Cliff-side Northern California, chilly on a Sunday morning at 10 a.m. Cloudy, but not densely so.
The Redwood Highway snakes out from the Eel River and tangles with Eureka, ending somewhere along the 101 in Oregon. This highway is not only for cars. A punchy yellow sign declaring “Share the Road” (as in cyclists, please share with the cars) is stapled in every five to ten miles.
As this road makes up a large section of the Pacific Coast Cycle Route, cyclists are a common occurrence. Why select the highway for this route? The other options include (and are limited to) lagoons, farmland, or the Mendocino Mountain Range.
On the 16th of May, the cars were few, the elk were grazing the fields near Elk Prairie Campground (apt), and this cyclist was northbound on her 22nd day of cycling alone up the coast.
DRIVER; mid-40s, tall, square forehead and tanned skin. Think Tony Robbins. Drove a white 2014 Kia. Heading northbound along the Redwood Highway.
WITNESS; mid-30s, smooth round face, black hair pulled into a high pony tail. Sarah was her name. Wore a black tank top and jeans. Heading southbound along the Redwood Highway.
EMT; mid-40s, currently on a 72-hour shift. Melanie. This was her and her partner’s first call of the day, and they dread calls concerning cyclist collisions. Never good, she said.
CYCLIST; just turned 25 a week ago. Shockingly pink helmet and hippy leggings, light blue down jacket. Flashing bicycle lights. Eternal optimism.
The Redwood Highway can be very winding, with miles of switchbacks offering little-to-no shoulder and steep cliff-side views. At this particular section half a mile north of the Old US Highway turn-off, the road was relatively straight with a sizable shoulder.
I was cycling down on a slight decline at 15 mph. Loose, relaxed, dreading the Great Hill of Klamath to come. Never wearing headphones. Nothing to distract me from the sounds of the tires against the road in the lane next to me, the gentle braying of elk in the distance (if elk indeed bray), or the southbound coastal winds that lifted when the cool of dawn gave way to the serious approach of noon.
When the car hit me, all sound turned off.
No more car tires. No more elk. No more wind.
He hit me at 60 mph. Witnesses said that the driver drifted into the shoulder and struck my back tire first, launching me into the air in wheelie-fashion to then land on the windshield, smashing it. One witness said the driver never slowed, evidenced by the lack of skid marks on the road. It was only when my bicycle voyaged under the Kia, and the decline of the hill was so, that the vehicle stopped moving.
Then I was thrown from the windshield to the road, landing on my knees and falling to my backside. My leggings were torn at the right knee and scratched on the left side, and I didn’t immediately see blood or road rash. No marks on my hands. Missing shoe on my left foot. Scuffs on the left-side sleeve of my down jacket, no penetration to the skin.
It felt like tripping over an object, but at high velocity and for an infinite amount of time.
I was in the great Cosmic Dryer set on tumbling mode. My loose body was flapping like the car dealership sky-dancer, letting gravity and physics and automatic body-mode take me where it will. It was possibly my keenness to not defy gravity that let me off the hook injury-wise. I was sensationally barren save for vision; light and motion flooded my eyes. I imagine this was the sudden tree-tops-in-the-sky panorama I was enjoying. I expected to see a bear or elk or some large animal trampling me which would explain this absurdity.
It was laughably continuous, this feeling of complete disorientation. Nothing in my world could explain what was happening, none of it made sense. Here was a snatch of tree-tops, here was a snatch of the sky, here were my knees and here was the ground.
How appropriate English cliches are for this scenario! I had no idea what hit me. After I had thudded to the ground, I was more surprised to see the lumbering dented bumper growling behind me then the driver was surveying what he had hit. My beautiful, sorry bicycle was tangled hopelessly underneath the car. I could see dents on the carbon frame and the back rim looked freshly slaughtered. No bags in sight. No idea if I was okay. No idea what to do next.
The driver was even more clueless than I, leaving his car running—the fumes circling in the wind about my face—and standing with his door propped open talking on the phone to someone (not the police, if you should know). In fact, for the entirety of my stay on the grassy side of the highway, the driver never came to talk to me nor was of any use.
Instead it was the other drivers who came to help me. Paramount to it all was Sarah, who had seen it all play out while driving southbound, and immediately pulled over to come to my aid. I was hunched over my knees when she arrived.
