It was just after I reached the crest of the mountain pass that I noticed my big SUV drifting into the adjacent lane. Felt it, really, just a slight awareness that something was wrong. I was in the left freeway lane, with a semi truck a few dozen yards ahead. No other vehicles were close. The weather wasn't great, but it had been worse earlier. Just some moderate drizzle now. Visibility was decent, though the sun was beginning to set behind a grey swirl of clouds. When my vehicle began to drift I nudged the wheel back to left, just slightly. I’m not sure I could have stopped what happened next. It all happened in four or five seconds.
I’ve been making the six hour drive between Las Vegas and Provo, Utah every other week since we moved to Vegas two months ago. My wife, Brooke, is student teaching at a local high school this semester. My new job, an online marketing startup based in Provo, has allowed me split time working from the office and remotely from Vegas as Brooke finishes her degree. I don’t mind the long drives back and forth: it’s relaxing and lets me catch up on my podcasts.
Today marked the end of a week in Utah. Instead of driving my own car I borrowed my in-laws’ Ford Excursion so I could move a few things next week. I left work early, hoping to reach St. George before dark. It's been cold and rainy all week, and the central Utah freeways are treacherous this time of year. The rain cleared into an intermittent drizzle as I continued south. The road seemed safe enough.
Those were the conditions as I approached Cove Fort, past Fillmore, Utah. Right around there is a pass over a tall hill where the freeway climbs and then drops several hundred feet in just a few miles. You can see it on Google Maps, where I-15 splits for about a quarter mile, just north of crossing I-70.
It was just after I reached the top of the pass that the Excursion began to slide. I can still see what happened in my mind’s eye. I can roughly re-create my thought process, but putting it into words doesn't accurately convey the experience. I had senses and impressions, not complete thoughts. When I tried to correct the vehicle, I sensed its rear end swinging out instead. I steered harder in the opposite direction. The SUV's tail swung the other way. For a moment it felt like I was floating. I had lost control of the vehicle.
The freeway curved gently to the left as the road descended. Immediately adjacent to the road was a shallow ditch maybe ten feet wide, which then rose to form a tall ridge that hid the northbound lanes. As I overcorrected I started to veer more sharply that direction. At some point I became aware that I was going to crash.
The Excursion careened over the lane boundary. I glimpsed a small green highway marker zooming past my window. Just missed it. Then the ditch. I wondered, in the briefest instant, if I would die. Then the ridge, which violently rocked the car to the side.
The SUV rolled, pitching me sideways. There was a loud noise, the crunching pop of metal bending, glass and plastic shattering in an instant. I lost all sense of location and orientation. There was just a visual cacophony, a blur of motion and snow and glass and dirt and pavement.
Then it stopped. Everything stopped. I had a relatively cohesive thought again: it went something like FUCKFUCKFUCKSHITFUCKSHITFUCK.
I was alive. I was pretty sure I hadn't hit my head or blacked out. I felt okay. I felt upside-down.
My safety belt held me suspended in the air. To my right the passenger’s side of the car had been crushed. To my left the window frame was intact. The glass had shattered.
I saw asphalt outside the window, and realized that if I was on the road I might still be in danger. I fumbled with the seat belt, dropped down to the roof of the inverted SUV, and crawled through the open window. I found myself looking up the freeway right where oncoming traffic would be approaching. The Excursion had come to rest between the shoulder and the left lane I'd been driving in seconds ago.
My hands had blood running down them. No pain, though. As I stood I had a thought that was both rational and panicky: I have to get far away from the road NOW. Any oncoming cars would only have seconds to react to the wrecked SUV. There might be a collision, or another car might slide off the road. I ran to the shoulder, down the shallow ditch, and scrambled up the ridge until I was about fifty feet clear of the wreck and above it.
What follows, what I see in my mind now, is another series of impressions, the order of which I can’t precisely remember. I saw the trail the Excursion's chassis had carved on the side of the road. I realized how lucky I was that the ridge was mostly mud and clay. No rocks, no trees, no telephone poles. The mud probably absorbed most of my momentum, kept the car from bouncing all the way across the road. I saw cars race past. A few barely avoided the wreck. I did a quick inventory of my body. Still felt okay. Hands were raw, just small scrapes. The blood felt sticky beneath my wedding band. About a quarter of a mile ahead two cars had pulled off to the side. Drivers were getting out. I ran to meet them. Assured them that I was the only passenger. They’d already called 911. One had water to help clean my hands.
In just a few minutes a highway patrolman arrived and began working to keep the lane clear. Soon an ambulance arrived, then a tow truck. The EMTs verified that I was unhurt.
I needed to call Brooke. Needed to let her know what had happened. That I was okay. My phone was missing; it had been in the cupholder next to me and was now somewhere in the wreck. The EMTs let me borrow a phone as I waited in their warm ambulance. I called my wife, called my dad. The EMTs eventually found my phone. More calls and texts. I took pictures of the wreck. I felt simultaneously chilled, relieved and exhilarated. Not dying has a strange way of lifting the spirits. Or maybe it was just shock.
The sun set. The ambulance gave me a ride to a nearby gas station. I filled out forms, traded small talk with an EMT, and spoke to a highway patrolman. He remarked how the falling temperatures, drizzly rain, and high wind speeds made the conditions ideal for black ice, and how suddenly they had arisen. He said it could've happened to anyone. Maybe he was right. I should have been more careful, driven more slowly. Easy to say now. The weather demanded caution but hadn't felt dangerous. It wasn't dark, hadn't been snowing. Could I have corrected the slide had I been more skilled, more alert?
I should have driven more slowly.
I’m still at the gas station as I write this. The accident occurred just hours ago. Couldn't find anyone to take me anywhere tonight. I'm not sure I would want them too. Not tonight. I'd rather stay off the road. It’s a nice gas station, anyway. Not the worst place to spend a night. There’s a Subway attached, with benches to sit on. I've texted and called family and friends. Talked with Brooke again. I miss her. Don’t want to live in a world without her. Don’t want her to live in a world without me. I'm glad the EMTs found my phone.
The crushed Excursion is here too, next to a mechanic's garage adjacent to the gas station. I went out to it earlier, after the police and ambulance left, to see if I could recover some belongings. My backpack and its contents, including my laptop, were unscathed. My water bottle was a little muddy but intact. My hat had small chunks of glass in it.
As I shuffled away from the SUV and back towards the gas station, belongings in hand, I thought, as I have many times tonight, how lucky I am to be here. Every day people suffer and hurt and die for reasons I don't remotely understand. I stopped and I looked into the dark sky, freezing wind numbing my face. I thanked God for letting me live this time. Then I choked back a sob, breathed in hard, and continued walking.