A chance encounter with a fellow motorist changes my perspective--and their life--forever. (Warning: a brief glimpse at darkness within!)
Tourists like to refer to the vista hugging U.S. Highway 191 as "scenic." The road wanders through the meandering Little Rocky Mountains, passing over the Missouri and countless insignificant creeks on its way ever northward.
I used to hate every mile of that highway.
It isn't because the lonely stretch of road isn't scenic-I will admit it is. It also isn't because I am incapable of appreciating one of Mother Nature's last semi-untouched wildernesses. I think it has more to do with the fact that I have grown numb to the scenery from traveling this stretch so frequently. Driving this road has become a necessarily evil. Where others see captivating panoramas, I see blind spots and deadly precipices. I suspect once one has traveled such a path so many times, it becomes difficult to do anything more than acknowledge the natural beauty in a cursory manner, and then shuffle along quickly to put it all behind.
I was returning home from a meeting one summer evening, driving this lonely highway and recounting the day's events. Though the sky was clear, a dark cloud was shadowing me. The client seemed happy with my presentation, but cited "budgetary concerns" which was of course a thinly-veiled attempt at getting us to capitulate on the pricing we offered. I already felt our rates were well below the industry average, but my business partner insisted that we could find a way to trim our costs even further, in order to acquire this new account. I smiled and bit my tongue, once again relenting as both parties shook hands and I was rewarded with the dubious task of completing a project with a fraction of the resources it should have received.
So lulled by this familiar, yet passively dangerous highway, I almost didn't see the dark SUV as it raced up behind me. The Escalade caught me right as we entered a no-passing zone, but the driver had other ideas. His engine roared and he barreled past my paltry sedan, swerving back into the right lane with what seemed like inches to spare between our bumpers. All I could do was tap my brakes and try desperately to resist the impulse of maneuvering hazardously on the treacherous curve. It happened so quickly, it took another moment before my thoughts returned to me, and by then the rude driver and his SUV were at least a quarter-mile away. The belated sounding of my horn and corresponding curse were evidently for my ears only. "I hope you drive off a cliff, you jackass," I shouted at my windshield as his taillights disappeared over the next hill.
I fumed and hit the horn on my steering column a few more times, for good measure. I think my frustration was only heightened by the fact that the scene was witnessed only by myself and any curious birds or rodents along the steep ditches. This sort of righteous injustice was meant to be shared. Since it was not, I felt somehow robbed.
At the crest of the next foothill, I scanned the darkening road ahead for signs of my new nemesis. To my surprise, I found the highway empty. Did the maniac have such a leaden foot to put such distance between us? I cursed the driver again.
Just then, I noticed a pair of taillights-but they were not on the roadway at all. As I approached, I saw they were not moving, either.
My heart began to beat in my chest, as I realized that the Escalade had in fact slid off of the steep embankment.
"Did I do this?" I heard the words come out of my mouth as I pulled my car over onto the shoulder. I felt a mixture of embarrassment and guilt in claiming such an egotistical thought. I felt another emotion too; was it satisfaction?
I shook the distracting thoughts from my head, dismissing them like the buzzing flies that they were. Reviewing my options, I checked my cell phone-naturally, no signal in this valley. Glancing in my rearview mirror, I saw only empty asphalt, and the same ahead of me.
I could just leave them. Someone else can find them.
As quickly as that thought arrived, I knew it too was incorrect. It wasn't guilt that motivated me, but a sense of responsibility. As though I had something to do with this erratic driver in the ditch below.
I had the presence of mind to grab my flashlight from under the seat before I cautiously scaled the sharp slope. It wasn't quite dark yet, but somehow the heavy, industrial-strength casing of the light made me feel confident. It didn't make sense at the time, but in retrospect it seemed almost natural that having it in my hand would evoke such a feeling.
The bank was not quite so sharp as it appeared from the road, but it was nevertheless a challenge to scale in my smooth-soled dress shoes. I slipped a couple times on the way down, snagging my neatly-pressed pants on the sage brush clinging to the rocky surface. I think I cursed a few more times before I reached the bottom of the gully.
That dark Escalade was actually resting on its crushed roof, I noted as I made my way down. One of the rear wheels was still spinning slowly as I hiked towards it. It gradually stopped rotating only after I saw it. As though it was expecting me, and was giving its final show for the audience.
I paused instantly and held my breath. The sharp-pitched voice was weak, but clear.
"Ronny," the woman repeated.
