside from my limbs a bit. Lori was further down the mountain and I could not see her, but I was glad she was screaming with me.”
And she somehow knew it was, at that point, just the two of them.
“I knew intuitively our parents were gone. No one had to tell me. I just recall understanding that,” Rachel said.
Reconnecting with family as well
Before the accident, Lori, Rachel and their little brother (who was staying with a babysitter when the accident occurred) were living with their father’s family, but after the accident they went to live with their aunt — their mothers sister — several states away. Lori had not seen her father’s mother or his family after the accident and wanted to reconnect with them as well.
Rachel had already been to meet their grandmother and relatives on a previous trip, but for Lori, Augustmarked her first reunion with that side of her family since the accident.
After reconnecting with her grandmother, several cousins, uncles and aunts, Lori said it was both comfortable and overwhelming all at once.
“I know that my grandmother was feeling hurt, a little bit, that I hadn’t come sooner,” Lori said. She said she was very close to her father, and Lori felt as though her grandmother thought she’d have come back sooner.
For Lori, the moment that brought her the most comfort — and ultimately what helped her on her journey — was a sunrise visit to her parents’ graves.
As she sat in the cemetery on that cold morning, she looked at the mountains in the distance – the same mountains where her parents died. She said she has always had a connection to the mountains and noticed during this trip to Oregon the resemblance to the ones she knows in the Shenandoah Valley.
She looked up. There was a light in the sky. She got out her star tracker app — and it was Venus. The same “star” she had spoken to as a small child, out her window every night, imagining she was speaking to her parents.
“I probably cried for a good 20 minutes,” she said.
‘Merin and Her Very Bright Star’
The trip was intended to be a healing experience but also helped Lori tap into her creativity as she wrote her first children’s book, Merin and Her Very Bright Star.
“Merin is me,” Lori said. “She’s a little girl, around the age of 12 in the story. And she talks to a star every night.”
Lori’s story follows Merin as she seeks answers after her parents die. Her story unpacks childhood trauma, addressing the use of therapy to help heal, and deals with grief during adolescence.
“She is confused about how she is supposed to miss them, because she can’t remember them,” Lori said.
She said writing the book helped her understand her trauma and her own story better. She said she wrote the book to help other children going through grief but also to address how she would have wanted her own trauma to be healed as a child.
The book has an illustrator and is scheduled for release in the spring. Lori currently has a Kickstarter to help with the costs of publishing and is exploring other options for distribution.
“This book is everything to me,” she said.
The book and the trip are only part of the journey for the sisters.
“I feel better. Proud. I have invested a lot into healing for the past 7 years. I went on a six-week journey about 7 years ago to several states to uncover my past,” Rachel said. “This journey was yet another layer of healing. I have come a long way from being a traumatized, isolated child yet I still see how far I can still go. I do know now…that we all do have a lot of work to do in this lifetime so the pressure to heal is lessening, and I feel pretty healed.”
For Lori, that’s more of a continual work in progress.
“I feel like I’ve been on this healing journey my entire life,” she said. “There is always something to heal.”
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