Vagneur: The night everything changed
We were headed out of town, down the lonely stretch of Highway 82 that used to run parallel to the airport runway, many years before anyone thought of moving or four-laning it. There are a lot of things that happened on that straight stretch that kept my generation of kids entertained, but that all came later, like the drag races we used to have.
There was about 8 to 10 inches of fresh snow on the highway already, and a ferocious blizzard was hitting us square in the windshield as we struggled along. We’d left my grandmother’s house in town after a late Sunday dinner and were driving home to Woody Creek in a whiteout. My dad, ever careful behind the wheel of his black 1948 Chrysler New Yorker, was hitting a top speed of maybe 10 miles per hour, and we three kids, relegated to the back seat, were leaned up against the back of the front seat, glued to the raging snow that came at us like bullets from a string of Gatling guns. It was hypnotizing and tedious, all at the same time. In those days cars didn’t come with seatbelts, so we were doing the best we could with what we had.
At some point, we became aware of headlights coming up on us, although we might have heard the whine of the engine and the sound of rumbling rag tires overtaking us first. It took the entire left-hand lane and half of the right for the car to get around us, although he likely was traveling twice as fast as we were. Zoom, he flew by, like a runaway locomotive. As his taillights began to disappear down the highway in front of us, my siblings and I (probably 13, 9 and 8 in age, me being the oldest) were of the same mind — “Hit it, Dad. You can follow his tail lights.”
We got a little disappointed when my father kept us at an even 10 mph, but his moment was coming. What’s that nauseating phrase some people like to use, “This could be a teachable moment”? Well, duh, all moments are teachable under the right circumstances, and in this case, it proved to be true.
Before ever getting to the Shale Bluffs curves, the man in such a hurry slid into a 180 and ended up in the barrow ditch on our right, totally stuck, but not flipped over. My dad, with a sharp sense of sarcasm and ever unsympathetic to bad judgment, stopped to make sure the guy was OK and then offered that we would call the state patrol when we got home, if we remembered. Likely ours were the last two cars on the highway that night, until my dad made the call. Naturally, the lesson about not relying on tail lights up ahead as something to follow, particularly in a whiteout, became ingrained in my mind from that day forward.
Something died that night, although we were unaware of it at the time. There were other blizzards and treacherous drives home from Aspen, some of them on my own after I turned 16, but that particular night has always stood out for some reason. Maybe it was because that was the last time we all drove home from Aspen together as a family. Maybe it was the vision of the guy in the ditch, a man none of us had ever seen before, scared and pleading, a newcomer without respect for our world, but he certainly wouldn’t be the last. The next year, my dad sold the New Yorker, and maybe that was it.
But perhaps that man became a metaphor of change coming to Aspen, and we didn’t really see the depth of it. Like a wild animal that becomes habituated to civilization and no longer can be considered wild, it always seemed like the events of that night were a slight to our realm, a disrespect for the traditional and common sense domain that we were so close to. The wildness of our existence and the assumption of how things should be done, the innocence of what our lives had been to that point, would be changed forever.
And so it goes. Someday my grandson will likely have a similar experience in his frame of reference, and I’d love to hear about it. But the telling may have to wait.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Two Rivers Unitarian-Universalist Church, in conjunction with the Roaring Fork Valley’s Interfaith Council and Sanctuary Unidos, is showing a Zoom presentation of the documentary “Welcome Strangers” at 10 a.m. Sunday.