Overcoming Fears I Forgot I Had
“Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”
It’s late summer 2005. I’ve just returned from my first deployment in Iraq and transferred to Ft. Carson, Colorado. My family was stationed at the Air Force Academy and between work and school I spent most of my free time with them. For some unremembered reason I borrowed my father’s Suburban and travel trailer for a weekend of camping somewhere near Durango with my highschool friend John, his then-girlfriend, my 10-year-old sister, and my 8-year-old brother. I had towed plenty of trailers but, looking back, never been properly “trained” on the nuances of towing a lightweight bumper-pull rig.
The trip down was relatively uneventful and the weekend had been fun, but we were running late getting back for some social function the girlfriend was committed to through work. If you’ve ever driven down I-25 in Colorado between Pueblo and Colorado Springs you know that the wind likes to whip down out of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains and whoosh perpendicularly across the bone-straight highway, often gusting above 75mph unchecked by hills or berms.
I know now that the accident was caused largely because I committed a trifecta of driving/towing sins: 1) I was driving slightly too fast for conditions. At the moment I lost control I had sped up to pass a vehicle in the right lane, pushing my speed to somewhere near 75. 2) When the wind gust hit the large flat side of the trailer, causing a shimmy sensation, I pressed hard on the brakes which served only to exaggerate the sway. 3) The most avoidable of these sins - I wasn’t wearing my seatbelt. So when the truck began to get pulled around by the now fishtailing trailer, I was not as firmly braced in the driver’s seat as I should have been, reducing my ability to regain control of the vehicle.
Now - I can’t remember what I have to get at the grocery store this afternoon, but I recall vividly what happened in those next few moments. I managed to slow the vehicle as I tried to maneuver to the shoulder to avoid the heavy traffic around me and for a split second felt like I’d gotten it under control. My friend John, who was sitting in the passenger seat, even told me later that I exhaled an excited “YESS!”. But then the driver side trailer tire blew out and the slightly diminished swaying turned into a violent whipping motion, pulling the entire rig 90° so that the passenger side of the vehicle was squarely facing oncoming traffic.
For an instant we were suspended and I heard nothing…
And then everything seemed to crash together in a screeching kaleidoscope of broken glass and sky and asphalt as we rolled door over door down the highway before sliding to a stop on the driver’s side of the Suburban. I had ended up in a sort of fetal position, locked in place by my legs bent under the steering wheel, and was facing backward. The first thing I saw was my brother suspended by his seatbelt, the second was my sister - in the seat behind me - covered in blood with a stunned look on her face. Passersby had rushed to our aid, someone kicked out the rear window, and we passed the two kids out to waiting hands. I ran my hands through my sister’s hair and frantically looked over her face and body to find the source of the bleeding before I realized that she hadn’t been hurt at all...the tip of my brother’s ring finger had been severed and because he had been hanging above her it was his blood that had dripped all over her face. But a hastily applied piece of t-shirt staunched the bleeding almost immediately.
A wonderful woman, a nurse, calmed the kids and gathered a few of our possessions on the side of the road as a firetruck and an ambulance arrived. I started to unravel a little bit, yelling for someone to give me a phone so I could call my parents, when someone handed me my own cell phone off the ground about 30 feet from where the truck had come to rest. At one point I remember looking down and thinking it was odd that I had no shoes on. And then looking across the highway at people who had stopped to take pictures and becoming engulfed by rage. The only thing that remained intact of the trailer was the shower stall which stood incongruously among the splintered wreckage of the RV strewn across the grassy median. A firefighter asked me if anyone had been riding in the trailer and I laughed, but then realized he was serious and told him no. Someone pushed my wallet into my hands as we climbed onto the ambulance, which I later discovered had been lightened by a few hundred dollars. Before long we were in an emergency room and I was moving between curtained-off beds talking to the kids and checking on the other two adults. Doctors and nurses kept assuring me that everyone was fine, that we had been lucky, that I could relax. Aside from scrapes and bruises and cuts on my feet from walking around in the broken glass and wreckage, I was fine. The only thing I knew to do was keep moving...and then my father and stepmother appeared through the sliding doors and I disintegrated.
Ultimately, as the docs had said, everyone was fine. John got a couple of stitches, the girlfriend was completely unscathed, and the kids were content to stay home from school for a couple of days. My little brother was upset about losing the end of his finger until he went back to school and the other little boys in his class thought it was “really cool!” and then it didn’t seem so bad anymore. A few weeks later we were sent to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and I towed a wobbly pintle-hitch trailer behind a 1962 model Duece-and-a-Half the entire 2,400+ mile roundtrip, overcoming any lingering anxieties I had...or so I thought.
Fast-forward nearly 15 years. That little boy turned 21 last summer, my baby sister spent the fall chasing storms with me, and my friend is a married doctor with kids of his own, though we’ve lost touch. I’ve spent a quarter of the intervening time in combat zones and experienced violence and death and tragedy. I’ve been shot at and blown up. I’ve seen the complete and utter devastation wrought by a half dozen different natural disasters. I’ve driven literally hundreds of thousands of miles across four different continents in every conceivable type of vehicle. And in the past couple of weeks I’ve celebrated finally getting my hands on the little travel trailer that I’ve wanted for years, and begun to excitedly plan a summer of epic adventures and reunions with old friends.
