All too often these words—when directed my way—result in a quick scan of recent memories, which I then compare against long-term ones (to identify as-yet unshared newsworthy events). Then I reply: not much, same-o, just enjoying life, or words to that effect. I think my days, for the past few years at least, have been like the local weather: pleasantly uneventful and constantly unworthy of remark. Oh sure, I went to Mexico last spring, the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park last summer, and San Francisco in the fall; but are those things newsworthy enough to call people’s attention to? Maybe-probably not.
In order to be newsworthy, I need something waaay-wonderful (a published story in a mass-market magazine, for instance) or something on the other end of the scale (a near-death experience, say). Well today, unfortunately, I'm not reporting membership within the ranks of the newly published.
I used to say—when having a conversation about driving—that I'd never been involved in an accident. Now, I can’t say that. Before I provide details, however, understand that no one was seriously injured. Small cuts, some scrapes, a couple sizable bruises, and a concussion (which no amount of over-the-counter shit has been able to take the edge off) is, amazingly, the extent of the damage.
Sunday afternoon, coming back from a weekend in Utah, driving her '99 Ford Explorer south of Flagstaff toward Phoenix, I'd normally have been going about 83 (because that's what I go, when the limit is 75). But because there'd been snow on the road fifty miles back and twenty-five hundred feet of elevation above-behind us, and also because the roads were still a little wet from rain, I was driving around 65.
It began to hail.
There's no way to write that sentence with sufficient adjectives and adverbial phrases to do it the simple justice it deserves. These were not the infamous golf-ball sized hailstones (which seem to be the minimum size capable of instilling awe); rather, they were the common, marble-sized, variety. Come to find out, size is over-rated in terms of hail as well. Who knew? It's the volume that gets you. And it got me. A cacophonously phantasmagoric volume of noise clapped my eardrums in concurrence with an amazing chicken-little icefall, which—up to that moment in time—was unthinkably beyond my imagination (and that’s an ouch, because I’ve got a waaay fuckin-amped-up imagination).
You know how—when discussing electrocution—they say it’s the amps that get you? 10, 000 volts of electricity can hit you but if it’s only, say, half an amp; you’d get a good shock, but no serious tissue damage. Conversely, if your body provided the ground for a 2500-amp/120 volt transformer, you’d more closely resemble a smoldering charcoal briquette than anything mammalian.
Well, translated into the language of hail: cantaloupe-size hail could fall, say, one per square meter every ten seconds; causing you to certainly get smashed and dented. Conversely, if a hugely massive volume (acres of tons, say) of marble-sized hail fell and—in less than thirty seconds—became two inches of ground ice, you would certainly be fucked (if you were...say...going 65 mph on a highway. Next to a semi).
The amplitude of hail was so extreme I immediately lost sight of the semi tractor-trailer on my right, which I’d been passing moments earlier and assumed was still less than five feet off my port bow. (The hail striking the roof and windows of the SUV was amazing-shocking-ranting-noise; much louder than the sound the planet would make when it pummeled the roof and windshield in a half-minute).
As the hail began, I simultaneously did the following: lifted my foot from the accelerator; reached up to the turning-signal lever and switched the windshield wipers from their previous setting of intermittent wipe every two seconds (the semi had been spattering me with spray from the road) to the whack-fast speed of four wipes per second; said the words, "Shit, I can't see"; clutched and shifted into neutral; and applied the brakes with a tap of my right foot (the left was still holding the clutch).
The wipers, now flinging ice off the windshield as fast as mechanically possible, provided almost no effective visibility. There was only about a 1/4 inch of clear windshield following each wipe of the blades. As that fraction of an inch flicked across my vision a few times, I saw the semi—a dark blur in the right lane—attempting to prevent his truck from jack-knifing. I was no longer beside him. Now, he was ahead of me, trying to stay in the right-hand lane.
The lines on the road were no longer visible, but I could see where the edge of pavement met the median on my left. Peripherally, out my side window, I was aware of the point where shiny, flat, gray-white roadway became rough, dull, brown rocks as it sloped away, unimpeded by guardrails, toward boulders and trees.
My brakes began to slow the vehicle a little and then the rear tires were no longer in direct contact with the highway—no longer tracking behind the front tires—instead they were sliding toward the median. After a few inches of skid, I let off the brake pedal while turning the steering wheel in, slightly—no more than a half-inch—to compensate. At this point my hands told me: I no longer had any ability to steer. I said, “O-Oh, this’z not good.”
