Mountain Acts

mountain acts

We motored along the Peak-to-Peak Highway a few miles south of Ward, CO, I in my silver Honda S2000 with the convertible top presciently up and my friend in his red Mazda Speed 3. In my rearview mirror, I caught the blinking of his directional signal. I pulled over onto the hissing shoulder as he rolled beside and through the open passenger window asked, “Hey, you wanna switch cars?”

I replayed this brief exchange many times in my brain during the days that followed, but it seemed so normal, I couldn’t remember much of it. And then the Van-Gogh-looking man behind the wheel of the red Mazda lustily licked his lips, and with a sharp twist of the wrist, cranked the car stereo and sang drunkenly along with Morrison who was singing the swinging shit out of the “Roadhouse Blues” chorus and “Let it roll, baby, roll!”  

That would’ve been more appropriate. Much of the time, fiction makes more sense. I guess, because it’s created to make sense. Real life, not so much, especially when we act upon the mountain, or perhaps more accurately, when the mountain acts upon us. We don’t huddle up with our ski buddies just after we’ve hiked to the summit of Breckenridge’s Peak 8 and ask, “OK, guys, now what experience would logically follow this one?”

I didn’t want to switch cars. We were at the tail end of a spirited early Sunday morning drive — if you have a yen for sports cars, a mountain road is only a mountain road when no other cars are upon it — and I had already blown my automotive wad gunning over the ridges and snaking the tight twisties of Golden Gate Canyon State Park. We were just cruising now, just cruising, like when you’ve been skiing the back bowls all day and then doing your best to enjoy the long and traversing run across the front side of the mountain so you can get back to your car. We would dip down through Ward, where the elements of nature transfigure the residents’ many rotting cars into roadside art, and then onto Left Hand Canyon Drive, which would drop us back into Boulder.

Six or so years before, he and I were returning to Boulder along this same stretch of the Peak-to-Peak after skiing a blustery day at Eldora. We had passed one or two of the marked-if-you-know-what-you-are-looking-for turnoffs between Nederland and Ward when he made a sweeping gesture with his right hand and said, “Back in high school, I almost got laid down one of these roads.” So many people are so full of shit that I tend to trust a person who says he “almost got laid” down a mountain road in high school. If a 21st century John Denver ever appears (I can’t be the only one sort of curious), I hope he writes songs like that.

We switched cars. It was about quarter of eight, which to me is a bittersweet part of the day, a time when the innocence of the morning dissipates in the glare of the sunlight and all the things we have to do in it. Still, it was quite pleasant gliding downhill through the gentle S-turns with Left Hand Creek roaring just outside the passenger’s window. Gliding next to running water, I become it, and there’s a slight, quasi-suicidal urge to let go of the wheel. Let the car feel the way for me.

I passed a man on my left walking downhill on the shoulder. Five hundred feet ahead, the road dipped slightly to reveal a shallow left-hand bend around a cropping of rock. “Not a great place to go for walk, my man,” I thought. I made the shallow left turn and then in the rearview saw my silver Honda S2000 rolling six feet in the air toward the shoulder of the uphill lane like a trained dolphin in a Sea World show.

Did I really just see that!?

I don’t know about you, but, these days, whenever I have the “Is-this-really-happening?” feeling, it’s a bad thing, as in really bad. When I was young, I did have two or three positive versions of this feeling, for instance, the two weeks in eighth grade when Sue Muller (who had actual breasts that pressed into me the one time we kissed) decided she could stoop below her station and date me — until that bus ride home from the school field trip, during which she asked me if I liked Judas Priest. The positive version of the Is-this-really-happening experience is mostly a young-person thing, caused as it is by an explosion of newness. When newness explodes around me now, it usually takes out something I sort of liked having around.

In the 30 seconds it took me to turn around, my friend had gotten out of the car. He had a respectable cut on his forehead right at the hairline (where his head most likely hit the road when the car rolled), but he moved good. The S2000 sagged on the right shoulder, like a crouching jungle cat vainly denying that its front legs have been crushed by a high fall. It pointed downhill, as if ready to go on. Then it died. It did what it was supposed to in a rollover and died. Windshield cracked but not shattered, all four tires blown, the tops of the front wheels canted seriously inward, right front and rear panels crushed, the frame surely bent beyond repair. Totaled, no question.

The dude we had passed walking (Good Samaritan Mountain Man, as it turns out) ran down to us. “I didn’t see it, but I heard it — are you alright?” GSMM asked my friend, who now seemed to be trippin’ on adrenaline and consequence: walking in tight circles, many “Dan, I’m-so-sorrys,” running his hand through the back of his hair like guys do when distracted or nervous. I told GSMM the car belonged to me. He took that in and replied, “Well — I’m not saying that you should tell your insurance company you were driving. I’m just saying that I didn’t see it.”

I understand you perfectly well, Good Samaritan Mountain Man. No witnesses. 

They stared at me for my decision. I remember wishing for more time as I stared back at them. Few cars passed this early, and the lean, androgynous cyclists from Boulder still needed 15 minutes to climb this high. I, too, began to freak at this point, but some part of me while on that wide shoulder smelled the fresh mountain morning, heard Left Hand Creek susurrating just a stone’s throw away, and thought “Jesus, this would be a pleasant place to be right now — if my friend hadn’t almost crushed his skull while totaling my car and the Smokeys weren’t about to roll up with their measuring wheels and their “Are you the owner of the vehicle, sir?” and other questions of that sort.

