It was just after I reached the crest of the mountain pass that I noticed the Ford Excursion I was driving straying into the adjacent lane. Felt it, really, just a slight awareness that something was wrong. I was in the left of two freeway lanes, with a semi truck a few dozen yards ahead and to the right. No other vehicles were close. I kept my distance from the truck, ready to pass when it seemed safe. The weather wasn't great, but it'd been worse earlier. Just some moderate drizzle now. Visibility was decent, though the sun was beginning to set behind the grey swirl of clouds. When my big SUV drifted right 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, Nevada and Provo, Utah every other week since we moved to the Vegas suburb Summerlin two months ago. My wife Brooke finishing her Spanish Education degree by student teaching at a local high school this semester. My new job, an online marketing startup based in Provo, has been good enough to let me split my time working from the office and remotely until Brooke finishes next month. I don’t mind the long drives back and forth: it’s often relaxing and lets me catch up on my podcasts.
Today marked the end of a few days working in Utah. Instead of driving my own car home I arranged to borrow my in-laws’ big Excursion so I could fill it with our things and start the moving process next time I returned. I left work early, hoping to reach southern Utah before dark. It's been cold and rainy this week, and the central Utah freeways can be treacherous in winter. It was raining as I left but cleared into an intermittent drizzle as I continued south. The road seemed safe enough.
Those were the conditions as I drove past a place called Cove Fort, near Fillmore, Utah. Right around that area is a pass over a tall hill, one of several along the route where the road ascends and then drops several hundred feet in just a few miles. You can see it on Google Maps, just north of where I-70 meets I-15 where the 15 splits for about a mile.
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 trying to put it into words doesn't accurately convey the experience. I had senses and impressions, not complete thoughts. When I tried to correct the Excursion, I sensed its rear end swinging out instead, losing traction. I tried to steer in the opposite direction. The SUV's tail swung the other way. For a moment it felt like it was floating. I sensed that I had lost control of the vehicle.
The freeway ahead curved gently to the left as it descended, but I couldn't follow it. As I overcorrected left and right I started to veer more sharply. To my immediate left was a shallow ditch, about fifteen feet wide and four feet deep, which rose on the other side to form the ridge that hid the northbound lanes. Very quickly I became aware that I was going to crash, that I was already in the process of crashing.
The Excursion careened past the white line marking the left 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 steep ridge, which violently rocked the car to the side.
The SUV rolled, pitching me sideways and upside down. There was a loud noise, the crunching pop of metal bending, glass and plastic shattering in an instant. By then I'd lost all sense of location or orientation. There was just a visual cacophony, a blur of motion and snow and glass and snow 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.
The safety belt that saved my life now held me suspended over the car's roof. To my right the passenger’s side of the car had been crushed. To my left the driver's window frame was intact. The window had shattered.
I saw asphalt outside the window, and quickly surmised that if I was on the road I might still be in danger. I fumbled with the seat belt and dropped down to the roof of the inverted SUV and crawled through the open window. I found myself on my knees looking up the freeway, right where oncoming traffic would be approaching. The Excursion had come to rest partially on the road's shoulder and partially in the left lane I'd been driving in seconds ago.
I saw that my hands had blood running down them. No pain, though. As I stood up I had a thought at once rational and panicky: I have to get far away from the road NOW. Any cars in my lane 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 twenty feet clear of the wreck.
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 became aware how lucky I was that the ridge was mostly made of mud and clay. No rocks, no trees, no telephone poles. The mud probably absorbed most of my momentum, kept me 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, but mostly small scrapes. The blood felt sticky beneath my wedding band. I saw that 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 called 911 already. 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. Not long after an ambulance arrived, then a tow truck. The EMTs verified that I was uninjured.
I needed to call Brooke. Needed to let her know what had happened. That I was okay. Alive. 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 combination of dropping temperatures, drizzly rain, and high wind speeds made the conditions ideal for black ice, and how suddenly they had arisen. He opined that this wreck could've happened to anyone. Maybe he was right. I should have been more cautious, driven more slowly. Easy to say now. The weather had seemed to demand caution but hadn't felt dangerous. It hadn't been 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 able to take me anywhere tonight. I'm not sure I want them too. Not tonight. I'd rather stay off the roads for a while. 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 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 driver's hat, which I'd set in the seat next to me, had small chunks of glass in it.
As I shuffled away from the Excursion 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, people hurt, and people 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 sudden sob, breathed in hard, and continued walking.