Thursday, November 02, 2006
"My only regret is, I didn't pee in Skookumchuk."
This, clearly, is going to be the quote that I remember from this trip!
So, here's what happened. After driving a couple of hours north of Cranbrook, gave two talks - the first one in Edgewater at the Elementary school and the second at a school in Invermere. Both talks went smoothly (they sure do raise nice children up here in the Kootenays...) and it looked like I was going to make the return trip to Cranbrook well before dark.
All was going fine until it started to snow about ten minutes south of Invermere. And not just a little snow, but major, whipping around, dense clouds of blowing snow. Blizzard-like, in fact. I wasn't too worried - the road was blowing fairly clear, the snow was dry, and it wasn't really accumulating in the driving lanes. I figured I was better off to try to make good time and get back to town than be too wimpy and West-coastish and slow down to a crawl... it hardly seemed necessary, anyway.
Doing long distances in tight time frames means I'm pretty good at monitoring both my time and my gas tank - fitting in a fill-up time isn't always easy, and when I left Invermere I figured I had enough gas left to make it to Cranbrook just fine. But then it started snowing harder and I thought, “Hmmmm… what if there’s an accident or something and I wind up having to sit in my car… it would really suck if I couldn’t let the engine run and keep warm… I guess maybe I should stop at the next station and fill up, just in case.”
Not too long after that I saw a sign, “Skookumchuk Gas. 2KM” Alas, the Skookumchuk gas bar is at the bottom of a very long hill, which, apparently, gets very, very slippery when it has been snowing. Though I began to brake way up the hill, there was no way I could get stopped in time to cross the highway – there was fish-tailing, juddering anti-lock brakes, me pumping the brakes gently, more fish-tailing… ooops – there goes the gas station… Managed to turn off to the right and get out of traffic, turned around, crossed the highway, and filled the tank feeling very proud of myself for having the foresight to do so since I could see it might take a little longer than planned to get back.
I was back on the road after only a few minutes, made the long, slow turn on the far side of Skookumchuk and headed up the hill on the other side of town only to see a pair of tire tracks veering out of my lane, across the road, over the other edge of the road… leading to an upside-down truck of some sort, literally standing on its roof. I put on my emergency flashers, grabbed my cell phone, pulled over as far as I could while dialing 911, and then sprinted across the road. I got to the vehicle just about as I got through to emergency services and then there was this strange, three-way conversation… I’ll put the emergency dispatcher in square brackets…
“A truck has just flipped off the road – we probably need an ambulance.”
“I’m in here!” (This was a shakey woman’s voice.)
“How many people are in the car with you?”
[Do you need fire, ambulance, or police?]
“Ambulance, I’m pretty sure. The truck is upside-down.”
“I’m fine. I don’t need an ambulance.”
[Can you tell what kind of injuries?]
“No idea. I can’t see anyone yet.” (I’m squatting in the ditch, trying to see into the window. Is there anyone else in the car with you?”
[How many people are in the vehicle.]
“No, I’m on my own. Oh my God, my husband is going to kill me.”
“Are you hurt?”
“I’m trying to find my cell phone.” (there’s lots of rustling and I can hear someone moving around in the truck)
“Are you hurt at all? I’ve got the emergency people on the line…”
“I’m just fine. I’m trying to call-“
“It’s ok – I’ve got the 911 people on the phone.”
“I need to call my husband – Oh my God, my husband is going to kill me! The new truck… “
[So, do you need an ambulance?]
“I’m not sure. I still can’t see her. I’ll go around to the other side of the truck.”
Crouching down at the other window, I can see a woman groveling around on the dome light that is now below the front seat (which is impossibly upside-down, seatbelt dangling), looking for something.”
“It’s ok, you can use my phone.”
[How old is the victim?]
I’m thinking, but don’t say – ‘good, grief. Who cares?’ But relay this question.
From the tone of the reply I sense the woman in the truck is also under-impressed. “I am 52.”
By this time a couple of other people have stopped and two men are standing by, ready to help.
