This month marks Stephen King’s sixty-fifth birthday, more than half a lifetime since he released The Shining, a novel inspired by the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. I’ve passed by the Stanley Hotel two times, between which I lived a scene that Stephen King could have written.
The first time, a Saturday morning a few weeks before my graduation from the University of Colorado, I was riding in my roommate Julie’s car toward an Estes Park hiking trail. The hotel was grand, white, old-timey, and supposedly haunted, although not as isolated as the hotel in the movie. As we passed, our ponytails blowing out the open windows, the Rocky Mountains encircling us like a hug, I rested my feet on the dash, happy. Three years earlier, driving cross-country together, Julie and I had become best friends. Now, we hated separating even to sleep. Every morning, we woke up, turned on the TLC channel, one of the only channels we got, and danced in our living room while watching shows about makeovers and brides. Throughout the day, unless we were in class, we were together. We believed that this was life. Once, a guy took us both on a date. “I thought I had to,” he told us later. In Julie’s car, the familiar smell of the interior soothed me. Out the window, the day was perfect, the sky huge. When it’s cloudless, a Colorado sky resembles a great, empty aquarium.
When we reached the trailhead to Gem Lake and stood stretching our hamstrings, a man sprinted down the trail, his backpack bouncing. He saw us and stopped, bending to rest his hands on his knees, holding up one finger, signaling us to wait while he caught his breath. He was a typical Colorado sort—high socks and hiking boots, unruly gray beard, stocky calves. But there was nothing typical about what he told us: “Gunshot,” he panted. “By the lake.” He stood up straight and twisted to glance up the trail. Then he turned back to us. “I think she’s still alive,” he said. “I think she’s still twitching. Someone’s gotta get to her quick.”
Julie and I looked at each other. We looked at the man. He was using the collar of his T-shirt to wipe sweat from his forehead. These were the days before the whole world had cell phones, but I had been in love the previous semester with a guy who habitually disappeared. Oblivious to the rules of dating, I’d bought a cell phone to make myself as available as possible. That relationship was long gone, but I fished the phone from my backpack. I handed it to the hiker and told him that we’d run up the trail, that he should run down until he hit cell phone range, call 911, and then come meet us. Beyond that, we had no plan of action. Julie told me later that, as we hiked toward the lake, she’d imagined pressing her fleece pullover into the bullet hole to stop the blood. My fantasies were less benevolent. The Stanley Hotel still fresh in my mind, I had one eye out for a gunman lurking in the spruce trees.
Silently, we fell into the lull of hiking, the soles of our boots beating a rhythm on the dirt. Julie reached our destination a few minutes before I did. When she doubled back, her face was white, her ponytail askew. She led me to the top of the trail where the earth flattened out and a lake gleamed, the trees gathered around like spectators. We sat on one side of a large boulder. “Don’t go over there,” she said, nodding toward the other side. “You don’t need to see.”
“Is she dead?”
Julie put her head on her knees. After a pause, she said, “The gun’s still by her hand.”
“She shot herself.”
“Her brains are everywhere.”
“Okay,” I said.
There was no Stephen King character on the loose. We weren’t in danger. We were just in very close proximity to death.
Sitting there, I remembered the first time I heard of suicide. I was six years old, home for a snow day, and my mother was watching TV. A newscaster mentioned a man who had “shot himself in the mouth.”
“Did he die?” I asked my mother.
“Yes,” she said.
Why, I thought, would anyone want to die on a snow day? Now I had a similar question: How could a person come up here where the colors were perfect—the lake silver, the trees green, the sky blue—and find no reason to live?
Of course, I wanted to see her. But even to my best friend, I couldn’t admit that. My curiosity embarrassed me. So I stayed where I was, wondering if the woman’s eyes were open, like the eyes of dead soldiers in movies. I wanted to know if she was really still twitching, the way the man had said.
Soon, other hikers found the body and joined us. They sat, removed their backpacks, passed around water bottles. We made small talk, the way hikers do, as the sun warmed our bare limbs. I kept thinking of the blood. The brains. Outside the body where they belonged, how did such things react to heat? Did blood congeal? Did brains dry up?
Someone made a death joke and the rest of us forced a laugh.
“What a thing,” said someone else. “It’s beautiful up here.”
“Beautiful,” everyone murmured. And then there was nothing to say.
When the man appeared with my cell phone, he was accompanied by a Search and Rescue team, who divided us, looked through our packs, examined our Clif Bars, and questioned us as murder suspects.
“So,” one of them said to me, as he scribbled in a notebook. “Did you kill her?”
“No,” I said.
“Okay,” he said.
“I haven’t even seen her.”
I hoped he’d tell me to take a peek, just to refresh my memory. Now, he’d say, you’ve seen her. Did you kill her or not?
Instead, they let us go. We hiked down without a word. At the trailhead, Victim’s Assistance awaited us with teddy bears and pillows. Julie began to cry, but we refused souvenirs and headed back to her car.
“Let’s never tell anyone this story,” I said as we drove back to Boulder.
“Never,” she agreed. But of course we would tell it.
When we passed the Stanley Hotel the second time, it looked creepier than it had that morning, ominous, as if the red roof were painted with blood. The weather remained perfect, but the air felt strange. The familiarity of the car no longer soothed me. My seatbelt was suffocating; I kept pulling the strap away from my body. I thought I’d never get comfortable.
* * *
It didn’t hit Stephen King until long after he wrote The Shining that he’d written about himself—an alcoholic author losing his mind. And it would take me years, and dozens of retellings, to understand the story about that day at Gem Lake: It wasn’t just the death that unsettled me, that idyllic lake as a backdrop for horror, but the reminder that everything ends. I was about to lose all this—driving around Colorado with Julie, the cozy life of a college student. The end of youth is a kind of death, too.
* * *
A couple of days later, Julie saw a cop in a coffee shop in Boulder and asked him if he knew anything about the suicide at Gem Lake. He told her that the woman had been missing for three days. Her family had been frantic. When they found her body, everyone was mystified. She’d been severely disabled. She’d had difficulty walking. How had she made it to the top of that trail? He shook his head. “She must have really wanted to die there,” he said.
Julie told him that she’d found the body. “And now every time I close my eyes, I see that poor woman with her brains blown out.”
The cop sipped his coffee and nodded. “That’s normal,” he told her. “It will go away.”
* * *
It did go away. And then we did. And we became the kind of friends who miss each other, who visit when we can. Five years later, in a hospital room, I held Julie’s first baby.
For a long time, whenever I told anyone our story, I wanted to say that I’d seen the body. Sometimes I did say that. I just wished so much that I’d seen it, that I’d lived the more interesting version. But I don’t wish that anymore. I was about to graduate. About to grow up. Soon enough, I’d see plenty.