#luckygirl

Wow. What a week. For those of you not on Facebook or not friends with me on Facebook (why? Friend me now…. ), here is the rundown and a few additional details so the rest of you aren’t bored and may keep reading:

I thought I was never going to get it together in Missoula, but somehow millions of piles got sorted, everything that I wanted to fit into the storage unit did, and my car was packed with room to spare. I was smug about my visibility and Lucky’s spacious area.

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The journey started on a crisp, cold, clear morning. For days I’d been crawling all over the car to get the Thule box packed just right, and right before my landlord came to do the move-out inspection I hopped up on the bumper to toss a few last minute things in, but I failed to notice the bumper was encased in ice.

Before I even knew it was happening my right foot slid off and my left patella broke my fall. Ouch. It smarted something fierce for a few minutes then I talked myself right out of it. I pulled an Annette Benning curbside and had a pep talk with myself: Get over yourself. Nothing will get in your way. You’re fine. Take your bib off. {If you’re not familiar with my AB reference watch this clip from American Beauty.}

Then I said something you should never, ever say: If this is the worst that could happen….C’mon, Jaim, almost hurting yourself? That is never the worst. Seriously. First rodeo?

The weather was spectacular for driving and I cued up the first of my requested mixtapes. I’d listened to the others while packing, but Gina’s was the last to come in and I told her I’d save it for the drive. “Put it in as you’re leaving town,” she said, though at the time I had no clue of how carefully she’d crafted my soundtrack.

She knocked it clear out of the park. The first track got me from the storage unit to the highway and was Dolly Parton reading her letter to her parents a few days after she left home for Nashville for first time. She didn’t know how hard it would be to leave and she cried all the way to Nashville. She thought about turning back, but she’d wanted to do this for so long….

The second track started as I got up to speed on the highway and cruised past Mount Sentinel and entered Hellgate Canyon and was “Get Out the Map” by the Indigo Girls.

I’d predicted weeks earlier that I would sob on my way out of Missoula, but in the days leading up to it I wasn’t sure. I just felt so happy. So optimistic. So sure of my decision. Guess what? I sobbed. I sobbed out loud. “I’m gonna clear my head – I’m gonna drink that sun – I’m gonna love you good and strong – While our love is good and young.”

Yep, the best kind of sobbing.

Gina has made me quite a few mixtapes over the years with titles like “Moving back to Montana,” “Oregon Trail,” and “Going to Honduras.” This one was simply titled: Happy New Year Jaime! And yes, even the title made me cry.

“Home” by Phillip Phillips followed by “Hearts and Bones” by Paul Simon. How she found the perfect songs with the perfect lyrics is an uncanny skill, but it makes sense: she’s Gina.

Sob. Weep. Wail.

I knew that the tears wouldn’t last long because there was so much to look forward to, and I knew Sam would be waiting in Jackson with hugs and a string of laughs. I stayed with Sam and got to meet her new boyfriend and a few friends. I saw Virginia (one of my saviors when I lived in Jackson) for two quick visits, which included wine/dessert and meeting her fluffy puppy. The next day I had a lazy morning with Sam then went on an absolutely frigid but completely amazing walk with my college friend Julia. We walked on the elk refuge for ninety minutes and covered an astounding array of topics.

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Sam and I went to lunch then (almost directly) to dinner and a hockey game. The hockey game was a hoot and I had the rare occasion to run into a fraternity buddy of my ex-husband. And this is what I said to him, “Oh my god! You crashed my wedding!” You don’t get an opportunity like that every day, and sometimes you just have to say “what the hell?” The poor guy turned eighteen shades of crimson from his collar to his hairline, which I wasn’t expecting, and I reminded him that 1998 was a long time ago which only seemed to make things worse. Then he poured half his beer into my cup.

Most of the time I was in Jackson temperatures were in the negative double digits, and the morning I left was no exception, so instead of leaving when it was -20 I waited a few hours and had a little extra time with Sam while the sun warmed things up to -13.

