One months ago, I was hanging by the seat belt in a sideways car across the lane of a windy mountain highway in Mexico. Blood was streaming from my elbow. My thoughts were focused on the immediate there and then. Now it’s time for reflection.
Hwy 1 – Baja, Mexico. Jan 3rd.
For most of the longitudinal span of the Baja peninsula, the only paved road is a single lane highway with the lanes heading in opposite directions separated by a dashed yellow stripe. The most frequent sign on the side of this road is curvas peligrosas [dangerous curves]. As frequent as the symbolic are the more realistic reminders of the danger. These come in the form of variously disfigured and discarded vehicles, or the harder-to-spot mechanical entrails, such as headlights and shredded tires, but also dents on the guard rails and scars on the road itself.
From the way people drive you wouldn’t know it. There is a bimodal distribution of speeds on this highway. There were those I glimpsed on their quick approach in the rear-view mirror, swerving around me, and then gaining on the horizon in front.
There were others that were probably as eager to go that fast, but either because they were heavy tractor-trailers or dilapidated jalopies, they just couldn’t push it. These I passed with ease.
Four of us, were returning from a week long road trip in Baja. We had lots of ground to cover in two days. We were planning a layover in LA that night (Saturday), before setting out to SF the following morning. (Sunday) My friend had just completed a 6 hour marathon driving session, and handed over the controls to me in San Quentin, still 200 miles south of the border (Tijuana).
When I started the starlit ascent into the mountains past the valley, the road became windy. A flash rain passed and stopped. Most of the turns were marked well in advance, except for the turn that got me. Because of the change in elevation it was a blind turn and when I finally realized we were heading into a curve, it turned out to be too late. We were driving above 60 mph when I first caught the sharp turn.
Skid, Tumble and Roll
To our right, was a steep drop off. To the left was the mountain face the road was hugging. When I turned the wheel, the car swerved and woke David. As the tired lost traction, he screamed “watch out”. We were skidding with our right side forward, while heading straigh for the mountain.
I turned the wheels in the direction of the skid to regain traction. This jerked the car around into a left side forward skid, at which point I hit the anti-lock brakes so we would not drive forward off the cliff. During the skid a rock on the left margin of the road hit our back tire, and this was enough to send the car tumbling.
At that point, we had lost control. Just brace. All of the peices have been set in motion. Now it’s up to the physical model play itself out and for the peices to land where they may.
When we rolled over all of the windows smashed. I had my elbow resting on the window while driving. Now, I watched as my elbow compressed into a sandwich of broken glass and pavement.
When we toppled on the roof, I felt like my head was dented with a baseball bat. A weightless upside down hang during the tumble, I must have formed a body image coincident with the car’s frame. The windsheild shattered and I could see the road above me and a dark expanse beyond, without obstruction.
We came to a rest on the opposite lane of the highway with our belly exposed. The sounds of crunching metal and sparks came to a stop. The only sound the car emitted was a periodic squeak from the rear windshield wiper. Only the windshield wasn’t there. The wiper was futilely wiping air, and dislodging the remaining fragments of glass.
David immediately asked, “Is everyone ok?” It was reassuring to hear a voice, as I was deathly fearful for our lives. My elbow was numb and I felt a warm trickle on my hand. A “yes” escaped without much thought. I regretted it immediately, hoping I did not speak too soon. Amanda and Rupa also said yes.
How Do I get out?
I turned the key and killed the engine and climbed out first, through the broken window. Time matters. Is the car on fire? Is there a vehicle barreling down the opposite direction? Rupa stood upright in the sidways car and said, “How do I get out?” She was standing on David. I stood on a large rock that lay by the car and lifted her out.
As I turned to set her down, David’s head popped out, “How do I get out?” When I lifted him also from the same rock, I realized that I miscalculated his weight, having practiced only on Rupa (100 lb) and we collectively fell backwards, onto broken glass and rocks by the side of the road. A shared pierced my pants and sliced my buttox.
When I stood up, Amanda pleaded, “How do I get out?” The quiet only underlined how calm we were. The situation was not for panic, but clarity and immediate needs. Amanda was less than a week out of foot surgery and brought along a crutch for the trip.
As I set her down, David asked for his shoes. I recovered a pair with Amanda’s crutches. And used it also to fish out Rupa’s and David’s glasses after they both said, “I can’t see.”
The group now shod and seeing, I recovered our flashlights and headlamps and armed each person with a set.
Mixed with the adrenaline was the elation of being alive. It felt that we were connected in this understanding — that our lives were handed back to us — and it had a calming affect.
