Colin Dickey | Longreads | March 2022 | 24 minutes (4,226 words)
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Two men are dead in a cabin on the side of a mountain — how did they die?
There is a whole host of questions like this — riddles that get grouped under the category of “lateral thinking puzzles.” Another: A man walks into a restaurant and orders the albatross soup. After finishing the soup, he leaves and commits suicide. Why? Or: There is a dead man, naked in the desert, holding a straw. How did he die? You can only ask yes-or-no questions, and the goal is to figure out the precise story. Many of these involve a dead man in one form or another. There is a dead man with a hole in his suit — how did he die?
Sometimes, the mechanism of the answer is something ludicrously complex, a thing that must be pieced out bit by bit. Several people were in a hot air balloon that drifted into the desert and started to lose altitude because of the heat and air pressure. They threw everything they could overboard, including their clothes, but when that wasn’t enough they drew straws to see who would jump overboard to save the others. Other times, though, the solution is simpler, but requires retooling your perspective. You hear “hole in his suit” and you think of a three-piece suit and your mind goes to a bullet wound. Once that image is set in your mind, it can take some work to dislodge it. You don’t necessarily think: “space suit.”
You hear “cabin on the side of a mountain” and you think of a small building built of wood and brick. Smoke out of the chimney from a pleasant fire. You don’t necessarily think: “airplane.”
Cabin is one of those words that seemed unremarkable to me until I spent some time thinking about it. It is a small room, a compartment, but beyond that it splinters in different directions. A cabin is a thing in the woods, remote, isolated — a place to escape to or where one goes to live simply. It is also a compartment on a ship, a private room in a large, more complex vessel. Or it is the main body of an airplane, where all the passengers (as well as the crew, if it’s a small aircraft) sit together. The kind of thing that you might find strewn on the side of a mountain.
Knowing the reason those two dead men are in that cabin on the side of the mountain answers some questions but not all. It doesn’t tell us why the crash happened, who was responsible, or anything about the lives of these two dead men. The lateral thinking puzzle is not truly interested in these questions.
I separated from my wife of 20 years at the end of 2019. We had previously lived in Brooklyn but had moved upstate to Dutchess County, New York, for several years — when people asked me why we moved, I often replied that it was the result of “a series of irrevocable decisions.” There, everything had fallen apart, and at the beginning of 2020 I moved back to Brooklyn, to an apartment a few blocks from where we’d lived together before. Upstate, we’d had a large house and plenty of room; now I was on the fifth floor of an apartment building, once again sharing walls.
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I wanted very much to focus on myself. Now that I was, for the first time in decades, not bound by another person’s decisions and wants and happiness alongside my own, I could look inward and try to understand what I needed and what I wanted. The old me had died, I told myself. I could now be whomever I wanted. I made a decision to live more deliberately, to take some control over my life that I felt had been lacking. I was going to spend some time and really focus on figuring out exactly what had gone so wrong, how things had turned out so poorly. But I also decided to be more open to experience, to consider possibilities, to let myself be carried along by the moment if it meant new chances, new ways of being.
I only had about a month of this before the world came crashing to a halt and I found myself largely trapped inside for the next few months. Trying to merely stay alive, I made decisions that would have lasting impacts out of sheer reaction. I saw my day-to-day life as from a distance, a sort of eerie remove, as though it was happening to someone else. I established new patterns as a way of asserting some kind of order on the chaos and anxiety I felt, then watched myself as though someone else was going through those motions.
To be in a cabin on a plane, together with your fellow passengers, or to be in a cabin on a ship, alone by yourself, is to be a passenger of some kind. To be in a cabin in the woods is to be going nowhere at all — though, at least since Thoreau, to be in such a cabin is to be, on some level, on some kind of introspective journey, learning about yourself and how to live. I see now that at some point in those early months I began moving along three separate timelines. I was a hermit, ensconced in a cabin, trying to find myself; I was a passenger, moving along into the future without agency; and I was alive amidst a wreck — everything around me crashed, everything broken.
There is a specific cabin on the side of a specific mountain that I think about often. It is the cabin of a McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30, Air New Zealand Flight 901, which sits on the side of Mount Erebus, as it has for over 40 years. In 1977 Air New Zealand began operating sightseeing tours over Antarctica: The flight would leave Auckland at 8:00 a.m., fly a loop over the continent and return to Christchurch at 7:00 p.m., refuel, and return to Auckland. An experienced Arctic explorer on board would act as a guide during the trip, pointing out landmarks and features of the continent.
