Two weeks ago, on a mountain highway deserted late at night with the next exit 40 miles ahead, I rounded a curve. In the middle of my lane — over a dozen small boulders. An oncoming car on the narrow two lane highway flashed headlights and my husband Alan was momentarily distracted trying to figure out the message. My grip tightened on the steering wheel as I stared straight at the message. Boulders. In the middle of the road. In the middle of nowhere as if from out of nowhere.
Try to stop in time by slamming on the brakes? Swerve? Risk losing control with the sheer rock wall of mountain side on my right and the cliff on my left?
I sized up the size of the rocks. None loomed large enough to crash into above tire level. So I . . . kept . . . driving. And driving. Until the car could go no farther. Did not get very far. But we survived. The car was totaled. And we survived.
The engine was smoking. My first reaction was to yell, “Get out of the car! Get out of the car! It might explode!” Alan calmly reached over and turned off the ignition.
Completely unscathed, we got out of the car to assess the damage. Two tires flat. The car sitting on rocks. A hole torn in the bottom of the car floor. Clearly, our rental car was going nowhere from here.
The other driver had stopped hundreds of yards away near just before the road curved. He got out to assess the damage to his car from the one rock he hit that was in his lane. His car was not disabled.
I tried to get cell reception to call 911 and AAA. The signal struggled to communicate, blocked between mountains. Each call, I was able to get only a few words out before losing connection.
Victor, the other driver, told us it was 5 miles back to Coalinga, the small town we passed through minutes earlier. Together Victor and Alan lifted the largest of the rocks in the road to the side for the safety of other cars that might come through. Victor offered to give us a ride back to Coalingua. Alan thanked him, told him we’d better stay with our car. Several times Victor apologized for not giving us a stronger warning, for not flashing his hazards. I reassured him. “It happened so fast. You didn’t really have time. We all did the best we could.”
We stood chilled by the dark, able to see only by headlights, moon and stars.
After about 15 minutes, we sent Victor on his way, reassuring him we would be fine, asking him to please let the highway patrol know we were out there when he got to Coalingua. I finally got through to the California Highway Patrol. A patrol car with two young officers arrived. They placed emergency flares in front of the car and behind, moved more boulders that weren’t trapped under our car.
The CHP officers interviewed us, checked my driver’s license, insurance. One said he tries not to swerve himself. The other said two years ago a boulder the size of a Volkswagen came down in that area. Using high-powered flashlights, they surveyed the mountain by the rockslide looking for where the rocks might have rained down from, assessing the stability of the area. The normal pattern, they told us, was rockslides during a rain or immediately following rain. It was unusual for the boulders to come down as long as several days after. They estimated that the rockslide happened less than 5 minutes before we drove into it. One commented, “Fortunately the boulders were ‘soft,’ the kind that stay in place where they fall on the road. ‘Hard’ rocks would have been slipping and sliding all over the road.”
A tow truck showed up. The troopers asked us to get in the cab of the tow truck for safety. We hopped up into the cab with relief since smoke and fumes from the flaring emergency signals were starting to irritate our lungs and eyes. Billy, the tow truck driver, quickly loaded our car on the flatbed. The troopers carried the rocks from under the car to the side of the highway.
Billy dropped us off at a Coalingua motel before taking our car to his tow yard. Maneuvering sideways around the car, the three of us off-loaded all our luggage and a cooler, down the ramp. Billy commented, “Now that I see how heavily this car is loaded, I think that’s what kept you on the road.”
Next up: So what? What meaning do we make of our story?