Death is a Breath Away


I was going too fast, zinging on too much coffee, when I lost control of the car. Seven in the morning, sun just coming up, thirty-six miles west of Susanville in Northern California. Seventy-five on the speedometer, not a car on the road. I’d just told Vesta that the weather guys were wrong, we’d made it through Susanville and not a lick of snow, no rain either.

But it had rained earlier and that was a bad thing. I’d met black ice before and lost. I knew better, knew what caused black ice, knew I should be careful. But on this morning everything was beautiful. We were alone in the world and in a few miles we would be at the part of the highway that wound down about a thousand feet and we’d be out of the weather.

The car went into a slide. I took my foot off the gas, didn’t even think about using the brakes, because the last time I did that we rolled the car. That time was in Northwestern Canada and there was nothing but flat tundra for miles on both sides of the road. We’d rolled off into the snow, tumbled two or three times. The car was totaled, but we survived with only bruises. But there was no tundra here, trees lined the road, if we didn’t stay on the paved path, we were dead.

Vesta was eating an egg salad sandwich when it happened. One second she’s about to take a bite, the next we’re going sideways down the road.

“Ken.” That’s all she said.

I jerked the wheel to the right, trying to straighten the car. I’d been to race car school. I’d been trained. Got trained, because I’d lost control on black ice before and didn’t want to ever do it again and here I was, doing it again.

I turned the wheel into the direction of the slide, like I was supposed to, but I spun it too far and the car swung around, almost pointing in the direction I’d wanted, but we were still sliding, now headed toward the trees on the opposite side of the road. Green death, ghostly branches on this misty morning. Hot ice jackknifed up my spine as the car, still not under my control, started to straighten.

And for an instant, I thought I’d had it as I spun the wheel back toward the left, again overcorrecting. The rear end spun around and again we were sliding sideways down the road, only this time, the nose was pointed in the opposite direction and now Vesta was seeing the white line race under her side window.

We were bang on dead center in the middle of the highway, going sideways and I was worried about rolling the car, because we were still going too fast. I cranked the wheel back to the right, this time not as much. The car stated sliding toward the trees on the left side of the road now. I pulled the wheel a little more to the right and though I don’t remember doing it, I must have added a little gas, like I’d been trained to do, because just as the left tires went onto the shoulder, I got control back and was able to get the car back on the road.

I’m guessing we’d gone about a football field’s worth of distance, about a hundred yards, and we bleed off about fifty miles an hour’s world of speed. Now we were going about a safe twenty-five.

I’d been holding my breath and I sighed it out.

“You did it.” Vesta was still holding her sandwich.

It was over. I’d done it. But it wasn’t and I hadn’t. We hit another patch of black ice and in a breath we were on the opposite side of the road, again sliding sideways, this time I was looking straight down the road out of my side window. I spun the wheel to the left and if I’d’ve added just a touch of gas here, I’d of saved it, but I didn’t and we went off the road, sliming into a fiberglass snow pole, which made a popping sound as we slid over it, trees ahead.

I cranked it harder to the left, instinctively added some gas now and got control. In the nick of time, I was in charge now, but now was only a fraction of a second long as I aimed the car back toward the road, thought we’d be able to climb back up, but the wheels dug into snow and the mud underneath and we came to a sudden stop.

We’d bleed off so much speed that the airbags didn’t even deploy. We were safe, alive. But we were stuck in the snow and the mud, the temperature was right at freezing and there wasn’t a soul in sight. We were alone in winter wonderland.

I shut off the engine and all was quiet.

“Holy shit.” Vesta never swears and she was still holding onto that sandwich. “That was scary.” She took a bite, got out of the car.

Outside, we saw we were well and truly stuck.

“Shoulda got the four-wheel drive fixed,” Vesta said.

Jujuwalkin' 019

 “Yeah.” I’d been thinking the same thing. We’d just gotten the car out of the shop. Had a new fuel pump put on it and I’d thought about having the mechanic check it, because the car wouldn’t go into four wheel drive, neither high nor low. But the fuel pump cost five hundred and fifty bucks, so I’d decided to wait on the four wheel drive problem. Turned out that was a mistake.

I was about to go looking for a branch or something to stick under that rear tires, when a Highway Patrol car pulled up on the other side of the highway.

