Death on a Lonely Road, the First

Between Winnipeg and The Pas, there is a long and lonely seven hundred kilometers.  There’s one stretch, over four hundred kilometers where there’s almost nothing. No off roads, no houses, no communities. There’s a gas station, a small community, Chemawin right in the middle, an intersection that leads to another community, Grand Rapids.  But apart from that, it’s just emptiness, a lonely rambling desolation.  Just the road winding on endlessly through the north, bordered by trees.  I’ve driven that road well over a hundred times, in all seasons, all sorts of weather, including through blizzards and storms.  A lot of people have wiped out on that road. Some have died.  Me?  Twice.  This was the first one. I wrote this shortly after it happened.

I am pleased to say that there was no lapse of concentration that lead to the vehicle going out of control. I wasn’t trying to kill a pesky bumblebee, or changing radio stations, or fiddling with the CD changer. I wasn’t singing a song or answering a cell phone or anything like that.

I had in fact, turned off the radio twenty minutes before in order to focus on the road, my seatbelt was on, my hands were on the wheel and I was staring over the hood. None of it helped.

The car fishtailed and slid forward, and in a split second, I had gone from driving a vehicle to riding a five thousand pound toboggan careening at ninety kilometers an hour to a steep sloping bank and the stands of trees beyond it. There was a very good chance I was going to die in the next five seconds.

I was driving a Bronco, a four wheel drive SUV. SUV’s take a bad rap because they are inefficient, often unsafe gas guzzlers that represent conspicuous and pointless consumption. All of this is true. Many SUV’s are driven by suburbanites who never really go beyond domestic traffic, you don’t need a four wheel drive to take your kids to soccer practice. On the other hand, I live up in northern Manitoba, I frequently take long trips on slippery snow covered roads, or across primitive dirt roads. On the northern roads you can travel two hundred kilometers and more without seeing a sign of human existence besides the road. You can drive for hours sometimes without seeing another vehicle.

I’d bought a Bronco because my wife was joining me up north, which meant she’d be driving and she wasn’t really an experienced driver. So we needed a few extra cards to hedge the bets. And to be truthful, if I’m driving bad roads, I want a few extra cards myself.

The Ford Bronco is an obsolete model, it was quite successful in the 1980’s, before being phased out and replaced by the larger, four door, Ford Explorer. It’s slightly underpowered with a four litre engine, but then again, if you aren’t drag racing or climbing the Rockies, its not an issue. The big downside with a bronco is that its wheel base is comparatively narrow, especially compared to its centre of gravity. This means that a rollover is a real danger in any serious situation.

Worse, it and most other SUV’s, although they’re prone to roll, don’t have roll bars. This means that the upper part of the cab is prone to collapse. Even truck cabs have more structural integrity. It’s an unforgiveable engineering failure.

Anyway, the bottom line with a Bronco or most other SUV’s is that when something is happening, you have to try to avoid rolling at all costs. Humvees, from what I’ve seen, have a much wider wheel base, so they’ve got less risk of roll. On the other hand, the center of gravity is higher, so its not quite as stable as people think. In any case, the sort of dolt who would buy a hummer for suburban or urban life is probably more than incompetent enough to put it into a roll.

My Bronco is about twelve years old. I suppose I could have bought a newer vehicle. But honestly, I wouldn’t justify the expense. A brand new car is a fools game, the thing loses value the moment it drives off the lot, its priced to be competitive with new houses, and you’re hypsensitive about the thing. I know a woman who works with me, she bought a brand new SUV, treats it like a baby, takes no risks and drives in no conditions that could justify it, and spends something like 40% of her monthly income on car payments.

One thing about driving a functional secondhand vehicle is a saner attitude. I knew a guy who had a Porsche and someone keyed him, he acted like it was a physical assault, whined, complained, had to have the damned thing repainted, and in one memorable moment, told me that his personal identity had been violated so that he felt like a rape victim. If someone keys my Bronco, it just means its that much easier for me to spot in parking lots.

