In the mountains where I live, on Highway 285 just past the exit for Elk Creek Road, there are a set of tire marks etched into the pavement. They are like any other set of tire marks you’ve seen, I’ve seen, we’ve all seen, except these tire marks are mine. I caused them when, a few weeks after moving to Colorado and several days after procuring my first-ever car, I hit a 600-pound elk, killing it and totaling said car.
It was a Friday night in August. The roads, the car, the mountains all felt very new to me still. They felt borrowed. It would be a while before I settled into this place that felt so mind-blowingly different from Brooklyn, from life in the city, from every other place I’d called home.
But on this particular night late last summer, on a serpentine stretch of highway southwest of Denver, I was beginning to sense a glimmer of belonging. A faint feeling of familiarity. The windows were rolled down; music blasting; my boyfriend, Ben, whom I’d just picked up from the airport, grinning in the passenger seat. The higher we climbed, the chillier the air became. Our family’s dog, Piper, so happy with her head hanging out of the window. The three of us, tucked away in the mountain’s folds.
I remember thinking that this night didn’t feel borrowed. It felt like ours. Until it didn’t.
In the mountains where I live, the mule deer graze in the falling snow and in the warm, warm sunshine. Sometimes, the way the sun sets in crests behind the mountains reminds me of Kigali’s hills. Everywhere I gaze, rows and flows of shapes and sunlight.
It is quiet here. Quiet and bright and beautiful. I did not anticipate enjoying—needing—this kind of quiet. This kind of brightness. This kind of beautiful.
The elk saw me before I saw her. It was like in the movies: I knew we were going to collide the moment before we did. We crashed in slow-motion. Flashes, vivid in hindsight. The elk, illuminated by my headlights. The way my torso flew forward only to be thrust back when the air bag deployed. Ben’s voice: Are you okay? Natalie. I think we’re okay? The smell of leaking chemicals. Piper’s silence.
The lights came on immediately. Ben opened his door—or did it open upon impact? The car hit the elk hardest on the passenger side; Ben remembers momentarily thinking the animal was going to come through the windshield. I put the car in park. Ben walked around the front of the car to open my door. He took my hands in his and touched his forehead to mine and only then did I take my foot off the brake.
Two hours before the accident, I typed a note to myself into my phone:
When’s the last time I did what I’m doing right now? (Have I ever?) Sitting inside an airport, waiting to greet my person, who’s about to walk off an airplane. To visit me. Also: I just drove down a mountain, in my car, with my dog, against a backdrop of sun-soaked mountains—which I now call home. This feels…lots of feels.
Moments after we hit, a man who’d seen the crash from the other side of the highway appeared at the front passenger window. He was a nurse in New Mexico, he said, and asked if I could move my neck both directions. I could. He asked if I could move my legs. I couldn’t.
The police arrived. The elk—600 pounds, Officer Voss told us—had tumbled into the ravine next to the road upon impact but didn’t die. Someone fired two shots into her with a pump-action shotgun. I reached back to pet and calm Piper and began to cry again. I trembled, in shock. Somehow, the crash didn’t feel like it was over. Someone mentioned the crumple zones, how well they did. Officer Voss spoke to me through the open driver’s side window. He said that hunting season had just started and the elk was mine to take home if I wanted to tag it and keep the meat. I blubbered something about having just moved from Brooklyn; I tried to explain that I had no idea what he was talking about. He asked how big my freezer was. I cried harder.
The drive from the airport to my parent’s house takes a little over an hour. Ben and I were six minutes from home when we crashed.
My father came to get us. My whole life, I’ve been in awe of my dad’s ability to remain so calm amidst chaos. Things took a turn for the worse when Officer Voss demanded he submit to a sobriety check. Later, the officer told us he felt my father was “giving off strange vibes.” Dad, who’s been driving for 45 years and never been pulled over, blew a 0.009%. (Colorado’s BAC legal limit is 0.08%.) To this day, he’s incensed about the nonsensical sobriety check. But that part of the story is for another time.
An EMT thrust an iPad through the window for me to sign with my finger, refusing medical treatment. Ben signed, too.
It should’ve been so much worse.
We were so damn lucky.
In the mountains where I live, I’ve seen gas for $1.89 a gallon. $2.09 is more like it and sure, the Safeway in Conifer is slightly more convenient, what with its fancy car wash and all, but have you noticed the tiny Mexican restaurant attached to the Stop 4 Gas? Carreta Vieja, it’s called. And the pumps have those fancy new touch screens, too.
My first few weeks in Colorado, I got a kick out of some of the street names near my parent’s house: Elk Creek Road. Doubleheader Road. Elk Haven Road. Mangy Moose Trail.
I don’t find them so funny anymore.
In the mountains where I live, there is a gigantic cross made out of LED lights etched into the mountainside. Sometimes, when I’m driving up the mountain at night, I think about the poorly lit stretch of highway where I hit the elk. The illuminated cross quite literally guides me home.
Farther up 285, near Morrison, there’s a Buddhist monastery called Compassionate Dharma Cloud. Colorful flags and a stone Buddha statue announce the turn-off. We need more of this, I think, every time I drive past it.
Some of the street names are pleasant: Stone Chimney Drive. Sunrise Lane. Alabraska Drive. Sourdough Lane.
Some are ironic. These ones typically flash from a prominent spot along 285:
“Please watch out for wildlife. They don’t watch out for you.”
I rarely have nightmares, but any I’ve had for the past several years have almost always involved a car crash. More specifically: my crashing a car.
Since the accident, I’ve had two nightmares. In the first, I’m hit by a tidal wave. In the second, I’m late for an appointment in Manhattan and running down a subway platform trying to catch the train. I jump into the subway car but only make it halfway in before the doors close on me. The conductor gives me a pitiful look, my backpack falls to the ground, and I ride the whole way half-in, half-out, clinging to the side of the subway car, screaming.
Back in real life, on Christmas morning, I find a bumper sticker in my stocking. Intended, I think, for my next car. “Pray for me: I drive 285,” it reads. We all laugh.
I learned how to drive when I was a freshman in college. Thank you, Coach Rose, of whatever driving school in Burlington, North Carolina I saw listed first on Google. I am a confident and capable driver. I know this because my grandfather told me so. He knew more about cars and driving than anyone I’ve ever known. Granddaddy drove up until a few months before he died, at age 95. Near the end, I drove him to a few medical appointments. We’d take his 2004 Chevrolet Malibu and I remember feeling more nervous during those short trips than I ever felt taking the SATs or GREs or even the DMV driving test I took to get my license at age 19. Granddaddy never really understood how I planned to make a living working as a writer, but when he remarked in passing that I was a good driver, I almost cried.
A few weeks after the accident, I’m back at Denver International Airport.
“Congratulations on picking the best state,” the TSA agent said, smiling as she handed me back my brand-new Colorado license.
“Welcome to Colorado,” Officer Voss said the night of the accident.
One day, months later, I’m on 285 hugging the highway’s curves like I’ve been missing them, badly. I have. In my side mirror: layers of mountains and puffy clouds, icing on top. My heart is alive, pumping blood. That blue sky. Those layers. I steal glances the whole way down.
On the one hand, I have no business living in the mountains. I only recently learned what a 14er is and I’m not a very good skier. I’m an East Coast girl who spent her formative years living in Germany; I duck anytime I see the “Where are you from?” question coming my way.
I do not think there is anything that could keep me from wanting to plant roots on the sides of these mountains. Not even colliding with a 600-pound elk.
Besides. I’ve got that bumper sticker. And outstanding crumple zones. I’ll be fine.