“Got here fast,” Vesta said.

“Yeah.”

“You okay?” A young woman got out of the car. Twenty-five, thirty, tops. She started to cross the road, slipped on the ice, grabbed onto her car to keep from going down. “Be just a minute.” She popped her trunk, put some plastic spiky things on her shoes, then started to cross again as a semi came round the bend, trailer weaving from side to side, the driver fighting for control.

“Look out!” Vesta shouted.

“Run.” The chippy turned, dashing through the snow as she made for the trees.

Vesta took off in the opposite direction. I just stood there like a dummy as the driver got control of his rig and zoomed on by.

“Asshole!” the chippy shouted.

“You got here pretty quick,” I said.

“Got the call about five minutes ago,” she said as she crossed the road.

“Then that was about three minutes before we went off the road,” I said.

“Your car is supposed to be overturned, upside down.”

“Not us,” I said.

“I better, go.” She turned, started back toward her car. “I’ll be back,” she called over her shoulder. And she went across the road as fast as one could, considering the conditions and the plastic spikes on her shoes. She got in her car, took off, not going very fast and still the back wheels slipped on the ice you couldn’t see.

“Looks like someone’s in more trouble than us down the road,” Vesta said.

“Looks like.” I went looking for something to put under the tires. Tried a few rocks. Didn’t work, the tires just spun.

Vesta came up with the idea of putting on the chains. Couldn’t get them on, but when I crammed them under the tires I got traction in reverse, the rear wheels jumped out of the rut they were in and I was slipping and sliding backwards, just missing running over Vesta, who jumped out of the way in the nick of time.

I threw the car into low, the wheels changed direction and all of a sudden the car started slipping forward at sort of a twenty or thirty degree angle. I spun the wheel left, then right, then left again, trying to keep the car in a straight line toward the road. which was up an embankment about thirty feet away. I almost made it, but about eight feet or so from the road the car dug in and it wasn’t going anywhere. I pushed the four wheel drive button, kept my finger on it as I spun the wheels, digging the car even deeper into the muddy snow.

But like a tree, we were planted.

I got out of the car, checked out the tires, confirmed we were stuck. And being stuck, naturally we wanted to get unstuck and be on our way, so we decided to get some fallen branches and shove them under the tires along with the chains.

We were maybe twenty or thirty feet east of our car when a white Ford Explorer came around the turn too fast.

“Ken!” Vesta shouted, “Run!” She sprinted back toward our car.

The car went off the road, heading straight toward me as it rolled. There was nowhere I could go and it happened in slow motion and fast forward at the same time. Four times the car rolled and each time it hit the ground, sound exploded, like an earthquake. A scene right out of an action movie and at the last second, eyes still on the Explorer, I dove behind a tree. The car missed me by a mile, well fifteen or twenty feet, with the Beatles blasting from the stereo as the engine roared.

The car landed on it’s tires, a screaming wreck. The engine screaming, John Lennon screaming about being back in the USSR. My head screaming, telling me to get on out of there before it exploded in a ball of fire.

And all of a sudden everything went quiet. The engine was still racing, the Beatles were still singing. I knew that. But I couldn’t hear them. I was deaf and I was afraid, afraid of the car catching fire and afraid of what I’d find inside it if it didn’t. I wanted to be gone.

Jujuwallkin' 020

But I didn’t go. I ran to the car. Went to the driver’s door. There was a young woman inside, her face was cut. She was bleeding from her mouth or from a laceration near her mouth. I couldn’t tell.

I tried the door.

Stuck.

I pulled harder, got no joy.

I shouted at her. I know I did, even though I couldn’t hear myself. She didn’t respond. The car was vibrating, shaking. I could feel it as I pulled on that door.

The car was stuck, but one of the rear wheels was still spinning. For now the car was stuck, but what if it didn’t stay stuck. I ran around to the other side. Tried the door. Like with the driver’s door, I got no joy.  The window had been blown out, safety glass was everywhere. The woman was shaking now, like she was in her death throws, then she went still.

“Are you alright!” I shouted, but she was still. I knew she was dead. I reached into the window, couldn’t reach the ignition, so I climbed halfway in, belly hanging on the door, grabbed for the key, shut it off.

