The ink had barely dried on my high school diploma when I found myself pulling away from my childhood home at 6 in the morning in a beat up old 1988 white suburban with two old friends. Cruising down the familiar roads, everything felt alive, like it had been cranked up to 11 and nothing could ruin the sensation of freedom we were all experiencing. We had set out on what we imagined would be the iconic American Road Trip, but unfortunately for us, the iconic road trip always looks better in the movies…
We had stocked the car with everything you need for a successful road trip; camping gear, junk food, stacks of mixed CD’s I’d made specifically for the trip, a cooler full of soda, water and food, sleeping bags, pillows, and enough clothes to last months. From my hometown we drove South-West towards Texas and our first real stop in New Mexico. Using printed out directions from Mapquest and a stack of about a zillion maps, we felt like pioneers keeping a look out for each exit and road merge the text warned was coming ahead.
I can remember the way the light looked in the car and on the road throughout various parts of that first day, how the buzz of excitement had slowly faded away with each mile and gas station stop (’88 suburban’s guzzle the stuff), but I can’t for the life of me remember where we finally stopped for the night or what we had done once we finally got out of the car. In all honesty large chunks of the trip have been buried in the dark recesses of my brain over the years, and have yet to resurface to take over space probably used up by lyrics to spice girl songs and boring facts. I remember snip-its, like scenes in a movie that can play inside my brain at a moments notice whenever I feel like calling them up.
At our first official stop – Carlsbad Caverns – I remember proudly purchasing a national parks pass and taking the long and slightly boring tour of the cave with its stalagmites and stalactites and its weird formations that looked like nipples and made us giggle like 9 year olds. We ordered food from their restaurant and ate soggy hamburgers 750 feet underground just so we could say we had done it, and went outside and stood staring south at what we knew from the tour was the border of Mexico, the closest any of us had ever come to it. When we left, I remember my friend Ronnie pulling a u-turn on the highway into the opposite lane of traffic after my other friend Erin gave him the wrong directions and we realized we were heading back East instead of West.
Somewhere during all of this, one of our tires blew out. I remember the three of us trudging out of the car and working together to heave the massive hunk of metal up off the ground and it’s equally large tire off and the spare back on. This ladies and gentlemen is the only time I’ve ever had to change a tire in my life… and man am I happy I didn’t have to do it alone. Not very long afterwards we would have problems with our battery dying somewhere between Carlsbad Caverns and Roswell, New Mexico. The man who helped us out recommended a mechanic he knew in Roswell, so we filled up the tank and prayed the battery would make it all the way. In a stroke of good luck, we found the place with no problem and were able to get the car fixed. A little while later in a hotel room in either the state of Arizona or California we would learn that the lady behind the counter had helped herself to my friends card number. I would fork mine over so the hotel manager would leave us to get some sleep, and the following morning Ronnie would spend the day dealing with the bank.
Apart from all out bad luck and the long stretches of highway I remember seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time and sitting with our feet dangled over the edge, my heart pounding in my chest. I remember pitching our tent and cooking dinner at a campsite that night, the three of us scurrying up to the top of the Suburban to stare at the stars in the crystal clear sky, and waking up to find myself being cuddled by my friends in the cold morning air inside our tent. I can recall the moment we drove across the border of California and driving through Los Angeles like I was on uppers, because that’s apparently how you have to drive to survive even a 5 minute stretch of highway there.
For some reason the only hotels in California that would let us rent rooms were the seediest ones you can imagine – the kind where you could literally put change into the side of the bed to make it vibrate. I remember getting my hair cut at some obscure little shop in Monterrey and driving down the PCH and the 101, with giant trees on one side of the road and the ocean on the other. I remember feeling small behind the wheel of our 88 suburban, wondering who in their right mind would buy one of these monsters for everyday use. I can see Chinatown in San Francisco and the stone siding of the lodge where the shining was filmed on Mount Hood outside of Portland, while standing in shorts and a tank-top with snow underneath my feet. I remember the way Denver twinkled at night as I drove across a wasteland of concrete highways, not a car in sight.