I chose a Bronco for several reasons. I didn’t particularly like the gas mileage or the narrow wheel base. But they’re good with snow, they have four wheel drive, low range, and very good visibility. They’d been a popular model and there were a lot of them around, so spare parts were plentiful and cheap. The technology, the make, had pretty much proven itself out, so there were none of the little glitches you get with new car makes.

To the extent a vehicle can be de-lemoned, late model editions work out the kinks. And as far as individual cars go, the genuine pieces of shit shake themselves out of the marketplace within five years or so. They’re junk. Once a vehicle hits about ten years of age, you can generally be fairly sure that its structure and systems are fundamentally sound. Both the make and that particular machine will turn have proven themselves reliable. No hidden surprises.

All you have to do is look for signs of entropy, and they’re both predictable and easy to spot…. Rust, structural decay, that kind of thing. Check for that, do decent maintenance, and your vehicle has at least another decade in it, and much better service at much less a price per kilometer.

So, a Bronco, cheap, functional, utilitarian, effective and designed to keep me alive, and in fact had done so, on several occasions on past bad roads.

And right at this moment, careening out of control on a sheet of ice, sliding off its axis and inexorably heading off the road…

A word about the roads. Up in northern Manitoba, it’s essentially all bush and swamp. Glaciers covered the area for tens of thousands of years, and when they finally left, they left behind a very loose, loamy, clay soil and thousands upon thousands of lakes, rivers and streams. Vegetation added to the mix. The dominant surface is a kind of loose collection of vegetable matter, soil and swamp called muskeg, an environment which sustains trees and plants, but which could hardly be called firm ground. If you want to build a road or a house, you have to come in with a bulldozer and scrape ten feet of muskeg out to the bare rock, and then you build up with gravel past the water table.

This is what the roads are like around here. They’re built over wide platforms of gravel sometimes, rising five to ten feet over the surrounding landscape, with large shallow drainage ditches between them and the bush. Some of these drainage ditches are so large and so well watered with local drainage they count as sluggish creeks or streams in their own right, and I’ve seen beavers build lodges or damns in them.

So basically, I was heading straight to a snowbank, and then a steep ten foot drop of a slope, to a  bottom of ridges, mud and rocks and then straight up into trees on a steep elevation. I was careening at 90 kilometers an hour, the bronco would hit the bank off centre to velocity and then go into the ditch swinging around… Which meant that with the shearing force, rolling was pretty damned likely. If I didn’t roll, or even if I did roll, I was probably going to rip my undercarriage out on the bottom bounce, and wrap around the trees.

There was no controlling where it was going. I was basically riding a five thousand pound toboggan.

But I could still steer a little, to influence how it was getting there. I managed to straighten it as it headed for the bank, so it was lined up on the axis of motion. The critical thing was to keep from going into a roll as it went into this, which meant that it had to go in straight. If I went in sideways, the Bronco would roll, and I would die.

I hit the bank, bounced and slid down the side of the slope, keeping the vehicle from sliding off axis. I hit bottom on an even keel, but momentum sent me sliding up the other slope.

I was heading straight for a tree. I accelerated a little, its an ice trick.

When you lose control, take your foot off the gas and let the car bleed off its momentum and come to a stop. If you keep accelerating, you’re only adding to the momentum, and the spin out of control increases. But if your momentum is carrying you into a potentially fatal situation, like careening into a tree, then you don’t have that luxury.

What you do is accelerate past the momentum. What you’re doing is outrunning your own momentum, which gives you a measure of control over where you are going and what is happening. You don’t have control, the car is still out of control, but you have… influence on how its going out of control. You’re not so much driving as …. Surfing. You’re riding the crash.

So I’m heading for the tree, and I accelerate, and as I race ahead of the momentum, it allows me to steer out of the way of the tree, and into another one. This one isn’t big enough to total the car, but its big enough to fuck me up, or to roll the car if we hit right. I accelerate again, swinging back towards the center of the ditch, the tree branches scraping past my drivers side.

At this point, I’m heading back towards the center of the ditch so once I get there, I steer down it, slicing through bushes and brambles until momentum bleeds to a stop.

I’m still alive.


