The Body

Every other month, Geoff’s company grants the entire company a “wellbeing” day. Employees are encouraged to step away from their computers and do something that day that focuses on their mental and physical wellbeing. It is brilliant. During the pandemic, Geoff’s company was one of those tech firms that absolutely took off and seemingly had more work than they could even deal with. Or rather – a ton of work that they sought to deal with – with more projects to work on and shorter project timelines. That can work operationally in the short term – but longer term – it starts to wear on employees….and companies see the impact of it in terms of burnout and attrition. In a wonderfully in-touch-with-their-employees move – Geoff’s company instituted the “wellbeing” day as a respite every 7-8 weeks when employees were hitting their breaking points and needed an extra little time away from work to unplug.

Given that these “wellbeing” days typically fall on Fridays, Geoff and I choose to use them as all-day dates. I block my calendar and join him in wine country, at a museum in the city, or – our favorite – an all-day hike. This past Friday we chose the all-day-hike for our adventure and headed to a hike called “Steep Ravine”. Our plan was to hike down to Stinson beach – enjoy lunch at one of our favorite coastal cafes (probably accompanied by a glass or two of rose) – and then hike back up to our car.

As you can imagine from the name – Steep Ravine has a very steep ravine that follows alongside the very steep hiking trail. But it is GORGEOUS. The trees form an amazing canopy above and around you as you step down the trail – which in our case was good news because it was kind of an overcast and rainy day – and the sky was spitting lightly at us as we moved down the path.

It has been super rainy in Northern California this winter and spring – and the result of that wetness is that now there are all of these waterfalls you come across when you hike! And streams and rivers! There is water where there wasn’t before – and that just adds to the magical qualities (the sound of water rushing, the beauty of the water sparkling, the added moisture in the air) of hiking in the woods.

One of my favorite things about hiking is the chance to talk uninterrupted for 2-3 hours with your hiking partner about everything….and nothing. Hiking is a place where Geoff and I can share the thoughts we normally don’t find time to share with one another (we have a seven year old, after all) and it all comes out easily and naturally because all you’re doing is walking and being in that very moment. I find we are our best communicators when we are in nature, hiking. While we try to keep our volume low so as not to disturb other hikers with our chatter – we do talk constantly as we walk along – and our chatter becomes background to our hike – joining the natural chatter of the streams and the birdsong.

Things have been super crazy busy for Geoff at work lately and we were talking through the latest challenges for him. I asked questions while he spent more time than he normally would explaining what was happening and how it was impacting him. We brainstormed other options for him together as we plodded along the path. It seemed like the perfect way for him to exorcize his current demons on a wellbeing day.

Because Steep Ravine is so steep – there are a number of switchbacks along the path – and about 30 minutes into the hike, park rangers have placed a wooden ladder that hikers need to climb down to continue the hike. We ran into another couple who had just climbed up the ladder as we were about to climb down. After greeting one another – they warned us that the ladder was slippery today and that they noticed drops of blood on the ladder. (Yuck!) We carefully climbed down – and looked to avoid the (yup! I see it! Eww!) 5-6 drops of blood you could see on the rungs of the ladder.

About 20 yards past the ladder, I was slowly bouldering over an outcropping of rocks in the path that I was anticipating would be slippery. I got down low so that my center of gravity would be lower and I could reduce my chance of slipping or tripping. I called over my shoulder to Geoff that he should be careful as the rocks looked slippery. I reached out for a branch that was near the edge of the path and was disappointed to find it was not sturdy – but instead moved when I hung on to it. The wobbly branch was part of a tree that seemed to be growing up the side of the cliff. As I held onto the branch – I looked over the branch and over the side of the cliff to gauge how far down the ravine went. The wall of the ravine was covered in bushes and trees but the angle of the ravine was steep. There were no visible landings for about 100 feet down until the ravine floor where I could see a stream burbling along.

As I turned away from the cliff – I noticed a brilliant blue color out of the corner of my eye. My first thought was disappointment that someone had clearly dropped some garbage along the path and it likely had been blown down to the ravine floor. You don’t see much, if any, trash when you’re hiking in Marin – and I am always so grateful to the hikers who conscientiously ensure they leave no trace – and even pick up trash they find along their paths. So I looked back and looked harder to see what kind of trash the blue was. As I narrowed my eyes to search for the blue, I noticed that it was bigger than I had originally thought. The brilliant blue was actually a puffy jacket and there was a hand next to the jacket…and hiking pants coming from the jacket. This wasn’t a piece of trash. This was a hiker. I was looking at a body. And he wasn’t moving. His head (and face) were obscured from my view by some rocks (exactly how did he roll under rocks?) and most of his body was submerged below the stream running through the ravine.