Like most people (but unlike my dad), I will usually lie if it will save me tons of cash. Yet, in the moments I was wrestling with whether or not I should tell my insurance company that I was driving, so as not to get ratscrewed out of the 20 grand necessary to replace my now scrap-heap of a car, a feeling shot through me that I simply couldn’t lie about anything this weird. Lying would have meant we were guilty, that we shouldn’t have been out there on the mountain. Lying would have cheapened the experience. The feeling, which was really resonating now, told me I couldn’t do that. The mountain punted my car off the road, and I had to tell the truth about it.

“I gotta go with the truth on this one, I gotta tell them you were driving,” I said to my friend upon whom I had just laid another brick of freak-out. “It just feels right.”

I grabbed my cell and, of course, had no service. I didn’t hear it, but I’m sure the mountain chuckled at this.

“You can use my phone. I live just up the way,” said Good Samaritan Mountain Man.

We drove him up to his place in my friend’s car. A one-room house with many windows and a hardwood floor. It reminded me of a large studio apartment, but, you know, on the mountain. No woman to be seen or presence felt. GSMM apparently read a lot, pop fiction mostly. Inconvenient for sure, but I had to take a dump, so I asked GSMM if I could use his bathroom. Somewhat apologetically, he said that he didn’t have a bathroom, but an outhouse. “But don’t worry, it’s clean.”

I walked up a winding path through some aspens to the outhouse. As advertised, it was commodious and clean with a windowed door that offered a nice little view of the pined canyon. One minute, you’re calculating the best line through a corner, and, the next, you are shitting with a view in GSMM’s outhouse.

My conversation with the representative of the insurance company grounded me. An experience doesn’t become truly real until we tell someone else about it. She told me to go down and stay with the car. Apparently, Smokeys don’t like it when people leave the scene of an accident, especially ones involving a convertible sports car that has obviously rolled a few times. We thanked GSMM and went down to the car to wait for Smokey.

To get out of the sun, we sat on a large, shaded rock across from the wreckage, and suffered the rolling commentary of Boulder cyclists. We felt guilty because we looked guilty. I mean, how could that much damage have been visited upon the car without us having done something completely boneheaded? I felt as if I were 15 again and waiting for my dad to pick me up, having been busted for pot or vandalism or some other stunt that only teenaged boys think they can get away with.

“Is everyone OK?” Yup, everybody’s fine. Just dandy.”

“Oh wow! That car is TOTALED!” Thanks for noticing. Please keep pedaling.

“You guys should have a party tonight and celebrate the fact that you’re alive.” Not a bad idea, actually. And while we are at it, we should toast that you are alive, dear Boulder cyclist. If you had been precisely where you are now during my friend’s flying dolphin act, you would have been gruesomely crushed. But let’s not mention that to the wives, OK?

A Boulder County sheriff’s deputy eventually rolled up. She sat in the cruiser for a few minutes, undoubtedly running my plates and analyzing the situation for herself, before asking the two clowns on the rock what had caused the accident. We crossed the road and stood in front of the automotive corpse and waited. She swung the cruiser’s door open and stepped out. On her proudest day, she maybe stood 5’3”. Aviator sunglasses dominated her face. If she had breasts, she had hidden them somewhere.

She walked over to us, slow and measured, which in my mostly law-abiding experience, is the only way cops walk. She asked who owned the car and what had happened.

Who knows why the mountain does what it does? We certainly didn’t, but you gotta tell a Smokey something. Our best guess was that, as my friend moved through the middle of the shallow left bend, a large rock rolled off the mountain and lodged itself in the right front suspension first causing the back end to come out and then the car to roll. I agree — a pretty much bullshit explanation. The deputy asked my friend how fast he was going. “About 25,” he replied.

The deputy walked (s l o w l y) over to the bend and did her measurements from all various angles with her wheely thingy. She came back over. “You weren’t doin’ no 25 — that’s bullshit,” she informed my friend and then pointed to my crushed jungle cat of a car. “That wouldn’t have happened at 25. The speed limit here is 35 mph and you were doin’ 40 or so. The rest of your story checks out, though. Seems like you hit a rock. The county may contact you about replacing the road sign you took out, then again, they might not.”

And with that she was gone. He wasn’t ticketed.

“Cal,” the chipper tow truck driver, arrived. I walked over to the S2000, leaned in under the convertible top that looked like a mountain troll had whacked it with a sledgehammer and placed my right hand on the dash. “You’ve been a great car, and I’m sorry it has to end this way.” That was all I had time for. Cal was backing up the truck, and my friend was waiting to drive me home.

A few years ago, I read an unpublished piece by writer and colleague David J. Rothman in which he stated that the “mountains…are not scenery; they are a cause, in the sense that they actually make things happen.” The mountain certainly acted upon me that morning. Instead of feeling maligned, though, I feel sort of chosen.

I continue my high-revving mountain practice and, drive by drive, come to understand the mountain’s action.

Daniel Brigham taught writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His essays appear regularly in the Denver Post and Boulder Daily Camera.