I feel okay. My heart isn’t pounding, I’m not experiencing surges of adrenalin. I feel normal. A little tense, but that’s about it. Through the whole thing, what I’m most aware of is what didn’t happen. I didn’t have a physiological jolt, I didn’t scream, I didn’t cry out, I didn’t pray, I didn’t freeze up, I didn’t overreact.

The situation went out of control, I stayed ice calm, my expression didn’t even flicker. I assessed what was going on, understood the dangers, and acted to control the situation, prevent a roll and guide the machine to a safe landing. I’d done it instinctively. No, not instinctively. I’d thought my way through it, acting coldly and logically, with ruthless efficiency. I had dealt with the situation, and dealt rationally and effectively. My mind had functioned, and I’d acted like a machine.

I had no sense of time slowing down, as you read about. It wasn’t really like that. Things didn’t go into slow motion, nothing hung in the air, there wasn’t a sense of muddy paralysis as things played out slowly all around you.

But oddly, it all must have happened in only seconds, and I have the definite impression it took much more time than that. Things didn’t slow down, but oddly, they stretched out. Everything was happening at the same rate, or the rate you would see as normal, it was just that it all seemed to be taking more time. It was happening more.

So I guess, in that sense, there was subjective distortion. But as I’ve said, everything seemed to be happening at normal speed. I think perhaps what was happening, was that I was thinking and reacting very very quickly. Much more quickly than normal.

In my youth, I remember, I had a reputation for being very fast sometime. I remember one time, these two large vicious dogs got into a fight in front of me, and I simply stepped in, grabbed one by the scruff of the neck and threw him over a car and grabbed the other by the muzzle so he couldn’t snap at me.

People who saw that seemed to have been very impressed, even astonished. The story got around, which really, I found kind of funny, people dwell on the silliest things. From that point on one of the ways I was described as was someone who could put his hands in a dogfight and not come out bleeding. Honestly though, what he hell was I supposed to do? If it had gone on, one or both of them would have been killed or injured.

But anyway, getting back to the incident, I don’t even have any subjective sense of thinking or acting quickly. I was just dealing with it. I don’t think I felt any burst of hyper-awareness. The sky wasn’t brighter, sounds weren’t crisper, it was all just pretty much the same. If there was anything going on, I think I was more tuned, more focused on the situation I was in, less inclined to really give a lot of awareness to things outside the core experience, the core mission of not dying.

I was alive. We hadn’t rolled. We hadn’t hit anything. Good.

Once I came to a stop, I took stock. It was almost instinctive, like a system check. Wiggle my toes? Good, spine’s not broken. Check for blood? Nope. Broken bones? Nope. I was fine. Car interior, good, no cracks or damage to the windshield. Engine was running all right, humming along. Oil pressure hand’t dropped, so that meant the the oil pan hadn’t ripped off. Alternator was reading fine. The absence of clouds of steam indicated that the radiator hadn’t been pierced. All systems normal. I’d made it.

I relaxed and unbraced. In case of rollover, I’d pushed my lower back into the seat and used my arms and legs for further bracing. My seatbelt was on of course, but in case of a roll, I wanted to minimize flying around which might result in potential injury. One thing, there was a lot of loose stuff in the cab. Audiotapes, newspaper, old boots, bags. Had I rolled it would have all gone flying. Irritating, but not dangerous….

Except for the jack. I had a 25 pound hydraulic jack, an oblong piece of metal full of jagged angles, had that gone flying in the cab, I might have had serious problems. And by serious problems, potentially a skull fracture.

I reconsidered. Unlikely to have been a hazard on this one, it was too far back, I’d have to roll several times for it to get up to me, and the back of the bucket seat would have afforded some shelter. Mental note: See about tying the jack down in the future.

Fine. Next step: It wasn’t good to spend too much time stationary in the ditch, the ground was likely soft muskeg and I was already sinking into it. I shifted into four wheel drive. The vehicle responded. Good. I shifted into low range. Good. I reversed a few feet to lock it up. The vehicle moved smoothly. I drove forward, turned, and started driving up the side of the ditch.

