It was last Tuesday when I decided to ignore all warnings to make the trip from southern Alabama to northern Alabama. The next day, I had a flight to catch from Birmingham to Ft. Lauderdale. As the weather reports had indicated it would be far worse in southern Alabama, I thought it best to get out while I could so I wouldn’t miss my flight. But really, it was my plan all along to leave on Tuesday, and I wasn’t going to change that for anything.
There is a dangerous side to my personality: I crave experiences. I have never wanted for food, shelter, or clothing. I have never been arrested nor hospitalized. If I have had any hardships in my life, they have been mental in nature – loss of loved ones, social despondence, a self-perpetuating distance between myself and my family/environment, etc. In other words, I have lived a privileged life. That privilege means that sometimes I do things simply for the experience, which can mean doing something fairly senseless or reckless.
Before I left Tuesday afternoon, I had already considered that I might need to sleep in my car. Many people ended up doing exactly that in both Alabama and Georgia that night. Whereas I expect most of them were very annoyed by the prospect, I was probably a bit gleeful.
More than just an experience though, it was a personal challenge: an opportunity for me to test what I am capable of. As much as I crave experience, I have never been a natural risk taker. I have always been shy, quiet, and reserved. Typically, that means the situations I find myself in I am entirely in control of my destiny because why else would I ‘put myself out there’. If you are always in charge of your own environment, then rarely do you ever let serious challenges creep into the mix.
While I had made the trip through southern and parts of central Alabama with relatively little difficulty (I only stopped three times to remove ice buildup from my windshield), by the time I hit northern Alabama, traffic was at a complete stop. This was on Interstate 65, a fairly major interstate highway that cuts through the heart of the state. Trying to traverse Alabama any other way often means using a map.
Hours began to pass. While I managed to move up a few miles (going less than 10 mph), traffic eventually halted for good. It turned to night, the temperature dropped further below freezing, and everything left on the road became a solid, frozen mass. It became clear that I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon; the radio confirmed my suspicions. I had spoken to a friend in Birmingham – the same one I was going to stay with – and he had already abandoned his vehicle to seek shelter.
If you have never taken Interstate 65 through Alabama, you might not realize that many long stretches of the road consist of nothing but wilderness with few exits or signs of civilization. I happened to be stuck perfectly between two cities – neither would be a short walk if I decided to try my luck out in the cold.
So I stayed and I waited. The temperature dropped and I layered up. In one humorous episode, anyone paying attention got to see me open my car door to put on my pajama pants over my jeans. Without getting out entirely, I had to use the road for footing to get the pants on, but it was so icy that I nearly slipped out of my vehicle entirely. A few quarters in my pocket did fall out, however, which led to me bending outside, attempting to pick up quarters off a slick road with gloved hands.
Perhaps even funnier, I drank two sizable energy drinks on the trip, and without a bathroom in sight, I was forced to use the empty cans for relief. I am not used to urinating in public but eventually the shame went away (no one could see anything anyway). Over the course of the six hours I spent stuck, I had to relieve myself multiple times, emptying the can each time. I am sure my neighbors all knew what I was doing, but I didn’t particularly care.
To pass the time, I read my Kindle, tried Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance on my 3DS (it was terrible), and listened to the radio. It was cold – very cold – but I had enough gas to keep up the heat if I managed my resources properly. I was more afraid of carbon monoxide poisoning and more annoyed by hunger (I had been saving room for dinner with my friend) than anything else.
I also managed to do some research on the area via my phone’s GPS. I knew that two exits down there was a Waffle House. The closer exit had a gas station, but when I called they never answered. I started to daydream of waffles. If you aren’t familiar, Waffle House is a southern U.S. 24 hour breakfast joint. They are almost all dives – the sort of places best visited drunk so you don’t notice the dirt and grime. The food is good if you can get past everything else.
All of the sudden, the traffic began to move again. I quickly put my seatbelt back on, let my seat back up into a driveable position, and prepared to satiate my hunger. That or find myself at a distance I could more reasonably walk to get food.
I drove slow. I drive a small truck which is incredibly light; it isn’t meant for ice. I was following behind the same semi I had sat behind for the last several hours. He picked up speed though and was quickly out of my view.
I am not entirely sure what happened next. Perhaps in my hurry to get to some warmth and food, I casually began to increase speed. All I remember is the back of my truck beginning to drift out of my control. I took my foot off the accelerator and didn’t touch the break, but the road was so icy that I couldn’t regain control. In a second, I was flying off the side of the road, over a steep incline, down into a snow-covered ditch.
The vehicle flipped. Everything in the back moved to the front; everything in the front moved to the back. That included my luggage, which I hadn’t closed up since opening it for extra layers of clothing. Clothes, my Kindle, my 3DS, an ancient toolbox filled with hammers and nails, they all flew around as for a brief second gravity ceased existing in my own little world.
But I stayed put. The seatbelt held me firmly into the seat as the vehicle rolled. My life didn’t flash before my eyes nor did I suddenly become religious (the gods would laugh at such insincerity). I remember distinctly saying, “Fuck” as if I had forgotten homework necessary to making a deserved C in a class into a lucky B.
The vehicle rolled into the position we both wished it had never left. I easily opened my door and stepped out, angry and bitter. I kicked the vehicle and shouted obscenities like I was a Nascar driver who knew his race was done for the day.
