Cold Winds, Hot Nights

There are many songs and poems comparing death with the wind. It’s invisible and can rise anytime night or day. There’s an old movie called The Last Man on Earth, the first cinematic interpretation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. In the film, the wind carries a virus that is gradually exterminating the human race and turning them into vampires. I know, it’s a low-budget horror film, but there is something about the imagery that has always stayed with me. Images of the wind blowing, harder and harder, carrying death. I find these scenes much more frightening than most of the horror films I’ve seen. No jump scares, no loud noises. Simply stark black and white trees blowing in the wind, leaves scattering across the ground, bleak and inexorable. We can’t stop the wind.

In my truck-driving years, I was once driving east from L.A. I was exhausted, as was usually the case. I’d been running for days and hadn’t had much sleep. It must have been around two in the morning as I was zipping across Arizona. There wasn’t a breath of breeze and the night was stiflingly hot. I was struggling to stay awake, knowing I had to be in Phoenix by early morning. I had the windows down and the radio blaring, but I still felt myself drifting off dangerously. I shook my head hard, over and over, but nothing seemed to be helping. Suddenly, I caught a glimpse of my passenger across the cab. He wore a dark hoodie and jeans and smiled at me with a skeletal grimace that jolted me with terror. I hit the brakes hard and pulled over to the shoulder. I was shaking, my heart pounding. I climbed out of the rig and walked around to clear my head, to the back of the trailer and up the right side again to the cab. I crossed in front of the headlights, spying my long, black shadow as I slowed down and crept back to the driver’s door. I hesitantly opened the door and climbed back up to my seat. My passenger was gone. I nervously checked my sleeper. Nobody. Nothing, because he was never really there. I didn’t pick up passengers. But somehow, I knew he was real. I felt him in my soul, a deep fear of something I had never felt before. I shifted into gear and finished my run. I was awake for the rest of the night.

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On another hot summer night, traffic was fairly light on Interstate 5, even for a Sunday. It was slightly after 10:00 pm and I was hauling a load of glass to Los Angeles from Sacramento, CA. I liked driving at night. Less traffic meant fewer obstacles and a safer trip. I was maxed-out at eighty thousand pounds, making my truck slow to get up to speed and even slower to stop. I still had another hundred miles before I started the climb up the Grapevine. I had to be on high alert for that part of the trip, but I was relaxed for this stretch. I drove along on a particularly dark stretch of the highway. Headlights approached in my left mirror, the light blinding for a few seconds as the car pulled up alongside me and zipped past in the left lane. Traffic moved quickly in the fast lane at night, making it look like I was crawling at 60 mph. Patches of darkness were broken by the lights that periodically drifted by, brightening my cab and reflecting my face in the windshield. There was something so telling about that reflection, briefly illuminating me like a spirit alone in the darkness. I ached for my family, my friends.

I turned up the radio to a favorite song and started singing along, tapping my hands on the steering wheel to a steady rhythm. A solitary pair of headlights appeared in my mirror, still back in the distance. I sang louder, trying to shake off the lonely melancholy I felt.

Something slammed into the side of my cab, just behind my seat. Startled and suddenly alert, I glanced at my mirror. Lights were bobbing up and down, rapidly seesawing in an impossible dance like a demonic flagman was waving blazing beacons in my eyes. Then it was dark again. I turned on my emergency flashers and slowed, bringing the truck to a stop as quickly as I could. I dropped to the ground outside and grabbed my flashlight. There was a large tear in the side of my cab just below the sleeper. Whatever hit me didn’t just pound into my truck, it ripped at it like a metal-hungry animal.

I started running back up the highway, shining my flashlight to the left and the right, looking for clues. It was very dark. Lights appeared on the distant horizon, still miles away. With the help of my flashlight and the backlight of the approaching traffic, I gradually made out a person walking toward me. I picked up my pace and could see a young woman walking down the center white line between the two lanes. I ran up to her and escorted her to the side of the road, out of harm’s way. She was dressed for the summer weather, wearing shorts and a small top. I saw no blood, no scrapes or scratches. She was a little incoherent and had no idea what had happened. 

“Where’s Danny?” she asked me.

Realizing there was another victim, I sat her down at the far edge of the shoulder.

“Just sit. I’ll be right back,” I told her.

I ran back to the edge of the traffic lane. Cars were closing in on us now. I waved my flashlight in an attempt to slow them down and maybe get some help. Two cars zipped by me as I moved a few hundred feet further up the shoulder. There on the edge of the right lane, I found Danny. He was lying on his back but moving a bit, obviously in pain and shock. I spoke to him, trying to reassure him. 

“It’s all right, you’re going to be okay. You’re both okay,” I said.

A truck stopped in the center divider. The center divider along I-5 is wide enough for a campground. His headlights illuminated a trail of wood and fiberglass leading up to a demolished pickup truck. The wreck lay on its top, flattened like a pancake. The driver used his CB radio to notify the highway patrol. 

“Don’t try to move,” I told Danny. 

I brought Lisa back to Danny’s side. Emergency vehicles started rolling up, and soon the night was bright with flashing multi-colored lights. All of the unexplained secrets of the mysterious accident now became apparent. A CHP officer asked me some questions and then told me what had happened. The young couple, recently married, was returning to Los Angeles after a weekend with friends. They had taken their camper to a lake to swim and party a little bit. Sleep was not a priority during the two-day gathering. That long stretch of straight highway was too much for their tired bodies. The warm air lulled Lisa to sleep, and not long after Danny grew drowsy. Each of them had failed to fasten their seatbelts for some unknown reason. Maybe they thought it was more comfortable without them. When Danny drifted into the side of my truck, he must have been jarred awake by the impact and overreacted, losing control of his pickup. The extra weight of a camper on a light pickup truck makes it easy to roll over. Danny’s truck rolled multiple times, ejecting both him and Lisa onto the roadway. The truck came to a crashing halt in the center divider more than a quarter-mile past the point where I found Lisa. She must have been tossed around like a puppet. Somehow she miraculously survived with barely a scratch. Danny, not quite as lucky, had severe scraping along his back. He must have hurt for a long time. But they were alive to tell about it.

We all put unreasonable demands on ourselves. We work too hard and play too hard, trying to cram all our fun and relaxation into a short time-frame so we can get back to that daily grind on Monday morning. Sometimes that can kill you. Yet, Lisa and Danny got another chance. The wind wasn’t blowing that night. 

I think we all get multiple chances. We’ve all had our brushes with death. I know I’ve had my share. Inevitably, it will win in the end. I look out my window at the bright sunshine of a cool, February day and watch the breeze rustle the branches of the trees. The day is too beautiful to dwell on thoughts of gloom and doom. Spring is coming and with it come powerful feelings of life, renewed strength, and hope. And I have no intention of facing that cold wind anytime soon.

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