I haven’t thought about that accident in any detail in many years, but less than an hour into my first drive with the MiniMCP I pulled carefully onto I-95, hit a pothole, and was simultaneously passed by a flying semi. The shimmy started and my mouth went instantly dry, with that stabbing, caustic pang in the hinges of my jaw that usually means vomit. I knew better than to hit the breaks this time, instead easing off the accelerator as I pulled slowly toward the shoulder. The swaying stopped and I continued a mile or two to the exit and pulled into a truck stop. I had fought the urge to vice grip the steering wheel, but my hands were cramped painfully as I stepped out of the car on legs that felt like water. I flashed back to the image of wreckage in the middle of the highway, tear-streaked little faces, and the smashed crimson Suburban resting on its side - and I was certain that I could not get back into my Pathfinder. I leaned against the hood smoking a cigarette and trying to figure out how much it would cost to have the truck and trailer towed back into Charleston. I couldn’t believe that this dream I’d had to take this great western road trip had come so close, and criticized myself brutally for being foolish enough to have thought that I could do it. I felt stupid for having gotten so excited, and grateful that I hadn’t yet told the world all my grand plans...I wouldn’t be quite as embarrassed when I quietly got rid of the trailer and went on about business as usual.
Standing there with my phone in my still-shaking hands deciding who I should call first, a tiny thought sparked in the back of my mind. “You can’t quit yet. You’ve worked so hard for this...don’t throw it away. Not yet.” And childhood memories of my parents telling me to get back on the horse after I’d hit the ground hard, of climbing back into the saddle in spite of bruised elbows and vision blurred by tears, pushed me to try just one more time. I carefully inspected the rig to ensure that everything was properly hooked up and I got back into the driver’s seat, very literally feeling as though I might pee my pants. I was petrified by the thought of getting back on the highway so I decided to take back roads, turning the 3 hours left in my trip into a 7-hour drive. Car after car passed me on two-lane country blacktop as I eased first past 35, then 45, and eventually hit the 55mph speed limit. I listened to music softly, reminding myself to keep my steering inputs calm and deliberate, and even choked out a laugh when I realized that I had both pinkies in the air like a queen at a tea party in a subconscious effort to keep my hands relaxed on the wheel. I pulled into the parking lot at work after midnight on Tuesday morning and exhaustedly collapsed into the bed of the trailer without so much as turning on a light.
I felt somewhat satisfied that I’d made it, that I hadn’t given up, but knew that something would have to change...I can’t take back roads everywhere I want to go. I scoured the internet, watched YouTube, and called everyone I could think of for advice, anything I could do to figure out what I was doing wrong. I was supposed to be in Atlanta for a match on Friday and was determined to get there - with the trailer in tow. After making every adjustment I could think of, I took off south, keeping my speed low, and in a matter of a few miles the shimmy started again. I called a friend nearby thinking I would unhook the thing and leave it at his place. I had tried, but I was done. He told me to stop by his buddy’s shop to have him take a look at it....worst case I could leave it there for the weekend and get on down the road. As I pulled in, this skinny grease-covered redneck walks out, wiping his hands on a rag and spitting a huge stream of Copenhagen. I come to a stop and he skips “hello” and very matter-of-factly tells me “your rig ain’t level.” It turns out the adjustable hitch I’d gotten with the trailer wasn’t adjusted properly and was in fact quite low, creating a fulcrum-like point upon which the lightweight trailer was pivoting just as physics would have it do.
30 minutes and 30 dollars later the quiet mechanic sent me on my way after a test drive up and down the stretch of highway in front of his shop. I had no faith that his bit of angle-grinding and torque-wrenching would do the job, but I didn’t want to look like a total chickenshit so if figured I’d just drop the trailer a few miles down the road at another friend’s house. But wouldn’t you know - he was right!? The now-correctly-adjusted sway control and weight distribution hitch system made it feel like there was nothing back there at all. The first few semis that passed, pulling the little trailer into their airstream, left me shaking all over again, but I soon realized that the sensation was predictable and the tiniest countersteer managed the movement easily. I still kept my speed under 65 on the highway, but my confidence increased with each passing mile and by the time I pulled up to the range to join so many friends for what was to be a wonderful weekend of shooting and camaraderie, I felt almost at ease.
Throughout the weekend and the long drive back to work I reflected on what I would have lost if I’d allowed myself to stop, to quit, in the face of that fear, and began to once again grow cautiously excited at the adventures to come. And the lesson became very clear:
First, make sure that someone who actually knows what they're doing takes a look at your equipment. This is also known as ASK FOR HELP WHEN YOU NEED IT!!
Second, all it took for me to get past this nearly debilitating fear was opening the door. Then you sit in the seat. Turn on the ignition. One mile passes, and that turns into ten. Then you can take a trembling hand off the wheel to take a drink of water or turn up the radio a bit. The simplicity of each of these relatively small tasks is deceptive, and it tricks you into believing that maybe the next little task can also be tackled. Before you know it, you’re turning into the gravel lot full of friends who jump up to help you get unhooked.
Before you know it, you’ve done it.
There’s no fanfare, no sparkling moment of enlightenment, no sudden overwhelming clarity. Overcoming fears is a one moment, one inch, one tiny effort at a time. And then at some point you look around and realize that you’ve conquered the beast. Yes, you will face that fear again - maybe over and over, in fact - but next time it won’t be quite as terrifying, because you already know you can beat it.