Build and breakdown are the two work-filled bookends between the fun of the week at a burn-style festival. Build is the chaotic ascension and creation; breakdown the strenuous push to clean up for a return to the default world. It is not easy, moving heavy objects in the sun and repacking after a week of poor sleep.
At Nowhere Burn 2018, no one was in especially high spirits. Breakdown meant our shade structure was going down as well, and the oppressive and unavoidable sun drained us all. Eventually, things were packed and we filled up our rented Peugoet to the brim with trash, tents, and people. Four of us in one car. Finally, we could be on our way out of the scrublands and back to Barcelona.
There was a 30 minute dirt road between the festival site and the highway, and after that, it was a clear shot. Barcelona was no more than a 3 hour drive, and there was an AirBnB full of friends waiting for us when we got there.
I sat in the front passenger seat, sleepily watching the road. As we went down the highway, the car was drifting, wiggling the lines more than normal and taking the turns with more style than necessary. And then the center line in the two-lane highway was crossed. For a second, it looked like the normal… if not premature… passing maneuver to get by the van in front of us. And then we kept going, leaving the center line behind and floating towards the left edge of the road when one of us yelled out but no, we kept going, drifting over the edge of the road and down the ditch and didn’t stop, at the steady clip of 110 kmh (70 mph).
GET OUT OF THE CAR.
I wasn’t scared of death, so much. It was horror: the pounding, the crunching metal, the smell of gasoline, the sound of my screaming. (If there ever was a time to scream, it was then.)
The car nosedived in the ditch and didn’t stop, flipping, every bump with the ground announced with noisy crashing and black smell of burning plastics (I can smell it as I type it). The bursting of the airbags, the ground as it crashed about somewhere, cracking windows and metal crushing—I couldn’t see anything but chaos out the window as the world turned.
Horror. Fear is for ordinary things. I could not believe what I saw around me, not as it happened.
The car heaved over, its momentum spent. It came to a stop.
I thought I would look over and find the person in the seat next to me dead, but I couldn’t see him at all. My fear and worry that he would be dead joined my terror of being trapped in the smoke and darkness, hanging upside down by my seatbelt.
GET OUT OF THE CAR
I couldn’t get out of the car. I didn’t know if I had broken ribs. In shock, I couldn’t evaluate that. I scrabbled at the door, at my seatbelt. My breath was panicked, too fast to think. Gravity was pulling me some way, and I couldn’t tell up from down. Relax. Evaluate. A few moments later I found enough breath and grounding to unbuckle my seatbelt, falling onto the roof of the car. The car door wouldn’t open. Trapped in the smoke and wreckage, upside down. I looked around for another way. No one was in the driver’s seat next to me, but there was a faint, crushed window to bright light and air.
This all took place over one minute, maybe. I don’t know how many times we flipped. It felt like the end, heavy and adrenaline-filled and alive. More alive than I’ve felt in a while, compressed into a lengthy minute.
There is one nice thing about car crashes. When I don’t die, I find myself more alive and awake than I have been ages.
GET OUT OF THE CAR.
I crawled out that window and onto the grass, screaming, clutching my abdomen, last one out of the upside-down car. An ugly rebirth.
We had flipped two or three times as we ran off the road at 110 km an hour. Somehow, we four in the car were mostly okay. One friend who had been sitting in the back had a face covered in blood that dripped from his forehead. He was okay. The other had a broken ankle. That will heal. Blood, not mine, got on my ripped clothes and skin. One friend was in severe neck pain and we held each other and shook in the horror of what had just happened to us. A compression fracture that recovered fully.
We were lucky. I feel awe when I consider the design process that brought such a relatively safe death machine into existence.
The shock took its time in fading. We sat on the grass next to the broken car, dreamlike. The car behind us stopped and helped us to the other side of the road. They called an ambulance. My copilot and I sat on the side of the road and cried together at the confusing pain and upending of our worlds, waiting for the ambulance to come. Its arrival was not the end of this story.
The trip to the hospital and the few days after were some of the most challenging days in my life. I got my first IV in a hospital where one or two of the staff spoke English. All of my stuff was stuck in the smashed trunk of the car. My phone was soaked with water when the firefighters sprayed the car to prevent it from exploding. They gave it to me anyway, dripping wet with the faint smell of petrol, and I got to watch it fizzle and die over the next hour.
My ankle swelled up to a balloon over the next day, and every step was pain. The burden of a backpack didn’t help—at least I didn’t lose that too. No phone, no money, and no passport or ID. All stuck in the smashed trunk of a car.
I didn’t choose these challenges, and because of that, things I faced damaged me further rather than built me up. Things like having to ask strangers for internet access, speak poor Spanish to doctors while choked with anxiety, or ask friends for euro. There was a lot of pain there.
I could barely walk. Getting pushed on a wheelchair through the airport to get back home was one of the most relieving things I’ve experienced. At home, I found out just how unfriendly my upstairs house was for a wheelchair. It was easier to just stay in one place, sitting on my mattress alone.
Several months later, I was still having trouble walking. I fell into a numbness and depression of several months, being incapable of doing all that I had before. Walking several miles a day is key to my health and emotional wellbeing, and I was unable to find a replacement for it but numbing and video games. During that time, I was not as nice a person as before. I was not a happy person.
Usually, I find that pain contains important lessons. This pain though kept going and going, without offering much learning to squeeze out of it at all. I had to accept that the amount of learning and the amount of pain do not go hand in hand.
Today is the one year anniversary of my car crash. My ankle injury is minor in the scheme of things, but it continues to limit how I live my life today.
I could have prevented the car accident by speaking up when things felt unsafe. I felt disgusted at myself for that even after I almost died, I still had trouble speaking up for myself. More, actually, in my weakened and depressed state. Self-disgust, though, isn’t an effective motivator.
I’m happy to say that as I healed, I have gained the capacity to speak up more, especially when in cars. It is frustrating that it took so long.
Somewhere, mid-somersault of the car crash, I realized that yes, I do want to be alive. I knew that before, and I know it more now. I would have done so much to avoid that moment of realization as we hung in the air between one bounce of the car and the next crunch. At first, I worried a lot about alternate universes where I died, such as if I had grabbed at the steering wheel and shunted us into a more dangerous sideways roll.
I feel for the tragedy of those timelines. Only later did someone point out that the accident followed classical mechanics, and there was likely less uncertainty and branching than how it felt. To my human mind, though, I feel I could have made choices differently. To physics, it always would have been the same.
(Poetic inspiration goes to Universal Love, Said the Cactus Person)