Didn’t make it. I could come to within the last few feet, but at that point, it was too steep, and the snow and ice too thick. The wheels spun, I couldn’t get enough traction to make it out. I backed off, tried to rush it, but the snow was too slick and the distance too short to build acceleration.
I backed off again, and tried to climb the slope sidewise. That was trickier. Come at the slope too quickly the wrong way, and you could roll the vehicle. That wasn’t working. Perhaps if I went along the ditch, I could find a shallower slope.

I came to the shore of Devil’s lake. It came right up to the road bank. All right, back up, turn around, try and get out the opposite way. After about fifty yards, I came to the shore of Devil’s lake, up against the road bank, once again.

It became clear to me that I was on a shallow roadside peninsula on Devil’s Lake. I’d been very lucky to hit this. If the car had gone out of control 30 yards earlier, or 30 yards later, I almost certainly would have done into the lake itself. It would have been much, much harder to have avoided a roll, and I would have been in a lot more trouble. How deep was Devil’s Lake? Was it shallow at the banks? Or did it drop off quickly? I was glad I hadn’t had occasion to find out.

A chain of actions and reactions ratcheted automatically through my mind, as I reviewed what my options would have been, and the most effective conduct in that situation. It was almost instantaneous. I would have coped with it, probably gotten out alive, but I would be looking at serious damage to complete loss of the vehicle. Not good, but tolerable.

I reversed back. This wasn’t working. The Bronco slid to the side. I tried to reverse further, it started to bog down. I shifted into forward, and began to try and rock my way into the clear.
I stopped, it wasn’t moving right. As I tried to reverse, the back end was swinging slightly to the right. Possibly, instead of getting out, I was just digging deeper into a soft spot. The Bronco wasn’t responding the way it should. I put it in park and got out to check.

It was dug in, of course, I’d expected that and was prepared to cope with it. But the real problem was that the tire had spun off the rim. You can get that sometimes, if you’re digging in. The pressure on the side of the pinning tire pushes it off the rim until eventually the air seal goes, and the tire collapses.

I went back and shut off the motor, turning off the lights and locking the door. There was no longer any point in trying to work my way out. All that I could do is keep on spinning, and risk wrecking the tire. I’d have to put the spare on, but given that I was on a soft spot, trying to change the flat there would just lose me the jack. I was far enough away from the road that I didn’t need four way flashers.

Then I climbed up the bank and started hitchiking. Time to look for help.

Looking back, what strikes me is what I didn’t do. I didn’t curse or rage, getting angry would not have helped or made a difference. I wasn’t upset. I simply assessed the situation, shut off the car, and moved on to the next logical course of conduct. On reflection, I am inclined to admire the coolness and clarity of my actions. There was hardly a wasted motion.

In hindsight, what I should have done was quit earlier. I should have gotten as far up the bank as I could have, and then parked. Then I should have waited for a truck to come along, and gotten them to help tow me out. Even if they didn’t have a tow rope, I had a set of booster cables I could have improvised a tow line with. Once out, I could have just driven home.

But continuing trying to escape had finally gotten me to a point where I’d bogged down and spun a tire off the rim, at which point, my options closed out. Getting myself out was no longer an option. I needed a real tow truck.

After fifteen minutes a car came by. While I was talking to them, a pickup truck stopped.

This is one of the things about living in the north. People stop. The environment is unforgiving, people die on these roads all the time. You can’t just drive on by and assume that someone else will be along, you could be the last to see them alive. So anytime I see a vehicle stopped by the road, I’ll pull up and just make sure they’re okay. People do it for me, I do it for others, we all help.

I like this, it says something good about human beings.

I remember once I’d come across a family whose battery had died. It turned out to be the alternator, because the battery wouldn’t hold a charge. I gave them a boost, followed them to make sure they’d be okay. Their car died again. I boosted them again, and they drove for a while before it died once more. I pulled up with booster cables. We did that all the way along until they made it to a garage, it took me about a hundred and fifty kilometers out of my way and wasted about two hours of my day. But I have no regrets.

