The blare of the RV's air horn broke me from my reverie just seconds before disaster occurred. I'd been so lost in my gloomy thoughts that I'd let my car drift across the double yellow lines enough to be an oncoming driver's nightmare — two bright halogen headlights from an unseen vehicle on a direct path for a head-on collision. It took a few moments for the sound of the short, almost panicked blasts of the horn to penetrate my distraction, and another second for my mind to register their meaning. I jerked the steering wheel hard to the right, avoiding the oncoming motor home with room to spare, but I felt my rear end start to fishtail. The rear wheels finally lost their battle for traction, losing their grip on the road and swinging to the left. I felt, more than saw, the huge camper pass me, and it showered my car with a spray of water in its wake. An instant later, the car swapped ends, the rear end swinging through the oncoming lane and back over the double yellow before bouncing over the curb and onto the gravel of the shoulder. The momentum from the spin drove the car through the thin fence at the edge of the gravel, coming to a halt with a bang and a jolt at the culvert just beyond.
The sudden impact following the breathtaking spin froze me in my seat. For a few moments, all could hear was my own heartbeat. As that receded, I realized that the windshield wipers were still making their swish-scrape noise across the glass. I managed to turn them off after I unlocked my hands from the steering wheel, noticing how much my fingers and palms hurt from trying to control the uncontrollable spin. I tasted a little copper in my mouth, and swished my tongue around trying to figure out where I had bitten myself. Slowly, I puzzled out that I actually had bitten my tongue, not my cheek. Turning on the map light above the rear view mirror, I stuck out my tongue and saw that I had somehow managed to clip the tip with my teeth. The small cut wasn't bleeding profusely, but had left red streaks across my teeth and lips. I took a napkin from the passenger seat and pushed it against the cut, trying to put pressure on the site of the cut, but mostly only succeeding in getting a mouthful of wet paper for my trouble. I could feel a familiar headache forming at the base of my skull. A pinched nerve in my neck from a fall years ago was the trigger. When it flared, it caused one of those monsters that creeps slowly up the back of my head, over time leaving me unable to move without blinding pain and massive nausea. I knew I had a couple of hours before the pain would reach its peak, but once it happened, I'd be miserable for at least a day, if not more. Even worse, the only over-the counter remedy that had ever helped with the pain was in my medicine cabinet, a hundred miles in my wake.
But thinking about that gave me a new pain that had nothing to do with the accident. My former medicine cabinet, I corrected. I hung my head for a moment, letting my thoughts drift back into the sorrow that had been my constant companion for the past two hours. But the slow throb of my oncoming sick headache drew me back to my current predicament quickly. No time for self-pity, old son. Got to see if you can dig yourself out of this hole that self-pity has put you in.
I tried the ignition first. The key turned easily, but the motor just made a grinding, metal-on-metal screeching that reminded me of a garbage disposal with a fork caught in it. I didn't think I hit anything that hard! Knowing it was useless, I gave up on the engine and reached down to unbuckle my seat belt, moving slowly to minimize the pain already present in my head. Then I reached into the passenger side floorboard to get my coat from where it had landed during my unexpected trip. I struggled into it before opening the door and stepping... well, okay, maybe that's not going to work.
The car had backed over the culvert and then dropped the tail section of the sedan on the other side of the concrete ditch. First one and the other rear wheel had dropped into the gap, turning the car into a bridge between the two sides. Because the car had switched ends, my door was now facing the far side of the culvert, but the edge was several feet away. On a good day I might be able to push myself high enough and far enough through the air to reach it. On this day, all I could see doing was hitting the sharply angled concrete wall and tumbling down into the ditch, and then having to clamber my way out. I shut the door, glad the car seemed to be perched so solidly across the edges of the concrete ditch.
Then I realized... there was no way I was going to be driving the car anywhere tonight, or maybe anytime in the near future, either. Neither rear wheel was touching solid ground, and there was no telling what damage the impact had done to the axle, the frame, or the rest of the car. I sat still, realizing just how far up shit creek I was. Alone, on foot, in wet conditions on a highway where no cars had stopped to see what had happened or if anything was wrong. My cell phone had lost its signal 30 minutes earlier, and I was about to be overcome by a monster headache that would have me in blinding pain one moment, then bent over and retching the next. Within a few hours, it would be all I could to do to put one foot in front of me, never mind actually seeing where I was going. The blue L.E.D. numbers of the dashboard clock showed 12:15 AM... nearly six hours to dawn.
