On January 20th, the same day as Trump’s inauguration, I had a moment in which the world slowed down and I thought, Huh, there’s a very real possibility that I could die in about five seconds.
Highway 17 is the primary connection between Santa Cruz, California, and the top half of the state unless you’re willing to take a few extra hours to go inland and around. It’s also about 16 miles of treachery curling its way through forested mountains, which means there’s usually a sheer drop on one side or another. I don’t think a single day passes where there isn’t at least one car accident, tree fall, or mudslide, and one Friday, I was one of them.
I was on my way to a ritual in Oakland, hosted by the lovely Temple of Dionysus. It’d been storming almost continuously for several weeks like California is trying out for the set of a Waterworld remake, so the road was thoroughly soaked through even though the rain had decided to give us a brief respite. There were only a handful of other cars on the road at 6:15pm (and completely dark, thanks), so I was going the full speed limit – until I went around a blind right corner and discovered that there were plenty of other cars, and they were all at a dead stop.
Few options were available: a wall divided the two sides of the freeway, so I couldn’t go straight and end up on a left-hand shoulder with one of those earth piles meant to stop cars like mine. The turn was already sharp, so turning any more sharply would send me into a spin. Slamming on the brakes would probably make me hydroplane on the rain-soaked asphalt, but…what else was there to do except slam those poor things?
The wheels screeched across the pavement until the moment I felt the drag against my car suddenly lighten, hydroplaning like a kid flying down a Slip N’ Slide. Adrenaline kicked in and the world slowed, giving me enough to think, OH SHIT STOPPED CARS, brakebrakeBRAKE, oh dear I’m going to hydroplane, don’t they tell you to turn into the turn if that happens, damn, can’t remember, oh look there’s the sliding, hmm, I wish the wheel would stop twisting so hard under my hands, that car is coming up awfully fast but I can’t take my foot off the brake because then I won’t stop in time for anything at all, oh damn there’s the wall –
My car bounced at an angle off the cement median and my head off the driver’s-side window. But I was stopped! And I hadn’t hit anyone else! Yay! And I was almost in the position I should’ve been anyway behind the other vehicle, so yay again! I eased back into traffic and pulled off onto the next shoulder to take a deep breath, check my car…and call Daddy.
My father is a saint.
Because the only physical side-effect at the time was shaking in my hands from the sudden adrenaline and the kind of mental white noise that comes with mild shock, I thought I’d gotten off pretty lightly. The dissociation and lethargy of a concussion didn’t set in until about half an hour later, at which point I was close enough to my destination that I passed myself off into the hands of a trusted friend and let him both literally and metaphorically drive for a while.
What stuck with me, however, was the suddenness of the whole incident. The day had already been surreal: my weekly Friday at the local women’s center had been conducted to the backdrop of Trump’s inauguration, which played in the background of the day like a horrifying specter that periodically poked its claws into whatever I was doing to ensure I wouldn’t forget its existence. But there’s a difference between a sense of impending doom and the suddenness of its actuality, the same difference between anticipating and experiencing. For someone whose spiritual practices involve a lot of death-related themes, it’s a sober reminder that philosophical musings and theological interpretations cannot take the place of experiencing.