Another time, on the way to a business meeting, my car died on the Cumberland road. Electrical short circuit. People going my direction gave me a ride, others going the opposite way delivered my car keys to a tow truck company, and still others arranged for things to be fixed. People take care of each other.

Anyway, the pickup truck gave me a lift to the nearest community, Grand Rapids, which was 100 kilometers away. The other close ones were Gypsumville 120, and Easterville, 135. It was actually quite ironic, Devil’s Lake was the single most isolated spot on my entire route… The furthest distance from anywhere. The only other spot that even came close is between Easterville and The Pas, where the midpoint is 90 kilometers each way. Talk about remote.

There was absolutely nothing on the way in. Just the road itself. No houses, no structures, no transmission poles, no signs. Just desolate, empty, woodlands, mile after mile of it. In the south, around towns and cities, in what passes for countryside there, there are always signs of humanity. Even when you’re out driving through the countryside, or what passes as countryside, farmers fields, roadside houses, bridges, signs, transmission poles, intersections… You never lose the sense that there are people around, that you are in places defined by humans and humanity.

But out there, there’s just the road you’re on, no houses, no intersecting roads even, and endless trees and bush on either side. Out there, eagles circle above your head and deer and bear, even cougars, will occasionally wander by. Out there, we’re just passing through, that sense is palpable, and all the rest of the world we’re passing through has no trace of humanity. You can drive down these empty roads and you can imagine a time, a place, where humanity just isn’t, where we are less than forgotten, and the wild life, the animals, the trees, would continue on without us, without ever remembering that we’d been here at all.

Perhaps this is another reason why people look out for each other, because we sit so thinly here upon the landscape. Lives are precious for their rarity.

The roads were bad through most of it, at times being completely white. I chatted with my saviour for a while. We exchanged the usual, who he was, where I was going, where we were coming from. It died though, we really didn’t have much to say, and I wasn’t terribly talkative.

We got in, I left a message for my wife, found a tow truck, and the driver and I headed out. It was a slower ride. Because of the road conditions, we hadn’t been going very fast coming in. Normally Grand Rapids is less than an hour out under normal road conditions. It had taken over an hour to get there. Tow trucks are built for things other than speed. It took substantially more than an hour to get there.

Once there, we hooked up and he pulled me out. I steered. At first the Bronco wouldn’t start, which gave me a bad turn. It might have been that there was actually some damage which had finally borne fruit. I hadn’t seen any sign of this, so I assumed it was simply a result of the undercarriage being clogged with snow and ice. Once I was out of the bog, I tried again, the engine turned over satisfyingly, and I shifted out of low range/four wheel drive into neutral.

There didn’t seem to be a lot of point to trying to fix the tire on site. I’d checked the spare and it needed inflation, and I wasn’t sure how viable it was. It was dark by this time, and I really wasn’t looking forward to trying to free a frozen, ice caked, rim from the hub, or messing with a jack on the side of an icy highway. So we just lifted up the back end and drove it in.

I have a few memories. One was of passing crosses by the side of the road, perhaps six or seven in all, scattered here and there in ones and twos. People die on these roads, as I’ve said. They die out here, hundreds of miles from their homes, their bodies already cold by the time anyone comes by. What’s it like to bleed your life out over twenty minutes or half an hour in the desolate winter beside the wreckage of your car? Nothing to watch you die but the empty sky, the endless trees?

If someone had come along, or you’d been closer to people, perhaps you could have lived… People die, and on this road, you can die a lonely death.

I watched the crosses pass by, marking others deaths, but not remarking on them. Just watching. Some of them had fresh wreaths. Most of these crosses have been there for as long as I’ve been traveling these roads, but still, they’re remembered, enough for someone to take the time and trouble to lay a wreath. I have no idea who died here, or who put the wreaths. I only knew that they had and someone did, and somehow, I found this comforting.

Up ahead, on the road, there were occasional dancing flashes of eyeshine, of deers crossing the road just beyond the range of the tow trucks lights. And up above us, there was a spectacular northern lights, a legacy of the Solar Storm.