The approved flight plan involved flying directly over the 12,448-foot Mount Erebus on Ross Island, the second-highest peak in Antarctica, but due to a transcription error, the actual flight path used by most of the sightseeing flights involved flying down the length of McMurdo Sound, some 27 miles west of the mountain. A few days before the accident, another pilot noted this discrepancy, leading Air New Zealand to update the flight plan, albeit incorrectly.
On November 28, 1979, Flight 901 proceeded along a route that the pilot and copilot believed to be along McMurdo Sound, descending to 1,500 feet. Despite the crew being aware of visual landmarks all around them, they did not realize that their new path put them on a course to Mount Erebus and they did not see the mountain directly in front of them. A condition known as “flat light” or “sector whiteout” had occurred, where the mixture of snow on the ground, clouds, and light conditions caused the pilots to lose depth of field; they were unable to distinguish the mountain from the horizon all around them.
At some point, in those final moments, that horrifying trick of perspective revealed itself: The empty white horizon was in fact, a mountain. It was too late to pull up. At 12:49 p.m. the plane crashed into the side of Mount Erebus. All 257 people on board were killed.
Because of the expense and feasibility of a large-scale salvage operation, most of the wreckage is still on Mount Erebus. The bodies have been removed, but the cabin remains on the mountain.
Mount Erebus is an active volcano, and one of the more geologically important sites on the planet. It was named by Sir James Clark Ross, who named it after his ship, the HMS Erebus. Built in 1826, the Erebus had begun its service as a warship, but after two years it was refitted for Arctic exploration, alongside the HMS Terror, which had shelled Baltimore during the War of 1812. The two ships left Tasmania in November of 1840 and spent the winter exploring the island that would later be named for Ross; the two ships would make several subsequent expeditions back to Antarctica in the ensuing years. Then in 1845, both ships were outfitted with steam engines and used by Sir John Franklin in his doomed expedition in search of a Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic. Franklin sailed in the Erebus, in command of the entire expedition, while Francis Crozier captained the Terror. The two ships were last seen by Europeans entering Baffin Bay in August of 1845 by whalers, wherein they disappeared into the Canadian Arctic. The mystery captivated the British public, and multiple expeditions were launched in search of the Franklin Expedition. Eventually it became clear that all 129 men on board had been lost.
Those men died beholden to a fantasy of British imperialism, sleepers all sharing the same dream. But as the reality that no one had survived the Franklin Expedition sank in among the British populace, it became increasingly important to understand how they died. Local Inuits who had witnessed the Franklin Expedition reported that they had descended into cannibalism near the end, an accusation met with widespread condemnation tinged with racist vitriol. Charles Dickens accused the Inuits of having murdered the sailors themselves; “We believe every savage to be in his heart covetous, treacherous, and cruel,” he wrote. Britons refused to believe that these men, bereft, starving, lost, and hopeless, could behave as anything but stalwart embodiments of British ideals. It was important that the people of England be able to tell themselves that these men had died well. To believe in this neat and tidy fiction, it seemed, was more important than any reality — that they had died well meant that the expedition wasn’t a total loss, that there was still something that could be learned from it: about stoicism in the face of despair, heroism in the face of defeat. The truth was far less important than the lesson.
As for the doomed Flight 901, investigations would later suggest that the pilot and copilot of Flight 901 were not entirely in command. The original accident report cited pilot error as the cause of the crash, blaming the pilot’s decision to descend below the customary minimum altitude and his willingness to continue at that altitude after it became clear that the crew wasn’t entirely sure of their position. But a subsequent inquiry by Justice Peter Mahon cleared the crew of blame, and instead blamed Air New Zealand for altering the flight plan without advising the crew. This second report also blamed the whiteout conditions, what Mahon termed “a malevolent trick of polar light.” Mahon also accused the airline of a conspiracy to whitewash the inquiry; he charged it concealed evidence and lied to investigators.
This conspiracy accusation was subsequently dismissed by New Zealand’s Privy Council, but it still seems fair to say that the pilot and copilot of Flight 901 were not entirely in charge of what happened that day, constrained, as they were, by faulty information, flight plans, data and computers, to say nothing of the weather — all of which conspired to prevent them from fully understanding what was happening as they flew into the Antarctic wilderness. Most importantly, the inquiry failed to ascertain how the crew and passengers of Flight 901 died; it attempted to provide a narrative, one that could perhaps lead to some kind of closure — instead what it found were contradictions, lies, and ambiguity.
In those early months of the pandemic one of the few things I learned was how a single life can split into a series of paths simultaneously. There were times I felt absolutely in control, and times like I was swimming through an endless chaos. I remained in my tiny cabin of an apartment while I hurtled through space, both in and out of control at once. I learned that there is not a single narrative; that at some point in your life your story can splinter and divide and run in parallel tracks. Elements from one of your stories can affect all the others. At some point, you hope, these tracks will combine again. Often this can take years. Often it never happens at all.