When there are enough immediately obvious tasks, you don’t need to think. Yet while I acted mechanically, pulling items out of the car, trying to wedge the foot of the crutch in the catch of the glove compartment to free Amanda’s passport, I had time to realize that I was probably not going to make it home tomorrow, when I had an appointment with my research advisor. We had agreed to meet for a final review of my paper before submission, and it was a moment I had distracted myself from anxiously anticipating, by having gone on this road trip. And I felt seriously bad. I felt this wasn’t an excuse. I wished I could just escape through a teleporter, as if this was all a dream. And when it settled that it wasn’t, I realized how clearly this accident was my fault and that I needed to own up to it. The fact that it was pointless to face my friends an apologize to my friends right there led to more regret. We were all delayed, from work and school and our regularly scheduled programs.
Are you ok?
A truck pulled up and a Mexican man asked us if we were ok — yes. needed an ambulance — no. had called the police — no, can you please call? had flares for warning — no, do you?
He spoke clear English, yet, while talking to him, I was still lost to a mechanical focus. I walked around the car to discover that the battery cracked and had leaked all of the fluid. There was so much car part debris on that stretch of road, that I had a hard time determining if it was all ours.
While Amanda, who is a nurse, grabbed the first aid kit and reviewed my elbow situation, Rupa and David were pulling accessible items from the car. There was blood everywhere. All over my body. All over Rupa’s white blanket. A blood smeared pillow lay on the road.
Did these bags of camping supplies and food matter anymore? Were we going to lose them? I had paid 70$ for a special Mexican insurance policy that Amanda looked up on the internet. David was calling the 800 number listed on the printout. Amanda made sure there was no more glass in my elbow, poured some antiseptic and applied a temporary bandage.
The cops arrive
The cops arrived, but their behavior was surprisingly casual, almost bored. Given that it’s Mexico we’re a little lost on protocol, but we figure a tow truck has probably been called, and we’ll have to figure out some ride to a near by town. Some paperwork to be signed here, some more followup tomorrow.
After 20 minutes of chatting to us and on their radio, the officer walks over and says.
“Ok, let’s go. Can one of you drive?”
“Are we getting a tow truck?”
“If you want to wait 4-5 hours for tow truck, be my guest, but I’m not interested.”
“You mean ride this car sideways back to town? Will you follow us?”
“Yes, let’s go.”
One push from three of us set the car rattling back on its tires.
Since the battery leaked the fluid, the car wouldn’t start. The officers pulled over a car and told the driver to jump us.
When it purred and started, he said “Put the stuff back in the car.”
Under the conditions, it was an amusing proposition to drive this totaled hunk of metal down the highway. Where the windshield wasn’t busted, it was contorted, giving the road a Daliesque feel.
David took on the challenge of driving and I played side kick in the passenger seat. His glasses doubled as safety goggles, but to prevent the cascade of broken windshield in my face (which happened with every discontinuity in the road) I had to keep my head outside the passenger window.
Within 20 minutes, we approached a military checkpoint. We thought being a hobbling wreck followed by a police car might get some special treatment, but the military were not phased. They had their orders. “Step out of the car.” They gave it a cursory inspection for drugs and whatever else and sent us on our way.
We drove what turned out to be 45 miles into the city of Ensanada topping out at 30 mph, with an ever growing tail of cars behind us, who were hesitant to pass the cops.
In town, the cops gave us the signal to follow them and immediately ran a few red lights.
Across from the police station was a motel. The clerk on duty said he wasn’t surprised to see us at 4AM, since they get a lot of business from the police station.
While David and Amanda waited for the insurance inspector to arrive, I took this photo in the bathroom.
I took a long hot shower. The water initially pooled crimson from the cuts on my elbow and buttocks. After a self application of neosporen and bandages, I tucked myself in a corner and went to bed.
When we woke up, we were still stranded in Mexico, still uncertain about the fate of the car and our prospects of returning home. Amanda suggested we check if we were sore, since it’s very common for people to suddenly tense up (even rigidify) during accidents and remain stiff for days.
Instead of sore, I felt very relaxed and optimistic that morning. I was lucky to be with people who remained calm and cooperative throughout the accident. Lucky to have friends that cut their road trip further south into Baja short to ferry us back across the border.
A happy tingle of adventure mixed with the rawness of the reality of how close I was to a pulverized carcas had I not worn my seatbelt.
My confidence as a driver was shattered, and I asked myself several times when is going to be right time to appologize. Ironically tristan had called me a “champion driver” the day before, when Amanda asked.
After spending the following night in Pasadena, we rented a car for the last leg to San Francisco. When he got tired of driving, Dave gave me the car on Interstate 5. Last time I was behind the wheel, the car ended up sideways, (and it was my first real accident as a driver.) I made sure to ask if they trusted me behind the wheel, and when they said yes and so comforted me, I apologized.