We got in and found the spare was unuseable and the tire that had spun off the rim was toast. Oh well, too bad. I should have had a good spare, and for that matter, a tow rope. I’m a bad boy scout. But then again, I was planning to get the tires replaced, including the spare, it was just a matter of time and money, things didn’t work out, that’s all. No sense crying over spilt milk, and I was too bloodless to really recriminate. If I had done things differently much earlier, perhaps things or certain parts of things might have turned out differently, or maybe they wouldn’t.

I don’t think I was in shock. Just very, very rational, and not terribly inclined to pointless emotion. Oddly, looking back, that’s the thing I consistently expected, to freak out a bit, and that didn’t happen. I kept expecting that an hour or hours after, I’d have some sort of delayed reaction, an adrenalin surge, a freak, the shakes an panic attack. But it never happened. I just kept on going the way I was.

In any case, we got in. It was well after supper, I had the tire replaced and gave them my VISA. I kept trying to call my wife. Things were not going well.

What happened in Grand Rapids was that they finally got internet service, and in particular, they had free internet after 6:00 pm. What this meant was that from about 6 to 11, the long distance circuits were completely locked up. I tried dialing constantly for over three hours before I finally got through to my wife.

That’s actually the thing I came closest to being aggravated about during this whole mess. I was worried about my wife, and almost upset that I couldn’t call her and let her know that I was all right and everything was fine.

It’s funny, I was very glad she hadn’t been in the Bronco with me when I’d had the wipe out. She would have screamed and been scared, and frankly, while it wouldn’t have distracted me, it would have been annoying. Someone screaming pointlessly in your ear while you’re focused on not dying… Annoying. And also, I was glad that what with all the immediate crap and the ‘dealing with stuff’ crap going, I didn’t have to worry about taking care of her. I would have taken care of her, of course, no question. The priority would be ensuring her safety and return while I dealt with everything else. But as it was, one less thing to worry about.

But the other thing, the very critical thing, was that it was absolutely unacceptable to me that she would be exposed to the sort of risk I had just endured. Almost being killed, I could deal with that. But her being almost killed or injured? That just wasn’t on, I would not tolerate that. It seems quite irrational to articulate like that, but really, that’s the way I felt about it.

A few years ago, there was one of these American postal incidents. You know, the sort of thing that seems peculiarly endemic to American culture. Some guy gets a big gun to go with his short fuse, loses it, and goes and shoots up his co-workers, or a day care, his high school, or in this case, a law firm. No big deal, happens so often in the US they hardly report it any more. But I remember one story from this incident…. The gunman had stepped into an elevator and caught a husband and wife, he intended to kill them both. The husband had thrust his wife into a corner and shielded her with his body. Six bullets were pumped into his back, he died, his wife lived.

It was a spur of the moment instinctive choice, and you know, from my own experience, I knew it was what I would have done. Being in the situation of near death, acting as I had, feeling as I did about my wife, I know that I would have done exactly the same thing in that situation. It’s hard to explain logically, but it was one of those moments where you are very clear about things.

I don’t know that there’s anything heroic or noble about it. Perhaps. Certainly for me, there’s nothing mawkish or sentimental to it. For me, this is simply the way it is. I would not allow her to come to harm, no matter what, no matter the cost.

The other problem was with my Visa. The problem was it wasn’t going through. The bill was about $500, I figured that my account was high, but it should still be able to handle the transaction. Unfortunately, what we were getting was “Call Visa Company.” We couldn’t call them because the lines were jammed. Time dragged out, and dragged on.

In a way, the tedium was the worst part. Luckily, I’d picked up Al Franken’s “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them,” so I spent the next few hours sitting quietly in the restaurant, reading.

In my experience, crises are usually followed by tedium. Once the shit hits the fan, there comes a time when not only is there nothing to do, but there is nothing that you can do. The trick is to be patient and wait it out. A book helps.

By about 10:30 two things were becoming clear. It was eight hours since my wipe out, my Visa was not going to go through tonight, and even if it did, I really didn’t relish the thought of driving three hours through pitch black darkness over icy roads in a vehicle which had a tiny but very real possibility of undetected damage. Being stuck in daylight is one thing, but I really didn’t fancy the possibility of getting stuck with a broken tie rod half way on the Easterville road at a quarter to midnight. By the time anyone found me, there might be a very good chance I’d have frozen to death.

