Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How about you tell the new kid about "Dead Man's Curve" next time?

(Context: This happened when I was 16. They say that the majority of drivers in the US have their first car accident during their first year of driving. This was true in my case.)

It’s a cold winter Saturday in Placerville and it snowed the previous night leaving about two inches on the ground. I’ve never lived in a place where snow will blanket everything you see, so I am enjoying the newness of seeing the world as a clean blank slate. My plan is to drive down to Sacramento to stay with a friend for a couple of days.

This is the first time I have driven in this type of road condition, but the main route at the end of the driveway is snow-plowed so I am cautious but not overly concerned. I get into my parents’ Mercury Sable, and creep down the driveway, testing the braking and steering. I realize I forgot my razor, throw it into reverse and go back inside the house. My mother is alarmed and asks, “What’s wrong? What happened?!” and I chuckle after telling her about my forgotten item.

I re-enter the car and proceed to the main road. The tape player starts playing a soothing song filled with keyboard synths and layered female vocals. The cassette was the soundtrack for a UK series called “The Celts” and was a gift from a friend who knew I was into Celtic culture. Even though I am not a huge Enya fan, it seems appropriate to the drive and was a gift so I let it play.

I am a half mile from home when the road turns left, hugging the side of a ridge. I press the brakes to slow for the turn and the car doesn’t slow down at all. I press down harder on the brakes which continue to do nothing. The car proceeds straight and hits a reflector meant to guide you around the turn. I think to myself “I dented the front of the car, my parents are going to kill me.”

The next thing my brain registers is that I am weightless. I look straight ahead and there is no road – only the tops of trees.  The car has flown off the side of a cliff and as it tilts I see that it’s about 200 feet to the bottom with an obstacle course of trees in the way.

I think to myself, “Well, I had a good run, I guess. This is it. I am going out with my eyes open.”

I grip the steering wheel, and force my eyes to stay open. There is no sound except the soft purring of the idling engine and the ironically soothing sound of Enya’s voice serenading me during free-fall.

I hear the sound of trees hitting the undercarriage and it reminds me of dozens of people knocking on the floor.

Then the sky is down and the ground is up, then back again, then reversed again. There are crashing and breaking sounds coming from every direction -then everything goes dark.

I have my eyes open but can’t see anything. I smell dirt and a mix of various fluids that I can only identify as “broken car”. I look around and realize the car has stopped and am hanging upside-down by my seatbelt. Forcing open the door, I unlatch my seatbelt and flip and fall to the ground. I take two steps forward and assess the damage. It looks like a giant has grabbed the car, crumpled it into a ball and thrown it aside.

The wheels have popped off and it’s buried upside-down near a creek. I look up and see a path of destruction where it flipped end-over-end down the cliff. The adrenaline hits and I start climbing and running. I sprint the half-mile back home, being passed by several cars who veer wide of the bleeding crazed kid running down the thoroughfare.

I open the door and my mother chuckles and asks “What did you forget this time?” and then looks up at me. I see her face go white and I say “I wasn’t driving crazy, I swear I wasn’t driving crazy.”

They put me in the other vehicle and drive to the hospital. My father asks, “Where is the car?” and I point down the cliff and yell, “Down THERE!” and everyone goes silent as the severity of the accident sinks in.

At the hospital, the doctor pronounces me fit and lets me know I should be dead since people die off that corner every year. A policeman stops by and says that he doesn’t have to file a report since the car landed on private property – he also notes that I should be dead.

I lived for three more years in that house and drove that road many more times. I learned that when you hit a patch of ice, the worst possible thing you can do is slam the brakes harder – a piece of information I wish someone had told me before moving up to the mountains.

I still drive snowy roads, but if I have a choice, I let Wife drive -and under no circumstances will I allow Enya to be on the radio.

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