My next stop was Jen’s house in Avon, Colorado and I knew that leaving close to noon meant that at the end of the day’s drive I’d be in the dark on a two-lane highway. I didn’t like this fact, but it seemed a lesser of two evils. Envisioning myself spinning out on an icy road or having a collision with someone else who had gone out of control made me leave later. And I wanted pancakes. We could pretty much hang out in bed all day with the dogs, which we did for years on end in Missoula when we lived in our own little Melrose Place.

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I’d studied the route many times and there really is nowhere to stay in between Jackson and Avon that makes much sense. The only towns are too close on either end, and there’s not much in the middle besides Rock Springs (an oil boom town with terribly inflated prices on skeezy motels) and then there is—no joke—almost nothing until you hit Craig, CO.

A couple of times I thought about staying in Craig to avoid driving over several mountain passes in the dark, but it was too close to a friend I was dying to see and I now know that stopping there wouldn’t have made a difference. I would have woken up to Antarctica-esque frozen roads again in the morning and been in the same predicament. Besides, Jen only had a couple of days off and I didn’t want to miss out on too much of our time together. And I still would have hit that elk.

Also, as it turned out, Craig didn’t make much of an impression on me. I’m sure it’s a fine town, but when I pulled into the gas station with elk guts splattered all over my car two young punks commented that I “musta hit sumthin” then watched me scrape the (now frozen) guts off my windshield. Welcome to Craig!

The road had previously been incredibly straight, but about thirty miles north of Craig the road began to twist and turn. I noticed that there was a nighttime speed limit posted and figured it would behoove (sorry. I couldn’t resist the bad pun…) me to obey it. I slowed down to 55 and no sooner had I slowed when I came around a corner to find a herd of elk crossing the road. Not one or two—a whole group of them.

After an audible, “Oh, shit” I took a quick inventory of the facts. The centerline was covered in ice, and because of the serpentine shape of the road trying to avoid the herd might result in something worse than hitting one (or more) of the animals like spinning out and pinballing off guardrails or winding up ass over teakettle in a thicket. My only option was to brake, brace, and try to prevent lucky from going through the windshield.

I’m guessing I braked for about three seconds, so was probably still going 40 or 45 mph when I hit the animal. I held onto the steering wheel with my left hand, and I did what any good mother would do: I stuck my right arm between the two front seats and gripped the passenger side headrest. {This was great at preventing a projectile Luckydog, but not so great for my neck and shouler. Nevertheless: worth it.}

I struck the animal square with my vehicle. If she had been a target I hit the bull’s-eye, though trust me when I say I was just trying to stop my vehicle and keep it between the lines. Although my grille shattered, the initial sound was more of a deep thud which was followed by a crunch as that big body used my hood like a trampoline. For a moment all I could see in my windshield was elk body.

Then it was over. Or just beginning, depending on your point of view

This is when the small string of miracles started.

I only had to drive a hundred yards or so (my windshield now splattered with elk parts) until I came to a turnout. If you don’t take I-15 or I-25 but you want to travel north to south in the Rockies you have exactly zero options for roadways that don’t take you through fairly desolate big game territory. So I’m grateful for the highway planner who predicted a need for safe turnouts since he also erected a highway in prime elk habitat.

I’m a bit of a girl scout, so I had two headlamps nestled underneath my emergency brake. I put one on and held the other in my hand. I got out of the car and was beyond thrilled to see that although my hood was bashed in, both headlights worked and nothing seemed to be dangling from the car or obstructing my tires in any way. Two cars drove by (not cool) but, as someone mentioned, perhaps it was for the best. Sometimes folks on the backroads are up to no good.

{Sort of inconsequential detail. My snowboots and jeans were too warm for the car, so I was in long underwear, cowboy boots, and a long down parka. This is also the getup I had on when I scraped my windshield in Craig. And like I said…. Sort of inconsequential detail….}

When I got back into the car I actually laughed out loud about how limited my visibility was and how there was nothing I could do about it in -10 degrees. If you’ve never tried to wash a windshield when it’s that cold, trust me: it creates a sheet of ice. As a friend who knows of most of my mistakes commented: “At least you’d already made that mistake before…” At least, right?

