Not fiction, not particularly polished. Hopefully you find it amusing, though.
I’ve had to explain to a lot of people lately that I spent the night in a ditch last week. Sometimes, this is because the person I am speaking to wanted something from me the day that I was stuck in a ditch and now will not receive it for some time. More often, it’s just a wacky story, fun to tell/hear. My wife thought so anyway, hence its presence.
Most everyone has a stockpile of travel horror stories. I travel a lot, for work and otherwise, and I have a healthy supply of them. The standard is usually a flight delay, maybe a night in the airport. It’s more interesting when a single day of travel turns into a shitty, multi-day road trip or an attempt to overnight Desert Bus yourself from Vegas to San Fran so you can report for work at 9 AM. Then there’s the life-threatening stuff, and I offer my sympathies to anyone for whom that category has been less kind; it’s easily the worst. My night in a ditch was not life-threatening. Rather, it was kind of surreal. Wholly unpleasant, but at least thought-provoking.
As my American readers may be aware, certain areas of the country became intimately reacquainted with tornado season last week, and while I was in the air, one such tornado relocated a portion of my destination airport’s architecture to its runway. My flight diverted temporarily to nearby city, and as I sat on the plane listening to the delay tick later and later, I thought fuck it, I’m getting a rental car. So I did. I called my travel agent, got my reservation switched to my current airport, and within twenty minutes, I was on the road. It was late, I was tired, but I’d dealt with so much worse. Things were going smoothly as far as I was concerned.
But you see, tornadoes tend to come with rain. This one came with a shit ton, and I discovered as I was driving that the highway connecting the two cities had closed due to flooding. Not a showstopper–my GPS just sent me to backroads. But then backroads became gravel roads, gravel roads became dirt roads, and one particular dirt road, having seen just a little too much rain, collapsed, running muddy into a nearby cornfield. Upon reaching this road, my car–very slowly; I want to be clear that this was not reckless driving on my part–slid right into the cornfield as well and would not move further (or back).
At first I screamed, not out of alarm, not out of any particularly strong emotion at all, but it was late, and I was tired, and screaming just seemed to be the thing to do. Then I screamed silently, my thoughts catching up to my circumstances, whirling about the multifold conclusion that man, am I a fucking idiot. I could have just waited on the plane. I could have just not taken the gravel road (there was a paved alternative that would have taken all of ten minutes longer). I could have read the writing on the wall when I started seeing patches of water through the gravel. But no. I didn’t. I fucked up, and now I’m stuck in a ditch. I took a breath, part seething, part too exhausted to seethe. The personal consequences of my mistakes were at that point pretty far from my mind. I wasn’t really going to sleep that night, I’d accepted it, but there were professional consequences–I had customers I was going to see in the morning–that needed mitigation.
I got out of the car, wading out in the field of ankle-deep mud to look for cell signal, and as my eyes adjusted from the searing glare of my headlights to the clear, starry, post-storm, night sky, I was overcome by a profound sense of peace, and the distinct thought entered my mind: Could I be dead? Did this go way more poorly than I remember? It’s dead quiet, pitch dark, there’s no one around for miles. I don’t claim any special insight as to the nature of the afterlife, but if Saint Peter trudged up to me out of that darkness, I wouldn’t have batted an eye. And then another car crested the hill I’d come down and skidded into the mud, and the feeling vanished.
It wasn’t the last. Ultimately, four cars got stuck in that particular ditch, the last close enough to freedom that we were able to push it out, but still, that left three groups: Myself, a tired-but-optimistic couple, and five expatriate college students who didn’t speak much English. They all had the same story: traveling from the city I came from to the city I was going to, got routed to the wrong backroads by GPS (technology is so interesting). We called a tow truck company who let us know they were on their way, only to call back five minutes later to inform us that nevermind, they can’t help, good luck, go fuck yourself. We called the sheriff’s office, and they told us, nicer but equally unhelpful, that no one was going to be able to make it out that night and we were better off camping out and calling a tow truck again in the morning.
I slept fitfully, as one generally does in a vehicle, disturbed, if only existentially, by the apparent sound of distant sirens whined by the legion of mosquitoes that had made it inside my car. The crack of dawn rolled around. We called a tow truck again, they said they would be there in an hour. They were not. Running a quadrangle of communication between the tow truck, the sheriff’s office, and my travel agent, we were able to piece together that the tow truck had encountered a U-haul at our location (confusingly completely out of our sight) that was also stuck. Meanwhile, I informed my customers that I was not going to be able to meet them that day. Still, we were in the midst of an important project, shit needed to get done, so while we were waiting for the tow truck, I found myself once again standing in ankle-deep mud in my metropolitan, hipster-business-casual attire in the middle of a field ten miles from anywhere, dialed into a conference call, reporting on whether we were going to meet deadlines for the projects I was managing (we weren’t).
Again, everything seemed to zoom out; again, it was like an afterlife, albeit a really different one, eschewing the peaceful, silent dark for a narrative hell resembling a bootleg copy of The Hangover. It was hilarious, in a sense, out of place. I was so ridiculously wrong for that field that I couldn’t help but laugh. It wasn’t gallows humor. I wasn’t really in any danger. Worst case, I could just walk the ten miles to town and make the car the rental agency’s problem, but my travel agent wanted me to stay put. The tow truck was coming, they said. The U-haul was just taking awhile.
I don’t know if that was true or not. That tense is deliberate: I didn’t know then, of course, but I still don’t, because four and half hours after the tow truck guy originally said he would arrive, a dude–not the tow truck guy–showed up in a bulldozer with a big blue winch stapled to the front and dragged us all out. I paid him, checked into a motel in the nearest town, and tried to work there for the rest of the day (though flooding and a certain degree of poetic justice conspired to foil those attempts, knocking out phones, cell service, and internet in the entire region for the subsequent five hours).
Reactions to the ordeal, both from my customer and my company, were confusingly sympathetic. Lots of “awful” and “what you went through”, as if I really had been in some kind of danger. It wasn’t fun, sure, I ruined a pair of shoes, I wouldn’t do it again, but not one person called me a dumbass, and I found that really weird. I’ll allow myself latitude for the weather, the stress, the flooding, but I really didn’t see this all as something that happened to me. It was a journey, an interesting, unpleasant one, but journeys require forward movement, and I moved forward and got myself stuck in a ditch, inconveniencing a number of people in the process. Did I really do enough to avoid that possibility? Do I really deserve that sympathy?
I’m going with no, but your mileage may vary.
Top image is from here. I do not own it.