I’m still not exactly sure how it happened. One minute I’m on my way to work, a five mile route I’ve driven a million times before. The next my vehicle is totally out of control, zig zagging across the road until spinning around 180 degrees and flying (literally, the law enforcement ranger who responded to the scene pointed out to me the place where the skid marks disappear and my car caught air) sideways off the road where a large, sturdy bush caught me in the softest landing imaginable.
It all started with a chipmunk, who jumped out into the opposite lane and made a beeline for my car. I made a small, calm turn away from him just as I came around a fairly gentle curve, and that seems to have been the catalyst to the accident. One wheel left the road and hit the gravel. I guess I overcorrected and from then on out lost all control of my poor little Jetta.
Many of my coworkers have commented on how unlucky the entire situation was. The wreck, they comforted me, was caused by a number of factors that lined up just perfectly at that moment. The road was wet from days of unusually high rainfall, the chipmunk darted at the precise moment I made my way around the curve, and I was headed back to work after a relaxing weekend, feeling perhaps a little too calm. Subtract just one of those factors and the car never leaves the road to begin with.
But after a week of going over the ordeal over and over again in my head, I’ve come to a somewhat different conclusion. In fact, I’m feeling pretty lucky.
Subtract one of the three factors my coworkers outlined and sure, maybe the crash wouldn’t have happened. But had just one extra condition been added, I wouldn’t be writing this post. I swerved in and out of the oncoming lane several times in an area of the park that’s usually quite congested with traffic. And yet, not a single car appeared until after I was safely off the road. Had the chipmunk darted just a few hundred feet further, I’d be heading off the road in a densely forested area. That great old bush that cushioned my landing may have been replaced by a much less forgiving tree. Or even worse, as the vast majority of road at Mesa Verde lies cliff-side, I very easily could have been headed to the bottom of a canyon. There might be three places on our 25+ miles of road where it is relatively safe to go off. How lucky am I that the chipmunk darted where he did?
My luck continued. I didn’t have to wait three minutes before, by complete coincidence, my neighbor and great friend Kaitlyn drove by and promptly pulled over (did I mention I had gone off the road directly across from a designated pullout?). Her level head did a lot to calm me down, as she methodically began to take pictures and instructed me on how to call dispatch. She stayed with me until law enforcement responded and drove me to a land line so that I could call AAA and my insurance.
After several hours of phone calls my insurance had been notified and my car towed to a shop in town. All that was left to do was to return to work, and I have to admit that at that point I was feeling quite sorry for myself. Still shaken from the incident the last thing I wanted to do was give an afternoon Cliff Palace tour. But despite the tears still stinging my eyes, threatening to fall at any moment, I put on my best smile and a pair of sun glasses and walked to the overlook to meet my group.
Even though rain had plagued the park for the past several days, my group stayed dry during our hour in the site. In fact, the cloud cover kept us cool in a time of day where west-facing Cliff Palace usually roasts in the afternoon exposure. And while I had found the past few weeks especially taxing when it comes to ill-prepared and ill-interested visitors, my group was absolutely, 100% wonderful. Not only were they pleasant, they were engaged, excited, and asked curious, intelligent questions that lead to the best tour I’d had in Cliff Palace in a long, long time.
Upon returning back to the housing area I was greeted by many neighbors who expressed their concern and a generous desire to help. When I returned home I found several notes on my door articulating similar sentiments. I have spent much of the season struggling with what I deemed to be poor attitudes and complacent coworkers. The night of the accident I realized that the negativity I had let overwhelm me was coming from a vocal minority – most of whom had recently finished their seasons and had left the park just days before.
I went to bed that night feeling better than I had in months.
The week continued in this sort of yin and yang way. On Thursday my cell phone mysteriously stopped working, and on Friday the park network suffered some sort of catastrophic failure leaving us without internet or land lines. The rain continued. On the other side of the mountains, Austin found himself cut off from his house at Rocky Mountain National Park due to flooding (the park eventually closed altogether). Even with the rain people poured into the park, the long-awaited September dip in visitation never manifesting itself.
All the while I was meeting the most pleasant people, and giving some of the best tours I’ve given all season. On Friday I gave my first backcountry tour of the fall, a four mile hike that brings visitors to two sites usually closed to the public and ends with a private tour of my favorite cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde – Long House. The sky threatened to drench us all day but never did. Half of my group consisted of a home-schooling cooperative. The kids’ curiosity and enthusiasm was contagious, and even the few on my tour not associated with the home-schoolers were charmed. The beaming smiles plastered to my visitors’ faces were a clear indication of success.
It was a bizarre week, really. But I am so thankful for it. Just weeks ago I sat at my computer, exhausted and frustrated, attempting to turn the negatives into positives for my post on keeping park rangers happy in August. Though the overwhelming majority of feedback I got from that post was positive, I was met with some non-constructive criticism on a certain website that left me feeling more deflated than ever. There were several moments through August and early September that I was very near to quitting. I stuck it out though, in the hopes of the arrival of a second wind.
In large part thanks to Mr. Chipmunk, it seems that second wind is here.
It looks like I’m going to make it after all.