It's dark, cold, and wet. I could stay in the car and wait for someone to find me, but no one seems very interested in stopping to check out my situation. If nobody stops, I could be here unable to move for a day or more. No food or water, either. I looked down at the various crumpled snack bags that littered the front of the car, wishing I'd had something more substantial at the last set of lights I'd found along the highway.
On the other hand, if I start walking, I might find something just over the next hill, or get picked up by a sympathetic motorist, or a state cop on the lookout for motorists in trouble. But with every hour that goes by, the law of diminishing returns would make it more and more likely that I'll be in just as bad a shape if I stayed in the car... just outdoors and even more vulnerable. I looked up into my reflection in the rear-view mirror. I don't know about you, Captain, but I don't like our odds either way.
In the end, movement won out over sitting still. I knew I might never find help... but the chances someone might see me went way up if I was staggering on the side of the road rather than waiting passively in hopes of seeing headlights coming up the road toward me. I had thrown clothes into the car without care before I started on this trip to nowhere. Now, they were spectacularly strewn over the rear seat and down into the floorboards. I decided to slip at least one additional layer of clothes over what I was already wearing, to conserve heat and give me more protection from the light, windblown mist. Who am I kidding? I have to wear two layers anytime it gets near 40, regardless of the conditions. Mama always called it thin blood, but the diabetes has really made it worse the last few years. I took off my coat again, returning to the front floorboard. Reaching an arm through the gap in the seat, I slowly pulled things forward until I had enough usable clothing to wear two fairly warm layers, and have a change of clothes later if I found some shelter. I contorted my body, stretching across the passenger seat to make it possible to slip an old pair of loose-fitting jeans over my already covered legs. An extra pair of socks was next, followed by my hiking boots, laces loosened to accommodate my well-swaddled feet.
The one flannel shirt I owned went over my more customary turtleneck. The rest of the spare clothes I stuffed into a small plastic bag from my earlier convenience store stop. I reached down into the floorboard behind the passenger seat, trying to find the flashlight I thought was there... and came up instead with two 12 ounce bottles — one full of water, the other with diet soda. The two drinks made me stop and rethink my plans to leave the car, since I knew I could stay warm, dry, and at least somewhat hydrated until someone noticed the car facing the wrong way on the two-lane road, even if it was sometime the next day. I might be only semi-lucid because of the oncoming headache, but I'd recover from that with time and medicine. Sitting still had definitely improved its odds of being the best option available to me.
But while staying put was gaining ground, it was still running far behind the sentimental favorite, "Let's Keep Moving." The same impetus that had propelled me from the town I grown up in and the family whose concern had finally become so cloying was now urging to leave, to get out... to find some way to keep putting miles between me and still cooling ashes of my hopes and dreams.
The internal debate lasted only a few seconds. I rummaged a bit more, trying to find anything useful, and then eased slowly into the passenger seat. Bracing myself for resistance, I leaned into the right side door as I pulled the handle. It came open easily, though, and the upper half of my body fell out of the car, leaving me sprawled across the bottom of the door frame with my feet higher than my head. The impact when my right shoulder hit the ground did nothing to help the pinched nerve in my neck, leaving me gasping for air from the sharp, stabbing pain. "Shit, shit, SHIT!!" If I could have moved, I probably would have struck the door in retaliation for piling more pain atop an already miserable situation. Instead, I lay there, eyes watering, until I could finally breathe well enough to push myself into a sitting position. The rocks under my hand were wet, reminding me I needed to get my hands into my gloves as quickly as possible.
Standing up was a matter of pulling my legs out and up, then letting them fall to the side as gently as possible. When every part of my body was touching the ground in some fashion, I managed to slowly turn myself over until I was resting with my back against the car. Using it as a brace, I pushed with my legs until I was on my feet again. I let the car hold me up until I was sure I was capable of making a step or two, taking the opportunity to pull my coat tight around me and pull up the hood. After my gloves were on, I took one tentative step, then another, and found my legs seemed more than willing to go along with the program. I worked out the kinks in my muscles and joints as much as I dared, tying to bend and stretch in every direction I could unless it hurt too much to continue. Eventually, I felt as ready as I could make myself. I grabbed the plastic bag with my clothes and drinks from the front seat and closed the passenger door. After a moment, I decided to leave the car unlocked. As I stood there looking at the ancient two-door sedan, I realized there was nothing valuable to anyone else inside the old clunker. If somebody wanted a bunch of old clothes, books, and papers that badly... I could only shake my head and wonder if I would ever see the car or my things again any time soon.
Still shaking my head, I made my way to the road.