The Haunted Highway

Photo by Joe Mud

It starts as soon as I see the sign that tells me I’m entering Kern County, whenever I drive south on Interstate 5 to Los Angeles. I know I was well past the county line when it happened, but my eyes dart off to the right, gauging the thickness of fence posts, checking to see whether the ground behind them is flat or hollowed out, then looking hastily back at the road in front of me.

“Is that my ditch?” I wonder constantly, comparing these brief glimpses with increasingly distant memories.

I remember the name Buttonwillow, how it struck me as quaint-sounding, but not whether that was the place I stopped to fill the gas tank or the place nearest the rest stop where I ate the lunch I’d packed. I was tired and I had a headache and I hoped I would feel better after I ate.

It seemed I’d barely gotten back onto the freeway when I found myself behind a truck that was, unusually, obeying the lower speed limit designated for trucks.

So naturally I planned to pass it. I-5 is a two-lane highway for the most part, which means a lot of lane-changing. There’s nothing very unusual about needing to pass a truck, since 5 is the main truck route through California and the trucks are supposed to drive more slowly than everyone else. You put your turn signal on, look to the left, and hit the accelerator.

But when I turned my head to the left, I found someone moving up in my blind spot, fast.

Not the first time that had happened to me, either. That’s why they tell you to turn your head and not just look in the mirror, after all.

But this time when I turned my car back into my own lane, it swerved hard to the right.

When I tried to straighten it out, it swerved hard to the left.

When I pulled the wheel to the right again, the car spun around 180 degrees and began to slide off the road.

I don’t remember either screaming or swearing. I had my hands locked on the wheel, arms stretched straight in front of me, rigid. I’d slammed on the brakes—I think I was nearly standing up on them—but was probably still moving upwards of 60 miles per hour. It was late September, very dusty, and once the car left the pavement, I couldn’t see a thing through the dust clouds.

But I had seen that there were very solid fence posts next to the road, and that on the other side of them was a deep ditch.

Everything happened simultaneously very quickly and very slowly. I had just time to think “I’m going to die” and “Oh, shit, I’m going to miss the conference,” when there was an enormous thud and a violent jolt. Things flew through the air past me. (At least one thing must have hit me, because I ended up with a bruise on my shoulder.)

And there I was, demonstrably not dead, with the “A Way with Words” podcast emerging incongruously from my MP3 player as if nothing had happened. I switched off the ignition, astonished that the engine was still running, and wondered why there were bits of straw floating down through the air in front of me and why, since the car had obviously taken out at least one fence post, I could see barbed wire above the passenger seat window, and how, given the angle of the car and my obvious position in the larger-than-it-looked-from-the-road ditch, I was going to get out of the car.

I had managed to retrieve my cell phone but not to figure out whether to call AAA or the insurance company first when the people whose car I had swerved to avoid came and helped me get out of the car. The passenger-side door worked fine, though I might have had trouble opening it from the inside.

The driver-side door would not likely have worked even if it had not been flat against the side of the ditch. One of the fence posts had left a six-inch-deep dent all along the bottom of the driver’s-side doors, front and back. The straw was coming in because the door frame had been bent enough to create an opening at the top.

The same fence post, or another one, took out the rear axle, though that wasn’t apparent until after the tow truck arrived. Meanwhile, I stood by the side of the freeway and gave my report to the various people who stopped by: first the fire truck that had been up the street keeping an eye on a small grass fire, then later the police.

In between reports I stared forlornly at the champagne-gold Geo Prizm that I’d only just finished paying off and recently had a bunch of work done on, to boot. From the passenger side, it looked almost intact.

“Does your back hurt?” everyone asked. “Does your neck hurt?” I was in shock. I hadn’t even noticed the broken fingernail yet. The whiplash didn’t set in for a week, and fortunately it wasn’t too serious. I stood looking at the car and thinking about the fact that I was more than a hundred miles from home and needed to get to a conference in Ontario, and I said “My wallet hurts.”

I don’t have any photos of the accident. It was 2006 and I’d just bought a cameraphone specifically to take to the conference with me, but I was in shock. It never occurred to me to take pictures. The insurance adjuster probably took a few of the wreck of my car, but it’s not the autopsy shots I want. It’s the actual death scene, or rather, the brush with death scene.

I can hardly say that I almost died in that accident. I know someone who was in a car accident that broke dozens of her bones and left her in a coma for more than a week. That’s almost died. I emerged essentially unscathed from an accident I thought would kill me. That assuredly would have killed me if things had been just a little bit different. If the car had swerved across traffic instead of off the road. If I’d hit the fence face on instead of bass-ackwards. If, if, if.

I had to drive on to Pasadena that evening, and the accident had already delayed me. The tow truck drivers (who told me to buy a lottery ticket) took me to Bakersfield Airport, where I rented a car. Slightly giddy with shock and relief, I told the car rental people they were very brave to rent to me. I remember saying to a lot of other people “I ditched my car,” which was my idea of being witty, or my attempt not to freak out.

I did freak out, anyway, about 5 minutes after getting back on the freeway, and called a friend and just had her talk to me (on the hands-free headset, of course) until I calmed down. It was a few months before I could hear anyone’s brakes squeal without a dramatically accelerated heart rate, which is interesting, because I don’t remember hearing my brakes squealing. I don’t remember hearing anything until that resounding thud as my car connected with the fence.

It’s probably too bad that I didn’t have the opportunity to go back right away and make a note of exactly where it happened. The fence posts and ditches just beyond Buttonwillow look about right, but I don’t suppose I’ll ever be sure of the exact spot. If I did, I might set up a little shrine.

Most roadside shrines mark the place where someone died, but in antiquity, at least, people made offerings and built monuments in gratitude. It would be good to know where to offer that prayer for deliverance.

Is that my ditch?

Photo by Joe Mud (from Flickr)

WordPress fangirl, ghostwriter, linguistic alchemist, podcast consultant, and accidental vapor advocate. Married with 2 cats.

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