by Joanne C. Slotnik, WyoFile reader

This is not your typical I-80 weather-related horror story. It was, in fact, a beautiful day. Wyoming at its most spectacular: bright blue sky, big puffy clouds over the distant mountains, crystalline air, sparkling sunshine, dry roads, and very little wind. We were, I observed to my husband, lucky to be driving across Wyoming on such a day, even more so because it was January and we knew how bad I-80 could get.

I had finished an uneventful hour of driving and Steve took over. He set the cruise control to 78 mph, and off we went, sailing east past Rawlins, enjoying the sharp, clear light of a glorious winter morning. Relaxed, enjoying each other’s company, talking about nothing in particular, we suddenly felt it. The truck’s rear wheels slipped, floated right off the pavement, took on a life of their own. In an instant, we were headed towards the right shoulder, still on cruise control, forward progress dramatically askew. Steve corrected, the truck veered left, whiteness loomed past the windshield. I heard, “Omigod, omigod, omigod,” and then the world turned on its head. My brain filled with noise, lots of noise, and intense movement, confusing and undecipherable. My only thought, “But, wait, what about our plan? We were going to Denver. What about that?”

Quickly, very quickly, it was over. Steve was groaning angrily from somewhere below me, the snow beneath him turning alarmingly red. I was alert, felt pressure from my seat belt, but couldn’t make sense of where I was. Everything seemed to be in the wrong place. Only later did I realize the truck was on its side in the median, driver’s side down, and I was suspended from my seatbelt.

Steve asked, “What happened?” No sooner did I tell him we were in an accident than he repeated the question in precisely the same childlike tone of voice, again and again. I started to worry. Within moments, people were at the window. “Are you okay?” “Squeeze my hand,” “Let me get a coat on you,” “You rolled three times. Actually, you were airborne,” “Stay calm.” A windbreak was instantly fashioned from a plywood sheet that had lined the truck bed. Moments later, the Wyomng Highway Patrol arrived; calm, efficient, solicitous. I was out of the truck and in an ambulance within short order; Steve was extricated by a crew from Hanna within half an hour.

Transported back to the Carbon County Hospital in Rawlins, we soon learned that Steve had a collapsed lung, a minor injury considering what might have been. A doc inserted a chest tube while the ambulance crew, interrupted from morning ranch chores, watched intently. I joked lamely about “continuing medical education.” Superficial head lacerations, none even requiring stitches, were the source of the red snow and no cause for alarm. Steve’s cognitive function was all there. I had a bruised arm, nothing else. Seat belts and Toyota engineering had made all the difference.

A Highway Patrol officer, after apologetically ticketing us for “failure to maintain lane,” told us that a sliver of black ice, about a foot wide and not too long, had caused our accident. He called for a sander and, within half an hour, the ice was gone.

What I take most from our I-80 experience is not the accident itself, but the response of others to it. People who saw us fly out of control stopped instantly. A nurse from Lander held Steve’s hand and talked to him continually until he was safely out of the vehicle and in the ambulance. Total strangers wrapped us in blankets and jackets, warmed us with gloves and hats and encouragement. The professionals were uniformly kind, focused and competent.

At the Carbon County Hospital, our home for the next two days, nurses volunteered to bring in a bed so I could stay with my husband. A young woman with whom Steve was acquainted only through email answered my plaintive call for help and brought us a replacement cell phone. She and her husband returned later with a wonderful Thai dinner and much-needed companionship. They became our guardian angels in Rawlins — warm, caring, open to friendship. The next day, her boss and his wife insisted on driving us to Fort Collins, two and a half hours away, for no better reason than that we needed to get there.

What could have been a nightmare on I-80 evolved into something astonishingly positive. The takeaway message for me was one of renewed faith in the basic goodness of people, a lesson in mindfulness about the kindness of strangers. On that beautiful January morning in Wyoming, when our world turned upside down, this was the lesson I learned.

Readers, send your own I-80 tales to editor@wyofile.com.

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Published on March 15, 2011

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