Cable cars don’t just drop from the sky … do they?

My brain and heart began their argument as our cable car neared the summit of Mount Huangshan in Anhui Province, China.

“Cable cars don’t just drop from the sky,” my brain reasoned. But, as our car began to swing in the gusting wind, my thumping heart was clearly not convinced.

Our group of faculty members and students from Lewiston-Auburn College had spent two weeks touring China and volunteering in orphanages, and we would spend this day hiking the trails in this mountain wonderland, in China’s Yellow Mountains.

But, first, there was the long cable car ride to the top.

It was humid and overcast at the bottom of the mountain as we waited patiently for the cable car beneath a sign that said in Chinese and English, “Excellent tour environment experience lies on peaceful social order.”

Confucius perhaps? Or, simply a nice way of saying “Shut up and wait”?

Our group soon joined about a dozen Chinese tourists on the car and it began moving rapidly skyward.

Each time we rolled beneath a support tower there was a brief sensation of weightlessness that drew gasps and giggles from all aboard.

As we climbed, the mountain mist gradually enveloped our cable car. Higher still, the mist began to swirl and wind began to gust.

By the time we approached the highest tower, the wind was howling and the car began to rock back and forth, eliciting gasps and nervous laughter from passengers.

Just as we approached the tallest tower, the car slowed and then stopped dead, as if it were repelled by the strong wind. Behind us, we could see back to the last tower in the distance. But, ahead, we couldn’t see over the peak of the tower before us.

The cable car just swung a couple of hundred feet above the rocks, as everyone exchanged nervous glances.

Then, “Bang!” A gust of wind ripped open a trap door in the roof of the car, setting off more shrieks and gasps.

The door was flapping and the wind was blowing through the car when a few of the small windows around the top of the car blew open with a clatter.

It’s funny what occurs to a newspaper person at a time like this. I began working on the headline in my mind: “23 Mainers killed in freak cable car crash.”

My next thought was also work-related: Quick, get out the digital recorder. When the rescuers are sorting through the wreckage, they’ll have the dramatic last seconds for the evening news.

Oh, and how about photos? I held my camera and flash over my head and snapped away, no doubt convincing the Chinese aboard that Americans really are crazy.

Just then, the car lurched forward, and we began moving, slowly at first and then a bit more briskly. We finally cleared the top of the tower and we could see the cable station about a quarter-mile ahead through the mist.

The car banged against the side of the station as we docked, then we all ambled off laughing, but on shaky legs.

It was about 50 degrees at the top, with a misty rain and blustering wind, and we were all dressed in T-shirts, sandals and shorts.

New headline: “23 Mainers die of hypothermia in freak accident.”

Some of us bought disposable plastic raincoats from a nearby stand, and we began a hike we will always remember.

The well-maintained trail went from peak to peak, often snaking across the faces of sheer cliffs that dropped hundreds of feet into misty valleys. While the fabled vistas were obscured by the clouds, the mist and fog lent a mystical, magical quality to everything, roiling and swirling like smoke among the peaks and stunted pine trees.

At several of the most dramatic ledges there were stone posts and chains to keep people from falling off. Between the posts were cables bearing thousands of little brass locks.

Chinese newlyweds often come to such high spots and buy a lock. Together, they clamp it on the cable and then pitch the two keys into the abyss.

My wife, Luanne, and I thought it would be a good time to lock our marriage in for another 32 years. So, we purchased a lock at the nearby kiosk, locked it on the cable and then, together, flung the keys out over the abyss.

The keys hung there for a minute, then blew back toward us, settling in some tree branches just out of reach. Good enough, we said, as we kissed atop Mount Huangshan.

After hiking and lunch, we joined a two-hour line of people waiting for the cable car to descend.

And then I saw the sign: “Don’t worry if the car swings or stops. You are in no danger.”

“Thanks,” I thought. “Where was that sign when we needed it?”

‘I began working on the headline in my mind: 23 Mainers killed in freak cable car crash.’
newspaper editor


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