I have never been so out of control, yet at the same time in complete control. I didn’t even know that was possible.
“Uh oh. That doesn’t feel right.”
How can I be so in tune with my car? I have owned it for seven years and am about as comfortable as you can get when I am driving it. But it is hard for me to believe just how sensitive my feel is when it comes to what is happening with my little two-door Honda Civic. And for a split second, something doesn’t feel right. My back tires suddenly don’t feel connected to the pavement of the freeway. How can I know that?
But a moment later, it is clear that I am absolutely right. I am hydroplaning.
I grew up in the Midwest, and everyone was familiar with hydroplaning or with driving on ice. I don’t remember ever actually hydroplaning before, but I definitely had experience sliding on ice. In fact, the house we lived in during high school was on a private street, which meant that the city did not plow it. For some reason, whoever was in charge of the three streets in the neighborhood had hired 24-hour security to drive around all night but had not arranged for snow plowing. So every year after a big snow, our street would remain covered in snow and ice, even after snow had long ago melted everywhere else. Turning into my neighborhood was like entering into some rogue, arctic micro-climate. That meant driving no faster than five miles per hour down our street so that a simple curb could stop any sliding. It was no big deal.
So yes, I had plenty of experience driving on ice.
As I feel the back tires disconnect from the road, my car has my attention. Suddenly, I am acutely aware that I no longer have control. And as time slows down, I wait for what will happen next, fully aware that something will happen next.
I had spent the previous three days in Asheville, North Carolina, with a couple of high school friends. At least once a year we come together from different parts of the country for a girls’ weekend. I chose to drive…for a couple of reasons. One, I am just tired of flying. The delays and cancellations are infuriating. And two, I didn’t want to leave my increasingly elderly dog, Captain, in an expensive, impersonal kennel in Chicago and instead brought him and put him in a family-owned kennel near Asheville with lots of land. I had just picked up Captain and was headed back to Chicago. Captain jumped into the back seat and curled up on the dog bed set up for him. But restless, it wasn’t long before he ended up in the front on the passenger seat floor, an odd place for him to settle based on my experience bringing him on road trips.
The back end of my car shimmies and then jerks to the left. Shit.
It had been raining, so I had naturally slowed down. Something about the angle of my windshield makes visibility during rain less than ideal. So perhaps I was going 55 or 60 MPH? The speed limit was 70, so that seems a reasonable guess.
A couple of visions flash though my head. I have witnessed vehicles lose control on freeways. One time I was driving my daughter and her friend to a theater for their dance recital when in front of us, we saw a trailer pulled by a truck begin to fishtail. I immediately slowed down as the driver struggled to gain control. He lost the fight. The trailer flipped over and pulled the truck along with it. The trailer splintered into countless pieces, and its contents exploded across the road and onto the shoulder. The second time, a truck pulling a trailer was in front of me. But I had a sense that something was wrong. The trailer didn’t look stable. I desperately wanted to get past it. I sped up faster than I usually drive to get around and in front of it. A few seconds after I passed it, the trailer began fishtailing, and I watched in my rearview mirror as the entire thing flipped over and off the freeway. I screamed so loud that my kids thought that we were about to get into an accident.
Those were the images in my head as I feel the rear end of my car sliding back and forth. And then, chaos.
I’m in the middle lane of a three-lane highway, but I am now facing the median. I’m spinning the steering wheel, and the next thing I know, I pull myself out of that. But now I am headed to the shoulder. I switch the direction I spin the wheel and am screaming as I frantically struggle to gain control of the car. I pull out of that. What the hell?? How am I doing this?
Now I envision people in their cars behind me watching me do this. At this point I am facing the median again, nearly perpendicular to the direction I should be travelling. There is no question. I will be spinning around. I can’t stop that. I can only hope that no one hits me as I spin to a stop.
While I am thinking about this, my hands are frantically working. And I’m astonished. I don’t do a 360. Instead, I pull myself out and am now headed to the shoulder. And I mean, I am seriously headed to the shoulder. As I look out my windshield at the shoulder, I notice that beyond the gravel is a grassy-filled ditch along the side of the highway. That’s where I’m headed. There is no question. I am going to flip the car. I somehow do the calculations in my head, and it is inevitable. I am flipping the car. The question is, how many times? What will be my condition at the end of it? I think about how I will have to tell my two high school friends that I just spent the past three days with about this, and I feel embarrassed. (I’m not saying that is a valid reaction. But that is honestly the thought that ran through my head.) Should I have just flown? I think of my kids and of what an inconvenience this will be for them. And I am pissed. And then I think about what this will feel like – to flip over, who knows how many times. But I am braced and ready, all the while screaming obscenities and uttering who knows what ungodly sounds. It definitely is not quiet inside my car during all this. And all the while, my hands are frantically doing their work, spinning the steering wheel as if I am the captain of the Titanic trying to avoid the iceberg when it is clearly too late to stop the collision.
But suddenly, I slow down, two wheels on the highway and two wheels on the shoulder. Facing the right direction. As I come slow to a stop, I pull over enough to get off the highway. I put the car in park and switch on the flashers. I glance in my side view mirror, and there are dozens of cars back about a hundred feet, all stopped, waiting for the conclusion of the drama unfolding in front of them. Eventually, they feel confident that they can continue on their way, and the cars resume with their journeys.
I then look to my right. And there is Captain, sitting straight up on the floor of the passenger seat, looking at me and panting. He looks no worse for wear, but I am grateful he was down in that little spot rather than bouncing around the back seat. I don’t even what to think about what would have happened to him had I flipped the car.
A full cup of water had been in the console so that Captain could get a drink whenever he needed it. Now water coated the front half of the car. And where are my sunglasses? At some point they flew off my head.
I take a deep breath, trying to wrap my mind around what just happened. I absolutely cannot believe that I was capable of getting myself out of that. Everything I did came from pure instinct. How did my body know what to do? How did I know exactly what my car needed?
A lot of people have stories they are going to tell their families tonight about what they saw on the highway, I thought. If there had been a drone filming what had happened, I swear they would have thought they were watching a stunt expert, in a scene right out of movie. Maybe I missed my calling, I joke to myself.
Yet I am paralyzed.
I call my daughter. And, thankfully, despite being at work, she answers. I manage to tell her that I almost got in the worst accident of my life, but I am fine, but then I simply can’t speak anymore. My heart is pounding. My stomach is in knots. I’m numb. She has all the right things to say, thank god, reminding me that everything is ok.
Finally I manage to tell her what happened.
She asks if I had hit the brakes. I think about this. I have no memory of my feet doing anything. Did I slam on the brakes? Pump them? Lightly tap them? All I can picture are my hands frantically working.
I soon develop a stress headache. And I am extremely uncomfortable where I am pulled over. Cars and trucks are whizzing by at 70 MPH. And I am literally in the middle of nowhere, in northeastern Tennessee, nowhere near any town. The realization of that as a problem should this have turned out differently quickly enters my consciousness.
Then my daughter lets me know that a guardian angel must have been looking over me. That’s when I crack. Because I know it is true. And I wonder out loud, “How do I express the appropriate gratitude for my life?”
Yes. How do I do that? Isn’t that the ultimate question? It’s a question I don’t have the answer to.
I am not going to be as cliché as to say that this was a life-changing experience. Or that I will now appreciate life in ways that I didn’t appreciate it before. That isn’t true. But I do appreciate the capriciousness of life, the arbitrariness of life. I wouldn’t be so assuming as to claim that I faced death. Maybe I did – maybe I didn’t. But I did face the fragility of life, of the power of a moment to change everything. Or to change nothing.