The story I'm going to share is about the closest I came to dying. Most people who have had bad accidents can't be as precise as I can about how close I came to dying one night - 18 inches. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
This story starts out as a wonderful tale. Shortly after graduating college, one of my closest friends and I went to San Francisco to visit another of our closest friends. We had an incredible time - it was the second time I had been to California. The natural beauty of the place is hard to convey. It's simply incredible, especially when you come from the east coast corridor of Philadelphia-NY-Boston. The Pacific Ocean sunsets, the Redwood forests, the lush pastoral beauty all around you; it can be overwhelming.
We decided to drive up the Pacific Coast Highway one day, and stay up there for a couple of nights, maybe do some camping.
We set out on our adventure. Maybe it should've been a sign that we were hydroplaning across the Bay bridge. None of us thought anything of it.
As the sun set, several hours into our drive, our minds struggled to take in all that we had seen. We had made incredibly slow progress, just because we loved what we were seeing. Cows grazing near the road, beautiful, sheer cliffs, scenic ocean views. This drive had everything.
Our soundtrack for the drive had been the Grateful Dead, perfect for a drive up the PCH. After we watched the sunset, it was my turn to drive. As I got back in the car, it started to drizzle, and so we switched to Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde.
It slowly dawned on us how far away we were from our intended destination in Eureka. We had hours to go and were already getting tired. The rain was picking up, and the car was quiet except for Dylan.
Anyone who has driven the PCH knows how treacherous it is. We were going up and down steep hills, around 180 degree switchbacks, all the while looking out on sheer cliffs. The rain started to pick up - it hadn't rained for a while.
As the car went around a turn and down a very steep hill, it started to pick up a little speed. A little more than I was comfortable with. I tapped on the brakes.
They did nothing.
I pushed a little harder.
They did nothing.
We started accelerating.
I pushed hard on the brakes, and started turning the steering wheel. The car did not respond at all.
We were hydroplaning down a steep hill into a 180 degree switchback, and I had no control of the car whatsoever.
This realization slowly dawned on me. I kept trying to hit the brakes and turn the steering wheel.
In the meantime, my friends started to freak out as they realized we were accelerating into the curve. It took a few seconds after I knew what was happening for them to react. That window of time was surreal. But now they were screaming:
"What's going on?!"
Dylan sang: "They called for the ambulance and one was sent. Somebody got lucky, but it was an accident."
I turned the wheel and the car started to angle a little. We were picking up speed, and now going straight down at an angle.
There was a loud bang, and suddenly everything just stopped. We were stunned. We all stared at each other, unsure what to do or how to react.
I was shaking. I'm shaking now, just typing this story. My wife hates it when I tell this story.
We got out of the car, and looked around. The front bumper was hanging over the edge of the cliff. In front of it was a guardrail. It was hanging out into space. We looked over the cliff and couldn't see anything. We looked at the front right-side of the car, and saw that our tire was stuck in a pile of mud. It was about 18 inches tall. That was all that stood between us and the car going over the edge of the cliff.
Everything was silent for a few seconds.
Now practical considerations started entering our minds. We were in the middle of nowhere, at the bottom of a steep, slippery hill. We had no cell phone reception. The next car that came by picked up one of my friends, and took him to try to find help.
20 minutes later, he returned in the cab of a tow truck. When he found a payphone and called 911, they asked for a landmark, and he replied "The phone booth is the landmark." They knew where he was.
A firetruck had shown up in the meantime. One of the firemen, after calling off the helicopter that had been sent for search & rescue, shined his flashlight over the edge of the cliff where the guardrail dangled. It was a hundred feet before you could even see the tops of some very tall trees.
This is where our terrifying, exhilarating story takes a very strange turn.
The firemen and cops helped fix up the car, get it so we could drive it. The tow truck helped get the car unstuck. One of the firemen told us to head down the highway for another ten miles until we reach a Bed and Breakfast. "Ask for Terry." We east coasters were shocked at the kindness and helpfulness.
Driving at a crawl, we eventually made it to the B&B. No Vacancies. We walk in, and Terry greets us:
"You the boys that almost lost it 'round the bend?"
We nodded, still shell shocked over the whole thing. Before we could say much, Terry had us sitting at a table, with three bowls of clam chowder "fresh from the ocean out back" and a bottle of red from down the road. We ate silently as each of us wracked his brain to come to grips with how close we had come to dying less than an hour ago.
The chowder was incredible.
Our dinner was incredible. The B&B was a favorite honeymoon spot, with several cabins on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Terry said one of them was free, as it was being remodeled, and told us we could stay for free as long as we paid for the breakfast she'd bring us the next morning. She showed us the cottage, it was beautiful. We all stood there, with no idea what to say.
"All right. Come here" She gave us each a hug. We needed it.
By the end of the night, we went out for a walk, and found ourselves on a driftwood beach seated around a bonfire. We didn't talk much. Life just felt incredible, like we had been given a tremendous gift.
That's a picture of the beach from the next day. That day we drove into town, trying to figure out where we were and what we should do. It turns out we were in the tiny town of Elk, and several people already knew who we were.
We went to the General Store to buy some supplies, and some tokens of our experience. We found ELK stickers and hats, and grabbed one for each of us. At the register, we were told that we would only be sold these things if we promised to never tell anyone where Elk is.