One Accident at a Time

navigating Wisconsin’s roads, bumping from one car to the next

Mike Paulus, design by Serena Wagner

I hit the brakes too late and slid right into the back of their minivan, pushing the whole family out into the snowy intersection. It was all my fault. Years later, I’m so thankful that no other cars were trying to pass through the crossroads. We were the only ones around.

The dad got out and proceed to be very unhappy with me. We called the cops and I got a small ticket. I hadn’t been speeding, but I had been “driving too fast for conditions.” The damage was minimal. All of this happened two blocks away from my house – on a street I’d grown up walking along on my way to school. It could have been worse.

I hate driving in the wintertime. I hate it.

On a different winter’s day, I got t-boned by a huge pickup truck up by Nelson’s Cheese Factory. I had been in the intersection, waiting to turn left when he pulled out – and right into me. He’d looked left and right, but not directly in front of him. I was in a much smaller truck, and while his front bumper had crushed my entire driver’s side door inward, pushing me into the middle of the cab, his truck sustained almost no damage.

It was one of those bone-dry, bitterly cold January days, and my arm was already in a sling from a Christmastime shoulder dislocation (long story). Worst of all, I was slowing realizing the girl I’d fallen for last semester had moved on. ’Twas a bad day.

The guy who’d rammed into my poor little truck looked young, barely out of high school. I remembered how awful I’d felt after rear ending that family in the minivan, so the first thing I said was, “Kinda cold out for this crap, don’t you think?”

He laughed. He was going to be late for work that day. It could have been worse.
Driving cars and living in the Wisconsin winter. These things sometimes remind us how powerless we really are most of the time. The next winter, I almost rolled that little pickup truck right into a ditch.

“What do I do?” I repeated in slightly more frantic tones. He put his hand on the dashboard and answered, “Keep going!”

I was on Highway 53, headed back to Eau Claire from up north. My cousin was hitching a ride to meet up with some family in a Walmart parking lot. The concrete was frosty from the night before, but the morning sun blazed so bright my eyeballs watered. I was holding a medium cup of Kwik Trip coffee.

While on a downward slope, the truck’s back end started sliding out into the passing lane, like it was no big deal. We were going fast but not speeding. Perhaps we were driving too fast for conditions. A sinkhole formed in my gut and I asked my cousin, “What do I do?”

Before he could say anything, we careened right off the road. “What do I do?” I repeated in slightly more frantic tones. He put his hand on the dashboard and answered, “Keep going!”

We were already past the shoulder and headed up a sidehill covered in a few feet of thick, wet snow. I felt the tires dig in and the steering wheel snapped back into control. So I hit the gas and kept going.

We rumbled into a huge arch across the sidehill, popped back up onto the shoulder and skidded to a stop alongside the rumble strip. The engine was still running. The tape deck was still playing. I was still clutching my medium cup of Kwik Trip coffee. We looked back at the deep ruts we’d just carved into the hillside, spraying chunky black mud across the snow.

It could have been much, much worse.

Eventually, I got a much bigger pickup truck. And eventually, I got t-boned (again) in that same intersection, just two blocks from my house.

But now it was the summertime. A hot day. I was driving the speed limit and just right for conditions. The other guy didn’t look, and he didn’t really stop at his stop sign, either. Boom. He totaled his car. Meanwhile, my big truck was totally drivable and easily fixed.

He was shaken. Apologetic. He couldn’t stop talking. He had just gotten into town on the way to his brother’s house so they could see sibling-based Irish rock band The Corrs in Minneapolis that night. "If I had sisters like that," he told me, "I'd never leave home."

But now he wasn’t sure he’d make the show. It kind of looked like he was living out of his car.

I felt bad. I got the feeling those concert tickets were all he really had going for him, and now he was walking away from this accident with far more troubles than I possessed. I gave him a ride to his brother’s house. And that’s the last I saw of him.

So what have we learned? I guess neither the road nor the weather really give a damn about us. Just one more reason we need to give a damn about each other.

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