Friday, March 23, 2012

in kentucky, gravel dances.

I was driving fast. I always drove fast then, even on winding, hilly roads I'd never driven before. I was young, and we don't like to waste a second of our youth. Leave the scenery and slow drives to the old, the ones wise enough to enjoy it. I may be going nowhere, but I'm hellbent on making good time.

God, it was a beautiful day. Warm and sun soaked and every fiber of my skin and bones ached to be enjoying September like every other 22 year old I knew. Day drinking on the lake. Submerging my body in bourbon and cloudy water. Laughing and laughing and getting sun burnt. Instead I was living in a Holiday Inn in Morehead, Kentucky and drinking bad coffee by the pot. This was what I signed up for. This is what I left it all behind for. This is why I went to college, right?

Let it be clear that this was not a happy period of my life. I was working as a union organizer in Kentucky, a job I'd idealized myself right into. Right into the middle of the rural-est nowhereland you can imagine, scrambling to talk to prison guards who had no use for a 22 year old college educated woman from the North wearing a badge that screamed UNION! They had no use for me at all. Even more, they were scared of me. Terrified of everything I represented, unwilling to entertain the idea of change. Still, it was an abundant time for me. I grew a lot, I learned a lot. I met some of the most important people in my life. My frustration was palpable.

So there I was, driving through one of the most beautiful places I've ever lived, hating the everloving shit out of every tree, hill, stump, stream, and squirrel. Eastern Kentucky really is the kind of landscape that will make you glad you're alive and able to see. It's also the kind of dangerous where no one bothers to take care of the roads because the state's broke and no one is around to hear you scream anyway.

No one is ever around. So I'm scream-singing unabashedly on this particular day to Ben Kweller's Problems for probably the 12th time to repeat, pretty sure I've got every nuance down this time, loosely steering, foot crushed down on the pedal to the right. I'm on my way to a work site to try to get some of these people to talk to me long enough to convince them that this is what they need so they'll be able to feed their kids and buy them shoes and take them to the dentist; really stick it to the man. I'm about to make them promises and then ask them to sign on it. Very poor people and those that can barely read don't trust anyone and never want to sign their name on anything, which I learned very quickly. Those things don't have anything to do with intelligence level. When it comes to survival, their aptitude could likely blow almost everyone I know right out of the water. So I'm violently singing out my dread and frustration and trying to get myself amped up. I'm lost in my head the way that I'm usually lost in my head and that's probably what makes me such an abysmal driver in the first place.

All of the sudden I think to look ahead and wouldn't you know it, the road is taking a 90, I'm going at least 50, and straight ahead is nothing but dead air to drop through.

It's a cliff. Just like those stupid Wile E. Coyote cartoons.

Now, I'm the kind of person that will exclaim "We were practically on the verge of death, I mean, we almost DIED," when literally nothing even bordering on dangerous has happened.

I'm also the kind of person that when something life-threatening and truly terrifying or disturbing has happened, is cracking up laughing so hard that I can't breathe.

Sometimes my reactions are a bit off.

Actually, it's probably safer to say usually. Usually, my reactions are a bit off.

But this time friends, it was different. Because I'm sliding off a cliff and despite the fact that my driving foot is now solemnly and decided pressed all the way down on the pedal on the left, I'm no longer on the pavement, but rather I've now hit a patch of gravel and I'm sliding forward and I'm now looking down down down. And it's a long drop.

I understand these things are supposed to warp life into a dream-like slow motion. I've never in my life had a crash happen to me in slow motion, so I think that's all bullshit. When you're truly and surely headed down the path of destruction, willing or unwilling, everything speeds up. Fasterfasterfaster. Even Ben Kweller started wailing at a quicker clip.

I'm making no progress on stopping and now my front tires are pretty much toast. I'm leaning back in my seat because I'm starting to feel the nose dip downward. I'm not thinking 'Fuck!" I'm not seeing bright lights calling me home to meet my maker, and I'm certainly not seeing the faces of my loved ones or any of my regrets. I'm not thinking anything. I'm not seeing shit except the ground below. I'm not feeling anything except the gravel under my tires hitting the sides of my vehicle. I'm feeling that acutely. 

No one is coming to find me. No one is going to hear me explode. No one will find the carcass of my wrecked vehicle at the bottom of this ravine. Even if I survive the fall, I've got no phone signal. I've got no direct supervisor. No one at all knows where I am.

Nothing in the employee manual prepared me for this.

And then something strange happened.

I can honestly say that I've never in my life had this thought cross my mind, but I reach down and I shift my careening vehicle into reverse. This wasn't me problem solving my way to a trial and error situation, there was genuinely no time for that. But some synapse of my mind forced my hand to reach down and grab that gear shift and send it back up two notches. And I'm still flooring it, but now, somehow, I'm back to the right pedal. And the gravel is still dancing all around me, but it's no longer to a funeral song. It's a survival jig.

And I'm stopped and I'm shaking and I'm sitting there, so so still. Suddenly everything is very still. We're not in slow or fast motion. We're stationery. The only reason I know I'm still alive is that I can feel blood rapidly throbbing in every single one of the pulse points where the vein meets thin enough skin on my body. I punch Ben Kweller off and it feels like I'm hitting him right on the nose. And it's quiet and I sit there and I can't call anyone and tell them I'm still alive, in case they cared, but I can't really talk right now anyway.

I peer back the way I came and I look to where I'm going and I don't dare get out of my car to look over where I almost went because I'm not sure if my legs are going to hold me up. I do that thing they do in the movies where they feel all over their bodies to make sure all the parts are still attached and intact. I'm honestly curious to make sure I'm all there because it feels like a part of me may have tumbled over the lip I'm now facing at a safe distance. All parts seem to be present and accounted for and that's when I exhale.

I'm relieved to note that I'm back on pavement, I appreciate that fact because there is absolutely no way that I put myself there.

I breathe and realize I've only lost about 6 minutes total, so I start easing my way down the switch backs that meander down the side of the mountain instead of falling straight off, and I arrive to the work site on time for my scheduled appointment. And like the day before and the day after and many off to either direction from there, no one talks to me. Nothing changed. It wasn't an out of body experience. I didn't change any of my ways. I didn't appreciate tastes or smells more. I just kept moving, working, trying.

I almost died, but I didn't.

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