Perspective is something that allows us to appreciate our lives, our families, and our country. Lately, with so much bad news surrounding us, and after just returning from Africa where such extreme poverty exists everywhere, I find myself reflecting on one of those “People” magazine-type stories about someone living through a life threatening experience and coming out a changed person. It’s a story I’ve shared with my boys, when they were upset about a trivial matter, as it happened to me in June, 2005.
Driving alone on 395, I fell asleep at the wheel. In the middle of nowhere with only my dog as company, and the cruise control set in the low 70s, I drifted off to sleep as the sun was just beginning to peak over the horizon, in spite of a Monster drink (Red Bull equivalent) and in spite of stopping several times to stretch and do some jumping jacks. Lost in thought, I just slipped away to “Neverland.” Well, “Neverland” almost became just that; never more.
Startled awake as the car drove screamingly over the shoulder, I quickly realized what had happened. Grabbing the wheel and holding on for dear life, trying desperately to control the swerving bucking SUV, I didn’t even remember if I hit the brakes. Mind going at light-speed, the car crashed through a barbed wire barrier and headed down into a river wash. Over boulders the size of large beach balls, the car literally flew nose-first into the wash. The momentum carried the car into a front side flip, spiraling over once or twice (no one knows for sure as no one witnessed it), landing right side up, facing the opposite direction.
Steaming, all air bags released, the smell of burning rubber in the air, I took what felt like my first breath. First thought: I’m alive and apparently not bleeding, though I felt a growing swelling around my right eye. Second thought: is my dog okay. Third thought: somebody up there likes me. The driver’s door was stuck but I was able to pry it open. I called out my dog’s name, but he seemed nowhere to be found. Gradually fearing I had killed my beloved dog, I began circling the wreck, calling his name. Each larger circle revealed more car wreckage and parts strewn in the stream, as well as CDs flung far away and other stuff thrown from the car. After a couple of minutes, though it felt like an eternity, my dog came bounding over the edge of the river wash, from the direction we had careened from.
On first inspection, he seemed miraculously okay. But, I soon noticed a limp from his right front paw. Nonetheless, the reality that my dog and I were okay was just beginning to hit me. Now what. I reached to my side to find my cell-phone. Not there. Looked on my wrist for his watch. Not there. Heading back to the car, I searched and found my cell-phone on the floor of the passenger compartment. It was on and it had reception, though this area was notorious for intermittent cell signals. Called 911.
I couldn’t describe to the dispatcher where I was, other than in a river wash adjacent to an overpass. I remembered, vaguely, the last city I passed. She asked if I needed an ambulance and I said “maybe.” She said a CHP officer would be there shortly. I put my dog on his leash and went up the incline of the wash and tied him up by the overpass. On the way, I saw fresh poop, evidently from my dog that had been flung from the car somewhere on the ride. Back to the car, and a bit calmer now, I looked it over. The front right wheel was flat on the ground, like a hovercraft. The sunroof was buckled. All the air bags were opened, but now deflated. Car parts were everywhere as was broken glass, yet no cuts on me. Amazing. The car was obviously toast so I began getting together what was worth salvaging. Couldn’t find my watch, which had been strapped on my wrist.
20 minutes later the CHP officer arrived. He quickly assessed the situation and determined where the car had veered off the highway, some 300 yards up the road. He tracked its direction, through 3 layers of the barbed wire fence, over the boulders and up into the wash, flipping somewhere near the bottom. He said it was a miracle anyone survived, let alone with nothing more than an apparent black eye. He also said that usually anyone (or any animal) thrown from a vehicle ends up dead; another miracle that my dog was fine. He also noted that this stretch of highway was divided and that the majority of the highway is two-lanes in both directions. So? He explained that if I’d veered off to the left, just as I had on this divided portion of the highway, but done so on the two-lane portion of the highway, I would’ve potentially gone head on into another car going the other direction. 70 mph times two; hmmm, you do the math, you figure the consequences.
And, finally, he commented that given where the car had landed, basically under an overpass, it was unlikely anyone would’ve noticed the wreck. Had I been unable to extricate myself from the smoldering car, it was anyone’s guess how long I would have been trapped. A couple of hours later, my dog and I were heading back home, in a rental car.
About 8 hours after leaving my house, in the dark early hours of the morning, I returned home. A shower revealed my only other injury, besides a mildly sore neck and shoulders, was an extremely minor scratch on my calf. Oh, the CHP officer found my watch in the car, still strapped but working fine. Another curiosity. What purpose was there for me to continue living? Why was I sparred when so many die in much calmer accidents? Would I actually make good on this blessing of another chance. Would I ever again get upset over the little stuff, such as traffic, a hang-nail, waiting in line, being put on hold, a meal not coming out just right, a crowded or late flight, a cold, a trip to the dentist, etc. Life is a miracle and I had just lived one. As we drive this particular stretch of highway often, to go to our local ski resort, I am regularly reminded of my incredible good fortune and my gratitude still holds true and strong to this day.
UPDATE – April, 2009 – I just returned from a trip to Mammoth where, for the first time since the accident, I actually left in the dark of early morning. I caffeinated up and had nary a sleepy moment. However, also for the first time since this accident, I looked for and stopped at the site of the accident. It was about 7 a.m. and the roads were quiet and the air was still. I walked the last bit of path that my car had gone, stepped over the bent wire fence post that held the barbed wire, un-repaired in the subsequent nearly 4 years, and walked over the large boulders my car had hurdled and flipped over. Into the riverbed I went, looking for any remnants of the accident as so many pieces of my car and interior were strewn about at the time. I didn’t want to stay long, but found nothing. No surprise as it was a riverbed. What was surprising to me is that, on seeing again the site of the accident, the absolute miracle that I walked away so completely unscathed. I have to look above and give thanks, yet again.