I scrambled the last few yards to the passenger's side of the vehicle. Kneeling down and flicking on my flashlight, my light caught the face of a woman. She was battered and lying against the roof of the SUV inside. Her legs appeared to be sandwiched between the bucket seat and dash which was crushed in the rollover. She kept calling for "Ronny" over and over.
Something dripped down my hand as I leaned against the Escalade. The pungent scent permeated my nostrils. It was gasoline, leaking from a broken fuel line.
"Ma'am," I implored, "you need to get out now!"
I don't know what I was expecting; was she to pluck her broken legs from beneath the wedge of the engine compartment and pull herself free? Was I going to somehow rip open what was left of the crushed door so a human could actually fit through the compressed cabin space? It didn't really matter what I was expecting, as the woman just kept repeating "Ronny" in her state of shock.
I think that was when I realized there was another person in the vehicle.
Clawing my way around to the driver's side, I saw the disfigured man laying halfway out the shattered window. His jaw agape, he greeted me with open, emotionless eyes. A piece of shiny, black steel protruded from the side of his cranium, and copious rivulets of dark fluid had already begun to coagulate along his sheered neck. Aside from the obvious horrors, Ronny looked peaceful in his death.
Just as remarkable was how calm I felt. I really felt as though I was just watching this terrible scene unfold in a movie or a bad dream. It was as though I was not really there and that I would just wake up at any moment.
The increasingly strong gasoline smell reminded me that there was no nightmare to wake up from. My imagination ran wild with cinematic images of a combusting car, and I knew that this was a real possibility.
"You need to get out, now!" I shouted at the woman as I crawled back over to her side of the hulking wreck.
"I'm sorry, but Ronny's dead."
I remember cursing at that point. I remember pleading with the woman, even reasoning with her. I don't remember why she started fighting me though. I think it was when I tried to physically drag her out. It might have been after I informed her for the second time that Ronny was dead. I just recall the surprise and anger that I felt when she slapped my face.
I know now that the woman was in shock. Hell, maybe in her state of shock she shared my initial suspicion that I had caused them to crash into the ravine by somehow willing it to happen. But at the time, I did not rationalize her actions.
What I did do was to hit her with my flashlight. Repeatedly.
She screamed. Loudly.
I wanted to make her stop, to just shut her up long enough for me to reason with her. To point out the gasoline dribbling overtop our heads, and the hot engine so nearby. That's what I wanted.
The woman got wide-eyed, like a wild animal cornered and with nothing to lose. Her eyes were primal and unnerving. Her shriek was even more unsettling.
It would be easy to say I was frightened by her wild reaction, and to explain that what I did next was in self-defense. But honestly, I was not afraid at all. If anything, I felt very calm.
I hit the woman again with the end of my flashlight. Two, three times I connected with her temple. She continued screaming, so loudly that I thought for sure my eardrums would burst. I clasped my hand over her mouth to silence her, and I abruptly pressed the butt of my flashlight firmly, inexorably against her throat.
I wasn't planning on killing the woman, but I didn't stop pressing even after she stopped screaming. I didn't stop when she clawed at my jacket. I didn't stop when her wide, green eyes pleaded with me. I didn't even stop when her grip on my arm softened and dropped limply.
In fact, it must have been several minutes before I relented and slowly-even reluctantly-withdrew from the woman. Her eyes remained wide open, pleading and accusing in their stare. A circular, dark bruise betrayed my flashlight's brutal touch and the crushed larynx beneath. Her purple lips were parted and seemed to hauntingly whisper, "Ronny" to my imagination.
Only seconds prior it was a weapon, but now my flashlight waved from one corpse to the other, a macabre stage light on the characters as the curtain dropped silently.
I abandoned the up-turned Escalade then, makeshift coffin as it was. I felt like I floated up the slope back to my sedan, not once slipping on the uneven surface. I met my waiting car with a sense of confidence and achievement.
While I was reaching for the handle of my ride, a rancher's pickup arrived from the north and slowed down. He could not have seen the Escalade, buried in the opposite ditch as it was. It was me he was slowing down for.
"Everything alright?" the man inquired as he leaned out his open window.
In the dusk's fading light I knew he could not see my face, but he almost certainly could hear the smile in my voice. "Yes, everything is just fine."
The rancher wished me a safe night and continued on his way. I got into my car and never looked back. The last of the summer sun's auburn rays licked at the top of the mountains. It turns out, that highway is indeed a scenic gem of a road, and I now appreciate its beauty whenever I have the privilege to drive it.