Assessing the damage, it was clear how lucky I was. The windshield, crumpled, had remained firm in a shape mostly resembling its former self. The windows on the passenger’s side weren’t so lucky: they lay shattered and broken on the inside of the vehicle. The roof was bent in hard on the same side, a bruise to remember that it was the side that had taken a pretty hard punch from planet Earth.
I spent the next twenty minutes assembling anything important back into my luggage. My Kindle and 3DS both survived without injury. Though clothes were scattered all-around the ground outside the vehicle like an angry girlfriend had decided to toss me out of our apartment, I found everything with no problem. I moved frantically and manically. I didn’t stop to think. Reason was beyond me; all that remained was a greedy materialist looking to reassemble his world. I was surviving and that’s about it.
The State Trooper was especially nice. We talked at length about a wide number of topics. He was an Auburn fan (I had a Alabama cap on) for one. No matter the emergency, the same sports teams that divide us on Saturdays often fill the void of silence when the truths staring us in the face are too painful to address out loud. It took another hour or so, but a wrecker finally came to pull my truck from its shallow grave. Afterward, the officer drove me to the Waffle House at the next exit, and left me to my own devices.
Being left at a Waffle House at 1am in an unknown city with no way to escape or be rescued was an experience unto itself. I sat all the possessions I had gathered on one side of the booth and sat myself on the other side, obviously a bit shocked. A nice waitress – younger, a bit plump, incredibly sweet – came over to me, asking for my story.
The most amazing thing about emergencies and tragedies is the breakdown of the social walls we so often live behind. With so much chaos, strangers are willing to ask strangers for ‘their story’. When I told a rather simple tale about running off the road and losing my only means of transport, the whole place was listening. As soon as my story ended, they were all abuzz with genuine, honest care. “Are you hurt?” “Do we need to call an ambulance?” “I am so sorry.” It is important to realize that everyone always has a ‘story’ that is worth listening to, whether the world is falling apart around you or not – my night there reminded me of this simple truth.
I spent the next seven hours sitting, conversing, and passing the time with people I had only just met. Other than a couple of young waitresses, there was an older construction worker who too had gone off the road but his vehicle remained intact. He was a black guy which I only mention because he told a story about how his vehicle once broke down outside a Confederate museum nearby. Rather than ask for to use their phone, he opted to walk instead. Also, when I finally asked what town I was in, the waitress said “Clanton” but her thick accent made sounded different to the construction guy, who responded, “CLAN TOWN?” We all had a good laugh at that (though it is probably true).
While it was certainly boring, it was warm, there was food, free refills on my coke, and people to share the experience with. In a strange turn, the waitress who had originally helped me latched onto the fact that I was an English major in college. She had been writing a fantasy world since she was five years old, and she wanted my opinion on a story she had been writing set in it. Imagining her emailing it to me at a later date, she procured a handwritten-version she kept in her car.
I won’t discuss the quality in detail. It needed work and one of the lines was incredibly difficult not to laugh openly at (something about gaining magic powers from the melding of human and vampire DNA). It was evident that she had some talent, but even more evident that she had a serious passion for it. I gave my constructive input, hopefully adding some confidence so she will keep working on her dream. I know as well as anyone that small-town Alabama is exactly the place you need to write your way out of if you can. I do hope her the best. She was a sweetheart and deserves a life better than the one she described.
Once the sun had risen, I walked up the road to a Best Western motel. When I had originally arrived at the Waffle House earlier that morning, I was told that all of the nearby motels were full. I thought I might better try my luck anyway and see if anyone was leaving yet.
They had nothing, but the receptionist was very kind. She took the time and effort to call around for me, which was very appreciated. I was originally hoping to find a shelter of some sorts, but there weren’t really in the area. I had called the state information service, but they had zero information to give me, so I started looking forward to another day without sleep.
Sitting in that lobby at the Best Western was an interesting experience. I looked like a wreck, of course. I hadn’t slept, I was obviously alone, and I was holding onto a large bag like it was all I had. A few people approached me to swap experiences. One man did it by making fun of my Alabama cap (he was a FSU fan, gross). Another told me how he recently had a heart attack and was on his way for a quadruple bypass at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. My dad had a triple bypass early last year, so I did my best to reassure him, having some understanding of his ordeal.
While it is amazing the people you talk to in these situations, everyone else ignored me completely. They were all older people, laughing and joking and blaming Obama for things. I won’t hold any of that against them, but it made me even more thankful for the few people who were so kind to me.
After a couple hours waiting, a vacancy came up at a nearby motel. It was about a mile walk, but with some serious ice still on the ground, it was a very slow trek for me. I made it, only busting my ass once in full view of a trucker who probably needed the laugh.
I checked in, quickly got over the thick smell of smoke (smoking-allowed was the only room available), and took a long, hot shower. It wasn’t paradise, but I was happy to have it. After 26 hours straight of being awake, I crashed. The next day, the roads had cleared enough that my dad drove up to get me.
The wrecker cost $600 dollars. Their company ended up being located on the same exit as the Waffle House, maybe a couple miles from where I crashed. No clue yet on how much it will cost to fix the vehicle, but I am sure it will be a lot. We don’t have anything more than liability insurance, so that’s going to put a pretty serious damper on my moving out of Alabama anytime soon. I am more than a little depressed about having to remain here even longer.
But I am alive. I literally walked out of the whole situation with stories to tell, experiences to maybe use in some writing if I ever get off my ass with fiction writing, and I “lived” a bit more. I am still entitled and I still crave experience, but at least I have a little more empathy to draw from. Maybe I can turn this whole ordeal into changing someone’s life for the better one day.
Otherwise, what is life experience good for?