And now I could hear again, but there was nothing to hear except the wind. Then Vesta as she shouted out, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.”  I backed on out of there. Went back to the driver’s door to check on the woman. That window wasn’t broken and it was streaked with mud, but I could see her fine. All of a sudden she jerked, opened her eyes. She moaned and I could here her fine, too. A few moments ago I was deaf, now I had super hearing.

I grabbed onto the door handle again and now apparently I had super strength as well, because when I jerked on it, it opened with a chalk on the blackboard screaming screech.

“I want out of here.” She unbuckled her seatbelt.

“You should stay put.”

“No.” She got out of the car. Stood up, started to fall.

“Easy.” I grabbed her, kept her from falling, eased her back into the car.

“What should I do?” Vesta said.

“Go up to the road, flag down a car and don’t get hit.” Every vehicle that had come round that bend had gone into some kind of slide, so I was worried about her trying to stop someone.

“Right,” she said, “don’t get hit.” She ran toward the road, went up the embankment. It was early, hardly any traffic, but someone would come along.

I turned to the woman.

“Are you okay?” Stupid question, clearly she wasn’t.

“I think so.” She looked dazed. She wasn’t okay.

“Do you know your name?”

“Sherry.”

“Do you know the name of the President of the United States.” When we were hit by a drunk driver in New Zealand, the doctor asked me that just before they took me into surgery. When I answered, “Bill Clinton,” he’d said I was good to go and they put me under.

“The president?” Sherry mumbled, “No, who is he?” Not good, Sherry wasn’t good to go.

“Do you know your last name?”

“Ah, no.”

“Do you know where you were going?”

“To see my kids?” It was a question, not an answer. “What happened?”

“You hit ice.”

“Oh my God. Am I going to be okay.”

“You’re going to be fine.”

“What happened?” she said again and again I told her she hit ice. Five, six, seven times she asked the same question, got the same answer.

“Car coming,” Vesta shouted.

It was a Highway Patrolman in a Ford SUV, red and blues flashing. Vesta stopped him, pointed to us. He shut his car down, got out and came charging toward us.

The guy was a kid, looked about seventeen or eighteen, but you gotta be older than that to be a cop, so I’m guessing maybe twenty-five, but a young looking twenty-five. A kid he looked like, but he didn’t act like a kid. He asked me the right questions, checked Sherry’s pulse.

I told him she’d been unconscious for about thirty seconds or so, that she was disoriented and probably had a concussion. He nodded, said he couldn’t stay. Said he’d get back as soon as he could, that he’d call for an ambulance. He asked could I stay with her. I said I could. He said to keep an eye on the road, incase someone else came sliding off in our direction. I said I would, then he was gone.

“Must be some bad accident up the road.” Vesta was back.

“Must be.”

Ten minutes later the kid cop was back. Then the lady cop showed up. Then a couple ambulances. The lady cop called for a tow for us. Then a fire truck showed up. They offered to tow us up to the road, but when I said we had a tow coming this fireman asks me did I have AAA and I said I did and he said that was good, because it really pisses off the tow drivers when they come miles for a tow and there is no car to be towed. I said that was fine, that’d I’d wait for the tow.

The paramedics determined that Sherry needed to be in a hospital ASAP, much faster than an ambulance could get her to one. so they called for a helicopter, which got there pretty damned fast. They got Sherry into a brace and a stretcher and ran her up to the road to the chopper and then she was gone.

Jujuwalkin' 021

Jujuwalkin' 022

Jujuwalkin' 023

And then they started to wind things up. The cops got out their measuring devices, checked the skid marks. The firemen started putting their gear away, as did the paramedics. The cops decided not to cite me for taking out that snow pole, because I’d been such a good Samaritan and besides, if we hadn’t slid off the road, nobody would’ve been there for Sherry. They would’ve gone right on by to that other accident and never seen her.

So, though we wrecked the car, though we were out in the cold and though this was most likely going to cost me a whole gang of money, this turned out to be a good thing, because had we not been there, that young woman would’ve died out there, alone in the cold, and that’s the silver lining in that cloud.


Ken Douglas Wedding and Portrait Photography, 1250 Ralston Street, Reno, NV 89503 
Phone: 775 393-9529