Friday, January 20, 2012

Night Driving

I hit a cow once on a country road.  It was 3:30 a.m.; an ill-advised time for country road driving, as it turns out.  The cow was a black Angus, and it was a moonless night.  We had just driven over a low water crossing where a thin fog had settled, and as the road climbed upward and the fog cleared, the outline of fences and road I expected to appear before me were not there.  Instead there was only a dense black mass.  Then impact. 

I remember the sound of the incident more than the incident itself.  There was the dull and heavy crush of the car making contact with the animal, then the noise of glass shattering to bits, and metal snapping the thud and popping sounds of air bags deploying.  In the background of all of this was high pitched screaming.  Mine and my friend’s, I’m sure.  There was crushing and grinding and screaming and breaking looped for what felt to be minutes but was seconds.  Then suddenly it all stopped- just stopped.  The car was still and silent, save for an ominous hissing from beneath the remains of the engine.  I looked up and found that there was no road, just a forest of corn.  We’d careened into a corn field, which is disorienting enough on its own, but the impact had knocked all sense from me.  As smoke billowed from the front of the car, my friend starting yelling that it was time to abandon the thing.  She was convinced we were due for an explosion.  She clawed at the door handle, and I screamed that it was unsafe to leave the vehicle.  We were in a foreign corn field, in God knows what county, on a road whose name I’d forgotten.  And somewhere, out there, I was convinced there was a very angry cow waiting for us.  Staying inside a smoking vehicle seemed safer than facing an “angry” cow, in my blurred logic.  Despite all the crushing noise, the caved in roof, and windshield covered in animal hide, I was convinced the creature had survived.  And I was convinced it would attack us.

Because of Nadya’s urgent insistence, I finally agreed to slide out of the driver’s seat, which was her only escape since my poor friend bore the brunt of the impact and her door was obliterated beyond opening.  We scrambled up the side of the hill and flagged down the first (and only) car that we saw on that road all night.  It arrived miraculously just minutes after we crawled from the cornfield and was among the many miracles that night.  I also managed enough cell service, on a road where I’d never before had any, to squeak out a call to 911.  Then a call to my mother.  Then a call to friends in the college town we’d just left, asking that someone meet us at the hospital. 

I drove down that road hundreds of times during the day, deep in the night, in the early morning.  It was my short cut from Austin to see Jeremy in college, and I used to love the pastoral road.  When the circa 1979 ambulance finally bounced down the hill and arrived, they informed us that we were the third such accident in the same spot in a matter of weeks.  There was a hole in a pasture fence, it appeared.  The cows just kept getting out looking for greener grasses, chewing their cud in the road.  I was fairly hysterical.  Hitting a cow is disorienting in any weather or in full daylight, but at 3:30 in the morning in total darkness, it becomes dream-like.  When the sheriff arrived I begged to know “how the cow was doing.”  He took his cowboy hat off and scratched his head slowly, then peered down at me and, with a long sigh said, “The cow’s real dead, ma’am.  Have you been drinking?”  I had not. 
We were in the car that early morning after an evening of vising friends in College Station.  We had tickets to the inaugural Austin City Limits Festival and wanted to be at the gate early in the morning.  We were young.  We were stupid.  We didn’t count on black cows on black roads on moonless nights. 

After the accident, I spent a good and long time recovering from a paralyzing fear of night driving.  Even as a passenger, I was reduced to tears if any drive took the vehicle I was in down a dark country road.  I had nightmares about an angry cow glaring at me through a window.  Despite feeling absolutely grateful for the safety of myself and Nadya, I experienced the strangest, all-encompassing guilt about the cow. 

But eventually the panic subsided.  I was able to (somewhat) calmly sit in a car driving down dark roads at night, and then, years later, I was finally able to drive them myself again, too.  It’s been a long time since my dreams were punctured with the image of a cow glaring at me through the windows of my house (inexplicable, I know).

So it’s saying something that the new place now requires lots of journeys in the night down dark roads, both as passenger and driver.  I thought about this last night driving from the new house to the old.  Felt a twinge of panic rise as the car slid past a familiar pasture filled with Angus, their dark shapes moving slowly behind the fence line. 
There’s probably a moral to this story that can be applied to all aspects of life:  Stay focused.  Keep your eyes clear.  Always look for obstacles.  Plan to avoid them.  For me, the moral was a little more literal than that:  Don’t drive down country roads on dark nights unless it’s absolutely necessary.  Assume there are holes in fences.  Know that the cows will find them. 

And beyond that, the moral I guess is that no fear, no matter how mortal it may feel, is worth holding onto if it keeps you from the life you want to live.  Or the place you want to live it.    

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