Mostly though, I remember ever single detail from the morning of 06-27-06. On this particular morning everything about my life would change. Sometime in the wee hours, a loud pop would jolt me out of my sleep and I would hear my friends screaming and the sounds of breaking glass and crunching metal within both an eternity and seconds of one another. Before I could even flex a muscle, I felt my body shatter as it hit what I later learned was the inside roof of the car. I’ve never been sure how long I was unconscious, but I remember feeling like I was crawling out of the darkness as I fought my eyes open and waited for my vision to focus.
Before I knew where I was, I knew. I could see slivers of green right in front of my face and something blue under my right eye. I was laying in the grass on the side of the highway on top of the sleeping bag I had been using as a blanket. Unable to speak or move, I did my best to hold myself together, to talk my toes into wiggling. It felt like an eternity, as panic-stricken I did everything I could think of to get my body to move. Finally it did. First my toes, then my fingers, my neck, my arms, and last my legs coming back to me with a heaviness I haven’t experienced since. I shakily pushed myself up and looked around. The Suburban was pressed up against my left leg, on top of a corner of the blanket, and I could see our things strewn about like an afterthought or a Pollack painting.
I used the tire and then the windowsill of one of the back windows (now empty where the glass panel had been), to hoist myself up to standing. I felt partly like a newborn colt on shaky legs, and partly like I was emerging from a dream, but all I was really worried about was finding a blanket. I was cold (and in shock so I didn’t think the one under me would work) and wanted to find some shoes to cover my feet. Trust me when I say that there is no logic left inside you when you’ve just lived through something traumatic and feel as helpless as a baby kitten. Thankfully a very nice lady stopped to help us this day and made me lie back down on the cold earth after learning I had been thrown from the car.
The ambulance and firetrucks arrived a little while later, and I would spend the next 18 hours of my life strapped to one of those bright orange-red boards. My clothes were literally cut off my body in Kit Carson Memorial Hospital in Burlington, Colorado and there was a swirl of activity around me as people asked questions, ignored my answers, and tried to determine from the primitive X-rays they had taken whether or not one of my organs was bleeding. I was then whisked away via my 2nd ambulance to a local airfield where I took the only private jet ride of my life to Denver, where a 3rd ambulance would drive me to St. Anthony’s Central downtown. I got CT-scans, Pet-scans, stitches from a ridiculously hot male nurse, and was finally cleared to sleep on a beautifully soft mattress and eat my first meal of warm beef broth and cool water.
The ER doctor who was on call when I reached Denver spoke to me only once. He briskly walked into my room to rattle off a list of injuries including sutures on the 3 cuts on the back of my leg, road rash, scrapes, a large gash on my arm, bruising, and a displaced tailbone before looking me square in the eye and saying “I’m not sure why you’re alive, let alone why you can walk” and leaving me at 18 years old to ponder the largest question that had ever been handed to me in my short life. He would later bring other doctors by to gape at me like I was some sort of a science experiment, and I would simultaneously cry and laugh the first time I saw my mother again later that same afternoon.
As of today 06-27-15, it has been 9 years since what I thought was going to be the quintessential American Road Trip of my life ended in the most unexpected and challenging way imaginable. I will not tell you I regret any of it, or that I would change a thing if given the opportunity to do so. I’ve always been happy it was me who had to go through everything. That my friends were spared the months of physical therapy and doctors visits. The scars scattered across my body are a part of who I am, the same way the color of my eyes or my inexplicable love of travel help make me unique. What would have broken some people that morning, gave me a new appreciation and respect for life. At 18 years old I flew out of a car and I learned that life is unpredictable and flawed and precious. I have been thankful all 3,285 days since my accident, no matter how great or horrible they may have been. I have lived and hopefully I will keep on living.