“Geoff. Geoff, there is a body in the ravine.”


“Please come look.”

Geoff scooted over to the edge of the ravine where I was busy processing the fact that I was looking at a dead body. I pulled out my phone and took a photo. Geoff pulled out his cell phone and took a photo. Then we just looked at one another.

“Do we have cell coverage here?”


“No. Ok. Let’s hike out and find someone.”

We both straightened up and turned away from the edge of the ravine and this horror. We slowly started down the path again. After about 20 yards, I stopped and turned around to face Geoff. Silently, I held out my arms and he walked to me and into my arms. We held one another on the path.

“Let’s not tell any of the hikers we run into that there is a body here. It will freak them out.”

“Yeah. Ok.”

We started hiking again. Now we hiked along without words. The day had changed. We had changed. We reached a service road – discovered we had one bar of cell coverage – and Geoff called 911. He gave our names and phone numbers and told the dispatcher where the rangers could find the body. As he hung up I asked whether the rangers wanted us to return to where we found the body. Could we be helpful? Or would they feel we were in the way?

“I don’t know.”

“I just know that if it was you in that ravine – I would want to know that the hikers who found you cared enough about your life that they had stayed with you.”

“Yeah. But there’s nothing we can really do at this point. That body was motionless. The only people who can help him are the rangers…..or maybe a coroner.”

Unsure of what to do, we silently continued down the path toward Stinson. Five minutes later, Geoff’s phone rang. It was a ranger named Tom who was asking if we could hike back and meet him by the ladder to show him exactly where the body was. Of course we could.

“Are you sure it is a human body?” Tom asked Geoff.


We offered to text our photo – which they accepted.

We hunge up and hustled up the path. We greeted other hikers we ran into and I found myself searching their eyes to gauge if they’d discovered the body too and had also made a pact to not tell anyone else. Were they hiking out to call the rangers? Were they busy thinking through what one missed step or slippery rock would have meant in their day? In their lives?

As we neared the slippery rocks where we imagined the dead hiker had tumbled over – two young men came barreling down the path. One seemed to stumble a bit near the edge and I could not help but gape as I imagined this man’s body joining the other one in the ravine. Oh my god – one stumble and it could happen so easily I thought to myself. How is it I didn’t imagine the danger we were in on this trail until I looked over the side and found the body evidence of that cautionary tale?

As we neared the ladder, the rangers waved to us ahead on the path.

“Do you have weapons?” one of the rangers called out to us.

“What?” I asked? “Oh gosh no – no, we are just hiking.”

“Ok” he said. “It’s just that I have to ask….Hi. I’m Tom. We spoke earlier.”

We led them to the rocks and pointed over the cliff to where the body lay. Tom offered to Josh (his ranger partner) that he would find a place to climb down and check on the body. While Tom climbed down, we shared our story – and our identification – with Josh. He asked if we had moved anything – or whether we had also climbed down to the body.

“Oh god, no” I admitted. “I’ve been turning it around in my head since we found the body…What if he had been moving when we found him? How could we have climbed down to help him – it’s just so steep here. Would we have made it to him in time to save him?”

“Yeah….once he was in the water – you would have had six minutes to get to him. I don’t think you could have helped him.”

“Oh.” I said quietly.

Tom radioed Josh that he had made it to the body.

“I can’t find a pulse. But he does have a backpack on. Should I grab it and we can look at his identification?” Tom asked.

“Yes!” I blurted out to no one in particular.

“No” Josh radioed back. “We should leave everything as we found it for the coroner so that he can determine cause of death.”

“Josh. I don’t know if it is related or not – but when you climbed down the ladder you may have noticed some drops of blood on a couple of the rungs?” I said.

“No – I didn’t notice – could you show me?”

“Happy to.”

We walked Josh back to the ladder and pointed him to the drops of blood on the ladder. He took some photos and then told us we could leave. We thanked him for his help and he turned back on the path to join Tom and wait for the coroner.

Geoff and I climbed back up the ladder and back into our lives.

150 150 Sarah E. McDonald