When I lived up on Mt Spokane there was one particular intersection which was notoriously dangerous. It was just a couple of two lane roads, out in the middle of the barley and canola fields, that come together at almost-but-not-quite 90 degrees. If not for one of them being a state highway, it would have been a four way stop. Instead, the highway was a thoroughfare and the county road was stop signed, which is what made it so dangerous.
The open fields gave drivers the illusion of a clear line of sight, when in reality, due to the gentle rise and fall of the hills, nobody could see the cars coming from the other road until they were basically right there. The intersection being just off of 90 degrees meant that people would think it was a right angle and that assumption would throw off their estimate of how far away cars on the other road actually were.
I have no idea how many wrecks we saw there on the bus ride after school. It was to the point where our bus driver, V, (who was really cool) would slow down from the highway’s speed limit of 45 down to about 35-40 just to be safe.
At the beginning my junior year of high school it was our turn. A small car pulled up to the crossroad, and stopped. Then, in seeming slow motion, rolled into the intersection right in front of our bus. Some of us kids screamed, many of us braced our shoulders against the seats in front of us. The crash was like getting body-checked into a wall by a giant. The bus came to a stop and everyone sat eerily silent. It was only after I heard the quiet pinging of hot metal cooling that I realized the bus’ diesel engine wasn’t running.
Our V got up and yelled “anybody hurt? raise your hand if the person next to you needs help.”
No hands raised. All of us were okay. Thank goodness for small miracles. After checking in with dispatch, she asked if anyone knew how to use a CB radio. I raised my hand and she called me to the front of the bus. She needed someone to answer if dispatch called while she set up caution cones and road flares and checked to make sure there wasn’t any fuel leaking from either the bus or the car we’d hit.
Through the bus’ intact windshield and the car’s shattered one, it was obvious that any help for the person we hit would have to wait until a fire truck arrived with the jaws of life to pull any one out, and their odds of survival were closer to none than slim.
Our bus driver was only gone for a few moments, minute and a half tops, but of course dispatch called while she was out. I’ve always been good during a crisis, it’s afterwards that I get the shakes and collapse. “V has stepped out of the bus at this time. Can I take a message?” My voice shaking just a little to start, but gaining strength towards the end. At the time I was proud of myself for sounding professional, looking back I’m pretty sure I sounded like a voicemail inbox. I took a message. V came back. I returned to my seat.
It was less than 15 minutes between the time of the collision, and all us kids jumping out the back of the bus. We sat on the side of the highway for an hour or so, then got on another bus and continued up the mountain. It would have been business as usual except our bus driver had been swapped out with someone else.
Over the next month or so us kids constantly bugged the school’s secretaries about when V would be coming back to work. The new guy was okay, but he wasn’t her.
We all had to be interviewed by the insurance company rep, which was a pain, and I’m 90% sure that I was the last to know what had happened.
The car at the crossroad was being driven by an old woman. She had had a stroke, or something so similar as to make no difference, causing her to die instantly and take her foot off the break. Her car then rolled into the intersection. The story played out from there.
Our bus driver came back to work and we drove her batty with all the love, concern, and appreciation we heaped on her.
By the beginning of the next semester there was a stoplight with turning lane in the middle of all four directions at that intersection. Later, when someone pointed out that someone having a stroke at a red light is effectively the same as having a stroke at a two way stop, a roundabout was put in.
This is one of those experiences that could have been traumatic for me, and very well may have been for some of my peers. Instead, it has been a formative and transformative experience. One that I circle back to and will continue to gain new insights into myself and the world as I turn it over in my mind like a well worn worrystone.
It’s been said that myth-making is not exclusive to storytellers. Everyone has their own mythology built of their experiences and stories that resonate with them on a deep, personal, visceral, level.
In my personal mythology, crossroads are a major symbolic fixture. From Hecate to Robert Johnson to a bus crashing into a dead woman’s car after school, standing at the crossroads is agency and powerlessness fused into an amalgam for which the English language has not the ability to describe. We tell ourselves that we have the power to control which way we choose to go, while conveniently forgetting that we have no control over what choices are presented to us in the first place, or the choices of others at the crossroads with us. While a thousand small choices can lead to having no choice at all, or at least so few as to make no difference.
While sitting on the side of the highway waiting for the replacement bus, the shakes set in. The crisis past. All the choices I didn’t even realize I was making at the time, made.
I sat a little ways away from everyone else and looked out across the fields of canola. I could hear the hushed excitement or the other kids while they watched the emergency responders go about their jobs with rapt attention.
Flickers of insight danced across my mind’s eye. How things could have gone and how they did go in universes almost, but not quite, like ours. What had happened that day was exactly what was supposed to happen. Just as the the tragedies which played out for those other selves were exactly what were supposed to happen. I was grateful to be in this permutation of existence and still breathing. As opposed to another where emergency responders fought to stop the bleeding of the child next to me whose odds of survival were ever so slightly better than mine. Or a third where my life’s thread had been cut as the bus tipped on it’s side.
In that fleeting moment I glimpsed the grand tapestry. I realized that in one since I had a long road to travel before I made it to the crossroads, while in another I had long since left it behind.