I drove about thirty miles with the windshield like this:

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I’d serendipitously inserted the mixtape (cd) that Abby made for me one song before hitting the elk, so when I started up my car I heard Neil Young singing, “It’s gonna take a lotta love to change the way things are…So if you look in my direction and we don’t see eye to eye, my heart needs protection and so do I…So if you are out there waiting I hope you show up soon because my head needs relating not solitude.”

I tried to listen to other songs, but my fingers kept backing it up to track 2. It took a whole lotta love to get me to Craig. {Thank you, Mrs. Moore. Good call.}

After I scraped and washed my windshield in Craig, things improved considerably, but it was still a very long drive up and down several passes before I descended into the Vail Valley and landed on I-70. I’d never been so happy to see an interstate in all my life. Then, as it turned out, a few days later I couldn’t wait to get back onto a blue highway. But we’re not there yet.

Because of my delay, Jen went out for dinner and drinks with her hockey team after their game, so I met her at the bar. Jen had told her team about my incident, and as soon as I got there one of her teammates asked, “Did you shake for hours?”

It was a fair question and an honest assumption, but my answer shocked both of us. “No,” I told her, “Not at all. I couldn’t believe it because I usually shake when I almost hit a squirrel.”

It’s curious how “almost” can be scarier and more bone chilling than actuality. In reality you either sink or swim. You rise to the occasion or you crumble. You can be a hero or a coward. But you have to act or react; it’s the theoretical “almost” that keeps us in the grey area of neither here nor there. Without anything to really worry about we panic ourselves into a tizzy over what may or may not happen.

I had not wanted to drive that stretch of highway at night, but I also didn’t want to leave Jackson when it was -20 and I had to make a choice, which was a culmination of a series of choices. I also could have been boring and just taken Interstate 90 to Interstate 25. I could have played it safe and just stayed in Missoula. I could have gotten my wanderlust fixed a long time ago. I could have given up my dreams. I could have done a lot of things.

It’s like my own game of duck-duck-goose. Could have…Could have…Could have….Didn’t!

I had three hours of driving after the accident and a lot of time to think. I thought of all the ways it could have been worse. I was lucky to have hit only one elk because I easily could have hit five.

I was grateful that my car was driveable because it could have been a long wait on that road without cell service. I had lots of warm clothes and a sleeping bag in the car so we would have survived, but Jen would have worried and sleeping in the car on the side of the road when it’s -10 is obviously less than ideal.

I do not know what happened to the elk after she bounced off my hood because I couldn’t see. I didn’t see or feel her go off to the side and there was zero damage to the side panels of my car. I feel like she went up and over the top though with my Volkswagen sized Thule box that would be no small feat.

I’m grateful that the impact didn’t cause that big, overloaded box to explode and yard sale my stuff all over a pitch-black highway 13.

{NOTE: Did I mention I was on highway 13? Most people’s unlucky number, but my absolute favorite. Hmm…..}

I was grateful that nobody went through the windshield in either direction. I was grateful that my seatbelts worked and that the airbags didn’t.

Usually the headlights are one of the first things to go when impacting something with a vehicle, but both of mine worked. I learned a few days later that they were hanging on by threads, so I’m grateful for threads.

I was of course grateful that despite my strong “mother’s” arm, Lucky was tightly anchored to his bed in the backseat. In fact, he never slid forward (which sometimes happens during routine in town driving) and I’m left to assume there was a guardian angel (or seven) looking out for us.

This year it will be ten years ago that my friend Corey died. About five years ago Corey’s parents came to Missoula and took me to dinner and a concert. We ate Italian and went to see the Sierra Leone Refuge Allstars and Corey’s mom gave me a crystal designed to reflect the colors of the Northern Lights. “Hang it in your kitchen,” she said, “and when you see those colors on your wall they’re kisses and hugs from Corey.”

