In October 1989, our family planned a trip to southern California. Like our two previous trips to Disneyland, Grandma and Grandpa Joe were going with us. Unlike our previous trips, I was sixteen and in possession of a freshly-minted drivers license.
We were lucky to be going, our family had so little money. Mom was raising seven kids alone on about $10,000 a year, and we were able to go to California only because someone using the pseudonym “Wanda the Witch” gave us $800 for Halloween the previous year with instructions to go to Disneyland. My grandparents offered to pay the expenses above the $800.
We decided to leave at 6:00 a.m. in order to get to San Diego before dark. The night before we left I’d gone with friends to Olympus High’s homecoming dance, didn’t get home until after 1:00 a.m. and, after talking to my mom and packing, finally went to bed around 2:30.
Grandma and Grandpa Joe arrived on time to a house full of excited kids. Someone decided which three kids would get the first turn in Grandma and Grandpa’s car (they had an Acura Integra, which we thought was very cool, and Grandma was sure to provide an endless stream of Sunkist fruitrolls, Twizzlers and Rolos to the back seat). The rest of us piled into our full-size Ford van with Mom.
Mom and I were both tired, but she offered to drive first so I could sleep a little before it was my turn. Though I was 16 and had only been driving for six months, I’d always been relatively mature and responsible for my age. Growing up my mom relied on me a lot, first as little kid when she needed my help with my brothers and sisters, and especially in the five years since my parents separated. In some ways I played a man’s role, and this drive to California was no different. I did my best to doze off as she drove to Nephi, about 90 minutes into our trip, where she pulled over and asked if I was alert enough to drive; she was afraid she’d fall asleep if she drove further. I felt fine, so she and my 12-year-old brother slept on the van’s benches, my five-year-old brother rested on the floor between me and the first bench, and my little sister slept against a pillow propped against the passenger door. She and I were the only ones wearing seat belts.
About two hours into my shift, central Utah’s wide spaces, sparse traffic, and the hypnotic blur of white highway stripes combined to make me drowsy. I shifted positions in the seat, sat taller, forced my eyes open. When my head got heavy I tried resting it on my seat belt shoulder strap, letting the strap bear a some of its weight. I decided that was a very bad idea when I opened my eyes startled to be driving, and realized I’d fallen asleep for a second or two. I was scared to think I could have crashed our large van full of vulnerable loved ones going 70 miles an hour. The startled shock made me more alert, alert enough that I thought I determined I could drive the remaining 25 miles to our pre-determined switch point without falling asleep again. When I passed a sign saying we were only 18 miles from the town we’d planned to stop, I thought to calculate the exact time it would take to travel 18 miles at 70 miles an hour, but I was too tired. I couldn’t think straight, I was so weary I could scarcely see straight.
Before we’d left our house that morning, we gathered with Grandma and Grandpa in our living room to pray. Grandpa Joe offered the invocation on your vacation. In our family — and in most Mormon families, I imagine — such prayers invariably include the words “bless us that no harm or accident will befall us.” That morning Grandpa Joe reduced the phrase to “bless us that no harm will befall us.” I noticed the altered wording — the phrase was so routine that his varying from it drew my attention. While he continued praying I momentarily worried about the discrepancy but decided that being protected from harm was the important part anyway, and I didn’t think about it again.
I woke up when our van loudly smacked a thin aluminum reflector post marking the right edge of the freeway, a foot onto the gravel shoulder. We were a car’s width outside the right lane and only a couple feet from the sharp slope between the elevated road and the barren field, and only 200 feet from a freeway overpass supported by concrete pillars and earth embankments on either side. I turned the wheel back toward the freeway to prevent us from tumbling down the small slope, and the combination of my over-correction and half our tires being on gravel caused the van to fishtail and spin into the freeway. Three-quarters of the way through a complete spin — while we were perpindicular to the line of travel — a truck hit our passenger side. We kept spinning another 180 degrees, putting us again perpindicular to the line of travel but this time facing east as we traveled south, and we slid that way for about a hundred yards until we stopped, still pointing east and blocking the left lane. The van was right side up.
I don’t remember what happened next, except turning around to see my mother’s terrified face above the first bench, and those of my brothers and sister. All traffic had stopped and a trucker CB’d the highway patrol. Eventually we got out of the van, but I don’t remember if it was before or after my grandparents saw the stopped cars and our van in the middle of the road. The tires on the passenger side had been pulled off the wheels, and the van was resting on the right-side’s bare wheels. One of the highway patrolman kept saying how he couldn’t believe the van hadn’t flipped, how lucky we were that it hadn’t flipped, and that he was amazed I “was able to keep it up.” It seemed ridiculous to think that I’d kept the van up — I was most obviously not in control. But when he said that I remembered twice turning the steering wheel hard while we were spinning, and remembered Grandpa’s prayer. Maybe God had protected us in part by having me pull hard on the steering wheel. Can full-size vans slide 100 yards on their side wheels without flipping?
I was in deep shock, incredibly embarrassed for having put people in such great risk, and extremely grateful that no one was harmed. It could have turned out differently; I could have died. And had my mom or someone else been killed, my life would have changed as much as if I’d died.
A tow truck towed us into Parowan, where we had the tires replaced and decided the we could make the trip, nevermind the crunched passenger door, the reflector imprint stamped deep into the hood, and our frayed nerves. My nerves were unsettled the whole vacation, and I wasn’t up to driving again until we were nearly home.
When we passed Parowan on the way home, we got off the freeway and took the frontage road, driving up the overpass that witnessed our accident. We got out of the cars. On one side we could see the aluminum reflector, smashed flat, and the southbound highway decorated with four prominent curlicues, twisting as they went under the overpass and continued to the other side, ending in two long straight pairs of parallel lines. None of us could believe a van going as fast as ours could slide sideways for so long without flipping over. And standing on the overpass showed how fortunate we were to have it an aluminum post in the first place. It would have been easy to miss them and not wake up until we’re tumbling off the slope and through the field. Seeing how narrow the road was relative to the terrain, and imagining the consequences had those seemingly-aimless curlicues instead spun toward the concrete pillars, or the embankment, or the rocky field, or the northbound lanes — imagining the consequences had we spun for three hundred yards in any direction but the narrow one we did — left me ill and sober. Looking at the unremarkable physical place that nearly became the ugliest place on God’s earth, it seemed strange to know with such exactness where my life and future were spared. On a grey freeway on a grey landscape, three miles north of Parowan.