The ice was now completely under all my wheels. No steering. No brakes. No traction of any kind. I thought, “This feels like I’m rolling down a road of real marbles.” I don’t think I had yet slowed the vehicle much below 50, but I didn’t check the speedometer.
The car was now on a slight downhill grade and the only thing keeping us on the road was forward momentum. As I felt the front wheels slide on the hail, I eased down on the brakes again. The back end corrected and then began to wobble, no longer sliding in toward the median, now sliding toward the right lane and the semi. All four tires had lost contact with the road. Off the brakes, again, I said, “Oh shit.” I don’t know if my paramour heard me over the noise of the hail pounding on the roof, but I knew by her posture out the corner of my eye, that she was aware we were out of control.
And we continued to slide. I tried to correct by steering into the skid, up to the point of no return. The back of the car crossed the centerline. When it slid beyond the front tires’ turning-range; at that point, I stopped trying to steer or brake and just held on.
The left front tire dropped off the ice into the median—which, like a pivot-anchor, altered the momentum of the vehicle. Now, the direction of travel was slightly toward the ditch, with the vehicle skating down the left lane sideways; the passenger-door was now the leading edge. A second later, the passenger-side front wheel also anchored in the mud. Two anchors. I shouted, “This is it. This is it. We’re going in! Hold on!” (Later, I wondered about my last exclamation. More appropriate for a fighter pilot with a shot-up plane than a SUV driver going into a ditch, but none-the-less, that’s what came out of my mouth).
The vehicle continued to spin. The passenger door struck a roadside reflective marker pole. And, still spinning—front tires now dragging in mud—rear end now the leading edge, the car went down into and thru the shallow ditch in the median. The rear bumper struck a rock-edged, cliff-like, chunk of earth at 45 mph or more and then the kinetic energy of the SUV—with a high center of gravity—caused the front end of the vehicle to rise. The SUV flipped over, front over back, and landed on its roof and hood in the ditch. The front was now pointing in the original direction of travel, the left lane was four feet away from my face. I could smell the wet pavement.
I recalled the punch-crunch of metal on rock, the smash of breaking glass, and I opened my eyes. I was buckled upside down. The once loud noise of hail on the roof had now been replaced by the softer sound of rocks and sand crunching along the roof, hood, and demolished windshield. Through some of the unbroken shards of windshield, I saw rocks and earth slowly sliding to a halt in front of me.
My side window was gone. Pain in my left shoulder told me I must have slammed against it before it disintegrated into the little pebbles of safety glass I could see on the roof under my head. I unbuckled and lowered myself to the roof (which was now crushed much closer than a few seconds ago). I determined Pam was OK and unbuckled her as well. We both exited through the driver window. It had stopped hailing. A bit of blue sky and sunlight peeked around the clouds. "I fucked up your car," I said. "I'm sorry."
As we stood between the upturned car and the highway, my friend—wounded—(by me, I felt so guilty-terrible, her injuries were my fault) gasped things like: it wasn't my fault, we should be thankful, it could have been much worse—and then we turned and saw a half-dozen cars, trucks, and two more semis, all entering the hail-ambush zone. One semi fishtailed but made it to a halt on the right shoulder without hitting or being hit by anyone. Two cars barely missed each other. I shouted: “Get up the embankment. There’s gonna be more accidents!” More cars were skidding and sliding behind us as we climbed. I have no idea how they all missed each other. One car with a trailer went off the other side into the ditch (their rubber side stayed down). I was certain we were going to be the first of many hail-victims. As we reached the top of the embankment and turned to watch, none of the vehicles hit each other or lost complete control. I looked at the highway. Only two or three minutes had passed since the hail began—now you see it, now you don’t—a coating of slush.
The sheriff's deputy told us there were dozens of accidents in the area all morning and afternoon.
The SUV was totaled. Neither airbag deployed (which I’ve since been told was an additional blessing, because we avoided the chemical burns caused by the gas that inflates them, who knew).
My Fight Club automobile-accident-experience is now just electrical pulses across neurons (and, of course, computer software). Although my consciousness has already nominated this memory to be upgraded from short-term to long-term—the only thing that differs between it and my memories of imaginary incidents and fabricated fantasies, are my shoulder bruise and headache that, currently, still remind me this is a work of non-fiction.
This accident was not an impetus for life reaffirmations or zealous, misplaced born-again-ziness. I am especially glad nobody had reason to erect a ridiculous, lattice cross on the southbound median of Arizona Highway 17. It is, however, one of those things that qualify as: “If it doesn’t kill ya, it makes ya stronger.”