So, it looked like I’d be spending the night. The only problem was I had no cash, and my Visa wasn’t working. I phoned around, found a hotel, they weren’t happy, but I got a room.

The next morning, I found my Visa was declined. I’m going to be having a conversation with them in the next few days. They won’t enjoy it.

So, here I was, stuck three hundred kilometers from home, with bills for a tow job, new tire and a hotel room. No one was taking cheques. I’d talked with my wife about wiring the money down to the local credit union, an operation that would take a few hours, since she was working today as well.

I contacted my office to let them know where I was and what had happened. They offered to cover the costs now, we could work things out later. After reflection, I accepted the offer. After all, its not really good employee relations to send them out on missions that almost get them killed. They eventually got purchase orders through, and finally, I was able to go home.

I made sure the vehicle was in four wheel drive, drove carefully, and made it home in about three hours. The first place I went was Anna, my wife’s, workplace, where I walked into her office and simply held her, 24 hours almost to the minute, from the instant the Bronco had gone out of control.

Then I went home to take some down time.

There are moments, I think, that are like mirrors for us. There are instants in our lives, situations where we discover who and what we really are. Most of the time, its not like that. We can sit around and talk about things, pontificate as to write and wrong, whether we are moral or immoral, how we’d act if someone pointed a gun at our heads or we were trapped in an out of control vehicle. But most of the time, its academic, its fantasy not reality. We sit there safe, with nothing at risk, and nothing immediate, and its all hypothetical for us, we can’t really know.

You don’t really know what you’ll do when someone points a gun at you, until they do. You can’t really know whether you’d sell your soul or not, until someone makes an offer. You can’t truly know how you’ll handle a crisis until its there. It isn’t until those moments happen that its real, and it isn’t until you’re actually facing it that you confront the reality of those moments. It’s when you yourself are real. When you are being and acting as the person you really are, rather than who you’d like to be.

It’s the moment when life holds up a mirror, and we come fact to face with who and what we really are. Sometimes that’s a horrible experience – stripped of the comfort of our self illusions, we discover cowardice, foolishness, meanspiritedness. We can see things we’d really rather not. Very few people really want to see these mirror moments, because once you see, it can be hard to keep lying to yourself.

These were mirror moments for me. In an out of control situation, I kept it together. I didn’t scream or cry or pray to god, I didn’t freeze, or overreact. I don’t think my expression even changed, I simply rode the wave, steering into it rather than spinning wildly, avoiding a rollover, dodging trees and piloting in to a safe landing. I’d done system checks, moved cooly and logically to escape, until I could no longer get out, then I’d taken the next rational actions, functioning cooly and efficiently, almost ruthlessly throughout. Afterwards, after the crisis, I’d remained cool and dealt with people and events with courtesy and grace. When the shit hit the fan, I dealt with it, and dealt with it well.

Another man might have died or at least fucked it up badly. Another man might have screamed, or froze, or made mistakes, he might have raged and whined, complained about the bill or moaned about his plight. I did none of that, I simply dealt.

I made mistakes, of course. I should have had the spare checked beforehand, I should have had a tow rope and a more elaborate emergency kit, I should have had the jack tied down, I should have gone into four wheel drive when I set out, and I should have stopped trying to get out before I spun the tire off the rim. But then again, under the circumstances, these all strike me as rational mistakes under the circumstances. I will replace the tires, I will fix the spare, and tie the jack, and fix up the emergency kit, and be a little more on top of four wheel drive. But none of these errors damns me in my mirrored gaze.

I am an iceman, it seems, with glacier water running through my veins. I have looked into the mirror, and I am comfortable with what I’ve seen. My father and grandfather would have been proud of me.

It’s been twenty years since I’ve come this close to dying. Makes you think, I guess.

2 thoughts on “Death on a Lonely Road, the First”

    • I think that the thing that no one ever pays attention to in ‘life and death’ crises, is how grindingly tedious the aftermaths always are.

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