“Do you think you can crawl out?”
[No! She should not leave the vehicle.]
“She actually seems to be ok – her truck is upside down and it’s freezing. It’s snowing pretty hard…. She seems to be coming out….”
Which she did, struggling out through the window the woman said, “I don’t think I can stand up. I’ve got very bad arthritis in my knees.”
One of the men put a car mat (that had fallen out into the snow) down and then the other man stepped forward and they helped the woman to her feet.
[I need to talk to her. Can you give her the phone?]
The woman takes the phone and reassures the 911 dispatcher that she seems fine, except that her husband is going to kill her because she has destroyed the new truck and that, no, she most certainly does not need an ambulance. At which point she hung up the cell phone and looked around at her rescuers, a little dazed.
“Do you need anything out of the truck?”
“My cell phone. My car charger. Purse. That plastic bag.”
One of the men helped her pull all that out of the truck and then I said, “Why don’t you come and sit with me in my car where it’s warm and we’ll wait here for the police.”
The other men left and I took the woman to the car, still running (no worries, I had a full tank of gas) on the other side of the road.
Once inside, my poor passenger turned to me and said, “You know what the worst part of this is?”
I was guessing her husband, but no.
“I have to pee so badly I can hardly stand it. You know, I was thinking, I should stop and pee at Skookumchuk, but then when I saw it, I thought, nah – I can make it Wasa. Boy, do I ever regret not stopping to pee at Skookumchuk.”
She then proceeded to call various relatives. Each conversation went something like this:
“Now don’t worry – I’m fine – but I’ve flipped the truck and it’s in the ditch just past Skookumchuk and oh, my God I wish I’d stopped to pee there! You know how I was saying that earlier when I was telling you on the cell phone that I was driving back to Cranbrook and I said, I was probably going to have to stop and pee? Well, I should have stopped to pee because you would not believe how bad I have to pee. I should have peed at Skookumchuk.”
While all this is going on, I’m scanning the road for possible police assistance, trucks that might run into us, bushes that might be useful…
Between phonecalls, I asked if the 911 woman had actually mentioned that the police had been dispatched. My passenger looked blank. “I don’t know. I know they aren’t sending an ambulance.”
I called 911 again. “Hi,” I said, thinking, What is the code for bursting bladder emergency??? but then added, “I’m just calling to confirm that the police are on the way…” Indeed, an officer had been dispatched from Kimberley, nearly an hour away! I had my doubts this poor cross-legged woman beside me was going to make it.
A couple of sanding trucks came by. Several more vehicles, all of which I had to wave on… Several people suggested we move up to the top of the hill to a nearby cross road which, after a while, we did. Alas, the cross road led to a sawmill so now the vehicles that were trying to get around us were laden logging trucks!!!
All the while, the cell phone was buzzing as my passenger called her relatives back, updating them on her status, her concerns that her husband really was going to kill her, and the state of her bladder.
A while later, one of the sanding trucks returned to tell us the police were at the crash site and we should head on back down the hill. How the police sneaked past us, I have no idea… I must have been distracted by some looming truck grill in my rear view mirror… Anyway, I drove her back down the hill, she was helped into the police truck by a very lovely RCMP officer, and about an hour after I’d first pulled in, I found myself turning around in the Skookumchuk gas bar.
The next hour or so to Cranbrook was some of the worst driving I have endured for many, many years. Icy, slushy, blasting snow whirling around, two tracks through the slushy mess on the road… Yuck! Saw two more vehicles in ditches (did not stop… there are limits… they were covered with snow and I trust they had all been dealt with)… various abandoned vehicles at the sides of the road... Even these nutty Kootenay drivers were moving along very slowly.
FINALLY made it back to the hotel…. Now, off to hit the HOT shower and then downstairs to get a bite to eat. Oh, I can hardly wait to cross the pass over to Fernie tomorrow morning. Methinks there’s a good chance the road will be closed and though I feel truly terrible for the people who might be coming to see me there, I really hope you all understand and forgive me. Call me up in the spring and I’ll come back…