I was cold, shivering, shaking. This was partly because of the shock, but mostly because it was rightfully chilly. She called 911 then ran to her car to fetch a sleeping bag, draping it around my shoulders and bundling me up. To my immense relief, she snapped at the driver to turn off his car and the exhaust tornado ended. A truck pulled over to the shoulder and a young man came out with his daughter. He held a purple fuzzy unicorn blanket and he tucked it around my legs for additional warmth. He palpated areas of my body with my permission, doing preliminary checks and making sure I didn’t move too much. Eyes dilated. Shoulders unscathed. Back, alright. Maybe.
Actually, it was unbelievable how great I felt. If I could have picked up my bicycle and located the saddlebags, I would have pedaled off into the great beyond. My back felt wonderful, my neck and shoulders strong, even my knees didn’t act like they were injured. After twenty minutes of shivering into the sleeping bag, my right calf cramped. It was a relief to feel pain. It made me believe that if something were indeed seriously wrong, surely all the shock in my system couldn’t have covered it up.
Firefighters arrived and put me gingerly into a neck brace, then hoisted me into the cab of the truck. The man with the purple blanket told me his daughter said I could keep it. I nearly cried. Sarah and the firefighters searched the area for my belongings, finding my handlebar bag, wallet, water bottle, almonds. No phone. She promised to keep looking, and slipped her number into my jacket pocket.
EMTs came next. I agreed to go to the hospital for checks, and a technician named Melanie worked with the firefighters to move me into the ambulance. More of my stuff was found and carried to me. From the little windows, I could see the driver squatted next to a tree talking to the highway patrolman. He was smoking an e-cigarette and looking dazed. Fair, I supposed. I called my fiancé on the way to the hospital, and he was ready to swim the Pacific ocean from Hawaii.
Everyone told me “the last cyclist died” and I think that was supposed to make me feel better. In a way, it did. The coward in me was grateful I wouldn’t have to cycle up Klamath Hill, and I didn’t want an easy excuse.
But a deep sadness was blossoming in my belly. Not only was my goal interrupted, but all those who had warned me I would probably get hit by a car were unbelievably right. This voyage was to show others what was possible, that it’s not that scary or lonely or all that dangerous. Difficult now to be the poster child for that message.
My physical ailments included a pair of skinned knees (puffy and purulent), whiplash on my neck, and a bruised heel that had me hobble for a week. Initially the highway patrolmen only found one of my two saddlebags, which was a real bummer since it meant I didn’t have any clothes besides my bicycle shorts and down jacket. The leggings had been cut off in order to examine my knees. The hospital nurses in Arcata found me sweaters and t-shirts and a hotel room, and the ambulance gave me a ride to the Ramada. Later a highway patrolman brought me the second saddlebag. From the sanctity of the hotel wifi, I called my parents on my iPad (thankfully still intact) and we made our plans.
One of them is to return to this spot after I can milk a new bicycle from the teat of the man’s insurance, and finish cycling to Vancouver. The real bummer there is that I will have to cycle up the Klamath Hill now on day 1 instead of 22.
It gives me the tingles reading the diary entry I had written the day before the collision. That Saturday had been a tough one of fixing problems, including cycling back to a bike shop in Arcata to reset my rear tubeless tire system and purchase another spare tube after I had spent a lot of swear words fixing a flat. There’s nothing as hair tugging to a cycle tour as pedaling 55 miles in a day with only 14 of that as gain. Over a mug of tea at Clam Beach, this is what I wrote:
The fog rolls in from behind the mountains. There it is, the thick and tethering cloud that makes the world feel as if there were something in your eye. Tonight will be cold, and tomorrow morning will be cold, but perhaps the sun that is always promised will burn away the fog just as it did this afternoon. It is a much more pleasant world with the sun in it, the people are kinder and the hills are more manageable.
What a day today was! It seems impossible that I might have more of these days. When I thought I couldn’t go any deeper into appreciating the normal, something like today happens that makes me appreciate my normal cycling days. While I am in my normal cycling days, I always appreciate my normal Hawaii days. Maybe next I will be kidnapped or tortured and this will make me appreciate my normal problem days.
Now, cross-legged in my jean shorts at this black table outside of a Hawaiian Safeway, I appreciate my normal problem days. I appreciate all my normal cycling days. I appreciate my normal Hawaii days, in which I find myself once more.
I would wonder what might come next in the staircase of appreciation, but I have been sufficiently turned off speculation.
Peace and blessings,