The lateral thinking puzzle, on the other hand, only works if there is a single solution. The cabin is an airplane cabin, it is nothing else. If it is this then the solution is evident. If it is not, then the question — how did these men die? — becomes more urgent. Bear attack? Starvation? Cabin fever? We don’t know, cannot know.
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As we sped into the unknown in those early days, all we wanted to know was who was spared, and for how long? Who died and how did they die? We knew there was a disease but we didn’t understand how it worked. We knew there were precautions that could keep you safe but we didn’t know which ones worked and why some people who followed them still got sick. Lives were wasted and lost less because of the disease itself and more because of a fealty to a broken set of ideas, a belief in a certain way the world worked that could not be altered. That the economy should be our primary concern, that businesses should stay open at all costs. That it wasn’t the government’s job to intervene. That personal choice was more valid than collective action. That change was not required. And tens of thousands of people were carried along to their graves in service of these beliefs.
You come outside your Brooklyn apartment one morning in April 2020, and the entire street is roped off in police tape. Across the street from your front door, there is a woman’s body in the trash. How did she die?
April 2020 is when everything seemed to have crashed, when there was nothing but wreckage. Through the middle of March, I had watched warily at the unfolding news, still trying to cling to some measure of hope; by the end of March the reality had begun to set in and everything seemed strange and emptied. It began a period when I literally could not imagine life beyond the next two weeks — I couldn’t see ahead in my life, as though I had entered a fog that obscured the future entirely. By April, there was nothing but the monotony of days, the litany of body counts and infection rates, and whatever grim rituals could be done to ward off despair and hopelessness.
And then on a bright, spring Wednesday morning I came outside to find that a body had been discovered across the street: a woman who’d been wrapped in a black and white tarp and left in a pile of trash.
The cops were still on the street, and I approached the one wearing a mask, speaking loudly so he didn’t have to get close. When I asked him what happened, he replied, “They’re doing an investigation.” “Did someone die?” I asked him. “Honestly,” he replied, “the news knows more about it than I do. It’ll be on the news.” It seemed to be his job not to know anything, to studiously avoid knowing anything. “Can you tell me anything? Should I be worried?” I asked him. He repeated the line. “They just have to do an investigation.”
Behind my question was not merely idle curiosity; it was of utmost importance at the time to know how people were dying. Was this a homicide? Was I at risk for my safety? Did I need to change my patterns of behavior when I was outside — avoid certain street corners or neighborhoods or times of night? Was it a COVID death? Had the outbreak spread so far and wide that people were just simply giving up, dumping bodies willy-nilly? Was this body a harbinger of a complete breakdown in the city?
I walked a bit away, out of earshot from the first cop, and put the same question to another cop. “It’s just that it’s suspicious, is all,” he told me. “So they have to do an investigation.” There was, I’m sure, a low note of panic in my voice. “But what was it? Someone was murdered? Was it homicide?”
“It’s just suspicious,” is all he would say. Neither officer was willing to even state the basic fact that I already knew. Neither was willing to name the antecedent to that pronoun, “it.” The death itself. Neither would even cop to the basic fact that there was a body.
A few days later, I learned from the news that it had not been a homicide, nor had it been related to COVID-19. The woman was believed to have overdosed and the man she was with had panicked, dumping her body rather than calling the paramedics. This man was later charged with concealment of a corpse — a law passed in New York in 2015, referred to as “Amanda Lynn’s Law,” after Amanda Lynn Wienckowski, a 20-year-old woman who was found dead in the trash in Buffalo in 2009. (Wienckowski’s death had also been ruled an overdose, but a private autopsy paid for by the family concluded that she had been strangled, leaving unresolved the question of how she died.) After that, the story dropped out of the news.
Having the solution to the puzzle solved nothing for me. It was, on a brutal level of reality, the best case scenario for discovering a body in the trash: It wasn’t a homicide, and it wasn’t related to the ongoing pandemic (at least not explicitly so). The fact that it was neither meant that my personal safety wasn’t any more or less impacted by this gruesome discovery. And yet, very little changed for me. I wasn’t reassured. Knowing the cause of death changed nothing. Could she have been saved? Did he try to save her? Why was she there? Was it all a terrible accident? Did she want to die? Why did he panic? Why couldn’t he have tried harder?
How did she die?
My own life went on. I tried not to think about her, that body in the trash, that woman whose name was never revealed. But she remains there, carried with me, nameless but insisting. I still pass the spot where her body was found several times a day. There is no memorial there, nothing to commemorate what happened; you’d have to have been there at the time to know it happened at all.
