Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Feeling Mortal

I drive Montana's highways more than pretty much anyone else I know. With all the miles I put on, I have, of course, had my share of what I like to refer to as "Mortality Moments". These would be those instances when life passes before your eyes and adrenaline pumps into your bloodstream. Moments like just missing the deer, or the semi that cuts back into your lane too close, or the moment when the tires decide to loose their grip on the black ice over a bridge.

I had that experience yesterday morning while driving to Great Falls for work. I was driving Joe's pickup since Krystle is still using my Rav4 until her car is out of the shop. The Wolf Creek canyon was snow covered and a little icy since the sun doesn't shine for very long into the narrow passageway. I was my normal careful and wary self. Once out of the canyon though, the sun was shining bright and the roadway cleared. I sped up to the speed limit and settled back for a relaxing drive. I still had 50 miles to go and it was a beautiful morning. The leaves have been changing colors and the weekend snow and cold temperatures turned the more stubborn green trees to gold. The wind was blowing at a good clip, I am guessing at about 30mph, blowing the leaves around... as well as occasional gust that nudged the little Nissan truck I was driving a bit to the left. Yeah, a typical Montana fall morning. Passing the sleepy tiny town of Craig I could see a bit of fog clinging to the Missouri River and thought how pretty nature can be. Not even five miles later, I was thanking God and any other higher powers that I was still in one piece and still headed in the right direction down the highway.

There is a bridge that spans the Missouri River within spitting distance of Craig. This same bridge is not straight, but curved. Not a sharp curve, and with normal driving conditions it is not uncommon to see drivers taking it at the speed limit of 75mph or higher without even blinking an eye. I am an uncommonly cautious driver, and I could see the bridge deck looked wet. I slowed a bit, then drove onto the concrete..... when Whoops! That is NOT water but black ice!! First shot of adrenaline hit the system as experience and training took over all my muscles. I eased off the accelerator and about to think I was OK. In that moment, the tires break free of the pavement and the truck slides across the road into the passing lane of the interstate instead of following the curve to the right. When I think about it in retrospect, I think I may have been hit by a gust of wind that pushed me at just the wrong moment. Second shot of adrenaline! Oh shit! I ease the steering to try to control the slide and avoid a collision with the guard rail and a possible very cold dunk into the river. Even the tiny adjustment of the tires causes the front tires to go in the right direction, but the back end wants to fishtail out....so I steer back to the left to regain a tiny bit of control... when the back end decides to kick out to the right.... I see the end of the bridge deck ahead and it is dry but I fear that I will hit it at an odd angle and possibly loose total control or worse, roll. At the same time, fine motor skills and experience are on autopilot keeping me in a fairly straight line even though the back end is doing its own thing. The only thing I remember going through my mind over and over is "don't over correct....don't wreck Joe's truck... s**t, f**k,... don't over correct". I do know that the rear end slid back and forth about 5 or 6 times and I managed to stay on the road, never kissed the guard rail and hit dry pavement going straight. WHEW!! All that was three very long seconds of my life, but at the time felt like about 15 minutes.
The rest of the drive was, thankfully, uneventful but I had so much adrenaline coursing through my veins that I was unable to enjoy it. It is the little things like this that remind me that I am just a human and life can be upended or even just ended in a few short seconds. Enjoy it while you can!

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