BENEATH WY'EAST: Two true (and astonishing) tales of Highway 26
Before I tell you about the day that I watched — in life-altering horror — my vehicle careen lickety-split down Highway 26 without me or anyone else behind the wheel, you need some essential backstory.
I'd been told by folks much more mechanically inclined than yours truly that starting-up my diesel Volkswagen Rabbit was a burden to my battery and other engine components. Rather than stop the engine and restart it again, like when I briefly hopped out of the Rabbit at the Rhododendron Post Office to quickly scoot in and grab my mail, I should therefore let the car idle.
Thus, like a good Boy Scout, that's exactly what I did. That is, until that fateful afternoon when Murphy's Law finally caught up with me.
On that particular September day, approaching from the west, I did my customary U-turn into the front of the Rhody Post Office. Then, just like always, with my car pointing downslope, I shifted into neutral, set the parking brake, and got out.
Well, that's what I thought I'd done.
Only this time, unbeknownst to knucklehead me, I had forgotten to engage my parking brake.
As I sauntered into the post office, nonchalantly plucked my post office box key from my pocket, opened my box, and proceeded to peruse my mail right there at the customer convenience counter, my Rabbit started to roll away.
I was oblivious.
As I stood there with my head in my PGE and telephone bills, my driverless car miraculously steered itself out onto the westbound — downhill — lanes of Highway 26 and headed for town.
I kid you not.
Right about then, a car whizzes up in front of the post office and screeches to a stop with its horn going bonkers. I looked out the window to see Mary, the normally calm, cool and collected Rhody postmaster at that time. Mary terrifies the earth with a scream I will never forget.
"PAUL — YOUR CAR!"
A bit confused, at first I thought this was all some sort of joke or gag. But in the next nanosecond, I realize that Mary's car is right where mine should be.
(Mary will later explain how she was driving up the highway and saw my car leaving her post office, traveling down the highway. She waved to me. But as she passed by "me" she quickly realized that there was no one in my car. We had ourselves a Rhododendron runaway.)
Terrified and helpless
I twist my neck around and peer west out the window to see the back end of my Rabbit accelerating down the road.
With a maxi-jolt of adrenaline blasting through my veins, I sprint out of the post office.
My peripheral vision acknowledges a clump of cars approaching from the east. I therefore run smackdab down the middle of those two westbound lanes, wildly waving both my arms high above my head. All of a sudden I am far more worried about other human beings than I am for my vehicle.
Inside those nerve-racking seconds, I'll never forget the save-the-species gallop gear that my legs discover. I never knew I could run so fast. But even so, with its head start, the Rabbit continues to gain speed and superior forward momentum. Terrified and helpless, I watch the old boy pull away from me. There is absolutely nothing I can do.
As the Rabbit nears the Rhododendron Bridge, the vehicle starts to veer toward the other side of the highway. I will always count my lucky stars that during those potentially fatal seconds, no eastbound cars approach into the runaway Rabbit's trajectory.
My fugitive car crosses both oncoming lanes, smacks down into the ditch, bounces and ends up high-centered on a stump. No serious damage to the vehicle occurs and no one gets hurt.
Unfortunately, this next story does not offer you such a happy ending.
Ironically, this next near-death (for me, but not for everyone) experience happens on that same stretch of Highway 26, this time right there on the other side of the Rhododendron Bridge.
It's a couple years later. I'm driving my mid-size Mazda pickup down the highway. It's summertime, early evening, still daylight. There's one car traveling the same direction a ways up in front of me. We're both over in the far right lane. There is no one behind me.
Suddenly, a lone car driving up the highway turns toward that car in front of me. It isn't as if this driver is momentarily distracted or erroneously flirts temporarily across the center line. Unbelievably, this person makes an obvious, deliberate attempt to crash head-first into the guy in front of me. As this car crosses the median toward him, it actually accelerates.
This innocent guy in front of me swerves and makes a quick, abrupt — save-your-life — detour into the ditch.
Now, that threatening car is angling directly toward me.
The next several unforgettable seconds happen in a blur of surreal slow motion.
First, I take my foot off the gas.
This fast-approaching sinister car is now close enough that I can see the driver.
Inside these unreal, mindboggling moments, two things happen simultaneously inside my brain. I become mad. And I become determined to get her attention. As she propels toward me, I reach for my headlight switch and pull it on and off in rapid-fire succession.
Maybe my last-second blinking headlight plea, acknowledging "Hey, hello, there's a human being inside this vehicle!" works.
With milliseconds to spare, she quickly angles away from me.
In my rearview mirror, I watch her steer back into her correct lane and continue up the highway. From my vantage, there is still no one else driving down the highway, crossing westbound over the bridge.
The next day I will learn that this woman, a Rhododendron resident, was driving back home that evening. She was distraught and suicidal. She had already briefly darted across the line toward other vehicles before she targeted the two of us there on the west side of the Rhododendron Bridge.
People had called 911.
In her distressed mind, this woman knew that if she was going to take her life by colliding with another vehicle, she had to do so before she reached her turnoff on the east end of Rhododendron. The clock was ticking.
Apparently, the next vehicle coming westbound behind me that evening was a large, oversized, heavy-duty SUV.
Once again, right beside the Rhododendron store, this local resident yanked her car across the highway into the path of the SUV.
The grief-stricken SUV driver — who, thankfully, wasn't physically hurt — will explain to the cops how he had tried to turn and avoid her.
But she was determined.
He was her last chance.
She perished instantly.
You probably have your own "count my lucky stars" moments in your life. I've had a few. This one is probably the most emotional for me. I am so very sorry for this fellow mountain community member. I didn't know her. But inside those last few seconds of her life, I shared a brief, intimate moment with her.
In a very ironic way, she saved my life.
I am forever thankful.
Longtime mountain resident and former Sandy Post editor Paul Keller pens his "Beneath Wy'east" column once a month here on the Post's editorial pages.
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