In an Instant / by Deborah Clague


I had a very different journal entry planned but unforeseen circumstances call for a change in subject matter and tone. I was going to write about my recent trip to the Rockies. It was somewhat of an impromptu excursion, planned just a week prior to the September long weekend, and only confirmed after searching high and low for an available, somewhat "affordable" hotel room in the tourist enclave of Banff. A place I had stayed many years previous had two options available: a family room with multiple bunk beds or the honeymoon suite. The cost was triple what I'd normally pay but we settled on the latter as it included an ensuite jacuzzi which was invaluable after long days spent hiking at high altitude. My partner and I are not married but we know to never deny the small luxuries in life. 

I was going to write about the nostalgic joy wash over me as I first observed the mountain vista awaiting just outside of Calgary. I hold so many dear memories of spending time here with my beloved dad. Nearly every year growing up, we camped on Tunnel Mountain in our trailer (tiny by today's standards of mega motorhomes). The best part of these holidays was spending time in the great outdoors breathing in the fresh air lightly scented with pine and observing wildlife in their natural, unspoilt habitat. This has, from an early age, fed an immense appreciation and respect for nature. On this trip, we encountered a herd of big horn sheep cross the highway near us but in the past I've seen elk, moose, fox, coyote, black bear and my favourite sighting of all, a grizzly meandering along a railway in search for food. It is something I will never forget. The mountains always give me memories of a lifetime. 

I was also going to write about how crowded Banff National Park was. Moreso than I've ever experienced before. This was problematic when our plans for the weekend were continuously disrupted. We were denied entry into several hiking trails as they were all at full capacity. Instead, we kept driving and driving (and driving) until finally reaching Columbia Icefield, the lot of which was also full but I decided to park my vehicle on the side of a gravel road and walk the distance rather than drudge on aimlessly. All of this traffic did make for some harried moments behind the wheel and I needed a break. Some people just can't appreciate the scenery (or speed limits). 

If there were two things my partner learned about me during this trip they were:

1) I must literally pet ALL the dogs; and,

2) I swear a lot behind the wheel.

He expressed surprised at this sullied habit but I explained to him it wasn't road rage or anything like that. No. My potty-mouth is a result of frustration at the stupid, irresponsible risks people take while driving putting everyone on the road at potential harm. We would learn this lesson first-hand a mere two days later. 

After having a light lunch and posing for selfies with the World's Largest Dinosaur, we left Drumheller and headed home on HWY 9, a single lane highway spanning the well-travelled distance from Calgary to Saskatoon. I had been swearing a lot on this leg of the journey. People were driving like absolute fools, their holiday weekend over and in a rush to return home. Just prior to reaching the provincial border, we stopped for a brief rest to stretch our legs and laugh about how I had just discovered a feature on my car that I have now owned for a year. As we prepared to depart the area, I approached the exit at the same time as someone pulling out of a fuel station across the street. We looked at each other for about three seconds until the driver waived me to go forward. I politely nodded back and continued en route.

These observations of seemingly prosaic interaction and time would have normally gone unrecorded. But after the oncoming events of the following five minutes, will forever be seared into my memory. 

I drove along the highway, in front of me – about 300 yards – was a semi truck. In an instant, it felt less than a second, I observed its brake lights go on and then an explosion of red before me. A vehicle flew into the air, automotive parts sprayed in every direction. I immediately started to shake and pulled my own car over to the gravel shoulder. Thankfully there was no one behind me and I had allotted time to put my hazard lights on. My partner, at first, didn't comprehend why I was crying and wailing "oh my God!" over and over again. He wasn't looking forward, but had been daydreaming while staring at the countryside outside the passenger window. He just witnessed the aftermath of the semi drive into a farmer's field and tried reassuring me that it was alright. That perhaps the driver had a medical emergency forcing him off the road. In between moments of shock, I told him a car had hit the semi head-on. He handed me my phone and told me to phone 9-1-1. Once I was off the call, he calmly and courageously left to offer any assistance he could provide to those injured. I remained in my vehicle unable to process what I had seen. Admittedly, I still can't. Everything feels surreal. 

A number of people stopped, also offering aid to those in the smashed car now sitting sideways in the ditch. A few even approached me, inquiring if I needed help. When he returned, my partner told me that there was a third vehicle overturned in the ditch that we had not previously seen. This may have been the car that the other one was trying to overtake. A family was safely able to get out of it. The semi driver was uninjured. The driver of the first vehicle would be killed in the crash

I am having a very difficult time processing this. The amount of time this series of events took to occur is shocking in its brevity. One bad – very, very bad – decision has resulted in a senseless death and the lives of others forever impacted in the aftermath. I even still replay the short interaction I had with the individual while exiting the rest stop – if they hadn't have been there, if I didn't have that three second pause of waiting to see who would pull out first, I would have been much closer to the rear of the semi, possibly being involved directly in the collision. My life possibly changing in ways I had not previously envisioned while just traveling for a fun weekend getaway. 

And for my partner, who was swift and selfless in terms of attempting to help, I have the utmost admiration, respect and love. I know his life will forever be changed as well by what he witnessed but I know he has the strength and heart to get through it. 

Appreciate life.