My street is filled with ghosts. There are memorials for others up and down the block: piles of candles and fading flowers, graffitied “RIPs” on the sides of buildings, laminated sheets of paper with smiling faces above dates tacked to trees. So many ways to be confronted with the same questions: Who was saved, and who was doomed — and how did they die?
For the families, and sometimes the police, there is nothing academic about these questions — they need to be answered, one way or another. But what about for the rest of us — the bystanders, who know a death has happened but aren’t involved directly? We who are too far removed personally to ever know the story, but also too close in physical proximity to ever forget that something has happened?
To live in a city like New York during a catastrophe is to be reminded a hundred times that you will never know the answer to these riddles, that the work of living through such times is to carry these unanswered questions with you, to never dismiss them. Sometimes the work we do for the dead involves fighting for justice. Sometimes it involves remembrances and testimonials and obituaries. Sometimes it involves asking questions that you cannot answer. Our obligation to the proximate dead is both very little and more than we can possibly hope to achieve; we ask the questions knowing there are no permanent or stable answers, only the questions themselves and the endless attempts to answer them.
The term “lateral thinking” was first coined by Edward de Bono in 1967, where he argued that the key was the switch from familiar patterns of thinking to different and unexpected perspectives, allowing for new insight. Rather than using critical faculties, reasoning out the true value of statements and attempting to understand and correct errors, lateral thinking is designed to radically break one out of established patterns and broaden one’s tools for problem solving.
De Bono published multiple books on his concept. He made a name and a career for himself, but he could never quite articulate how the process worked. He offered inspiring examples from the world of business and culture but hesitated to provide a roadmap for how the reader could imitate such successes. “No textbook could be compiled to teach lateral thinking,” he wrote in 1970’s Lateral Thinking: A Textbook in Creativity. As with other self-help gurus like Malcolm Gladwell, de Bono mainly offered a satisfying narrative built around sudden eureka moments that ignored the way solutions are usually found: communal problem-solving, trial and error, and dogged work. Less a significant contribution to cognition and more likely a pseudoscience that appealed to the CEOs who hired him to give presentations at their Fortune 500 companies, lateral thinking is a buzzword and a magic trick, obfuscating the stubborn work of thought behind ersatz epiphanies.
Lateral thinking presents itself as finding a novel solution — you reframe your perspective and you see it, there it is: The proper way to go. But sometimes there is no proper way to go, there is no trick of perspective that makes everything clear. I imagined, in those early days — and in the many, many days since, that if I spent enough time looking at what had happened to my life, if I turned around the question in my mind long enough, the answer would come clear and a simple solution would present itself. But I have never found this to be the case.
When I teach beginning students how to write a personal essay, I usually tell them there is a standard structure they can follow. There is a past self, the one who experiences the events in question, and a current self, the one writing about these experiences afterward. The essay is a dialogue, I tell them, and it is built around the difference between these two selves. The current self has learned something, understands something, and is communicating that takeaway to the reader.
The essay tries to answer the question: How did you live? You went through something, you were changed in some way, you came out the other side. How did you do it? What did you learn? The perspective, the reframing has happened, and now the writer sees clearly. What was ambiguous or uncertain is now resolved.
It’s a neat structure and makes for a satisfying read, but most of the time it’s a trick. You write a triumphant essay about getting over an ex and you’re still thinking about them months later. You write about meeting the love of your life and by the time the essay is published you’ve broken it off with them. You write an essay about what you’ve learned about yourself and you’re the same enigma the next day.
I’ve always distrusted the form of the personal essay because I recognize the lie here, recognize how easy it is to put together a satisfying narrative conclusion about an incident in my life, one that delivers on a certain promise made to the reader — a satisfaction entirely built on smoke. These neat, pat resolutions at best can only describe one facet of one’s life, at one particular moment. Meanwhile the rest of you — these parallel lives — remain messy, untidy, ambiguous, complicated.
Enough time has passed since those early days of 2020 — and I’ve spent more than enough time thinking and puzzling on them — that by now I assume I should know something, I should be able to offer a takeaway of some kind. What those days meant to me. What I see now that I couldn’t see then. How I was changed. How I was saved. How I lived.
But none of this is true. All that I find I can do is keep adding new layers to the same question, one on top of each other. The only thing that feels true about myself is the series of questions I’m constantly asking myself, that never get answered fully but get asked again and again in an ever-evolving light. How did they die? How did I live?
The mountain reveals itself and the plane crashes. The ship reaches its destination and the passenger disembarks. The hermit, enmeshed in solitude for long enough, has an epiphany. The inquiry is finished, the cause of death announced. The pandemic winds down. The essay reaches its conclusion.
You think that something has ended here, but it’s just a trick of perspective.
Colin Dickey is the author of four books of nonfiction, including Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, and The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained.
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