The last time I went on walkabout the crystal stayed behind, but this time it was the last thing to be packed. Gina was over helping me with all of the last-minute madness and we spotted the crystal at the same time, then she said the words I was thinking: rearview mirror?

As the sun set I drove along that last straight stretch of north-south roadway the light caught that crystal and the Northern Lights and dozens of rainbows filled my car; I was damn rich in kisses from Corey. I’ve never been much of a dangle-crystals-off-the-rearview kind of gal, but now I think you’ll be hard pressed to find me driving a car without one. I’ll be that girl and to tell you the truth: I don’t give a rat’s ass.

Thank goodness I was arriving at Jen’s and not some dank, roadside motel. She gave me a bowl of homemade soup and a luscious king size bed to sink into. My wheels often spin at night, but I was so physically and mentally exhausted that I slept soundly for eight hours.

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Before I went to bed I posted on Facebook about my accident and was still in bed the next morning with the drapes drawn when I got a text from my friend Cate. “Are you awake?” she asked, and I said “Yes,” though the answer should have been, “Barely.”

She was worried about me—more than I was, which is typical— and I got emotional as I ran through the details and all of the ways that I was so lucky. “It definitely sucks,” I said, “but I’m so proud of how I handled myself.”

Let me be clear: I do not always feel that way about myself and/or my actions, but in the wake of my first big challenge of 2013 I have to say: I feel like a wee bit of a badass. I feel this way not only because of what I did, but also because of what I didn’t do.

I didn’t panic. I stayed calm. I trusted the path, the process and the outcome. I fully believe that everything happens for a reason though I do not know the reason yet. I’m going to have two new, shiny headlights, a nick-free bumper, and a brand new hood but I’m not nearly superficial enough to think that’s the reason.

I’m going to have to make a previously unplanned trip back to Colorado, but will hopefully get to see some of my Colorado friends again when I go back to pick up my car. As nice as that’s going to be, I don’t think that’s it either.

Maybe my body needed an excuse to get a few chiropractic adjustments and massages in the span of a month instead of spacing them out in a more miserly way. {NOTE: I made a brilliant choice to have a $250 deductible for my comprehensive insurance, and a not-so-brilliant (unintentional?) choice to have medical coverage for anyone in my car or another vehicle who might be injured in an accident involving my car EXCEPT MYSELF. And this is not because I have stellar health insurance, so I’ll be paying out of pocket for my body’s care.

Is that the lesson? Oh lord I hope not. I was hoping for more of a silver lining situation.

The morning after my accident Jen and I went to a yoga class. We were in a posture that requires balance, twisting, and strength. She talked about how hard it can be to stay in these challenging postures, but that they’re excellent preparation for life.

“Life,” she said, “is full of situations that are difficult, but that we must stay in to deal with. Staying in these challenging postures is excellent practice for having the mental strength to be strong. So many things we can’t just walk away from, so don’t walk away from the uncomfortable postures. Stick with them; it’s excellent practice for life.

Tears rose to my surface, my throat tightened, and my legs quaked with the effort of my body. Giving up wasn’t on the menu, so I sunk a little deeper, twisted further, and refocused my gaze in the near distance. I could definitely do this.

Toward the end of the class I was in a cheater’s handstand with my hands on the ground and my feet up against a mirror, my body in an L-shape. Gravity affected my face in such a way that was most unfortunate, but I softened my gaze and released my harsh perspective of myself.

So my face was the color of a strawberry, my lip dangled in a peculiar way, and my eyes looked crazy. But still, what’s not to love? Why be so hard on myself? As I tried to believe my hype the teacher asked the game-changing question: “How do you meet resistance?”

She asked the question rhetorically, but I had an answer: head-on.

Okay….enough is enough. This is way too long, so I’ll say: THE END….for now.

This post is, like some others before it, ridiculously long though somewhat excusably delayed. I want to tell you all about my little cabin, butI’ll save that for next time. For now I’ll tell you that I first hated it but now I love it. And here’s a shot of the fork in my road. The left goes to my cabin and the right to D.H. Lawrence’s ranch.

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