It was just before 9 on a recent morning when I was doing my run down the 101 out of Manchester, N.H., heading to Maine for a day of prospecting.
My truck cab was chill, mood-wise. I paid no mind to the beast that raged outside my windows: Master Winter, the biggest bully of them all.
Stern was on the satellite, my coffee was half-hot, slacks well pressed, and my hair was well coiffed. I was in search of new clients in my job as a sales rep, and I would not be denied.
Rounding Exit 3, I readied myself to take on gatekeepers at every business once I reached Maine.
Two more miles into my trek, just past Exit 4, I suddenly saw a big puff of white snow funneling high into the morning sky from the other side of the highway.
I tried to dial my brain back into Stern Nation, but I couldn’t deny what I knew I saw. That plume of white smoke and snow came from a wreck on the highway, a bad one. I knew it.
There it was, dead in my sights, across the highway lying on its side — a white SUV, destroyed, steaming, hollowed out by the guard rail. Black ice.
This kind of scene is not my forte. It’s the maddest of all nightmares to me, the one that keeps me awake each night. The kind of nightmare that comes true.
It was either cut and run and pretend like I didn’t see what I surely saw, or get out of my truck.
So I pulled over onto the crushed snow and ice and hit the hazard lights. Breathing heavily, I planned my dash across the highway. Less fit than in years past, I decided to hike my pressed gray slacks above my calves, hoping for as little splash as possible.
With that in mind, I hadn’t factored in the 17-degree temperatures or what that frosty air feels like rushing past the thinnest of fabrics as you run face-first into one’s greatest fear.
I bound down the dividing embankment, never taking my eyes off the wreck.
Then I saw another guy who had pulled over, hustling to help out. We reached the ruins together, and there we saw a woman in her 40s twisted up in the back of the SUV, where the groceries usually go.
I gave a quick mantra: “No puncture wounds, please! No puncture wounds, please!“
She was alive and trying to get out. All I could think to say was, “Any kids in there?”
“No” she struggled to say. “Just me.”
The other guy was on his knees, reaching into the wreckage to help get the woman out. I could only stand there and peer deep into the torn-up vehicle, locked in a morbid trance.
The engine of the truck was hissing hot water. Everything bent into fragments; nothing was where it was supposed to be.
“Hey, buddy, you gonna help or what?” the guy shouted at me.
“Yeah, sorry,” I said, finally kneeling down in the snow, avoiding bits of broken glass.
Both of us grabbed an armpit and together we jimmied that lady out of the jagged iron. Lucky in a sense, I thought, that she was alive. Not so lucky that the knot above her right eye was rapidly swelling.
Soon others came, five, six strangers, all jammed up on one another, each person taking on a role. One young woman took over and commanded passionately to the woman in the wreck that she “Lie down! You will paralyze yourself for life if you move!“
I slowly stepped away from the crowd after laying the woman down on a foot mat. No one seemed to be considering the smoke coming from the truck’s engine.
I headed back across the highway and into my truck. Driving by Epping, my heart was still wobbling but it evened out by the time I hit Portsmouth, then started humming again as I crossed the Piscataqua River Bridge into Maine.
Here I come, gatekeepers. I will not be denied.